Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chomsky & Foucault

I read 'The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature' several months ago and meant to post something about it but never got round to it, so I'm probably a bit hazy on the details by now, but the idea is the same.

The main section of the book is basically the transcript of a discussion between the intellectuals (for want of a better word) Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, followed by some further related articles and interviews. Chomsky and Foucault have some superficial similarities, they are both intellectuals of the left who seek to engage in politics, but the discussion in fact shows how fundamentally different they are in important respects.

The debate starts with their respective backgrounds in linguistics. I'm no linguistics expert but Chomsky's view, extremely simplistically, is that people have innate language abilities. Foucault on the other hand is from the French Structuralist tradition which prefers to see language as a structure which limits and determines the thought of individuals rather than something that individuals use creatively to express their ideas. Structuralism is in this sense the philosophical grandparent of the PC movement. This leads into their views on human nature, with Chomsky believing that people have innate creativity and Foucault sticking with his structuralist framework. Whilst the discussion remains about linguistics and human nature the differences seem primarily to be about technical intricacies but as soon as the discussion moves onto politics the discussion becomes more heated as the implications of these philosophical differences become clear.

The political differences can be shown clearly in this exchange.....

FOUCAULT: But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in which you said that if you didn't consider the war you make against the police to be just, you wouldn't make it.

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

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don't agree.

FOUCAULT: One makes war to win, not because it is just.

CHOMSKY: I don't, personally, agree with that.

For example, if I could convince myself that attainment of power by the proletariat would lead to a terrorist 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: When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has triumphed, a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can't see what objection one could make to this.

For all Chomsky's faults, and they are many, he starts from a fundamental position of valuing the human individual. For Chomsky, unlike Foucault, individuals have an intrinsic value, they are not just blank pieces of paper to be shuffled, re-arranged and re-written in a structuralist re-arrangement of society, not to be valued or despised purely because of their position within a theoretical social framework.

Although the book is subtitled On Human Nature I think it is a recognition of human value rather than a particular view of human nature that is important. Indeed, a rigid view of human nature, and an attempt to re-shape human society and the individuals within that society to conform to it, can be one of the more dangerous political positions, whether it is Hitler's view that some people were naturally masters and some naturally slaves and we'd all be much happier if we just accepted this, or the Marxist closed society where individuals can be free and happy only if they conform to a constrained view of human nature.

It is the valuing of the human individual that, for me, is of fundamental political importance, rather than the old-fashioned differentiation between right and left. Connections can be made with people who have innate respect for individuals wherever they may be on the political spectrum. Avoid the people-haters, on the other hand, at all costs, whether they be of the left or right.


ulaca said...

Interesting review. I had to wrestle with Foucault’s “thinking” as part of my PhD. Actually, his Madness and Civilisation is rather good – thought-provoking about loony bins and other penal institutions.

One could argue that modern critical theory has evolved from Foucault’s claim that ‘at bottom everything is interpretation’ and his related claim that all reality is in essence semiotic or linguistic.

In contrast to the Frenchman’s guff about classes is Popper’s reminder that 'classes never rule, any more than nations. The rulers are always certain persons. And whatever class they may have belonged to, when they are rulers they belong to the ruling class' (Conjectures and Refutatuons).

I like the way this post comes hard on the heels of the one about your dog. If I were ever to get a dog, it would be so that I had something rather bigger than a hamster around the place that would never disagree with me!

David Biddlecombe said...
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