Science: The invisible transdisciplinarity of French culture

Let me start with an apology: this conference obviously is concerned mainly with philosophy, literature, the social and human sciences, much more than with those sciences that are known as exact, natural or whatever – but which could probably, more to the point, be called ‘inhuman’ and ‘asocial’. It is thus for me, as a physicist, a somewhat intimidating honour to speak in this setting. I will try to face the challenge seriously, and not just as a way of letting this assembly pay lip service to the importance of these other sciences in the social world, if not always in the intellectual one.

What about transdisciplinarity?

Still, my task is not easy, for at least two reasons.

First, there is nothing special about French sciences in this era of wide internationalization – although a case could be made for some specificities at the beginning of the period addressed to by this conference, namely, the immediate post-war years, when French science had accumulated a real lagging behind. However, this would be caught up in the 1950s.

Second, despite much talk about and enthusiastic perspectives on an alleged new kind of science, transdisciplinarity in the natural sciences has never been much of a real endeavour and, when practised, cannot be said to have met with overwhelming successes.

Let me be content to discuss two opposite cases (not specifically French ones), both borrowed from the field of physics, which I hope to be representative of the problem. If only because, as is well-known, practitioners in the domain rather preposterously tend to think of their discipline as a universal and canonical one that, eventually, should encompass every other field of knowledge, or at least inspire it.

In the late 1940s, a few physicists, out of dissatisfaction with the theoretical difficulties of their science and/or ethical disillusion with its military applications (the nuclear weapons used over Japan), turned to biology. Thus was born molecular biology. But the point is that, considered at face value, this did not at all turn to be a transdisciplinary field. It has become an entrenched discipline of its own. As a consequence, the old frontier between chemistry and biology has been, for all practical and theoretical purposes, replaced by two frontiers, respectively, between chemistry and molecular biology on the one hand, and between molecular biology and conventional biology on the other hand. Even though this description is admittedly somewhat excessive, the whole development can hardly be considered as a triumph of transdisciplinarity.

More recently, there has been a strong renewal of interest in the use of sophisticated physical models and mathematical methods in the field of economy, applying tools such as fractal notions, chaos theory and so on. Is it necessary, in view of the recent economic crisis, to stress that this alleged transdisciplinarity, which was supposed to bring about the ‘rigorization’ of economic theory, has not been an obvious success?

Having explained how little I can tell you, now, let me come to that little I may tell you.

The science wars

Let me first recall the main events and controversies that developed in the 1990s and became known as the ‘Science Wars’. It all started with the publication of a book by the US scientists Paul R. Gross, a biologist, and Norman Levitt, a mathematician, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel with Science, [1] which consisted in a very strong attack against ‘postmodernism’ on the grounds of what they considered to be its anti-rationalist stance. They accused mainstream social scientists and philosophers of showing very little understanding of the (hard) sciences they were dealing with, and of advocating extreme forms of relativism, dismissing the specific character of scientific knowledge as such. The book was followed by a no less polemical conference organized in 1995 at the New York Academy of Sciences by Gross, Levitt and the well-known historian of science Gerald Holton, under the strong title ‘The Flight from Science and Reason’.

The counterattack came in early 1996 as a special issue of an academic journal of postmodern critical theory, Social Text. The authors were sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and so on, but it also featured the historian of science Dorothy Nelkin, the researcher in biotechnology Les Levidow, the biologists Ruth Hubbard and Sarah Franklin, and the mathematician Richard Levins – quite a number of ‘real’ scientists. They argued that Gross and Levitt’s attacks expressed the loss of self-confidence of scientists and their fear of the future, due to the deep changes in the social organization of research, the merchandizing of knowledge and the decline of state support for fundamental research. Viewed in this perspective, the social scientists, non-analytical philosophers and literary critics were but convenient scapegoats. Unfortunately, le ver était dans le fruit (the rot had already set in), since this most interesting and articulated issue of Social Text concluded with the now famous article by the physicist Alan Sokal, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, which was but a nonsensical parody of postmodern jargon, deprived of any scientific contents; its publication was considered by Sokal to offer proof of the intellectual vacuum of the rest of the issue. Sokal exposed his successful hoax in May 1996, in the journal Lingua Franca (now extinct). There then followed in the Anglo-Saxon world a flurry of articles, books, conferences, which slowly subsided. I will not dwell on these exchanges since I am concerned here with the French situation.

Let me only mention the important contribution by Steven Weinberg, a well-known theoretical physicist and Nobel prizewinner, who in the New York Review of Books of August 1996 fully endorsed Sokal’s position, which was no doubt supported tacitly by the majority of natural scientists; although, to be fair, another wellknown physicist, David Mermin, offered a much more balanced but much less publicized view.

whose ‘impostures’?

