Noam Chomsky Calls Postmodern Critiques of Science Over-Inflated “Polysyllabic Truisms”

To the delight and satisfaction of hundreds of our readers, we recently featured an interview in which Noam Chomsky slams postmodernist intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan as “charlatans” and posers. The turn against postmodernism has been long in coming, a backlash the political right has made theater of for years, but that thinkers on the political left, like anarchist Chomsky, Marxist Vivek Chibber, and self-described “old leftist” Alan Sokal have pursued with just as much vigor (and more rigor). In the interview clip above, Chomsky makes a blanket critique of what the interviewer calls the “left criticism of science” as imperialist, racist, sexist, etc. His answers shed quite a bit of light on what Chomsky perceives as the political ramifications of postmodern thought as well as the origins of the discourse.

Chomsky characterizes leftist postmodern academics as “a category of intellectuals who are undoubtedly perfectly sincere” (I suspect this is a bit of uncharacteristic politesse on his part). Nonetheless, in his critique, such thinkers use “polysyllabic words and complicated constructions” to make claims that are “all very inflated” and which have “a terrible effect on the third world.” Chomsky argues (as does Chibber) that “in the third world, popular movements really need serious intellectuals to participate. If they’re all ranting postmodernists… well, they’re gone.” His assessment of postmodern critiques of science echoes his criticism of Zizek and Lacan. (Chomsky appears to use the words “polysyllabic” and “monosyllabic” as terms for jargon vs. ordinary language.):

It’s considered very left wing, very advanced. Some of what appears in it sort of actually makes sense, but when you reproduce it in monosyllables, it turns out to be truisms. It’s perfectly true that when you look at scientists in the West, they’re mostly men, it’s perfectly true that women have had a hard time breaking into the scientific fields, and it’s perfectly true that there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures. All of this can be described literally in monosyllables, and it turns out to be truisms. On the other hand, you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.

This last point is something Chomsky elaborates on as the impetus for post-structuralism in the academy, saying “it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. Suppose you’re a literary scholar…. If you do your work seriously, that’s fine, but you don’t get any prizes for it.” He makes the claim that humanities scholars use mystifying jargon and cook up “theory” in order to compete with theoretical physicists and mathematicians, who get prizes, grants, and prestige for advancing incredibly complicated scientific work.

Even more than this general accusation against theorists in the humanities, Chomsky makes the political point that French intellectuals in Paris, “the center of the rot,” were the last group of leftists to be dedicated, “flaming” Stalinists and Maoists. In order to save face, such people had to suddenly become “the first people in the world to have discovered the gulags.” It’s a very damning characterization, and one he could no doubt support, as he does all of his claims, with a dizzying number of specific examples, though he declines to name names here. He does, however, reference Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s sadly out-of-print  Intellectual Impostures, a book that patiently exposes French post-structuralist thinkers’ abuse of scientific concepts. (Sokal, a physics professor, famously punked a well-regarded humanities journal in the mid-nineties with a phony article).

Chomsky’s cranky contrarianism is nothing new, and some of his polemic recalls the analytic case against “continental” philosophy or Karl Popper’s case against pseudo-science, although his investment is political as much as philosophical. The interviewer then moves on to religion. Chomsky’s thoughts on that subject are generally nuanced and fair-minded, but we don’t get to hear them here, alas, though he’s had plenty to say elsewhere.

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

Noam Chomsky Spells Out the Purpose of Education

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (18) |

  • scodav

    I could have used these critiques in the mid-’80s, when I was in art school and Lacan and Derrida were fetish’ed by the teachers.

  • Ed Desautels

    One of the interesting things is that the (supposed) left-wing theorists and philosophers make a move into dense, complicated, “polysyllabic” language, whereas in literature the (supposed) left wingers still espouse a prose style reminiscent of tractor fiction: simple declaratives lined up on the page like buses.

