Alan Sokal Revisited
Judging by the book, Sokal (or more likely Bricmont) has read Lacan a lot more closely
and seriously than many of those that champion him. Much of the reaction to it is just
misplaced. Within the tight terms of reference they adopt the book is very good indeed.
That is to say the authors trawl through the allusions to natural science deployed by some
cutting edge social thinkers. Their main point is that much of this is either
misunderstood, or, in some extremes, just pretentious and foolish. They do raise the
question of whether this poor command of the material should raise doubts about other
aspects of these thinkers' work, but their refusal to answer that doubt definitively has
irritated a lot of people. That irritation in my view is just a failure to understand the
difference in approach of natural and social science. To a lot of social scientists, Sokal
and Bricmont's refusal to definitively attack post-modernism seems like cuteness: as if
they want to eat their cake and have it too. But I take their reticence more seriously.
Neither of them claim to have a background in social science and so are intelligently
reluctant to pontificate about things they do not now comprehensively. In the social
sciences we are used to painting with a broad brush, but their background makes them
reluctant to make sweeping statements.
There is a definitive argument in the book about epistemological relativism which is an
important part of the philosophy of science. In that their argument is clear, and, though
the book isn't closed on it, persuasive. More to the point, it would be a strange thing
indeed if those working in the natural sciences were not to make some claim for
The dynamic duo have been lecturing in London, and having seen them at the French
Institute two weeks ago, I must say that the reaction to their work is more than a little
defensive. Social scientists have been rubbishing the natural sciences for a long time now
without any comeback. The book, and Sokal's hoax is a worthy contribution to the debate.
They might not have beheaded the Emperor, but they have suggested that he is wearing no
-- Jim Heartfield
I have a real problem with this argument by Jim. He is arguing for a
radical separation between "science", and "scientific investigation",
the one hand, and "application of scientific technique" on the other hand.
Was the Manhattan Project "scientific investigation" or "application of
scientific technique"? How about the Human Genome Project?
I agree with the formulation that the dialectic arises from the
interaction between human beings and nature. However, I must point out
that scientific investigation is precisely such interaction. Leave aside
for a moment the fact that scientific investigation is initiated,
organized, and funded by social organizations (governments, foundations,
universities, etc.) which represent directly or indirectly the interests
of classes, groups, etc. Let's imagine that the "lone scientist" is just
given "a lot of money" to "go and find out something about the world."
Still, the imaginary lone scientist has purposes, presuppositions, and
ideas about what is interesting, important, and valuable, and what is not.
You never hear of any scientist carefully studying the microscopic
topography of a single boulder and publishing maps of it, but scientists
do publish maps of Mars. Why? The boulder is part of the universe, just
as Mars is; why is Mars more interesting? Because it's bigger? Because
the microscopic topography of a boulder is of no earthly use to people?
The idea of "use" is present from the beginning.
In any case perhaps I should never have brought the "lone scientist" into
the argument, since she/he is as imaginary a quantity as Duhring's "famous
two men," from whose interaction he thought all moral and social behaviour
could be extrapolated, and with whom Engels had such fun in
_Anti-Duhring._ Scientists are part of society, of class society, of
society with all its forms of oppression; they have biographies, personal
and intellectual; their science is being done as the product of a social
process and with certain consumers in mind.
Turning to Heartfield's concerns about ethics and science, in which he
declares in ethical, or perhaps meta-ethical, terms that science "ought"
to be free from ethical constraints, this can be taken in two ways:
The weak form: Scientists should accurately represent the real world
(they should not lie, basically) in whatever research they are doing.
The strong form: Not only should scientists not lie or be asked to lie,
they should be free to examine whatever they want.
As a practical application: The strong form is that if the government
wants to investigate the properties of various forms of thermonuclear
explosions (developing some "pure science" which may at some future time
be "applied" to making a neutron bomb, say) you are not supposed even to
object to this. The weak form is that you can maybe object to them doing
the research, but once they get started, the scientists involved should be
encouraged to report accurate data.
