It's a Battlefield Out There, Culturally Speaking by Edward Rothstein (FWD from NY Times)

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Tue Dec 8 06:19:56 PST 1998

Concerning yesterday's NY Times piece by Ed Rothstein I got the impression that Rothstein was trying to avoid taking sides but in doing so he has tended to accept uncritically the pomos' conception of what the debate is all about. Thus, his misunderstanding of Sokal's position concerning the need for the left to re-embrace scientific objectivity as being a purely political or cultural position, just as he uncritically accepts the pomos' claim that they represent leftist thinking (when their ruling divinities, Nietzsche & Heidegger were men of the Right). In fact the kind of skepticism that the pomos embrace is one that historically has often appealed to conservative rather then radical thinkers. The fact that the French writers that the American pomos look up to were leftists is perhaps more reflective of the peculiarities of French intellectual culture of the 1950s and 1960s when a turn to Heidegger and Nietzsche seemed to offer a way out for French leftwing intellectuals who had become disenchanted with the rigidities and dogmatism of Stalinism. The kind of thinking that pomo represents does not seem to be inherently leftwing but only contingently so.

Rothstein seems to be unaware of the extent to which the left, particularly Marxists have traditionally embraced the Enlightenment legacy. In fact much of the Marxist critique of capitalism can be interpreted as one of attempting to show how capitalism and bourgeois society have systematically betrayed the Enlightenment legacy which is the basis of its legitimacy. Many people seem to be confused concerning the differences between the kinds of critiques that Marxists (i.e. Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Rose etc.) have made of science and the kinds of critiques that pomo-oriented scholars make (such as many of the science studies people like Sandra Harding). The Marxists criticize the distortions of science by bourgeois ideology but in doing so they reaffirm the traditional Enlightenment faith in scientific rationality and objectivity. The more pomo-oriented critics view science, itself, as an ideology that needs to be deconstructed. Many of them criticize science in order to legitimize non-rational forms of knowing.

Finally concerning Lou Proyect's post "Enlightenment insight," I got the impression that Lou was trying to trash the Enlightenment because some of the leading philosophes held racist views which they had attempted to justify through pseudo-scientific arguments. If Lou wants to argue that science is susceptible to ideological distortion then I have no quarrel with him. However, I get the impression that he is taking the pomo position that science itself is an ideology but one that is in itself racist (sexist, classist etc.). That has never to my understanding been the position of classical Marxism which always drew a distinction between science and ideology (while recognizing that in class societies science will be susceptible to ideological distortions).

Jim Farmelant

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