ON ZIZEK’S “IRRATIONALITY”: Some Traits of Continental Philosophy (Traits 1 to 5)

Nowhere in my defence of Continental philosophy do I claim that one must abandon all rational grounds, nor that anything goes. I do say that Chomsky has a very limited idea of rational grounds, quite insufficient even in analytic terms, and that he doesn’t even apply this idea to his own “arguments” (in fact unsupported assertions) about Continental Philosophy. One has the right not to agree with Chomsky’s idea of rationality (which is very vague, “posturing”, limiting itself to scientific rationality and then gesticulating towards “empirical testability” – this is not the be all and end all of scientific rationality). You can look all over my blog, and you will find that I do not indulge in irrational vaticinations. But sometimes you have to have done the background reading to catch the allusions, to see the dialogic structure, to unpack the analogies. As one must with Chomsky too. And with anyone who has something to say.

Let me take the first paragraph of Zizek’s latest book LESS THAN NOTHING where he elaborates a concept of “stupidity” that applies to “the (occasionally) hyper‐intelligent subject who just doesn’t “get it,” who understands a situation logically, but simply misses its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I first visited New York, a waiter at a café asked me: “How was your day?” Mistaking the phrase for a genuine question, I answered him truthfully (“I am dead tired, jet‐lagged, stressed out …”), and he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot … and he was right: this kind of stupidity is precisely that of an idiot. Alan Turing was an exemplary idiot: a man of extraordinary intelligence, but a proto‐psychotic unable to process implicit contextual rules. In literature, one cannot avoid recalling Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Švejk, who, when he saw soldiers shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no‐man’s land and started to shout: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The arch‐model of this idiocy is,however, the naïve child from Andersen’s tale who publicly exclaims that the emperor is naked—thereby missing the point that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked beneath our clothes”.

I think this is well-written, typical of Zizek’s style, and easy to understand – not at all “irrational” or an “invitation to irrationalism”. He contrasts direct logical understanding that needs no context and rational understanding that takes into account the contextual rues of a situation. The distinction applies to Chomsky’s assertions about Continental philosophy, as Chomsky does not bother to take into account the contextual rules of French philosophy, he just assumes that either they are the same rules as those of science, ie empirical testability (which is a very bizarre assumption to make, we are not doing science most of the time, and we are still, often, being rational),and please do not do me the insult of supposing that I am contesting the law of contradiction or whatever. The principle applies to Zizek himself in two ways. First, explicitly, he gives an amusing and easy to relate to anecdote (because we have all made similar gaffes at one time or another) where he himself was “stupid” in this sense. Secondly, implicitly, as the conclusion “we are all naked beneath our clothes” suggests, in any critique of the inadequacies of others made by him Zizek considers that he is certainly guilty of the same or similar failings. This conclusion is not given in his own words, but by quoting from a popular French humorist from the last half of the Nineteenth Century.

I think that this short passage illustrates many traits of French poststructuralist philosophy:

1) creation of a concept: one cannot set out from familiar ideas, concepts must be constructed to give us new perspectives. Zizek constructs an explicit and contextual definition of one form of stupidity, that he will go on to oppose to other forms.

2) conceptual persona: concepts are not just given in abstract definitions, they are embedded in figures that give intuitive and imaginative content to what could otherwise remain an empty verbalism. Zizek associates his abstract definition of stupidity to various figures of the stupid person, including himself

3) analogical resonance and transversal application: concepts are not limited to one domain but are constructed to show up features occurring in a diversity of domains. Zizek uses his concept to follow analogies between an abstract definition, an everyday life situation, the biography of a famous mathematician, a famous Czech anti-war novel (published in 1923), a well-known fairy tale, and a popular humorists take on it

4) reflexivity: the commitment to immanence implies that the Continental Philosopher is not outside and judging the field of application of his concepts, he is himself subsumed under them. Zizek includes himself and his text in the domain of application of his concept of stupidity.

5) pulsation between concept and image: Often this is what is meant when one calls such texts “poetic”. In fact it is a way of pluralising the applicability of the concept without giving it universal scope. Zizek passes from abstract concepts to “illustrations” in film and literature and life-experiences and jokes, where each enriches the other in both extension and meaning.

