Chomsky & Foucault debate still inspires 50 years after the fact

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Chomsky & Foucault debate still inspires 50 years after the fact

Just when English actress and writer Sophie Ward knocked on the door of the Auditorium at the beginning of the summer, the building was closed for maintenance. Still, she was able to take a peek inside and get a sense of where in 1971 the iconic debate between the American philosopher of language Noam Chomsky and the French philosopher Michel Foucault took place. The debate - and the TU/e campus - will have an important role in her upcoming novel.

photo Archive TU/e

“I’m still in the exploration phase,” Ward stresses, when speaking about her new novel. One thing that is clear, though, is that the debate between philosophers Chomsky and Foucault will play an important role. “The debate is like a little seed in the book and from there things happen. One character goes to the debate and that’s why I wanted to find out more about what I was looking at.” That’s how the actress, who also holds a doctorate in English and comparative literature, ended up on the campus of the TU/e.

“When I got there the Auditorium was all locked up. When I saw caretakers inside I knocked on the door. I told them that I thought there was a debate in there. And one of them responded that the building was all closed and there were no debates. Then I said: no, in 1971. He looked at me like: who is this strange English woman,” Ward says, laughing. The caretaker, who was already a bit older, then understood what debate she was talking about and let her in to take photos.

Chomsky and Foucault

Noam Chomsky (1928) and Michel Foucault(1926-1984) are both considered major figures in philosophy. Chomsky is often referred to as ‘the founder of modern linguistics’. He is also known for his activism regarding the war in Vietnam. In the debate he mentions the war several times and says that people have the right to be disobedient when the American state acts in a “criminal capacity.”
Foucault was a French philosopher, and was considered one of the biggest minds of the second half of the twentieth century. One of his main subjects of interest was the relation between knowledge and power. He was also a political activist and was connected to several left-wing groups. He also briefly joined the French Communist Party.

The debate that took place on campus was part of a series of debates, organized by the NOS (Dutch TV and radio channel, ed.). It was moderated by Dutch philosopher Fons Elders. In the debate Chomsky and Foucault discuss the question if there is such a thing as 'innate' human nature, independent of our experiences and external influences. Chomsky does seem to believe there is such a thing as human nature and says that “real” notion of social justice is grounded. Foucault says we don’t know what human nature is and that justice in itself has been invented as an instrument of a certain political and economic power.

The debate was aired on November 28, 1971 and is available (English subtitles included) on YouTube.

War in Vietnam

But why does this particular debate bring an English writer to the TU/e campus? “I wanted to write this novel about language and power dynamics, so naturally Chomsky and Foucault’s names came up when I was researching. The debate is referred to in so many literary references. Also, it took place in the time that I was interested in, because of what was happening in the world right then.” Ward refers to the war in Vietnam, student protests and Korean poets being imprisoned.

The debate itself also touches on those subjects, which makes it acquire a weight outside of the conversation itself, says Ward. “The fact that two giants in their field meet face to face while at the very same time those other things were happening is serendipitous. And it’s interesting, because they don’t really have a very constructive conversation. It doesn’t quite meet. In a way that shows how difficult this debate is.”

Power dynamics

Because of its connection with everything that was happening in the world, the debate to Ward serves as a mean to touch on those subjects in her book. “It overlaps with a plot that I already wanted to write about, which is about a family in America, three generations of women, soldiers coming back from Vietnam and student protests against the war.” The philosophers also discuss the power dynamics of language in the debate, a subject that Ward is particularly interested in and is a recurring theme in her books. “I’m interested in how we use language interpersonally, politically, as a weapon and as a liberation. From a poet trying to write and reflect on things happening in a country to a refugee who is deprived of his language.”

The debate

The text below is part of an article about the debate, written by Joep Huiskamp, that appeared in the publication 16+1 Covers.

The Chomsky/Foucault Debate in Eindhoven

On the evening of Friday, 22 October 1971, the cameras of Dutch Broadcast Foundation NOS were set up in the Auditorium of Eindhoven University of Technology (then called the Tech­nische Hogeschool) to record a debate between these two intellectuals for posterity. In saecula saeculorum: this episode from the International Philosophers’ Project series is still available on YouTube.

