Astrologer Defends PhD Thesis in Sociology at the Sorbonne

July 6, 2001 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Astrologer Defends PhD Thesis in Sociology at the Sorbonne
Elizabeth Teissier, astrology columnist and PhD candidate, successfully defended her dissertation in sociology, entitled "The Epistemological Situation of Astrology in Relation to the Ambivalent Fascination/Rejection of Postmodern Societies."
Over the last few weeks, fueled by fresh revelations — like Ms. Teissier's having referred to Max Weber, one of sociology's founders, as a "pragmatic Taurus" — the debate has only gathered steam, pitting sociologists who insist that the case concerns a thesis that fails to meet minimum academic standards against those who argue that the real target isn't Ms. Teissier but a maverick strain of sociology that has failed to win establishment approval. I don't know which is funnier, that there were fresh revelations, or that there's a pro-astrology strain of maverick sociology. This is also hilarious.
posted by rschram (28 comments total)
I think anyone who includes the phrase "post-modern" in their thesis should automatically flunk.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:16 PM on July 6, 2001

I. Love. This. Story.
posted by rebeccablood at 5:26 PM on July 6, 2001

Rschram: let me guess. You were disturbed to discover Mefi threads concerning South Park, the NY Post and ANOTHER about cats, felt one about why Howard Stern is no longer funny coming on, and decided to build this intellectual/psychic, which includes a link in a foreign language?

The thesis sounds stupid. On the other hand, French higher education, at least the last time I experienced it, is stuck in 19th Century (profs lecture; students listen and take notes and don't ask questions) and deserves as many stink bombs as possible. So I salute Mme. Teissier, goofy as she may be!
posted by ParisParamus at 5:45 PM on July 6, 2001

decided to build this intellectual/psychic LEVEE
posted by ParisParamus at 5:47 PM on July 6, 2001

Rebecca: what's your sign? Hee.
posted by acridrabbit at 5:51 PM on July 6, 2001

I just read the term "erotic sociology" last week in a book about apathy which mainly focused on the denizens of a country-western club. Is that another maverick strain? Actually, the notion was that sociology is too much numbers, not enough real human feeling and sweat and tears, etc. (Not that Max Weber was Mr. Excitement, exactly. I had to read Part 3 of "Economy and Society" this year. I know, damn it.) It tries to separate people into groups, into distinct categories, forgetting that life is messy and sometimes inexplicable or at least indescribable as a whole in general terms. Or rather, general terms are only general. And how good is this in the real world? Events are rarely repeated the same way twice, for instance, so how good is general sociological theory in, say, public policy implementation? The absurdist astrology thing definitely sounds like a stink bomb, and a very French one, but it's not necessarily aimed only at France.

Of course, what is true of sociology is true of other social sciences. Economics is one, even though the media tend to act like it's a branch of mathematics. Blindly accepting the predictions of economists is, to me, to submit to a type of superstition. Remember "voodoo economics?"
posted by raysmj at 6:14 PM on July 6, 2001

back off man, i'm a sociologist.
posted by will at 6:22 PM on July 6, 2001

Quick and dirty translation of the Le Monde article, written in French by Alain Touriane:

Absent from France at the moment of the thesis defense of Elizabeth Teissier and of the polemic that followed it, I did not want to remain ignorant nor silent. This thesis was just made available to the professors and researchers. I was given it on the first and I dedicated the day of May 15 to reading it. The issue which has raised the passion is: Has Mrs. Teissier affirmed that astrology is a science?

In 1975, about 20 Nobel Prize winners and around a hundred scientists declared that the affirmations and predictions of astrology did not replace the conditions of scientific knowledge. I have myself, like most sociologists, a reaction of quick rejection in regard to the irrationalism and the effort made to relativize science and to put it on the same plane as any other type of knowledge.

I do not, then, ask myself the question of knowing if I approve or condemn the claim that astrology is a science. I wanted to know what Mrs. Teissier had said, that if she she had written this claim and had taken astrology for a science, then why not as a cousin of astronomy?

