Foucault vs. Chomsky
October 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
There’s a short (13 minute) video from 1971 of a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault that I think gets at so much of what I’ve delved into (academically and personally) for the last few years of my life. In fact, I think I’ve been thinking about this for much longer, I just wasn’t able to articulate it too well until a few years ago. The discussion, and the longer book, gets at some of the most profound yet basic arguments in social science, politics, religion, philosophy and really any endeavor in human development. The most pedestrian conceptualization of this argument is the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate. In a crude sense, Chomsky falls more on the nature side of the debate and Foucault favors nurture in the fight.
Essentially, Chomsky argues that human nature seeks and needs creative outlet and that is something that we must strongly consider when establishing our social structures. Foucault responds by questioning Chomsky’s understanding of human nature, claiming that we will never be able to truly understand human nature because we are mired in our own cultural production (informed by the politics, knowledge, philosophy, religion, &c. of the time) of “human-nature” as a concept.
As a social scientist, and someone who has written works using Foucaultian lenses in the past, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I side with Foucault more often than not. But what is most interesting to me is that I find myself coming back, again and again to Chomsky. Maybe its because he’s an elegant, unassuming yet capturing speaker and writer. Maybe its because he is the model of a public intellectual, something that I hope one day to be myself. Maybe its because he has done so much terrific work in other (related) fields like linguistics and media studies. Or maybe because his quantitative and technical skills pull at the parts of my brain that easily get convinced of things when explained using the language of mathematics (not because I understand it better, but because I’ve mostly been socialized to think that math is not an argument, its a fact). Whatever the reason, Chomsky has always caught my attention because I think there is certain truth in what he says. His canonical contributions to the study of language acquisition and language development have yet to be thoroughly disproved. And maybe there truly is a human nature that can be understood, and coupled with our fight to uncover power structures in society (as Foucault promotes), we can do a better job of developing social structures.
I don’t believe I will ever get to a place where I can confidently say I side with either nature or nurture in the debate (mostly because I don’t think its ever either/or) but the inquiry into these fields and the analysis of any work I commit to through the lens of this debate seems to be a never-ending prospect.