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.
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.
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 . 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 .
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” .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 . 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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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.”
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