The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: Science Versus Its Nameless Rival
September 24th, 2015
by Philip Pilkington
In response to my previous post a commenter on a private group I’m engaged with said that I must have fallen on the side of Michel Foucault in the famous Foucault-Chomsky debate. This is most certainly true and perhaps this is a good opportunity to lay out some thoughts on that debate.
Right off the bat I should state that I am not at all interested in the politics of the debate. Both men are revolutionary anarchists of some stripe or other and I have no sympathy for their cause. Instead what I am interested in are the two opposing philosophical viewpoints that are being expounded by the two men buried in the political rhetoric.
The first question to ask about the debate is: from what position does each debater speak? I do not mean this in terms of physical space. That would be a stupid question. I mean from what position of authority. Chomsky clearly speaks from the position of Enlightenment. As a linguist who invented generative grammar he is generally regarded as a scientist and this confers on what Chomsky says a certain amount of authority on what Chomsky. It is assumed that behind Chomsky’s words there is a Truth called Science.
Foucault, on the other hand, occupies a far more unusual position. He started his career as a psychologist which is a somewhat soft science that is recognised to be filled with ambiguity. But when he came to think that psychological categories were rather arbitrary and then carried this critique to all categories in the human sciences he lost even the scientific status conferred on the psychologist. What position of authority Foucault argues from is therefore rather unclear. Indeed, the Collège de France had to invent a new position for him in 1970 entitled “Professor of the History of Systems of Thought”. (One finds it hard to imagine such a thing happening in Chomsky’s homeland).
From the outset then the two men wear, as it were, rather different insignias. Chomsky wears a lab-coat, with all the authority that wields; Foucault a somewhat ad hoc professorship that was invented only a year before the debate took place. These considerations will be extremely important in what follows.
The debate, which was largely political given the mood of the time, had two key points of interest both of which can be found in the short clip at the beginning of this post. They both fell toward the end of the debate where the two men were discussing the nature of justice. Both were talking in terms of anarchist politics. Foucault was making the point that what we consider Justice is but a particular form of justice that is bound up with the class nature of our society. Chomsky, as we shall see, disagrees with this.
Before we analyse what each actually had to say on the matter I ask the reader once again to detach this from questions of politics. What Chomsky and Foucault are really talking about is whether there is such a thing as a timeless, a priori sort of truth or whether all particular historical manifestations of truth are relativistic and must be understood given their era and their context. With that in mind let us turn to what Chomsky says in this regard:
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.
First of all let me be clear, again in case this gets tied up with politics. Politically I actually do agree with Chomsky here. In no way do I think that our current systems of justice are institutions of class oppression plain and simple. But I think this for entirely different reasons that Chomsky would simply not even begin to understand because he rejects the view that such systems are indeed historically arbitrary in many ways and in order to ground them we really must turn back to the institution of language (this is what Foucault misses, by the way). This leads Chomsky to engage in mysticism and it is a mysticism that is not usually recognised because, as we said earlier, Chomsky stands behind the altar of Science and this gives his words a weight that they otherwise would not possess.
But look carefully at what he is saying: he is saying that there is an “absolute” basis on which justice can rest but that he cannot sketch it out. That is mysticism or at the very least a sort of circular metaphysical argument. But I would say that if you pushed Chomsky or others who believe similar things about the a priori nature of Reason hard enough you’ll find such mysticism at the heart of most of their theories.
Foucault, on the other hand, takes a very concrete approach. Because it is so tied up with the politics I will highlight the relevant lines:
No, but I don’t want to answer in so little time. I would simply say this, that finally this problem of human nature, when put simply in theoretical terms, hasn’t led to an argument between us; ultimately we understand each other very well on these theoretical problems. On the other hand, when we discussed the problem of human nature and political problems, then differences arose between us. And contrary to what you think, you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realisation of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilisation, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions 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.
Foucault appeals to the actual history of these matters where he finds a whole multitude and slew of different truths, all of which ultimately rest on some sort of authority. To give a concrete example of such a contingent and tactical truth let us turn to the sphere of psychopathology. The Foucault-Chomsky debate took place in 1971. At that time the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — at that time the DSM-II — classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. This was only removed in 1974.
Again, I would like to move the focus away from the politics here. Whatever we think of homosexuality being included as a mental disorder let us approach this neutrally. Today most of us would recognise that the removal of homosexuality from the DSM was the beginning of a larger cultural shift regarding how we viewed sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Yet, prior to 1974 homosexuality was essentially given the same status in our official categories of knowledge as cancer or schizophrenia: it was a disease thought to have a biological basis that caused pathological behaviors in individuals. Further it was implied that those afflicted with it needed to be cured in some way. That is, they needed to have supposedly “scientific” principles applied to their disorder to, in a very real sense, re-order it.
If this was part of a cultural shift then that leads to the conclusion that those categories that we allow scientific status in our society are actually just sort of congealed manifestations of tradition and custom. This, indeed, is what Foucault found over and over again in his archival work. The idea that there were some timeless principles underlying these, as Foucault said in the debate, simply didn’t have “historical justification”.
This strongly suggests that — contrary to what Chomsky who, wrapped in scientific garb, appeals to mystical principles which he himself admits that he cannot substantiate — rather Reason itself is completely constrained and bound by our customs and our traditions. Reason is then not an a priori at all, but rather a sort of secondary faculty which serves in the interest of a more primary faculty which I would broadly call the forces of custom and tradition as they are contained and sealed within language itself.
One last point on this, as since it is on the question of language we end and Chomsky is generally seen as the founder of modern linguistics such a point might be worth making. Chomsky’s generative grammar is often seen to have superseded the older Saussurean structural linguistics. Where Saussure and his followers — Foucault being one — focused on the interrelation between signifiers, Chomsky and his followers sought out Universal principles of grammar.
Without getting into the weeds on whether these principles are indeed Universal, we should point out that Chomsky did not somehow prove Saussure wrong. What he did was he shifted the focus of the debate. He basically said “Yes, structural linguistics is all well and good. But it’s not really scientifically interesting anymore as it cannot tell us about the generation of grammar (and let’s all say: it has elements that don’t look all that scientific, right guys?). Rather we should look at the generative principles of grammar. That is Science”. By doing this Chomsky buried all the questions that Saussure’s theories might have raised — questions such as those raised by Foucault in his historical work.
This, as I have pointed out time and again on this blog, is the essence of the Enlightenment project: to solidify itself as the one and only truth (despite the ironic fact that these truths constantly change while the mystical authority behind them remains the same) and to bury any cultural project that questions this particular form of organising our knowledge and our institutions of knowledge. It does not suppress these potential forms of knowledge organisation by burning their adherents at the stake but rather by ensuring that they do not retain the same status as the scientific community and thus, it is hoped, they will fall into obscurity to some degree. It is thus that many arguments can be dismissed, not through debate or reasoned argument, but simply by an appeal toward something — something mystical, perhaps — called “Science”.
That is where we are today and that is arguably where we have been for some centuries now. It also looks unlikely that this will change any time soon.