Chomsky, Zizek, and ‘fancy words’

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.”

Chomsky art

Chomsky art

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:-)

Profundity or incomprehensibility?

In Defense of Obscurantism

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.

3 responses to “Chomsky, Zizek, and ‘fancy words’

  1. Hi Gavin, I’ve enjoyed these posts, and I think it’s definitely something worth bothering with. For the sheer entertainment value, I think it’s great when intellectual giants behave like overeducated children. I propose a Chomsky-Zizek cage fight on pay-per-view so we can show the world what angry nerds are really capable of. ;)

    Seriously though, the linguistic tradition here in Helsinki is Continental and corpus-based. The difference was presented to me as that of starting with used language as the object of study versus starting with an abstract system based on intuitions of grammaticality. The reason I like corpus-based research is that it starts with used language but ends with claims of representativeness — the kind of “empirically testable conclusions” Chomsky mentions, which can be tested on comparable data sets.

    Lately I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated with one of my fields, English as lingua franca (ELF) research, which connects to this discussion. There is indeed a tendency for qualitative research on tiny data sets to take the cheap and easy route. Frankly, a lot of it is throw-away research that’s keeping someone’s head of department off their back to meet a publication quota. The formula: spend at least half your paper on literature review, insert two or three examples from your tiny database, speculate on what it means for 1,000 words, propose a fancy new conceptual term at the end with one line for pedagogical implications. This is Chomsky’s research for 12-year-olds.

    On the other hand, especially in linguistic research, there is a lot to be said for being able to explain your findings to a 12-year-old! We’re researching one of the mostly fundamental and universal experiences of humankind, and if linguistic theory is not intuitively satisfying to ordinary language users, can we really think that we’ve found a meaningful description/theory? This is why I’ve become fascinated by Linear Unit Grammar — it’s robust enough to handle the wide world of used language (including non-native English), but intuitive enough to be explained to a 12-year-old.

    Good discussion and links, thanks!

    • Sorry for taking a while to reply to this Ray. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad someone out there enjoyed reading this, and I agree, I would pay to watch that cage fight☺ It’s always interesting to hear the issues other researchers are dealing with in different fields (and especially about their thoughts on the institutional pressures in academia). You make a good point about qualitative research on tiny data sets, but I imagine it’s not limited to qual-research, you must have come across some sloppy use of large corpus data-sets for those hoping to dig something out of it to stay in the job? But I have to agree that the out-of-the-can formula does seem all too familiar unfortunately. On your other point, I might have said this before, but I tend to be cautious about attempts towards an all encompassing linguistic theory, mainly since theories of, say, language use have to accommodate a range of understandings of what language is and how it works in the world. But do you think linear unit grammar might be able to provide such a theory? I admit that the kinds of data that large corpuses can provide is exciting, and that the ways of looking at language that I’m drawn to, once a grown-up explains it to me in a way I can understand, seem to be intuitively spot-on, with no need to jump through awkwardly placed hoops (or at least the hoops don’t seem so awkward in retrospect). Anyways,I’m very much interested in the field of ELF, and I’ll keep my eyes open for your research, looks like there’s still lot’s of open sea for exploration on the horizon!

  2. Love this post. Love it, love it, love it. As I think I’ve said many times before, I think there’s also something worthwhile in Zizek’s idea–which I think resonates very closely with Lakoff’s “frames”–that it is harder to explain ideas that run counter to ordinary words. When Zizek critiques the fact that many movies show the end of the world but very few show an alternative to capitalism, he is also showing that we have a failure of imagination, and consequently it is much harder to articulate that alternative. When Lakoff shows that when the debate is over “tax relief,” then taxes will most likely be reduced because the very name shows that taxes are an affliction. Thus, it is much, much harder to express an idea that runs counter to these given, ordinary, embedded ideologies without recourse to specialized jargon.

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