  • Dennis Eder

    What is said is obviously true, but how far afield is it to apply the same critique to the pseudo scientic use of ‘technical” language in other fields , such as psychiatiry, or Levi-Straus’s work or for that matter to much of CHOMSKYS OWN WORK IN LINGUISTICS.
    YOU COULD ALSO MAKE A SIMILAR CRITIQUE OF THE USE OF TECHICAL WORDS IN PHILOSOPHY. IT WOULD BE SOMEWHAT JUSTIFIED IF THE ‘TECHNICAL LANGUAGE WAS CONSISTANT LY
    USED OR DEFINED thoughout A FIELD. BUT THIIS IS RARELY THE CASE.
    IN ANOTHER AREA AS MILES DAVIS IS CREDITED WITH SAYING TO MUSICIANS IN HIS GROUP–“PLAY THE MELODY –STUPID- implying that , that’s a language at least we all understand.
    IN MATH AT LEAST I BELIEVE THEIR IS A COMMON AGREEMENT ON TERMS AND USAGE.
    Of course language needs to be stretched and sometimes even have its back broken to express new ideas or perspectives, but for the most part ACADEMIC professionnal thinkers are not using their complex use of language to extend or explore or discover novel ways of reflection or novel ways of interacting with experience or means of ‘ACCESSING ‘REALITY’.
    Efforts to this end have fallen far more within the provence of “poets’ or artists. They seem to grasp and communicate, interesting and new manners of ‘experiencing our experience” in ways that expository prose cannot come close too.
    The objective in many academic fields seems more directed at obscuring meaning, rather than clarifying it, or making it accessable .
    Of course clarity , in itself is not an adequate measure either the value, depth , relevance, or percipacity of insight. Many times “thru a glass darkly,” with all its blurred fringes, can be far more revealing, and open up far more enriching possiblities.

  • Scott Potter

    All of this puts me in mind of the Solkal Affair in 1996. NYU physicist, Alan Sokal proved a point with a hoax submitting a jargon-laden paper for publication in a notable journal, Social Text. It was complete baloney and they published it. The way I see this is that jargon is fine within a field and among colleagues. Highly abstract terms conceal history and complexity and allow experts to say much in so many words. But when speaking publicly or outside that field experts should have no difficulty breaking down that history and complexity, so long as the audience understands that doing so may go beyond casual table talk and amount to one or more lectures. Richard Feynman once said that if you cannot explain any idea to a high school freshman class, then you probably don’t understand the idea your self.

  • V00D00

    *yawn*

    More false dichotomies propagated by humanists who can’t quite bring themselves to know better

  • Varinia

    So true about third world!
    Speech = empowerment.
    “Nihil novum sub sole”, sadly

  • joshhua tree

    I agree Professor Chomsky! Super inflated ego’s also tend to describe art!

  • zelnage

    All of Chomsky’s attacks are ad hominem and/or conjecture (ie. The French are just poseurs who want to look like the most advanced, and the Social Sciences are just jealous of the real sciences), and his characterization of the post-structuralist critique of science is a total straw man.
    In sum, his argument is a string of logical fallacies / personal biases that can in no way be considered a serious critique.
    It’s ironic considering the post-structuralist criticism of science pivots upon its claims to OBJECTIVITY, which they would argue cannot exist. Chomsky is a staunch believer not only in objectivity but also in Platonic forms (watch his debate with Foucault) but here he does not even attempt to clothe his argument in any sort of academic veneer, making no effort to disguise that it is merely disgruntled shit-talking.

  • zelnage

    Also why is he hating on polysyllabic words? Suddenly he’s an academic philistine… quite the oxymoron.

  • Keijo Lakkala

    Zizek a postmodernist? What??

  • Magaly San Martin

    The “Third-World” has their own intellectuals!!

  • William Large

    Before your less than objective account of ‘postmodernism’ (ironic since you claim to be objective), be taken on face value, you ought to watch this encounter between Foucault and Chomsky. http://goo.gl/kKaoJ.
    After watching this with your own eyes, who comes across as the more reasonable? Does Foucault appear to you as some kind of raving madman who has no grasp of truth? I won’t bore you about the supposed philosophical brilliance of Sokal.
    Chomsky’s grasp of philosophy, and the history of philosophy, is quite poor. His standard of ‘common-sense’ would conspire most of philosophy to the fire. Should we read Hegel, Kant and what pray would our great Chomsky have to say about Heraclitus? Why do we think that just because someone is a scientist that they have anything interesting to say about philosophy (even the philosophy of science, which isn’t a science by the way)?

