Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chomsky on Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

The left – particularly the academic left – really went down a wrong path when Postmodernism and Poststructuralism started poisoning its intellectual life.

If you have worked and studied in English speaking universities over the past 30 years in the humanities, I suspect you will have encountered the mind-numbing drivel that characterizes much of Postmodernist writing. One of its worst excesses was an attack on the natural sciences, exposed in all its ignorance by Alan Sokal and the now famous Sokal affair, and in more detail by Sokal and Bricmont in Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science (London, 1998).

I will never forget the time I once wasted trying to understand Derrida, and my conclusion that Derrida’s writings are some of the worst rubbish I have ever read.

Frankly, I don’t think it is difficult to find support for this view. Noam Chomsky, probably the most well known libertarian socialist today, gives his view of Postmodernism:
“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) 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); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones—the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish”
Noam Chomsky on Post-Modernism.
As on so many other things, Chomsky is dead right on this subject (and his description of Lacan as “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan” is priceless!). Nor is he alone, as there is an equally stinging attack on Postmodernism from the philosopher John Searle, which is worth reading.

The major historical issue for the left was, and still should be, economics. I certainly don’t deny the importance of social, cultural and other moral issues, but economics is the burning issue of our time.


Dawkins, R. “Postmodernism Disrobed,”, 1 April 2007

Gross, P. R. and N. Levitt, 1994. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Postrel, S. R. and E. Feser, “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” (9 February 2000)

Sokal, A. and J. Bricmont. 1998. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science, Profile, London.


  1. Pomo ain't so bad. It had its Sokal affair. Physics had its Bogdanov Affair. Signs of something wrong, but also signs of some self-criticism.

    Economics won't have such an affair, because the mainstream, the dominant majority is all Bogdanov-Sokal. And the mainstream is so stupid it can not be made to understand this, can not be embarassed at the imposture.

    1. Please don't confuse the Sokal affair with the Bogdanov affair.

      The Bogdanov cheat was revealed because SCIENTISTS repeated the Bogdanov brothers' experiment and figured out that it didn't work.

      In the Sokal affair, instead, Sokal himself had to explain them that his article was a hoax! Otherwise, postmodernists would have never been able to unmask the him.

      That's the sad truth: science works, while pomo is a bunch of pompous charlatanry.

  2. "Postmodernism" was the result of the Left's identity crisis following the apparent victory of laissez-faire ideology in the 1980s. It was a shameful retreat. I become angry when I think about how much time I spent trying to wrap my head around it as a student (ditto for Freud, ditto for the Frankfurt School), with the implicit blessing of certain professors. My sense (hope?) is that the "postmodern" tendency has been in decline since Bush's election created a sense of urgency that pushed the Left back onto its traditional ground.

    However, the fallacies and hypocrisy of neoclassical economics are far more harmful, as people take them seriously.

  3. Post-modernism is not really a coherent philosophical stream. What most people (seemingly you as well) mistake for the post-modernist left is actually the identitarian left that focuses on cultural issues and shares in the perspectivism of the post-modernists but has no intrinsic connection to them other than that and is actually modernist.

    The post-modernists are very diverse and they verge from what I consider borderline gibberish (like Derrida, with very small exceptions from his works) to crazy people that just make no sense (especially in the philosophy of science, which gathers the craziest of them). However it also includes some very important left-nietzscheans like Althusser and more clearly the latter foucault. Now Foucault is difficult to read, but his philosophy is at the end very concise and echoing an epistemological egoism that is very reminiscent of Stirner and perhaps the radical subjectivism of Hume. Chomsky did not in fact get him much, mostly because he wasn't willing to challenge his own presuppositions, but he is actually ridiculously down to earth.

    A lot of the post-modernist points actually flow directly from logical positivism and the rejection of synthetic a priorisms, to the extent that if you are discussig the philosophy of law or ethics you can hardly distinguish between a serious post-modernist and a positivist. Others are echoing Stirner/Nietzsche/Hume and in some cases they base themselves on Kant (based on the nooumena/phenomena distinction, which reveals the primacy of thought in the conceptualization of the world, where they base their perspectivism/subjectivism).

    I actually very intensely disliked post-modernism before I started reading philosophy, but that's because literally noone you'll meet on the internet that'll give you a piece of his mind on post-modernism has any idea what exactly he is talking about.

    Their uniting attributes are generally tennable: Perspectivism, Humean subjectivism, Ethical egoism (in these two they are similar to the positivists and their expressivist moral system), rejection of all meta-narratives (this is what most everyone abuses), a critique of the circularity and self-referentiality of logical systems (again here you can find similarities with the positivists, mostly with godell's work) and finally their position in the philosophy of language that lies between the pragmatologic position of Wittgenstein that it is arbitrary (again a similarity with a quasi-positivist) to Derrida's position that a lot of it is meaningless (Here are some of Derrida's actually serviceable points for example that terms with valuative content require a contradistinction with their opposites in order to be conceptualized and thus have no intrinsic content, again something that the positivists would likely agree with, if for a slightly different reason).

    A good, serious critique of post-modernism (because everyone can pull a pot-shot on anything, but that isn't very helpful) was ushered by the (modernist - libertarian marxist) frankfurt school of sociology, most notably by Habermas (whose critique and work in ethics I think succesfully takes care of a good chunk of it, especially in regards with ethical egoism and the rejection of meta-narratives).

    1. Many of the ideas we today attribute to post-structuralism and post-modern thought, as you rightly point out, can be expressed without the jargon and neologisms of the revered theorists. The concepts may be useful, but the totalistic claims by some of the loudest voices are as disingenious as old-fashioned relativism.

      What's worse is that concepts are being applied in the humanities by academics who haven't taken the time to actually scrutinize theory and ask themselves: are these theories productive? Do they lead to conclusions that can be demonstrated to not be true?

      What happens alot is that the star-philosophers are treated as authorities just on the ground that they are a brand name, and not on the quality of their thinking.