When Chomsky met Foucault: how the thinkers debated the ‘ideal society’


edited by O Society July 6, 2019

In 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault met at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands for their first and only debate. Produced by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation as a part of their International Philosophers Project, the programme featured discussions with eminent thinkers on the topic of ‘human nature and ideal society’. In recent years, their debate – the fourth and final of the series – has been somewhat overshadowed by events surrounding it. Namely, it’s rumoured that the programme’s host, the Dutch philosopher Fons Elders, paid Foucault for his appearance in hashish, and repeatedly encouraged him to put on a bright red wig to spice up the proceedings.

However, the debate itself – seen here excerpted and translated by the YouTube channel Philosophy Overdose – has appeal beyond the pleasures of watching the provocative Foucault spar with the professorial Chomsky. With the Vietnam War near its height, Chomsky and Foucault agree that contemporary power structures need to be attacked and dismantled. However, while Chomsky advocates for a system of ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ rooted in justice, sympathy and human creativity, Foucault argues that these concepts are products of the same bourgeois system that needs replacing. Probing age-old philosophical questions as well as the politics of the moment, the interview offers a revealing glimpse of the divergent styles, attitudes and outlooks of two enduringly influential thinkers.

In a few clips from this classic 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on justice and power. Among other things, Foucault suggests there is no fixed, ahistorical notion of human nature, as posited by Chomsky’s concept of innate human faculties. Chomsky argues concepts of justice are rooted in human nature and reason, whereas Foucault rejects any such universal basis for a concept of justice.


Here is the full debate:

The full TV debate by Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on the question of Human Nature. Subtitles: English, Portuguese, Japanese. Check the small buttons at the lower right corner of the YouTube-screen where you can also go to full-screen etc. There you can enable translation subtitles by clicking Settings, then Subtitles/CC.

Noam Chomsky – Postmodernism and Post-structuralism

The Limits of Knowledge & Thought: A few clips of Noam Chomsky discussing some of the philosophical implications of his work in linguistics and the nature of language in regards to creativity, freedom, and the limits of human knowledge and cognition. This is from a 1978 interview with Bryan Magee. Such high quality clips come from the channel “Manufacturing Intellect.”

The Disappearance of Man: In the spirit of Nietzsche, Foucault declares the death of Man, suggesting our notion of Man is itself a somewhat recent invention. He suggests Man is a mere “glittering surface”, the foam over top various underlying systems and structures which are what have determined and defined it. He contrasts his own structuralist or post-structuralist view with that of Sartre’s existentialist humanism, who had given priority to human subjectivity, the inner subject or authentic self as the ultimate source of meaning.

“Paradoxically, the development of the human sciences is leading to the disappearance of Man rather than to Man’s apotheosis.”

Michel Foucault was a philosophical historian who questioned many of our assumptions about how much better the world is today compared with the past. When he looked at the treatment of the mad, at the medical profession and at sexuality, he didn’t see the progress routinely assumed.

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