Pascal Engel

École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris


"Epistemic vice"

Alan Sokal has not only denounced successfully a certain kind of intellectual imposture in contemporary thinking and revived the debate about the Two Cultures. He has also given a fresh and pugnacious contribution to an old - although very often neglected nowadays - field : intellectual ethics and hygienics. What is it to think well and correctly ? To think and to write soberly ? Are there intellectual duties? Intellectual virtues? How can one serve them best and how can one fail to serve them ? What is it to respect truth and knowledge? These questions are difficult, and form a whole chapter of contemporary philosophy, at the crossing of epistemology and ethics. To answer them requires a whole theory of the aims and norms of cognitive life and of scientific knowledge in general, which it is impossible to give here. But perhaps we can approach these issues through an analysis of intellectual vice. Intellectual or epistemic vice is not only a malfunctionning of our ordinary ways of belief and knowledge formation. It involves also an attitude which in in part voluntary, hence of which we are responsible, towards the goals and norms of cognition. Sokal has often been accused of moralizing - a classical retort on the part of those who are caught with their hands in the cookie jar - but his work gives us the premisses of a theory of intellectual vice, and more broadly of ethics.