Why Truth Matters

By Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. Continuum Books, 196 pp, $30.95, hardcover.

Ten years have passed since New York University physicist Alan Sokal famously hoaxed North America's leading academic journal on cultural studies, Social Text, with a dense and deliberately ridiculous paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” .

Sokal's essay was all properly tarted up in the typically incomprehensible and impenetrable jargon of the self-proclaimed academic left, so the journal's editors published it. They did so even though, or perhaps because, Sokal purported to make the case, more or less, that the real world doesn't even exist.

The uproar Sokal set off was all very amusing, but, sadly, the absurd and ultimately reactionary forms of postmodernism and relativism that Sokal so effectively hoaxed and exposed in 1996 remain deeply entrenched in the humanities, in literary theory, and, perhaps most noticeably, in the ideas of certain sections of the Euro-American “left”  elites.

British philosophers Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom array their immense talents against all that rubbish in Why Truth Matters. What they're on about is a prevailing intellectual indifference to coherence, logic, rationality, and evidence. It's a world-view that holds that there is no historical truth and almost everything is a mere social construction. Discovery is conflated with invention, myth is elevated alongside empirical evidence, and no lines are drawn between fact and fiction.

Why Truth Matters is by no means another right-wing barrage about university campuses having degenerated into playgrounds for gender studies, postcolonial theory, and identity politics. Like Sokal, Benson and Stangroom come from a distinctly left perspective. (See their Web site Butterfliesandwheels.com for more.)

“The Left is not well advised to discredit or undermine reason and respect for truth,”  Benson and Stangroom argue, “because those are ultimately the only tools the Left has against the irrationalist appeals of the Right.” 

Why Truth Matters will be easier for those readers with at least a passing familiarity with the ideas of such big-forehead people as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty. But most of us will get the main point Stangroom and Benson are making: truth matters because human beings are the only species capable of finding it out.