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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.
Top customer reviews
This debate focuses on extremely important issues which indeed belong to the realm of "philosophy", and proves to be an invaluable companion in regards to thinking about how power functions in society, what is an appropriate model of political relations which could be used as a vision for a future, more egalitarian society and the very controversial question as to what "human nature" is, if it even can be said to exist at all, which, one of the philosophers in this debate denies.
There are many great things about the book, not least the supplementary material, which offers an "extra" to the content of this debate, but also the clarity in which Foucault expresses his ideas, which was (and still is, but to a lesser extent) anathema during the rise of "postmodernism" in France. It's good to know that not everything which is obscure in contemporary philosophy need not be profound, indeed the opposite is the case.
Chomsky, as always, is brilliant, perceptive and a fantastic human being, and the objections Foucault "throws" at Chomsky are poignant and relevant. In fact, this may be the one debate that I have read or seen in which I cannot say that Chomsky "won" with any definite certainty. In fact, it is up to you to read the book and see who "won", if such a word can be used.
This debate is civil, friendly and very, very deep, and can be re-read many times at different periods within ones life and "side" with one person over the other. Sure, the first portion of the debate is somewhat technical, though this improves as the moderator does his job through the debate.
It's sad that in contemporary philosophy, we don't see say, Zizek debate, for example, John Searle nor have had a great chance to see, for example Hans-Geor Gadamer debate John Rawls, which could have been possible. Dialogue is extremely important and sticking to the stereotypes which describe continental philosophy as "obscure gibberish" or the analytic school as being "hair-splitting trivialities" does no one, least of all the general public, appreciate the wonder of the over 2000 year old philosophical tradition, which is rich with deep thoughts unlike any other field within human understanding.
Is our knowledge limited by our brain-structure or by societal norms and regulations? Can society be better off without schools and mental institutions? Is there one singe human nature? All this and much more, are tackled in this wonderful, wonderful book.
P.S: Anyone willing to put in MINIMAL effort will be very rewarded.
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. Chomsky thinks the desire for justice is part of "human nature", Foucault thinks it's possible, even likely, that the oppressed will become the oppressors if they are able to seize power.
Chomsky counters this point by saying that if he believed the oppressed would become the oppressors, he wouldn't support revolutionary activity, but his vision of "human nature" includes the universal desire for justice. Foucault argues that the desire for Power overrides all other considerations.
Essentially, Chomsky argues from the position of Kant, that there's a "categorical imperative" equivalent to the way we commonly talk about "conscience", that's part of "human nature", whereas Foucault takes the position of Nietzsche that the "Will to Power", which, like the Freudian "id", makes no moral distinctions, is the decisive factor in history.
Pragmatically, I would say Chomsky's position is, like Kant's, a matter of personal belief, not a demonstrable assertion, whereas Foucault's is demonstrated by any dispassionate reading of history, therefore more plausible, even if it's not apodictically conclusive.
Therefore, I would say that Chomsky's merit is his uncovering of the machinations of the political powerful, but his explanation of why the oppressors are as they are, and, even more important, why the oppressed are as they are, is a matter of faith, whereas Foucault's "explanation" is at least defensible.