Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the third debate of the
International Philosophers' Project. Tonight's debaters are Mr.
Michel Foucault, of the College de France, and Mr. Noam Chomsky,
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both philosophers
have points in common and points of difference. Perhaps the best
way to compare both philosophers would be to see them as
tunnellers through a mountain working at opposite sides of the
same mountain with different tools, without even knowing if they
are working in each other's direction.
But both are doing their jobs with quite new ideas, digging
as profoundly as possible with an equal commitment in philosophy
as in politics: enough reasons, it seems to me for us to expect a
fascinating debate about philosophy and about politics.
I intend, therefore, not to lose any time and to start off
with a central, perennial question: the question of human
All studies of man, from history to linguistics 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
So my first question is to you Mr. Chomsky, because you often
employ the concept of human nature, in which connection you even
use terms like "innate ideas" and "innate structures". Which
arguments can you derive from linguistics to give such a central
position to this concept of human nature?
Well, let me begin in a slightly technical way.
A person who is interested in studying languages is faced with
a very definite empirical problem. He's faced with an organism, a
mature, let's say adult, speaker, who has somehow acquired an
amazing range of abilities, which enable him in particular to say
what he means, to understand what people say to him, to do this
in a fashion that I think is proper to call highly creative ...
that is, much of what a person says in his normal intercourse
with others is novel, much of what you hear is new, it doesn't
bear any close resemblance to anything in your experience; it's
not random novel behaviour, clearly, it's behaviour which is in
some sense which is very hard to characterise, appropriate to
situations. 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
We can investigate the data that's available to this person;
having done so, in principle, we're faced with a reasonably clear
and well-delineated scientific problem, namely that of accounting
for the gap between the really quite small quantity of data,
small and rather degenerate in quality, that's presented to the
child, and the very highly articulated, highly systematic,
profoundly organised resulting knowledge that he somehow derives
from these data.
Furthermore we notice that varying individuals with very
varied experience in a particular language nevertheless arrive at
systems which are very much congruent to one another. The systems
that two speakers of English arrive at on the basis of their very
different experiences are congruent in the sense that, over an
overwhelming range, what one of them says, the other can
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 is 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 in 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
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 that he is being exposed to. That is, to put it
rather loosely: the child must begin with the knowledge,
certainly not with the knowledge that he's hearing English or
Dutch or French or something else, but he does start with the
knowledge that he's hearing a human language of a very narrow and
explicit type, that permits a very small range of variation. 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 highly organised knowledge.
And furthermore I should add that we can go a certain distance, I
think a rather long distance, towards presenting the properties
of this system of 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 he has acquired this
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 data, 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
Well, this collection, this mass of schematisms, innate
organising principles, which guides our social and intellectual
and individual behaviour, that's what I mean to refer to by the
concept of human nature.
Well, Mr. 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?
Well, if you don't mind I will answer in French, because my
English is so poor that I would be ashamed of answering in
It is true that I mistrust the notion of human nature a
little, and for the 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. Let's take the example of biology. You will find
concepts with a classifying function, concepts with a
differentiating function, and concepts with an analytical
function: some of them enable us to characterise objects, for
example that of "tissue"; others to isolate elements, like that
of "hereditary feature"; others to fix relations, such as that of
"reflex". There are at the same time elements which play a role
in the discourse and in the internal rules of the reasoning
practice. But there also exist "peripheral" notions, those by
which scientific practice designates itself, differentiates
itself in relation to other practices, delimits its domain of
objects, and designates what it considers to be the totality of
its future tasks. 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: one classified natural
beings, whether living or non-living, in a vast hierarchical
tableau which went from minerals to man; the break between the
minerals and the plants or animals was relatively undecided;
epistemologically it was only important to fix their positions
once and for all in an indisputable way.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the description and
analysis of these natural beings showed, 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 enabled 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 of biological
knowledge? I don't think so. 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. 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. 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 the role of an
epistemological indicator to designate certain types of discourse
in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or
history. I would find it difficult to see in this a scientific
Well, in the first place, if we were able to specify in terms
of, let's say, neural networks the properties of human cognitive
structure that make it possible for the child to acquire these
complicated systems, then I at least would have no hesitation in
describing those properties as being a constituent element of
human nature. 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
It seems to me that one might speculate a bit further
speculate in this case, since we're talking about the future, not
the past-and ask whether the concept of human nature or of innate
organising mechanisms or of intrinsic mental schematism or
whatever we want to call it, I don't see much difference between
them, but let's call it human nature for shorthand, might not
provide for biology the next peak to try to scale, after
having-at least in the minds of the biologists, though one might
perhaps question this-already answered to the satisfaction of
some the question of what is life.
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
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? I really see no reason
to believe that we can; that is, it's an article of faith on the
part of scientists that since science has explained many other
things it will also explain this.
In a sense one might say that this is a variant of the
body/mind problem. 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. Classic cases are Newton's
gravitational forces. To the Cartesians, action at a distance was
a mystical concept, and in fact to Newton himself it was an
occult quality, a mystical entity, which didn't belong within
science. 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. Certainly
there is no explanation for the phenomena that are explained in
terms of electro-magnetic force, let's say. But by the extension
of physical science to incorporate hitherto unavailable concepts,
entirely new ideas, it became possible to successively build more
and more complicated structures that incorporated a larger range
For example, it's certainly not true that the physics of the
Cartesians is able to explain, let's say, the behaviour of
elementary particles in physics, just as it's unable to explain
the concepts of life.
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 way 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 well have to broaden their scope
in order to come to grips with it.
Perhaps I may try to ask one more specific question leading
out of both your answers, because I'm afraid otherwise the debate
will become too technical. I have the impression that one of the
main differences between you both has its origin in a difference
in approach. You, Mr. Foucault, are especially interested in the
way science or scientists function in a certain period, whereas
Mr. Chomsky is more interested in the so-called "what-questions":
why we possess language; not just how language functions, but
what's the reason for our having language. We can try to
elucidate this in a more general way: you, Mr. 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 a more general way with
examples from the 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 a 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.
