Debate Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault – On human nature [Subtitled]

In the 17th century, when Galilei discovered that the earth turned around the sun
instead of the other way around, many people were in a state of great shock. They had thus far believed
that humans were at the center of the cosmos and around this idea
they had built their whole belief system. Suddenly, this did not seem
to be the case anymore. Foucault’s theory can be
clarified by pointing out that, in relation to culture, he takes a
sort of Galilei-type standpoint. Since the time of Galilei,
people have thought that when it came to culture and society,
humans do were at the center. After all, it is they who created these. Foucault denies this. It is not the subject that
counts to culture he argues, but the structure, the universal. Something that is in itself
already understandable if one realizes that the rules
according to which mankind behaves for the largest part were already
invented long before one was born. And the name of the inventor
remains completely unknown to us. One can compare Foucault to Galilei,
but from another perspective, one can also compare Chomsky to Galilei because his work in the
science of language — linguistics — has had a great revolutionary
influence over the whole world. Chomsky has brought about a major
transformation in the field of linguistics. Interestingly, Chomsky’s theories point
in the exact opposite direction as the theories of Foucault. Chomsky gives much more
primacy to the subject. In the confrontation between these
two completely different thinkers, it is moreover good to remember that
they work in very different fields. Foucault is a cultural researcher;
Chomsky is a language researcher. In other words, Foucault’s interest
lies in the history of scientific language. While Chomsky’s interest lies
in the daily language we use. It is interesting,
and maybe also not coincidental, that the debate between these
two thinkers only really gets exciting in the second half when
they start discussing politics. Still I believe it is good that
this is preceded by a theoretical part. This because in any discussion
about philosophy and society, what matters are not the political
standpoint certain thinkers happen to take but rather on the basis of
which arguments they do so. It might be nice to note that
this discussion took place in the auditorium of the
technical college of Eindhoven (NL). A discussion between two philosophers,
two researchers, whose work is characterized by great precision, great
detail and also great clarity. Further I thought it quite symbolic it
took place in a space with lots of glass: the inner- and outer-world blended together. During the broadcast you could
see the traffic outside passing by: symbolic indeed, because the relationship
between inner- and outer-world is central to the first half of
the fourth philosophers debate about human nature and the ideal society. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fourth debate of
the International Philosophers’ Project. Tonight’s debaters are Mr. Michel Foucault
of the College de France and Mr. Noam Chomsky of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both philosophers have points
in common and points of difference. Perhaps the best way to
compare both philosophers would be to see them as
mountain-diggers working at opposite sides of the same mountain with
different tools, without even knowing if they are working in
each other’s direction. All studies of humanity, ranging from
history to linguistics and psychology, are faced with the question
of whether in the last instance, we are the product of all
kinds of external factors or if, in spite of our differences,
we have something we could call a common human nature by which
we can call each other human beings. So my first question is to Mr. Chomsky, because you often employ
the concept of human nature in which connection you even use terms like
“innate ideas” and “innate structures”. Which arguments can you
derive from linguistics in order to give such a central position
to this notion of human nature? Well, let me begin in
a slightly technical way. A person who is interested
in studying languages is faced with a very definite empirical problem. He’s faced with an organism, a mature,
let’s say adult speaker, who has somehow acquired
an amazing range of abilities, which enable him in particular
to say what he means, to understand what people say to him, to do this in a fashion that I think
is proper to call highly creative. Now, the person who has acquired
this intricate and highly articulated and organized collection of abilities — the collection of abilities
that we call knowing a language — that person has been exposed to a
certain experience; he has been presented in the course of his lifetime
with a certain amount of data, of direct experience with a language. We can investigate the data that’s
available to this person; having done so, in principle, we’re faced with a reasonably
clear and well-delineated scientific problem, namely that of accounting for the gap between
the really quite small quantity of data, small and rather degenerate quantity of data that’s
presented to the person, to the child, and the very highly articulated, highly systematic,
profoundly organized resulting knowledge that he somehow derives from this data. Furthermore — even more remarkable —
we notice that in a wide range of languages, in fact all that have been studied seriously,
there are remarkable limitations on the kinds of systems that emerge
from the very different kinds of experience to which people are exposed. There is only one possible explanation, which
I have to give in a rather schematic fashion, for this remarkable phenomenon,
namely the assumption that the individual himself contributes
a good deal, an overwhelming part in fact, of the general schematic structure and perhaps
even of the specific content of the knowledge that he ultimately derives from this very
scattered and limited experience. That is, to put it rather loosely: the child must begin
with the knowledge, certainly not with the knowledge that he’s hearing English or Dutch
or French or something else, but he does start with the knowledge that he’s hearing a human
language of a very narrow and explicit type, that permits a very small range of variation.
