Scandalous Knowledge

Science, Truth, and the Human

Scandalous Knowledge

Science and Cultural Theory

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Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: Published: February 2006

Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science

Throughout the recent culture and science “wars,” the radically new conceptions of knowledge and science emerging from such fields as the history and sociology of science have been denounced by various journalists, scientists, and academics as irresponsible attacks on science, absurd denials of objective reality, or a cynical abandonment of truth itself. In Scandalous Knowledge, Barbara Herrnstein Smith explores and illuminates the intellectual contexts of these crude denunciations. A preeminent scholar, theorist, and analyst of intellectual history, Smith begins by looking closely at the epistemological developments at issue. She presents a clear, historically informed, and philosophically sophisticated overview of important twentieth-century critiques of traditional—rationalist, realist, positivist—accounts of human knowledge and scientific truth, and discusses in detail the alternative accounts produced by Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and others.

With keen wit, Smith demonstrates that the familiar charges involved in these scandals—including the recurrent invocation of “postmodern relativism”—protect intellectual orthodoxy by falsely associating important intellectual developments with logically absurd and morally or politically disabling positions. She goes on to offer bold, original, and insightful perspectives on the currently strained relations between the natural sciences and the humanities; on the grandiose but dubious claims of evolutionary psychology to explain human behavior, cognition, and culture; and on contemporary controversies over the psychology, biology, and ethics of animal-human relations. Scandalous Knowledge is a provocative and compelling intervention into controversies that continue to roil through journalism, pulpits, laboratories, and classrooms throughout the United States and Europe.


Scandalous Knowledge is invigorating intellectual criticism that succeeds on many levels, not the least of which is its ability to reacquaint radial epistemologists with their own radicalism.” — Lisa Uddin, Topia

“[H]ighly articulate, copiously documented, and superbly researched.” — Paula Zeuge, Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought

“A tremendously valuable articulation of the theory and practice of constructivism, Scandalous Knowledge is an important and effective intervention into a variety of epistemological debates in a number of different disciplines. . . . Consistently adroit and engaging, Barbara Herrnstein Smith offers her readers a scandalously gratifying and generative reassessment of some of the most basic concepts of intellectual exchange.” — Robert Azzarello, Cultural Critique

“As her overall theme, Smith wants to defend constructivist epistemology as the appropriate one for the twenty-first century and, to a slightly lesser extent, the goals of social construction, while deriding as unfounded the attacks against their purported relativism, nihilism, fatuous egalitarianism, and political correctness. Her performance is undeniably impressive. . . .” — Harold Fromm, Philosophy and Literature

“Everyone in epistemology and philosophy of science, and many others across the academy, should read this book. . . . [T]his book deserves to be very influential. It can help motivate and justify feminist theorists in moving on from the defensive position enforced by the specter of relativism that we face when we try to appease traditional philosophers. . . . we should remember to resist employing and retrenching false stereotypes employed by our theoretical opponents. Instead, we can laugh along with Herrnstein Smith, because she is wickedly funny as well as clear and profound.” — Catherine Hundleby, Hypatia

“I take from Scandalous Knowledge its strong argument for the benefits of remaining curious and open-minded to developments both within one’s specialized field and across the interdisciplinary board, an argument, which could be made both for individual researchers and for entire disciplines. Smith’s own work is an excellent illustration of the conceptual and analytical possibilities engendered by intellectual expansiveness and refuses to be drawn into the provinciality of disciplinary turf wars as well as agendas to make research practically useful (or duly normative) along narrowly conceived lines. A good dose of Scandalous Knowledge is thus strongly to be recommended. . . .” — Casper Bruun Jensen, Social Studies of Science

“Smith is at her best in skewering the pretensions of evolutionary psychology. Here she does parse the arguments, excellently, and convincingly demonstrates the ‘unusually preemptive character’ of this field’s claims.” — Matthew B. Crawford, New Atlantis

“Smith’s book would be useful in any liberal studies course to present the various tensions faced by epistemology in the 21st century and to provide for many a spirited argument about reality and constructed reality. It is readable and interesting for the general reader and could also be an effective foil for discussion in graduate classes. . . .” — Bob Lane, Metapsychology Online Reviews

“Smith’s book, carefully and thoroughly read, will help some but not all readers avoid the pitfalls laid out like land mines across today’s epistemological geographies.” — Sal Restivo, Isis

“Smith’s essays are clear, informed, and intelligent. . . . [T]hese essays are useful both for their intellectual-historical erudition and for their critique of facile scape-goating.” — Horace L. Fairlamb, symploke

“Smith's book covers an important area and is certainly worth reading. . . .” — Barry Stocker, Culture Machine

“What is laudable about this book is the author’s willingness to tackle the difficult issues. . . . Barbara Herrnstein Smith is on the right track with some great pearls of wisdom. . . .” — Raphael Sassower, Philosophy of the Social Sciences

"[Scandalous Knowledge] lucidly (and polemically) lays out many of the fundamental conflicts at play in the territory between the sciences and humanities." — Randall Knoper College Literature

“Elegantly written and constructed, amusing and energetic, Scandalous Knowledge continues Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s edgy and distinctly partial commentary on the science wars between realists and constructivists. Constructivists will be intrigued by the novel, and sometimes critical, avenues the book explores. Realists will be, well, scandalized.” — Andrew Pickering, author of The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science

“Scandalously unimpressed by the charges, countercharges, and prudent middle paths found in current disputes over science and truth, Barbara Herrnstein Smith deploys her ferocious intelligence, wicked wit, and broad understanding to provide us with a tonic mixture of empathy and resources for taking positions that are both informed and responsible. She does not flinch before the barrage of outrages; neither, this book in hand, need we.” — Susan Oyama, author of Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Barbara Herrnstein Smith is Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Duke University and Director of its Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory, and Distinguished Professor of English at Brown University. Among her books are Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy and Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Smith is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

1. Introduction: Scandals of Knowledge 1

2. Pre-Post-Modern Relativism 18

3. Netting Truth: Ludwik Fleck’s Constructivist Genealogy 46

4. Cutting-Edge Equivocation: Conceptual Moves and Rhetorical Strategies in Contemporary Anti-Epistemology 85

5. Disciplinary Cultures and Tribal Warfare: The Sciences and the Humanities Today 108

6. Super Natural Science: The Claims of Evolutionary Psychology 130

7. Animal Relatives, Difficult Relations 143

Works Cited 172

Index 186
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3848-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3810-9
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