This elevation of truth and/or free inquiry to absolute ethical principles
would work nicely in a world without antagonistic contradictions - without
class conflict - without war between the oppressed and the oppressor. And
I believe that many people in the Academy today think that this is the
kind of world, or society, or oasis that they live in. However, most of
us would agree that in war it is permissible, and is sometimes obligatory,
to lie. Heartfield's moral advice to scientists therefore becomes not
absolute, but relative. There are times when truth and free inquiry are
not the highest moral commandment; when the important thing is that your
side should win and that their side should not.
Having said this of course does not mean that having correct information
is not generally a good thing for US. I believe that the enemy
sociologist Peter Berger was fundamentally correct when he wrote that
sociologists are like spies; their job is to report the truth accurately
to their employers. In general I believe this is true of all scientists.
(James Farmelant commenting on the clash
between American Indians and archaeologists)
No doubt the scientific community should have shown more sensitivty
to the Indians but as you say the underlying issue is that of a clash
between science and the Indian's religious beliefs. I very much doubt
that if the issue was one of a clash between Christian (or Islamic or
Jewish) fundamentalism and science that Louis would side with the
fundamentalists against the scientific community. Yet, Harvard
geneticist (and Marxist) Dick Lewontin has written in the New York
Review of Books articles on the social bases of so-called scientific
creationism. Lewontin has argued that underlying the appeal of
creationism is a populist revolt against oppressive and manipulative
elites. I remember one article he wrote in which he pointed out that
creationist (and fundamentalist) beliefs are strongests in those areas
of the US that earlier in this century had seen strong support for
Eugene Debs' Socialists. Lewontin makes it clear that it is
possible to be sympathetic with this populist revulsion without going
on and rejecting science. Ultimately the issue is whether oppressed
people are ultimately better off with a demythologized conception of
the world. Marx of course thought that was indeed the case.
Marx's analysis of religion as the "opiate of the people" and the
"sigh of the oppressed" IMO shows how it possible to approach this
issue in a manner that is sensitive to the deep human impulses that
James Farmelant you are wrong on a couple of important points.
The issue in the Kennewick confrontation is not religion versus science.
The Native Americans use religion and various other ideological weapons to
try to hold on to their resources, principally land. Under the white man's
law Indiansa have to show, in essence, that they have occuppied a piece of
land since before the coming of the Europeans and the imposition of
european land law. One way to do that is to assert that skeletal remains
found on land which has been ceded to them (but always with the real
possibility that it will be taken away by ther government) are in fact the
remains of their ancestors. Archaeoilogists scoff at this claim because
they have a careerist interest (read $$) in analyzing the "Kennewick Man"
remains, havve convinced themselves that what they arre doing is done for
the purpose of Science, not career advancement, and have no real
understanding of the importance which the Indians place on these remains as
a means of confirmning their sovereign claim to the land.
Every culture uses myths of one sort or another for very practical
purposes. In this case the purpose is to resist genocide. I find ity
shameful that so many (but thank goodness not all) anthropolgists think the
issue here is science versus religion. And add this point: some crazy
racist religionists who think that whites havve always been in America --
which therefore belongs to the white man -- are strongly behind the
position of the archeologists, because the news media have picked up the
argument made by a few archeologists, apparently without real empirical
support, that the Kennewick skull looks somewhat caucasoid. The media thus
add the dimensin of racism to the issue.
And I have to dispute yourr argument that science is somehow above class
struggle. Old Karl got it right: The ruling ideas are the ideas of the
ruling class. In social science, and to some extent innatural science,
there is a powerful involvement of ruling class interests in the practice
of scientists: the credentialing of scientists, the choixce of subject
matter for investigation (often the "choice" is determined by the
availability of funds directly or indirectly supplied by the ruling class),
the dissemination of results, etc. I suppose you can invoke Mead and the
pragmatists here because the only way to tell whether a proposition argued
by science is or is not a ruling-class myth (lie) is to look at its
Lewin and Lewontin would agree with the above.