And it’s because he begins with that highly organized and very restrictive schematism,
that he is able to make the huge leap from scattered and degenerate data
to highly organized knowledge. 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. And I assume that in other domains of human
intelligence, in other domains of human cognition and even behavior, something
of the same sort must be true. Well, the 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. Well, Mr. Foucault,
when I think of your books like The History of Madness and Words and
Objects, I get the impression that you are working on a completely different level and
with an opposite aim and goal; when I think of the word ‘schematism’
in relation to human nature I suppose you are trying to elaborate several periods, several schematisms.
What do you think about this? Well if you permit, I will answer in French because my English is so bad that I would
be ashamed of answering in English. It 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 that a science can use,
not all have the same degree of elaboration. Let’s take the example of biology.
Within the field of biology there are concepts that are more or less
well established, like the concept of a “reflex”. But there also exist peripheral notions, which
do not play an “organizing” role within science, they are not instruments of analysis and they
are not descriptive either. These notions simply serve to point out some problems, or
rather to point out certain fields in need of study. For instance, there exists a very important
concept in the field of biology: the concept of life. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, the notion of life was hardly used when studying nature: one classified
natural beings, whether living or non-living, in a vast hierarchical tableau. Life was a
concept they didn’t use and didn’t need. At the end of the eighteenth century a number
of problems arose, for instance in relation to the internal organization of these natural
beings. Moreover, thanks to the use of the microscope, different sorts of phenomena and
mechanisms that had been unclear in the past and could not have been perceived
until then suddenly came to light. The developments in chemistry have also
highlighted certain problems in relation to the connections between chemical reactions
and the physiological processes of organisms. And that’s how an entire field appeared, one that was completely new for biologists,
one that is nowadays known as life. Life was a concept that served to point
out new fields of study that science still had to discover. I would say, as a historian
of science, that the concept of life was an epistemological indicator; an index of the
problems that still had to be uncovered. And I ask myself whether perhaps one could
say the same thing about human nature. Foucault is therefore comparing
Chomsky’s concept of human nature with the concept of life as used in
biology and in the history of that science. He does this because his sees of
the concept of human nature more as an indication of a
research program rather than as an indication of
humanity’s potential for achievement. For him, human nature acts as a scientific
shopping list and nothing more. Chomsky is willing to accept this as
long as it is clear that the fields of biology, physiology and neurology
still don’t have the means to adequately describe human nature
and humanity’s capacity for language. Quite early on in the debate,
moderator Mr. Elders finds it difficult to keep the interaction
flowing between the two speakers. This is partly due to the different languages
they speak, but most importantly due to the fact that Chomsky and Foucault inhabit such
different worlds of thought, to the point in which their ideas easily slide past each other.
We actually observe the curious phenomenon of two brains thinking simultaneously, where
one picks up the last claim of the other in order to further elucidate it
from his own system of thought. For Chomsky the concept of
creativity plays an important role, and the following part of the debate
will be largely dedicated to this issue. For Chomsky creativity is actually
acharacteristic of all human beings. Everybody uses it. People stuck in
traffic who unexpectedly and on the spot, have to think about what to do next. The educator who doesn’t want to fall into
a pattern of authoritarian behavior and when confronted with a difficult
pupil, has to invent new behavior. But above all,
this creativity applies to the child who learns a language and who curiously
learns to produce new language. Foucault is opposed to this idea.
He constantly emphasizes the so-called “epistemological field”
within which human activity takes place. This “epistemological field” or “épistèmè” is described as the totality of unconscious rules that manage the totality of
all separated fields of knowledge. Foucault also talks of “tableau”,
and also calls it “system of elements”, and in the debate the word “grille”
is mentioned: bar or grid. Perhaps it’s best to speak of
a network within which everybody in a particular culture thinks
whether they want it or not. It is a certain set of rules to
which everybody’s thinking obeys and with which people search
for identity, coherency and so forth. This system is not a creation
of particular individuals: it decides the rules of the “think-and-do”
habits we call culture, which every individual is subjected to. Such a system is not a thing
or idea, but lies precisely in between these. For Foucault the history of thought
is not be associated with the history of ideas or even of the development of the mind, but rather it should be understood
as discontinuous transformations. transitioning from one network to another. That is a totally different
approach from that of Chomsky, for whom creativity plays a central role.
