Chomsky and Foucault Debate – Linguistics, Sociology and Human Nature

Noam Chomsky believes in human nature; activism requires a knowledge of humans. But Foucault is skeptical, seeing “human nature” as a product of discourses.

In a 1971 debate, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault discuss human nature, or the lack thereof. Chomsky proposes an underlying human nature that is positive and progressive, drawing from his work in linguistics and his experience as a political activist. Foucault, however, draws from his work in the areas of philosophy, sociology and history to discredit the notion of human nature altogether.

Human Nature and Political Activism Debate

Two intellectual giants of their time, both men make valid points concerning humans and their prospective course of action. The overthrow of an unjust system, to Chomsky, is morally admirable and necessary. Foucault, however, questions the motives of the oppressed (or proletarian), asserting that people go to war to win, not because it is just, and that the proletarian, after finally securing power, will be capable of the same brutality and oppression that once debilitated them.

For Chomsky, the belief in an overriding good, a human nature that is progressive, self-correcting and just, is essential for any course of action at all. Without faith in the underlying good of humanity, no action can be taken: nothing can be done in the absence of an understanding – though incomplete – of the human being. The unlimited ways in which humans have been able to utilize limited language alone reveal their creativity and the desire to learn and overcome. There is something very alive and innovative within the human being that creates for Chomsky the hope for a better future.

Nihilism vs. Human Progress

What Chomsky perceives as progress and the expectation of future progress is for Foucault a power struggle between various discourses; when one theory becomes more popular or accepted, it appears as the correct understanding of man: his true nature. But Foucault doubts that human nature has been or can be defined. And the labeling of human nature is dangerous and has the potential of locking humans into definitive forms.

Mapping Man: The Limits of Philosophy

Ironically, while Chomsky stresses the freedom of man and his potential for creativity and progress, he also boxes him in by proposing a human nature, or what human nature should ideally entail. Foucault, on the other hand, actually frees man completely from all definitions and courses of action that are not his own; that have been superimposed on him by the progressive thinkers who wish to make him a builder of an ideal he did not create or envision for himself.

Foucault challenges the myth of the angelic oppressed and evil oppressor. Overthrowing an existing power does not guarantee that a better way of living will result. Revolution does equal justice; it merely takes on another form of power that can be just as bloody and vicious as the previous system.

Chomsky’s optimism is met with Foucault’s skepticism: Chomsky stresses the need for action, even with incomplete knowledge while Foucault questions the progressive path that Chomsky has laid out for man.

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