Wittgenstein's Curse

Wittgenstein's Curse

Jay Tolson

It's easy to go on about how bad most academic writing is these days, and how it became so during the past 30 or...

Share:
Read Time:
1m 23sec

It's easy to go on about how bad most academic writing is these days, and how it became so during the past 30 or 40 years. Curmudgeonly journalists have been pouncing on prof-prose at least since the days of H. L. Mencken. But now high sport is made of the subject even within the academy. One academic journal awards annual prizes in a Bad Writing Contest, causing pain and sometimes anger among the unwitting winners. Scholars agonize about the problem, too. Russell Jacoby, for one, links it to the disappearance of the great public intellectuals who once enriched the larger culture. And it seems clear that the decline of scholarly writing has widened the eternal divide between the world of scholars and the public realm, to the impoverishment of both. Just as bad, the pursuit of truth and knowledge--an activity that should be charged with passion and engagement--now appears to the larger public to be an exercise in nonsensical irrelevance.

Perhaps nothing brought the whole sorry matter to a more dramatic head than the parodic gibberish-and-jargon-filled article that New York University physicist Alan Sokal tricked the scholarly journal Social Text into publishing in 1996. Titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," the essay argued that scientific knowledge was socially constructed, an argument very much in line with the journal's postmodernist agenda. What the editors failed to see, though, is that the piece was packed with illogic, non sequiturs, and nonsense, including an unargued rejection of the "dogma" that asserts the existence of "an external world, whose properties are independent of any human being and indeed of humanity as a whole."

More From This Issue