One obstacle to understanding the disputes between intellectuals of different traditions is the lack of a common framework for framing the discussion that could provide guidelines for its conduct and shared criteria for the assessment of the respective claims.

For example, it is difficult to discuss the Zizek-Chomsky divide without making use of at least a minimum of theory. Otherwise one falls into the worst sort of empiricism, acting as if facts speak for themselves. This is a totally false view of science, and worse than useless when one wants to consider the relation between scientific and philosophical approaches.

So I will take as my guide Deleuze and Guattari’s book WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? They make a distinction between the plane of reference, characteristic of science, and the plane of immanence, characteristic of philosophy. Science deals in “functions” (note I think that this is too limited, and we should take it as meaning “analytic referential assemblages”) applicable to states of things. Philosophy deals with concepts (or synthetic typological assemblages, on my translation) expressing events. Passages between the two exist, but in each case something is gained and something is lost.

Philosophy is not totally non-referential, but with the passage from functions to concepts precision of reference is lost. What is gained includes synthetic analogical potency: the ability to group together and to see fundamental resemblances between seemingly disparate phenomena.

Conversely, with the passage from concepts to functions the synoptic capacity to treat things from different referential domains together is lost. What is gained is referential determinacy and saturation.

 Chomsky’s demand for precise emprically testable predictions from French Theory is a major conceptual blunder. He has made the same demands in the past concerning Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, again without citing any concrete text. In fact Chomsky does not care about the particular case of Zizek, and probably has not read any real book by Zizek, just a few newspaper articles.

Zizek’s reply to Chomsky contains a major conceptual blunder too. He responds in a Continental mode, typologically, or symptomatologically, trying to sketch a conceptual portrait of Chomsky, which overall I think is sound, but to illustrate his claims he tries to “outfact” Chomsky, which he does rather badly. So many people “see” only the rather vague gesturing to a supposed fact not supported by evidence, and not the conceptual portrait englobing it.

It is interesting to note that in the interview where Chomsky has a “dig” a Zizek, he is not interested in Zizek at all, and certainly not in any of Zizek’s books. His focus is, to that extent, not at all empirical, but rather he too is trying to sketch a conceptual portrait, that of a generic “theory” intellectual. Chomsky is indulging, but very ineptly, in precisely the sort of non-empirical conceptual portraiture he condemns in just about any philosopher who encroaches on his domains, ie language and politics.

Chomsky uses much the same arguments, and even nearly identical phrasing, to condemn Derrida’s OF GRAMMATOLOGY, which does not explicitly talk about American politics, imperialism, communism etc. Chomsky’s problem is not really one of politics, although it does provide grist to his mill. The problem is to depict in negative terms a certain form of intellectual “posturing”.

But we may object that surely Chomsky is aware that all is posture and that he himself is posturing, that we cannot step outside of our conceptual, affective, perceptual posture and see the world and act in it as if from nowhere. This is, as he would remark, a trivial point.

So he must have a particular type of “bad” posturing at heart. Elsewhere he talks about Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan in terms of their “pseudo-scientific posturing”. And we see that his demand for empirically testable theses goes in that same direction. None of these philosophers claim to be doing science, yet they seem to be making cognitive claims.

Chomsky is unconsciously presupposing what could wellcount as an empirically testable thesis: to think philosophically one must create and make use of nonempirical conceptual personae. He is trying to denounce a cognitive posture where empty verbiage masquerades as theory, where the only informational content that can be extracted from its utterances is a small set of truisms and platitudes embedded in a host of errors and of meaningless assertions. In his view, narcissistic gibberish reigns supreme in the world of the Parisian intelligentsia.

This transcendental profile has nothing to do with anything as empirical as Chomsky’s actually reading an existing book by Zizek such as THE PARALLAX VIEW for example. After all, Chomsky claimed he “tried” reading OF GRAMMATOLOGY and could find nothing in it except a few truisms and some dubious scholarship.

In creating, unfortunately from ready-made anti-intellectual stereotypes, this conceptual persona Chomsky has crossed over onto the philosophical plane of immanence and has lost empirical reference to a very large extent: Zizek is unrecognisable, and any particular text or thesis has disappeared in Chomsky’s very hazy transcendental portrait.

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  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Um, err, Chomsky’s on risky ground demanding “precise emprically testable predictions.” His version of linguistics has been criticized for, in effect, being insulated from empirical evidence. His famous distinction between competence and performance can easily used to put the study of linguistic competence beyond empirical evidence. And the use of “linguistic intuition” to make the grammaticality judgements required by the study of linguistic competence adds an element of subjective bias to the process.


    • Katja Schellhammer says:

      I would disagree there. The scientific study of any object, in this case language, involves idealization. True you can never create the ideal circumstances to arrive at pure unbiased data of linguistic competence. Your empirical data will always be biased by performance factors, so you’ll have to try to abstract from those. But the fact that your theory of competence will never fit all the available linguistic data, does not mean it need not fit any. The fact that you do not get ideal data does not make your work unscientific or “insulated from empirical evidence”.


      • Bill Benzon says:

        “The fact that you do not get ideal data does not make your work unscientific…”

        This is how you insulate your theory from evidence. You assume, as you apparently are, that the data must conform to your theory, rather than adjusting your theory to conform to the data.


      • terenceblake says:

        Sometimes the data must be adjusted too. There are no pure data, and what data we have are often gathered by instruments and procedures that are based on quite other theories than the one in question, but that occasionally need to be revised.


      • Michael Schiffmann says:

        I agree with Katja – the competence/performance distinction insulates linguistic trheory as little from the data as the idea of frictionless free fall insulates research into the motion of bodies from empirical data. Theories don’t become truer by virtue of a close connection to the data they are a theory of. One lesson to draw in linguistics, of course, is that linguists and cognitive scientists should try hard to develop integrated theories that cover both competence and performance.


  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, I think that if Zizek wanted to reply he should have gone the whole hog and questioned Chomsky’s “empiricality” in the domain of his scientific expertise. It is clear that without the need of any explicity “posturing” Chomsky is relying on his posture as a scientific expert, and so there is an implied argument from authority underlying his proclamations.


  3. Terence,
    What do you mean when you say that science should be said to deal in “analytic referential assemblages” rather than functions? Also, shouldn’t science be said to be a function or method of question? Perhaps that’s what you’re saying.


  4. terenceblake says:

    Hello Louis, I think that Deleuze and Guattari have in mind the mathematizable sciences, but that much of Biology, and even Chemistry, does not correspond to this idea of “functions” as criterion of demarcation. They are not talking at the level of method here, but in terms of the common structure of scientific theories.


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

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