Dear Marxist list,
Sometime between glory days of the late-positivist movement and the
early days of the morbid beginnings of the post-war, post-Marxist,
post-modernists, science and philosophy discovered that there would be
no absolute verification of knowledge. Godel's Incompletedness Theorem
and the development of quantum mechanics had a lot to do with that
The less scientifically knowledgeable post-modernists have been taking
advantage of the fact that knowledge can never be proven, only
disproved, ever since that idea was developed. At its worst,
post-modernism has even contended, as Sokal so adeptly revealed, that
there can be no knowledge superior to any other. For instance, the world
view of the Navajo tradition is as legitimate as that of Einstein or
Respecting the legal rights of the Navajo Nation is quite a different
issue than raising that nation's most primitive religious beliefs to the
same level of value as twentieth century science. One is based on a
prehistoric peoples' lack of knowledge about the universe, the other is
based on the most advanced knowledge about the universe available on the
quantum and cosmic levels . In fact, science promotes only that
knowledge that is first run through the gauntlet of test and observation
with the expressed aim of disproving the knowledge. That is not to say
that science is not affected by social context. But while scientists can
twist the truth to their social and cultural wills and unconscious
desires, their results are always the legitimate target of other
scientists looking to make a name for themselves by disproving a false
result. There is a system to test and retest claims of discovery. It is
not a perfect system for uncovering the workings of the universe, (and
multiverse) but it is a far superior method of discovery than are any
religious world views, which are the world views its replaces, or at
least should replace.
There are people whose legitimate aim is to rip away the vails of
"social context," psychological motives that run contrary to the truth,
and just plain dishonest researchers. I do not believe that those were
Sokal's target. I believe that he has made himself quite clear that his
problem was with those who make the claim that all knowledge is equal.
I have yet to read his new book, so I cannot speak to that, however,
what I have read of his arguments on post-modernism have been aimed
squarely at those who are no more than charlatans and who are aiming to
tare down the structures of science and to attack those for whom science
is a way of life and a world view. I include myself in that category.
Just because scientific knowledge cannot be proven in the absolute
sense, does not mean that "it is just a theory," in the sense that the
creationists use that term as a bludgeon against science. Science has
the advantage of being a system wherein its claims -- its theories and
other sets of knowledge -- are tested continuously (there are still
tests of Einstein's' theories taking place today, for instance) and
therefore, science has been able to build up rather extensive levels of
verification for itself. All knowledge has to rely on building up to a
degree of verification that becomes so overwhelming that it is
impractical if not impossible to overturn it. That goal is never reached
absolutely! Yet the statistical level of verification can become so
large that for all practical purposes, we can say that it has been
It is the overwhelming degree of evidence brought to bare by the
scientific method that makes its claims worthy of such a high level of
confidence. While religions can make the same claim in some realms --
some kinds of ethics perhaps, although even there, science yields
superior results -- religion does not rely on an method of test,
evidence, verification, observation, especially when it comes to its
supernatural claims. And it is mainly the supernatural claims that sets
religion apart from scientifically-based methods of discovery.
On the one side, we have a high -- though never absolute -- level of
evidence that must be brought to bare before any claim of science can
even be taken seriously enough to be tested by others -- and the
claimant must freely accept the challenge of continuous testing.
On the other side, we have myth-based sets of knowledge that must always
have a claim of supernaturally-rooted metaphysics, that must never be
tested, because that destroys the faith upon which they rest, and that
offers as evidence only anecdotes and the absolute authority of
scriptures and unwritten story.
Anyone who believes this has to be a bit loony! And anyone who believes
that the religious mythology is in anyway as legitimate a knowledge
construct as the accumulated database of science has to be more than a
I look forward to reading Sokal's book. He has been a breath of fresh
air in an environment that has been thoroughly polluted by the mind mush
of the post-modernist movement. I don't blame the post-mods for their
self-loathing idiocy, as they are mostly liberals sickened by the crimes
of their own class and ideology. But there has been a significant
portion of the socialist/communist left that has been partially poisoned
by their anti-science, anti-labor, anti-human paradigm, and Sokal, more
than anyone had the guts to stand up -- even against the certain
academic warfare he knew he would bring down upon himself -- and say
enough is enough.