At this point we encounter Foucault’s dethroning of the subject, as
already illustrated with the example of Galilei. The philosophy of Foucault is a
philosophy in which the philosopher constantly disappears from sight. One could say that, paradoxically,
it is a philosophy without philosophers: an idea to be generalized because humans
are, according to Foucault, greatly absent within their own culture. In this respect,
Foucault’s strong and negative reaction towards the moderator who showed
interest in private matters of his life. When Foucault debates, it is about
everything except Foucault himself. This is an introduction to the following
— quite detailed — theoretical part of the debate which seems to mainly
focus on one question: to what extent is the individual
able to discover something new, and if so, how should we make sense of this?
This seems to me to a very relevant question, especially if we remind ourselves
that we need quiet some new forms of behavior, knowledge and science
if we want to survive together in this world. We resume the debate where Foucault
explains why he doesn’t pay much attention to the creativity of the individual
from a historical perspective. Within the traditional history of science, the creativity of individuals has been accorded
maximum importance. The history of science, up until recently, essentially consisted of
showing how an individual — whether it was Newton or Mendel — had been the creator,
or rather the discoverer of a reality that was already existing in things and in the
world, a reality that no other person had previously discovered. I believe the postulate
that lies at the core of the traditional history of science is that truth exists in order to
be known; yet the human mind, due to the effect of a number of inhibitions or obstacles, has
not managed to see this truth. The mind is made to see the truth and a contingent obstacle
is impeding him to see it. According to some historians, this obstacle could be linked
to socio-economic conditions, or to different forms of mentality, or to the belief and naivety
in old religious myths and moral themes. All of these could act as obstacles, as blinders
to those who want to see the truth. In reality, the mind is meant to see, it is made to have
access to the truth. In this traditional conception of the history of science, on the one hand
there is an emphasis on the creativity of the individual who has the right to possess
the truth, and yet a system of obstacles will prevent him from capturing, formulating and
constructing this truth to which he is essentially entitled to possess. I believe the problem
that is being posed is the exact opposite. What happens when we witness a great scientific
transformation? In a great scientific transformation — for instance the birth of biology mid
seventeenth century, or the birth of philology at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning
of the nineteenth century — it is true that a number of obstacles, prejudices, preconceived
ideas tumble and disappear. What strikes me, however, is that science, at the moment of
its birth, not only gets rid of a certain number of obstacles but also eliminates and
masks a certain amount of existing knowledge. It’s as if applying a new grid, which allows
for the appearance of phenomena that had been previously masked while at the
same time masking already existing knowledge. Therefore, a science, the advancement of science
and the acquisition of science, is not simply the oblivion of old prejudices, or the fall
of certain obstacles. It is a new grid that masks certain things while allowing for the
appearance of new knowledge. Therefore, when I criticize the notion of creativity, what
I mean is that truth is not acquired through a kind of continuous and cumulative creation,
but rather through a set of grids stacked on top of one other, which leak
old and collect new knowledge. I think in part we’re slightly
talking at cross-purposes, because of a different use of the
term creativity. In fact, I should say that my use of the term creativity
is a little bit idiosyncratic and therefore the onus falls on
me and not on you in this case. But when I speak of creativity,
I’m not attributing to the concept, the notion of value that is
normal when we speak of creativity. That is, when you speak of scientific creativity, you’re speaking, properly, of
the achievements of a Newton. But in the context in which I have
been speaking about creativity, it’s a normal human event. I’m speaking of the kind of creativity
that any child demonstrates when he’s able to come to grips with a new situation: to
describe it properly, react to it properly, tell one something about it, think about it
in a new fashion for him and so on. I think it’s appropriate to
call those creative acts, but of course without thinking of those
acts as being the acts of a Newton. It’s the lower levels of creativity
that I’ve been speaking of. Now, as far as what you say about
the history of science is concerned, I think that’s correct, illuminating and particularly
relevant in fact to the kinds of enterprise that I see lying before us in psychology,
linguistics and the philosophy of the mind. That is, I think there are certain topics
that have been, in your words, repressed or put aside during the scientific
advances of the past few centuries. But now, I think, we can overcome those, it is possible to put aside those
limitations and forgettings, and to bring into our consideration precisely the
topics that animated a good deal of the thinking and speculation of the
seventeenth and eighteenth century, and to incorporate them within
a much broader and I think deeper science of man that will give a fuller role — though certainly not expected to give a
complete understanding to such notions as innovation and creativity, freedom
and production of new elements of thought and behavior within some
system of rule and schematism. Those are concepts that I think
we can come to grips with. In reality, I believe there
is a quite strong similarity between what Mr. Chomsky said
and what I tried to show: in other words there exist in fact only
possible creations, possible innovations. One can only, in terms of
language or of knowledge, produce something new by putting
into play a certain number of rules which will define the acceptability or
grammaticality of these statements, or which will define, in the case of knowledge, the
scientific character of the statements. Thus, we can roughly say that linguists
before Mr. Chomsky mainly insisted on the rules of construction of
statements and less on the innovation represented by every new statement,
or the hearing of a new statement. 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.
