CHOMSKY vs ZIZEK: conceptual portraits and incommensurable styles


To treat the differend that shows up in the apparently trivial 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 on one side of the Analytical/Continental divide (the analytic side). Zizek’s intellectual style is based on finding far-reaching philosophical and political issues in the anodyne details of ordinary and mediatic life. This constant exchange between the extraordinary and the ordinary is a one of the most important components of the Continental approach.

There is something more substantive in the Chomsky/Zizek differend, and that is a fundamental difference in cognitive styles between Continental and Analytic modes of thinking. I am no fan of Zizek’s and I have criticised him in several places on this blog.
I criticise Zizek for example here: But I criticise him for being insufficiently faithful to his potentially pluralistic 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 about who won the controversy, nor even about the particular persons involved, but about the different styles of thinking. I think that Chomsky and Zizek are only incidentally concerned with the facts. Rather, 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 theorising that he doesn’t bother to get his facts straight (he is too that extent “idealist”). Both are doing badly what each of their philosophical epistemes requires, and so they reveal even more clearly the presence of such incommensurable frameworks in what they say.

Zizek is not vey good at analytic argument and he tends to proceed typologically (by “gestalts”). Chomsky, while arguing well analytically, has the impression 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 style of thinking.

Analytic philosophy frames certain deep-seated disagreements as mere “spats”. One reason for this lies in the status of “incommensurability”. In analytic philosophy the 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 incommensurability 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 point of view to see such disputes as exhibiting not just mimetic rivalry, personal attacks and quibbling, but also qualitatively different images of thought.

Chomsky admits to looking at these thinkers’ theories and seeing nothing there. He does not ascend to the meta-level to see if he may be blinkered by systematic presuppositions causing a form of selective 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 being inscribed in different figures of consciousness or different phenomenological worlds or different understandings of being. The more specific rules of transition that Hegel proposes may or may not be accepted, but the post-Hegelian mode of thought makes abundant use of such typological perceptions and arguments.


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.

I will take as my guide Deleuze and Guattari’s book WHAT IS PHILOSPHY? They make a distinction between the plane of reference, characteristic of science, and the plane of immanence, that is characteristic of philosophy. Science deals in “functions” applicable to states of things.

Note: I think that this is definition of science is too limited, and that we should take it as meaning not only “functions”, but “analytic referential assemblages”. Deleuze and Guattari seem to have in mind principally the mathematizable sciences, but much of Biology, and even Chemistry, does not correspond to this simplistic idea of “functions” as the criterion of demarcation. They are not talking at the level of method here, but in terms of the common structure of scientific theories.

Philosophy deals with concepts (or synthetic typological assemblages, on my translation) expressing events. Passages between philosophy and the sciences exist, but in each case something is gained and something is lost in the passage. Philosophy is not completely non-referential, but with the passage from functions to concepts precision of reference is lost. What is gained includes synthetic analogical or symbolic 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.

On this analysis, Chomsky’s seemingly unproblematic demand for precise emprically testable predictions derivable from French Theory embodies a major conceptual blunder. He has made the same demands several times in the past concerning Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, each time without citing any concrete text. Chomsky does not really care about the particular case of Zizek, and probably has not read any real book by Zizek, just a few newspaper articles. Unfortunately Zizek’s replies contain the same sort of major conceptual blunder too.

Zizek responds typologically, or symptomatologically, in trying to sketch out a conceptual portrait of Chomsky, which overal I think is sound, but to illustrate his claims he tries to “outfact” Chomsky, which he does rather badly. Many people see only the rather vague gesturing to a supposed fact not supported by evidence, and not the conceptual portrait englobing it. If Zizek had really wanted to reply he should have gone the whole hog and questioned Chomsky’s ideology of “empiricality” in the domain of his scientific expertise

It is interesting to note that in the interview where Chomsky has a “dig” at Zizek, he is not interested in Zizek at all, and certainly not in any of Zizek’s books. His focus here is not at all empirical, but rather he is trying to sketch out a conceptual portrait of a generic “theory-oriented” 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 identical phrasing, to condemn Derrida’s OF GRAMMATOLOGY, which does not explicitly talk about American imperialism, communism etc. So the 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 “posturing”. But we may object surely Chomsky is aware that all is posture, that he himself is posturing, that we cannot step outside of our conceptual, affective, cognitive, and perceptual posture and see the world and act in it as if from nowhere. This is, as he would remark, a trivial point. Without the need for any explicit “posturing” Chomsky is implicitly relying on his posture as a scientific expert, and so there is an implied argument from authority underlying his proclamations.