  • Ralph Melcher

    I agree that European philosophers are often unnecessarily obscure. On the other hand I find Chomsky to be almost unbearably pedantic, offering little beyond endless mind numbing “examples” to buttress his own narrow prejudices and pre-cut conclusions. I come away from a Chomsky lecture or interview feeling mostly defeated and demoralized, seeing little hope in change or resistance. Beyond this he offers little that actually deals with the actual environment in which most of us spend our time. Both the postmodernists and Zizek urge us to view the world in entirely new ways thus bringing the little light of possibility into the subject of social evolution.

    In a world where ‘revolutionary’ actions like Occupy Wall Street and other street protests (particularly in the industrialized world) connect with a shrinking minority of the new generation, we need to re-think the arena in which social evolution is activated. Old style leftists like Chomsky are stuck in a ‘monosyllabic’ world where the good guys fight the bad guys until they win and then become the bad guys themselves.

  • Jkop

    The redundant complexity in polysyllabic sentences prevent identification of their meanings. But the meaning or truth of a sentence is irrelevant for intellectual entertainers. Post-modernists, or the like, who claim there would be no truths, have, apparently, little truth to share. Instead they baffle, bamboozle, or talk of “new ways” of seeing the world. It might sound inspiring, but real change is based on truth, not ways of seeing. So what if it takes pedantic rigour to find out what is true? Truth does not need to be entertaining when knowing that it can change poverty, injustice etc. is so much more satisfying.

  • Tati
  • Ben

    Noam Chomsky once claimed that “if you can aim for something, it must exist.” He’s hardly a rigorous philosopher or thinker and people should be wary of blindly following anything he says (he has a tendency to make lots of off-the-cuff remarks without taking the time to think through his answers). Most of what he says here is general and conflational. He’s lumping world-famous professors in with raving-mad activist undergrads. I agree with him that a lot of postmodernists are annoying and pompous, dressing themselves up in big words, but many of them understand more than he gives them credit for.

  • Mahmud

    Noam Chomsky is pretty brilliant…..

    Honestly, feminists, marxists and other Humanities “scientists” have no business whatsoever imposing their nonsense on actual science. It’s really startling they have so much hold over our institutions in the first place.

  • marc

    Chomsky is a brilliant thinker who changed the way the world looks at language and the mind. He did so by careful use of logic and evidence in order to critique the behaviourist trend in psychology at the time of his original work. It’s very typical in academia for people to irrationally form cliques who unquestioningly serve the established status quo. Although a lack of critical thinking in favour of kissing up to the Professor exists everywhere, in the Humanities/ Postmodernism schools of thought, it is out of control and no one is doing anything about it.

    Chomsky consistently promotes the kind of thinking that necessitates academics take risks by exposing their ideas, observations, and predictions as either true and consistent with reality, or false and not actually existing in the real world. The most effective way to do this is to use clear language so that everyone knows where you stand and can conceivably point out where you might be mistaken.

    This type of thinking is necessary if we want to make the kinds of social changes that post-modernists/”critical” theorists claim to support. If you read Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, etc, ask yourself the simple questions:

    – How did they come to know what they know?
    – What are they stating that isn’t already known and/or obvious? aka What contributions are they actually making to the field?
    – What circumstances would demonstrate that they are correct or incorrect?

    Chomsky deserves some respect for going against Skinner’s dominance in the field – and he deserves respect from anybody who values knowledge. By using these principles he pushed the field forward – and his critique of postmodernists and their turgid method of thinking and writing – is trying to push the field of culture and comm studies forward. Sadly, nobody in this field listens because in post-modernism, there are literally no right or wrong answers and so anyone can get away with saying anything, so long as it appears deep – even if it has little to no substance whatever.

    In a nutshell: Chomsky’s philosophy appears simple to the layperson, but is actually quite counterintuitive and complex. Whereas Postmodern thinkers like Foucault, Zizek, Althusser, appear counterintuitive and complex, but upon closer inspection, say very simple things that could have been thought of by most people. When they’re not stating things that we already know, they usually are incoherent.

    This problem is so pervasive in the Communications and Culture studies field. Even decent professors who I happen to like have been infected with this poison of reading seemingly “sophisticated” thinkers who write in elaborately turgid sentences that are either stating the obvious or making meaningless sentences appear profound. It’s an insular academic cult of bullshit and it needs to stop; it’s hurting our academic system by making students less critical, more fearful to speak up if they don’t understand these turgid sentences (lest they get silently accused of being “dumb”), and more insulated from an outside world that actually needs academics to use facts and logic to demonstrate where the ills of society are taking place and how they can be cured.

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