So one might say that I'm looking at history not as an
antiquarian, who is interested in finding out and giving a
precisely accurate account of what the thinking of the
seventeenth century was-I don't mean to demean that activity,
it's just not mine-but rather from the point of view of, let's
say, an art lover, who wants to look at the seventeenth century
to find in it things that are of particular value, and that
obtain part of their value in part because of the perspective
with which he approaches them.
And I think that, without objecting to the other approach, my
approach is legitimate; that is, I think it is perfectly possible
to go back to earlier stages 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.
Similarly I think it's possible to look at the past, without
distorting your view, and it is in these terms that I want to
look at the seventeenth century. Now, when I look back at the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what strikes me
particularly is the way in which, for example, Descartes and his
followers were led to postulate mind as a thinking substance
independent of the body. If you look at their reasons for
postulating this second substance, mind, thinking entity, they
were that Descartes was able to convince himself, rightly or
wrongly, it doesn't matter at the moment, that events in the
physical world and even much of the behavioural and psychological
world, for example a good deal of sensation, were explicable in
terms of what he considered to be physics-wrongly, as we now
believe-that is, in terms of things bumping into each other and
turning and moving and so on.
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. And
then later followers, many who didn't regard themselves as
Cartesians, for example many who regarded themselves as strongly
anti-rationalistic, developed the concept of creation within a
system of rule.
I won't bother with the details, but my own research into the
subject led me ultimately to Wilhelm von Humboldt, who certainly
didn't consider himself a Cartesian, but nevertheless in a rather
different framework and within a different historical period and
with different insight, in a remarkable and ingenious way, which,
I think, is of lasting importance, also developed the concept of
internalised form-fundamentally the concept of free creation
within a system of rule in an effort to come to grips with some
of the same difficulties and problems that the Cartesians faced
in their terms.
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 was not a
metaphysical or an anti-scientific move. In fact, in many ways it
was very much like Newton's intellectual move when he postulated
action at a distance; he was moving into the domain of the
occult, if you like. 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
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 a mathematical theory of
physical entities 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 have
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.
Now it's from that point of view that I try to look back at
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and to pick out points,
which I think are really there, even though I certainly
recognise, and in fact would want to insist, that the individuals
in question may not have seen it this way.
Mr. Foucault, I suppose you will have a severe criticism of
No ... there are just one or two little historical points. 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: when you speak of
creativity as conceived by Descartes, I wonder if you don't
transpose to Descartes an idea which is to be found among his
successors or even certain of his contemporaries. According to
Descartes, the mind was not 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 should be given to the
evidence of the passage between them. I can't see exactly either
the creation in the moment where the mind grasped the truth for
Descartes, or even the real creation in the passage from one
truth to another.
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: in other words in Pascal and in the whole
Augustinian stream of Christian thought, you find this idea of a
mind in profundity; of a mind folded back in the intimacy of
itself which is touched by a sort of unconsciousness, and which
can develop its potentialities by the deepening of the self. 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: the idea that in the profundity of the mind
is incorporated a whole web of logical relations which
constitutes, in a certain sense, the rational unconscious of the
consciousness, the not yet clarified and visible form of the
reason itself, which the monad or the individual develops little
by little, and with which he understands the whole world.
That's where I would make a very small criticism.
Mr. Chomsky, one moment please.
I don't think it's a question of making a historical
criticism, but of formulating your own opinions on these quite
But one's fundamental opinions can be demonstrated in precise
analyses such as these.
Yes, all right. 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
...on creativity, yes!
But I don't know, perhaps Mr. Chomsky would like to speak
No, no, no, please go on. Continue.
No, I would like to say this: in the historical studies that I
have been able to make, or have tried to make, I have without any
doubt given very little room to what you might call the
creativity of individuals, to their capacity for creation, to
their aptitude for inventing by themselves, for originating
concepts, theories or scientific truths by themselves.
But I believe that my problem is different to that of Mr.
Chomsky. Mr. Chomsky has been fighting against linguistic
behaviourism, which attributed almost nothing to the creativity
of the speaking subject; the speaking subject was 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, more generally, the
history of thought, the problem was completely different.
The history of knowledge has tried for a long time to obey
two claims. One is the claim of attribution: each discovery
should not only be situated and dated, but should also be
attributed to someone; it should have an inventor and someone
responsible for it. General or collective phenomena on the other
hand, those which by definition can't be "attributed", are
normally devalued: they are still traditionally described through
words like "tradition', "mentality", "modes"; and one lets them
play the negative role of a brake in relation to the
"originality" of the inventor. 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: so that it won't be
compromised by history, it is necessary not that the truth
constitutes itself in history, but only that it reveals itself in
it; hidden to men's eyes, provisionally inaccessible, sitting in
the shadows, it will wait to be unveiled. 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. It isn't difficult to see how these two
claims were adjusted, one to the other: the phenomena of
collective order, the "common thought", the "prejudices" of the
"myths" of a period, constituted the obstacles which the subject
of knowledge had to surmount or to outlive in order to have
access finally to the truth; he had to be in an "eccentric"
position in order to "discover". At one level this seems to be
invoking a certain "romanticism" about the history of science:
the solitude of the man of truth, the originality which reopened
itself onto the original through history and despite it. I think
that, more fundamentally, it's a matter of superimposing the
theory of knowledge and the subject of knowledge on the history
And what if understanding the relation of the subject to the
truth, were just an effect of knowledge? What if understanding
were a complex, multiple, non-individual formation, not
"subjected to the subject", which produced effects of truth? One
should then put forward positively this entire dimension which
the history of science has negativised; analyse the productive
capacity of knowledge as a collective practice; and consequently
replace individuals and their "knowledge" in the development of a
knowledge which at a given moment functions according to certain
rules which one can register and describe.
