The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature, New York: The New Press, , pp. Content of the transcript differs from the actual. As a glance at the transcript of the discussion between Chomsky and Foucault reveals, the debate was a fascinating insight into many features of their work, and . 3 quotes from The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature: ‘The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institut.

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Michel Foucault, of the College de France, and Mr. Noam Foucaukt, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both philosophers have points in common and points of difference. But both are doing their jobs with quite new ideas, digging as profoundly as possible with an equal commitment in philosophy as in politics: I intend, therefore, not to lose any time and to start off with a central, perennial question: All studies of man, from history to foucaupt 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 recognise each other as human beings.

So my first question is to you Mr. Which arguments can you derive from linguistics to give such a central position to this concept of human nature?

Foucault and Chomsky Debate Human Nature

A person who is interested in studying languages is faced with a very definite empirical problem. And in fact it has many of the characteristics of what I think might very well be called creativity. Now, the person who has acquired this intricate and highly articulated and organised collection of abilities-the collection of abilities that we call knowing a language-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.

Furthermore we notice that varying individuals with very varied experience foycault a trxnscript language nevertheless arrive at systems which are very much congruent to one another. The systems that two speakers of English arrive at on transcripr basis of their very different experiences are congruent in the sense that, over an overwhelming range, what one of them says, the other can understand.

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 kind of systems that emerge from the very different kinds of experiences to which people are exposed. There focuault 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 choomsky 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.

The Chomsky – Foucault Debate Quotes

A person who knows a language has acquired that knowledge because he approached the learning experience with a very explicit and detailed schematism that tells him what kind of language it is dfbate he is being exposed to. That is, to put it rather loosely: And it is because he begins with that highly organised and very restrictive schematism, that he is able to make the huge leap from scattered and degenerate data to cebate organised knowledge.

And furthermore Chmosky should add that we can go a certain distance, I think a rather long distance, towards transcriipt the properties of this system fucault knowledge, that I would call innate language or instinctive knowledge, that the child brings to language learning; and also we can go a long way towards describing the system that is mentally represented when transcriipt has acquired this 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 debare, is one fundamental constituent of human nature.

In this case I think a fundamental constituent because of the role that language plays, not merely in communication, but also in expression of thought and interaction between persons; and I assume that in other domains of human intelligence, in other domains of human cognition and behaviour, something of the same sort must be true. 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 a totally 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 with several schematisms.

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

You will find concepts with dsbate classifying function, concepts with a differentiating function, and concepts with an analytical function: There are at the same time elements which play a role in the discourse and in the internal rules of the reasoning practice.

The notion of life played this role to some extent in biology during a certain period. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion of life was hardly used in studying nature: At the end of the eighteenth century, the description and analysis of these natural beings debbate, through the use of more highly perfected instruments and the latest techniques, an entire domain of objects, an entire field of relations and processes which have dehate us to define the specificity of biology in the knowledge of nature.


Can one say that research into life has finally constituted itself in biological science? Has the concept of life been responsible for the organisation chomskj biological knowledge? It seems to me more likely that the transformations of biological knowledge at the end of the eighteenth century, were demonstrated on one hand by a whole series of new concepts for use in scientific discourse and on the other hand gave rise to a notion like that of life which has enabled us to designate, to delimit and to situate a certain type of scientific discourse, among other things.

Foucault and Chomsky Debate Human Nature – Sociology At Work

I would say that the notion of life is not a scientific concept; it has been an epistemological indicator of which the classifying, delimiting and other functions had an effect on scientific discussions, and not on what they were talking about:.

Well, it seems to me that the notion of human nature is of the same type. fouxault

It was not by studying human nature that linguists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists the structure of myths.

In the history of knowledge, the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played ddbate role of an epistemological indicator to designate certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history.

I fucault find it difficult to see in this a scientific concept.

That is, there is something biologically given, unchangeable, a foundation for whatever it is that we do with our mental capacities in this case. But I would like to pursue a little further the line of development that you outlined, with which in fact I entirely agree, about the concept of life as an organising concept in the biological sciences. In other words, to be precise, is it possible to give a biological explanation or a physical explanation…is it possible to characterise, in terms of the physical concepts presently available to us, the ability of the child to acquire complex systems of knowledge; and furthermore, critically, having acquired such systems of knowledge, to make use of this knowledge in the free and creative and remarkably varied ways in which he does?

Can we explain in biological terms, ultimately in physical terms, these properties of both acquiring knowledge in the first place and making use of it in the second? But if we look back at the way in which science has scaled various peaks, and at the way in which the concept of life was finally acquired by science after having been beyond its vision for a long period, then I think we notice at many points in history-and in fact the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are particularly clear examples-that scientific advances were possible precisely because the domain of physical science was itself enlarged.

To the common sense of a later generation, action at a distance has been incorporated within science. What happened was that the notion of body, the notion of the physical had changed. To a Cartesian, a strict Cartesian, if such a person appeared today, it would appear that there is no explanation for the behaviour of the heavenly bodies.

But by the extension of physical science to incorporate hitherto unavailable concepts, entirely new ideas, it became possible to successively build more flucault more complicated structures that incorporated a larger range of phenomena.

Similarly, I think, one might ask the question whether physical science as known today, including biology, incorporates within itself the principles and the concepts that will enable it to give an account of innate human intellectual capacities and, even more profoundly, of the ability to make use of those capacities under conditions of freedom in the trqnscript which humans do.

