Chomsky Foucault Debate – Review

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Two titans, King Kong Chomsky and Fallout Foucault, met in the Netherlands on November 1971 to battle to the bitter end. It was the clash of the century; the analytic philosopher against the continental philosopher, the two schools of modern leftist thought went to war. A mighty crowd gathered to watch the two gladiators fight to the death and…

Nothing really happened. I’m surprised people even talk of Chomsky and Foucault as debating each other. It looked to me more like two pretentious hipsters discussing philosophy at a Starbucks. – I mean, Cafe Harwich. Starbucks is for noobs. We’re dealing with level 80 warlocks here. – It was as if a being from Mars and a being from Venus met each other. They get along great and agree on many things, but sometimes they simply don’t see eye to eye.

THE BASICS
Chomsky and Foucault have different methods of approaching things. Chomsky is what snobs call an analytic philosopher, like a classic Enlightenment man is science. He approaches problems with a strong bent on reason and the scientific method, in essence an optimist un believing people can solve even the most difficult problems if they are persistent and principled. enough. He is somewhat dry and boring in his work but he is the practical man you can count on to do the political work.

Foucault, in contrast, is what eggheads call a continental philosopher. He belongs to a large continent of thinkers who come from diverse schools of thought, from Theodore Adorno to Simone de Beauvoir. But they all have some things in common: they focus on critiquing the issues of the 20th century in ways they feel the thinkers of the Enlightenment have not yet considered. Most were deeply inspired by Nietzsche, like Foucault himself, and expanded on Nietzsche’s thoughts to fight their battles.

Chomsky and Foucault assume a unique relationship in their debate. They are not opponents. Chomsky is like the scientist who, after decades of careful tedious research, has refined his body of work into several relatively solid theories. Foucault is like the skeptical philosopher who is not too certain about what science exactly is. They collide head on, nor do they try to refute each other, but build on what the other person said, despite their differences.

HUMAN NATURE?
You can split the debate into two halves: one on human nature, the other on leftist politics. Chomsky basically says some kind of human nature exists, since children construct language within certain limits no matter what culture they are from [1]. Chomsky thinks science helps us progress in knowledge and build better societies. The progress we make is far from simple and linear; we walk on a winding road in a dark forest but we are getting somewhere [2].

Foucault thinks a people’s culture and power relations play a much bigger role in determining what “human nature” even means. Before the eighteenth century, people had no real sense of “human nature”. They imagined a vast hierarchy with minerals at the bottom, then plants, animals, women, men, and scholarly man at the top. They never considered plants and animals to even have a “nature” that could be compared to humans. Only with the advent of modern science, when people compared humans to other animals like they were similar things, did they did they conceive of a “human nature” [3].

As for science, Foucault points out that as we develop new theories and methods in the sciences, some worldviews, or perceptions, die off, and therefore become shut from us, while we develop other worldview. The alchemist’s mystical experiences of the world, of human nature, and sense of occult divine order in creation, are cut off from us. We don’t explore that line of reasoning anymore [4].

And how does Chomsky respond? Well, bringing up our different worldviews throughout history is a sound critique, but it doesn’t disprove anything. No matter where you travel in time or what you believe, humans will always have certain basic traits and act in certain basic ways. We will always be bound by certain severe limits. Even a Martian, if she visited earth, would see us behave in predictable ways, similar to how we observe other animals behaving in predictable ways [5].

To get really basic, we eat, have sex to continue the species, and die of natural causes around seventy. We also have a huge blind spot in the center of our vision. To get more advanced, our brains are made in specific ways: we are terrible at math and logical reasoning but are very good at association. We easily remember hundreds of human faces while a computer struggles to tell a human face from an electric socket.

We separate people into “us” groups and “them” groups out of habit, even for things as trivial and meaningless as skin color and zodiac signs. We are extremely biased in favor of “us” and against “them”. And as Chomsky stated, the way we learn language and therefore even the way we think is limited in certain ways.

