What Did Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Disagree About?

I had an opportunity a while back, in the course of answering a Quora question, to revisit the legendary Foucault-Chomsky debate.

Their fundamental disagreement stemmed from the fact that at the time of the debate Foucault was something between a moral relativist and a nihilist, whereas Chomsky was (and is) a moral realist. The question is: What motivated Foucault to adopt such an extreme and untenable position? I don’t believe he would have expressed such nihilistic views in the last several years leading up to his death.

I’ll have something to say about motivation towards the end of the post.

Much of what Foucault says in the debate could be taken as a defense of moral relativism, which of course is a perfectly respectable position. The moral relativist believes that moral principles are relative to some group, such as a society or a class. In some past societies,  apparently, it was true and right that a widow should be burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, but in other societies it was true and right that this should not be done. There are no universal or objective moral principles such that it could be true to say of everyone, everywhere that widows shouldn’t (or should) be burned.

As a corollary to the thesis that morality is relative to a group, the moral relativist denies that there are moral facts. There are only social expectations, values, practices, and facts about them. So it would not be true to say of Betty, who promised Sue that she would meet her for lunch today, that she is obligated to do so in the sense that she should keep her promise because that is the right thing to do. Betty’s belief that she should keep her promise is a fact about her and her society, not about morality.

I doubt Foucault ever entertained such thoughts about moral relativism in this form, but some of what he says in the conversation sounds as if he did. For example, Foucault argues that the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” each has its own distinctive morality and that what is true and right for one isn’t necessarily true and right for the other.

Remarkably (from our point of view – it was a sign of the times) Foucault expresses this view by endorsing Chairman Mao: “Mao Tse-Tung spoke of bourgeois human nature and proletarian human nature, and he considers that they are not the same thing.”

When Chomsky distinguishes between what justice truly requires and what the state regards as the requirements of justice, Foucault argues that a disagreement about what is required by justice is merely the form taken, in our society, by the power struggle between a state and a non-state. When one acts in defiance of the state, Foucault says, one does so “not in virtue of an ideal” but rather “because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary.”

The class struggle, of course, is not without its ideals. But put that aside. Clearly, Foucault thinks that what’s true about the requirements of justice for the bourgeoisie doesn’t apply to the proletariat. Chomsky – somewhat taken aback, I imagine – counters that “[n]o Leninist or whatever you like, would dare to say ‘We, the proletariat, have a 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.” Chomsky regards the law as an imperfect expression of genuinely universal moral principles: “to a very large extent existing law represents … values which are decent human values; and existing law, correctly interpreted, permits much of what the state commands you not to do.” To pick a side in the class struggle, Chomsky thinks, is to determine which class has justice on its side. How else should we decide?

It’s evident that the two often misunderstand one another. When Chomsky adds that “it’s important to exploit” those areas of the law that do reflect genuine moral principles, he means by “exploit” something like “use them in order to achieve real justice.” That’s his moral realism. At the mention of “exploitation” Foucault immediately says “yeah” in agreement, but only because he chooses to construe Chomsky as expressing the idea that “bourgeois” law can usefully be employed by the “proletariat” in its struggle for power (not justice).

Foucault’s moral relativism is expressed most emphatically here:

[T]he 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.

The difference between the two thinkers couldn’t be more stark. “One makes war to win,” Foucault says, “not because it is just.” “When the proletariat takes power,” he goes on, “it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.”

Why can’t Foucault see any objection? Because there are no moral facts.

At a certain point it becomes clear that Chomsky can’t quite believe what he’s hearing, and he struggles to persuade himself that Foucault can’t mean what he seems to be saying:

[S]urely you believe that your role in the [class] war is a just role, that you are fighting a just war. […] If you thought that you were fighting an unjust war, you couldn’t follow [the] line of reasoning [that holds that] ‘one has to emphasise justice in terms of the social struggle’.