After reading more than 800 pages, the response to the question asked imposed itself on me: that Mrs. Teissier did not defend that scandalous position, and that I would have been the first to condemn. The critiques that I have to make to her are of a nature almost opposite and show rather the misunderstanding which is created, or the craftiness of the astrologist. But I read nowhere in her thesis that astrology was scientific and, when she comments herself on a report that affirms that claim, she criticizes, with reason, the fragile results.

It is true that she defines astrology as a human science. That attracts me, for this formula, which summarizes long developments and even the central idea of the thesis, says that the human sciences are of a completely other nature than the natural sciences. The idea comes from many citations of Georg Simmel and Max Weber, which is doubly incongruous. First, because the claim that the position of the stars influences the human condition marks the natural sciences--which she rejects--and not the human sciences. Then, because a general reflection on the nature of knowledge of human science has never positively rendered a negative correlation.

The very general concept of the human sciences defined by Mrs. Teissier would not allow anyone to show a precise affirmation. As for the tirade of oratory which denounces the paucity of science which did not comprehend but a small part of the reality since the triumph of rationalism, it does not interest me, since the scientific bearing has rightly consisted most often of establishing facts, from observations and very limited relationships.

Being myself as far as possible from considering the knowledge of social facts identical to the natural sciences, I am irritated when people impose on the human sciences all that is rejected by the natural sciences. The social sciences are not the non-sciences of nature. But calm is necessary, because the facts reported by Elizabeth Teissier and which come from "her experience and her sensibility" (page 533) depend on, rather, the journalistic chronicle. She accumulates her memories and, in particular, those of her encounters with François Mitterand, of which the image thus gets tangled up still more.

While they accuse Mrs. Teissier of championing a science of astrology, I regret that she is so limited in her analyses, which are only some memories.

I should close by asking myself in turn about the reasoning of this thesis which represents a considerable effort and substantial knowledge. It is clearly expressed. We no longer know how to discover the unity of the universe and we should return at top speed to the modes of thinking capable of discovering ourselves, via our life experience, sensual and emotive as much as intellectual, the worlds that science has hidden from us. It is necessary to go beyond reason and its calculations; it is necessary to understand--but not in the meaning to this word which was given to it by Weber--in participating, in belonging. And we will go happily away from this scientism and encounter that which is complete Being which must produce knowledge, not just the mind.

They have criticized Mrs. Teissier without reason of consecrating her thesis to a false science; in fact, she she has consecrated it only to herself. One could write a thesis on the Doctors of the Sorbonne deciding in such conditions.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:34 PM on July 6, 2001

Remember: this from a country where you don't get a job of any import unless you pass the handwriting analysis test. Now that's scary (and was)!
posted by ParisParamus at 7:11 PM on July 6, 2001

Here's a Teissier page which includes her opinion on the matter, and a description of the defense. It says her adviser is a philosopher; I guess that makes sense given the historical proximity of astrology and philosophy. I really want to read this thesis. Where to get it online? It seems all these french people have it already.
posted by rschram at 7:15 PM on July 6, 2001

Paris: (Feels weird to be asking this from a guy with the nickname Paris). What is the whole story on that shit, exactly?
posted by raysmj at 7:30 PM on July 6, 2001

The French (or at least the "establishment") believe in graphology, i.e, the study of handwriting; that somehow, one's character manifests itself in the way one writes. So, whereas here you are tested for drugs, there, you are asked for a handwriting sample, usually of about a page, when you apply for a job with any company. Apparently, people are denied jobs because of their handwriting (and even when accepted, conclusions about them are drawn). I find this about as credible as astrology. And marginally more credible than the science (name unrecalled) involving the study of one's head to determine criminal propensity....
posted by ParisParamus at 7:36 PM on July 6, 2001

(remember that the next time you fly on an Airbus.

(Feels weird to be asking this from a guy with the nickname Paris)

Oh? Seems reasonable to ME. : )
posted by ParisParamus at 7:39 PM on July 6, 2001

Phrenology, Paris.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:40 PM on July 6, 2001

I just read the term "erotic sociology" last week in a book about apathy

I started to read that very book, raysmj, but I just didn't care to finish it.

ha! I kill me.