Chomsky says some harsh words about behaviorists, or people who tend to wave human nature aside as something that just comes from the environment. Behaviorists have no real theory of their own but say “the environment” as a cop out for any theory that suggests some kind of human nature. Chomsky thinks this is bad for scientists since it impedes their studies [6].

POLITICS?
When it comes to politics, Chomsky stands on more shaky ground. This does not surprise me, as every philosopher with a system will have problems putting it into practice. It is David Hume’s old problem; you can’t cross the bridge from “is” to “ought”.

Chomsky speaks of how, one day, we could organize anarchist societies made of equal mutual factions that balance each other out. This runs into a problem, as anarchists since William Godwin have been thinking of how a society with no fork of oppression could exist, but none of them put such a society in practice.

But in Chomsky’s defense, Chomsky says it is important to think about ways people can live with each other without a state, even if the ideas are imperfect. Capitalism is exploitative and dehumanizing; it cannot be justified. We have to try better, to make a world where human living and working are more meaningful [7]. Like a scientist, an activist has to draft different theories and put them into practice, and learn from experience. There is no way around trial and error, but “playing it safe” by refusing to change anything is a danger in itself [8].

Chomsky moves on to justice versus the law, saying it is morally right to break a law if the law is unjust and you are pursuing a higher justice. This begs the question of how one figures out what is more just than something else, and Foucault points this out. Ever since Nietzsche, no one really knows what a moral is, or how you could defend a moral as somehow being valid, something you can fight and die for [9].

What exactly is justice? To Foucault, it means different things to different classes of people. But it is the ruling class that has the power to turn it’s wants and values into law. The ruler’s morals become the morals of the state in general, and this is what creates justice. It’s your sense of morals combined with your power to enforce them, directly or through the law. You can even see this political process in institutions such as education and psychiatry [10].

Even the proletariat, a class of people Marxist advocate for, got their moral ideals from their bourgeois rulers. It is good for a man to be educated, productive, free thinking, and having the freedom to choose, as opposed to being a cog in the capitalist machine. But having a high education, being productive, being a free thinker, and having personal freedom are all bourgeois values [11].

Chomsky has a nuanced take on international law. Clearly, international law was created by the most powerful businessmen, politicians, and military leaders of the world, and they designed the law to serve them first. But the laws themselves can be positive, and activists can adopt the ideas behind them to try to make a better world. Chomsky brings up the Nuremberg Trials, how world leaders used the lessons they learned from the Trials to improve international law [12].

WRAP UP
Two little professors live inside me, Continental Bogdan and Analytical Bogdan. Continental Bogdan is so skeptical of everything he thinks every part of human life is a mental construct, and therefore not truly real. All he knows is that he knows nothing else. Analytical Bogdan mostly agrees but is more practical. Yes, our thoughts and values will always be made-up. So? Some actions help us, others hurt us. Some things work, some things don’t, and we have lots of work to do.

Chomsky and Foucault believe in a similar kind of activism. The activist must challenge unjust power structures, and the pervasive assumptions that let them exist, wherever she can find them, and take them apart. Politics and philosophy are very closely tied together, as both men know very well. Foucault says in the debate, “How can I not be interested in politics? Everything is somehow political and relevant to me.” The best way to leave the debate is to ask ourselves, “What do we do now.”

Citations:
1. Chomsky, Noam, and Michel Foucault. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature. New York, London: The New Press, 2006. 3-4.
2. Ibid. 36.
3. Ibid. 6-7.
4. Ibid. 18.
5. Ibid. 23-24.
6. Ibid. 34-35.
7. Ibid. 38.
8. Ibid. 45.
9. Ibid. 46-47.
10. Ibid. 40
11. Ibid. 43-44
12. Ibid. 48-49

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Human, All Too Human – Review

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In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche continues his quest to remap the human world. Like in Daybreak, he studies humans through psychology and arrives to naturalistic conclusions, but creates a more defined worldview of sorts. Human, All Too Human was published before Daybreak, believe it or not, but it looks more put together than its counterpart. Nietzsche may have wanted to pose the problems he observed first, then searched for answers.

