Noam Chomsky Explains What’s Wrong with Postmodern Philosophy & French Intellectuals, and How They End Up Supporting Oppressive Power Structures

Noam Chomsky has always had irascible tendencies—when he doesn’t like something, he lets us know it, without ever raising his voice and usually with plenty of footnotes. It’s a quality that has made the emeritus MIT professor and famed linguist such a potent critic of U.S. empire for half a century, vigorously denouncing the Vietnam War, the Iraq War(s), and the possibility of a catastrophic war with North Korea. Chomsky isn’t a professional historian or political philosopher; these are avocations he has taken on to bolster his arguments. But those arguments are strengthened by his willingness to engage with primary sources and take them seriously.

When it comes, however, to his much-publicized feud with “Postmodernism,” a term he uses liberally at times to describe almost all post-war French intellectual culture, Chomsky rarely confronts his opponents in their own terms. That’s largely because, as he’s said on many occasions, he can’t make any sense of them. It’s not exactly an original critique. Mandarins of French thought like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard have been accused for decades, and not without merit, of knowingly peddling bullshit to a French readership that expects, as Michel Foucault once admitted, a mandatory “ten percent incomprehensible.” (Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu asserts that the number is much higher.)

But Chomsky’s critique goes further, in a direction that doesn’t get nearly as much press as his charges of obscurantism and overuse of insular jargon. Chomsky claims that far from offering radical new ways of conceiving the world, Postmodern thought serves as an instrument of oppressive power structures. It’s an interesting assertion given some recent arguments that “post-truth” postmodernism is responsible for the rise of the self-described “alt-right” and the rapid spread of fake information as a tool for the current U.S. ruling party seizing power.

Not only is there “a lot of material reward,” Chomsky says, that comes from the academic superstardom many high-profile French philosophers achieved, but their position—or lack of a clear position—”allows people to take a very radical stance… but to be completely dissociated from everything that’s happening.” Chomsky gives an example above of an anonymous postmodernist critic branding a talk he gave as “naïve” for its discussion of such outmoded “Enlightenment stuff” as making moral decisions and referring to such a thing as “truth.” In his brief discussion of “the strange bubble of French intellectuals” at the top of the post, Chomsky gets more specific.

Most post-war French philosophers, he alleges, have been Stalinists or Maoists (he uses the example of Julia Kristeva), and have uncritically embraced authoritarian state communism despite its documented crimes and abuses, while rejecting other modes of philosophical thought like logical positivism that accept the validity of the scientific method. This may or may not be a fair critique: political orientations shift and change (and at times we accept a thinker’s work while fully rejecting their personal politics). And the postmodern critique of scientific discourse as form of oppressive power is a serious one that needn’t entail a wholesale rejection of science.

Are there any post-structuralist thinkers Chomsky admires? Though he takes a little dig at Michel Foucault in the clip above, he and the French theorist have had some fruitful debates, “on real issues,” Chomsky says, “and using language that was perfectly comprehensible—he speaking French, me English.” That’s not a surprise. The two thinkers, despite the immense difference in their styles and frames of reference, both engage heavily with primary historical sources and both consistently write histories of ideology.

It is partly through the interplay between Foucault and Chomsky’s ideas that we might find a synthesis of French Marxist post-structuralist thought and American anarchist political philosophy. Rather than seeing them as professional wrestlers in the ring, with the postmodernist as the heel and headlines like “Chomsky DESTROYS Postmodernism,” we could look for complementarity and points of agreement, and genuinely read, as difficult as that can be, as many of the arguments of postmodern French philosophers as we can (and perhaps this defense of obscurantism) before deciding with a sweeping gesture that none of them make any sense.

Related Content:

Free Online Philosophy Courses

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

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

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

MIT Is Digitizing a Huge Archive of Noam Chomsky’s Lectures, Papers and Other Documents & Will Put Them Online

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

by | Permalink | Comments (24) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (24)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Matthew Coate says:

    Thanks for the well written article, which (unlike the unfortunate norm) deals quite fair-mindedly with the figures you discuss.

