Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

Noam Chom­sky’s well-known polit­i­cal views have tend­ed to over­shad­ow his ground­break­ing work as a lin­guist and ana­lyt­ic philoso­pher. As a result, peo­ple some­times assume that because Chom­sky is a left­ist, he would find com­mon intel­lec­tu­al ground with the post­mod­ernist philoso­phers of the Euro­pean Left.

Big mis­take.

In this brief excerpt from a Decem­ber, 2012 inter­view with Vet­er­ans Unplugged, Chom­sky is asked about the ideas of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Der­ri­da. The M.I.T. schol­ar, who else­where has described some of those fig­ures and their fol­low­ers as “cults,” does­n’t mince words:

What you’re refer­ring to is what’s called “the­o­ry.” And when I said I’m not inter­est­ed in the­o­ry, what I meant is, I’m not inter­est­ed in posturing–using fan­cy terms like poly­syl­la­bles and pre­tend­ing you have a the­o­ry when you have no the­o­ry what­so­ev­er. So there’s no the­o­ry in any of this stuff, not in the sense of the­o­ry that any­one is famil­iar with in the sci­ences or any oth­er seri­ous field. Try to find in all of the work you men­tioned some prin­ci­ples from which you can deduce con­clu­sions, empir­i­cal­ly testable propo­si­tions where it all goes beyond the lev­el of some­thing you can explain in five min­utes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fan­cy words are decod­ed. I can’t. So I’m not inter­est­ed in that kind of pos­tur­ing. Žižek is an extreme exam­ple of it. I don’t see any­thing to what he’s say­ing. Jacques Lacan I actu­al­ly knew. I kind of liked him. We had meet­ings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total char­la­tan. He was just pos­tur­ing for the tele­vi­sion cam­eras in the way many Paris intel­lec­tu­als do. Why this is influ­en­tial, I haven’t the slight­est idea. I don’t see any­thing there that should be influ­en­tial.

via Leit­er Reports

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Sear­le on Fou­cault and the Obscu­ran­tism in French Phi­los­o­phy

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

Jacques Lacan Talks About Psy­cho­analy­sis with Panache (1973)

Philoso­pher Slavoj Zizek Inter­prets Hitchcock’s Ver­ti­go in The Pervert’s Guide to Cin­e­ma (2006)

Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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Comments (106)
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  • s/e says:

    I agree with Noam whole­heart­ed­ly. Zizek talks a lot and does­n’t say much. I see lit­tle sub­stance to his rant­i­ngs. My left­ie friends seem to admire him but I can’t fig­ure out why.

  • Corey says:

    Spot on. One of Zizek’s lat­est arti­cles argued we need­ed a Thatch­er of the left. The way the argu­ment was exe­cut­ed by a mish­mash of quotes, one from Churchill’s mem­oir, some lines from a Rim­baud poem, some Marx of course.

    Zizek has a ‑tar­get audi­ence- and he knows what to feed them. It’s all pos­tur­ing. The guy did an ad for Aber­crom­bie and Fitch, for chris­sakes!

  • M. P. says:

    Con­demn­ing Zizek’s phi­los­o­phy for lack of sub­stance is a bit extreme, but when it comes to Zizek’s writ­ing style, my sym­pa­thies lie with Chom­sky. Why do intel­lec­tu­als feel the need to “pos­ture” them­selves in a way that’s impos­si­ble for their readers/listeners to com­pre­hend? Zizek, and writ­ers like Zizek, epit­o­mize the far-removed, pompous intel­lec­tu­al­ism that no one wants to sit next to at a din­ner par­ty.

  • P. A. Oliver says:

    I’m not sure I can agree with Chom­sky on this one, though I’ve had more than my fair share of head-scratch­ing moments with Zizek. Here’s why: Chom­sky’s own work (even his con­tri­bu­tion to the “sci­ence” of lin­guis­tics) falls woe­ful­ly short of the high bar he sets here for Zizek and oth­er the­o­rists. If push came to shove, I doubt very much whether any­one (least of all Chom­sky) could explain Chom­sky’s work to a 12 year old. Cor­po­ra­tions are inter­est­ed in prof­it not qual­i­ty of life? Mon­ey talks? Pow­er cor­rupts? His­to­ry is writ­ten by the vic­tors? Inter­na­tion­al law is only selec­tive­ly applied? These are either plat­i­tudes that, while true, are not use­ful, to 12 year olds or adults, or they need to be explained fur­ther, per­haps by cit­ing empir­i­cal data or per­haps with an anec­dote. Does this mean that Chom­sky’s work lacks “con­tent”? Not at all. His (admit­ted­ly con­de­scend­ing) descrip­tion of Angela Davis as an “inter­est­ing per­son” who “thinks about things,” has “inter­est­ing things to say,” and “has done inter­est­ing things” is actu­al­ly pret­ty accu­rate regard­ing Chom­sky him­self. To my ears, Chom­sky sounds like an old man who has made up his mind about some­thing after try­ing it once or twice: not uncom­mon, real­ly, espe­cial­ly among his pre­cious 12 year olds. As for the­o­rists “pos­tur­ing” and “using big words,” I would mere­ly pro­pose (per­haps to Chom­sky’s lik­ing) an empir­i­cal test: lis­ten to the intel­li­gent fans of a sport that you don’t usu­al­ly pay atten­tion to argue… I’ve tried. They sound like they’re talk­ing com­plete jargon‑y non­sense. Does it there­fore lack con­tent? Nope. Intel­lec­tu­als of Chom­sky’s (deserved) stature should know bet­ter than to turn up their noses like pure-blood aris­to­crats at dish­es served under a glaze of sticky obscu­ri­ty: their over­ly sen­si­tive palettes ruin the din­ner par­ty by push­ing away the well-inten­tioned offer­ings of the host, who was only try­ing to help with the mess we all have to go home to.

  • James Kelly says:

    havent even read this but throw­ing in Der­ri­da with Lacan and Zizek (who inher­its alot of Lacan­ian the­o­ry) is as sil­ly as posit­ing an innate lan­guage acqui­si­tion device homies got a good heart and a lit­tle too much resent­ment for very com­pli­cat­ed the­o­ry, which has its mer­its (ill take Lacan on lan­guage lets admit our lack) check out Fou­cault take Noam to school on youtube

  • Marc G says:

    PA Oliv­er, Chom­sky wrote that there is noth­ing the­o­ret­i­cal, testable, sci­en­tif­ic in Zizek’s work that can’t be explained to a 12 year old once you decode it.

    I believe, quite iron­i­cal­ly unfor­tu­nate­ly, that you mis­un­der­stood what Chom­sky said there.

  • Noel D. says:

    Marc, I believe you’ve hit it spot-on through the glaze of sticky obscu­ri­ty.

  • Bill Sherman says:

    Chom­sky says he was friend­ly with Lacan and then diss­es him: some friend. Lots of resent­ment (i.e. spir­i­tu­al pover­ty) re: his dis­missal of Zizek. And any­one who writes an Intro­duc­tion to a book by a Holo­caust denier and jus­ti­fies it by say­ing all opin­ions must be heard is sim­ply a hyp­ocrite and a quin­te­sen­tial self-hat­ing Jew. Rochelle Owens’ satir­ic poem-take titled “Chomp­sky (sic) Grilling Lin­guica” is worth read­ing and digest­ing.

  • ChomskyLover says:

    As a huge Chom­sky fan, I’m sad to say this is the first time I’ve been dis­ap­point­ed with his views. I under­stand it’s a short video inter­view and that if he had a bit more time per­haps he would be more char­i­ta­ble (maybe not). I’m cer­tain­ly intol­er­ant of psy­cho­analy­sis and think it should be aban­doned in its absolute entire­ty; Lacan actu­al­ly made this stark­ly uneth­i­cal remark: [Lacan on the pro­vi­sion of psy­cho­analy­sis to its clients] “I have suc­ceed­ed in doing what the field of ordi­nary com­merce peo­ple would like to be able to do with such easy: out of sup­ply I have cre­at­ed demand.” (p. 243)) — ‘Ecrits’ trans­lat­ed by Bruce Fink.

    How­ev­er, I don’t think Zizek’s ideas should be held to the stan­dards of “try to find in all of the work you men­tioned some prin­ci­ples from which you can deduce con­clu­sions, empir­i­cal­ly testable propo­si­tions where it all goes beyond the lev­el of some­thing you can explain in five min­utes to a twelve-year-old.” I don’t think it’s plau­si­ble that social prob­lems can be reduced and under­stood math­e­mat­i­cal­ly, nor do I think Chom­sky real­ly meant the full import of this par­tic­u­lar remark. Chom­sky is the paragon of a rig­or­ous schol­ar: a quick peak at the cita­tions for books like ‘Towards a New Cold War’ and ‘Year 501’ demon­strate noth­ing but extreme atten­tion to detail and patient fact check­ing (pages 331 — 393 of my copy of ‘Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent’ con­tain noth­ing but sources). While Zizek is not a clas­si­cal­ly rig­or­ous per­son, I don’t see how this is rel­e­vant. Pro­vid­ing new inter­pre­ta­tions of Hitch­cock­’s films, expos­ing peo­ple to ideas from the ancient past and present, and crit­i­ciz­ing US for­eign pol­i­cy are all exem­plary activ­i­ties of a good human­i­ties schol­ar. Zizek is not try­ing to be a sci­en­tist nor is he claim­ing to have an author­i­ty on sci­en­tif­ic sub­jects. He instead aims to elic­it con­tem­po­rary human strug­gles in what­ev­er way he can to help make his points rel­e­vant to the layper­son (videos of him talk­ing about mod­ern cin­e­ma, Star­bucks cups and recy­cling, etc.).