Chomsky must have one particular form of “bad” posturing at heart. He talks about Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan in terms of “pseudo-scientific posturing”. And his demand to be shown empirically testable theses goes in the same direction. None of these Continental philosophers claim to be doing science, yet they seem to be making cognitive claims. In Chomsky’s eyes they must be frauds or “charlatans”, as he can conceive of no other alternative.

Chomsky is unconsciously confirming what could count as an empirically testable thesis: to think philosophically one must create and make use of non-empirical 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 platitudes, errors and meaningless assertions. For him, narcissistic gibberish reigns supreme in the world of the Parisian intelligentsia.

This transcendental portrait has nothing to do with anything as empirical as reading an existing book by Zizek, such as THE PARALLAX VIEW for example. After all, Chomsky “tried” reading OF GRAMMATOLOGY and tells us that he could find nothing in it except a few truisms and some dubious scholarship. In creating from ready-made anti-intellectual stereotypes, this conceptual portrait Chomsky has crossed over from the scientific domain of his expertise, on the plane of reference of linguistics, onto the plane of immanence, and has lost almost all empirical reference: Zizek himself is unrecognisable, and any particular text or identifiable thesis has disappeared in his very hazy transcendental portrait.


We have seen that Chomsky is not concerned with arguments against any particular thesis or text of Zizek’s but with sketching out a transcendental portrait of any-French-philosopher whatsoever, with constructing a generic conceptual persona that acts as a shadow figure, embodying all the traits of a negative image of thought that Chomsky wishes not so much to analyse as to denounce. His criteria for inclusion in this generic set: I don’t understand it, none of my friends can explain it, I don’t know what to learn so as to be able to understand. There is no understanding it and no path to understanding, no emirically available nor even conceivable pedagogy. One can call this the “No Comprendo” Argument.

There are many possible explanations for this non-understanding. There may be nothing to understand – this is Chomsk’s conclusion. The ideas may just be too difficult. Or the very words and concepts used may belong to a different paradigm, the theoretical perspective underlying the propositions may embody a radically incommensurable understanding, express a different epistemic and hermeneutic world.  Chomsky considers these last two possibilities, but he blurs them together. He cites scientific examples, from quantum theory and topology, as cases of things-I-don’t-understand-but-my-friends-can-explain-to-me. These are viewed as items of knowledge that one can add to one’s repertoire of understanding. There is no idea of conceptual conversion here, just cumulative addition.

Chomsky considers the possibility of paradigm change or of conceptual mutation, but only in a linear perspective, as purporting to go “beyond” the level of difficulty of what are widely recognised to be abstruse scientific theories, but whose general import can be explained in lay terms. Chomsky does not even imagine the possibility that these “difficult” French philosophies go off in a different direction altogether than the axis of scientific progress.

Not only does Continental philosophy exist on a radically different plane of thought from the referential plane of science, but on that plane there are all sorts of incommensurable gaps and ruptures. Derrida was difficult to understand even for Foucault, and vice versa. Deleuze, Lyotard, Laruelle and Badiou had trouble understanding each other, etc. Understanding an incommensurable point of view is quite possible, but one must not set out with the idea that the concepts are the same, and that the “jargon” of the other must be translated into my own idiom.

Chomsky tells us:

There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.

THE PRE-ADOLESCENT ARGUMENT: Chomsky and the 12-year-old

One of the most curious arguments used by Chomsky in his attempted “deconstruction” of Continental philosophy is the appeal to what could be explained in simple language such that a twelve-year-old child could understand. The contrast is extreme between his expert understanding, which finds nothing much in Continental texts except truisms and egregious errors, and a pre-adolescent child’s understanding, which serves as the ultimate criterion of the rational content of a text or theory. But what does all this talk about explaining thingsin simple terms to a 12-year-old express about Chomsky’s philosophical ideal?

I think that the argument this conceptual persona of the pre-ado is more ambiguous than the “no comprendo” argument, which when taken alone is a pure case of argument from authority: “I Noam Chomsky one of the most intelligent people on the planet can see nothing in Continental X, so that proves that there is nothing there to see”. The pre-ado argument is not so univocal. Once again a comparison with Deleuze’s concepts may help clarify things.