(now c'mon...who didn't see that coming?)
posted by jpoulos at 7:43 PM on July 6, 2001

the masses cant access this post. n.y. passwords, french translations. Bourgeois i call it. elite. good work.
posted by clavdivs at 8:09 PM on July 6, 2001

Actually, clavdivs, both NYT registration and the French language are available to all--free of charge.
posted by jpoulos at 8:11 PM on July 6, 2001

Mo, Paris is write...uh, right. Graphology is the study of handwriting. Phrenology is the study of the bumps on your head. " want to be a web designer? Let me feel your head..."
posted by avowel at 8:14 PM on July 6, 2001

jpoulos: Good. Thought having "erotic" and "sociology" together was ridiculous enough, so why not pile it on? I think this was the same book with "right-wing literati," but I could be wrong. If anyone ever uses the phrase, "right-wing glitterati," in a scholarly publication, by the way, he or she should be shot on sight.
posted by raysmj at 8:31 PM on July 6, 2001

Avowel: Mo didn't say that Graphology was Phrenology.

Since trashing France is so easy, my conscience requires me to offer, on the positive side, that The Tour de France starts tomorrow, and even if you don't care about ubermen on bicycles, the scenery, especially in the Alps is amazing, even on television, and even in at a few frames per-minutes via the EuroSport feed here. There's a Yahoo audio feed too, but linking to that would be excessive. I don't think the riders had to have their handwriting analysed to compete, however.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:33 PM on July 6, 2001

Actually, take out the "live" at the end of that URL.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:41 PM on July 6, 2001

"--free of charge" who said anything about money. it is good work because it tells some slup like me to get the password and the translator. Using the Beobachter and relying on divine intervention for linguistic help aint cuttin it no moresirrebob.
posted by clavdivs at 9:07 PM on July 6, 2001

"don't care about ubermen on bicycles". I do, they were some of the first car racers back in them old days. about the only euro sport event id watch. L. Chevrolet and A. Champion were racers. There is a little known fact that the two got into a fist fight in flint michigan circa 1910. who do you think won?(ok imperator take the tangent pill and lose the blue)
posted by clavdivs at 9:15 PM on July 6, 2001

Apparently, people are denied jobs because of their handwriting

I would be so screwed. So would everyone cool I know. My father... Professor Ihrman... my boyfriend...

Come to think of it, that would violate equal opportunity hiring laws in the United States, especially in my boyfriend's case (the whole being legally blind doesn't do great things for one's handwriting, you know?)

The only person who could get a job would be my mom. She has good handwriting, which shows how little that means...
posted by dagnyscott at 6:58 AM on July 7, 2001

It's not "good" handwriting that graphology cares about. Your handwriting could be perfectly legible yet still identify you as, say, a person of poor moral character according to graphology.
posted by kindall at 11:02 AM on July 7, 2001

...that would violate equal opportunity hiring laws in the United States, especially in my boyfriend's case (the whole being legally blind ...

Perhaps in that situation, but generally, I'm not sure. At last look, you would need to prove discrimination based on being part of a certain protected class/group, and unless the handwriting "problem" was connected with some disability, it might be perfectly legit to not hire on this basis.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:50 AM on July 7, 2001

I must admit, I'd be more sympathetic to Teissier if she had titled the work "Why do people like astrology?: a study of relationships between popular models of scientific knowledge and traditional divination practice."
posted by rschram at 12:52 PM on July 7, 2001

Graphology might not be as silly as you think. It is simply an attempt to read someone's body language as encoded in their printing. When you see someone sit a little bent over with their arms crossed, you think: ah, they're uncomfortable, perhaps feeling threatened. When you see someone standing up straight, arms out, you know: comfortable, at home, gregarious. When someone's eyes dart around a lot, you think: nervous. Graphology works the same way. Someone who is careful and organized is likely to leave fairly even margins on either side of the page - makes sense, they're planning ahead a bit. Someone who tends to get excited about what they're thinking will write lines that rise up as they move to the right - makes sense, they're "reaching out" as they think about it. And so on. Whether the sort of information graphology claims to retrieve is actually stored in the handwriting is a good question, but the idea that clues to someone's personality might be present is not necessarily absurd.

posted by Mars Saxman at 2:24 PM on July 7, 2001

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