May 2015

Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault (1971)


What is human nature? This video serves as a kind of “methodological” foundation to the problematics proposed within this series. A young, slightly naive Noam Chomsky meets a cheeky, exuberant Michel Foucault in 1971 to engage in a public debate at Eindhoven University. These debates were edited and put together as a series for broadcast on Dutch television. The discussion opens with theoretical reflections on the question of human nature from the divergent perspectives of two philosophers, moving on in the latter half to apply the ideas proposed to the social crises at hand: the Vietnam War, the student movement in Europe and the United States, evaluating and exchanging possibilities of organization, resistance, and transformation. A civilizational problem is articulated, centering around the notion of the “human” itself—does this creature have a specific nature, a potential, a realizable potency? Chomsky argues that humans, indeed, do have a deeper essence, one that is good, and perhaps even just. This is, he maintains, proven by the existence of generalized creativity, the everyday innovations and improvisations exhibited within decision-making processes that generate knowledge. Creativity results in innovation, and thus, the basis for sociopolitical transformation lies rooted within human nature itself. Language and the forms of application it takes are crucial here, both for Chomsky as linguist, and for Foucault as intellectual historian. As a counterargument, Foucault draws on his “archaeological method,” best articulated in his book The Order of Things, to assert that any idea of a human nature falls prey to the episteme of a given civilizational moment. That is, the structures of language, order, and imagination which allow for ideas to emerge and to translate themselves into sensible practices of knowledge. As our civilization, since the sixteenth century, has been primarily a capitalist one, any discussion on human “nature” must self-reflect on the language of capital that frames its view of the world, even of possible worlds. Thinking of creativity as innovation, in this sense, already opens up a “market” to the workings of capital, within which even the values and ideals of a specifically “human” nature may be captured and put into economic circulation—one of the many basic operations of today’s neoliberalism. In many ways, this debate serves as a point of departure for the nascent radicalism of both thinkers—Chomsky’s progressive move to a critical political denouncement of American imperialism, and Foucault’s philosophical transition towards a structural engagement with surveillance, discipline, governmentality, and biopower.

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