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 the 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 is 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. The
understanding as a collective totality of rules allowing such and
such a knowledge to be produced in a certain period, has hardly
been studied until now. Nevertheless, it presents some fairly
positive characteristics to the observer. Take for example
medicine at the end of the eighteenth century: read twenty
medical works, it doesn't matter which, of the years 1770 to
1780, then twenty others from the years 1820 to 1830, and I would
say, quite at random, that in forty or fifty years everything had
changed; what one talked about, the way one talked about it, not
just the remedies, of course, not just the maladies and their
classifications, but the outlook itself. Who was responsible for
that? Who was the author of it? It is artificial, I think, to say
Bichat, or even to expand a little and to say the first
anatomical clinicians. It's a matter of a collective and complex
transformation of medical understanding in its practice and its
rules. And this transformation is far from a negative phenomenon:
it is the suppression of a negativity, the effacement of an
obstacle, the disappearance of prejudices, the abandonment of old
myths, the retreat of irrational beliefs, and access finally
freed to experience and to reason; it represents the application
of an entirely new 8rille, with its choices and exclusions; a new
play with its own rules, decisions and limitations, with its own
inner logic, its parameters and its blind alleys, all of which
lead to the modification of the point of origin. And it is in
this functioning that the understanding itself exists. So, if one
studies the history of knowledge, one sees that there are two
broad directions of analysis: according to one, one has to show
how, under what conditions and for what reasons, the
understanding modifies itself in its formative rules, without
passing through an original "inventor" discovering the "truth";
and according to the other, one has to show how the working of
the rules of an understanding can produce in an individual new
and unpublished knowledge. Here my aim rejoins, with imperfect
methods and in a quite inferior mode, Mr. Chomsky's project:
accounting for the fact that with a few rules or definite
elements, unknown totalities, never even produced, can be brought
to light by individuals. To resolve this problem, Mr. Chomsky has
to reintroduce the dilemma of the subject in the field of
grammatical analysis. To resolve an analogous problem in the
field of history with which I am involved, one has to do the
opposite, in a way: to introduce the point of view of
understanding, of its rules, of its systems, of its
transformations of totalities in the game of individual
knowledge. Here and there the problem of creativity cannot be
resolved in the same way, or rather, it can't be formulated in
the same terms, given the state of disciplines inside which it is
I think in part we're slightly talking at cross-purposes,
because of a different use of the term creativity. In fact, I
should say that my use of the term creativity is a little bit
idiosyncratic and therefore the onus falls on me in this case,
not on you. But when I speak of creativity, I'm not attributing
to the concept the notion of value that is normal when we speak
of creativity. That is, when you speak of scientific creativity,
you're speaking, properly, of the achievements of a Newton. But
in the context in which I have been speaking about creativity,
it's a normal human act.
I'm speaking of the kind of creativity that any child
demonstrates when he's able to come to grips with a new
situation: to describe it properly, react to it properly, tell
one something about it, think about it in a new fashion for him
and so on. I think it's appropriate to call those acts creative,
but of course without thinking of those acts as being the acts of
In fact it may very well be true that creativity in the arts
or the sciences, that which goes beyond the normal, may really
involve properties of, well, I would also say of human nature,
which may not exist fully developed in the mass of mankind, and
may not constitute part of the normal creativity of everyday
Now my belief is that science can look forward to the problem
of normal creativity as a topic that it can perhaps incorporate
within itself. But I don't believe, and I suspect you will agree,
that science can look forward, at least in the reasonable future,
to coming to grips with true creativity, the achievements of the
great artist and the great scientist. It has no hope of
accommodating these unique phenomena within its grasp. It's the
lower levels of creativity that I've been speaking of.
Now, as far as what you say about the history of science is
concerned, I think that's correct and illuminating and
particularly relevant in fact to the kinds of enterprise that I
see lying before us in psychology and linguistics and the
philosophy of the mind.
That is, I think there are certain topics that have been
repressed or put aside during the scientific advances of the past
For example, this concern with low-level creativity that I'm
referring to was really present in Descartes also. For example,
when he speaks of the difference between a parrot, who can mimic
what is said, and a human, who can say new things that are
appropriate to the situation, and when he specifies that as being
the distinctive property that designates the limits of physics
and carries us into the science of the mind, to use modern terms,
I think he really is referring to the kind of creativity that I
have in mind; and I quite agree with your comments about the
other sources of such notions.
Well, these concepts, even in fact the whole notion of the
organisation of sentence structure, were put aside during the
period of great advances that followed from Sir William Jones and
others and the development of comparative philology as a
But now, I think, we can go beyond that period when it was
necessary to forget and to pretend that these phenomena did not
exist and to turn to something else. In this period of
comparative philology and also, in my view, structural
linguistics, and much of behavioural psychology, and in fact much
of what grows out of the empiricist tradition in the study of
mind and behaviour, it is possible to put aside those limitations
and bring into our consideration just those topics that animated
a good deal of the thinking and speculation of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, and to incorporate them within a much
broader and I think deeper science of man that will give a fuller
role-though it is certainly not expected to give a complete
understanding to such notions as innovation and creativity and
freedom and the production of new entities, new elements of
thought and behaviour within some system of rule and schematism.
Those are concepts that I think we can come to grips with.
Well, may I first of all ask you not to make your answers so
lengthy? [Foucault laughs.]
When you discuss creativity and freedom, I think that one of
the misunderstandings, if any misunderstandings have arisen, has
to do with the fact that Mr. Chomsky is starting from a limited
number of rules with infinite possibilities of application,
whereas you, Mr. Foucault, are stressing the inevitability of the
"grille" of our historical and psychological determinisms, which
also applies to the way in which we discover new ideas.
Perhaps we can sort this out, not by analysing the scientific
process, but just by analysing our own thought process.
When you discover a new fundamental idea, Mr. Foucault, do
you believe, that as far as your own personal creativity is
concerned something is happening that makes you feel that you are
being liberated; that something new has been developed? Perhaps
afterwards you discover that it was not so new. But do you
yourself believe that, within your own personality, creativity
and freedom are working together, or not?
Oh, you know, I don't believe that the problem of personal
experience is so very important...