Which Mots et Choses stand out when we view this video through a phenomenological lens? The Auditorium’s main hall is filled with an at first glance predominantly male audience of – most likely – employees and students. The audience shots register plentiful zeitgemässe glasses, beards and unkempt hair. Insiders recognize Dr Kwee Swan Liat, THE’s professor of general philosophy from 1970 to 1984, in the audience. Two days before, he had provided students with an introductory lecture on the ideas of the debaters. In the back of the hall gleams the big Pels and Van Leeuwen organ. We see three gentlemen descending the stairs avidly, on their way to talk show seating next to the landing of what is now called the Blauwe Zaal (blue auditorium). There are three modernist chairs, probably taken from the VIP room next to the Senaatszaal (Senate hall). There is a carafe of orange juice on the side table. The debate is led by philosopher Fons Elders (1936), a bearded, long-haired and bespectacled young man in a beige leisure suit and a T-shirt. Noam Chomsky is dressed in a dark-grey ready-to-wear costume and is the only one wearing a tie. Thanks to a pair of too short trouser legs the viewer occasionally gets a generous view of the American philosopher’s bare shins. Michel Foucault’s naked skull gleams in the television light. His socks reach much higher than Chomsky’s and he wears a beige turtleneck under a fashionably cut suit.

Under the direction of Elders, the two gentlemen exchange ideas about human nature and man’s relationship to culture and politics. No matter how different they are, according to the moderator the two gentlemen are both digging ‘from different sides of the mountain to the same centre’. This expedition in the Auditorium is not going to be a light-hearted chat: ‘The clash between Chomsky and Foucault centers on this universal human nature: is human nature common to all people, irrespective of time, place, class, religion, race and so on? Or is the notion of human nature a limited construction dating from a certain period in history such as the 17th and 18th centuries, when Newtonian physics were applied to men with little understanding of the facts?’

Chomsky speaks English; five minutes before the start of the debate Foucault informs Fons Elders that he will be speaking French (contrary to the agreement). In 2019, no talk show would put the subject matter on the menu for more than five minutes for fear of people changing channels. But the Eindhoven audience doesn’t blink and the audience shots give the impression that everyone understands every word and sentence of Foucault’s discourse. It remains to be seen whether this was in fact the case. Remembering the debate, even Elders admits that thinking and speaking in two languages at the same time gave him a headache. In any case, the relationship between language and power is discussed extensively – no surprise given the interests of both philosophers.

In company town Eindhoven, Chomsky warns against the power and oppressive effects of multinationals (‘which are not very far from us physically, tonight’). Foucault in turn declares that he has little faith in the democratic calibre of society. In their discussions, the debaters also address issues such as law and justice. Foucault takes up the theme from Discipline and Punish: ‘The fight against class justice, against injustice, is always part of the social struggle: to dismiss the judges, to change the tribunals, to amnesty the condemned, to open the prisons, has always been part of social transformations as soon as they become slightly violent.’

At the end of the debate, there is room for critical questions. A revolutionary Zeitgeist blows through the ranks o f the audience, which is seated under the Pels and Van Leeuwen organ purchased with NV Philips money in 1966. The first question to Chomsky is about his definition of the Marxist concept ‘proletariat’. Does this concept still mean what it once meant? After all, today it is mainly revolutionary students from the middle classes who identify with the proletariat, isn’t it? Well, says Chomsky, perhaps we should indeed stop using the word. But then, which social group will incite revolution? According to Chomsky, this may well be the intellectual workers, that is, as long as they are on the right side of the revolution.

In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was a matter on many minds internationally. One student (goatee with moustache, oversized spectacle frame, turtleneck) asks the American how he manages to survive within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is known as a ‘war contractor and intellectual maker of this war’. MIT is, acknowledges Chomsky , an institute that conducts research for the benefit of warfare. Chomsky lets slip that he is not a declared pacifist. On the other hand, MIT is also a university that cherishes libertarian values. Not that these values will save the Vietnamese people. Talking about MIT, we understand from Chomsky, calls for a nuanced approach. Whether the institute abuses him, a critical intellectual, as a left-wing alibi for all the research activities it carries out for the American army is the next question: ‘Aren’t you afraid that your presence at MIT gives them a clean conscience?’

Chomsky does not believe so: ‘I think my presence at MIT serves marginally to help, I don’t know how much, to increase student activism against a lot of the things that MIT as an institution does. At least I hope that’s what it does.

Preparations for the Television Programme

The lively debate was broadcast on the late Sunday evening of 28 November 1971, as director Kees van Langeraad remembers in 2006: ‘As a programme it was quite unusual for the NOS at the time, being a long debate between two philosophers. We wanted to record it with an audience and opted for a setting at Eindhoven University of Technology. I remember Chomsky as a clean American. Foucault was a more extra­vagant kind of man, who after the broadcast showed a great interest in Amsterdam’s nightlife.’