None of this is irrational, and I think Zizek has given here a masterful Continental opening to a 1010 page book

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9 Responses to ON ZIZEK’S “IRRATIONALITY”: Some Traits of Continental Philosophy (Traits 1 to 5)

  1. beautype says:

    This post is a superb example of irrationality, contrary to the claim of the final sentence.
    In other words: it’s all just made up. There’s no logical necessity to anything stated here. There are no definitions given and no evidence for any of the claims. Conclusions are merely presented, to be agreed with or not based on… Emotional affinity with the content, perhaps, but not any reason.

    Here is a list of some of the claims adduced:

    1. Chomsky has limited concept of rationality.

    2. Chomsky fails to apply his own standard rationality.

    3. Chomsky fails to understand, acknowledge, or apply an implicit set of intellectual “rules” understood by all/most Continental philosophers.

    Note that there is no evidence or argument supplied for any of the claims. They have the status of mere assertions, that the reader is supposed to agree with or reject based, one supposes, on mere whim, since no reasons are given.

    The long paragraph of Zizek’s is cited as an example of Z’s rationality. On the contrary, it is a perfect example of irrationality. It is a set of free associations, allusions, and random anecdotes. There is no argument at all, but plenty of rhetorical posturing, all to make a point that appears to be trivial and simple.

    Then there is a list called “traits of French poststructuralist philosophy,” which appears to be invented out of thin air. Again no evidence is cited, nothing is argued. A few things are merely asserted. None of them appear to be special to me (the use of images; the use of anecdotes; reflexivity; the use of concepts; etc.), a list that would apply to most philosophers going back to Plato.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    “Here is a list of some of the claims adduced:
    1. Chomsky has limited concept of rationality.
    2. Chomsky fails to apply his own standard rationality.
    3. Chomsky fails to understand, acknowledge, or apply an implicit set of intellectual “rules” understood by all/most Continental philosophers.
    Note that there is no evidence or argument supplied for any of the claims. They have the status of mere assertions, that the reader is supposed to agree with or reject based, one supposes, on mere whim, since no reasons are given”.

    This is my seventh post on Chomsky’s little depiction of Zizek, they contain many arguments, and I can’t repeat them each time. If you don’t “see” my arguments, then our discussion is not off to a good start. Reasons are being given but none are being perceived. I am non-plussed.

    “The long paragraph of Zizek’s is cited as an example of Z’s rationality. On the contrary, it is a perfect example of irrationality. It is a set of free associations, allusions, and random anecdotes. There is no argument at all, but plenty of rhetorical posturing, all to make a point that appears to be trivial and simple”.

    The long paragraph plus my reading of it is given as proof that he is not writing incoherent rodomontades or empty platitudes. It is an example of how Zizek reasons reflexively, analogically, imagistically, transversally without going through the step by step paces of an analytical argument. If you think that it is irrational nonsense then you are being perhaps deliberately a little narrow-minded for polemical purposes. You have caught me midway in a series of posts that are mainly anti-Chomsky and pro-Zizek but in fact I was going to defend Chomsky too. I just think that he is wrong on this point of irrationality and cognitive emptiness. If you think you can do better than Zizek’s piece, which does contain a definition, try it and compare your “rational kernel” to his paragraph, and you will see that he packs a lot into just one paragraph.

    “Then there is a list called “traits of French poststructuralist philosophy,” which appears to be invented out of thin air. Again no evidence is cited, nothing is argued. A few things are merely asserted. None of them appear to be special to me (the use of images; the use of anecdotes; reflexivity; the use of concepts; etc.), a list that would apply to most philosophers going back to Plato”.

    I think they apply to Chomsky too, although often in a stunted way, but he doesn’t want to take it into account in his idea of rationality. Zizek does, and makes it central. That is his valuation of their relative importance of these traits, it’s certainly not an error or an irrational posturing.