These are not only linguistic rules but also epistemological rules, which
characterize contemporary knowledge. Well I think… Perhaps I can try to
react to those comments within my own framework in a way
which will maybe shed some light on this. How is it that we are able to construct
any kind of scientific theory at all? How is it that, given a small amount of
data, it’s possible for various scientists, for various geniuses even,
over a long period of time, to arrive at some kind of a
theory, at least in some cases, that is more or less profound and
more or less empirically adequate? This is a remarkable fact. And, in fact, if it were not the case that
these scientists, including the geniuses, if they didn’t have built into their minds
somehow an obviously unconscious specification of what is a
possible scientific theory, then this inductive leap would
certainly be quite impossible: just as if each child did not
have built into his mind the concept of human language
in a very narrowing way, then the inductive leap from data to
knowledge of a language would be impossible. So even though the process of, let’s say,
deriving knowledge of physics from data is far more complex, far more
difficult for an organism such as us, far more drawn out in time, requiring
intervention of genius and so on and so forth, nevertheless in a certain sense the
achievement of discovering physical science or biology or whatever you like,
is based on something rather similar to the achievement of the normal child in
discovering the structure of his language: that is, it must be achieved on
the basis of an initial limitation, an initial restriction on the
class of possible theories. And the fact that science
converges and progresses shows us that such initial
limitations and structures exist. That is, I don’t think that scientific
progress is simply a matter of accumulative addition of new knowledge and
the absorption of new theories and so on. Rather I think that it has this sort of
jagged pattern that you describe, forgetting certain problems
and leaping to new theories. And transforming the same knowledge. Right. But I think that one can perhaps
hazard an explanation for that fact. Oversimplifying grossly, I really don’t
mean what I’m going to say now literally, it is as if, as human beings of a
particular biologically given organism, we have in our heads, to start with, a certain
set of possible intellectual structures, possible sciences. Okay? Now, in the lucky
event that some aspect of reality happens to have the character of one of these
structures in our mind, then we have a science. And it is because of this initial limitation in our
minds to a certain kind of possible science that provides the tremendous richness
and creativity of scientific knowledge. It is important to stress — and this has to do
with your point about limitation and freedom — if it were not for these limitations, we
would not have the creative act of going from a little bit of knowledge, a little bit
of experience, to a rich and highly articulated and complicated array of knowledge. It is
precisely because of this that the progress of science has the erratic and jagged and
transformational character that you described. And that doesn’t mean everything is ultimately
going to fall within the domain of science. Quite the contrary. Personally I believe that many of the things we
would like to understand, and maybe the things we
would most like to understand, such as the nature of man, or
the nature of a decent society, or lots of other things, might really fall
outside the scope of possible human science. Well I think we have now two
questions out of this statement. One question is: Mr. Foucault, if you
agree with the statement about the combination of limitation,
fundamental limitation? It is not a matter of combination. Creativity only becomes possible
thanks to a system of rules: it is not a mixture of order and freedom. Freedom can only be truly exercised
thanks to a system of regularity. Where perhaps I don’t completely
agree with Mr. Chomsky is when he places these regularities within the
sphere of the human mind or human nature. I would like to know whether one cannot discover
this system of regularity and of constraint — which makes science possible — somewhere
else, even outside the human mind: in social forms, in relations of
production, in class struggles, etc. But what does this theory of knowledge
mean for your theme of the death of man or the end of the period of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries? But this is not related to
what we are talking about? I don’t know, because I was trying
to apply what you have said in relation to your anthropological
concept. You have already refused to speak about your own creativity and
freedom, haven’t you? Well, I’m wondering what are
the psychological reasons for this. Well, you can wonder about it,
but I can’t help that? But what are the objective reasons, in
relation to your perception of understanding, of knowledge, of science, for refusing
to answer these personal questions? Does it have to do with your
conception of society? When there is a problem
for you to answer: what are your reasons for making a
problem out of a personal question? No, I’m not making a problem
out of a personal question; I make of a personal question
an absence of a problem. In the entire tradition of the history
of thought, ideas and sciences, one has always questioned
the problem of knowing. At what age was Newton weaned into
conceiving the universal law of gravity? At which period did Cuvier
meet his first mistress in order to finally discover fossils
and comparative anatomy, etc? I believe these types of analyses, which I
am now simplifying, are not very interesting. On the other hand, it is much more interesting
to understand the transformations of a certain knowledge within the general field of science
and within the so-called vertical field which consists of a society, a culture, a
civilization at a particular moment in time. Once we finally grasp the
totality of this transformation, we realize that the little individual moments
of a wise man’s life are not important. Again Foucault’s last comment
suggests how the individual life of the researcher tends
to disappear from sight. But how do we explain then the relation of
man in relation to its culture in politics and maybe even the question about
how to change this culture and society? After all one can show within
the history of science and culture, the input of the individual
is almost negligible, the question ‘how do I act?’ — the
political question – remains standing. It may thus become clear by now that this
political question, from Foucault’s perspective, rapidly develops into “how far can
mankind escape from its own culture?” It is important to note that Foucault doesn’t
want to distance himself from politics. In the contrary, he says “I would
have to be ideologically blind to not interest myself for that which is
most substantial to human existence: economic relations, power
relations, you name it”. Therefore, Chomsky and Foucault do agree
on the importance of the political question. In his opinion, it is required to abolish and
