Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

Today, we’re revisiting the clash of two intellectual titans, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, the American linguist and the French theorist/historian of ideas appeared on Dutch TV to debate a fundamental question: Is there such a thing as innate human nature? Or are we shaped by experiences and the power of cultural and social institutions around us? The thinkers answered these questions rather differently, giving viewers a fairly succinct introduction to their basic theories of language, knowledge, power and beyond.

42 years later, you can watch the debate on YouTube in parts or in its entirety. Above you will find two excerpts that show you the highlights, complete with subtitles. Below you can watch the entire debate online, from start to finish. Subtitles should be provided, but if you have any problems, you can read a full transcript of the debate online (it’s entirely in English), or purchase a copy in book format.

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Related Content:

Michel Foucault: Free Lectures on Truth, Discourse & The Self (UC Berkeley, 1980-1983)

Michel Foucault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Documentary Explores the Theorist’s Controversial Life and Philosophy

An Animated Introduction to Michel Foucault, “Philosopher of Power”

Noam Chomsky Spells Out the Purpose of Education

Jacques Lacan Speaks; Zizek Provides Free Cliffs Notes

Download 130 Free Philosophy Courses: Tools for Thinking About Life, Death & Everything Between

Read Chez Foucault, the 1978 Fanzine That Introduced Students to the Radical French Philosopher

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Comments (21)
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  • yoann says:

    Saw that a long time ago, but i never found the complete video. Where can you find it ?

  • Kevin Sparks says:

    Shuckles; it was somehow refreshing to see the odd ?? ‘proud nervousness’ – in tone, body lingo, and ‘decorum’ (the latter, particularly at very end) – to Chomsky’s innocent-enough and somewhat tacit exposing. This will not have been the only place where MF seems to want to ‘have the heart while eating it too.’ Foucault’s backed himself in here and -the horror- his interlocutor is too honest to ignore it. (Didn’t NC get the memo?!) MF attempts to ‘support’ revolution – with NO notion of justice or human nature – ‘turtles all the way down,’ it would seem.

  • walter says:

    Foucaul is outta sight for Chomsky.Period.
    No titans, no clash. I really enjoyed the LAD theory when i was a young student. Now im an old student and , well, Chomsky just dont happen.

  • The BBC Sucks BBCs says:

    My god 70s fashion sucked.

  • Veronica Madariaga says:

    Astounded by them separately, together I lose insight and become a bystander in the attempt of a confrontation of two beautiful minds.

  • Renu00e9 Tripp says:

    I dion’t agree with Focault’s moral relativism. It may be true that there is no human nature, but this implies that it is human to be creative, in other words, it is human to be free and not be limited or defined in a certain way. Therefore the aim of justice is to universalize this freedom and to stop the oppression of others.

    • Baucelion says:

      I think we are being naive when we say that we can be free. We can’t be, we just need to assume that we are not. Materially we are a bunch of atoms. Psychologically we are a bunch of forces that try to be over each other. And socially we are a product that sells itself for someone to buy us. We should talk about human condition, and not about human nature.

      • Renu00e9 Tripp says:

        Baucelion, I am more in agreement with the lines of Sartre, where he says that what differentiates humans from tools such as hammers or letter openers is that humans don’t have a purpose, that is, we can create any end for ourselves because we have a consciousness that is able to reflect onto itself (the consciousness of writing is different from the consciousness of me who is writing). This reflecting consciousness is what gives us the freedom to act differently from a tool or a machine (neither are we merely a bunch of atoms for that matter). In a sense you and Foucault are right that we are separate wills that are trying to have power over each other, but there are different ways in which this power can manifest itself, the slave-master relationship is one of them, but the different type of lover relationships are other instances of one part trying to own the other. The slave-master or bourgeois-proletariat path to owning the other is ultimately a doomed path, in a sense similar to the sado-masochistic path where the sadist tries to be a pure subject and have the other as a a pure object (willingly in sado-masochism and forcibly in slave-master relationship), trying to own the object down to its bare essence, which must result in failure because, as it was already explained it is inhuman to have a set goal. The best we can hope for is to be subject and object interchangeably, to love and to be loved in return.