    If Chom­sky read a book or two of Zizek’s (maybe he has already but sim­ply did­n’t com­ment), I think he would appre­ci­ate Zizek’s cri­tique of post-mod­ernism itself, let alone Zizek’s con­sis­tent fight for left­ist ideals Chom­sky shares most pas­sion­ate­ly (Zizek was direct­ly involved in anti-Sovi­et cir­cles in 1980’s and 90’s Slove­nia and even ran as pres­i­dent to attempt to make more pro­gres­sive changes). As Chom­sky is a fierce crit­ic of the US gov­ern­men­t’s and US medi­a’s use of terms such as ‘ter­ror­ism’, ‘com­mu­nism’ and ‘ene­mies of democ­ra­cy’ — terms man­gled and used to jus­ti­fy atroc­i­ties in Nicaragua, El Sal­vador, Guata­mala, and oth­er Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries (cf. the entire­ty of ‘Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent’) — I think Chom­sky would be sym­pa­thet­ic to writ­ers like Zizek when they affirm that ide­o­log­i­cal sig­ni­fiers are not sta­t­ic seman­ti­cal­ly but can be used to jus­ti­fy atroc­i­ties:

    “If a cer­tain indi­vid­ual is nick­named ‘Scar­face’, this does not sig­ni­fy only the sim­ple fact that his face is full of scars; it implies at the same time that we are deal­ing with some­body who is des­ig­nat­ed as ‘Scar­face’ and will remain so even if, for exam­ple, all his scars were removed by plas­tic surgery. Ide­o­log­i­cal des­ig­na­tions func­tion in the same way: ‘Com­mu­nism’ means (in the per­spec­tive of the Com­mu­nist, of course) progress in democ­ra­cy and free­dom, even if – on the fac­tu­al, descrip­tive lev­el – the polit­i­cal regime legit­imized as ‘Com­mu­nist’ pro­duces extreme­ly repres­sive and tyran­ni­cal phe­nom­e­na.” (121) from ‘the Sub­lime Object of Ide­ol­o­gy’ by Slavoj Zizek

    While I share Chom­sky’s dis­dain for the obscu­ran­tism found in the texts of “the­o­rists”, I don’t think it should be writ­ten off quite so quick­ly. While I agree Deleuze & Guatar­ri’s naive crit­i­cisms of nat­ur­al sci­ence in ‘A Thou­sand Plateaus’ should be attacked, and that one should try their best to refrain from using a lan­guage that is inco­her­ent for the layper­son, I think there is a lot of gold to be found in pub­li­ca­tions hot off the print­ing press in con­tem­po­rary Europe that is direct­ly rel­e­vant to every cit­i­zen’s life. Judith But­ler is one exam­ple who has inspired new waves that have had sup­port in pro­mot­ing LGBT issues in both Europe and North Amer­i­ca. While I cer­tain­ly don’t advo­cate that every­one need pay atten­tion to these writ­ers, I nonethe­less want to defend them from what I see as dis­hon­est crit­i­cism, espe­cial­ly when it is against one’s philo­soph­i­cal allies.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    I have always thought of Chom­sky as being a bit shal­low, not only polit­i­cal­ly but also the­o­ret­i­cal­ly. Now that I have seen his “crit­i­cism” of Lacan and Zizek, I can see that I have over­es­ti­mat­ed him by an “s”. He is not shal­low, he is sim­ply hol­low. By the way, is his hav­ing “kind of liked” Lacan and at the same time call­ing him a total char­la­tan some kind of lin­guis­tic trick only he is aware of, or is he sim­ply a hyp­ocrite?

  • jkop says:

    Please dis­tin­guish per­son and argu­ment. Mere­ly smear­ing a per­son does not refute his or her argu­ments. Think what you will about Chom­sky, but he evi­dent­ly presents valid forms of argu­ment. So when Chom­sky “diss­es Lacan” he evi­dent­ly refers to Lacan’s poor or bla­tant lack of argu­ments, not Lacan as a per­son. There­fore he may still like the per­son. Get it?

    Sad­ly there are many illig­iti­mate ben­e­fits bad the­o­rists can achieve by evad­ing forms of argu­ment or mere­ly being dif­fi­cult or obscure or poet­ic. Obscure prose spiced with sci­en­tif­ic sound­ing terms may evoke the impres­sion that one would be on to some­thing deep or orig­i­nal in some cre­ative way (our faith in good inten­tions can thus be exploit­ed). But with­out forms of argu­ment there can be no the­o­ry.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    Could you please tell me why peo­ple should accept it as fact when a “celebri­ty” like Chom­sky and peo­ple who swim in his wake declare that Lacan or any­one else have “poor or bla­tant lack of argu­ments”? Isn’t there anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty, that there indeed are valid argu­ments there, but Chom­sky and his hench­men, who can only think in terms of ana­lyt­ic/An­g­lo-Sax­on phi­los­o­phy and log­ic, sim­ply don’t under­stand them? I am not try­ing to sell either pos­si­bilty as “the Truth”, but nei­ther should you, don’t you think?

  • Rasmus says:

    Bill Sher­man (above), don’t lie!

    Chom­sky dit NOT write “an Intro­duc­tion to a book by a Holo­caust denier”. He wrote a defense of free­dom of speach, a text which the nasty denier sim­ply stole and put in his own book with­out the con­sent of Chom­sky.

  • nerdpocalypse says:

    Deep Gram­mar. Inher­ent struc­ture in lan­guage.
    Backed up by quite a lot but we could start with the noun/verb/object pars­ing of real­i­ty that he did and frankly, I’d include HTML 1 also (main top­ic, list, col­lec­tions, asso­ci­a­tions).
    He says that fudg­ing the lev­el of hier­ar­chy (same word for par­tic­u­lar instance and class as one exam­ple) is also impor­tant.
    Der­ri­da, Lucan, etc.…. if you don’t have hard con­cepts… nope, their airy, dif­fuse style has (sad­ly) been Very influ­en­tial. Yeah.. they are why ‘struc­tural­ism’ sounds more like play­room argu­ments and not like sys­tems engi­neer­ing like it should.

  • EmeryWay says:

    Is it pos­si­ble (get ready for this) that none of the peo­ple men­tioned in this arti­cle should be “dis­missed” (gasp!). No one will deny that they have rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways of approach­ing real­i­ty and soci­ety, but that does­n’t mean they are mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. I per­son­al­ly find Chom­sky very dry,he tends to dwell on the obvi­ous and is too couched in a anglo/saxon world view to believe that any oth­er sys­tems of thought exist. But he does have some good things to say in spite of that. I find Zizek to be over­ly dra­mat­ic and often recy­cles the­o­ries from oth­er the­o­rists while mak­ing them appear like they were his. But his ideas on ide­ol­o­gy are very insight­ful and in no way vapid. What I’m try­ing to say is that we can argue about cer­tain ideas a philoso­pher has, but when it becomes a game to see who we “dis­miss” then all we are doing is say­ing “No, your the­o­rist is stu­pid” back and forth, and I think we are bet­ter than argu­ing like 12 year old.

  • Torbjorn says:

    On the one hand, I won­der (with some sar­casm) whether the hypoth­e­sis that Lacan/Zizek can be taught to a twelve year old in five min­utes has, in fact, been “empir­i­cal­ly test­ed”. The posi­tion seems a bit strange (a) giv­en that the process of decod­ing it sub­tract­ed from the process of explain­ing — which would make the process as a whole some­what longer than five min­utes and (b) giv­en that the major premise of the argu­ment is that the mea­sure of a the­o­ry’s val­ue is its com­plex­i­ty.

    Con­sid­er­ing that Enlight­en­ment phi­los­o­phy is fre­quent­ly taught as a unit (note: not a class) in ele­men­tary- and mid­dle-school class­rooms, (b) com­plex ideas (name­ly, those that Chomp­sky relies on as intel­lec­tu­al pre­cur­sors for his own work) aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly use­less if they can be reduced to sim­ple terms — and (a) the fact that Chomp­sky takes the intel­lec­tu­al labor of trans­lat­ing these ideas into sim­ple terms for grant­ed grants Lacan and Zizek the intel­lec­tu­al com­plex­i­ty nec­es­sary for this “non-the­o­ry” to be worth­while.

  • Cat says:

    Marc G [above], along with Noel D. , I agree with your com­ment about PA Oliv­er’s com­ment. I think he bad­ly mis­un­der­stood what Chom­sky was say­ing.

