Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chomsky Throws Postmodernists Under the Bus

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution for unearthing this fascinating bit where Noam Chomsky utterly eviscerates postmodernists while sounding like a nice guy. A  taste:
It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. 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.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

In the latter stages of my college education, a strong internal voice began to shout that the inscrutability of these brands of thought was due to just these things that Chomsky derides. But to hear one of the godfathers say it? It's like finding out that Keith Richards only listens to classical now.


  1. It's not often I find myself saying "I agree with Noam Chomsky!"

  2. I know, right?

    And just a day after our socialist President told liberals they were wrong about blaming conservatives for the shootings. What's in the water?

    That letter is actually older, but still.

  3. Just remember that my comment "I agree with Noam Chomsky!" applies ONLY in this particular context ... :-)

    I see NYT left out Obama's three little words "it was not" out of their published version of the speech. Good thing I read an actual transcript rather than the NYT, or my take would have been different.

  4. Yeah, I had to drop that in over at Donklephant, too. Apparently it was one of several off the cuff remarks dropped into the official transcript released beforehand.

  5. "If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it ... " --Abraham Lincoln on John Brown and the Harper's Ferry incident.

    Heh. I do love the classics.