Saturday, April 18, 2015

Foucault versus Chomsky: The 1971 Debate

In 1971, Michel Foucault had a famous debate on Dutch television with Noam Chomsky on justice, power, politics and human nature. An edited video version of that debate (with English subtitles) is below.

The full version of the debate (but without subtitles) is available in the video below, but if you do not speak Dutch or French it will be largely unintelligible to you.

Personally, I prefer reading the transcript of the debate in full, as it can be found here:
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
It is important to note that both Foucault and Chomsky were, politically speaking, left libertarians or anarchists. The difference is that Chomsky was committed to the defence of objective truth, the best principles of the Enlightenment, modern science and the view that there is a core human nature determined by biology.

Foucault, by contrast, denied objective truth, despised the Enlightenment, and was committed to an extreme social constructivism that denies any type of fixed human nature.

In what follows I make some observations on the most important aspects of the debate.

Chomsky starts the debate by endorsing the view that there is a core human nature determined by biology, by using universal grammar as an example.

From the beginning, Foucault seems to reject even the concept of “human nature” as describing something objectively real. Instead, Foucault seems to think human nature is something culturally constructed:
“[Foucault:] It was not by studying human nature that linguists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists the structure of myths. In the history of knowledge, the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of an epistemological indicator to designate certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history. I would find it difficult to see in this a scientific concept.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Chomsky rejects this and appeals to the evidence of the natural sciences, and makes the point that even good and sound scientific concepts are grounded in empirical reality.

Chomsky is right. The evidence before our eyes is overwhelming that human beings have their essential traits because of biology. Extreme social constructivism is refuted by the natural sciences, and in Foucault’s other writings there does seem to be a radical social constructivism, as in this statement:
“We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is false. The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances. ‘Effective’ history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.” (Foucault 1984: 87–88).
Yet the human genome makes a human being, and not, self-evidently, a tree or a cat. The human visual system, for example, is capable of detecting and representing electro-magnetic radiation only within the narrow bandwidth we call the visual spectrum of light, and not radio waves, x-rays or gamma rays. Humans cannot “see” radio waves and this is a universal attribute of any biologically normal human being. Human eye colour and blood type are 100% determined by the genes.

Chomsky is right to reject the naïve “blank slate” empiricist view of human nature and extreme social constructivism. But, of course, this is not to endorse vulgar biological determinism by any means. Many things are culturally or socially determined, and numerous traits that human beings have – from height, personality, or intelligence, etc. – are a very complex mix of both genes and environment. But that doesn’t mean we cannot identify a core of universal traits that we can call human nature.

In short, on this issue, Chomsky is correct; Foucault is wrong.

With regard to justice, we can see that Foucault really has an irrationalist view of justice influenced by Marxist class analysis. In the following exchange with Chomsky, Foucault seems to reduce just political action to the victory of the proletariat in a class struggle:
FOUCAULT: But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in which you said that if you didn’t consider the war you make against the police to be just, you wouldn’t make it.
I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don’t agree.

FOUCAULT: One makes war to win, not because it is just.

CHOMSKY: I don’t, personally, agree with that.
For example, if I could convince myself that attainment of power by the proletariat would lead to a terrorist police state, in which freedom and dignity and decent human relations would be destroyed, then I wouldn’t want the proletariat to take power. In fact the only reason for wanting any such thing, I believe, is because one thinks, rightly or wrongly, that some fundamental human values will be achieved by that transfer of power.

FOUCAULT:When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.
But if you ask me what would be the case if the proletariat exerted bloody, tyrannical and unjust power towards itself, then I would say that this could only occur if the proletariat hadn’t really taken power, but that a class outside the proletariat, a group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy or petit bourgeois elements had taken power.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
There is no mistaking the Marxist class element in Foucault’s thinking, but it is reduced to a type of morally nihilist anarchism for Foucault.