...in a question like this. No, I believe that there is in
reality quite a strong similarity between what Mr. Chomsky said
and what I tried to show: in other words there exist in fact only
possible creations, possible innovations. One can only, in terms
of language or of knowledge, produce something new by putting
into play a certain number of rules which will define the
acceptability or the grammaticality of these statements, or which
will define, in the case of knowledge, the scientific character
of the statements.
Thus, we can roughly say that linguists before Mr. Chomsky
mainly insisted on the rules of construction of statements and
less on the innovation represented by every new statement, or the
hearing of a new statement. And in the history of science or in
the history of thought, we placed more emphasis on individual
creation, and we had kept aside and left in the shadows these
communal, general rules, which obscurely manifest themselves
through every scientific discovery, every scientific invention,
and even every philosophical innovation.
And to that degree, when I no doubt wrongly believe that I am
saying something new, I am nevertheless conscious of the fact
that in my statement there are rules at work, not only linguistic
rules, but also epistemological rules, and those rules
characterise contemporary knowledge.
Well, perhaps I can try to react to those comments within my
own framework in a way which will maybe shed some light on
Let's think again of a human child, who has in his mind some
schematism that determines the kind of language he can learn.
Okay. And then, given experience, he very quickly knows the
language, of which this experience is a part, or in which it is
Now this is a normal act; that is, it's an act of normal
intelligence, but it's a highly creative act.
If a Martian were to look at this process of acquiring this
vast and complicated and intricate system of knowledge on the
basis of this ridiculously small quantity of data, he would think
of it as an immense act of invention and creation. In fact, a
Martian would, I think, consider it as much of an achievement as
the invention of, let's say, any aspect of a physical theory on
the basis of the data that was presented to the physicist.
However, if this hypothetical Martian were then to observe
that every normal human child immediately carries out this
creative act and they all do it in the same way and without any
difficulty, whereas it takes centuries of genius to slowly carry
out the creative act of going from evidence to a scientific
theory, then this Martian would, if he were rational, conclude
that the structure of the knowledge that is acquired in the case
of language is basically internal to the human mind; whereas the
structure of physics is not, in so direct a way, internal to the
human mind. Our minds are not constructed so that when we look at
the phenomena of the world theoretical physics comes forth, and
we write it down and produce it; that's not the way our minds are
Nevertheless, I think there is a possible point of connection
and it might be useful to elaborate it: that is, how is it that
we are able to construct any kind of scientific theory at all?
How is it that, given a small amount of data, it's possible for
various scientists, for various geniuses even, over a long period
of time, to arrive at some kind of a theory, at least in some
cases, that is more or less profound and more or less empirically
This is a remarkable fact.
And, in fact, if it were not the case that these scientists,
including the geniuses, were beginning with a very narrow
limitation on the class of possible scientific theories, if they
didn't have built into their minds somehow an obviously
unconscious specification of what is a possible scientific
theory, then this inductive leap would certainly be quite
impossible: just as if each child did not have built into his
mind the concept of human language in a very restricted way, then
the inductive leap from data to knowledge of a language would be
So even though the process of, let's say, deriving knowledge
of physics from data is far more complex, far more difficult for
an organism such as ours, far more drawn out in time, requiring
intervention of genius and so on and so forth, nevertheless in a
certain sense the achievement of discovering physical science or
biology or whatever you like, is based on something rather
similar to the achievement of the normal child in discovering the
structure of his language: that is, it must be achieved on the
basis of an initial limitation, an initial restriction on the
class of possible theories. If you didn't begin by knowing that
only certain things are possible theories, then no induction
would be possible at all. You could go from data anywhere, in any
direction. And the fact that science converges and progresses
itself shows us that such initial limitations and structures
If we really want to develop a theory of scientific creation,
or for that matter artistic creation, I think we have to focus
attention precisely on that set of conditions that, on the one
hand, delimits and restricts the scope of our possible knowledge,
while at the same time permitting the inductive leap to
complicated systems of knowledge on the basis of a small amount
of data. That, it seems to me, would be the way to progress
towards a theory of scientific creativity, or in fact towards any
question of epistemology.
Well, I think if we take this point of the initial limitation
with all its creative possibilities, I have the impression that
for Mr. Chomsky rules and freedom are not opposed to each other,
but more or less imply each other. Whereas I get the impression
that it is just the reverse for you, Mr. Foucault. What are your
reasons for putting it the opposite way, for this really is a
very fundamental point in the debate, and I hope we can elaborate
To formulate the same problem in other terms: can you think of
universal knowledge without any form of repression?
Well, in what Mr. Chomsky has just said there is something
which seems to me to create a little difficulty; perhaps I
understood it badly.
I believe that you have been talking about a limited number of
possibilities in the order of a scientific theory. That is true
if you limit yourself to a fairly short period of time, whatever
it may be. But if you consider a longer period, it seems to me
that what is striking is the proliferation of possibilities by
For a long time the idea has existed that the sciences,
knowledge, followed a certain line of "progress", obeying the
principle of "growth", and the principle of the convergence of
all these kinds of knowledge. And yet when one sees how the
European understanding, which turned out to be a world-wide and
universal understanding in a historical and geographical sense,
developed, can one say that there has been growth? I, myself,
would say that it has been much more a matter of
Take, as an example, animal and plant classifications. How
often have they not been rewritten since the Middle Ages
according to completely different rules: by symbolism, by natural
history, by comparative anatomy, by the theory of evolution. Each
time this rewriting makes the knowledge completely different in
its functions, in its economy, in its internal relations. You
have there a principle of divergence, much more than one of
growth. I would much rather say that there are many different
ways of making possible simultaneously a few types of knowledge.
There is, therefore, from a certain point of view, always an
excess of data in relation to possible systems in a given period,
which causes them to be experienced within their boundaries, even
in their deficiency, which means that one fails to realise their
creativity; and from another point of view, that of the
historian, there is an excess, a proliferation of systems for a
small amount of data, from which originates the widespread idea
that it is the discovery of new facts which determines movement
in the history of science.