I see no particular reason to believe that biology or physics now contain those concepts, and it may be that to scale the next peak, to make the next step, they will have to focus on this organising concept, and may very transcrript have to broaden their scope in order to come to grips with it. I trqnscript the impression that one of the main differences between you both has its origin in a difference in approach. Foucault, are especially interested in the way science or scientists function in a certain period, whereas Mr.

We can try to elucidate this in a more general way: Foucault, are delimiting eighteenth century rationalism, whereas you, Mr.

Chomsky, are combining eighteenth-century rationalism with notions like freedom and creativity. Perhaps we could illustrate this in chomzky more general way with examples from ofucault seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Well, first I should say that I approach classical rationalism not really as a historian of science or a historian of philosophy, but from the rather different point of view of someone who has chomsoy certain range of scientific notions and is interested in seeing how at an earlier stage people may have been groping towards these notions, possibly without even realising what they were groping towards. And I think that, without objecting to the other approach, my approach is legitimate; that is, I think it is perfectly possible to trsnscript back to earlier cgomsky of scientific thinking on the basis of our present understanding, and to perceive how great thinkers were, within the limitations of their time, groping towards concepts and ideas and insights that they themselves could not be clearly aware of.

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


Now, when I look back at debahe seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what strikes me particularly is the way in which, for example, Descartes and his followers were led transcri;t postulate mind as a thinking substance independent of the body. He thought that in those terms, in terms of the mechanical principle, he could explain a certain domain of phenomena; and then he observed that there was a range of phenomena that he argued could not be explained in those terms. And he therefore postulated a creative principle to account for that domain of phenomena, the principle of mind with its own properties.

Now I believe, and here I would differ from a lot of my colleagues, that the move of Descartes to the postulation of a second substance was a very scientific move; it chpmsky not transccript metaphysical or an anti-scientific move.

He was moving into the domain of something that went beyond well-established science, and was trying to integrate it with well-established science by developing a theory in which these notions could be properly clarified and explained. Now Descartes, I think, made a similar intellectual move in postulating a second substance. Of course he failed where Newton succeeded; that is, he was unable to lay the groundwork for a mathematical theory of mind, as achieved by Newton and his followers, which laid the groundwork for tdanscript mathematical transcriipt of physical transcripf that incorporated such occult notions as action at a distance and later electromagnetic forces and so on.

But then that poses for us, I think, the task of carrying on and developing this, if you like, mathematical theory of mind; by that I simply mean a precisely articulated, clearly formulated, abstract theory which will have empirical consequences, which will let us know whether the theory is right or wrong, or on the wrong track or the right track, and at the same time will foudault the properties of mathematical science, that is, the properties of rigour and precision and a structure that makes it possible for us to deduce conclusions from assumptions and so on.

No … there are just one or two little historical ttranscript. I cannot object to the account which you have given in your historical analysis of their reasons and of their modality. But there is one thing one could nevertheless add: According to Descartes, the mind was chomssky so very creative. It saw, it perceived, it was illuminated by the evidence. Moreover, the problem which Descartes never resolved nor entirely mastered, was that of understanding how one could pass from one of these clear and distinct ideas, one of these intuitions, to another, and what status debwte be given to the evidence of the passage between them.

On the contrary, you can find, I think, at the same time in Pascal and Leibniz, something which is much closer to what you are looking for: And that is why the grammar of Port Royal, to which you refer, is, I think, much more Augustinian than Cartesian. And furthermore you will find in Leibniz something which you will certainly like: But I remember some passages in your History of Madness, which give a description of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in terms of repression, suppression and exclusion, while for Mr.

Chomsky this period is full of creativity and individuality. Why do we have at that period, for the first time, closed psychiatric or insane asylums? I think this is a very fundamental question…. No, I would like to say this: But I believe that my problem is different to that of Mr.

Chomsky has been fighting against linguistic behaviourism, which attributed almost nothing to the creativity of the speaking subject; the speaking subject xhomsky a kind of surface on which information came together little by little, which he afterwards combined.

In the field of the history of science or, foucauly generally, the history of thought, the transcrpt was completely different. The history of knowledge has tried for a long time to obey two transcriptt. One is the claim of attribution: In brief, this has to do with the principle of the sovereignty of the subject applied to the history of knowledge.

The other claim is that which no longer allows us to save the subject, but the truth: The history of truth would be essentially its delay, its fall or the disappearance of the obstacles which have impeded it until now from coming to light. The historical dimension of knowledge is always negative in relation to the truth. And what if understanding the relation of the subject to the truth, were coucault an effect of knowledge?

You will say to me that all the Marxist historians of science have been doing this for a long time. But when one sees how they work with these facts and especially what use they make of the notions of consciousness, of ideology as opposed to science, one realises that they are for the main part more or less detached from the theory of knowledge.

In any case, what I am anxious about is substituting transformations of the understanding for cebate history of the discoveries of knowledge. Therefore I have, in appearance at least, a completely different attitude to Mr. Chomsky apropos creativity, because for me it foucaullt a matter of effacing the dilemma of the knowing subject, while for him it is a matter of allowing the dilemma of the speaking subject to reappear.

But if he has made it reappear, if he has described it, it is because he can do so.

The linguists have for a long time now analysed language as a system with a collective value.