Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault are described in this book by Fons Elders as ‘tunnellers through a mountain working at opposite sides of the same mountain with different tools, without even knowing if they are working in each other’s direction.’ Human Nature: Justice vs. Power is the title of the debate, which originally aired on Dutch television in 1971.
The title is taken from the stance that both men arrived at (or continued to entertain) into in the late stages of their careers. To reduce it to its simplest explanation—a job that the title of the book has already prepared us for—, Chomsky tends to think that some sense of justice is responsible for human nature while Foucault tends to think that programs of power play more into human behavior. One might be tempted to pin the whole occasion down to a manifestation of an ongoing war between foundationalism and hermeneutics, Chomsky being a likely tie to the former and Foucault a likely tie to the latter.
However, nothing between these two thinkers is ever quite that simple. As Chomsky continues on insisting that certain attributes of human language and creativity stem from fundamental biological properties, we start to gather that this insistence has more to do with a scientific need to push forward with a theory in order to see if it stands or falls in some provided context. This also gives Chomsky a chance to remain optimistic about the nature of man by postulating that some notion of justice or, at least, a notion of ‘better justice’ is what drives human nature.
This also gives him the opportunity to remain fairly constant through both subjects—creativity and politics. On the subject of creativity, Foucault seems to disagree with him very little or only in small ways, while remaining suspicious of the inherent logical movement of Chomsky’s assumptions. They split on Descartes and the mind, and the nuance of this split is representative of the paradigmic relationship that these two thinkers have with the subject matter.
The subject of politics is where Foucault is at his most rigorous. When asked why he is interested in politics, the most basic answer he can provide is that it would be far stranger for someone not to be interested in politics, at which point it would be justifiable to ask, ‘Well, damit, why the hell not?’ A self proclaimed ‘Nietzschean,’ Foucault’s specialty is in the genealogies and pedigrees of certain ideas and assumptions. Through socio-linguistic turns, through the intellectual extracts of different sets of phenomena and the inter-subjective dialogue possible between them through different texts, Foucault made a career out of constantly trying to step outside of the historical contexts in which we’re thrown and creating brand new narratives in such a way that they would read as though they were things hidden since the beginning of man.
The most fundamental disagreement happens late into the debate, in the political section, in which Foucault postulates, not without hesitation as though trying to avoid an impolite subject, that the notion of ‘justice’ was created and then perpetuated by oppressed classes as a justification for economic and political power. Chomsky defends justice as being sought as a network of basic human needs like love, decency, kindness and sympathy, whereas Foucault’s view of justice, Chomsky claims, is very specific to only certain political situations and doesn’t take into account instances like two countries going to war—One is left to choose one side, which reduces the objective to a level of basic human needs and the mutual striving of the citizens to achieve it for one another as well as themselves.
Often, Foucault, eager to escape essentialist trappings, always comes back to the subject of power as a means to clarify, though he does seem to rest there much the way Nietzsche did. However Foucault does deserve credit for defining Power along more complex lines than the Nietzschean idea of power as ‘the sensation of having overcome,’ or the force by which every set of phenomena can be reduced—‘will to power.’ Foucault takes it further by saying that power is not simply a way of measuring the ways in which the strong constrain the weak but that it can also be manifested through one culture’s influence of educational tools and medical practices. This turns Foucault around from what some have been tempted to call a pessimistic reading in favor of a cooperative project that coincides with that of Chomsky’s—to work on a more livable world for all.
The debate only takes up about a third of the book. It’s followed up by another great interview with Chomsky alone, in which he discusses American policy, Vietnam, McCarthyism, the crimes of the FBI and the climate of counter culture and how various revolutions developed. There’s one long and one short essay by Foucault and in them, he sets out on a mission to map, with vague hope, a better political future while on the other hand deconstructing basic terms and ideas like ‘justice,’ ‘man of justice,’ ‘shepherd,’ and ‘lawgiver.’
Though no real conclusion is reached between them (as one might expect), it is an interesting look at a very important project for humanity, even if the means to get there are a bit hazy.