Friday, July 07, 2006


My favorite example of academic pretense involves a spoof instigated in 1996 by Dr. Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University.

Sokal was concerned that a good deal of what passes for scholarly discourse in the humanities was nothing more than leftist politics gussied up in ostentatious language. So the good professor proceeded to put together an article comprised mostly of gibberish but punctuated with assertions that would warm the hearts of partisan intellectuals.

The title of this piece was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Its thesis was that gravity was merely a social construct arising from phallocentric hegemony.

Sokal submitted the article to a prominent, peer-reviewed journal, Social Text, whose editorial board was sympathetic to its warrantless conclusion: “the content and methodology of post-modern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.” Not entirely to Sokal’s surprise, the article was published.

Not long ago I was reminded of Sokal’s ruse when I attended a seminar at a local university. The “topic” was the loosely-defined discipline of phenomenology. It was easy to see, at least for someone with more than a layman’s knowledge of philosophy, that most of the professional energy going into this enterprise was devoted to verbally decorating a few unspectacular ideas.

One after another, speakers put forward syntactically complex propositions shrouded in jargon (“intertextual narratology”) and punctuated with leftist dogma (e.g. using the word “fascist” to describe any position to their political right). Two-dozen adults were pretending (not very well) to congratulate each other on their brilliance while painfully enduring one plodding presentation after another.

The obvious value of using words only a few folks understand is that the practice gives initiates a sense of superiority over the hoi polloi (the masses). The practice thus fosters the illusion that jargonistas possess insights that extend far beyond those of Joe Sixpack, Bonnie Businesswoman, or Peter Politician.

Like the Gnostics of old, for whom the secret word Abraxis held the key to reality, these pitiful polymaths are unwilling to present ideas without linguistic enhancements. They pretend, instead, that intellectual precision requires them to speak as they do.

Hollywood actors, deprived of makeup, don’t look so hot. Similarly, plain speech makes many ideas seem awfully quotidian (i.e. ordinary)—even refutable. Clarity of speech also raises unpleasant questions—like why we pay handsome salaries to folks whose words represent little more than Marxism in post-modern terminological drag.

One of my best graduate-school teachers, Ivor Leclerc, was a model of clarity. He castigated instructors (especially theologians) for employing muddled jargon. Sokal’s article would never have passed muster with him, nor would he have been caught dead pretending that a tarted up pig was a white stallion. Such pretense is pervasive, however, among academic Wizards of Oz who hide behind the smoke and mirrors of superfluous neologistry (i.e. unnecessary, made-up words).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A great English professor of mine used to refer to this phenomenon as 'physics envy'.