CHOMSKY AND « CANNED » THOUGHT: Did Chomsky fake the results of his thought experiment?

We have seen that there is something very curious about Chomsky’s « Niño » argument. At the very moment he accuses Zizek of making non-empirically-testable assertions, Chomsky himself indulges in a rather puzzling thought-experiment. Try explaining Zizek’s ideas to a twelve year old child (a « niño ») and see what happens. This is a surprising argument, as much of even analytical philosophy is quite difficult of access. It is clear that this is not meant empirically, but is a transcendental argument. But how plausible is it, and what is its function?

On the question of plausibility, one is reminded of the parody where Kripke is said to have faked the results of his thought-experiments. Did Chomsky fake his thoughtb experiment? In the text on postmodernism Chomsky takes the example of the proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Now while I am sure that it is easy to explain the theorem to a 12-year-old, explaining the proof to a nino is another matter. To be fair, he should extend the same broad-mindedness to Zizek.

On the question of function, Zizek himself gives us the answer in the second paragraph of LESS THAN NOTHING:

« The second and opposite figure of stupidity is that of the moron: the stupidity of those who fully identify with common sense, who fully stand for the “big Other” of appearances. In the long series of figures beginning with the Chorus in Greek tragedy—which plays the role of canned laughter or crying, always ready to comment on the action with some common wisdom—one should mention at least the “stupid” common‐sense partners of the great detectives: Sherlock Holmes’s Watson, Hercule Poirot’s Hastings. »

The twelve-year-old stands for the supposed big Other, in Chomsky’s case figured by the ideal of a decontextualised rationality. This seems to be associated in Chomsky’s mind with a principle of « meaning invariance »: everything can be translated into NL (niño-language), into the vocabulary and concepts comprehensible to a pre-adolescent. His model is that of learning a foreign language exclusively by means of translation and explicit explanation of grammatical rules. He excludes learning by immersion, plunging oneself into the texts and trying to understand and to formulate one’s own thoughts in its terms, until one finds oneself understanding and speaking the language without being able necessarily to translate it all.

Much of Contnental Philosophy requires this sort of learning by immersion. Deleuze claims that creating a new philosophy amounts to creating a foreign language inside one’s language. This is the consequence of the various « traits I have been discussing (the incommensurable leap, beginning in the middle, thinking in problematics, etc.). We are in fact doing it all the time, and the relation between expert rationality and lay rationality is not resolved by the appeal to translation into a common language. This is no defence of jargon for its own sake. I am just as convinced as Chomsky that a decent education involves being able to detect empty posturing and cynical newspeak. The test of the 12-year-old child is quite a good one, as long as it remains a heuristic tip and does not become a rule. Used to disqualify a discourse that is constructed on very different principles it becomes a dogmatic demand that actively prevents the creation of concepts and the invention of new paradigms of thought.

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3 commentaires pour CHOMSKY AND « CANNED » THOUGHT: Did Chomsky fake the results of his thought experiment?

  1. mmultiplier dit :

    I think Chomsky is actually saying the opposite of what you are claiming: that you can, in fact, explain Zizek’s ideas to a 12-year-old and that there’s nothing left to explain after you do. Whereas it’s Chomsky’s ideas that (supposedly) couldn’t be completely explained to a 12-year-old.

    « Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. »

    Really enjoying your recent posts on all this stuff. I went and hunted down the beginning of Less Than Nothing and now I might have to set my other books aside 😦

    J’aime

  2. terenceblake dit :

    I think the situation is a little more complicated because for Chomsky Zizek has no theory; I would suggest as rational reconstruction of Chomsky’s niño thought experiment:
    1) Try to explain it to a 12-year-old, probably you can’t as there is nothing to explain – this is the case for Zizek
    2) if you can find something to explain, 5 mins is enough, the rest is fluff – this is the case for Foucault
    3) if after 5 mins something is left over and « beyond » that explanation, then you have Chomsky-level theories.
    Let’s not forget case 1.

    J’aime

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