destroy the different forms of capitalism in order to favor direct workers’ participation It may also be informative to explicitly mention
that Chomsky defines his political standpoint as anarcho-syndicalism. in workers’ councils and so on. Decentralization,
socialization and participation are keywords in Chomsky’s political program. Chomsky might say he sees no obvious relation
between his scientific and political views, but the following opening statement reveals that he heads straight from his
scientific conceptions to politics. His political and scientific views may
not flow logically one from the other, they do certainly head in the same direction. Let me begin by referring to something
that we have already discussed, that is, if it is correct, as I believe it is,
that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work,
for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting
effect of coercive institutions, then, of course it will follow that a decent
society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human
characteristic to be realized. That means trying to overcome the
elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in
any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue. Now a federated,
decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as
well as social institutions, would be what I refer
to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate
form of social organization for an advanced technological society, in which human beings
do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. In which
the creative urge that I think is intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to
realize itself in whatever way it will, I don’t know all the ways in which it will. I would say that I am much less advanced
than Mr. Chomsky in this respect. That is, I admit not being able to
define, not even to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning
of our scientific or technological society. On the other hand, one of the tasks that
seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: it is
the custom, at least in our European society, to consider that power is localized
in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a
certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration,
the police or the army. One knows that all these institutions
are made to transmit and apply orders and to punish those who don’t obey. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain
number of institutions that look as if they have nothing in common with political power
and as if they are independent from it, but in fact are not. One knows the university
and more generally all teaching systems, which appear to disseminate knowledge,
are made to maintain a certain social class in power and to exclude the instruments
of power of another social class. Another example is psychiatry which in appearance is also
intended for the good of humanity and for the knowledge of psychiatrists. But in reality is another way to bring to
bear the political power over a social class. Justice is yet again another example.
It seems to me that the real political task in our contemporary society is to
criticize the workings of institutions — particularly the ones that appear
to be neutral and independent — and to attack them in such a
way that the political violence, which has always exercised
itself obscurely through them, will finally be unmasked so that
one can fight against them If we seek to advance straight away a
profile or a formula of the future of society without having thoroughly criticized relations
between the different forms of political violence that exercise their power within our society,
we run the risk of letting them be reproduced — even in the case of the noble and apparently pure forms,
such as anarcho-syndicalism. Yes, I would certainly agree with that,
not only in theory but also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one, and the one which I was discussing, is to try to create the vision of a future just society. Another task is to understand very clearly
the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And that certainly includes the
institutions you mentioned, as well as the central institutions
of any industrial society: namely the economic, commercial and financial
institutions and in particular, in the coming period, the great multi-national corporations, which are not very far from us physically
tonight [i.e. Philips in Eindhoven]. 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 market place. Still, I think it would be a great
shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract
and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of
human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other
fundamental human characteristics, and relate that to some notion of social
structure in which those properties could be realized and in which
meaningful human life could take place. And in fact, if we are thinking of social
transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd of
course to draw it out in detail the point that we are hoping to reach,
still we should know something about where we think we are going,
and such a theory may tell it to us. Yes, but then isn’t there a danger here? If you say that a certain human nature exists,
that this human nature has not been given the rights and possibilities that allow it
to realize itself in our contemporary society… That’s really what you have said, I believe. Yes. And if one admits this, doesn’t one
risk defining this human nature — which is at the same time ideal and real,
and has been hidden and repressed until now — in terms borrowed from our society,
from our civilization, from our culture? I will give an example by greatly
simplifying it. Marxism — at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of
the twentieth century — admitted that in capitalist societies man hadn’t
reached its full potential for development and self-realization; that human nature was effectively
alienated in the capitalist system. And Marxism ultimately dreamed
of a liberated human nature. On the other hand, what
model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually
realize that human nature? It was, in fact, the bourgeois model. Marxism considered that a happy society was
a society that gave room, for example, to a sexuality of a bourgeois type, to family of a
bourgeois type, to bourgeois type of aesthetic. And it is moreover very true that
this has happened in the Soviet Union: a kind of society — simultaneously real
and utopic — had been reconstituted and transposed from the bourgeois
society of the nineteenth century, in which humans finally were
able to realize their true nature. The result, that you also realized,
I think, is that it is difficult to conceive of what human nature precisely is. Isn’t there a risk that
we will be led into error? Mao Zedong spoke of bourgeois human
nature and proletarian human nature, and he considers that they
are not the same thing. Well, you see, I think that in the
intellectual domain of political action, that is the domain of trying to construct
a vision of a just and free society on the basis of some notion of human
nature, we face the very same problem that we face in immediate political action.
