Thursday, May 5, 2016

Chomsky, on simplicity

"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 everyone 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', and 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...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 someone 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.

...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. 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." - Chomsky, Understanding Power (228-230)