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.

Look­ing for free, pro­fes­­sion­al­­ly-read audio books from Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free tri­al with, you can down­load two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

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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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