Considering the Preconditions of Thought

Terence Blake points out, with regard to recent remarks traded between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, the confines of analytic thought by those such as Chomsky:

Chomsky admits to looking at these thinkers’ theories and at seeing nothing there. He does not ascend to the meta-level to see if there are systematic presuppositions causing a form of cognitive blindness, he simply infers that there is nothing to see. Perhaps it all goes back to Hegel’s PHENOMENOLOGY. The dialectical way of thought lets one see ideas as being inscribed in different figures of consciousness or different phenomenological worlds or different understandings of being.

This is indeed Chomsky’s lack of dialectical thinking. That scientific thinking is now unable to think about its own role in society was one of Max Horkheimer’s concerns, specifically in the Anglo-American empiricist tradition. Martin Jay writes concisely on this concern in The Dialectical Imagination, “Only by overcoming the fetishistic grounding of scientific knowledge in pure consciousness, and by recognizing the concrete historical circumstances that conditioned all thought, could the present crisis be surmounted” (27). This is also a problem having to do with dialectical thought in the historical sense, in that those claiming to have allegiance only to empirical fact don’t seem to see the ideological preconditions of such a stance.

For Chomsky, empiricism is the standard with which all thought is to be done. With this empiricism, we end up left with no room for imagination. In other words, the only thing to be done if we are unable to veer from empiricism is to confirm the already reified status quo. To alter Herbert Marcuse’s term, we see here the “affirmative character of” contemporary science. A day after Blake’s post quoted above, Blake considers this part of empiricism: “For example, it is difficult to discuss the Zizek-Chomsky divide without making use of at least a minimum of theory. Otherwise one falls into the worst sort of empiricism, acting as if facts speak for themselves.” This thinking that “facts speak for themselves” is a perfect example of ideology’s hold—when you think that as an empiricist you speak only of eternal truths, while everyone else only speaks in nonsense.

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