    This is the point, Zizek is not the precursor of some “genetic mutation”, he is doing philosophy, and he is steeped in the tradition, including the recent French contributions to that tradition. The traits I list are taken from my previous posts, over the last three years of blogging, and my past experience with French philosophy, which I have been reading for over 40 years. I don’t think that these traits are all that special, and in my other posts I show that some or all of them characterise Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book (they don’t like Derrida, or Deleuze, and Dreyfus in his podcast called Badiou a “bad” philosopher, and said he liked Bourdieu but detested the way he wrote, yet they exemplify these traits). They also apply to james Hillman, a Jungian psychoanalyst I like, and to Bruno Latour, a sociologist of science I find quite interesting recently. What do you want? I can’t procede deductively, and multiplying examples of my reading of extracts seems pointless. I have given some useful stylistic indications, some “tips”, for understanding that particular sort of style. I must come back to your repeated assertion that “nothing is argued”. I protest, I am arguing, and I’m doing a lot of it. Zizek is arguing, and quite ably.

    I am sincerely at a loss. Maybe now that you have slogged through all my verbiage if you read it again you will see some arguments. I mean you no harm. Are you a scientist? You certainly don’t write like one. Do you like Chomsky? I have already said that I prefer Chomsky’s politics to Zizek’s. But Zizek is certainly more philosophically sophisticated, there is more going on in a page of Zizek than in 10 pages of Chomsky. Is philosophy a bad thing? I have devoted my entire life to it, even if i have not had a career in philosophy. Maybe you don’t like postmodernists? I don’t either, but I have lived a very sheltered life, I have never met any. I left Australia before the postmodernists arrived. I came to France in 1980 and I met Lyotard and he gave me his definition. He is the only one to my knowledge to have given a definition (incredulity towards meta-narratives). This defintion has the advantage (or the disadvantage) of making Chomsky postmodern (except in his naive idea of science) and most American “postmodernists” not at all postmodern, because quite credulous. Lyotard explains that his definition is not even historical, that Diderot (in some books, not all, for example JACQUES LE FATALISTE) is postmodern as is Montaigne. Pyrrho the sceptic is postmodern, but so is some of Plato.

    So in conclusion I don’t see why you’re being so aggressive and dismissive with me, I’ve made a very big effort at explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • beautype says:

      Thank you for the discussion, I have appreciated the exchange. I have nothing more to add, other than to repeat previous arguments I made above and in my comments today to your other post.

      Like

      • lol says:

        For someone so hostile towards rhetoric, this was a pretty wry, dismissive response! Savvy rhetoric at its finest!

        Like

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  7. a) All generalisations are false. So when “an analytic philosopher” talks about “continental philosophy” writ large, s/he may have something else in mind than someone who’s better-read in that area.

    b) “Analytic” seems to me to be full of _faith-based_ logicism, scientism, etc — including the emphasis on “empirical testability” — which comes from a book-level familiarity with the “concepts” of empiricism, not what actual scientists and people who rely upon evidence do. Stupid as it may sound to have theoretical arguments for empiricism, that’s what I see going on. Just a tremendous amount of scientism and “mathematicism”, not science.

    I would liken it, basically like you’re saying, to a pedant who corrects spelling/grammar but can’t, or refuses to, read between the lines, understand implications, subtext, hints, underlying motives, and so on.

    “Speech acts” is a theory that only _begins_ to take into account “nonverbal” communication (facial expression, tone-of-voice, context, etc.) with “implicatures” or whatever …the fact that “bare text” (ML-bots that can’t understand jokes) dominates over normal human discourse (which includes and even relies upon nonverbal communication) just shows,in my opinion, the fallacy of putting “dried out” (in the sense that biology is “wet”) book-language on a pedestal and working from there.

    I believe it was @replicakill who posted a funny joke on twitter the other week/month. Q: How do you prove David Lewis wrong? A: Demonstrate that his stance would imply that mathematicians need to revise their praxis. // Check the paper of Thurston on arxiv math.HO about real mathematical praxis … communicating with boops, blips and gestures, and practically nobody on mathoverflow does the long strings of logical symbols |- T |= [] x ∈ F |= … etc etc.

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