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The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  2,141 ratings  ·  152 reviews
Two of the twentieth century's most influential thinkers debate a perennial question.
In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War and at a time of great political and social instability, two of the world's leading intellectuals, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, were invited by Dutch philosopher Fons Edlers to debate an age-old question: is there such a thing as "innate" hum
Paperback, 213 pages
Published September 1st 2006 by The New Press (first published 1974)
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 ·  2,141 ratings  ·  152 reviews

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May 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
I haven't finished this book and probably will not get a chance to read the other essays in it for a while now. All the same, the transcript of the debate (if you could really call it that) between Foucault and Chomsky is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that Foucault doesn't really get going at all and this is due to the problems of the medium. Television seems like it really ought to be quite an impressive medium - whereas it is a really pathetic waste of time. My favourite pa ...more
Dec 19, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
As it turns out the two titans had a televised discussion in Sweden in 1971. That's some pretty esoteric TV. The transcript is an intellectual snack -- like a philosophy pizza bagel -- that looks great on the box but turned out kind of mushy in the microwave.

Both Chomsky and Foucault are illuminating writers: you can jump into one of their books and feel like you're super smart and you're finally getting all the answers. For this reason both have given me fits of adulation at various times. So f
A pretty good window into the thought of Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. I'm not sure this volume would stand alone very well, but it certainly clarifies the work of each by showing them in contrast, and thus makes a great companion to each man's writings.

This the is the transcript of a debate held by Dutch television in 1971, in which Chomsky (speaking in English) and Foucault (in French) responded to the questions posted by moderator Fons Elders regarding human nature and political justice.
Dec 21, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: political science students or anyone who think for themselves and like to question the status quo
This book was my re-introduction to Noam Chomksy (I studied his linguistics work in grad school) and my first introduction to Michel Foucault. Chomksy was not asked to speak very often in the U.S and, if you are to believe his supporters and his own comments, he was actively prevented from speaking or publishing his work in the U.S in the past. This is the first time this dialogue has been available in the U.S. Based on a television program recorded in France for Dutch television in the early se ...more
Muath Aziz
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
I watched the one hour debate on Youtube and read few papers analyzing and arguing about the two thinkers' opinions.

It's an interesting debate. I think Chomsky has a point, but that Foucault understands Chomsky more than Chomsky understanding him.

For me, Foucault wins philosophically, but he gets us nowhere. At least Chomsky is more practical for our current societies.
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
It is now widely conceded among post-modern/post-structuralist circles that Foucault broke the back of linguist-political scientist Noam Chomsky in this televised debate on Dutch television. Perhaps this conception further contributed to Chomksy's disdain with the French intellectual community entire in subsequent years. Nevertheless, regardless of one's political/philosophical disposition, this is an endlessly fascinating debate, between two thinkers working as "tunnellers through a mountain wo ...more
Shane Eide
Apr 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing

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
Aug 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Chomsky, you were an embarrassment then and remain so now. Part of me wishes Foucault would just have outright said how much of a fool Chomsky is, but it's almost as if Chomsky just points out his hypocrisies and contradictions himself (with a little help from the audience members). Acting as the arbiter of legality and justice (and even trying to say there is a natural, innate legality to humanity--of course, he is the one to define what is legal and not--outside of the state-form), Chomsky doe ...more
May 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Chomsky is succinct and clear. To me his thoughts on epistemological limits are the most interesting. If you've read any of his other activist works, you likely will not find anything new here. Foucault has some interesting ideas but his discourse is a bit nebulous and abstract for my taste.

Foucault has one particularly interesting discussion on the rise of the 'specialist' intellectual (as opposed to the 'universal' intellectual). In other words, a divergence from the 'renaissance man' model o
Eric Steere
May 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Although probably not the best introduction to Foucault and Chomsky's thought (though Chomsky does tend to follow a more linear position), this debate is more indicative of their respective approaches to the social sciences. As Chomsky posits a kind of communitarian society or set of cosmopolitan social relations, Foucault questions the institutions that individuals are embedded within as a kind of power structure bent on maintaining the status quo and controlling those elements of society in "n ...more
Basma Abdallah Uraiqat
Dec 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
A really interesting and short read combining two great minds. It discusses the concept of human nature as innate property or social construct, offering very interesting arguments. It also discusses the concept of justice vs power and I found this section particularly powerful and exciting to read! I personally find Foucault a much more convincing and deep thinker than Chomsky and I was extremely disappointed in how little he spoke, it almost seemed like the interviewer would not allow him to sp ...more
Roderick Vesper
Dec 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
I had only a cursory knowledge of Chomsky from a linguistics class and Foucault from research presentations by other students during my MFA studies. This book was engaging and has sparked my interest in going deeper in my studies of their theories. Despite the dense thinking of the two, the book is a relatively quick and easy read. The chosen works that follow the interview transcription are interesting individually and seem to create an interesting dialogue. I only take issue with the inclusion ...more
Jun 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is a great read-- both Foucault and Chomsky express their ideas clearly and, maybe more importantly, they are excellent at pointing out the exact differences between their theories. Chomsky sums it up around page 132. If you're interested in linguistics and politics, innate vs. experience-learned language, this is a good read. Also, Foucault has an interesting piece on Police and their role in society.
Mike Wigal
Oct 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
The political aspects of the debate and other readings in this edition were more interesting to me than the human nature aspects. Fairly dense reading and the debate format for reading probably doesn't play well. I'd be thinking "OK, I understand their arguments. Uh, no. No I don't really." Still Chomsky is Chomsky and that's reason enough to read this.
Kevin Lewis
Apr 02, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: nerds
By far the most valuable part is the first, which consists of the actual text of the (trilingual, although all translated into English) debate. The second and third parts, which contain some of the key formulations on the topics of language and power by Chomsky and Foucault respectively are good, but are better found in their contexts elsewhere.
Jul 14, 2007 rated it liked it
A good single-volume contrast between the two. The debate itself it probably the best part, but the other sections are worth reading, if for no reason other than to contrast the approaches of two such influential figures.
Amy P.
Jun 13, 2009 rated it liked it
In my opinion, Chomsky won! Really, there isn't much debate here, but there is some insightful reading about humanity. Besides the debate from the 70's being transcribed there are also writings from both Chomsky and Foucault. A very interesting read.
May 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
Read this for the Chomsky half. Foucault is a poor communicator.