In particular, Foucault’s statement here stands out for its disgusting moral nihilism:
FOUCAULT: When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this. “Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
This is clearly the sort of thinking that would justify any kind of murderous, genocidal authoritarianism – as long as it was a Leftist one that Foucault approved of.

Here, once again, Foucault is not only wrong, but also insanely and shamefully wrong.

We can also see that Foucault has a reflexive, dog-whistle hostility – so characteristic of Marxists – to virtually everything in modern “bourgeois” society, even the justice system:
FOUCAULT: If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this; in other words, it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that.

FOUCAULT: And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

CHOMSKY: Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis--if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out-ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a ‘real’ notion of justice is grounded.

I think it’s too hasty to characterise our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real.” “Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
For Foucault, like any crass Marxist, the current justice system is just a “bourgeois” system of repression. For Chomsky, there may well be some oppressive aspects, but it also embodies real and powerful moral ideas.

Yet again, Chomsky is right; Foucault is wrong.

As regards to politics, Chomsky at one point sketches his vision of a future society:
“Let me begin by referring to something that we have already discussed, that is, if it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximise the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realised. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue.
Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavour, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defence against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated.

And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it's necessary, can be shared among the population; where centralised autocratic control of, in the first place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a destructive vestige of history.

They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated in favour of direct participation in the form of workers' councils or other free associations that individuals will constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence and their productive labour.

Now a federated, decentralised system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realise itself in whatever way it will.
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Chomsky has an anarcho-syndicalist vision of society, but Foucault actually admits he has no model or substantive vision of a future society at all, but just thinks that people should struggle and fight against power.

Here I think both Chomsky and Foucault are wrong.

Foucault is incapable of understanding or appreciating that a great deal of power even in modern society is just and morally right. Objective truths are not created by power systems, and Foucault’s view of power is almost conspiratorial in its irrationalism. The rights and power that responsible parents have over their children are morally just. It is right that power should be held temporarily by people who are merely elected in constitutional and representative democracy, and who can be thrown out of office if and when they lose support. Our modern legal systems, for all their faults, bring about a great deal of justice, and the law and order created by the state is vital to any civilised society. The power that secular universities and schools have to exclude, say, religious “creation science” (and lots of other superstitious nonsense) from the natural sciences curriculum is completely just. The power that the medical professions have to exclude faith healers, incompetent doctors or other quacks from their ranks is just and right. And the list goes on. For all the faults and problems of modern democratic societies, there is so much that is right and worthy of defending and preserving.

What about Chomsky’s views? I would regard Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist libertarianism as a utopian fantasy, for the simple reason that a society without strong central government is unworkable – certainly in the modern world. When left libertarians are pressed, they tend to admit that their vision of a future society just reduces to replacing current governments with institutions that fulfil almost the same functions. The only exception is that the anarcho-syndicalist model of human society as a “federated, decentralised system of free associations” seems incredibly naïve to me. Human beings are far too attached (whether rightly or wrongly) to their own languages, cultures, nation-states, traditions and interests for such a vision of society to be an effective system.

At least there is one redeeming feature to Chomsky’s view of politics. In his various comments over the years, Chomsky has had the good sense to tacitly admit that his left libertarianism remains an unrealistic utopia. When pressed about what economic policies he supports now, he invariably supports social democratic, Keynesian policies.

Finally, I cannot resist correcting this howler by Foucault about the history of dissection:
“Let me take a very simple example, which I will not analyse, but which is this: How was it possible that men began, at the end of the eighteenth century, for the first time in the history of Western thought and of Western knowledge, to open up the corpses of people in order to know what was the source, the origin, the anatomical needle, of the particular malady which was responsible for their deaths?
The idea seems simple enough. Well, four or five thousand years of medicine in the West were needed before we had the idea of looking for the cause of the malady in the lesion of a corpse.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Unfortunately, he is wrong. The ancient Greeks and Romans had schools of doctors and scientists who engaged in both human dissection and vivisection in attempts to understand human anatomy, and a long history of explaining diseases by autopsy. For example, the Greek scientist Herophilos stands out as an early pioneer of all these things.