The initial idea of moderator Fons Elders was to invite eight famous philosophers to give guest lectures at several Dutch universities. When the NOS signed up as a partner, the idea arose to take philosophy out of its ivory tower and organized a series of debates before a live audience. This led to four television pro­grammes including, in addition to Foucault and Chomsky, conversations between the duos Alfred J. Ayer and Arne Naess, Karl Popper and John Eccles, and Leszek Kolakowski and Henri Lefèbvre. The three other debates were recorded at the International School of Philosophy in Leusden, the Auditorium of the University of Amsterdam on the Spui and the Ridderzaal in The Hague.

The text of what has become known as The Chomsky/Foucault Debate in Eindhoven was later published in three English-language editions. In Reflexive Water (1974) and Freedom and Knowledge (2013), Fons Elders reminisces about his meetings with the two discussion partners. Initially, Foucault seems a rather prickly gentleman. When Elders visits him in Paris for the first time in 1970, it takes him a while to find the right doorbell in the apartment complex. As a result, he arrives five minutes late. ‘Too bad,’ said the thinker, ‘now we only have 25 minutes left.’

Foucault comes across as ‘a hybrid between a Chinese general from the Ming Dynasty and Count Dracula’ to the Dutch philo­sopher. And the Frenchman does not fancy a televised interview with Chomsky, either. In 2019, Fons Elders remembers the bizarre exchange in which he eventually managed to persuade Foucault.

After their short talk, they leave the apartment building together. Standing beside his car, the Frenchman politely asks his Dutch visitor: ‘Anything else can I do for you?’ ‘If you’re going to Bordeaux, I’d appreciate a lift,’ answers Elders, taking Foucault by surprise. ‘He had to be some place in Paris, so I came along until he stopped the car. Then we walked together. Foucault said: “I don’t like television”, at which I remarked that TV can actually be quite interesting. I told him that I had been the first naked man to be seen on Dutch television. Foucault nearly jumped for joy and said, incredulously: “That can’t be true.” To which I again replied: Complètement nu, seulement avec des bottes rouges. Then Foucault said: “Then I want to be naked on TV with you and Chomsky.”’ If this wish had come true, the Eindhoven debate would undoubtedly have become world news. But in the Auditorium, the three gentlemen keep their clothes on.

But it did not end with just one preparatory talk. In September 1971 Elders and director Vincent Monnikendam travel to Paris for an introductory television portrait. Foucault does not want this portrait to have a biographical character. Showing emotion is alien to him; the person behind the philosopher is irrelevant. Indeed: his personal life coincides with his thinking. Recording Foucault’s penetrating flood of words takes 15 minutes.

When Elders meets Foucault for a third attempt to record a short, more personal portrait, this time in an Amsterdam café, Foucault once again refuses to cooperate. He has spent two entire nights at Melkweg, Amsterdam’s 1970s underground pop centre. He refuses to say a word. After eight o’clock in the evening, he states, he really only wants to talk to people under the age of 30. For lack of a better response, the extremely annoyed Elders simply sits down at the table and starts reading Foucault’s History of Madness. So they sit in silence (‘like in a Samuel Beckett’ play) facing each other until a taxi arrives to take the French intellectual to a waiting plane.

The preparatory contacts between Elders and Chomsky run more smoothly. On 29 May 1970, the Dutch philosopher visits MIT to make arrange­ments for the debate. In the hall of the building in which Chomsky has an office hangs a list of names of all kinds of research depart­ments affiliated with the American army, Elders notes. In the study of the philosopher, who looks exactly like a bank clerk, he notices a large poster of Fidel Castro and one of a Black Panther bigwig.

Almost half a century later, Fons Elders recalls that at the time, people in the Nether­lands had no clue what it took to convince the two thinkers to enter into debate with each other : ‘Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky were different personalities: physically, morally and in terms of worldviews. Foucault was a schizoid personality. He reacted differently , depending on a number of factors. Chomsky attacked and still attacks the super powerful United States and its imperialist world politics. This is no easy task. His sense of justice is without fear or favour. That’s great!”

Ward’s book is fictional, but she wants to ground it in something real. That’s why she’s still looking for more impressions of the debate. “I’d like to know more about the physical, emotional and intellectual experiences of the people present. Was it a hot day, or maybe too crowded? Was it exciting, difficult? What did people take from the debate? Anything is helpful.”

If you were present at the debate, or know of anyone who was, and you’d like to share your experiences with Ward, you can contact her through

Debate Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault - On human nature [Subtitled]

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