In France, the debate was sparked by the publication of a book, co-authored by Alan Sokal with the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, with the telling title Impostures intel ectuel es. [2] Now, the target was not so much science studies or postmodernism in general, or under its mainly American guises, but rather the French intelligentsia, which was indicted as the source of all the evil. Rather than an argued essay, the book offered a bêtisier, a collection of allegedly foolish quotations taken from works by Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Irigaray, Debray and the likes, where these authors referred or alluded to various bits of scientific knowledge, either mathematical, such as the Gödel theorem, or physical, such a relativity theory. Sokal and Bricmont indulged in pointing out the careless use of scientific terms as poor metaphors, going so far as to deny the validity of employing these terms in any discourse foreign to purely technical and specialized endeavours. True, it must be acknowledged that some of the quotations pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont were rather preposterous. But many of them were short sentences taken out of context, or badly transcribed oral remarks.

Of course, the authors thus accused of intellectual impostures reacted more or less angrily. For a few weeks, the debate was at the forefront of the cultural pages in the daily and weekly press. Eventually, in 1998, a collective and thoughtful reply appeared as a special issue of the quarterly Al iage (culture, science, technique), under the title Impostures scientifiques, echoing that of Sokal and Bricmont’s book and sending back the accusation. Let me summarize the counterarguments to those of Sokal and Bricmont by referring to my own contribution in this issue, which dealt with three main questions:1. Who is responsible for the misunderstandings? Philosophers and sociologists are not alone in their sometimes questionable understanding of physical and mathematical sciences. As a matter of fact, physicists themselves have often led the way towards these abuses, as can be shown by a detailed study of the so-called ‘Uncertainty Principle’ and other examples taken from modern physics. 2. Do scientists understand the humanities better than philosophers, sociologists, and so on, understand science? The lack of philosophical and humanistic culture on the part of scientists from the ‘hard’ disciplines makes them prone to pass equally arrogant and poorly informed judgements on the endeavours of social and human sciences. 3. Should not scientists be encouraged to develop a deeper and more thoughtful relationship with language? The present socio-political conditions of science production lead scientific knowledge to a permanent state of immaturity, inhibiting its epistemological recasting and favouring a careless relation to language. Science needs to recognize the fecund ambiguities of ordinary parlance, and cannot shun metaphorical expressions. More generally, no criticism coming from the hard sciences and addressed to the softer ones can be valid if it is not first of all an auto-critique. [3]

Science and french culture

You will no doubt have recognized in these arguments, grounded in an acknowledgement of the deep importance and relevance of language, a line of thought directly related to the intellectual atmosphere of France in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as concerns the links between linguistics, semiology, sociology and philosophy. The widespread influence of this atmosphere explains why the ‘science wars’ never really developed in France. For, coming back to the historical account of the Sokal ‘affair’ (as it was called), it is striking that Sokal and Bricmont’s book received very little support. It was publicly hailed mainly by a restricted group of ultra-rationalists writing in the review Raison présente, published by the ‘Union rationaliste’, and by the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. Only one philosopher of science of some reputation, namely Jacques Bouveresse, took sides with Sokal and Bricmont. The popular and noninstitutional scientific journals, like La Recherche and Sciences et avenir, while in general not very open to the philosophy and sociology of science, were very cautious and published mostly critical reactions to the book. Even more significant is the fact that practically no scientist, and certainly none of the most illustrious ones, claimed positions similar to those advocated by Weinberg in the USA. True, many physicists and biologists took advantage of Sokal and Bricmont’s book to poke fun at their colleagues in philosophy and social sciences, but in a mostly private and rather childish and uneasy way.

This case study can, I think, be understood as evidence of the existence of what I would call an invisible, or latent, form of transdisciplinarity characteristic of French culture, invalidating C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of the existence of two separate cultures. [4] Humanities, to this day, still exert a deep, if often implicit, influence on the French scientific community. But for how long, given the globalization of contemporary techno-science? That is the question.


1. ^ Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD, 1994.

2. ^ Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Impostures intel ectuel es, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1997.

3. ^ Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, ‘The Mote and the Beam:

Who is Blind to Whom?’, in M. Carrier, J. Roggenhofer, G. Küppers and P. Blanchard, eds, Knowledge and the World: Chal enges beyond the Science Wars, Springer Verlag, Berlin and Heldelberg, 2004, pp. 247–64.

4. ^ See Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, ‘Two Cultures or None?’, Proceedings of the Euroscientia Conference, Science and Technology in Europe: New Insights, Rome, November 1997.