For example, to be quite concrete, a lot of my own activity really has to
do with the Vietnam War, and a good deal of my own energy
goes into civil disobedience. Well, civil disobedience in the
U.S. is an action undertaken in the face of considerable uncertainties
about its effects. For example, it threatens the social order in ways which might, one
might argue, bring about fascism; that would be a very bad thing for America,
Vietnam, Holland and for everyone else. So that is one danger in undertaking this
concrete act. On the other hand there is a great danger in not undertaking it, namely,
if you don’t undertake it, the society of Indo-China will be torn to shreds by American
power. An in the face of those uncertainties one has to choose a course of action.
Well, similarly in the intellectual domain, one is faced with the uncertainties
that you correctly pose. Our concept of human nature
is certainly limited; it’s partially socially conditioned, constrained
by our own character defects and the limitations of the intellectual culture
in which we exist. Yet at the same time it is of critical importance that we have some
direction, that we know what impossible goals we’re trying to achieve, if we hope to
achieve some of the possible goals. And that means that we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories
on the basis of partial knowledge, while remaining very open
to the strong possibility, and in fact overwhelming probability, that at least in some respects
we’re very far off the mark. Well, perhaps it would be interesting to delve
a little deeper into this problem of strategy. So, for example, in the case of Holland,
we had something like a population census. One was obliged to answer
questions on official forms. Would you call it civil disobedience
if one refused to fill in the forms? Right. I would be a little bit careful about that, because, going back to a very important
point that Mr. Foucault made, one does not necessarily allow the state to define what
is 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. For example, in the United States the
state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s
going to Vietnam; and the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because
it’s legal and proper and should be done. It’s proper to carry out actions that will
prevent the criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a traffic
ordinance in order to prevent a murder. If I was standing at a street corner
and the traffic light were red, and then I drove across traffic light
to prevent somebody from, let’s say, machine-gunning a group of people,
of course that’s not a violation of law, it’s an appropriate and proper action;
no sane judge would convict you for such an action. Similarly, a good
deal of what the state authorities define as civil disobedience is not
really civil disobedience: in fact, it’s legal, obligatory behavior in
violation of the commands of the state, which may or may not be legal commands. So one has to be rather careful about
calling things illegal, I think. Yes, but I would like to ask you a question. When, in the United States,
you commit an illegal act… Which I regard as illegal,
not just the state… When the state considers it illegal. Do you justify your action in
terms of justice of an ideal, or do you justify it in terms of
necessary class struggle? Again, very often when I do something
which the state regards as illegal, I regard it as legal: because I
regard the state as criminal. But in some instances that’s not true. Let me be quite concrete about it
and move from the area of class war to imperialist war, where the situation
is somewhat clearer and easier. Take international law: a very weak
instrument as we know, but nevertheless it incorporates some very
interesting principles. Well, international law in many respects
is the instrument of the powerful: that is, international law permits
much too wide a range of international forceful intervention
in support of existing power structures that define themselves as states and
against the interests of masses of people who happen to be organized
in opposition to states. But, in fact, international law
is not solely of that kind. And in fact there are interesting
elements of international law, embedded in the United Nations Charter,
which permit, in fact, I believe, require the citizen to act against his own state in ways
that the state will falsely regard as criminal. But nevertheless, he’s acting legally,
because international law also happens to prohibit the threat or use of
force in international affairs, except under some very narrow
circumstances, of which, for example, the war in Vietnam is not one. Which means that, in the particular
case of the Vietnam War, which interests me most, the American
state is acting in a criminal capacity. And the people have the right to
stop criminals from murdering people. Just because the criminal happens to call
your action illegal when you try to stop him doesn’t mean it is illegal. A perfectly clear case of that is the present case
of the Pentagon Papers in the United States which, I suppose, you know about. Reduced
to its essentials and forgetting legalisms, what is happening is that the state is trying
to prosecute people for exposing its crimes. That’s what it amounts to. So it is in the name of a purer justice that
you criticize the functioning of justice? It is important for me to know about this. In France there is currently a debate about this problem of justice and
that of popular judicial institution. A certain number of people, including Sartre,
believe that in order to make a critique of the current penal system or of police
practices, we have to create a kind of tribunal which — in the name of a superior, ideal and
human justice — will condemn the practices of the French judges or policemen.
