CHOMSKY/ZIZEK: incommensurable gap or sophistic spat

I think to treat the differend that shows up in the rather trivial-seeming exchange of digs between Chomsky and Zizek as a mere infantile “spat” is already to come down on one side of the quarrel (Chomsky’s side) and one side of the division (the analytic side). Zizek’s whole intellectual style incorporates finding the far-reaching philosophical and political issues in the anodyne details of ordinary and mediatic life. This is a very important component of the Continental approach.

There is something more substantive at stake in the Chomsky/Zizek differend, and that is a difference in cognitive styles between Continental and Analytic modes of thinking. I am no great fan of Zizek’s and I have criticised him in several places on this blog.

I criticise Zizek for example here: But note that I criticise him for being insufficiently faithful to his typological method, separating out one typological series (the Oedipal one) as the key to all the other series. I also think that analogical or typological reasoning can be quite potent, but it is not infallible, and needs to be checked against the facts. I discuss a particular example of typological reasoning that fails here:

I am not concerned who won the “match”, nor even about the particular persons involved, but about the styles of thinking. Chomsky and Zizek are only incidentally concerned with the facts. Chomsky cannot stand Continental style theory and doesn’t seem to have read much of it (he is to that extent non-empirical), and Zizek relies so much on theory that he doesn’t bother to get his facts straight.

Both are in fact doing badly what each of their philosophical epistemes requires, and thus they reveal even more clearly the presence of such incommensurable frameworks in what they say. I think the discussion of the Khmer Rouge example is a red herring (forgive the pun!). Zizek is not vey good at analytic argument and tends to proceed typologically (or by “gestalts”). Chomsky, while arguing well analytically, presupposes that such typological reasoning is irrational and its conclusions are either erroneous or without interesting content.

One can see in the in general pretty mindless declarations of support on both sides that the public is not really very interested in the arguments either, but rather in confirmation of their opinions (this is normal and obvious) but also, I would argue, in confirmation of their way of thinking.

Analytic philosophy tends to frame certain deepseated disagreements reductively as mere “spats”. One reason for this attitude lies in the status accorded to “incommensurability”. In analytic philosophy the very existence of incommensurable theories (here we already have a limitation to the semantic domain) is admitted, if at all, only as a conclusion to a long and difficult debate.

However, in Continental philosophy the existence of incommensurabilities is very often the commonly recognised starting point for thinkers such as Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Badiou. It is far easier from a Continental perspective to see in such disputes more than just personal attacks and quibbling, but as indicative of fundamentally different images of thought.

Chomsky admits to looking at these thinkers’ theories and at seeing nothing there. He does not ascend to the meta-level to see if there are systematic presuppositions causing a form of cognitive blindness, he simply infers that there is nothing to see.

Perhaps it all goes back to Hegel’s PHENOMENOLOGY. The dialectical way of thought lets one see ideas as gaining their content and their sense from being inscribed in different figures of consciousness (or phenomenological worlds, or understandings of being). The specific rules of transition from one figure to another that Hegel proposes may or may not be accepted, but the post-Hegelian mode of (dialectical) thought makes abundant use of such typological perceptions and arguments.

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8 Responses to CHOMSKY/ZIZEK: incommensurable gap or sophistic spat

  1. dyssebeia says:

    Thank you for this. It helps somewhat with my concerns.


  2. Pingback: CHOMSKY/ZIZEK: incommensurable gap or sophistic spat | Research Material

  3. lacquesjacan says:

    Reblogged this on Lacques Jacan and commented:
    An excellent reflexion on the Analytic-Continental divide from Agent Swarm


  4. beautype says:

    Interesting reflections. But I think this is a misunderstanding of most of what is important in what is being said between Chomsky and Zizek.

    The main question is the one put to Chomsky in the initial piece of the exchange: do you think “postmodern” theory is important for understanding the world?

    Chomsky replied that he didn’t think so, that most prominent postmodernist “theorists” are appear to him to be posturing more than thinking, and that the claims they put forth are mostly empty verbiage with few ideas behind them.

    Chomsky then pointed out the difference in the way the term “theory” is used in the sciences (in contrast to humanities and modern continental philosophy departments). That is, he said that he couldn’t find any principles in the supposed “theory” of someone like Zizek from which one could form an explanatory model or an empirically testable hypothesis. So lots of claims, but no theory. In fact, the use of the term “theory” to describe ideas/claims is an example of that posturing.

    So that is the core of the argument, the way I see it, as it was laid out by Chomsky in response to an interviewer’s question.

    In your post above you talk about “styles of thinking.” I think this is the crux of it. On one side, you have a style of thinking that is interested in clearly defined concepts, empirically falsifiable statements, and collaborative production of knowledge.

    On the other side, you have a lot of grandiose claims, a lot of verbiage, few clearly described concepts, and a lot of rhetorical flourish. In my opinion, anyway. When you take the time to read works in this category, and to figure out what the main idea is, it often reduces to empty statements or trivial ideas worth, perhaps, a few paragraphs of explanation.

    The recipe for coming up with a book in the second category: start with a basic idea. Find some fancier, non-transparent words to describe it, using foreign words or unusual big words. Inflate the basic idea into a huge claim about humans, or desire, or society, or history. Avoid nuance, and especially avoid clearly stated, testable thesis statements. Never describe a null hypothesis or what evidence would invalidate the claim you’re making. Never use nuance or hedge; make sure your statements are slippery and vague enough that no one could ever really prove them wrong or even really understand them for sure.


  5. terenceblake says:

    “When you take the time to read works in this category, and to figure out what the main idea is, it often reduces to empty statements or trivial ideas worth, perhaps, a few paragraphs of explanation”. I disagree. I have taken time to read many French poststructuralist philosophical texts, that that time includes the time to do the necessary background reading, and many (but not all) of these texts are rich and demanding conceptual feasts. They are not scientific texts, they do not even claim to be, and that does not make them verbiage. To take an example, Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS was a breakthrough for me, because I could not accept the limitations of the lacano-althusserian synthesis. Their book contains many arguments against this synthesis, but expressed in a wild language, with many references to catch up on. It is not a book for beginners, so I can recommend it to almost noone, but it changed my life. Despite containing arguments it also just plunges you from the beginning into their way of seeing things, using language in a way that dramatises the incommensurable leap that one must make to properly understand the book. In other words their method of exposition is the opposite of the analytic method, they begin with the conclusion, and this conclusion is also presupposed by the very style used to write the book. This can make it hard reading, but there is nothing irrational or “wrong” about wanting to foreground one’s differences, as long as one has arguments to back it all up. This is a common Continental way of writing, and one must overcome one’s insular prejudices that they should “do it like us”.


  6. Pingback: Considering the Preconditions of Thought | Louis Sterrett: Blog

  7. John T. says:

    Terenceblake: You have the patience of a saint.

    Even after the blowhard commenter “beautype” acknowledged that your post was insightful, they still insisted on railing against the continental tradition. I am so fed up with granting these egoists the benefit of the doubt when they so clearly don’t extend the same courtesy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • terenceblake says:

      I think the important thing is what you give primacy to. It is ok in my eyes to reply to analytics without giving them the primacy that many of them presuppose for their regional style (in the geographic sense of regional, and also in the sense of regional ontologies). It is a good exercise to give a feel to A SINCERE INQUIRER AS TO What is being talked about, and it allows us to measure what is lost in translation.


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