We could rename Human, All Too Human as “Human Limits” or “Catch 22”; such are the biggest ideas of the whole book. We are odd and somewhat befuddled apes, very proud of our sapience, yet we can never breach certain walls. And do not even mention metaphysics – for shame! – our greatest error throughout history. Has another animal on Earth ever been as wrong as we are? Nietzsche is an optimist, but a savvy one. He demands we do nothing less than overcome our human nature, a feat for a superhuman, an Ubermensch.

Walls
Language is a wall that separates humans from the world. Language, a skill almost to unique to us and our hominid ancestors, helped us master the world but cut us off from it. As we developed language, we created a separate world of abstract concepts. Words and numbers are symbols that represent ideas, but ideas are not real. Logic itself is a language game. You can observe the height of a redwood tree but you cannot observe 360 feet. Two bubbles exist, one of symbols and the ideas they represent, the other the real world. We live in the first bubble.

If you want to go to an extreme, recall David Hume’s famous argument. Your brain detects electromagnetic waves from the eyes, pressure from the hands, and chemicals from the tongue, then it interprets it as a kind of information, then uses the information to recall a concept. At last, you understand you ate a delicious red apple. But eating forbidden fruit comes at the price of knowledge. The apple does not exist; it is just an idea in your head. You do not exist either.        

To be specific, Nietzsche claims we invented language as a way to gain leverage over an immense scary world we did not understand. Over time, we bought into the hype and presumed mere ideas and names as eternal truths, “faith in ascertained truth” [1]. We invented magic and gods for a similar reason, to gain some control of the world. If spirits sapient like we cause stones to fall or rivers to flood, we can haggle, cajole, or beg them to get what we want [2]. What is magic but symbols we manipulate to create reality?

Ah, Truth, that strange creature we chase after. But she is a very different species than we are. An ape and an idea as subtle as Truth cannot see eye to eye. We evolved in the African savannah, after a great drought destroyed the lust Eden of forests, during a time of great starvation. We evolved eyes with huge blind spots to see the cave lion before she devours us, not to see quantum fields. We evolved a fragile brain that judges in haste and fears the unknown, not a brain that puts bias aside to reason clearly.

The things we call our “worldview” and “personality” are both founded on errors. We formed a worldview because we had to satisfy our needs, passions, and desires. We did so since a young age by absorbing a limited amount of facts we needed and turning them into ideas we needed; all that without accounting for an entire society of people who indoctrinated us so we could function. Our personalities are formed from traumas and hardships, which cause us to form habits as a way of coping and build a wall called the ego to separate us from other people.

Worse yet, we need to hold on to values to have a fulfilling life, yet values make us biased by their nature. We tend to twist facts into a narrative, like we often do when studying history, to justify our values. We value the life of our species and assume that life progresses in a meaningful way by default, but does it? We left Africa to travel the world by following the coastline, walking along an endless beach. We have not changed much. We still walk the same beach, always searching. Because of our nature as living creatures, “human life is deeply involved in UNTRUTH.” [3] A wall separates truth from value.     

And what of science? Does she not help us see the world in an objective way? Yes, but she can only help us as an equal. She cannot give us the truth on a plate. Nietzsche states science has no goals, not a value but a method. People who think science has any inherent value or purpose are wrong. We sometimes use science only to discover a truth, but more often we use science to achieve a certain purpose, and even holding the truth a good thing worth discovering is a value.

Science has indeed improved our quality of life, and promoted the welfare of humanity, but she never intended it [4]. We created the scientific method from Enlightenment values, while looking at the world in a more methodical and skeptical way created Enlightenment values. Side by side, we have walked with science along the beach for the last 400 years or so. There is a lot of serendipity in all this.

