On a similar thread to my previous post on how we come to understand the world through scientific and rational inquiry, a feud of sorts materialized in the name-calling, verbal fist-fight that recently took place between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek (for a nice little overview of what happened read this, or just google ‘chomsky zizek’ for a slew of articles and videos on it).
I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole, but Chomsky, in critiquing Zizek’s thinking, said the following in an interview:
“I’m not interested in posturing—using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever…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. 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. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it.”
And here is an excerpt from Zizek’s response to the above assessment of his philosophy:
I think one can convincingly show that the continental tradition in philosophy, although often difficult to decode, and sometimes—I am the first to admit this—defiled by fancy jargon, remains in its core a mode of thinking which has its own rationality, inclusive of respect for empirical data. And I furthermore think that, in order to grasp the difficult predicament we are in today, to get an adequate cognitive mapping of our situation, one should not shirk the resorts of the continental tradition in all its guises, from the Hegelian dialectics to the French “deconstruction.” Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if—just another fancy idea of mine—what if Chomsky cannot find anything in my work that goes “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-year-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?
As some have pointed out, this seems to be an argument between analytic and continental philosophies primarily due to their exploration of different ‘objects of legitimization.’ As one blogger explains, the meaning of the term “object of legitmization” is that:
…historically, each camp takes up a specific object which is considered an academically legitimate object of knowledge, research, and study. For the continentals, this object of legitimization is historically aesthetics, the arts, and (more recently) some of the soft sciences such as sociology and cultural ethnography. This is why, in America, most of this philosophy is found in literary theory or comparative literature departments. For the analytics, this object of legitimization is historically the hard sciences and mathematics. Therefore, these philosophies tend to write, speak, and investigate from the point of view of their respective objects of legitimization.
I’m still working this out, wondering if I should really be bothering with this along the way, but I do think that this ‘debate’ helps to highlight issues between academic disciplines on the nature of scientific or rational inquiry, what it is and how to do it (or at least how some scholars think it should be done). Seeing these guys hash it out has cleared up some stuff for me at least on the differences between analytic and continental philosophy…
…the difference being, I suppose, that one requires a twelve year old to peer review its ideas…and, uh… the other one doesn’t? (update: the Reddit community seems to have picked up on the idea and taken it to another level with this page: “Explain like I’m Five”)
On a personal note, if you’re wondering why I’ve been writing about all this philosophical/scientific stuff lately, I got bit by the ‘philosophy of science’ bug after having several illuminating conversations with Dr. Heidi Byrnes and other scholars at AAAL earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about the different perspectives on ‘science’ in (applied) linguistics more generally ever since attending a colloquium that attempted to bridge the ‘two cultures’ of the field (qualitative vs. quantitative approaches in social science broadly construed) and having a coherent grasp on how I’m supposedly ferreting out new knowledge on language and language learning through the research I do is high on my “conundrums-of-a-grad-student” list, it’s a long list…
Oh well, here are some other posts related to this you might find of interest depending on your tolerance of fanciness:-)
UPDATE 08/15/13: I ran across this new article in the Guardian today, the author takes a very ecumenical approach to the ‘debate.’ Here’s an excerpt from his conclusion:
Importantly, neither of these approaches is wrongheaded. Both provide productive and fruitful avenues for further reflection and consideration. Indeed, political struggles never take place solely within one isolated site or at one level of abstraction. Rather, they take place seemingly everywhere and in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Thus, to deny ourselves access to the important contributions of either Chomsky or Žižek would be to engage in an exercise of self-mutilation, an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Existing structures of power do not limit their operations to only one level of abstraction and neither should we. To meet these structures head-on, then, we must diversify our strategies. As a result, Chomsky’s astute political analyses and Žižek’s creative inquiries into the functioning of ideology can both be helpful. The debate between these two figures is thus a non-debate, and the choice between them is a false one. Why choose only one when we can just as easily have both?
Oh, and for some wonderful anti-intellectual spin on the whole debate, look no further than the Wall Street Journal’s bogglingly shallow short video summary of the issue.