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The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature Paperback – September 1, 2006

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About the Author

Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics at MIT and a world-renowned political thinker and activist. The author of numerous books, including On Language and Understanding Power (both available from The New Press), he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Michel Foucault (1926-84) held a chair in the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France. The New Press has published three previous volumes of his work as well as a collection, The Essential Foucault. John Rajchman is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and author of Michel Foucault. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 213 pages
  • Publisher: New Press, The (September 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1595581340
  • ISBN-13: 978-1595581341
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 7.5 x 5.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #70,599 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault are arguably two of the most influential thinkers of the late twentieth century - important contributors to Western intellectual history. Despite their significance, however, this small text has limited value. It is a hodgepodge of loosely related and previously published material much of which is available on line for free.

The book, as its title suggests, is notionally centered on the 1971 Dutch Television debate between Chomsky and Foucault moderated by Edlers on the question of whether or not there such a thing as an "innate" human nature. While the `debate' is largely an exercise in the two protagonists talking past each other; it is nonetheless an interesting small episode in contemporary intellectual history. The video and transcript have been available on-line for years. Had the remainder of the text been post-debate reflections or new analysis of the issues raised in the discussion the text could have been quite interesting. Sadly, this is not the case.

The remaining four essays are transcripts of interviews and presentations by Foucault and Chomsky on other subjects - Chomsky does offer a few small asides on the debate at the end of one interview. The two chapters on Chomsky are transcripts of 1976 interviews with Ronat. `The Philosophy of Language' is a collection of Chomsky's musings on the modern intellectual project while `Politics' provides a feel for his well known political views which range from insightful reflections on the nature and function of societal power structures to his more fringe conspiracy-type views. While interesting small pieces they have been previously published and have only a tenuous link to the earlier debate.
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The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature collects and presents an integral debate held between two of the world's top intellectuals, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, held in 1971 (during the height of the Vietnam War) to wrestle with the ancient question: Is there such a thing as "innate" human nature independent of our experiences and external influences? In addition to reproducing the debate verbatim, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature includes later writings by each speaker: "Politics" (1976) and "A Philosophy of Language" (1976) by Noam Chomsky, and "Truth and Power" (1976), "Omnes et Singulatim: Toward a Critique of Political Rason" (1978) and "Confronting Government: Human Rights" (1984) by Michel Foucault. "The concept of legality and the concept of justice are not identical; they're not entirely distinct either. Insofar as legality incorporates justice in this sense of better justice, referring to a better society, then we should follow and obey the law... Of course, in those areas where the legal system happens to represent not better justice, but rather the techniques of oppression that have been codified in a particular autocratic system, well, then a reasonable human being should disregard and oppose them, at least in principle; he may not, for some reason, do it in fact." Highly recommended, and a welcome contribution to library philosophy shelves.
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I wish there were more such confrontations between thinkers of Foucault and Chomsky's stature. Regardless of whom you favor, at least they managed to wrangle over serious issues, such as whether there is an absolute justice and whether we share an independent human nature or essence. In this exchange, Foucault seems to undercut Chomsky repeatedly, first moving Chomsky to concede that issues of injustice and oppression would occur even in conditions of relative anarchy, and then pinning Chomsky to a notion of absolute justice that Chomsky admits he cannot articulate. The supplementary readings in this text are, I believe, necessary to get an accurate picture of Foucault's considered position, which is not clearly represented in the exchange (where he is playing something of a devil's advocate). While this does not amount to anything like a demonstration that Chomsky was wrong--and Foucault would not have claimed to demonstrate such a thing--it does show, I think, that defenders of Chomsky's positions have some rather heavy lifting in store.
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Though a great deal is discussed in this short debate, the crux is the participants' views of "human nature", as the book's title indicates.

There has to be a winner in a debate--or, better said, a more plausible line of argument, since eternal questions aren't likely to be answered decisively in a debate, even if two geniuses are the participants.

No question that Foucault's argument is the more plausible in this case.

Chomsky argues from his theory of "generative grammar" that there's an innate structure in the human mind which allows children to develop (should I say, generate?) complex verbal structures from their basic--and limited--experience of language. He claims this can't be explained in behavorist terms (essentially, the trial-and-error method) and given this "schemetization" and our experience of history, it's reasonable to assume that there are others, ergo we can postulate that "human nature" in innate, even if we don't as yet understand its complex structure and the precise way it functions.

Foucault argues that Chomsky's conception is indefensible, because what occurs in history determines the way we define "human nature". Our vision of what it means to be human changes over time, being the creation of various forces we can't define clearly, as, for example, when we consider the way the "climate of opinion" in medicine was transformed over a period of 40 years in the 19th century.

The decisive point in the debate occurs when Foucault asks whether the revolution Chomsky hopes for is the result of a desire for social justice or more accurately a desire by the oppressed to seize power.
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