Appreciate the idiosyncrasy of Foucault’s position: it’s not that he thinks violence is permitted if it’s necessary to achieve justice. Any number of revolutionaries have argued so. It’s that violence is permitted regardless of its purpose, so long as one belongs to a group for which it is true that one ought to use violence to achieve its purposes. It’s just like the practice of sati being right at one time and place and wrong in another. At moments like this, Foucault sounds closer to nihilism than relativism.

Foucault then doubles down and asserts that the very idea of justice is a means of exercising or acquiring power:

[T]he idea of justice in itself … has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But it seems to me that … the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it. […] And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

This is quite a non sequitur. Foucault is saying that in a perfectly just society, there would be no need for a concept of justice. To the extent that we use the concept of justice for the purpose of evaluating imperfectly just institutions, that’s true. But how is that relevant to the question of whether justice is real, relative, or non-existent? And how could we tell whether a classless society was perfectly just, without a concept of justice?

As Foucault perceptively points out at the end of the discussion, he and Chomsky had relatively little trouble finding common ground on the topic of human nature, but their views on politics were irreconcilable.

It’s not that they agreed on human nature. Chomsky associates human nature with innate cognitive structures, whereas Foucault believes that human nature is something like an ideology. But it was easy for Chomsky to paper over these differences by saying that “we’re digging into the mountain from opposite directions…. My particular interest … is with the intrinsic capacities of the mind; yours, as you say, is in the particular arrangement of social and economic and other conditions.”

Both biological and social structures are pertinent to the study of human beings, and as they are empirical matters it’s easy to imagine a kind of division of labor in which Chomsky studies the biological invariants and Foucault studies the social structures. But this division of labor doesn’t work when they move from empirical to normative questions, for Foucault’s view is that there are no truly normative questions about which principles should govern – only empirical questions about which principles do in fact govern. Foucault’s relativistic presuppositions rule out Chomsky’s realistic ones, and vice versa. Chomsky states the problem perspicuously: “We were in apparent disagreement, because where I was speaking of justice, he was speaking of power. At least, that is how the difference between our points of view appeared to me.” (See Mitsou Ronat, Chomsky on Language.)

To address the question I posed at the beginning – what motivated Foucault to assert such an extreme position – it looks as if he mistook the methodological commitments of his archaeologies and genealogies of knowledge and power for substantive commitments. In studying a “regime of power and knowledge,” the analyst suspends his own normative commitments in order to describe, in a detached manner, how the regime’s norms are organized. If this were not done, one’s concern for truth would obscure the subtle ways in which truth itself may contribute to domination and the exercise of power. Thus, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault wrote that he would be dealing with “bodies and pleasures,” ignoring the fact that human sexuality concerns persons with bodies who give to and receive pleasure from other persons. Adopting a “depersonalized” framework enables the genealogist to compare normative regimes of knowledge and power. But having unmasked a regime of power thanks to this normative suspension, one is inclined to recover morality and evaluate the regime. This is the critical and political dimension of the genealogy of power and knowledge, a theme, which Foucault traced to the Enlightenment, that interested him more and more in the years just before his death. In the debate with Chomsky, however, Foucault speaks as if normative suspension is not merely a method but also a stance that one should adopt towards the real world. Foucault was, as Nancy Fraser put it, “normatively confused.”

I’ll just add that this dialogue took place at a rather low point in Foucault’s political development, at a moment when he was enamored of crypto-Maoist notions of spontaneous popular uprisings and the libidinal liberation they were alleged to achieve. (Foucault wasn’t alone; many other highly intelligent Parisians got caught up in that nonsense as well.) The conversation took place in 1971, but by the late 1970s Foucault’s political attitudes had matured considerably and he abandoned Maoism for liberalism (take a look at his comments on Hayek in his 1978–79 Collège de France course Naissance de la biopolitique). I’m sure he would have been embarrassed if anyone had brought up, in the late 1970s and early 80s, the political views he expressed earlier.

Finally, a charming factoid. The Dutch philosopher Fons Elders, who organized the event, compensated Foucault for his time by giving him an enormous chunk of hashish. It seems to have lasted a very long time and was affectionately referred to by Foucault and his friends as “the Chomsky hash” (le haschich Chomsky).

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