Nietzsche even muses if it is better for humans to be ignorant and happy of human nature. What is the point of gaining some limited insight if you are miserable? If you do good works and do not think too hard about mysteries that will never be solved, than the welfare of human society is promoted [5]. We reach another wall, another dead end, with science on one side and human happiness on the other.

Effect and Cause
Let us turn to metaphysics, the proud domain of the philosophers. Nietzsche is consistent in his statement; metaphysics is an error of reason. We mixed up cause and effect. Observe a basic error in the tradition. The philosopher looks at the human right now, living in a specific time and place, forged by so many of the different political, religious, and economic factors of the moment, and says, “This is human nature”. As an eternal fact, as if the human never evolves like other animals do [6]. The philosopher saw a cause, the human of today and her society, and traced it to an effect, “human nature”.  

Nietzsche, true to form, attacks morals in a similar way. Like in Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that a group of people would adopt certain practices because they were useful and pleasing to the. A Practice turns to habit. Passed through generations, it becomes a tradition, and finally a moral command. A person can even grow to like an unpleasant practice over time [89]. The philosopher looks back on this history and says, “Follow these moral maxims. Then you will do good service to the community and lead a happy fulfilling life.”   

If we turn to metaphysics, we will see more clearly how it is an error of reason, and tie the Gordian knot. How did we first come up with metaphysics, and everything that comes with it? Nietzsche gives a strange answer, indulging in speculative history as usual: dreams. When we first dreamed, long ago in the dark past, we visited a second substantial world, or so we thought [7]. From there we dreamt up a world beyond this world, something every religious person believes in. And what does the philosopher say? That the gods from the higher world visit us when we sleep, causing us to dream.          

Homo Sapiens?
There is a fundamental problem, which relates to walls and metaphysics. We have projected our human needs, passions, fears, and prejudices unto the world for a very long time. We built up a mass of fancies and errors over the past thousands of years. Yet those errors made us a sensitive and profound animal, especially the errors that inspired the great creative feats in the arts. Our history, our tradition, however wrong and terrible it is, gives us dear treasures. “Whatever is worth of our humanity rests on it.”, Nietzsche says [8].

As we slowly, painfully improve on our faculties of reason and methods in science, we will rid ourselves of old bad habits, little by little. But we should take care to carefully discriminate what is good and preserve it. I guess Nietzsche despised many socialists and atheists of his day because they tried to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

You get smug atheists who hit you over the head with crude materialistic philosophies while preaching a shallow form of humanist philosophy. Ironically, many hold on to Christian values and, while claiming to be skeptics, are as credulous as the fools who give money to televangelists. You get depressed socialists who rightly critique many of the evils in tradition, capitalism, and religion, but either cannot fully reject them or replace them with new “higher values”. Maybe you must have delusions to truly believe in “higher values” at all, and pessimism cannot be helped.

Nietzsche would instead like to see a larger “movement” where people become more self aware, more aware of our subconscious biases, our indoctrination, our bad human habits, and our hidden thoughts, especially the unsavory parts of us hidden from our knowledge. And science can help us laugh at ourselves, to give us “a sort of mistrust of this species and its seriousness” [9].        

Are we in are going under difficult changes, describing us as having birthing pains. Nietzsche even describes us like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. The truth is painful but the truth will set us free. When we get a new habit of understanding, we will take a new view, looking from above, and will attain a new wisdom and consciousness of guiltlessness [10]. Perhaps we needed to make so many errors to reach this state to evolve in the first place. Were our errors necessary for us to take a higher step?        

Citations:
1.Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Middletown, DE: Wildside Press, June 23 2018. 26-27.
2. Ibid. 106-107
3. Ibid. 50.
4. Ibid. 57
5. Ibid. 54-55
6. Ibid. 20
7. Ibid. 28-30
8. Ibid. 33-34
9. Ibid. 56
10. Ibid. 99-100