    I do find it odd, though, that Chomsky associates French thought with communism, especially Maoism. This might have been an accurate characterization before ’68, but it but hardly seems so for French thought after (i.e., for anything that gets called “postmodern”). With only a few exceptions (Badiou, for one), most French thinkers after ’68 are very critical of the Marxist/Hegelian tradition in general.

  • Gech says:

    The thing with some intellectuals is that, if there are a thousand of them of the same ilk to form a society, it will be as oppressive as any in human history.

  • Mike Harrop says:

    The distinguished linguist Noam Chomsky has mastered rationalist Mumbojumbo, but his Charabia needs some work. One needs both. As in opera, the sung text is impossible to understand, but if one adds music, it all becomes clear.

  • David Hickey says:

    The kinds of inflammatory generalizations that “Istvan” and “Gech”peddle are exactly the hallmarks of the fascism they fear. To summarily dismiss postmodernism is to be blind to the helpful dialectic that many of its teachings help to foster. There are many great insights one can gather from most postmodern thinkers (as the author of the article accompanying Chomsky’s videos claims). For example (and contra Matthew Coate above) the thought of Marx and Hegel has survived the forms of communism that disingenuously claimed those two great thinkers as their forefathers. The Marxian critique, and especially, the Hegelian project, are alive and well and providing great assistance to sociologists and philosophers throughout the world. Damning them for Mao and Stalin,, is like damning democracy because of Bush/Cheney and Trump.

  • Bob says:

    …or, for that matter, Carter, Clinton or Obama.

  • Tom says:

    Foucault is the only post-structuralist i have time for.
    The rest are a bad joke.

  • Naresh Dadhich says:

    Postmodernism started with pointing out oppressive nature of the ruling elite but in the name of individual assertion of truth degenerated into”post truth” phenomenon

  • Red Allover says:

    Philosophically Chomsky is to the right of St. Thomas Aquinas who, following Aristotle, believed knowledge is derived from the senses, from observation of the real world. Chomsky, on the other hand, is a Platonist: He holds that humans possess a unique inborn language ability not dependent on culture.
    As Mcluhan said, Chomsky’s mistake is that what he thinks a result of inborn programming is really the result of education and environment.In this respect,
    Vygotsky the Marxist Soviet psychologist is the antidote to the life long anti-communist Chomsky.
    Of course Marxism has nothing whatsoever to do with Postmodernism–a reactionary and in its ultra subjectivity and anti-scientific irrationalism, typical bourgeois world view.

  • Gerald Washington says:

    Philosophers exchange theories in regard to the nature of mankind.History has shown us that wars started by political leader are only interested in exchanging dead bodies.Peace

  • waltstawicki says:

    ah some sanity. thanks. ive no love 4 chomsky since reafing his absurd innate language module theory, and only in humans. that is so unscientific, its pure ancient religiosity.

    i distinguish legible postmodernist from obscurant wanna be navel gazers; fathers from bad seed. the name thing’s mere bad options in this world that must corral everyone born between year a and year b as some coherent unity. we are label obsessed yet out of ideas .

    its a pity russel or whithead died. they could put chmpsky in his sophmoric place. wonder why he had to leave science?

  • Divana says:

    The far left is the fair-haired child of post-modernism. The alt-right is merely a logical response , albeit misguided one, to the identity politics of the far left. They mirror one another in their ideology rooted in identity.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    But Monsieur Chomsky, you are not at all different from them…

  • Joseph Pendleton says:

    Equating Jean-Francois Lyotard with Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Lacan shows that Josh Jones knows next to nothing about any one of them. Ethical and political concerns were at the heart of much of Lyotard’s writing. Anyone familiar with him (I had him as a professor for three seminars) knew he was a modest man who was incredibly detailed and careful in his work. He took part in the Algerian revolt against French occupation and the May ’68 uprising in Paris. To call him “Mandarin” is just plain stupid. His writings on the postmodern are nearly always misunderstood and make a small part of his work.

    • Josh Jones says:

      Thanks for weighing in. I haven’t intended to “equate” them, I’ve only tried to characterize, in brief, the way they have been lumped together and mischaracterized. I personally have a high regard for these thinkers, especially Lyotard and Baudrillard.

