The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature

Foucault, M. (2006). The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


1. – Human Nature: Justice vs. Power

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Chomsky: I would claim then that this instinctive knowledge, if you like, this schematism that makes it possible to derive complex and intricate knowledge on the basis of very partial data, is one fundamental constituent of human nature.

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Chomsky: Well, this collection, this mass of schematisms, innate organizing principles, which guides our social and intellectual and individual behavior, that’s what I mean to refer to by the concept of human nature.

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Foucault: is true that I mistrust the notion of human nature a little, and for the following reason: I believe that of the concepts or notions which a science can use, not all have the same degree of elaboration, and that in general they have neither the same function nor the same type of possible use in scientific discourse.

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Chomsky: For example, I think that anyone can do this about his own thought. Without trying to compare oneself to the great thinkers of the past, anyone can consider what he now knows and can ask what he knew twenty years ago, and can see that in some unclear fashion he was striving towards something which he can only now understand . . . if he is fortunate.

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Chomsky: And furthermore you will find in Leibniz something which you will certainly like: the idea that in the profundity of the mind is incorporated a whole web of logical relations which constitutes, in a certain sense, the rational unconscious of the consciousness, the not yet clarified and visible form of the reason itself, which the monad or the individual develops little by little, and with which he understands the whole world.

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Foucault: I have without any doubt given very little room to what you might call the creativity of individuals, to their capacity for creation, to their aptitude for inventing by themselves, for originating concepts, theories, or scientific truths by themselves.

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Foucault: One is the claim of attribution: each discovery should not only be situated and dated, but should also be attributed to someone; it should have an inventor and someone responsible for it.

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Foucault: those which by definition can’t be “attributed,” are normally devalued: they are still traditionally described through words like tradition, mentality, modes; and one lets them play the negative role of a brake in relation to the “originality” of the inventor.

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Foucault: It’s a matter of a collective and complex transformation of medical understanding in its practice and its rules.

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Foucault: And this transformation is far from a negative phenomenon: it is the suppression of a negativity, the effacement of an obstacle, the disappearance of prejudices, the abandonment of old myths, the retreat of irrational beliefs, and access finally freed to experience and to reason; it represents the application of an entirely new grille [grid], with its choices and exclusions; a new play with its own rules, decisions, and limitations, with its own inner logic, its parameters, and its blind alleys, all of which lead to the modification of the point of origin.

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Foucault: So, if one studies the history of knowledge, one sees that there are two broad directions of analysis: according to one, one has to show how, under what conditions, and for what reasons the understanding modifies itself in its formative rules, without passing through an original “inventor” discovering the “truth”; and according to the other, one has to show how the working of the rules of an understanding can produce in an individual new and unpublished knowledge.

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Foucault: And in the history of science or in the history of thought, we placed more emphasis on individual creation, and we had kept aside and left in the shadows these communal, general rules, which obscurely manifest themselves through every scientific discovery, every scientific invention, and even every philosophical innovation.

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Foucault: And the fact that science converges and progresses itself shows us that such initial limitations and structures exist.

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Foucault: possibilities, I have the impression that for Mr. Chomsky rules and freedom are not opposed to each other, but more or less imply each other.

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Chomsky: There is, therefore, from a certain point of view, always an excess of data in relation to possible systems in a given period, which causes them to be experienced within their boundaries, even in their deficiency, which means that one fails to realize their creativity; and from another point of view, that of the historian, there is an excess, a proliferation of systems for a small amount of data, from which originates the widespread idea that it is the discovery of new facts which determines movement in the history of science.

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Chomsky: Only creativity is possible in putting into play a system of rules; it is not a mixture of order and freedom.

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For example, the fact that at a certain time madness became an object for scientific study, and an object of knowledge in the West, seems to me to be linked to a particular economic and social situation.

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Foucault: The idea seems simple enough. Well, four or five thousand years of medicine in the West were needed before we had the idea of looking for the cause of the malady in the lesion of a corpse. If you tried to explain this by the personality of Bichat, I believe that would be without interest. If, on the contrary, you tried to establish the place of disease and of death in society at the end of the eighteenth century, and what interest industrial society effectively had in quadrupling the entire population in order to expand and develop itself, as a result of which medical surveys of society were made, big hospitals were opened, etc.; if you tried to find out how medical knowledge became institutionalized in that period, how its relations with other kinds of knowledge were ordered, well, then you could see how the relationship between disease, the hospitalized ill person, the corpse, and pathological anatomy were made possible.