Also, even in Christian Europe human dissection for anatomical purposes actually began in a significant way in the 13th century.

Further Reading
“Chomsky’s Rationalism,” September, 2013.

Gutting, Gary. 2003 (rev. 2013). “Michel Foucault,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History” [1971], in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 76–100.


  1. Very interesting, indeed. I see-perhaps wrongly- some connexion between Chosmky and Kant, in the sense of a priori Innate human capacity of knowledge (which on the other hand is in someway limited). There would be also an innate capacity for moral and justice. Kant:
    "Dos cosas llenan el ánimo de admiración y respeto, siempre nuevos y crecientes cuanto más reiterada y persistentemente se ocupa de ellas la reflexión: el cielo estrellado que está sobre mí y la ley moral que hay en mí.”

    1. Yes, I have discussed the relationship between Chomsky and Kant here:

    2. My own belief is we're all Kantians now, except for the loons. It is incontestable that the brain has hardwired capabilities such as edge detectors as a simple example. We have sufficient understanding of our apparatus now to prove it is broadly speaking Kantian, not a blank slate.

    3. Yes, but calling it "Kantian" is right only in a loose sense. It certainly does not support Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge..

      As I argue here it also vindicates evolutionary epistemology:

    4. Nothing vindicates synthetic a priori. What I mean is that Kant's fundamental idea, that the structure of our mind inevitably controls some aspects of how we can think or perceive, is vindicated. He saw through a glass darkly what we can see more clearly.

  2. Yes, sure, but I'm not vindicating Kant, but his valuable contribution into the evolution of philosophy.

  3. I think you misrepresent Foucault here when you describe this passage of speech as 'disgusting moral nihilism.'

    When he says:
    'When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.'

    He is dispassionate about the content of who is doing what and to whom he is merely making one of his central claims within the context of this discussion which is that given power any group (in this case the proletariat) would be in a position in which such things could of course be possible. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Power corrupts etc. So, far from your claim that he is promoting 'the sort of thinking that would justify any kind of murderous, genocidal authoritarianism,' that is what he is warning about. That is his point; he is open to the idea that even a well-intentioned overthrow of power could turn sour in this way in a way that Chomsky, perhaps naively in the light of history, is not.

    1. Foucault is absolutely saying the resentful proletariat, after taking power for the first time in history from the evil capitalists, powerful classes etc, could be as brutal as they like to their former "oppressors" and he wouldn't personally give a damn. He then follows by saying that the only moral problem would be a ruling proletariat being cruel to those from then own economic class, however he seems to think this would be impossible for some reason and could only happen if the power was subverted by some non-proletarian subversion of the new ruling class...

      I suppose by saying this that he's preemptively defending the failures and oppressive systems in socialist states such as the USSR or the Kmher Rouge's Cambodia for not being being properly proletarian or something to that effect. Foucault is quite transparent once you're familiar with his obscurantist style and countless personal neologisms.

      The man was not nearly as impressive as his fans would like to think and he has done western philosophy a great disservice. For him to be so well read in Nietzsche, yet think that mass politics driven by economic or social resentment can lead to anything but the worst possible society is absurd. He is about as Nietschen as the Nazi intellectual trash. "Will to power" and power dynamics are his only takeaway. He just chooses to side with the historically dominated instead of the dominator. Otherwise, I can't see much of anything that separates Foucault from the mindset of a National Socialist inversion with all the same awful qualities and nihilism.

  4. "It is important to note that both Foucault and Chomsky were, politically speaking, left libertarians or anarchists."

    Not the same thing. Social anarchism (not all, definitely not individualist anarchism), i.e. libertarian socialism, is libertarian leftism, not left libertarianism. Left libertarianism is the left of libertarian capitalism, i.e. minarchism (e.g. Kevin Carson, Roderick Long, etc).