        • Baucelion says:

          I don’t agree with Sartre and his concept of “freedom”. From my point of view we aren’t that free. How can you be sure that you want what you want? I mean, if I wanted to be rich it wouldn’t be because I really want to be rich, but my environment forces me to think I want to be rich. So it’s the speech to which I’m subdued that also offers the different options of freedom. I like Slavoj Zizek’s therm of “ideology” to express this phenomena.nnI also don’t agree with Sartre’s consciousness. I think Freaud’s and, later, Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis in which the subject is divided in three rooms is more accurate than Sartre’s ejected-to-the-world conscience. Maybe just my opinion

          • Guest011 says:

            You know that Zizek’s use of the term “ideology” is a reuse of Karl Marx’s conception and use for that term? The “ideology” is in reference to the idea of the Superstructure in that there is the ideology of the Capitalist masters which is the dominant force in modernity. And then there is the ideology of the Proletariat workers which was supposed to result in the revolution and what not. Zizek is just expounding on Marx’s notion of ideology in how “ideology” works in the present day. nnnFoucault would probably say that you hold some notion of truth and assumption of what a human is “to be” given that you reflect the opinions of Zizek, Freud, and Lacan. Foucault, if you know his life story and his life project, was very much critical of Marxism and the methods of Psychoanalysis. These theorits/philosophical thinkers did believe in trying to define what is or should be the “to be” for humanity. Marx had the idea of the proletariat and workers in control being the ideal for society; for Freud he believed that people have all these competing psychological cognitive processes like the phallus envy for women, the levels of consciousness, the Oedipus complex and other strange things, which if addressed explains how people can attain “becoming” a more sane human being. I am not familiar with Lacan but I hear that he focused on language and the levels of consciousness that Freud developed.

          • Requiem says:

            Do you know Marx First Hand? Most who talk about him dont know him first hand. That is especially problematic with people like him. Marx had not an Ideal as you claim. Simply not True. You find in some Parts of his Work something that is later become known as his “history-philosophy” [Geschichtsphilosophie] where the Proletariat must revolve society and so on. You find passages where he attacks Capitalism, Capitalists and bourgeois society. You find Passages where he writes about alienation and Passages that are full of accusations and very normative. But in Marx Works you find almost Everything and the opposite. Marx, like almost every Thinker, has eveloped [why do people forget this, what they have in mind regarding other Thinkers?]. Plus, secondly, Marx was Scientist and Politician as a Writer at the same time, so everything gets mixed up and Political Texts were used to make fun of him as a Scientist. That is in part Marx’ own fault, but we should give Marx the same credit we give everyone: We should handle his strongest and deepest theories, views and insights. And he saw plenty.nnTo come back to the initial Point, Marx didnt think (as a scientist) that Workers in control would be ideal for society, he thought it as necessary because of the inner oppositions (Widerstu00e4nde) of Capitalist society and because of the evolution of Capitalism (where it is heading to and what inner oppositions process capitalism and threat capitalism at the same time!), he thought this revolution as necessary (see Geschichtsphilosophie). But it was for sure something he also (additional) hoped for to come. That didn’t pay of, historically, but never the less many of his descriptions of capitalist society lightened up whats going on in a capitalist society and they still help to understand the world today (trhat doesn’t mean Marx is enough therefore!).nnlast word:nnMarx was, one of his most singular scientific achievements, the first thinker of Relationism (if this word exist in Englisch?), that is of the understanding and description of society and social relations in a nonmaterial but relational way (!) (that is true despiete of the “historical materialism”), something revolutionary and modern (e.g. Bourdieu and even Foucault (!) build on him) fpr social science, that excludes Normativism (i cant show this here, maybe you should think about it or lend you some literature about this point).nnAnd to come to an End: Foucault spoke on Marx with high Regard (e.g. [corresponding] from memory: “I dont citate him [the Master: Marx] because the physicians don’t citate Newton or Einstein.”) as a scientist and a base to explore new territory.nnSorry for my struggle with english.nnHave a nice night.nnRequiem from Germany.