    A real­ly good book on this top­ic is called “Fash­ion­able Non­sense: Post­mod­ern Intel­lec­tu­als’ Abuse of Sci­ence”

    .….And a great exam­ple of the sort of airy-fairy super-flow­ery lan­guage they use to sound impor­tant is found in the open­ing of the book, regard­ing “The Sokal Affair”,
    .….where Alan Sokal, a physics pro­fes­sor, did an exper­i­ment, by writ­ing com­plete non­sense using “post­mod­ernist” lan­guage and jar­gon, and sub­mit­ted it to an impor­tant post­mod­ernist jour­nal, where it was pub­lished

    Also, I find some of the crits of Chom­sky “not being a good friend” to Lacan [boo0hoo!] to be ridicu­lous. He is com­ment­ing on Lacan’s WORK, not on Lacan as a per­son [though from things I’ve read about Lacan, he did­n’t seem total­ly savoury],
    and I think his truth­ful­ness, as always, shows Chom­sky has no con­flict of inter­est and will speak hon­est­ly on peo­ple’s ideas, whether he likes them or not.

    I know many peo­ple, such as painters, who I love as peo­ple, but I think their work sucks, and their ideas about their work sucks.
    Some­times I might even ven­ture to crit­i­cise. That does­n’t mean I don’t love them as peo­ple though.

    Last­ly, I think the crit of Chom­sky being “only able to think in a West­ern Anglo-Sax­on way” seems total­ly unjus­ti­fied. In a lot of ways, I find a lot of his ideas and approach to things very Bud­dhist / resem­bling cer­tain strains of East­ern thought, whether inten­tion­al­ly / con­scious­ly or not on his part.

  • min says:

    1. Chom­sky’s usage of the word “the­o­ry” in that quote above is seri­ous­ly flawed. If he wants to look at con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy through an empir­i­cal mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic lens for val­i­da­tion of course he’s not going to find it. How­ev­er, if he isn’t going to fol­low that com­ment up with some recog­ni­tion that there is his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal cur­rent that medi­ates sci­en­tif­ic valid­i­ty, ie. pas­cal, leib­niz, kuhn and what not, then Chom­sky real­ly seri­ous­ly does not under­stand the role of the­o­ry and how it func­tions.

    2. Of course there’s parts of Lacan, Zizek, Der­ri­da et al that you can explain to a 12 year old if you decode it. It should in fact be eas­i­er to explain to a 12 year old. Hell, you can explain it eas­i­er to a 3 year old. There should be parts of all the­o­ries that you can explain to peo­ple of any age.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    Oh my! Peo­ple are still read­ing (and even sug­gest­ing to oth­ers) the Sokal book! The only thing even remote­ly sig­nif­i­cant about that book is its very self-descrip­tive title “Fash­ion­able Non­sense”. Any­one who is even min­i­mal­ly edu­cat­ed about phi­los­o­phy (and I mean Phi­los­o­phy, not the glo­ri­fied arith­metics that pass­es as phi­los­o­phy in most Anglo-Sax­on uni­ver­si­ties) can see that Sokal and his side­kick Bric­mont have total­ly failed to under­stand their subject-matter.For those of you who may con­sid­er spend­ing mon­ey and time on that piece of “Fash­ion­able Non­sense”, the book is an exper­i­ment in extreme short­cuts, dis­miss­ing about ten philoso­phers with­out even read­ing them, and devot­ing about 15–20 pages to each. Build­ing upon his for­mer very reveal­ing and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly fruit­ful vic­to­ry in prov­ing that post­mod­ernists were very gullible peo­ple indeed, Sokal march­es on to crush Lacan, Kris­te­va, Iri­garay, Latour, Bau­drillard, Deleuze & Guat­tari and Vir­ilio, all in a sin­gle blow (a per­fect poten­tial case-study in nar­cis­sism-at-large). In deal­ing with Lacan, he tri­umphant­ly proves that his math­e­mat­ics was less than ade­quate, estab­lish­ing en pas­sant that he him­self is a post­mod­ernist after all, since all he did was to lit­er­al­ize a metaphor, some­thing post­mod­ernists are very fond of.

  • Bobby Fl says:

    If Sokal is not to your taste then what about the scam the obfus­cat­ing Bernard Hen­ri Levy fell for hook ‚line and sinker.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    To repeat myself, it only proves that Levy was a very gullible per­son indeed. If Sokal or any of his line tried to play a sim­i­lar scam on any jour­nal I was edit­ing, he would imme­di­ate­ly receive his so-called arti­cle back with a Razzy Award attached. Maybe this is because I am not a “post­mod­ernist” but a Marx­ist. We Marx­ists are sus­pi­cious lot by nature. Oh, sor­ry, we were dis­cussing the­o­ry, weren’t we?

  • min says:

    “valid” sci­ence has nev­er fall­en for scams?
    what about the open mar­kets?

    you think it’s hard to fake a sci­en­tif­ic study?
    peo­ple do that all the time with­out over­sight.

    you think it’s hard to fake mar­ket pre­dic­tions?

    you think cold fusion nev­er hap­pened?
    or the first tech bub­ble?

    all sokal proves is that there are accept­ed meth­ods of rhetoric and dis­course with­in each field that act as super­fi­cial gate­keep­ers. If you can effec­tive­ly game those meth­ods you are sub­ject to less scruti­ny. That is true in every sin­gle field ever.

  • jkop says:

    @ Bülent: as a reply to your pre­vi­ous ques­tion: the truth of Chom­sky’s claim has, of course, noth­ing to do with him being a celebri­ty. The form of his claim, how­ev­er, mat­ters: that it is rea­son­ably clear, and that any­one can check its truth val­ue. We are thus giv­en the pos­si­bil­i­ty to prove Chom­sky wrong by find­ing and point­ing at some rel­e­vant the­sis in Zizek’s or Lacan’s work whose mean­ings are not inde­ter­mi­nate, and from which we can make con­clu­sions. This is straight­for­ward. We can’t prove with cer­tain­ty that there are no mean­ings in gib­ber­ish, but one does not have to be an expert to see that there is prob­a­bly noth­ing to under­stand in sen­tences such as

    “ is the con­nex­ion between sig­ni­fi­er and sig­ni­fi­er that per­mits the eli­sion in which the sig­ni­fi­er installs the lack-of-being in the object rela­tion using the val­ue of ‘ref­er­ence back’ pos­sessed by sig­ni­fi­ca­tion in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it sup­ports.”


    Ok, just a short sam­ple, but imag­ine a whole book!

  • Bülent Somay says:

    jkop, com­mon aca­d­e­m­ic cour­tesy sug­gests that (1) You give a ref­er­ence (which book or arti­cle is the quote from); (2) It may be done in a the­sis but when try­ing to prove a quote to be “gib­ber­ish”, you don’t start in the mid­dle of a sen­tence “…it is”; (3) Since the quote is from Lacan, it is a trans­la­tion, so you should tell us who the trans­la­tor is, whether there are­al­ter­nate trans­la­tions, etc. As you can see, prov­ing “gib­ber­ish” is not as easy as it was in pri­ma­ry school, where a “It is so gib­ber­ish!” was enough. Hav­ing said that, I can still explain to you what that quote means (although I must con­fess, only by refer­ring to the French orig­i­nal since the trasla­tion tends to be con­fus­ing) but I have bet­ter things to do. And, at the risk of embarass­ing you, I should say that I know why you do not give ref­er­ence to the “quote”: because you haven’t tak­en it from a Lacan book but from Roger Scru­ton’s web­site (same typos in quo­ta­tion), who should not be con­sid­ered an authorş­ty on Lacan (or on any­thing, for that mat­ter). So you are just speak­ing non­sense about a book you have not even seen, not to men­tion read: and fyi, this is the true def­i­n­i­tion of gib­ber­ish.

  • grabloid says:

    Inter­est­ing cri­tique, but not a new one. Zizek is no sci­en­tist or polit­i­cal sci­en­tist, and would be the first to admit it. Years ago, Zizek responds to Chom­sky in the book ‘Rev­o­lu­tion at the Gates’:

    “It is cru­cial to empha­size the rel­e­vance of “high the­o­ry” for the most con­crete polit­i­cal strug­gle today, when even such an engaged intel­lec­tu­al as Noam Chom­sky likes to under­score how unim­por­tant the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge is for pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal strug­gle: of what help is study­ing great philo­soph­i­cal and social-the­o­ret­i­cal texts in today’s strug­gle against the neolib­er­al mod­el of glob­al­iza­tion? Is it not that we are deal­ing either with obvi­ous facts (which sim­ply have to be made pub­lic, as Chom­sky is doing in his numer­ous polit­i­cal texts), or with such an incom­pre­hen­si­ble com­plex­i­ty that we can­not under­stand any­thing? If we wish to argue against this anti-the­o­ret­i­cal temp­ta­tion, it is not enough to draw atten­tion to numer­ous the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions about free­dom, pow­er and soci­ety, which also abound in Chom­sky’s polit­i­cal texts: what is arguably more impor­tant is how, today, per­haps for the first time in the his­to­ry of humankind, our dai­ly expe­ri­ence (of bio­genet­ics, ecol­o­gy, cyber­space and Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty) com­pels all of us to con­front basic philo­soph­i­cal issues of the nature of free­dom and human iden­ti­ty, and so on.”