What I liked: Chomsky's take on why Watergate was big news. Lots of other little bits in what he said.

What I didn't like: Chomsky continually being urged to draw political science conclusions from his work in linguistics.
Feb 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Basic but bright, Totally recommended.
Jan 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Part of debate on Justice as the derive is one of the most important debates regarding the subject, they both nearly make their point of view crystal clear.
It's a joyful reading.
August Denys
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
In some sense, the title of this book is misleading. Yes, it includes the "debate" between Chomsky and Foucault, but, for one matter, can we justifiably call it a debate, and, for another matter, only a third of this book is this debate. This is where this book can become enjoyable, for the time we live in we can easily find the recording of the televised debate with subtitles which covers each of the languages used in the debate; however, the more interesting and more valuable part of this book ...more
Shashwat Pokharel
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This could probably be one of twentieth century's greatest intellectual exchange on the philosophy of human nature. The book is a simple transcript of the original debate telecasted in the 1970s, and offers a continuous and captivating exploration of Foucault's Postmodernism and Chomsky's Rationalism. This is a highly insightful exchange between two great influencers who disagreed with each other, unlike those high-profile ones that occur today where people are only eager to get a one-up on thei ...more
Daniel Cunningham
Chomsky's parts are interesting, if revealing of his always tendentious reasoning. (Something he is not doubt neither shy nor regretful about, nor unaware of.) This is problematic in a few passages where he seems to pretty blatantly assume what is to be proven, etc. But he makes some intersting points.

Focault... why is this guy so famous? He can't communicate clearly. He wanders all over without ever really making a point, continually begging off, continually hedging. Where he takes a stand it i
Vikram X
Feb 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Foucault has a very dark and nihilistic stance i.e there is no real freedom or true creativity ; we are all victims to the "Power Principle" and he does make a very convincing case for the same .

Chomsky on the other though tends to agree , postulates the idea that creativity (ie toddler experiencing his environment) is not bound by this , but rather driven by a "positive urge" to reach an individuals highest potential .

I am quite well versed with Chomsky's work ; but Foucault has been a revelati
Sep 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the great philosophical debates of the last century. Foucault, whom Chomsky famously characterized as being "the most amoral person I've ever met," was still on the come-up, and so was Chomsky (at least as an activist, which is what he primarily is here). Foucault probably "wins" the first half of the debate on whether human nature exists; Chomsky wins the second half on the political implications of our lack of belief in human nature.

Whether human nature exists is, of course, a much more
May 30, 2019 rated it liked it
I didn't love how the essays and interviews in this book were arranged, but really enjoyed getting to understand a little more of Chomsky's work outside of linguistics.
My biggest takeaway is that often our differences in understanding come not from factual disagreement but from differences in the frameworks through which we talk about the world.
Chomsky believes that the human mind is predisposed to detect certain disciplines. He says, more or less, that the ability to categorize is at once mank
Feb 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
I liked Chomsky's interventions a lot, especially when he gives very interesting insights on universal justice and the goals of violent revolutions, it is important to consider the historical period these interviews took place and social struggles of the time. Foucault has interesting insights on human behaviour and I was surprised how intrigued I got by some of his thoughts regarding the concepts of truth, unfortunately Foucault was blindly obsessed with power and that clouded his mind a tad bi ...more
Christopher Roberts
It really wasn't much of a debate. Foucault expresses some skepticism toward Chomsky's views on human nature and on politics and Chomsky has a hard time understanding what Foucault is talking about. The interviews and essays that accompany this are illuminating, but you still don;t get much of a debate from them. What amazes me is how Chomsky apparently got so bitter toward Foucault in the years following this.
Jun 27, 2017 rated it liked it
Did not finish it - probably never will. I studied Foucault in college but was unfamiliar with Chomsky. This will be a dull read if you do not already know the theory as they are not explaining themselves but rather discussing the relationship between their two thought processes. I'd recommend watching it and perhaps reading a few of the essays at the end.
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Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, considered to be one of the most significant contributions to the field of linguistics made in the 20th century. H
“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” 169 likes
“if we have the choice between trusting in centralised power to make the right decision in that matter, or trusting in free associations of libertarian communities to make that decision, I would rather trust the latter. And the reason is that I think that they can serve to maximise decent human instincts, whereas a system of centralised power will tend in a general way to maximise one of the worst of human instincts, namely the instinct of rapaciousness, of destructiveness, of accumulating power to oneself and destroying others.” 1 likes
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