CHOMSKY’S « CONVERSATION » ARGUMENT: non-conversational = non-cognitive

Chomsky does not feel that a conversation between himself and Zizek would be of any interest or utility. The problem is that Zizek does not respect the principles of cooperative conversation (a good account of which can be found in Grice’s four maxims). He finds Zizek guilty of « using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever« . On the other hand he would find it useful to have a discussion with Angela Davis who « is an interesting person, thinks about things, has important things to say, has done interesting things ».

Zizek on Chomsky’s view violates all four Gricean maxims

1) Quality: Zizek spreads lies and fantasies, and has no real evidence for anything he says

2) Quantity: there is very little (or even no) informational content in what Zizek says

3) Relevance: Zizek jumps around, « performs » and « postures », but does not stick to any precise point

4) Manner: Zizek’s writing is obscure, ambiguous, long-winded, and disordered.

Note: this is the same complaint that John Searle makes about Foucault’s (and French Philosophy in general) « obscurantism ». Chomsky makes the same remark as Searle, that Foucault was perfectly comprehensible « in conversation ».

I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English).

The underlying presupposition being that a book must conform to the same principles as those of a conversation, a book is merely one communicational medium among many, a neutral form for conveying independent informative content. French Poststructuralist philosophy presupposes that even a theoretical book is a form of « writing », which has a strong performative dimension: meaning and content are constructed and not given, the style is an important part of what is being said, concepts are fluid and ambiguous – often related by analogical networks that establish links between heterogeneous domains.

Chomsky notices the different style but can see nothing in it, and can see no justification for it. He seems to equate conversational and cognitive, and draws the conclusion if it’s non-conversational it’s non-cognitive. This argument he deems even more cogent than the positivist one, that it is non-cognitive because untestable. Here the claim is that it’s untestable, because there is nothing to test, it’s all pretentious gobbledygook.

Deleuze and Guattari make a strong case in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? for a non-conversational, non-testable, non-scientific form of understanding characteristic of philosophy: cognition by concepts (their construction, modification, and articulation in explications and arguments). Chomsky is reductionist: if you can’t reduce conceptual cognition to testable propositions, it is all truisms and nonsense.

I think that expressed in Latourian terms Chomsky does not understand the « mode of existence » of French philosophical texts and incorrectly summons them to satisfy the same felicity conditions as a scientific text or an informative conversation; Inevitably they come out looking badly. But if he could grant that they belong to a different mode, one based on tranforming our vision of the world rather than on just transmitting information, perhaps he would begin to see the performative behind the performance, perhaps he would see what Zizek’s arguments are, and that some of them are good. Perhaps he would even see that sometimes he proceeds in similar ways, by analogical groupings and conceptual portraits. Perhaps he would see that on Lyotard’s definition (« incredulity towards meta-narratives ») that he himself is postmodern in that sense, only reacting in a different way to a common condition; Perhaps Chomsky would come to see that even what he thinks is « obvious » requires a paradigm-shift to see, and that even his writings require the sorts of conversions and the overcoming of the sorts of resistances that are analysed in Zizek’s writings (among others).

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4 commentaires pour CHOMSKY’S « CONVERSATION » ARGUMENT: non-conversational = non-cognitive

  1. Ping : BLOGOPHOBIA IN PHILOSOPHY: Platonism and corporatism in the profession | AGENT SWARM


  3. Bob Suchansuch dit :

    Thanks for elaborating on that issue. I would like to ask a question about where exactly you think Latour comes into the frame. Having read some Latour, but not his most recent Modes of Existence (which some seem to consider his magnum opus), I am somewhat confused at his position in today’s intellectual landscape, since the work that I’ve read by him (some smaller essays, We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature) seems very much at Odds with the more critical strain of « Continental Philosophy » that I’m somewhat familiar with. I am very suspicious of the political tendencies of his « critique of critique », but I’m happy to be corrected here. I don’t get how Latour comes into this discussion if not to imply that to criticize the type of philosophy that Chomsky dislikes, one would have to accept its methodological presuppositions. But would that (and this is a sincere question) not lead to a somewhat unpleasant philosophically antireductionist conservatism that would imply that one can’t really criticize any mode of existance from the outside, for anything else would necessarily be based on misunderstanding? Would one need to extend that logic? Would that not mean that for example a lot of the critique of religion (and implicitly religious modes of thinking often found in non-religious contexts) that is such an important part of the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche would have to go out of the window? Because surely if it is not itself situated within the framework of religion’s mode of existence, it would have to be based on a misunderstanding?


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