  • grabloid says:

    I also think that this may be a good response to Chom­sky’s crit­i­cism, in Zizek’s own words:

  • grabloid says:

    Ulti­mate­ly, I think Chom­sky and Zizek are nat­u­ral­ly at odds with each oth­er in this way because they are fun­da­men­tal­ly engaged in dif­fer­ent meth­ods and have dif­fer­ent moti­va­tions. I do think that what they both do is valu­able. But, I’m in com­plete dis­agree­ment with Chom­sky here — I cer­tain­ly would not sim­pli­fy and reduce the work of Zizek or Lacan (or whomev­er else Chom­sky includes in the list) as pure pos­tur­ing. Frankly, that is too easy an insult, bor­der­ing on ad-hoc attack, with­out engag­ing an actu­al argu­ment. At the very least, what they are doing is a form of rad­i­cal philosophy…philosophy at its root…getting back to think­ing. If Chom­sky wants some sci­en­tif­ic and testable proof, or a pre­scrip­tion for polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, he’s look­ing in the wrong place entire­ly. Folks like Zizek, I think, are inter­est­ed in chang­ing the way we are think­ing about fun­da­men­tal prob­lems that have been curs­ing us for ages (i.e. from the video above, pulling back from Marx, and going back to exam­in­ing Hegel again). Also, from the quote above, slow­ing down to think through new and dis­turb­ing devel­op­ments in the tech­no­log­i­cal world (i.e. bio­genet­ics, cyber inter­ac­tion with every­thing, etc.). It may be a high­ly abstract­ed activ­i­ty, but not mere pos­tur­ing.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    Thanks grabloid, for chang­ing the course of the ongo­ing argu­ment. For the last month we have been liv­ing in Istan­bul a series of protests unprece­dent­ed in Turkey’s recent his­to­ry. Both Zizek and Chom­sky came for­ward in sup­port, and I am earnest­ly grate­ful to both. Chom­sky, how­ev­er, stopped short at a pop­u­lar (and rather pop­ulist) dec­la­ra­tion. Zizek, on the oth­er hand, went for­ward and writ­ten an essay in LRB, sug­gest­ing that the recent events in Greece and Turkey were in fact com­ple­men­tary, and any fur­ther step would neces­si­tate transna­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. Chom­sky is a nice, sym­pa­thet­ic elder-broth­er­ly fig­ure. Zizek engages in a the­o­ret­i­cal ende­vour and sug­gets a way for­ward, with­out regard for either coun­try’s nation­al­is­tic prej­u­dices towards each oth­er. Admit­ted­ly this is Marx­ist the­o­ry, but don’t take the con­tem­po­rary “schol­ar­ly” atti­tude of dis­miss­ing Marx­ist the­o­ry as passe seri­ous­ly any­how.

  • jkop says:

    geez Bülent, you did­n’t even care reply­ing to my argu­ment but instead attack my use of that well known sam­ple by spec­u­la­tion intend­ed to smear. Per­haps Scru­ton is right about marx­ists after all: instead of argu­ment they see ‘dis­course’, instead of truth they see “pow­er”. Evi­dent­ly you don’t both­er about argu­ments.

  • Bülent Somay says:

    I don’t deem “argu­ments” built upon sheer spec­u­la­tion about what you haven’t even read but only bor­rowed from very ques­tion­able sources worth answer­ing. My advice: fol­low Scru­ton to the end–no gain for him, no loss for me, every­body wins (or nobody wins and sta­tus quo remains). I do both­er about argu­ments, but this is not the time, here is not the place and you are not the addressee.

  • jkop says:

    Bülent, the argu­ments you avoid are not built upon spec­u­la­tion but what is open to view: 1, Chom­sky’s claim, which any­one can test, and 2, that infa­mous sam­ple from Lacan’s book, which any­one may attempt to deci­pher.

  • Jake says:

    Chom­sky needs to read Schopen­hauer. Pol­i­tics isn’t what he thinks it is.

  • nowhereman says:

    we can­not sep­a­rate form from con­tent, espe­cial­ly when we talk about non-sci­en­tif­ic writ­ings

  • Teo says:

    While I do think Zizek is annoy­ing to say the least, Chom­sky’s defense of naive pos­i­tivism is anachro­nis­tic.

  • Matjaž Štraser says:

    Noam, youre­selves, you did not bring noth­ig new in last 20 yares!?

  • Déirdre O'Byrne says:

    I find it strange that very few, if any of the above con­trib­u­tors, use their own names to stand over their com­ments on Chom­sky. Now why is that? I find it very unsat­is­fac­to­ry and unac­cept­able that some­body can be crit­i­cised by those who don’t have the courage to sing their opin­ions. Cow­ard­ly behav­iour.

    I have nev­er read Zizek, how­ev­er, I have read quite a num­ber of oth­ers who fit this bill. I also per­son­al­ly know a num­ber of aca­d­e­mics who bluff and pos­ture and reg­u­lar­ly utter the most infan­tile con­cepts in a very ver­bose par­lance, which is I believe, designed to give the impres­sion that they are some­what intel­lec­tu­al. The good brain knows how to sep­a­rate wheat from the chaff. Good man Noam, for nam­ing the prac­tice, even though I am not in a posi­tion to com­ment on Zizek.

  • Paul Cockshott says:

    Remem­ber that Chom­sky made his name on the the­o­ry of gen­er­a­tive gram­mars, some­thing on which all sub­se­quent com­put­er analy­sis of for­mal lan­guages has been based. (…/three_models_for_the_description_of_language.pdf) Zizek, Lacan etc have pro­duced noth­ing like this at the the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el. Chom­sky’s ideas are proven in prac­tice every day through­out the world, with­out them the greater part of com­put­erised pro­cess­ing of text on which this entire dis­cus­sion depends would not work.

  • George Purcell says:

    Of course Chom­sky is opposed to PoMo in all of its variants–he is a man of the left from when that meant there was a Hegelian dialec­tic push­ing us towards the future his­tor­i­cal truth of com­mu­nism. If truth is a mere social con­struc­tion than the entire basis of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism is false.

    I part com­pa­ny with him on the com­mu­nist side of the ledger, but Chom­sky is absolute­ly right to mock the entire PoMo prod­uct. Noth­ing but hol­low, inten­tion­al­ly obtuse sophistry.

  • Gideon Querido van Frank says:

    I feel the same. But not about Zizek or Lacan, but about Chom­sky — a man who prefers defend­ing Holo­caust deniers.

    • BK-Spaden says:

      Stop lying. He nev­er “defend­ed” any holo­caust deniers. He just defend­ed every­one’s right to express an opin­ion, even if the opin­ion is dis­gust­ing. This is brave. I mean, Chom­sky him­self is a jew and often talks about the racism against jews dur­ing his child­hood. But he still believes in full free­dom of speech.

  • rhhardin says:

    I’m not sure what Der­ri­da is doing in the list. Here’s Der­ri­da being prac­ti­cal, after 9/11 :

    What appears to me unac­cept­able in the “strat­e­gy” (in terms of weapons, prac­tices, ide­ol­o­gy, rhetoric, dis­course, and so on) of the “bin Laden effect” is not only the cru­el­ty, the dis­re­gard for human life, the dis­re­spect for the law, for women, the use of what is worst in tech­no­cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty for the pur­pos­es of reli­gious fanati­cism. No, it is, above all, the fact that such actions and such dis­course _open onto no future and, in my view, have no future_. If we are to put any faith in the per­fectibil­i­ty of pub­lic space and of the world juridi­co-polit­i­cal scene, of the “world” itself, then there is, it seems to me, _nothing good_ to be hoped for from that quar­ter. What is being pro­posed, at least implic­it­ly, is that all cap­tial­ist and mod­ern techno­sci­en­tif­ic forces be put in the ser­vice of an inter­pre­ta­tion, itself dog­mat­ic, of the Islam­ic rev­e­la­tion of the One. Noth­ing of what has been so labo­ri­ous­ly sec­u­lar­ized in even the non­the­o­log­i­cal form of sov­er­eign­ty (…), none of this seems to have any place what­so­ev­er in the dis­course “bin Laden.” That is why, in this unleash­ing of vio­lence with­out name, if I had to take one of the two sides and choose in a bina­ry sit­u­a­tion, well I would. Despite my very strong reser­va­tions about the Amer­i­can, indeed Euro­pean, polit­i­cal pos­ture, about the “inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist” coali­tion, despite all the de fac­to betray­als, all the fail­ures to live up to democ­ra­cy, inter­na­tion­al law, and the very inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions that the states of this “coali­tion” them­selves found­ed and sup­port­ed up to a cer­tain point, I would take the side of the camp that, in prin­ci­ple, by right of law, leaves a per­spec­tive open to per­fectibil­i­ty in the name of the “polit­i­cal,” democ­ra­cy, inter­na­tion­al law, inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions, and so forth. Even if this “in the name of” is still mere­ly an asser­tion and a pure­ly ver­bal com­mitt­ment. Even in its most cyn­i­cal mode, such an asser­tion still lets res­onate with­in it an invin­ci­ble promise. I don’t hear any such promise com­ing from “bin Laden,” at least not one in this world.