Certainty was so much an important part of the Marxist thought process
for so long, that many Marxist thinkers were shaken by the very idea
that certainty would never be within our grasp. I suggest that
statistical rates of verification can be so compelling as to be just as
good for all practical purposes.
Chris Driscoll, who is usually to busy building the Labor Party to
comment on this list, but who couldn't resist this time.
On Thu, July 23, 1998 at 11:26:17 (-0400) Doug Henwood writes:
>No, it was the "gotcha!" reaction, as if fooling Stanley Aronowitz & Co.
>proved something larger than the fact that Aronowitz & Co. don't know shit
>from shinola. There were all too many people who concluded from the episode
>that they don't have to think critically about science or the production
>of knowledge - and related questions of race and sex (the whole package
>that it's so easy to dismiss as "identity politics"). Sokal contributed to
>this by the parodic form, which is fine for critique and exposure, but
>which makes no contribution of its own. What does Sokal believe? He seems
>to believe in Science and Truth, but we don't really know, do we? Which is
>why I think it's pretty criminal that he intervened so prominently in these
>debates without having read too deeply in the relevant literature.
Perhaps I'm just being ornery --- perhaps fueled by a bit of
block-headedness --- but I just don't buy this. Maybe I should be a
bit more forgiving because this is an email list and postings tend to
be pounded out in relative haste, but just who is "too many people"?
You claim that parody makes no contribution of its own, which is
apparently bad. That is, Sokal should have given us a positive
statement of some sort saying just where he stood, how he felt race,
gender, Science & Truth, etc. should be examined, rather than
criticizing the bogus science of a certain set of Pomos (does
"Stanley Aronowitz & Co." include Judith Butler?)... If this is
indeed a fair summary of your claim, then I think we would have to
reject much of Chomsky's biting sarcasm directed at the media, which
itself is generally not prescriptive, but aims to disrobe. From what
I understand of reading Sokal, he was concerned that these fairy tales
about science and what it had to contribute to the study of gender,
feminism, race, etc. were "inimical to the values and future of the
Left" and his effort was to expose them so that these studies wouldn't
be polluted by this sort of nonsense.
But in fact Sokal has given us a statement of the social construction
of truth that those "all too many people" could have easily read:
1) Science is a human endeavor, and like any other human endeavor
it merits being subjected to rigorous social analysis. Which
research problems count as important; how research funds are
distributed; who gets prestige and power; what role scientific
expertise plays in public-policy debates; in what form scientific
knowledge becomes embodied in technology, and for whose benefit
-- all these issues are strongly affected by political, economic
and to some extent ideological considerations, as well as by the
internal logic of scientific inquiry. They are thus fruitful
subjects for empirical study by historians, sociologists,
political scientists and economists.
2) At a more subtle level, even the content of scientific debate
-- what types of theories can be conceived and entertained, what
criteria are to be used for deciding between competing theories
-- is constrained in part by the prevailing attitudes of mind,
which in turn arise in part from deep-seated historical factors.
It is the task of historians and sociologists of science to sort
out, in each specific instance, the roles played by ``external''
and ``internal'' factors in determining the course of scientific
development. Not surprisingly, scientists tend to stress the
``internal'' factors while sociologists tend to stress the
``external'', if only because each group tends to have a poor
grasp on the other group's concepts. But these problems are
perfectly amenable to rational debate.
