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

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Tue Dec 8 11:43:48 PST 1998

On Tue, 08 Dec 1998 13:22:19 -0500 Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> writes:
>Jim Farmelant:
>>Many people seem to be confused concerning the
>>differences between the kinds of critiques that Marxists (i.e.
>>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
>>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.
>Part of the problem is that the battlelines are not drawn clearly.
>Sokal, who is regarded as defending enlightenment values against the
>obfuscations of Sandra Harding and company, told me that Norman Levitt
>the guy who first alerted him to the "science wars". He is not only
>friendly with Levitt, but considers him a co-thinker. The problem is
>Levitt is a right-wing skunk who presided over a "science wars"
>that was funded by the Olin foundation and other right-wingers. Their
>target is not just wooly-headed pomos, but Marxists as well.

I suppose it can be said that Sokal has been taking a kind of "popular front" approach in the battling of pomo. Whether, such an approach can be justified depends upon how much of a threat one judges pomo to be to both science and the left. Presumably, Sokal thinks the threat is serious enough to justify making alliances with right-wing opponents of pomo.

On the issue of confusions between Marxist and pomo critiques of science, I would argue that such confusion plays into the hands of reactionaries. Boston University's reactionary chancellor, John Silber, has a kind of set speech which he trots out before academic conferences, most recently at the World Congress of Philosophy, in Boston,of this past August, in which he lumps together pomo, Marxism, and feminism and attacks them all. He exploits the excesses of pomo in order to paint Marxism and feminism in a bad light.

>>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
>>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
>No, my position has nothing in common with postmodernism. I consider
>gang to be a reactionary bunch of idiots, who Alex Callinicos, Perry
>Anderson and Christopher Norris have done a much better job on than
>could ever dream to.
>I am much more interested in attacking Eurocentrism, and I tend to
>with the world-systems people like Blaut, Eric Wolf, Wallerstein et
>al. The
>Enlightenment is a particularly European construction and baloney like
>"Asiatic Mode of Production" flow from it. What I have a problem with
>particular is the schema that the world lived in darkness and
>until the French and British Enlightment thinkers decided to apply

I don't think that all the Enlightenment philosophes were as Eurocentric as you and Jim Blaut make them out to be. Voltaire, for instance was a great admirer of Chinese civilization and especially of Confucius, who he thought to be the model of an enlightened thinker. Voltaire and the other philosophes like to cite Confucianism as an example of how morality can subsist without a theistic or supernaturalist foundation. Montsquieu, wrote a satire of theFrench society of his day _The Persian Letters_ in which a Persian prince visiting Paris sends back home which satirized then contemporary French mores. Here again, the Persian prince was depicted as having a more enlightened view of the world than the French. I don't think it is true to say that the philosophes viewed European civilization as the sole repository of UNIVERSAL REASON. In fact their social criticisms emphasized the degree of irrationalitie they perceived to be affliciting their society and they often pointed to non-European societies as being more enlightened. I think you may be imputing to these eighteenth century thinkers, beliefs and attitudes that were more characteristic of their nineteenth century successors during the rise of imperialism.

> Careful study of Chinese and Arab civilization would
>reveal an entirely different set of circumstances. If anything, the
>was much more enlightened than Europe for centuries before Decartes
>along. I have been planning to get around to reading and reviewing
>Ali's historical fiction on these questions and will have more to say.

I would certainly agree with your evaluation of Chinese and Arab civilization but then I don't think that most of the Enlightenment philosophes would have disagreed.

Jim Farmelant

>Louis Proyect

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