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

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Comments (26)
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  • 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

  • JZmor says:

    As a note, Chom­sky would not real­ly qual­i­fy as a pure “Pla­ton­ist”, just because he does not pro­mote a ‘clean slate’ the­o­ry of lan­guage. Chom­sky has also ded­i­cat­ed time to the role of expe­ri­ence and it’s inter­ac­tion with under­ly­ing brain struc­tures sup­port­ing lan­guage use and acqui­si­tion.

  • jp guilford says:

    As a note, Chom­sky can­not real­ly be regard­ed as a pure “Pla­ton­ist”, just because he does not pro­mote a ‘clean slate’ the­o­ry of lan­guage. Chom­sky has also ded­i­cat­ed time to the role of expe­ri­ence and it’s inter­ac­tion with under­ly­ing brain struc­tures sup­port­ing lan­guage use and acqui­si­tion.

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