          • Guest011 says:

            To Requiem,nnBy asking me if I know Marx first hand, I will say that yes I am familiar with Marx firsthand in the sense that I actually have read / reread pieces of his written work. nThough, I will say that I have probably not read as much as you have given that you believe that I do not understand Marx like you do. nnI will say that I actually agree with your analysis of Marx and his “scientific” method/philosophical foundation. nnIndeed, when discussing the “dialectic” of history in his Communist Manifesto Marx posits a theory of history where there is a relationship between two contradictory and competing forces in society. (This dialectical historical theory was first developed by Hegel but then “flipped” by Marx). He provides a very brief and simple outline of this dialectic in the manifesto describing that history is guided by this conflict such as the “Roman -Plebeian” relationship and the “Medieval Nobility – Peasant” relationship and the “Bourgeoisie – Proletariat” relationship. The dialectic is guided by the economic/material conditions of society which eventually comes into conflict with whatever the dominant “structure” or “ideology” is and results in a new material world through the outcome of the conflict. nnAccording to Marx’s scientific method, Capitalism is supposed to be the final stage before the last/ “utopian” stage of human history in that Capitalism would inevitably be felled by its own internal contradictions and the changing material conditions / means of production which Capitalism had produced and result in Communism/Socialism/Dictatorship of the Proletariat/or whatever. He said that the contradiction would result in the inevitable and scientifically “proven” result of a new and final stage of human relations in which the proletariat/workers of advanced, capitalist societies would be the one’s to reach the highest order of society and contradictions of economics and the means of production (aka the Profit motive of the industrial powers) would be corrected. nnSo, for Marx the idea of the workers revolution and the end to Capitalism was not an “idea” to him but indeed a “scientifically proven/supported fact.” Of course, this “fact” is not a fact to most other people, like myself, but instead just another idea, albeit a very powerful idea, that was developed by a 19th century, Modernist, social philosopher and theorist. nnMaybe in regard to this thread of posts, you (Requiem) should not fixate on Marx and this dominant idea of the 19th and 20th century of the term “scientific.” This word, as Foucault might of said, is a very squishy word especially in our current social context. “Scientific” as an adjective and word has been developed to provide a certain tone or ethos to whatever people are trying to prove as “true” or “real.” nnFoucault, indeed, was not philosophically inclined to come to absolute conclusions which try to claim a “truth” or a “reality” for human relations and human society. As in the debate with Chomsky, he is really really hesitant to try to make a claim about what is “supposed” to be in human relations and “human nature.” nnMarx made a lot of claims about what he thought defined “human nature” and what was “truely” the course of the technologically advanced societies. Foucault, and so many other important social theorists, are eternally grateful for Karl Marx because he provided a really good foundation for arguing against the human relations of a capitalist-advanced technology society. Marx was ground breaking in how he described how the economics of Capitalism worked and how the relationships between people in capitalist societies were being revolutionized by Capitalism and also being influenced by its “superstructure” or “dominant (Bourgeois/Capitalist) ideology.” Overall, Marx was morally grounded in opposing the Means of Production of Capitalism because he believed that, as his essays in the 1840’s such as the Economic Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 states, people identify most with, and have, freedom in being able to control their work and the means of producing their work economically. Capitalism denied this aspect of human nature and Marx believed that the Capitalist and bipolar world of Proletariat-Bourgeoisie would resolved in the “scientifically” inevitable revolution for workers and laborers to be able to be their own masters in their means of production. nnnP.S. You’re English is just fine to me. I understood basically everything you said, I think, well.