    “Autoim­mu­ni­ty: Real and Sym­bol­ic Sui­cides” _Philosophy in a Time of Terror_ p.113

  • Mark says:

    I encoun­tered all these the­o­rists in grad­u­ate school, and hon­est­ly, I can say I’ve nev­er met any bright per­son who’s read them who does­n’t agree that the obfus­ca­to­ry prose mere­ly serves as a cov­er to essen­tial­ly banal, and typ­i­cal­ly unprov­able, asser­tions. The suc­cess of such the­o­ry then depends on the so-called “impos­tor syn­drome” so com­mon in acad­e­mia, where as the schol­ar doubts his own intel­lect, the ultra-dense unread­able the­o­rist con­firms one as an impos­tor (“if I was real­ly smart, I could under­stand this”), and con­se­quent­ly the the­o­rist gets sub­sti­tut­ed as the thinker in one’s schol­ar­ship, with end­less attri­bu­tions to Zizek or Lacan or Jame­son or Der­ri­da to ground one’s ideas in some­thing “intel­lec­tu­al.” It’s been a bad forty years for orig­i­nal think­ing.

  • DonM says:

    Out of the strong came forth sweet­ness, out of the eater, came forth meat.

    Out of Chom­sky, came forth crit­i­cism of left­ist pos­tur­ing.

  • Shannon says:

    To make sense of Chom­sky’s polit­i­cal the­o­ry, exam­ine his Man­u­fac­tur­ing Consent…and com­pare that to any­thing writ­ten or said by Lacan or Zizek: vast­ly dif­fer­ent meth­ods and mod­els of crit­i­cal think­ing. The heirs of Chom­sky’s the­o­ret­i­cal vision are the Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Soci­ety folks at ZNet- with Michael Albert’s PARECON in par­a­digm seat. But, the heirs of Chom­sky’s polit­i­cal prac­tice are the efforts of Glenn Green­wald, Jere­my Scahill, and Amy Good­man.

  • Anna says:

    I saw the joint inter­view with Chom­sky and Fou­cault a year or so back. Now hear­ing this inter­view I won­der how Chom­sky felt about Fou­cault’s work?

    • Mike Springer says:


      In the post we link to a 1995 text in which Chom­sky talks briefly about Fou­cault. He says Fou­cault is “some­what apart from the oth­ers,” but that he dis­trusts Fou­cault’s schol­ar­ship and objects to cer­tain of his “the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs” (the scare quotes are his) in which “sim­ple and famil­iar ideas have been dressed up in com­pli­cat­ed and pre­ten­tious rhetoric.”

      Chom­sky goes on to say: “As to ‘pos­tur­ing,’ a lot of it is that, in my opin­ion, though I don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly blame Fou­cault for it: it’s such a deeply root­ed part of the cor­rupt intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture of Paris that he fell into it pret­ty nat­u­ral­ly, though to his cred­it, he dis­tanced him­self from it.”

      For more on this sub­ject you may want to see our post from Mon­day: “John Sear­le on Fou­cault and the Obscu­ran­tism in French Phi­los­o­phy.”


  • Michael says:

    Teo said all there’s to say, now calm down peo­ple:-)

    “While I do think Zizek is annoy­ing to say the least, Chomsky’s defense of naive pos­i­tivism is anachro­nis­tic.”

  • Ed says:

    Chom­sky’s kind of weak here. If only we still had Feyn­man around — he’d real­ly rip these guys a new one.

  • Don Ellis says:

    There remains no con­fronta­tion of issues here. I think I agree with Chom­sky but he avoids the con­tent issues as well. What are the key claims of these philoso­phers? Get Chom­sky to actu­al­ly talk about the issues not trad­ing name-call­ing.

  • Damon says:

    I have nev­er read Chom­sky before, but his easy dis­missal of some­thing that might take some effort to under­stand real­ly dis­cour­ages me from spend­ing my valu­able time read­ing him now. His easy lump­ing of Zizek and Lacan in with Der­ri­da just shows his igno­rance, as Zizek in his work has gone to great pains to cri­tique and in some cas­es dis­tance him­self from Der­ri­da’s work. Zizek has also tak­en great pains to dis­tance him­self from the appel­la­tion of ‘post­mod­ernist’ or ‘post­struc­tural­ist’. Per­son­al­ly, I don’t see what is so dif­fi­cult about Zizek. If any­thing, he is a great pop­u­lar­iz­er of Lacan, and any­one well versed in Freud should not have that much dif­fi­cul­ty under­stand­ing most of his argu­ments.

    As far as Zizek’s ideas not being empir­i­cal­ly ver­i­fi­able, what about the junk sci­ence ‘stud­ies’ now being done that come to con­clu­sions like ‘root canals are risk fac­tors for heart dis­ease.’ I don’t pre­tend to be a sci­en­tist, but even I can under­stand that those two fac­tors are cor­re­lat­ed only because the peo­ple who don’t take care of their teeth also tend to be peo­ple who don’t take care of their bod­ies, and who tend to smoke and overeat, thus gain­ing weight. So when you cor­re­late root canals and heart dis­ease, with­out men­tion­ing the obvi­ous socio-eco­nom­ic fac­tors, you are obvi­ous­ly doing crap sci­ence. And stud­ies like this are com­ing out all the time now. So much for Chom­sky’s ’empir­i­cal­ly ver­i­fi­able’ test for valid­i­ty.

  • Sigivald says:

    Don Ellis, above, asked “What are the key claims of these philoso­phers?”, and blamed Chom­sky for name­call­ing rather than talk­ing about the issues.

    Now, I have sym­pa­thy for that attack, because Chom­sky is noto­ri­ous for such tac­tics — and deserved­ly — in his polit­i­cal works.

    On the oth­er hand, I’ve actu­al­ly tried to read Der­ri­da and bits of Zizek, and I think I can agree with Chom­sky that the rea­son he did­n’t point at their key claims is that they’re too obscu­ran­tist to be found, if they’re even there at all.

    “using fan­cy terms like poly­syl­la­bles and pre­tend­ing you have a the­o­ry when you have no the­o­ry what­so­ev­er” — Chom­sky is accus­ing them of being emp­ty suits or pure char­la­tans pre­tend­ing to do phi­los­o­phy by throw­ing around obfus­ca­tion and jar­gon*. He’s essen­tial­ly say­ing that for all their ver­biage they don’t even real­ly have claims, or at least not ones clear and unam­bigu­ous enough to address.

    (Or, as Wolf­gang Pauli might put it, they’re “not even wrong”.)

    (* A com­mon attack on all the Con­ti­nen­tals, but damned if I don’t think it’s prob­a­bly apt against Der­ri­da or, worse, Bau­drillard. It does­n’t work against Fou­cault — for all his flaws, he can make a the­sis and attempt to defend it — or Mer­leau-Pon­ty.

    And it makes me half-sick to agree with Chom­sky about any­thing…)

  • Schadenfreudian says:

    Go Noam! You tell them.
    After com­plet­ing a night­mare intro­duc­to­ry sub­ject in lit the­o­ry, hav­ing to endure my class tutor’s excite­ment at Zizek, forc­ing us to watch so many god­damned YouTube videos of Zizek, I am of the view that the Zizek’s of this world are char­la­tans.

  • In the way that many Paris intellectuals do... says:

    If I under­stand this can­tan­ker­ous com­plaint cor­rect­ly, Chom­sky is upset that there is a domain of human activ­i­ty called “the­o­ry” that does not define define the­o­ry in the way that the nat­ur­al sci­ences do. Boo hoo! Sci­ence isn’t every­thing. If you don’t like Lacan, Zizek, Der­ri­da, or oth­er the­o­rists, don’t read them. Or bet­ter yet, have some humil­i­ty and try hard­er. But don’t con­clude on the basis of Chom­sky’s shal­low dis­missal that there is noth­ing to enjoy, learn, or respect in the work of the­o­rists. I have great respect for Chom­sky’s analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, but his polemic against the­o­ry is a dis­til­la­tion of tire­some, anti-intel­lec­tu­al clich­es about the­o­ry, not a rea­soned argu­ment.

  • P. A. Oliver says:

    Hmm. Haven’t read all of this firestorm of com­ments yet, but to Marc G. and cat: I admit I dashed off my own com­ment a lit­tle too hasti­ly after lis­ten­ing to the clip of Chom­sky’s inter­view. In the audio ver­sion his dis­tinc­tion regard­ing the 12 year olds is muf­fled, hence my con­fu­sion. In the tran­script, which I just read tonight, it’s clear enough. I apol­o­gize for the mis­placed sar­casm in my com­ment, but I still stand behind the rest of what I wrote.

    (Has any­one tried my test?) :)

  • J says:

    “I saw the joint inter­view with Chom­sky and Fou­cault a year or so back. Now hear­ing this inter­view I won­der how Chom­sky felt about Foucault’s work?”

    Not much. he thought that Fou­cault was only slight­ly bet­ter than the rest in that he actu­al­ly got out on the street and protest­ed. he did how­ev­er say that Fou­cault’s work was poor­ly researched and suf­fered from the same pos­tur­ing as many oth­er French the­o­rists.

    “Fou­cault — who, as I’ve writ­ten repeat­ed­ly, is some­what apart from the oth­ers, for two rea­sons: I find at least some of what he writes intel­li­gi­ble, though gen­er­al­ly not very inter­est­ing; sec­ond, he was not per­son­al­ly dis­en­gaged and did not restrict him­self to inter­ac­tions with oth­ers with­in the same high­ly priv­i­leged elite cir­cles.”