3) There is nothing wrong with research informed by a political
commitment, as long as that commitment does not blind the
researcher to inconvenient facts. Thus, there is a long and
honorable tradition of socio-political critique of science and
feminist critiques of psychology and parts of medicine and
biology. These critiques typically follow a standard pattern:
First one shows, using conventional scientific arguments, why the
research in question is flawed according to the ordinary canons
of good science; then, and only then, one attempts to explain how
the researchers' social prejudices (which may well have been
unconscious) led them to violate these canons. Of course, each
such critique has to stand or fall on its own merits; having good
political intentions doesn't guarantee that one's analysis will
constitute good science, good sociology or good history. But this
general two-step approach is, I think, sound; and empirical
studies of this kind, if conducted with due intellectual rigor,
could shed useful light on the social conditions under which good
science (defined normatively as the search for truths or at least
approximate truths about the world) is fostered or hindered.
["What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove"]
Reading this, I'd have to be pretty obtuse to conclude that I didn't
"have to think critically about science or the production of
knowledge". For some reason, I was perfectly aware that this was
implicit in what Sokal had done, but maybe it's unfair to project that
others should have seen this as well...
I similarly fail to see how an effort by Sokal to highlight the
fabulous abuse of science by many Pomos must be seen *only* as a
hindrance to thinking "critically about science or the production of
knowledge", and not something that can be used to further this, and
the other necessary projects included in "identity politics".
On Thu, 23 Jul 1998, Jim heartfield wrote:
> I think you could start by looking at Edmund Husserl's Origin of
> Geometry, and Derrida's introduction to it.
[Recap of post-modern philosophy omitted. Useful info here from
> But the danger is that in making tactical choices, you miss out the
> bigger picture. Postmodernity is the orthodoxy now. It is, as Jameson
> says, the logic of late capitalism. The dominant ideas of this age are
> those of its dominant class, and that class is not traditionalist, right
> wing, or conservative (in the ordinary associations of that word). This
> is Clinton and Blair's world, not Bush and Major's, still less Reagan
> and Thatcher's.
I find this hard to digest. In the first place, Clinton and Blair are
tools of the ruling class, not reflections of ruling class opinion.
For example, from 1980 to 1992 we had U.S. presidents who publicly opposed affirmative
action, and since 1993 we have a president who publicly supports it. But
this does not mean, in my view, that the capitalist class opposed it for
12 years and now supports it. It means that the capitalist class is in
favor of having a president who makes speeches in favor of it, and is also
in favor of having a Congress, a court system, a Ward Connerly, and
various other actors who nullify it. Let's not get into the error of
mistaking the speeches of the character in the play for the opinions of
More generally, I think it is a mistake to argue from Marx's generally
correct statement that the dominant ideas of the age are the ideas of the
ruling class to the specific proposition that ANY popular outlook can be
assumed to be a ruling class creation. I don't think it's that simple.
There is such a thing as progress. Some battles for public opinion have
been won by our side. For example, the proposition that access to health
care should not be dependent on wealth has majority support. This is not
because it is a bourgeois proposition.
Now, I do believe that Jim H.'s statement has an element of truth, and
this is it: On some social issues, such as (to pick a few) the
legalization of homosexual behavior, reproductive rights, the desirability
of overt racial discrimination, and school prayer, I think it is correct
to say that the ruling class has a position different from what we would
call the "right-wing" position. But these are precisely the areas in
which pre-capitalist, pre-modern ideology - I might go as far as to say
"feudal" ideology - were enshrined in law and social custom. The advance
from the "old" ruling class position to the "new" ruling class
precisely an advance TO a consistently bourgeois world view. And it is a
conditional advance, which will be abandoned (in its public
manifestations) when and if the bourgeoisie feels under pressure from the
left and feels itself in need of mobilizing support from the right again.
Now, when JH says that postmodernism is the new ruling class orthodoxy,
I don't suspect for a second that he means that Bill Gates and Alan
Greenspan sit around reading _Social Text_. I think that what he means is
a set of several propositions - correct me, Jim, if you think I have got
you terribly wrong here:
- "Mass society" holds a set of beliefs which are "liberal" in
superficial appearance, and which are in apparent opposition to the "old
- These beliefs are anti-scientific and anti-rational
- These beliefs impede the struggle for socialism
- These beliefs are shared by the ruling class (?)
