Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV (1971)

Two aca­d­e­m­ic stars and heroes of anti-author­i­tar­i­an left­ist polit­i­cal thought sit down to debate human nature—nowadays such events occur more rarely than they did in the 60s and 70s, when the coun­ter­cul­ture and anti-war move­ments made both Michel Fou­cault and Noam Chom­sky famous. Now, when two thinkers of such cal­iber sit down togeth­er, their con­ver­sa­tion is imme­di­ate­ly dis­tilled into tweet­ed com­men­tary, some­times illus­trat­ed with gifs and video clips. We get the gist and move on to the next link.

In 1971, when Fou­cault and Chom­sky joined host Fons Elders on Dutch TV, those view­ers who tuned in would have to fol­low the con­ver­sa­tion for themselves—for the most part—though it aired in a part­ly abridged ver­sion with com­men­tary from a Pro­fes­sor L.W. Nau­ta. “Chom­sky is at the height of his lin­guis­tic-sci­en­tif­ic mode,” notes New Inquiry, where “Fou­cault per­forms a geneal­o­gy of sci­en­tif­ic truth itself.”

After an intro­duc­tion in Dutch by Dr. Nau­ta, Elders wel­comes his guests onstage in Eng­lish as “tonight’s debaters,” two “moun­tain dig­gers, work­ing at the oppo­site sides of the same moun­tains, with dif­fer­ent tools, with­out know­ing even if they are work­ing in each other’s direc­tion.” It’s a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that amus­es both Chom­sky and Fou­cault, who aren’t dis­cov­er­ing each other’s dif­fer­ences so much as enact­ing them for the stu­dio audi­ence of “ear­ly-70s Dutch intel­li­gentsia.”

The two do find some com­mon ground, in Foucault’s cri­tique of the dom­i­nant his­to­ry of sci­ence, for exam­ple. Where they dif­fer, they seem to be speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and they are also lit­er­al­ly speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Chom­sky begins in Eng­lish, Fou­cault responds in Eng­lish with apolo­gies for his lack of flu­en­cy, then switch­es to French. Those of us who aren’t flu­ent in both lan­guages will have to rely on the trans­la­tion, as many of us do when read­ing Fou­cault as well, a sit­u­a­tion that should give us pause before we draw con­clu­sions about what we think he’s say­ing.

Still, those inclined to reject Fou­cault as a rejec­tor of sci­ence should pay clos­er atten­tion to him, even in trans­la­tion (into Eng­lish, Por­tuguese, and Japan­ese sub­ti­tles in the video above). He does not reject the notion of sci­en­tif­ic fact, but rather, as Wittgen­stein had decades ear­li­er, points out that much of what we take as con­cep­tu­al real­i­ty is no more than vague, mean­ing­less abstrac­tion, “periph­er­al” words and phras­es that do “not all have the same degree of elab­o­ra­tion” as more pre­cise sci­en­tif­ic terms.

Fuzzy ideas, for exam­ple, like “human nature… do not play an ‘orga­niz­ing’ role with­in sci­ence.” Nei­ther “instru­ments of analy­sis” nor “descrip­tive either,” they “sim­ply serve to point out some prob­lems, or rather to point out cer­tain fields in need of study.” They are sign­posts for the unknown, a “sci­en­tif­ic shop­ping list,” as Pro­fes­sor Nau­ta puts it when he breaks in to help­ful­ly explain to view­ers at home what he thinks Fou­cault means. Nauta’s inter­ven­tions are dri­er than the main action—apparently no one thought in 1971 to sen­sa­tion­al­ize the event.

Well, almost no one thought to sen­sa­tion­al­ize the event. Anar­chist host Elders “want­ed to jazz things up a bit,” writes Eugene Wolters at Crit­i­cal The­o­ry. “Aside from offer­ing Fou­cault hashish for part of his pay­ment, Elder tried repeat­ed­ly to get Fou­cault to wear a bright red wig.” Accord­ing to the James Miller in The Pas­sion of Michel Fou­cault, Elders “kept pok­ing Fou­cault under the table, point­ing to the red wig on his lap, and whis­per­ing, ‘put it on, put it on.”

Chom­sky found the exchange less than amus­ing, lat­er call­ing Fou­cault “total­ly amoral” and say­ing that he “wild­ly exag­ger­ates.” These minor spec­ta­cles aside, the Chom­sky-Fou­cault debate is less epic show­down and more two most­ly par­al­lel, only occa­sion­al­ly inter­sect­ing, dis­cours­es on “a wide range of top­ics, from sci­ence, his­to­ry, and behav­ior­ism to cre­ativ­i­ty, free­dom, and the strug­gle for jus­tice in the realm of pol­i­tics.” If some of that dis­cus­sion seems over­ly obscure at times, just imag­ine Fou­cault in a bright red wig, and lat­er enjoy­ing what he and his friends called “Chom­sky hash.”

The text of their debate has been pub­lished. Read The Chom­sky-Fou­cault Debate: On Human Nature.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lec­ture “The Cul­ture of the Self,” Pre­sent­ed in Eng­lish at UC Berke­ley (1983)

Michel Fou­cault Offers a Clear, Com­pelling Intro­duc­tion to His Philo­soph­i­cal Project (1966)

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Lin­guis­tic The­o­ry, Nar­rat­ed by The X‑Files‘ Gillian Ander­son

Noam Chom­sky Makes His First Pow­er Point Pre­sen­ta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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