Moreover, there is another group of people, myself included, who say this shouldn’t be done
because when they refer to an ideal justice — which the tribunal is supposed to apply — they refer to a certain number
of judicial ideas which were formed in our time by a certain
number of individuals who are themselves, directly or indirectly, a product of their societies. We have to attack the practices of justice. We have to attack the police and their practices: but in terms of war and not in terms of justice. Surely you believe that your
role in the war is a just role; that you are fighting a just war, to bring
in a concept from another domain. And that, I think, is important. If you thought
that you were fighting an unjust war, you couldn’t follow that line of reasoning. I would like to slightly
reformulate what you said. It doesn’t seem to me that the difference
is between legality and ideal justice; it’s rather between legality and better justice. Now this better system may
have its defects, it certainly will. But if comparing the better system
with the existing system, without being confused into thinking that our better system
is the ideal system, we can then argue, I think, as follows: the concept of legality
and the concept of justice are not identical; they’re not entirely distinct either. Insofar
as legality incorporates justice in this sense of better justice, referring to a better society,
then we should follow and obey the law, and force the state to obey the law and force
the great corporations to obey the law, and force the police to obey the law,
if we have the power to do so. If in those areas where the legal system
happens to represent not better justice, but rather the techniques of oppression that have been codified in a
particular autocratic system, well, then a reasonable human being
should disregard and oppose them, at least in principle; he may not,
for some reason, do it in fact. I would simply like to reply
to your first sentence, when you said that if you didn’t consider
the war you wage against the police to be just, you wouldn’t wage it. I would
like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and tell you that the proletariat doesn’t
wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat wages war against
the ruling class because it wants for the first time in history, to take power. And because of its will to overthrow power
it considers such a war to be just. Yeah, I don’t agree? One wages war to win, not because it is just. I personally don’t agree with that. For example, if I could convince myself
that attainment of power by the proletariat would lead to a terroristic police state,
in which freedom and dignity and decent human relations would be destroyed, then I wouldn’t want the
proletariat to take power. In fact the only reason for wanting any
such thing, I believe, is because one thinks, rightly or wrongly, that some fundamental
human values will be achieved by that transfer of power. When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert
a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power towards the classes over
which it has just triumphed. But if you ask me what would happen
if the proletariat exerted bloody, I can’t see what claim anyone
could make against this. 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, or a group of people inside the proletariat,
or a bureaucracy or petit bourgeois elements, had taken power. Well, I’m not at all satisfied with that theory of revolution for a lot of reasons,
historical and others. But even if one were to accept
it for the sake of argument, still that theory is maintaining that
it is proper for the proletariat to take power and exercise it in a violent
and bloody and unjust fashion, because it is claimed, in my opinion falsely, that
that will lead to a more just society, in which the state will wither away, in which the proletariat will be a
universal class and so on and so forth. If it weren’t for that further justification, the
concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, violent and bloody, will certainly be unjust. I for example, I am not a committed pacifist. I would not hold that it is under all imaginable
circumstances wrong to use violence, even though use of violence
is in some sense unjust. I believe that one has to
estimate relative injustices. But the use of violence and the creation
of some degree of injustice can only itself be justified on the basis of the claim and
the assessment — which always ought to be undertaken very, very seriously and
with a good deal of skepticism — that this violence is being exercised because a
more just result is going to be achieved. If it does not have that grounding, it is
really totally immoral, in my opinion. As far as the aim of the proletariat in
leading a class struggle is concerned, I don’t think it would be sufficient to
say that it is in itself a greater justice. What the proletariat will achieve
by expelling the ruling class and by taking power is precisely the
suppression of class power in general. But that’s the further justification. That is the justification, one doesn’t speak
in terms of justice but in terms of power. It is in terms of justice; it’s because
the end that will be achieved is claimed as a just end. No
Leninist or whatever you like would dare to say “We, the proletariat,
have the right to take power, and then throw everyone
else into crematoria.” If that were the consequence of
the proletariat taking power, of course it would not be appropriate. The idea is — and for the reasons I
mentioned I’m skeptical about it – that a period of violent dictatorship, or
perhaps violent and bloody dictatorship, is justified because it means the submergence
and termination of class oppression, a proper end to achieve in human life. But it seems to me that,
in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a
society of classes as a claim and as a justification for it
made by the oppressed class. I don’t agree with that. And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would