    “Fou­cault’s schol­ar­ship is just not trust­wor­thy here, so I don’t trust it…”

  • Anaughtymous says:

    Chom­sky does­n’t get it. He admits it, but I think it has to do with their dif­fer­ent approach­es to both the role of Phi­los­o­phy and Real­i­ty.

    Zizek brings to mind the Marx­i­an shift. It’s not enough to describe the world — it’s time for Phi­los­o­phy to change it.

    When it comes to real­i­ty, Zizek’s con­ti­nen­tal phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy is at odds with Chom­sky’s Anglo-prag­ma­tism or what­ev­er you want to call it. Zizek’s work is more like an induc­tion than a sys­tem. The sys­tem builders pre­sup­pose to much in my mousy mind.

  • foljs says:

    I agree with Noam whole­heart­ed­ly. Zizek talks a lot and doesn’t say much. I see lit­tle sub­stance to his rant­i­ngs. My left­ie friends seem to admire him but I can’t fig­ure out why.

    It’s the age old dif­fer­ence between analytic/empiricist and con­ti­nen­tal (Euro­pean) phi­los­o­phy.

    Not every thought has to be put into “sci­en­tif­ic” word­ing. Espe­cial­ly not think­ing that con­cerns soci­ety, philo­soph­i­cal, moral and polit­i­cal issues.

    We have a lot of meth­ods of think­ing at our dis­pos­al. The Amer­i­can (ana­lyt­i­cal etc) tra­di­tion only keeps the most dry and coun­tifi­able ways.

    In oth­er words: Chom­sky is from Vul­can, Zizek is from Earth.

    • someguy says:

      Zizek is a poor rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the con­ti­nen­tal tra­di­tion. Some of those guys make more sense than oth­ers, like Fou­cault for exam­ple, but peo­ple like Lacan and now Zizek are just enter­tain­ers with noth­ing sub­stan­tial to say. It’s disin­gen­u­ous to put Chom­sky and Zizek on equal foot­ing, even if on dif­fer­ent plan­ets.

  • Jonathan M. Feldman says:

    I think we need to have more sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sions and not get caught up in pomo lan­guage games. I think that is the point. The prob­lem is that there is a cul­ture of dis­course that is more about the the­o­ry of the­o­ry than using the­o­ry to explain real­i­ty in such a way as to pro­mote trans­for­ma­tive action. Cer­tain peo­ple do not real­ize that they are more a part of a cul­tur­al exer­cise than a polit­i­cal one, because the mean­ing of pol­i­tics once enhanced by cul­tur­al stud­ies is now deval­ued by it. The rea­sons have to do with what is safe, what is financed, and what requires work or not, and how cer­tain indi­vid­ual fief­doms exploit pub­lish­ing or job oppor­tu­ni­ties that don’t lead to any mean­ing­ful change.

  • Luke Jaaniste says:

    Zizek seems more like a poet using the lan­guage of intel­lec­tu­als. That is, he wants to evoke and elic­it, more than work things out care­ful­ly.

    Chom­sky on the oth­er hand is an ana­lyt­i­cal the­o­rist that prob­a­bly some wish was more poet­ic.

  • Dirk van Nouhuys says:

    He’s right about Zizek, dager­ou­os hot air. I’ve been pok­ing at lacan for decades and haven’t under­stood enough to form an opin­ion.

  • David Johnston says:

    Chom­sky gram­mars are a cen­tral to lan­guages in com­put­er sci­ence. He gave the lan­guage to talk about lan­guage. It is sim­ple, for­mal and use­ful.

    I’m not up on his polit­i­cal stuff, but his for­mal approach to lin­guis­tics is one of the things that enables you to read this web page.

    Why do peo­ple think this his polit­i­cal views have over­shad­owed his lin­guis­tic work? It has­n’t. Pro­gram­mers across the world know and use his con­tri­bu­tions. There are cer­tain­ly more of them than there are post mod­ern philoso­phers.

  • Mike Springer says:

    Chom­sky’s polit­i­cal views obvi­ous­ly get a lot more press. There’s a low­er thresh­old of entry to those ideas. And if for some rea­son it was­n’t already clear to you, it should be clear just from read­ing through some of these com­ments (and quite a few of the com­ments about the post on Face­book and Twit­ter) that a great many peo­ple with strong opin­ions about Chom­sky haven’t a clue as to the objec­tive nature of his work or the rig­or of his meth­ods.

  • Aristocles de Atenas says:

    Lacan emp­ty? Always. Com­pletel­ly.

  • Mitchell Freedman says:

    Chom­sky has been crit­i­cal of human­i­ties the­o­rists for decades, and with good rea­son as he says. They over use com­pli­cat­ed terms of art that when decod­ed, reveal very lit­tle that is beyond syl­lo­gisms and pos­tur­ing.

    Chom­sky is also famil­iar with EP Thomp­son’s great long essay (in a book with oth­er essays) “The Pover­ty of The­o­ry.”

    The Thomp­son essay is well worth the read as it is dev­as­tat­ing attack on the French the­o­rists, par­tic­u­lar­ly Marx­ist the­o­rists start­ing with Althuss­er. It is a ring­ing defense of the pur­suit of empiri­cism and data, fact find­ing and analy­sis.

  • Jaybone says:

    I agree with Chom­sky here, but I came to this agree­ment not from lis­ten­ing to or read­ing Chom­sky, but rather the writ­ing and lec­tures of Camille Paglia, who makes a much bet­ter (and enter­tain­ing) case for dis­miss­ing “the­o­ry”. Sad­ly, Paglia is not near­ly as active as she once was in these debates.

  • Janet says:

    I’m grate­ful to those crit­i­cal of Chom­sky here, espe­cial­ly Grabloid and Bülent Somay, who is the only one to bring up Marx). Would Chom­sky dis­miss Marx the the­o­rist? Don’t asser­tions or the­o­ries whether “sci­en­tif­ic” or “philo­soph­i­cal” need exam­i­na­tion and ques­tion­ing lest they crys­tal­lize into life­less, author­i­tar­i­an dog­ma? Zizek opens up the ques­tions.

  • Pierre Guerlain says:

    Chom­sky is right on the key issue of pos­tur­ing. I teach in a French uni­ver­si­ty and can con­firm what Fou­cault and Bour­dieu told Sear­le: pos­tur­ing is essen­tial to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. Obscu­ri­ty is a tech­nique and a tac­tic to get ahead by appear­ing pro­found. Most ideas in the social sci­ences can be test­ed: do they pass the test of time? (See who said what about Afghanistan and Iraq and how it panned out, for instance). Zizek like Lacan are per­form­ers who can daz­zle audi­ences and be wit­ty or fun­ny. That does not give them sub­stance (although they may be enter­tain­ing or inter­est­ing).

  • jkop says:

    @Janet: Marx the the­o­rist intro­duced a method of “exam­i­na­tion and ques­tion­ing” which is oper­a­tive rather than con­cerned with facts. What would Chom­sky say? Well, back in 1969 he alleged­ly observed this remark by George Orwell:

    “..polit­i­cal thought, espe­cial­ly on the left, is a sort of mas­tur­ba­tion fan­ta­sy in which the world of fact hard­ly mat­ters. That’s true, unfor­tu­nate­ly, and it’s part of the rea­son that our soci­ety lacks a gen­uine, respon­si­ble, seri­ous left-wing”.

    I like this recent quote by Scru­ton, because it refers to an actu­al expla­na­tion:

    “There is a way of debat­ing that dis­re­gards the truth of another’s words, since it is con­cerned to diag­nose them, to dis­cov­er ‘where they are com­ing from’, and to reveal the emo­tion­al, moral and polit­i­cal atti­tudes that under­lie a giv­en choice of words. The habit of ‘going behind’ your opponent’s words stems from Karl Marx’s the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy, which tells us that, in bour­geois con­di­tions, con­cepts, habits of thought and ways of see­ing the world are adopt­ed because of their socio-eco­nom­ic func­tion, not their truth.”

  • carlos says:

    @Pierre Except for he fact that Chom­sky is com­plete­ly pos­tur­ing in this extract. He gives no real argu­ment oth­er than a cliché per­for­mance (arche­typ­i­cal) of the grumpy old mas­ter.

    Besides, all of the com­ments here in the site, sub­tan­tial or not, have been writ­ten as a response of a per­for­mance to a per­for­mance. So, although I would­n’t call pos­tur­ing the “only” con­tent, it would be stu­pid to deny that per­for­mance is always part of sub­stance. Some­one men­tioned J. But­ler, but you can’t for­get Austin nor Schech­n­er here. Fac­tu­al­ism requires a high degree of per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty since, no mat­ter how many doc­u­ments and points of view you can gath­er to “recon­sruct” facts, there’ll always be some­thing miss­ing. This is no the­o­ry. It is pure fact tht you can’t gath­er “all the truth” of any giv­en event of sub­ject. So in order to con­sid­er fac­tu­al­i­ty as a more seri­ous order of knowl­edge than Chom­sky’s use of “the­o­ry” here, you can’t sim­ply prove this supe­ri­or­i­ty but rather you have to per­form it social­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. You “form part” of a lin­guis­tic sys­tem when you (as Austin would put it) mate­ri­al­ize it through your own “act of speech”.