  • Francis says:

    But what does this have to do with the imminent destruction of humankind?

  • American Slave says:

    The historical movement reflected in post-modernist philosophy probably does not fallow any thinker writing. It is a symptom, and should be read as the manifestation of something else, deeper. There is an important change that keeps evolving from a central, hierarchical path of organization to a more decentralized, and yet almost ubiquitous political power. Fallowing Foucaullt, we should pay attention to the way we distribute power, and well noted by Deleuze and Gattari, it is more like rhizome organization-like than simple, and hierarchical trees of decision. Chomsky does not get it, maybe because he thinks he still have some power and responsibility as a thinker. But the fact is that the power is now in the hand of programmers, and businessman, and quite surprisingly in the hand of trolls, and almost any community of interest. How would you explain Metoo or Students movement we see spreading right now? I would be curious to ear someone explaining how post-modernist could have triggered or induced or even influenced anything we know about social movements we see these days, how they organize, and operate! ;)

  • elisabeth says:

    How odd that he sees France as insular… in school on top of french we all learn english plus a third language and for some a fourth to the point where we can help out most tourists who get lost, but somehow most of the time when americans ask for their way around they only speak english :) Most restaurants and venues in France offer everything in english as well as french but apart from Los Angeles which offers spanish, the US offer everything in english. They give the impression that they don’t need anything else than what they have and anyone else than who they are. And we are the insular ones ? French people who are slightly interested in politics and culture know the names of most american public people, but I doubt most americans know the same about the french. Is it just because the US are bigger and known by almost everyone on the planet ? No, it’s because we care about other things than just ourselves Mr Chomsky :))

  • Butter Balls says:

    Parisians are pretty foul though, or a sufficiently large number are to make rudeness to visitors commonplace. Americans are certainly insular and all English speaking countries are lazy about languages because we can afford to be.

  • Mallard says:

    I’m an American and I never experienced this rudeness during my two weeks in Paris. I had a good time interacting with the locals. People were very friendly to me.

    I started to suspect that there’s often more to “the French people were mean to me” stories that Americans tell than the tellers themselves are aware. Just speculating though. I also might just be biased in favor of people who live in tourist destinations, cuz I grew up in one and was sometimes a total crank to obnoxious tourists who may or may not have deserved it.

  • Mallard says:

    Is it just me, or do communists call the postmodernists (lifestyle) “anarchists” as a diss, while anarchists call them communist? Hey folks maybe the world isn’t so black and white.

    But dang you should read the things people on both or neither side have to say about the political context and implication of Chomsky’s linguistics.

    Might as well be a circular firing squad of leftists calling each other Nazis for not fawning over the same books as each other.

  • Ron Bridges says:

    It’s Aug 31. 2020 and what I’m seeing now is destruction and death In the streets of America resulting from all this postmodernist mental masturbation that some people call philosophy. Who taught these little Antifa morons to think the way they do? Tenured professors of philosophy who ought to be ashamed of themselves, that’s who.

  • Josh Jones says:

    This is a confusing reply. How are the theories of Jacques Derrida (for example) directly responsible for people on the streets demanding the right not to be murdered? What makes you think “antifa morons” are postmodernists? Have you read any postmodern philosophy? Did you read the post (in which Chomsky accuses postmodern philosophers of supporting the status quo) before commenting?

  • Lars Block says:

    I would not presume to know what R. Bridges meant, but a great number of Antifa “protesters” are young, many students or recently graduated, which makes sense since none appear to have jobs. They clearly are inspired by the riots of the sixties and have been fed a massive dose of critical theory and postmodernism by ideological professors in the worthless “studies” degrees some students waste their parents money on. While some claim crit theory and the postmods, post structuralists if one cares to make the distinction, are different, any casual read through authors of any of these show hard left to radical Marxist ideology. Chomsky is right that they write gibberish but wrong that they are “status quo” as he conceives it. The PMods can only feed their egos by contesting “the system” even while getting grant money from corporate America. Hypocrisy hardly impedes postmodernism after all.

  • Sujay Rao Mandavilli says:

    Eurocentrism. The same thing that ails Marxists

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.