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)

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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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