    The only impor­tant dif­fer­ence between Chom­sky and Zizek in this par­tic­u­lar “stag­ing” is that the lat­ter knows he’s a per­former and the first per­forms that he is not.

  • Pierre Guerlain says:

    @Carlos One has to look at the body of seri­ous work, of course, not just short inter­views which can­not be very deep. I dis­agree though that Chom­sky is pos­tur­ing here. He sug­gests a good test for the valid­i­ty of the­o­ries: can they be explained in sim­ple lan­guage, the way the most dif­fi­cult the­o­ries in oth­er fields are (even Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty). If you scratch the sur­face of his writ­ings, polit­i­cal and lin­guis­tic, you find sub­stance. Zizek is a play­er with words who pro­duces fire­works, some of them poet­ic. But what he says about the Khmer Rouge and Chosmky is sim­ply false, either because he did not read the stuff he’s talk­ing about & he’s rely­ing on rumor or because he’s in bad faith in gen­er­al.
    Same thing about Chom­sky being a holo­caust denier or a self-hat­ing Jew: those who argue along this line have not stud­ied the Fau­r­ris­son affair, nor read Chom­sky’s clear stand on the holocaust.(He was betrayed by a so-called friend, Serge Thion, but did not stop the pub­li­ca­tion of his text by Fau­r­ris­son­the denier, a seri­ous mis­take I think).
    Zizek pours scorn on the accu­mu­la­tion of facts (indeed it can be bor­ing) but with­out facts, the­o­ry is just well…empty pos­tur­ing. Or PoMos­tur­ing?

  • Mephisto says:

    For a cat­fight, this is pret­ty bor­ing.

  • stevelaudig says:

    Chom­sky kicks the can down the road, Zizek in an ever ever-shrink­ing cir­cle.

  • VaQM says:

    This was a long time com­ing. I’m hap­py Chom­sky speaks out on Zizek, he has said some dis­turb­ing things and he sure as hell isn’t a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. But read­ing Zizek’s books I though it was prob­a­bly me that could­n’t find any con­tent in them. But now I see I’m not the only one.

  • jack the ace student says:

    Actu­al­ly Chom­sky is a lit­tle tryant . Ask any of his for­mer stu­dents! the qui­et type . Glad he’s get­ting his arse kicked. Any­how, he’s out of his depth, and final­ly Zizek, who’s a genius, wrote a beau­ti­ful rebut­tal to any of the so called points Mis­ter Chom­sky bina­ry lin­guis­tics can come up! Poor Noam, the self pro­claimed Jere­mi­ah! hahaahh

  • jack the ace student says:


    here ‘s that rebut­tal link

  • Finsrud says:

    When we con­sid­er that “rea­son” is a tool that get’s me what I want and allows me to feel “good” about that—of course Chom­sky is right. How­ev­er, it’s Lacan and his ilk, that bring me to life!

  • Juan de la O says:

    Quick background„,I lived in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca for a peri­od dur­ing which the wars and state-ter­ror were peak­ing — I have stud­ied not only engi­neer­ing but clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­my / empha­sis on Marx, and had EGP com­rades. Enough of that.

    Chom­sky seems to ‘get it’ wheras Lacan and Zizek do not.

    Admit­ted­ly I have read very lit­tle by Zizek though a num­ber of Lacan’s publications[circular, airy and v. inter­est­ing — some­how or oth­er they fold­ed into Marx’s Grun­risse and my expe­ri­ence]

    I did not want to read him but saw it as a poten­tial deep­en­ing [to help explain what we should
    have done in many of the vil­lages — ”airy and cir­cu­lar” can be bet­ter than Lenin and AKs, although…

    Su Serviente


  • Juan de la O says:

    @Mitchell Freedman,”The Thomp­son essay is well worth the read as it is dev­as­tat­ing attack on the French the­o­rists, par­tic­u­lar­ly Marx­ist the­o­rists…”

    Too many French ‘Marx­ists’ were/are struc­tural­ists, did not ‘get’ dialec­tics but tried to force motion.

    The­o­ry, on the oth­er hand, is derived from real­i­ty [or facts if you like] in order to dis­cov­er real­i­ty — and is required if under­stand­ing is
    desired. Both deduc­tion and induc­tion required, cer­tain­ly not just a truck­load of data.

    We over­came that in the 19th c.

  • Billy Middleton says:

    Chom­sky is a ana­lyt­i­cal chimp who can’t under­stand any­thing out­side his rigid secu­ri­ty bub­ble

  • Shatterface says:

    Chom­sky is a ana­lyt­i­cal chimp who can’t under­stand any­thing out­side his rigid secu­ri­ty bub­ble

    Zizek, on the oth­er hand, under­stands noth­ing, and mere­ly regur­gi­tates the steam-aged coke-dreams of the Vien­nese Witch­doc­tor by way of Lacan.

    I’m not sur­prised Chom­sky is weary of the postruc­ti­ral twad­dle: most of it is root­ed in the Saus­suri­an lin­guis­tics he dis­cred­it­ed in his first pub­li­ca­tion. Putting him on stage with Zizek is like stag­ing a debate between Stephen Hawk­ing and an astrologer.

  • Claude says:

    I think Zizek is valu­able in that he is decod­ing ide­o­log­i­cal mar­ket­ing.

  • ImNotSmart says:

    The irony is that Lacan would agree with the “emp­ty pos­tur­ing” in rela­tion to the posi­tion he takes when speak­ing, and also the vacan­cy of the Oth­er, etc. He’d like­ly joke about it, say­ing “Dear, Chom­sky! You REALLY know how to read me!” Chom­sky still would­n’t get it, though.

  • Luke Kuzava says:

    This quote by Chom­sky per­fect­ly locates the point at which I stop agree­ing with him. If he thinks that every propo­si­tion which is not “empir­i­cal­ly testable” should be dis­re­gard­ed or isn’t worth talk­ing about… how can you talk about ethics at all? Ethics isn’t a sci­ence, and eth­i­cal propo­si­tions aren’t “empir­i­cal­ly testable”. nHow can you “empir­i­cal­ly test” the propo­si­tion “Its wrong to mur­der peo­ple?” Or “Slav­ery is wrong?”. I might be miss­ing some­thing here, but it seems to me that you can’t “test” these propo­si­tions like they’re bat­ter­ies or light bulbs or sci­en­tif­ic propo­si­tions… and if you can’t test them, then by Chom­sky’s own admit­ted log­ic to talk about them is “emp­ty pos­tur­ing”. But not only does he talk about them all the time, ALL of his polit­i­cal views are based on eth­i­cal propo­si­tions. Which isn’t bad — its nec­es­sary — but its both hyp­o­crit­i­cal and illog­i­cal to talk about Moral­i­ty and then also claim that you’re not inter­est­ed in any­thing unsci­en­tif­ic. nAl­so, did he empir­i­cal­ly test the claim that “many Paris intel­lec­tu­als” engage in “emp­ty pos­tur­ing” “for Tele­vi­sion cam­eras”? He for­got to cite the study :)

  • jkop says:

    @Luke: It is pos­si­ble to test whether eth­i­cal state­ments are log­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent or valid. More­over, you can test their right­ness empir­i­cal­ly rel­a­tive a frame­work, such as our use of them. But when state­ments are alog­i­cal­ly com­posed, or their mean­ings are inde­ter­mi­nate, then they offer lit­tle to test. Not because testa­bil­i­ty would­n’t apply in ethics, but because inde­ter­mi­na­cy inhibits clar­i­ty, obscures poor rea­son­ing, and pre­vents us from mak­ing con­clu­sions. To present inde­ter­mi­nate state­ments as “the­o­ry” is mere­ly a provo­ca­tion, or pos­tur­ing. Hence the crit­i­cism.

  • Francis says:

    Every­one’s argu­ments in the thread are cute, includ­ing that of Chom­sky him­self. The fun­ny thing is that every argu­ment I’ve read is, in essence, the same: Sound and fury, sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

  • z0ltan says:

    Chom­sky is right. Trust a real intel­lec­tu­al to see through all that pos­tur­ing. Slavoj Zizek is enter­tain­ing, but noth­ing more.

  • hayden white says:

    Chom­sky can’t under­stand why Zizek and Lacan could be so “influ­en­tial.” That is exact­ly why Chom­sky, for all his good inten­tions and indus­tri­ous­ness, has so lit­tle influence–on any­one except those who already agree with him. Chom­sky dis­dains pos­tur­ing, rhetoric, and pre­sum­ably art in gen­er­al: because he thinks that his old-fash­ioned, philo­soph­i­cal­ly inde­fen­si­ble idea of “sci­ence,” empir­i­cal “proof,” and “objec­tiv­i­ty” is as passé as his the­o­ry of the mind and the “hard-wired­ness” of lan­guage. In fact, Chom­sky’s dis­course could use a lit­tle art­ful­ness to get it going. He is in a trench that leads him to repeat, with­out vary­ing the style of his dis­course, end­less­ly and pret­ty soon begins to dead­en the ear that it would enliv­en.

  • wayne brooks says:

    Such an intel­lec­tu­al as Chom­sky would have not trou­ble under­stand­ing Zizek or Lacan if it weren’t for his blind­ing Carte­sian dual­ism which caus­es blind­sight to the deep­er mean­ing of life.

