Positivism and its Discontents: A Sidebar to The Sokal Hoax

An appendix by Jonathan Reynolds, offering some background to the debates that gave rise to The Sokal Hoax

For Spike readers who wish to grasp the basics of the modern argument which culminated in the controversy (full article here), a key term and concept to understand is positivism. A positivist stance encapsulates the furthest reach, paradigmatically in the 19th century, of confidence that human beings can completely and transparently understand the world around them. Inspired by Husserl’s insistence in his phenomenology on “bracketing” the “natural world” in order to study phenomena as such – all that we can know – in the 20th century to harbor “positivist” views and assumptions has warranted instant condemnation and dismissal by postmodernists.

Why is understanding positivism key? Does the charge by politically left-wing postmodernists – with frequently a political agenda (1, see footnotes below) – of positivism have any weight when directed against physics and physicists? Ignoring the excessive charge that physics and other hard sciences are part of some kind of reactionary political, economic and cultural domination, we must keep in mind that a charge of positivism remains tractable in other knowledge enterprises, for example history and the social sciences, or any intellectual discipline that studies the human universe as opposed to the universe; “scientism” is a pejorative attached to social scientists who assert that “only scientific claims are meaningful” even in studies that rely on subjective data or data about meaning to individuals or groups. Even if the PM/lit crit folks only aimed a charge of sociopolitical or classist domination against modern physics in a deniable way, Alan Sokal evidently thought a dangerous assault was being made on the high, indeed, the highest, edifices of human intellectual achievement, scientific truth discovering a single objective reality.

With a clear historical lineage beginning with the Enlightenment and reason and continuing through the British empirical “sense-data” philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, positivism bloomed in the 19th century at the apex of the industrial revolution with two French thinkers, Henri de Saint Simon and Auguste Comte, who explicitly articulated its sunniest assumptions. It was also the time when, offensive to most of us, nowadays, most political and cultural leaders of the West considered peoples from Africa as racial inferiors and that colonialism was not oppression but the bringing of civilization to the benighted. In what became social science, including anthropology, Herbert Spencer in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in America – someone Marx admired – represented the same positivist claims and assumptions, for example, the idea of cultural evolution of humans toward ever higher and more complex social organization; we can place the latter two firmly with Darwin’s totalistic explanation for the variety and process of variation of all life. (2) These much dated and erroneous thinkers, one can say, partially in agreement with the postmodernists, clearly were products of their time, the apex of the industrial revolution and what was postdicted as “modernism”; beginning with the Enlightenment modernism is a curious term for a historically real intellectual and aesthetic phenomenon through time and space. Judging from a scan of social scientific literature, paradigmatic modernist perspectives were completely eclipsed by the epistemic ideation or sensation roughly no later than the 1950s-1960s in the United States. This crisis occurred when every idea, word, phrase, image and symbol had become or was felt to be secondhand and empty of content; literary artists, philosophers, and intellectuals in other disciplines tangibly felt that everything has been said that could be said. We now suppose that modernism collapsed more or less as the social consequences of the industrial revolution were being felt, that is, when we became aware of the negative impact by humans on the planet. In literature, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is seen as the very last modernist novel, beyond which nothing new could be written (my own estimation is that Malcolm Lowry’s, Under the Volcano, published in 1947, might represent the last modernist novel, but, to me, this wonderful novel also seems to be a throwback, in many ways – a conscious effort to mimic the great modernist novels). Philosophers in the 19th century on the continent – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer – had contributed to the collapse of modernism, their work followed up in the 20th century by existentialism and its offshoots. The “death of God” remains an iconic characterization from Nietzsche through the existentialists of the emptiness of a formerly automatic assumption, the existence of God as the Absolute.

Understanding anti- or post-positivism – postmodernism – one has also to understand, principally, for all its hoopla, that it can be traced to one insight only. This was Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. Springing from the cogito was Kant’s reflexive or critical observation that the subject or observer affects or is part of the observation and at least and to an unknowable degree determines the observed thing. The epistemological validity of this assertion is undeniable. But epistemology, by an inexorable and logical turn of thinking, moved to the ontological – how we know things became how we are as human beings. I believe that, in general, postmodernists did not understand that this turn did not mean there was not one knowable reality. I touched on this earlier, but let me explain it in more detail.

For some reason – probably an excess of excitement accompanying realization of the ramifications of Descartes’ equation of the cogito, an intoxicating, purely intuitive insight for many American and European social thinkers and literary theorists in the mid-20th century, but a one-trick pony in the doing of (social) science and critical thought – some thinkers and academics (still quietly occupying professorships in university departments of literature, anthropology, and social theory) took it too far and took it wrong. As I have mentioned, what the relativist, deconstructionist believers in the text got wrong was that the main currents of continental philosophy never said that there was no single reality. Husserl’s “radical empiricism” underscored this. Sartre’s casual assertion early in Being and Nothingness that the subjective-objective dichotomy had been resolved did not mean that he was a relativist. Heidegger’s “being-there” did not mean that there was no “there.” (I hope readers versed in the works perhaps unfairly lumped together as “relativist” write in to Spike with details about how Derrida and Foucault and others cited by Sokal and by me, here, summarize the arguments that would refute this.) For all of these omissions and missteps by postmodernism I laughed and applauded Sokal’s coup de main.

Positivist perspectives and claims, hence, collide with the sociology of knowledge or (somewhat differently and more specifically) the social construction of knowledge. This is the idea contra positivism that human knowledge is necessarily and to whatever degree affected by history and social circumstances and developments such as politics, power and economics.

Pertinent to this is that opposition to positivism has many fathers, including Marx. Marx said that economics – materialism, matter – and class warfare underlay or determined human history. Because the prime mover, after all, to Marx was a materialist and dialectical history, it did not take the PM contemporaries of Sokal much to adopt a general attitude that a particular social context ultimately determines even the propositions and conclusions of the hard sciences. This extreme view is what prompted Sokal to perpetrate the hoax. Even though Marx said he based all of his philosophy on matter – famously “turning Hegel on his head,” controverting German idealist thought with a pure materialism – we don’t call him a physicist. Marx was talking only about the human universe, e.g., history and how history, in a real and concrete sense, is made.

Taking a long leap from Marx and the 19th century forebears of the issues, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was a touchstone for the postmodernists who interpreted Kuhn as supporting their views. Kuhn was quickly cited by postmodernists of every stripe; here was a respected historian of science declaring that scientific knowledge was not accumulative or continuing – gradually adding to the sum of human knowledge. Rather, it was subject to paradigms that began and ended. Interestingly, in evolutionary biology the analogical term is “punctuated equilibrium”: microevolutionary change, now accepted by evolutionary biologists as fundamental to biological evolution, is punctuated, or stopped, by macroevolutionary events; an example is the crash into the earth of a giant asteroid sixty million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs, and mammals took the opportunity to develop. (3)

A relevant question here is whether physics and the other hard sciences are, as Kuhn asserted, also subject to paradigmatic shift or operate in a continuing accumulation of knowledge. We might ask, for example, could Einstein have made his discoveries if Newton had not existed? I suspect physicists such as Sokal would reply, energetically and emphatically, no. But did Einstein’s general theory of relativity4 imply such a different universe than Newton’s that it represented a complete change in how we view reality and the universe? In later interviews and in his 2008 book, in a little nod to the other side, Sokal refers to the Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”), a distinct epochal social and intellectual context, as in the Weltenschaung or “world view,” which is historically grounded and either strongly or completely is suggested to determines theory and proposed facts. To some PM thinkers, Sokal may be understood to charge, the epochal context can or does determine to whatever degree all claims and assertions, even those of hard science.

The emphasis is on the importance of context for both the generation of insight and the understanding of that insight. But at the same time, emergences from a particular social and historical context can count as ever closer and more accurate descriptions of reality. However, if axioms perfectly describing a single reality are the holy grail for science and human knowledge, one might assert that any major correction to the prevailing wisdom completely changes our perspective on the matter, that is, constitutes a paradigm shift.

I do want to stress that just as I am a self-taught critical philosopher as well as a professional anthropologist and, therefore, am sensitive to and even completely responsive to the different “realities” one may discover in field work or study of what anthropology traditionally refers to as different cultures, I not only acknowledge but applaud the work of physicists and look forward to their incredibly exciting discoveries. Am I a relativist? No. Is it absolutely necessary for my own self- satisfaction as a professional scholar to try to keep an open mind to just about any conjecture, I would answer, yes. I do understand, completely, the positivist attitude of physicists such as Sokal and Weinberg – and I hope they can forgive me for putting words in their mouths, or attributing opinions and stances they might not acknowledge themselves – which patently seem to derive not merely from empiricism but automatic belief in and reliance on sense-data (from the five senses) as the fundamental beginning basis for the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Now, this is not to say that charges of and instant dismissal of “scientism” and purported hard scientific conclusions about, for example, race and intelligence, are not without complete justification. With regard to charges of political, social, and cultural “domination” in modern society by physics and physicists, for example, these are much more difficult for me to consider supportable or even relevant for study. It is unquestionably the case that the hard sciences historically derived from, belonged to, and were controlled by, mostly members of the elite and privileged around the world, who mostly if not entirely drew from the upper and middle classes of the West. But does this mean conclusions by physicists are biased socially and, therefore, wrong factually as well as destructive socially? Physics remains largely an enterprise based on mathematics; is mathematics susceptible to racist, classist, and sexist prejudices? I cannot see how this could be the case. Access to the education necessary to become a mathematician, or physicist – and make a living at it – is undoubtedly still significantly if not greatly limited to aspirants from the West and not from, for example, Africa. Sokal considers himself an “old-fashioned leftist” in many of his publications about his hoax as well as interviews with him. I’m with him, there. He and I may not agree about the radical critique of the Enlightenment, itself, that Neo-Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno, prominent members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology, provided us in 1944.


  1. Sokal declared that one of his motivations behind the hoax was to protect left-wing or progressive stances from self- acknowledged leftist PM writers or thinkers whose writing, to him, was vulnerable to attack because it was gibberish.
  2. Even as evolutionary biology distinctly denies the notion of “progress” in adaptation and natural selection, 19th century proponents of cultural evolution such as Spencer and Morgan assumed movement through time of lower or less complex or civilized societies toward high civilization, the model or ideal for which patently was derived from Europe and the Old World. In Morgan’s cultural evolutionary scheme, the “Aryan” and “Semitic” societies were the most developed, toward which all other societies inexorably would move, if not from their own internal dynamics, through diffusion; A notorious paper by Morgan on Aztec society absurdly characterized the Mexica tlatoani as a “chief,” not a “king,” and only first among equals in an otherwise egalitarian social structure.
  3. The next great punctuation in evolution may be an enormous catastrophe that kills off many humans because of climate change or, or together with, Ray Kurzweil’s fabulously optimistic vision of a “singularity” in human development achieved by technology and by which we become immortal.
  4. As many physicists and philosophers of science have observed, Einstein’s use of the word “relativity” in no way meant truth was relative or there was no single objective reality.


  1. Gabriel Stolzenberg says

    Re footnote 1:
    “When Larry was a kid his mother…sometimes, out of curiosity, stopped the dial at a place
    where foreign languages came curling out of the radio’s plastic grillwork: Italian or Portuguese or Polish… ‘Jibber jabber,’ Larry’s father called this talk, shaking his head, apparently convinced, despite all reason, that these ‘noises’ meant nothing, that they were no more than a form of elaborate nonsense. Everything ran together; and there weren’t any real words the way there were in English. These foreigners were just pretending to talk, trying to fool everyone.” (Carol Shields, Larry’s Party)

    Gabriel Stolzenberg

  2. gabriel stolzenberg says

    Re footnote 4: nor does relativism properly
    understood assert that. It considers it gibberish.
    For the true relativist, truth is just truth. It is meanings and, hence, statements that have their home in a mindset. Change the mindset, you change the meaning and, hence, the statement.

    The idea that the relativist says that a statement can be true from one mindset and false from another is realist bullshit. What everyone now calls relativism is the realist strawman for it.
    For shame.

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