Here perhaps again, let me try to synthesise a bit. I agree
with your conception of scientific progress; that is, I don't
think that scientific progress is simply a matter of the
accumulated addition of new knowledge and the absorption of new
theories and so on. Rather I think that it has this sort of
jagged pattern that you describe, forgetting certain problems and
leaping to new theories. .
And transforming the same knowledge.
Right. But I think that one can perhaps hazard an explanation
for that. Oversimplifying grossly, I really don't mean what I'm
going to say now literally, one might suppose that the following
general lines of an explanation are accurate: it is as if, as
human beings of a particular biologically given organisation, we
have in our heads, to start with, a certain set of possible
intellectual structures, possible sciences. Okay?
Now, in the lucky event that some aspect of reality happens to
have the character of one of these structures in our mind, then
we have a science: that is to say that, fortunately, the
structure of our mind and the structure of some aspect of reality
coincide sufficiently so that we develop an intelligible
It is precisely this initial limitation in our minds to a
certain kind of possible science which provides the tremendous
richness and creativity of scientific knowledge. It is important
to stress-and this has to do with your point about limitation and
freedom-that were it not for these limitations, we would not have
the creative act of going from a little bit of knowledge, a
little bit of experience, to a rich and highly articulated and
complicated array of knowledge. Because if anything could be
possible, then nothing would be possible.
But it is precisely because of this property of our minds,
which in detail we don't understand, but which, I think, in a
general way we can begin to perceive, which presents us with
certain possible intelligible structures, and which in the course
of history and insight and experience begin to come into focus or
fall out of focus and so on; it is precisely because of this
property of our minds that the progress of science, I think, has
this erratic and jagged character that you describe.
That doesn't mean that everything is ultimately going to fall
within the domain of science. Personally I believe that many of
the things we would like to understand, and maybe the things we
would most like to understand, such as the nature of man, or the
nature of a decent society, or lots of other things, might really
fall outside the scope of possible human science.
Well, I think that we are confronted again with the question
of the inner relation between limitation and freedom. Do you
agree, Mr. Foucault, with the statement about the combination of
limitation, fundamental limitation? .
It is not a matter of combination. Only creativity is possible
in putting into play of a system of rules; it is not a mixture of
order and freedom.
Where perhaps I don't completely agree with Mr. Chomsky, is
when he places the principle of these regularities, in a way, in
the interior of the mind or of human nature.
If it is a matter of whether these rules are effectively put
to work by the human mind, all right; all right, too, if it is a
question of whether the historian and the linguist can think it
in their turn; it is all right also to say that these rules
should allow us to realise what is said or thought by these
individuals. But to say that these regularities are connected, as
conditions of existence, to the human mind or its nature, is
difficult for me to accept: it seems to me that one must, before
reaching that point-and in any case I am talking only about the
understanding-replace it in the field of other human practices,
such as economics, technology, politics, sociology, which can
serve them as conditions of formation, of models, of place, of
apparition, etc. I would like to know whether one cannot discover
the system of regularity, of constraint, which makes science
possible, somewhere else, even outside the human mind, in social
forms, in the relations of production, in the class struggles,
For example, the fact that at a certain time madness became an
object for scientific study, and an object of knowledge in the
West, seems to me to be linked to a particular economic and
Perhaps the point of difference between Mr. Chomsky and
myself is that when he speaks of science he probably thinks of
the formal organisation of knowledge, whereas I am speaking of
knowledge itself, that is to say, I think of the content of
various knowledges which is dispersed into a particular society,
permeates through that society, and asserts itself as the
foundation for education, for theories, for practices, etc.
But what does this theory of knowledge mean for your theme of
the death of man or the end of the period of the
But this doesn't have any relation to what we are talking
I don't know, because I was trying to apply what you have said
to your anthropological notion. You have already refused to speak
about your own creativity and freedom, haven't you? Well, I'm
wondering what are the psychological reasons for this.
[Protesting.] Well, you can wonder about it, but I can't help
I am not wondering about it.
But what are the objective reasons, in relation to your
conception of understanding, of knowledge, of science, for
refusing to answer these personal questions?
When there is a problem for you to answer, what are your
reasons for making a problem out of a personal question?
No, I'm not making a problem out of a personal question; I
make of a personal question an absence of a problem.
Let me take a very simple example, which I will not analyse,
but which is this: How was it possible that men began, at the end
of the eighteenth century, for the first time in the history of
Western thought and of Western knowledge, to open up the corpses
of people in order to know what was the source, the origin, the
anatomical needle, of the particular malady which was responsible
for their deaths?
The idea seems simple enough. Well, four or five thousand
years of medicine in the West were needed before we had the idea
of looking for the cause of the malady in the lesion of a
If you tried to explain this by the personality of Bichat, I
believe that would be without interest. If, on the contrary, you
tried to establish the place of disease and of death in society
at the end of the eighteenth century, and what interest
industrial society effectively had in quadrupling the entire
population in order to expand and develop itself, as a result of
which medical surveys of society were made, big hospitals were
opened, etc.; if you tried to find out how medical knowledge
became institutionalised in that period, how its relations with
other kinds of knowledge were ordered, well, then you could see
how the relationship between disease, the hospitalised, ill
person, the corpse, and pathological anatomy were made
Here is, I believe, a form of analysis which I don't say is
new, but which in any case has been much too neglected; and
personal events have almost nothing to do with it.
Yes, but nevertheless it would have been very interesting for
us to know a little bit more about your arguments to refute
Could you, Mr. Chomsky-and as far as I'm concerned, it's my
last question about this philosophical part of the debate-give
your ideas about, for example, the way the social sciences are
working? I'm thinking here especially about your severe attacks
on behaviourism. And perhaps you could even explain a little the
way Mr. Foucault is now working in a more or less behaviouristic
way. [Both philosophers laugh.]
I would like to depart from your injunction very briefly, just
to make one comment about what Mr. Foucault just said.
