Download document


Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science


The word "abuse" here denotes one or more of the following characteristics:

1) Holding forth at length on scientific theories about which one has, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea. The most common tactic is to use scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean.

2) Importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities or social sciences without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification. If a biologist wanted to apply, in her research, elementary notions of mathematical topology, set theory or differential geometry, she would be asked to give some explanation. A vague analogy would not be taken very seriously by her colleagues. Here, by contrast, we learn from Lacan that the structure of the neurotic subject is exactly the torus (it is no less than reality itself, cf. p. 20), from Kristeva that poetic language can be theorized in terms of the cardinality of the continuum (p. 40), and from Baudrillard that modern war takes place in a non-Euclidean space (p. 147)--all without explanation.

3) Displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader. Even some academic and media commentators fall into the trap: Roland Barthes is impressed by the precision of Julia Kristeva's work (p. 38) and Le Monde admires the erudition of Paul Virilio (p. 169).

4) Manipulating phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless. Some of these authors exhibit a veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.