PULLMAN, Wash.–The annual Potter Lecture at Washington State University will be delivered by Simon Blackburn at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30, in the Fine Arts Auditorium. The lecture, sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, is entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Postmodernism and Its Critics.”
In the lecture, Blackburn will discuss aspects and outcomes of the “Sokal affair.” Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, perpetrated a hoax on the editors of “Social Text.” According to Sokal, he had “been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of American academic humanities.” In order to test the prevailing standards, says Sokal, he set out to determine whether a leading journal of cultural studies would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it sounded good, and it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
In 1996, “Social Text” unwittingly published Sokal’s “nonsense article,” in which he used cultural studies jargon to assert, without supporting argument, that quantum physics could demonstrate the correctness of “progressive” political views. Among his assertions were the claims “that there is no external world and that science obtains no knowledge of it,” and that “science must be subordinated to political strategies.” He stated that the axiom of equality in set theory had its roots in 19th century liberalism and equates to equality concepts in feminist politics.
Sokal’s article initiated a nationwide debate about classical and postmodern trends in academia, in which even Rush Limbaugh took part. Professor Blackburn will consider some of the rights and wrongs of the debate and explore the issues underlying critiques of postmodern thought.
Blackburn earned his undergraduate degree at Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom. He earned graduate degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge University. Teaching and research appointments have taken him to Oxford University, Princeton University and Oberlin College.
Since 1990, he has held the Edna J. Koury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include “Philosophical Logic” and “Essays in Quasi-Realism.” Among recent papers is “Practical Tortoise Raising,” published in “Mind,” which was selected as one of the top ten papers published in 1995. Blackburn is the author of widely-read reviews in the “Times Literary Supplement” and the “London Review of Books.”