I think that illustrates very nicely the way in which we're
digging into the mountain from opposite directions, to use your
original image. That is, I think that an act of scientific
creation depends on two facts: one, some intrinsic property of
the mind, another, some set of social and intellectual conditions
that exist. And it is not a question, as I see it, of which of
these we should study; rather we will understand scientific
discovery, and similarly any other kind of discovery, when we
know what these factors are and can therefore explain how they
interact in a particular fashion.
My particular interest, in this connection at least, is with
the intrinsic capacities of the mind; yours, as you say, is in
the particular arrangement of social and economic and other
But I don't believe that difference is connected to our
characters-because at this moment it would make Mr. Elders right,
and he must not be right.
No, I agree, and...
It's connected to the state of knowledge, of knowing, in which
we are working. The linguistics with which you have been
familiar, and which you have succeeded in transforming, excluded
the importance of the creative subject, of the creative speaking
subject; while the history of science such as it existed when
people of my generation were starting to work, on the contrary,
exalted individual creativity. .
...and put aside these collective rules.
Yes, please go on.
It goes a bit back in your discussion, but what I should like
to know, Mr. Chomsky, is this: you suppose a basic system of what
must be in a way elementary limitations that are present in what
you call human nature; to what extent do you think these are
subject to historical change? Do you think, for instance, that
they have changed substantially since, let's say, the seventeenth
century? In that case, you could perhaps connect this with the
ideas of Mr. Foucault?
Well, I think that as a matter of biological and
anthropological fact, the nature of human intelligence certainly
has not changed in any substantial way, at least since the
seventeenth century, or probably since Cro-Magnon man. That is, I
think that the fundamental properties of our intelligence, those
that are within the domain of what we are discussing tonight, are
certainly very ancient; and that if you took a man from five
thousand or maybe twenty thousand years ago, and placed him as a
child within today's society, he would learn what everyone else
learns, and he would be a genius or a fool or something else, but
he wouldn't be fundamentally different.
But, of course, the level of acquired knowledge changes,
social conditions change-those conditions that permit a person to
think freely and break through the bonds of, let's say,
superstitious constraint. And as those conditions change, a given
human intelligence will progress to new forms of creation. In
fact this relates very closely to the last question that Mr.
Elders put, if I can perhaps say a word about that.
Take behavioural science, and think of it in these contexts.
It seems to me that the fundamental property of behaviourism,
which is in a way suggested by the odd term behavioural science,
is that it is a negation of the possibility of developing a
scientific theory. That is, what defines behaviourism is the very
curious and self-destructive assumption that you are not
permitted to create an interesting theory.
If physics, for example, had made the assumption that you have
to keep to phenomena and their arrangement and such things, we
would be doing Babylonian astronomy today. Fortunately physicists
never made this ridiculous, extraneous assumption, which has its
own historical reasons and had to do with all sorts of curious
facts about the historical context in which behaviourism
But looking at it purely intellectually, behaviourism is the
arbitrary insistence that one must not create a scientific theory
of human behaviour; rather one must deal directly with phenomena
and their interrelation, and no more something which is totally
impossible in any other domain, and I assume impossible in the
domain of human intelligence or human behaviour as well. So in
this sense I don't think that behaviourism is a science. Here is
a case in point of just the kind of thing that you mentioned and
that Mr. Foucault is discussing: under certain historical
circumstances, for example those in which experimental psychology
developed, it was-for some reason which I won't go
into-interesting and maybe important to impose some very strange
limitations on the kind of scientific theory construction that
was permitted, and those very strange limitations are known as
behaviourism. Well, it has long since run its course, I think.
Whatever value it may have had in 1880, it has no function today
except constraining and limiting scientific inquiry and should
therefore simply be dispensed with, in the same way one would
dispense with a physicist who said: you're not allowed to develop
a general physical theory, you're only allowed to plot the
motions of the planets and make up more epicycles and so on and
so forth. One forgets about that and puts it aside. Similarly one
should put aside the very curious restrictions that define
behaviourism; restrictions which are, as I said before, very much
suggested by the term behavioural science itself.
We can agree, perhaps, that behaviour in some broad sense
constitutes the data for the science of man. But to define a
science by its data would be to define physics as the theory of
meter-readings. And if a physicist were to say: yes, I'm involved
in meter-reading science, we could be pretty sure that he was not
going to get very far. They might talk about meter-readings and
correlations between them and such things, but they wouldn't ever
create physical theory.
And so the term itself is symptomatic of the disease in this
case. We should understand the historical context in which these
curious limitations developed, and having understood them, I
believe, discard them and proceed in the science of man as we
would in any other domain, that is by discarding entirely
behaviourism and in fact, in my view, the entire empiricist
tradition from which it evolved.
So you are not willing to link your theory about innate
limitations, with Mr. Foucault's theory of the "grille". There
might be a certain connection. You see, Mr. Foucault says that an
upsurge of creativity in a certain direction automatically
removes knowledge in another direction, by a system of "grilles".
Well, if you had a changing system of limitations, this might be
Well, the reason for what he describes, I think, is different.
Again, I'm oversimplifying. We have more possible sciences
available intellectually. When we try out those intellectual
constructions in a changing world of fact, we will not find
cumulative growth. What we will find are strange leaps: here is a
domain of phenomena, a certain science applies very nicely; now
slightly broaden the range of phenomena, then another science,
which is very different, happens to apply very beautifully,
perhaps leaving out some of these other phenomena. Okay, that's
scientific progress and that leads to the omission or forgetting
of certain domains. But I think the reason for this is precisely
this set of principles, which unfortunately, we don't know, which
makes the whole discussion rather abstract, which defines for us
what is a possible intellectual structure, a possible
deep-science, if you like.
Well, let's move over now to the second part of the
discussion, to politics. First of all I would like to ask Mr.
Foucault why he is so interested in politics, because he told me
that in fact he likes politics much more than philosophy.
I've never concerned myself, in any case, with philosophy. But
that is not a problem. [He laughs.)
Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I
were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn't I
be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness,
what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent
me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial
subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we
live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the
system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular
permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our
life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the
society in which we find ourselves.
So I can't answer the question of why I should be interested;
I could only answer it by asking why shouldn't I be
You are obliged to be interested, isn't that so?
Yes, at least, there isn't anything odd here which is worth
question or answer. Not to be interested in politics, that's what
constitutes a problem. So instead of asking me, you should ask
someone who is not interested in politics and then your question
would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say "Why,
damn it, are you not interested?" [They lau8h and the audience
Well, yes, perhaps. Mr. Chomsky, we are all very interested to
know your political objectives, especially in relation to your
well-known anarcho-syndicalism or, as you formulated it,
libertarian socialism. What are the most important goals of your
I'll overcome the urge to answer the earlier very interesting
question that you asked me and turn to this one.
Let me begin by referring to something that we have already
discussed, that is, if it is correct, as I believe it is, that a
fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative
work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the
arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of
course, it will follow that a decent society should maximise the
possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be
realised. That means trying to overcome the elements of
repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist
in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical
Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic
control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership
of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any
such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavour, can
be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for
subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defence
against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot
be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and
And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced
societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where
meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the
marginal extent that it's necessary, can be shared among the
population; where centralised autocratic control of, in the first
place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private
capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of
state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a
destructive vestige of history.
They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated
in favour of direct participation in the form of workers'
councils or other free associations that individuals will
constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence
and their productive labour.
Now a federated, decentralised system of free associations,
incorporating economic as well as other social institutions,
would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to
me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for
an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not
have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the
machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings
to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process;
that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of
freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I
consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to
realise itself in whatever way it will.
And again, like Mr. Foucault, I don't see how any human being
can fail to be interested in this question. [Foucault
Do you believe, Mr. Foucault, that we can call our societies
in anyway democratic, after listening to this statement from Mr.
No, I don't have the least belief that one could consider our
society democratic. [Laughs.]
If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of
power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically
ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from
democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime
of a dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes
itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence
are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree, there
isn't any question of democracy for us.
Well. When you asked me why I was interested in politics, I
refused to answer because it seemed evident to me, but perhaps
your question was: How am I interested in it?
And had you asked me that question, and in a certain sense I
could say you have, I would say to you that I am much less
advanced in my way; I go much less far than Mr. Chomsky. That is
to say that I admit to not being able to define, nor for even
stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the
functioning of our scientific or technological society.
On the other hand, one of the tasks that seems immediate and
urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we
should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the
relationships of political power which actually control the
social body and oppress or repress it.
What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in
European society, to consider that power is localised in the
hands of the government and that it is exercised through a
certain number of particular institutions, such as the
administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the
state. One knows that all these institutions are made to
elaborate and to transmit a certain number of decisions, in the
name of the nation or of the state, to have them applied and to
punish those who don't obey. But I believe that political power
also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number
of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with
the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while
they are not.
One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that
the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which
appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a
certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of
power of another social class.
Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as
medicine, also help to support the political power. It's also
obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related
It seems to me that the real political task in a society such
as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which
appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and
attack them in such a manner that the political violence which
has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be
unmasked, so that one can fight against them.
This critique and this fight seem essential to me for
different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much
deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible,
little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true
solidity is perhaps where one doesn't expect it. Probably it's
insufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the
apparatus of the State, there is the dominant class; one must
locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its
domination is exercised. And because this domination is not
simply the expression in political terms of economic
exploitation, it is its instrument and, to a large extent, the
condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is
achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well,
if one fails to recognise these points of support of class power,
one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this
class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent
Yes, I would certainly agree with that, not only in theory but
also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one,
and the one that I was discussing, is to try to create the vision
of a future just society; that is to create, if you like, a
humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm
and humane concept of the human essence or human nature. That's
Another task is to understand very clearly the nature of power
and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And
that certainly includes the institutions you mentioned, as well
as the central institutions of any industrial society, namely the
economic, commercial and financial institutions and in
particular, in the coming period, the great multi-national
corporations, which are not very far from us physically tonight
[i.e. Philips at Eindhoven].
Those are the basic institutions of oppression and coercion
and autocratic rule that appear to be neutral despite everything
they say: well, we're subject to the democracy of the market
place, and that must be understood precisely in terms of their
autocratic power, including the particular form of autocratic
control that comes from the domination of market forces in an
Surely we must understand these facts, and not only understand
them but combat them. And in fact, as far as one's own political
involvements are concerned, in which one spends the majority of
one's energy and effort, it seems to me that they must certainly
be in that area. I don't want to get personal about it, but my
own certainly are in that area, and I assume everyone's
Still, I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely
the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to
draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives
full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other
fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some
notion of social structure in which those properties could be
realised and in which meaningful human life could take
And in fact, if we are thinking of social transformation or
social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try
to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach,
still we should know something about where we think we are going,
and such a theory may tell it to us.
Yes, but then isn't there a danger here? If you say that a
certain human nature exists, that this human nature has not been
given in actual society the rights and the possibilities which
allow it to realise itself...that's really what you have said, I
And if one admits that, doesn't one risk defining this human
nature which is at the same time ideal and real, and has been
hidden and repressed until now - in terms borrowed from our
society, from our civilisation, from our culture?
I will take an example by greatly simplifying it. The
socialism of a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth
century, and the beginning of the twentieth century, admitted in
effect that in capitalist societies man hadn't realised the full
potential for his development and self-realisation; that human
nature was effectively alienated in the capitalist system. And it
dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature.
What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually
realise that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois
It considered that an alienated society was a society which,
for example, gave pride of place to the benefit of all, to a
sexuality of a bourgeois type, to a family of a bourgeois type,
to an aesthetic of a bourgeois type. And it is moreover very true
that this has happened in the Soviet Union and in the popular
democracies: a kind of society has been reconstituted which has
been transposed from the bourgeois society of the nineteenth
century. The universalisation of the model of the bourgeois has
been the utopia which has animated the constitution of Soviet
The result is that you too realised, I think, that it is
difficult to say exactly what human nature is.