  • Filip says:

    Zizek is an enter­tain­er. He says some interesting/witty/maybe even smart things. His func­tion and his method, though, are dif­fer­ent from those of a philoso­pher. What peo­ple seem to posit as an argu­ment is this: “Chom­sky is a rig­or­ous philoso­pher. Zizek is not a rig­or­ous philoso­pher. But we need both kinds.” And the real­i­ty is that is true, except a philoso­pher who lacks rig­or is not real­ly a philoso­pher, not any­more than a sur­geon with Parkin­son’s.

  • nonya says:

    Chom­sky is a man who’s the­o­ry war­rants action, the idea that Fou­cault should have even been on stage is inap­pro­pri­ate.

    Took him to school? Chom­sky asks you to eval­u­ate if said school tru­ly rep­re­sents your inter­ests.… Fou­cault prefers to end­less­ly dis­cuss irrel­e­vant pow­er details, while at the same time feck­less­ly pro­mot­ing the sta­tus quo.

  • Tim White says:

    P. A. Oliv­er what an edi­fice of plat­i­tudes. All built on some­thing as vapid as your men­tal
    Image of Chom­sky! And you have the audac­i­ty to crit­i­cize him for pos­tur­ing. Pos­tur­er heal thy­self!

  • Alex Bunardzic says:

    Risk fac­tors are an infal­li­ble indi­ca­tion of qua­si sci­ence. Any­one can claim any­thing to be a risk fac­tor, and because those are not fal­si­fi­able, they’re not sci­ence. Only causal rela­tion qual­i­fies as a sci­en­tif­ic fact.

    Today’s med­i­cine, in cor­rob­o­ra­tion with com­mon sense, claims that arsenic, when swal­lowed in large dos­es, caus­es death. This causal rela­tion can be sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly demon­strat­ed by con­duct­ing repeat­able exper­i­ments that would pro­vide con­vinc­ing empir­i­cal evi­dence in sup­port of the claims that 100% of peo­ple who swal­low arsenic are guar­an­teed to die. There­fore, arsenic is NOT a risk fac­tor. Eat­ing fried bacon, on the oth­er hand, is mere­ly a risk fac­tor, no mat­ter how much qua­si-sci­en­tists try to claim that it is a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly proven cause of some dis­eases.

  • Philip Bell says:

    I have writ­ten a book-length cri­tique of “The­o­ry that only dogs can hear”, and dis­cussed its edu­ca­tion­al impli­ca­tions in:

    Philip Bell

    Con­fronting The­o­ry — the Psy­chol­o­gy of Cul­tur­al Stud­ies, Intel­lect, 2010.

    I ask whether much of what is called ‘The­o­ry” has any way of being eval­u­at­ed — con­cep­tu­al­ly, log­i­cal­ly or empir­i­cal­ly.

    My book cites stu­dents’ attempts to write about and using The­o­ry — the results are not pret­ty, but many aca­d­e­mics see my cri­tique as anti-intel­lec­tu­al. So that’s the prob­lem: no inter­est in argu­ment or debate.

  • Niko says:

    “cult”? I cant think of any bet­ter word to describe the enthu­si­asm of Chom­sky’s fol­low­ers.

  • fateh says:

    zizek used to be attrac­tive for me when I was 18–19. know that I’ve grown think what he says is only blah blah blah.…

  • rob ford says:

    This is beyond ridicu­lous, you can’t read Der­ri­da or Hei­deg­ger or Fou­cault with­out know­ing : Hegel, Husserl, Marx, Nietzche,Kant, come on, if you can’t do arith­metics, there is no way you gonna be able to under­stand quan­tum mechan­ics.
    Why are peo­ple even dis­cussing Chom­sky: a bril­liant lin­guis­tic with­out any knowl­edge or exper­tise in psy­chi­a­try or phi­los­o­phy?

  • Matej says:

    Lol Chom­sky hates ‘Paris intel­lec­tu­als’ ever since he got his ass hand­ed to him in a debate against Fou­cault. Appar­ent­ly, he did­nt hate them enough in the 70s when he agreed to debate them and, thus, rec­og­nize them as intel­lec­tu­als worth debat­ing.

  • doc says:

    “I doubt very much whether any­one (least of all Chom­sky) could explain Chomsky’s work to a 12 year old.”

    You’ve mis­un­der­stood what Chom­sky said. He did­n’t say that one’s ideas must be capa­ble of being explained to a 12 year old. He did­n’t say any­thing like that at all. He chal­lenged the inter­view­er, and us by exten­sion, to find in the men­tioned work (“the ideas of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Der­ri­da”), some prin­ci­ples from con­clu­sions and testable propo­si­tions may be drawn that, once “the fan­cy words are decode,” would take longer than five min­utes to explain to a twelve year old.

  • doc says:


    …some prin­ci­ples from which con­clu­sions and testable propo­si­tions may be drawn that, once “the fan­cy words are decode,” would take longer than five min­utes to explain to a twelve year old.

  • Michael Kearney says:

    Glo­ried arith­metic? Is this how you dis­miss Locke,Hume et al.? They showed that phi­los­o­phy could be writ­ten in clear prose, not in pseu­do-pro­found bab­ble or bogus appli­ca­tions of total­ly inap­pro­pri­ate math­e­mat­i­cal or sci­en­tif­ic terms in order to cov­er essen­tial­ly pro­sa­ic ideas. I’m sure that Voltaire,who despised pos­tur­ing and cant,would agree. Hume and oth­er “anglosax­on ana­lyt­ics” will be read longer than any­thing of Fou­cault. If I want some­thing dif­fi­cult, but worth­while, I’ll take Hegel.

  • Jacob says:

    Chom­sky reveres and was philo­soph­i­cal­ly formed by Rus­sell and his ana­lyt­ic-school peers; this entails a con­tempt for post-Kant­ian Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy as hav­ing not, in the view of Rus­sell and his con­tem­po­raries, at least, over­come Hume’s dis­missal of meta­physics. Chom­sky’s lan­guage in this excerpt mir­rors Hume’s famous “con­sign it to the flames” quote (which I may have inex­act despite its fame) close­ly.

    I myself was strong­ly influ­enced by this empiri­cist lin­eage (Locke-Hume-Rus­sell) as a young per­son, via Rus­sel­l’s His­to­ry of West­ern Phi­los­o­phy, inter alia.

    In my mid-thir­ties I have come to deeply regret ignor­ing mod­ern meta­physics for so long as a result. Rus­sel­l’s dis­missal of con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy is based more on polit­i­cal con­ceits (he believed more or less that empiri­cism led to lib­er­al val­ues and con­ti­nen­tal meta­physics led to the Nazis–it real­ly is that crude) than care­ful analy­sis, and his read­ings are any­thing but appro­pri­ate­ly char­i­ta­ble.

    “Ana­lyt­i­cal” philo­soph­i­cal dis­course in Amer­i­ca these days lim­its itself most­ly to lit­tle log­i­cal puz­zles in epis­te­mol­o­gy. Inspi­ra­tion is in short sup­ply. The idea that “the prob­lems of phi­los­o­phy” are being solved in this man­ner is slight­ly fun­ny.

    The excess­es of jar­gon and the less-than-philo­soph­i­cal the­o­ry mills of human­i­ties depart­ments are well known, but this does not pre­clude good faith engage­ment with the con­ti­nen­tal philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion.

  • Jacob says:

    It should also be not­ed that dense and con­fus­ing philo­soph­i­cal prose is not a mod­ern inno­va­tion. My favorite ancient philoso­pher, and one of the most influ­en­tial of all time, Plot­i­nus, could not at all be described as writ­ing clear­ly. Meta­physics con­fronts one with many appar­ent para­dox­es and can only ges­ture at things which are by nature beyond lan­guage. “Where­of we can­not speak, there­of we must be silent,” Wittgen­stein said, essen­tial­ly a restate­ment of Hume. As a descrip­tive state­ment, this is tau­tol­ogy; as a pre­scrip­tive state­ment, it is tyran­ny. It can nev­er be set­tled what is unsayable. Hume and his ana­lyt­i­cal prog­e­ny sim­ply want phi­los­o­phy to be the ser­vant of nat­ur­al sci­ence. Peo­ple of what I’d con­sid­er a true philo­soph­i­cal cast of mind will nev­er rest con­tent with this.

    All phi­los­o­phy of what­ev­er kind pro­duces pic­tures in the mind of schemes of real­i­ty. These pictures/schemes may be pro­duc­tive of new insights or dis­cov­er­ies. The sup­pos­ed­ly pure­ly ana­lyt­i­cal mode will also sug­gest pic­tures, in spite of itself. It seems to be more the ana­lyt­ic school who want to impugn the val­ue that read­ers of con­ti­nen­tal clear­ly take from it. It may be that the two “schools” are often up to dif­fer­ent things, and that the ana­lyt­ics don’t want to rec­og­nize what the con­ti­nen­tals are up to as “phi­los­o­phy”. This is triv­ial and an illib­er­al atti­tude, often iron­i­cal­ly cloaked in the man­tle of defend­ing lib­er­al­ism.

    Chom­sky et al may seek to strict­ly lim­it the def­i­n­i­tion of phi­los­o­phy, but I do not think they will bring us any quick­er there­by to a state of flour­ish­ing.

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