Noam Chomsky: “Theory”

From Noam Chomsky’s book Understanding Power:

WOMAN: Noam, apart from the idea of the “vanguard,” I’m interested why you’re so critical of the whole broader category of Marxist analysis in general—like people in the universities and so on who refer to themselves as “Marxists.” I’ve noticed you’re never very happy with it.

Well, I guess one thing that’s unattractive to me about “Marxism” is the very idea that there is such a thing. It’s a rather striking fact that you don’t find things like “Marxism” in the sciences—like, there isn’t any part of physics which is “Einsteinianism,” let’s say, or “Planckianism” or something like that. It doesn’t make any sense—because people aren’t gods: they just discover things, and they make mistakes, and their graduate students tell them why they’re wrong, and then they go on and do things better the next time. But there are no gods around. I mean, scientists do use the terms “Newtonianism” and “Darwinism,” but nobody thinks of those as doctrines that you’ve got to somehow be loyal to, and figure out what the Master thought, and what he would have said in this new circumstance and so on. That sort of thing is just completely alien to rational existence, it only shows up in irrational domains.

So Marxism, Freudianism: anyone of these things I think is an irrational cult. They’re theology, so they’re whatever you think of theology; I don’t think much of it. In fact, in my view that’s exactly the right analogy: notions like Marxism and Freudianism belong to the history of organized religion.

So part of my problem is just its existence: it seems to me that even to discuss something like “Marxism” is already making a mistake. Like, we don’t discuss “Planckism.” Why not? Because it would be crazy. Planck [German physicist] had some things to say, and some of them are right, and those were absorbed into later science, and some of them are wrong, and they were improved on. It’s not that Planck wasn’t a great man—all kinds of great discoveries, very smart, mistakes, this and that. That’s really the way we ought to look at it, I think. As soon as you set up the idea of “Marxism” or “Freudianism” or something, you’ve already abandoned rationality.

It seems to me the question a rational person ought to ask is, what is there in Marx’s work that’s worth saving and modifying, and what is there that ought to be abandoned? Okay, then you look and you find things. I think Marx did some very interesting descriptive work on nineteenth century history. He was a very good journalist. When he describes the British in India, or the Paris Commune [70-day French workers’ revolution in 1871], or the parts of Capital that talk about industrial London, a lot of that is kind of interesting—I think later scholarship has improved it and changed it, but it’s quite interesting.5

He had an abstract model of capitalism which—I’m not sure how valuable it is, to tell you the truth. It was an abstract model, and like any abstract model, it’s not really intended to be descriptively accurate in detail, it’s intended to sort of pull out some crucial features and study those. And you have to ask in the case of an abstract model, how much of the complex reality does it really capture? That’s questionable in this case—first of all, it’s questionable how much of nineteenth-century capitalism it captured, and I think it’s even more questionable how much of late-twentieth-century capitalism it captures.

There are supposed to be laws [i.e. of history and economics]. I can’t understand them, that’s all I can say; it doesn’t seem to me that there are any laws that follow from it. Not that I know of any better laws, I just don’t think we know about “laws” in history.

There’s nothing about socialism in Marx, he wasn’t a socialist philosopher—there are about five sentences in Marx’s whole work that refer to socialism.6 He was a theorist of capitalism. I think he introduced some interesting concepts at least, which every sensible person ought to have mastered and employ, notions like class, and relations of production …

WOMAN: Dialectics?

Dialectics is one that I’ve never understood, actually—I’ve just never understood what the word means. Marx doesn’t use it, incidentally, it’s used by Engels.7 And if anybody can tell me what it is, I’ll be happy. I mean, I’ve read all kinds of things which talk about “dialectics”—I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. It seems to mean something about complexity, or alternative positions, or change, or something. I don’t know.

I’ll tell you the honest truth: I’m kind of simple-minded when it comes to these things. Whenever I hear a four-syllable word I get skeptical, because I want to make sure you can’t say it in monosyllables. Don’t forget, part of the whole intellectual vocation is creating a niche for yourself, and if everybody can understand what you’re talking about, you’ve sort of lost, because then what makes you special? What makes you special has got to be something that you had to work really hard to understand, and you mastered it, and all those guys out there don’t understand it, and then that becomes the basis for your privilege and your power.

So take what’s called “literary theory”—I mean, I don’t think there’s any such thing as literary “theory,” any more than there’s cultural “theory” or historical “theory.” If you’re just reading books and talking about them and getting people to understand them, okay, you can be terrific at that, like Edmund Wilson was terrific at it—but he didn’t have a literary theory. On the other hand, if you want to mingle in the same room with that physicist over there who’s talking about quarks, you’d better have a complicated theory too that nobody can understand: he has a complicated theory that nobody can understand, why shouldn’t I have a complicated theory that nobody can understand? If someone came along with a theory of history, it would be the same: either it would be truisms, or maybe some smart ideas, like somebody could say, “Why not look at economic factors lying behind the Constitution?” or something like that—but there’d be nothing there that couldn’t be said in monosyllables.