still use this notion of justice. Well, here I really disagree. I think there
is some sort of an absolute basis — if you press me too hard I’ll be in
trouble because I can’t sketch it out — but some sort absolute basis, ultimately
residing in fundamental human qualities in terms of which a “real”
notion of justice is grounded. 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. I think that they embody
systems of class oppression and they embody elements
of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of
a groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice
and decency and love and kindness and sympathy and so on,
which I think are real. Well, do I have time to answer? Yes How much? Because… Two minutes? But I would say that that is unjust? Absolutely. No, but I don’t want to answer in so little time. I will simply say that I can’t help but to
think that the concepts of human nature, of kindness, of justice, of human
essence and its actualization… All of these are notions and concepts that
have been created within our civilization, our knowledge system
and our form of philosophy, and that as a result they form
part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it
may be, put forward these concepts 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. Well, I think we can immediately
start the discussion. Mr. Chomsky, I would like
to ask you one question. In your discussion you used the term
“proletariat”, “we as proletarians”; it’s the irony of history that
the moment young intellectuals coming from the middle class and upper class, call themselves proletarians and
say we must join the proletariat. But I don’t see any class-conscious
proletarians. And that’s a great dilemma. It is not true in our given society that all
people are doing useful, productive work, or self-satisfying work — obviously
that’s very far from true. Lots of people are excluded from
the possibility of productive labor. And I think the revolution, if you want,
should be in the name of all human beings; but it will have to be conducted by certain
categories of human beings, and those will be, I think, the human beings who really are
involved in the productive work of society. Now what that is will differ, depending
upon the society. In our society, it I think includes intellectual workers. So I think that the student revolutionaries,
if you like, they have a point, partial point: that is, it’s a very important thing in a
modern advanced industrial society how the trained intelligentsia identifies themselves. If they are going to be technocrats, or
servants of either the state or private power, or alternatively, whether they are going to
identify themselves as part of the workforce, who happen to be doing intellectual labor. If the latter, then they can and should play a
decent role in a progressive social revolution. If the former, then they’re part
of the class of the oppressors. I have one small additional question — or
rather a remark to make to you. That is: you, with your very courageous
attitude towards the war in Vietnam, how can you survive in an institution like MIT, which is known here as one of the Great War
contractors and intellectual makers of this war? There are two aspects to that: one is
the question how MIT tolerates me, and the other question is how I tolerate MIT. Well, as to how MIT tolerates me, here again,
I think, one shouldn’t be overly schematic. It’s true that MIT is a major
institution of war-research. But it’s also true that it embodies very
important libertarian values, which are, I think, quite deeply embedded in American
society, fortunately for the world. They’re not deeply embedded enough to save
the Vietnamese, but they’re deeply enough embedded to prevent far worse disasters.
And here, I think, one has to qualify a bit. There is imperial terror and aggression,
there is exploitation, there is racism, lots of things like that. But there is also
a real concern, coexisting with it, for individual rights of a sort which, for
example, are embodied in the Bill of Rights, which is by no means simply an
expression of class oppression. It is also an expression of the necessity to
defend the individual against state power. Now these things coexist. It’s not that
simple, it’s not just all bad or all good. And it’s the particular balance
in which they coexist that makes an institute that produces weapons
of war be willing to tolerate, in fact, in many ways even encourage
to be quiet honest, a person who is involved in civil
disobedience against the war. Now as to how I tolerate MIT,
that raises another question. There are people who argue, and
I have never understood the logic of this, that a radical ought to dissociate
himself from all oppressive institutions. The logic of that argument is that
Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied in the British Museum which, if anything,
was the symbol of the most vicious imperialism in the world, the place where
all the treasures an empire had gathered, the rape of the colonies,
was all poured in there. But I think Karl Marx was quite
right in studying in the British Museum. He was right in using the resources
and in fact the liberal values of the civilization that he was
trying to overcome, against it. And I think the same applies in this case. But aren’t you afraid that your presence
at MIT gives them a clean conscience? I don’t see how, really. I mean, I think my
presence at MIT serves marginally, I hope a lot, I don’t know how much, to increase student activism against a lot of
the things that MIT stands for, for example. Ladies and gentlemen, I think this
has to be the end of the debate. Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Foucault, I thank you
very much for your far-reaching discussion both the philosophical and theoretical, as
well as the political questions. I thank you very much both on behalf
of the audience, here and at home.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *