Friday, April 13, 2012

On Chomsky: Part One: Political Criticism, Theories and Traditions

Alison Edgley is Lecturer in Sociology of Health at Nottingham University and author of The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. She spoke to Robert McLaren about Chomsky's work, focusing in this part on his attitude to the role of theory, fact and human nature in political argument. Part 2 will follow shortly.

In your work on Noam Chomsky, you argue that he does produce political theories even though he claims that he does not. I wonder if you could explain your view and perhaps say how much you are disagreeing with Chomsky over what should be called a ‘theory’ and how much you are drawing out ideas (which are theories) that are latent in, or which lie behind, his political criticism.

I do not think it is possible to make neutral, theory-free observations in both the material and social realms. All such observations embody philosophical and theoretical assumptions. However, some observations are more readily verifiable than others, and so some theoretical claims are more intuitively acceptable than others. They appear ‘naturally’ true. When it comes to matters of human relations and society, there is a host of what amount to claims to knowledge, all of which will involve theoretical assumptions. While not all theories are verifiable, some come closer to satisfying the principles of verification than others.

It is not a case that 'anything goes'. Even though our access to reality may be partial and constructed, some accounts can still be shown to be better than others. We are familiar with this principle in the physical sciences, where theories are regularly updated and replaced wholesale. This underscores the relevance of theories, as well as their partial and conditional character. Read More