In fact, it’s extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find things that can’t be said in monosyllables: there are just interesting, simple ideas, which are often extremely difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let’s say, that can take a lot of work. But the “theory” will be extremely thin, if by “theory” we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles—you’re not going to find anything like that in the social world.

Incidentally, I should say that my own political writing is often denounced from both the left and the right for being non-theoretical—and that’s completely correct. But it’s exactly as theoretical as anyone else’s, I just don’t call it “theoretical,” I call it “trivial”—which is in fact what it is. I mean, it’s not that some of these people whose stuff is considered “deep theory” and so on don’t have some interesting things to say. Often they have very interesting things to say. But it’s nothing that you couldn’t say at the level of a high school student, or that a high school student couldn’t figure out if they had the time and support and a little bit of training.

I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren’t transparent—because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don’t understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they’re not faking. But most of the time it’s just fakery, I think: anything that’s at all understood can probably be described pretty simply. And when words like “dialectics” come along, or “hermeneutics,” and all this kind of stuff that’s supposed to be very profound, like Goering, “I reach for my revolver.”

MAN: I find it very reinforcing that you don’t understand the word “dialectics, ” it sort of validates me.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t have any meaning—you observe people using the term and they look like they’re communicating. But it’s like when I watch people talking Turkish: something’s going on, but I’m not part of it.

Actually, occasionally in interviews I’ve said this about not understanding “dialectics,” and I get long letters back from people saying, “You don’t understand, here’s what ‘dialectical’ is”—and either it’s incomprehensible, or else it’s trivial. So maybe I’ve got a gene missing or something—like people can be tone-deaf, they just can’t hear the music. But everything I encounter in these fields either seems to be sort of interesting, but pretty obvious once you see it—maybe you didn’t see it at first, and somebody had to point it out to you—or else just incomprehensible.

I’m skeptical: I think one has a right to be skeptical when you don’t understand something. I mean, when I look at a page of, say, quantum electrodynamics, I don’t understand a word of it. But I know what I would have to do to get to understand it, and I’m pretty confident that I could get to understand it—I’ve understood other complicated things. So I figure if I bothered to put myself through the discipline, and I studied the early stuff and the later stuff, I’d finally get to the point where I understood it. Or I could go to someone in the Physics Department and say, “Tell me why everybody’s excited about this stuff,” and they could adapt it to my level and tell me how to pursue it further. Maybe I wouldn’t understand it very deeply, or I couldn’t have invented it or something, but I’d at least begin to understand it. On the other hand, when I look at a page of Marxist philosophy or literary theory, I have the feeling that I could stare at it for the rest of my life and I’d never understand it—and I don’t know how to proceed to get to understand it any better, I don’t even know what steps I could take.

I mean, it’s possible that these fields are beyond me, maybe I’m not smart enough or something. But that would have kind of a funny conclusion—it’s nothing to do with me. That would mean that somehow in these domains people have been able to create something that’s more complex than physics and mathematics—because those are subjects I think I could get to understand. And I just don’t believe that, frankly: I don’t believe that literary theorists or Marxian philosophers have advanced to some new intellectual level that transcends century after century of hard intellectual work.

MAN: Do you think the same thing about philosophy in general?

There are parts of philosophy which I think I understand, and it’s most of classical philosophy. And there are things that I don’t understand, because they don’t make any sense—and that’s okay too, these are hard questions. I mean, it’s not necessarily a criticism to say that something doesn’t make sense: there are subjects that it’s hard to talk sensibly about. But if I read, say, Russell, or analytic philosophy, or Wittgenstein and so on, I think I can come to understand what they’re saying, and I can see why I think it’s wrong, as I often do. But when I read, you know, Derrida, or Lacan, or AIthusser, or any of these—I just don’t understand it. It’s like words passing in front of my eyes: I can’t follow the arguments, I don’t see the arguments, anything that looks like a description of a fact looks wrong to me. So maybe I’m missing a gene or something, it’s possible. But my honest opinion is, I think it’s all fraud.

MAN: I think you may be glorifying the scientists a bit by projecting them as somehow kind of pure. For example, take Newtonian mechanics: Einstein came along and showed how it was wrong, but over the years the scientific community did refer to it as “Newtonian” mechanics.

That’s an interesting case, because Newtonian mechanics was treated as kind of holy—because it was such a revolutionary development. I mean, it was really the first time in human history that people ever had an explanation of things in any deep sense: it was so comprehensive, and so simple, and so far-reaching in its consequences that it almost looked like it was necessary. And in fact, it was treated that way for a long time—so much so that Kant, for example, regarded it as the task of philosophy to derive Newtonian physics from a priori principles, and to show that it was certain truth, on a par with mathematics. And it really wasn’t until the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century that the fallacy of those conceptions became quite clear, and with that realization there was a real advance in our conception of what “science” is. So science did have kind of a religious character for a period, you’re right—and that was something we had to get ourselves out of, I think. It doesn’t happen anymore.

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