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Foucault: That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.

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Foucault: Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let’s say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavour, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defense against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated.

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If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree, there isn’t any question of democracy for us.

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Foucault: One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university, and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

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Foucault: It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

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Foucault: Those are the basic institutions of oppression and coercion and autocratic rule that appear to be neutral despite everything they say: well, we’re subject to the democracy of the marketplace, and that must be understood precisely in terms of their autocratic power, including the particular form of autocratic control that comes from the domination of market forces in an inegalitarian society.

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What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realize that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model.

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legal. Now the state has the power to enforce a certain concept of what is legal, but power doesn’t imply justice or even correctness; so that the state may define something as civil disobedience and may be wrong in doing so.

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But if justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or another society, people will be rewarded according to their merits, or punished according to their faults.

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one has to emphasize justice in terms of the social struggle.

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Foucault: would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class, it considers such a war to be just.

Chomsky: Yeah, I don’t agree.

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When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this. But if you ask me what would be the case if the proletariat exerted bloody, tyrannical, and unjust power towards itself, then I would say that this could only occur if the proletariat hadn’t really taken power, but that a class outside the proletariat, a group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy, or petit bourgeois elements had taken power.

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But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.

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And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

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I think it’s too hasty to characterize our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that.

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On the other hand, when we discussed the problem of human nature and political problems, then differences arose between us. And contrary to what you think, you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should— and shall in principle— overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. That’s the point . .

2. – Politics

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FBI since its origins during the post-World War I Red scare,

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Compare Solzhenitsyn to many thousands of Vietnam War resisters and deserters; many of them acted at a moral level that is incomparably superior to his. Solzhenitsyn resolutely defends his own rights and those of people like him—which is certainly admirable. The resisters and many deserters defended the rights of others—namely, the victims of American aggression and terror.

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Yet we read in the American liberal journals that we can hardly conceive of the moral grandeur of Solzhenitsyn in our society, and surely can find no one like him. A very interesting pretense, with many implications.

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is quite generally claimed now that the American resistance had as its cause the young men’s fear of being drafted; that’s a very convenient belief for the intellectuals who confined themselves to “pragmatic” opposition to the war.

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So Solzhenitsyn comes to them as a gift of God, which permits them to evade moral questions, “exporting them,” so to speak, and to conceal their own role as people who remained silent for so many years, or finally objected on narrow and morally repugnant grounds of cost and U.S. government interest.

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This manner of shifting moral issues to others is one of the ways to reconstruct the foundations of moral legitimacy for the exercise of American power, shaken during the Vietnam War.

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At least she did not reproach the Soviet Union for not having conducted its atrocities with sufficient vigor.

4. – Truth and Power

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The great biological image of a progressive maturation of science still underpins a good many historical analyses; it does not seem to me to be pertinent to history.

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But the important thing here is not that such changes can be rapid and extensive or, rather, it is that this extent and rapidity are only the sign of something else— a modification in the rules of formation of statements which are accepted as scientifically true.

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It is a question of what governs statements, and the way in which they govern each other so as to constitute a set of propositions that are scientifically acceptable and, hence, capable of being verified or falsified by scientific procedures. In short, there is a problem of the regime, the politics of the scientific statement. At this level, it’s not so much a matter of knowing what external power imposes itself on science as of what effects of power circulate among scientific statements, what constitutes, as it were, their internal regime of power, and how and why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification.

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between event and structure is the site and the product of a certain anthropology.

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But the important thing is to avoid trying to do for the event what was previously done with the concept of structure. It’s not a matter of locating everything on one level, that of the event, but of realizing that there are actually a whole order of levels of different types of events differing in amplitude, chronological breadth, and capacity to produce effects.

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From this follows a refusal of analyses couched in terms of the symbolic field or the domain of signifying structures, and a recourse to analyses in terms of the genealogy of relations of force, strategic developments, and tactics.

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Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language [langue] and signs but, rather, to that of war and battle.