Deleuze on several occasions talks about the child as having two aspects. The first aspect is molar, it is that of a certain social identity, the child is defined in terms of family membership, institutional inscription, and is destined to become an autonomous responsible adult citizen. This is an image of the doxa, of naïve common sense, before all the details have been filled in. The diagram of our dominant significations has been assimilated in its broad outlines, and it will be stabilised and the details progressively filled in as time goes on. The other face is molecular, and consists in an uncoded state of becoming. The adolescent is already succombing to the violence of our educational system, which is according to both Chomsky and Deleuze a system of indoctrination into obedience and conformism, into passivity and unthinking acceptance of stupidity.

As image of the doxa, the molar aspect, the child is a guarantee against incommensurable paradigm shifts. The criterion of rational content is to be able to explain in simple language to a 12-year-old child what the theory says. If there is an emprically testable remnant, that goes beyond the child’s current understanding, then it must be making a potential contribution to our knowledge, that can be submitted to empirical testing to see if its predictions are confirmed. Otherwise, it is a platitude that any child already knows (if it’s true) or can see through (if it is false). On this criterion, according to Chomsky, but he gives no evidence of this, Zizek’s theories fall short. Indeed they are not even theories, and so all seeming content vanishes when you try (transcendentally, as for Chomsky this is a thought experiment) to explain them to a 12-year-old:

I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field.

The second aspect of the child is molecular: the child is outside and prior to the dualisms inculcated by our system of indoctrination. Deleuze like Chomsky calls for a non-academic philosophy outside the obscurantist jargon and narcissistic mutual admiration of colleagues and cronies.

Deleuze like Chomsky insists that our concepts and lexic must be checked against a non-philosophical understanding. On this acceptation Chomsky is really saying that Zizek is being read for the wrong reasons, out of mere conformism.

To be consistent Chomsky should add that he himself is often read for the wrong reasons, out of submission to the standards of one’s intellectual tribe. If one could read Zizek’s text with the eyes of a child, questioning it and putting it in direct relation to one’s life and struggles then Chomsky should approve. Chomsky goes too far in his condemnation. Blinded by mimetic rivalry with Zizek, he momentarily forgets his own principles.

CHOMSKY’S “POSTURING” ARGUMENT: performative marketing vs creative syntax

Chomsky’s diagnosis is clear: Zizek is guilty of the submission of theory to posturing. Zizek does not do theoretical work, rather he performs theory. The genre to which his enunciations belong is not scientific theory but its Continental travesty: “theoretical posturing”. Behind these accusations of “posturing”, of “being a good actor”, of “having a big influence”, and of sounding “exciting”, there lies the unstated charge of marketing: Zizek is a theoretical fake, a charlatan, that sells well, and his work is all the more popular because it is devoid of content.

What Chomsky does not acknowledge is that everything is posturing, including his own scientific and militant performances. The problem is not whethether or not someone is posturing, but whether it is new and interesting or old-hat and boringly obvious. Perhaps all Zizek’s works amount to empty posturing, with no assignable content. But perhaps the posturing is more a question of style than of content.

Deleuze has defined style in terms of a syntax of posturing:

Each new style amounts not so much to a new “move” as to a linked sequence of postures – the equivalent, that is, of a syntax, based on an earlier style but breaking with it (NEGOTIATIONS, 131).

Here Chomsky would have to be a more specific. Blanket condemnation of the whole French philosophical tradition is a rather non-empirical procedure. Where does it all go wrong? Starting from Sartre? from Bergson? Is Bachelard included in Chomsky’s Book of Empty Postures?

In fact, there is a recognisable creative syntax to Zizek’s work, and it is true that sometimes he just goes with the flow and does a lazy imitation of himself. But once again Chomsky would have to take a single real book, show that he understands it (including the epistemology, because Chomsky is not so good on that count), and show why he thinks it’s all stale platitudes or “fashionable nonsense”.

THE CONVERSATION ARGUMENT: non-conversational is 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 cannot reduce conceptual cognition to referentially 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 only 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 Chomsky 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”) he himself is postmodern, 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 for others 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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2 Responses to CHOMSKY vs ZIZEK: conceptual portraits and incommensurable styles

  1. Edward says:

    Also chomsky is dependent on sokal and bricmont’s unmasking of french theory in their book fashionable nonsense

    Liked by 1 person

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