        • Guest011 says:

          In trying to explain the point that there is some truth to what Foucault and commentator Baucelion have to say about power relations, you provide examples that I believe fall short of the conceptualization of power and how amorphous and complicated the dynamics of any social context can be. For example, all of your examples are very much following a dialectic framing: “master-slave” / “bourgeois-proletariat” / “sado-masochistic” / and “(more dominant) lover-(more passive) lover.” Foucault was an extremely adept and well informed thinker in the social/historical/philosophical sense, and I believe that he understood that people are influenced and bound by whatever is or are his/her/their social context . And that social context is bound to historical themes and events, and interpretation of the historical themes and events. Trying to argue for the Utopian style philosophical projects of Chomsky, as well as the intellectuals of the last two hundred years such as K. Marx or Kautsky or really any one of any political leaning who had a vision of how humans should “be,” always requires an image or ego-centric claim for what the “human is” or what “human nature is.” Even your claims/Sartre’s about the human’s ultimate existential dilemma is how we can consciously choose to be free, which is up front an ambiguous term, is a “to be” claim on what the image of the human “truly is.” Foucault does not want to impose an image or a “to be” claim on humans because he believes that social context dictates the meaning and the image of what it means to be human and the meaning of the words/concepts we use to try to define “human nature.” nn What is interesting about Foucault and his relativistic style of understanding human morality, logic/reason, and the change of societies over time is that it was his life project to deconstruct and try to understand his own social context couched in the milieu of the philosophical periodization of history which we, usually in the “West,” call “Modernity.” That is why one of his early successful books, “Discipline and Punish,” concerned the early Modern period of Europe and the institutional development of punishment through the development of our ubiquitous method of imprisoning people during that period. nnnnBoth Foucault and Chomsky have a lot of issues with and critical analysis of “modernity” and the social context that we live in. But, while Chomsky makes claims about “what is justice for people” or “what is true freedom and liberty for humanity,” Foucualt arrives at no conclusions of that sort. He sees a complicated relationship of people in society, and he sees the conundrum of trying to define “human nature” and concepts when they are always changing in interpretation and meaning. Instead, Foucault provides no definite conclusions but instead provides the, for most people so often frustrating, logic that all human beings are intimately connected to certain dominant power relations of a given social context. And, as history has shown, attempts to “fix” or “change” or “revolutionize” or “define” some “truth” of power relations and “human nature” tends to reproduce the same power relations. Or at least, it produces a situation in which human beings are doing the same things to each other as before but just calling it by different names and with different interpretations.

  • The Peoples Front of Judea says:

    Foucault is quite clearly an intellectual player. I do enjoy his musings, however on a more serious level I have to agree with Chomsky. It is impossible to define the nature of the absolute, if such indeed exists at all, however we do have to start somewhere. Even though, quite frankly, I would love to be privileged enough to spend all my time on intellectual exercises and fascinating debates. Luckily for us all not everybody is Michel Foucault. 42 years later a lot of the problems they talk about persist, however if this debate was to be held today the room wouldn’t be filled with almost exclusively white males. So I guess there has been some progress.

  • joseph gregory rufalo says:

    i read this some 25-29 years ago and was amazed at the breath of there intellectual acumen and stamina . how the audence kept pace only the dutch would know. i, very many years later, had the allegory of a mountain being drilled at two different sides ( Chomsky’s words ) as my picture as to what in fact these people where doing when approaching a similar ends by polor different means . as for musing in foulcault case , well if Chomsky ate some brownies maybe the discussion would of played differently . irrespective Foucault desire fo change by any and all means necessary though fitting in his paradigm of power relations makes this pet ti bourgeoisie liberal think more then twice for the processes of rising up always weeds out the best and most human relationships tear asunder . today when i go back also i realize one see’s defensive mechanism always in the av anti before mass movement can tactically come to fruition . but chomsky’s st mathew’s call for justice is an ideal probably wired in the mind which wil live eternally by and dream for .

  • w says:

    Copernicus, in 15 century.

  • Prof P C Narasimha Reddy PhD says:

    An intellectual sojourn !!!
    – Prof P C Narasimha Reddy

  • Bertrand Marotte says:

    Foucault has long fingers

  • Bertrand Marotte says:

    “Their”, not “there”

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