"la libertad nos une, la unión nos libera" Ibn Arabi, Murcia S XII

"la libertad nos une, la unión nos libera" Ibn Arabi, Murcia S XII _"Freedom unites us, unity frees us"

9.5.13

Foucault _ Chomsky FULL VERSION transcript

published by roarmag.org



FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE DEBATE:
HOST:
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 he takes a Galilei-type standpoint in relation to culture. Since the time of Galilei, people have thought that when it came to culture and society, humans were at the center. After all, it is they who created them. Foucault denies this. He argues that when it comes to culture, it is not the subject that counts, but the structure, the universal. Something that is in itself understandable if one realizes that the rules according to which mankind behaves 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 all over the world. Chomsky has brought about a major transformation in the field of linguistics. Interestingly, Chomsky’s theories point in the exact opposite direction as those 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, because in any discussion about philosophy and society, what matters are not the political standpoints certain thinkers happen to take but rather the arguments on the basis of which they do so.
It might also 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. Moreover I thought it was quite symbolic that the debate took place in a space with a lot 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.


ELDERS:
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 is to look at 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 learning concerning man, 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, and in this connection you are using 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?
CHOMSKY:
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. But then 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. The collection of 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.
ELDERS:
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, then you are just trying to work out that there are several periods, several schematisms. What do you think about this?
FOUCAULT:
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 17th and 18th 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 18th 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 suddenly came to light that could not have been perceived until then and whose mechanisms and function had been unclear in the past. 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 wonder whether perhaps one could say the same thing about human nature.
HOST:
Foucault is therefore comparing Chomsky’s concept of human nature with the concept of life as it is used in biology and in its history. He does this because he sees the concept of human nature more as an indication of a research program rather than as an indication of humans’ 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 human capacity for language.
Quite early on in the debate, the 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 him, creativity is actually a characteristic 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. A teacher who doesn’t want to fall into a pattern of authoritarian behavior but when confronted with a difficult pupil, has to come up with an alternative type of 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 “episteme” is described as the totality of unconscious rules that manage the totality of all separated fields of knowledge. Foucault also talks of “tableau”, which he also calls “system of elements”. In the debate he also mentions the word “grille”: bar or grid. Perhaps it’s best to understand it as a network that all people are part of within a particular culture, whether they want it or not. It is a set of rules to which people obey in their thoughts and derive their search for identity, coherence 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 an “idea”: it lies precisely in between the two.
For Foucault, the history of thought should not be associated with the history of ideas or with the development of the mind, but rather it should be understood as discontinuous transformations transitioning from one network to another. Foucault’s approach highly differs from Chomsky’s, for whom creativity plays a central role. At this point we clearly realize Foucault’s tendency to dethrone 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 that has to be generalized because according to Foucault, humans are greatly absent within their own culture. In this respect, we can understand Foucault’s strong and negative reaction towards the moderator who showed interest in his private matters. 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 be a very relevant question, especially if we remind ourselves that new forms of behavior, knowledge and science will need to be unveiled, as long as we want to survive together in this world. We now resume the debate where Foucault explains why he does not pay much attention to the creativity of the individual from a historical perspective.
FOUCAULT:
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 dormant within 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 in the mid 17th century, or the birth of philology at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century – it is true that a number of obstacles, prejudices and preconceived ideas tumble and disappear. What strikes me, is that at the moment of its birth, science not only gets rid of a certain number of obstacles but also eliminates and masks a certain amount of existing knowledge and wisdoms.
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 another, which leak old and collect new knowledge.
CHOMSKY:
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 in this case, not on you. 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 and illuminating and particularly relevant in fact to the kinds of enterprise that I see lying before us in psychology and 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, 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 17th and 18th centuries, and to incorporate them within a much broader and I think deeper science of man that will give a fuller role – though it is certainly not expected to give a complete understanding to such notions as innovation and creativity and freedom and the 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.
FOUCAULT:
I believe that what Mr. Chomsky said and what I tried to show is actually very similar. Indeed, 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 the 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. In the history of science or in the history of thought, we placed more emphasis on individual creation, 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.
CHOMSKY:
Well, 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.
FOUCAULT:
And transforming the same knowledge.
CHOMSKY:
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’s 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’s 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 that 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.
ELDERS:
Well I think we have now two questions out of this statement. One question is: Mr. Foucault, do you agree with the statement about the combination of limitation, fundamental limitation?
FOUCAULT:
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.
ELDERS:
But what does this theory of knowledge mean for your theme of the death of man or the end of the period of the 19th and 20th centuries?
FOUCAULT:
But this is not related to what we are talking about.
ELDERS:
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.
FOUCAULT:
You can wonder about it, but I can’t help that.
ELDERS:
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?
FOUCAULT:
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 in order to conceive the law of universal gravitation? 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. 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.
HOST:
Foucault’s last comment suggests yet again how the individual life of the researcher tends to disappear from sight. Then what about the relation between man and his culture when it comes to politics, also when asking the question of how we can change culture and society? After all, one can show that in the history of science and culture, the input of the individual remains almost negligible, but the question ‘how do I act?’ – the political question – remains standing.
It may thus become clear by now that, from Foucault’s perspective, this question 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.
It may also be informative to explicitly mention that Chomsky defines anarcho-syndicalism as his political standpoint. In his opinion, it is necessary to abolish the different forms of capitalism in order to favor direct workers’ participation in workers’ councils and so on. Decentralization, socialization and participation are keywords in Chomsky’s political program. Chomsky might say he sees no obvious relationship 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 from one another, but they certainly are heading in the same direction.
CHOMSKY:
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.
FOUCAULT:
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 a certain number of 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 they are not. One knows that the university and more generally all teaching systems, which simply 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, is at the knowledge of psychiatrists. Psychiatry 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 society without having thoroughly criticized all the relations between the different forms of political violence that exercise their power within our society, we run the risk of letting them reproduce – even in the case of the noble and apparently pure forms, such as anarcho-syndicalism.
CHOMSKY:
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 multinational 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. After all 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 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.
FOUCAULT:
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.
CHOMSKY:
Yes.
FOUCAULT:
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 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century admitted that in capitalist societies man hadn’t reached his full potential for development and self-actualization; that human nature was effectively alienated in the capitalist system. And Marxism ultimately dreamed of a liberated human nature. However, to conceive and dream of this 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 bourgeois type of sexuality, to a bourgeois type of family, to a bourgeois type of aesthetic.
And it is moreover very true that this has happened in the Soviet Union: for humans to finally be able to realize their true nature, a kind of society, simultaneously real and utopic, had been reconstituted and transposed from the bourgeois society of the 19th century. 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 a bourgeois human nature and a proletarian human nature, and he considers that they are not the same thing.
CHOMSKY:
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; and that would be a very bad thing for America, for Vietnam, for 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 Indochina will be torn to shreds by American power. And in the face of those uncertainties one has to choose a course of action.
Similarly, in the intellectual domain, one is faced with the uncertainties that you correctly pose. Our concept of human nature is certainly limited, partial, 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.
ELDERS:
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?
CHOMSKY:
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, I was standing in my car and then I drove across the 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.
FOUCAULT:
Yes, but I would like to ask you a question. When, in the United States, you commit an illegal act…
CHOMSKY:
Which I regard as illegal, not just the state…
FOUCAULT:
When the state considers it illegal. Do you make your action because you find it just, by virtue of an ideal justice? Or do you make it because class struggle renders it useful and necessary? Do you refer to an ideal justice?
CHOMSKY:
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. 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 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, for example, 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. 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 won. 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, it 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.
FOUCAULT:
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, because in France there is currently a debate about this problem of justice and of a 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.
CHOMSKY:
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 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.
FOUCAULT:
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 it’s because it wants to take power that it considers such a war to be just.
CHOMSKY:
Yeah, I don’t agree.
FOUCAULT:
One wages war to win, not because it is just.
CHOMSKY:
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.
FOUCAULT:
I will answer you this: 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. I can’t see what claim anyone could make against this. But if you ask me what would happen 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, or a group of people inside the proletariat, or a bureaucracy or petit bourgeois elements, had taken power.
CHOMSKY:
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 a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat would certainly be unjust.
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.
FOUCAULT:
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.
CHOMSKY:
Okay, but that’s the further justification.
FOUCAULT:
That is the justification, but not in terms of justice but in terms of power.
CHOMSKY:
But 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 will mean the submergence and termination of class oppression, a proper end to achieve in human life.
FOUCAULT:
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 a justification by the oppressive class.
CHOMSKY:
I don’t agree with that.
FOUCAULT:
And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.
CHOMSKY:
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 – 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 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.
FOUCAULT:
Well, do I have time to answer?
ELDERS:
Yes.
FOUCAULT:
How much?
ELDERS:
Two minutes.
FOUCAULT:
Well I would say that is unjust!
CHOMSKY:
Absolutely, yes.
FOUCAULT:
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 realization… 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.
ELDERS:
Well, I think we can immediately start the discussion.
QUESTION:
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 proletarians”. But I don’t see any class-conscious proletarians. And that’s a great dilemma.
CHOMSKY:
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, have a point, a partial point: that is, it’s a very important thing in a modern advanced industrial society how the trained intelligentsia identify 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.
QUESTION:
I have one small additional question, or rather a remark to make to you. That is: how can you, with your very courageous attitude towards the war in Vietnam, survive in an institution like MIT, which is known here as one of the Great War contractors and intellectual makers of this war?
CHOMSKY:
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 are 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 quite 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 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 of Empire were 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.
QUESTION:
But aren’t you afraid that your presence at MIT gives them a clean conscience?
CHOMSKY:
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.
ELDERS:
Well, 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-going discussion on both the technical and theoretical way, as the political way. I thank you very much both on behalf of the audience, here and at home.

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