- These beliefs are imposed by the ruling class upon "mass society"
- These beliefs are related to, either through shared logic or by
descent, the heavy-duty academic postmodernists.
The content of this belief set might include New Age superstitions,
anti-technological environmentalism, some kind of feminism, etc. -
remember this is my mental picture of what Jim H. believes, so it may be
Hoping that I have somehow engaged the real Jim H., and not a mere straw
man, here is what I think: those beliefs of "mass society", which is to
say, of the working and intermediate classes in the imperialist countries,
and which fall into this "liberal" set, are not a coherent whole. They
are a mixture of, and/or are formed by the interaction of:
- Bourgeois ideas which are indeed held by the bourgeois class and which
are consciously disseminated by them
- Ideas which are disseminated by the bourgeois class, not because they
believe them, but because they want the masses to believe them
- Ideas which are disseminated by the media industry, not because they
believe them, and independently of whether they are advantageous to the
bourgeoisie as a whole, but solely because they make money for the media
- Ideas which are disseminated by various elements of the Academy
- Reactions to the injustice, alienation, and hopelessness of this world,
which are taking on various non-rational forms
- Reactions to the above, which take on various right-wing or reactionary
- Reactions to oppression, which, because of the perceived inadequacy of
socialist or working-class politics, are given a particularistic form
(feminism, nationalism, pacifism, etc.)
- Inchoate socialist ideas
I think that all these currents are operating at once, and that it is a
mistake to mistake the part for the whole. Moreover, the various
conscious actors in this process (the ruling class, the media industry,
the Academy, not to mention politicians, religious leaders, entrepreneurs,
etc.) have an interest in linking these currents together
Take flying saucers, for example. I am sure that the
ruling class itself doesn't believe in abductions by extraterrestrials and
the like. Nevertheless, the media industry can make money by peddling the
idea. People then pour all sorts of content into the "flying-saucer"
container, from racism (Aryans from space) to escapism (Space aliens will
save the world). The Academy chimes in by pointing out a la Vallee that
they might be part of another reality or some such gibberish. The
bourgeoisie leaves the process alone because they have an interest in most
people thinking confusedly, not critically.
But the same thing will happen even with progressive ideas. Take
the fight against sexual harassment. Once again the media can make tons
of money with movies, books, talk shows, "news" shows devoted to sexual
harassment. Entrepreneurs will try to sell workshops about sexual
harassment to corporations. Meanwhile,
people who are trying to deal with the issue in the Academy use inferior
"postmodern" tools to describe it. Others in the Academy use
old-fashioned "modern" tools to undercut the first group. Ultimately the
issue is sensationalized, sentimentalized, and cut off from its real
basis, so that it looks to the student of "popular culture" like just
another "hot topic", the same as "flying saucers" and "the evil
Hussein." But the fundamental differences among these ideas can't be
ignored. The bourgeoisie wants us to hate Saddam Hussein; they don't care
much what we think about flying saucers; and they would rather we not
think about sexual harassment at all, if they could have it all their own
The ruling class is mostly not
-ideologically- committed to the cause of promoting and defending sexual
hrrassment (it doesn't make them more money, and "male privilege" is not
a specificially market-oriented idea). However, they are not in favor of
paying out judgments either. I believe there are tactical divisions in
the ruling class about what to do with the issue. Some believe that, on
the whole, it is cheaper to modify the behavior of male employees and/or
managers. (The Supreme Court has just lent support to that notion, by
making a "written policy" into a shield against lawsuits.) Some believe
that it is cheaper to deny the existence of the problem through various
forms of propaganda work. But of course nothing stops them from pursuing
a two-pronged strategy, and they DO pursue it. "On the one hand, sexual
harassment is a joke, and if it comes to a trial we want all you jurors to
remember that if she didn't like the work environment she could have just
taken her human capital elsewhere. On the other hand, if any of you men
do it, we will fire and denounce you, and make many statements about what
a terrible thing it is."
I suspect that much of the fight in the Academy between the postmodernists
and their opponents has to do with this kind of two-pronged strategy.
I think it's important to remember that MOST of the Academy is working for
the bourgeoisie and performing valuable functions. It's like a metabolic
process in the body, where enzyme A puts the nitrogen atom on this
molecule and then enzyme B takes it off and puts it somewhere else.
When people are outraged against oppression, enzyme A, the postmodernists,
comes along and says, "Here! Don't use Marxism, use these inferior
concepts and methods to deal with it!" And then enzyme B, as in the Olin
Foundation-sponsored conference described by Proyect, comes along and
says, "Look at the stupid concepts and methods which are being used by
those people who are 'fighting oppression'! Only such fools
object to our fine society!" (Of course enzyme B will say this regardless
of the extent to which the concepts and methods really are inferior in the
particular case.) This is why I do not rush to the defense of enzyme A,
personified by Social Text, when someone plays a trick on it. On the
other hand, we have to do better than be partisans of Enzyme B.
This is probably too wordy.... Sorry :-(
Isn't one of the problems of 'social construction' debates (including the
Sokal Affair) the ambiguities that are inherent in the words like truth and
Truth, in not only common sense but also unfortunately in too many
scholarly articles, is used to refer to both (1) the ontological (what is)
and (2) the epistemological (what we have collectively--though
provisionally--determined to be the case according to more or less
agreed-upon scientific criteria). To complicate the matter further, the
effects of the ruling ideas are often such that (3) within the
epistemological dimensions, there are 'officially accepted + unquestioned'
ideas (often ideologically called Truth and many believe it), 'subjugated
knowledges' (produced by the oppressed groups and/or the working class who
may be able to--partially or fully--contest the ruling ideas) which may or
may not be scientifically correct, and knowledges produced by those
intellectuals who wish to ally themselves with the working class and the
oppressed, which again may or may not be scientifically correct. Consider,
also, that (a) scientific criteria in themselves might have to change (when
methodological problems are brought to collective attention, for instance)
and that (b) at the beginning of a new research program, the exploratory
nature of knowledge production is such that what can be said is mainly
speculative, which may or may not turn out to be truthful or even
Knowledge production is a collective endeavor, always to be corrected with
further discoveries of new empirical data and modifications or even
inventions of theoretical frameworks (which also sometimes involves the
discarding of some old theories, problematics, research programs, etc.
altogether), embedded in complicated processes of dialectical interactions
among the ruling class and the ruled, men and women, whites and people of
color, and so on. which play out both at the levels of the ontological and
the epistemological. The least we can do is to _specify_ what we mean by
the word truth when we use it. Too many criticisms of postmodernism lack
And what do people mean by the word reality? Too often, people (including
many marxists) only mean the empirical + the observable, whereas historical
materialists must distinguish, at least, the actual (available for human
observation) from the real (an ensemble of mechanisms--which may themselves
change--that produce the actual). Without this elementary distinction, many
concepts used by Marx (value, commodity fetishism, and so on) do not make
sense at all.
We must also make a distinction between sciences that are amenable to
laboratory experiments for replications to determine real causal mechanisms
and those that are not.
Moreover, scientific endeavors that address themselves to what is
distinctively human, social, & historical must be regarded differently from
those that explore the non-human world. In the former, a possibility of
exploitative & oppressive social relations + ideologies making people
unable to see, accept, or interpret correctly the actual, not to mention
explain the real reasons for the actual, is much larger, though the latter
is also subject to commodity fetishism and ideology mediating the processes
of knowledge production.
And when it comes to sex/gender/sexuality questions, again too many people
(including marxists) come right back to biologism, with no historical
investigation of the concepts and of the alleged realities that these
concepts are supposed to refer to. More or less the same can be said about
race, but biologism has a stronger hold on people through the institutions
and ideologies of sex/gender/sexuality.