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The history that bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language— relations of power, not relations of meaning.

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“Dialectic” is a way of evading the always open and hazardous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton, and “semiology” is a way of avoiding its violent, bloody, and lethal character by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue.

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On the Right, it was posed only in terms of constitution, sovereignty, and so on, that is, in juridical terms; on the Marxist side, it was posed only in terms of the state apparatus.

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power in Western capitalism was denounced by the Marxists as class domination; but the mechanics of power in themselves were never analyzed.

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To put it very simply, psychiatric internment, the mental normalization of individuals, and penal institutions have no doubt a fairly limited importance if one is only looking for their economic significance. On the other hand, they are undoubtedly essential to the general functioning of the wheels of power.

Note – Page 149

What makes someone crazy What gets you arrested The ideas people get of others -all serve to maintain power

Note – Page 149

What makes someone crazy What gets you arrested The ideas people get of others -all serve to maintain power

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So long as the posing of the question of power was kept subordinate to the economic instance and the system of interests this served, there was a tendency to regard these problems as of small importance.

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wanted to see how these problems of constitution could be resolved within a historical framework, instead of referring them back to a constituent object (madness, criminality, or whatever). But this historical contextualization needed to be something more

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The first is that, like it or not, it always stands in virtual opposition to something else that is supposed to count as truth.

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it consists in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses that, in themselves, are neither true nor false.

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In defining the effects of power as repression, one adopts a purely juridical conception of such power, one identifies power with a law that says no—power is taken, above all, as carrying the force of a prohibition.

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What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no; it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network that runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.

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“Sexuality” is far more one of the positive products of power than power was ever repressive of sex.

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Hence, a historical problem arises, namely that of discovering why the West has insisted for so long on seeing the power it exercises as juridical and negative rather than as technical and positive.

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It made itself acceptable by allocating itself a juridical and negative function, albeit one whose limits it naturally began at once to overstep.

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We need to cut off the king’s head. In political theory that has still to be done.

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First of all, because the state, for all the omnipotence of its apparatuses, is far from being able to occupy the whole field of actual power relations; and, further, because the state can only operate on the basis of other, already existing power relations.

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The state is superstructural in relation to a whole series of power networks that invest the body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology, and so forth. True, these networks stand in a conditioning-conditioned relationship to a kind of “metapower” structured essentially around a certain number of great prohibition functions;

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but this metapower with its prohibitions can only take hold and secure its footing where it is rooted in a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations that supply the necessary basis for the great negative forms of power. That is just what I was trying to make apparent in my book.

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FOUCAULT: I would say that the state consists in the codification of a whole number of power relations that render its functioning possible, and that revolution is a different type of codification of the same relations. This implies that there are many different kinds of revolution, roughly speaking, as many kinds as there are possible subversive recodifications of power relations—and, further, that one can perfectly well conceive of revolutions that leave essentially untouched the power relations that form the basis for the functioning of the state.

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Now, there is a phenomenon that emerges during the eighteenth century, namely the discovery of population as an object of scientific investigation; people begin to inquire into birth rates, death rates, and changes in population, and to say for the first time that it is impossible to govern a state without knowing its population.

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In feudal societies, power functioned essentially through signs and levies.

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It becomes a matter of obtaining productive service from individuals in their concrete lives. And, in consequence, a real and effective “incorporation” of power was necessary, in the sense that power had to be able to gain access to the bodies of individuals, to their acts, attitudes, and modes of everyday behavior.

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It is, rather, he who, along with a handful of others, has at his disposal—whether in the service of the state or against it—powers that can either benefit or irrevocably destroy life.

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Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.

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And it induces regular effects of power.

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the mechanisms and instances that enable one to distinguish true and false statements;

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the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth;

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the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

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“Truth” is centered on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions that produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic production as for political power);

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“Truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements.

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The problem is not changing people’s consciousnesses—or what’s in their heads—but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth.

5. – “Omnes et Singulatim”: Toward a Critique of Political Reason

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The relationship between rationalization and the excesses of political power is evident. And we should not need to wait for bureaucracy or concentration camps to recognize the existence of such relations.

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But the problem is what to do with such an evident fact.