Isn't there a risk that we will be led into error? Mao
Tse-Tung spoke of bourgeois human nature and proletarian human
nature, and he considers that they are not the same thing.
Well, you see, I think that in the intellectual domain of
political action, that is the domain of trying to construct a
vision of a just and free society on the basis of some notion of
human nature, we face the very same problem that we face in
immediate political action, namely, that of being impelled to do
something, because the problems are so great, and yet knowing
that whatever we do is on the basis of a very partial
understanding of the social realities, and the human realities in
For example, to be quite concrete, a lot of my own activity
really has to do with the Vietnam War, and some of my own energy
goes into civil disobedience. Well, civil disobedience in the
U.S. is an action undertaken in the face of considerable
uncertainties about its effects. For example, it threatens the
social order in ways which might, one might argue, bring about
fascism; and that would be a very bad thing for America, for
Vietnam, for Holland and for everyone else. You know, if a great
Leviathan like the United States were really to become fascist, a
lot of problems would result; so that is one danger in
undertaking this concrete act.
On the other hand there is a great danger in not undertaking
it, namely, if you don't undertake it, the society of Indo-China
will be torn to shreds by American power. In the face of these
uncertainties one has to choose a course of action.
Well, similarly in the intellectual domain, one is faced with
the uncertainties that you correctly pose. Our concept of human
nature is certainly limited; it's partially socially conditioned,
constrained by our own character defects and the limitations of
the intellectual culture in which we exist. Yet at the same time
it is of critical importance that we know what impossible goals
we're trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the
possible goals. And that means that we have to be bold enough to
speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial
knowledge, while remaining very open to the strong possibility,
and in fact overwhelming probability, that at least in some
respects we're very far off the mark.
Well, perhaps it would be interesting to delve a little deeper
into this problem of strategy. I suppose that what you call civil
disobedience is probably the same as what we call
No, I think it goes beyond that.
Extra-parliamentary action would include, let's say, a mass
legal demonstration, but civil disobedience is narrower than all
extra-parliamentary action, in that it means direct defiance of
what is alleged, incorrectly in my view, by the state to be
So, for example, in the case of Holland, we had something like
a population census. One was obliged to answer questions on
official forms. You would call it civil disobedience if one
refused to fill in the forms?
Right. I would be a little bit careful about that, because,
going back to a very important point that Mr. Foucault made, one
does not necessarily allow the state to define what is legal. Now
the state has the power to enforce a certain concept of what is
legal, but power doesn't imply justice or even correctness, so
that the state may define something as civil disobedience and may
be wrong in doing so.
For example, in the United States the state defines it as
civil disobedience to, let's say, derail an ammunition train
that's going to Vietnam; and the state is wrong in defining that
as civil disobedience, because it's legal and proper and should
be done. It's proper to carry out actions that will prevent the
criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a
traffic ordinance in order to prevent a murder.
If I had stopped my car in front of a traffic light which was
red, and then I drove through the red traffic light to prevent
somebody from, let's say, machine-gunning a group of people, of
course that's not an illegal act, it's an appropriate and proper
action; no sane judge would convict you for such an action.
Similarly, a good deal of what the state authorities define as
civil disobedience is not really civil disobedience: in fact,
it's legal, obligatory behaviour in violation of the commands of
the state, which may or may not be legal commands.
So one has to be rather careful about calling things illegal,
Yes, but I would like to ask you a question. When, in the
United States, you commit an illegal act, do you justify it in
terms of justice or of a superior legality, or do you justify it
by the necessity of the class struggle, which is at the present
time essential for the proletariat in their struggle against the
Well, here I would like to take the point of view which is
taken by the American Supreme Court and probably other courts in
such circumstances; that is, to try to settle the issue on the
narrowest possible grounds. I would think that ultimately it
would make very good sense, in many cases, to act against the
legal institutions of a given society, if in so doing you're
striking at the sources of power and oppression in that
However, to a very large extent existing law represents
certain human values, which are decent human values; and existing
law, correctly interpreted, permits much of what the state
commands you not to do. And I think it's important to exploit the
...it's important to exploit the areas of law which are
properly formulated and then perhaps to act directly against
those areas of law which simply ratify some system of
But, but, I, I...
Let me get...
My question, my question was this: when you commit a clearly
...which I regard as illegal, not just the state.
No, no, well, the state's...
...that the state regards as illegal...
...that the state considers as illegal.
Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or
because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary ? Do you
refer to ideal justice, that's my problem.
Again, very often when I do something which the state regards
as illegal, I regard it as legal : that is, I regard the state as
criminal. But in some instances that's not true. Let me be quite
concrete about it and move from the area of class war to
imperialist war, where the situation is somewhat clearer and
Take international law, a very weak instrument as we know, but
nevertheless one that incorporates some very interesting
principles. Well, international law is, in many respects, the
instrument of the powerful : it is a creation of states and their
representatives. In developing the presently existing body of
international law, there was no participation by mass movements
The structure of international law reflects that fact; that
is, international law permits much too wide a range of forceful
intervention in support of existing power structures that define
themselves as states against the interests of masses of people
who happen to be organised in opposition to states.
Now that's a fundamental defect of international law and I
think one is justified in opposing that aspect of international
law as having no validity, as having no more validity than the
divine right of kings. It's simply an instrument of the powerful
to retain their power.
But, in fact, international law is not solely of that kind.
And in fact there are interesting elements of international law,
for example, embedded in the Nuremberg principles and the United
Nations Charter, which permit, in fact, I believe, require the
citizen to act against his own state in ways which the state will
falsely regard as criminal. Nevertheless, he's acting legally,
because international law also happens to prohibit the threat or
use of force in international affairs, except under some very
narrow circumstances, of which, for example, the war in Vietnam
is not one. This means that in the particular case of the Vietnam
War, which interests me most, the American state is acting in a
criminal capacity. And the people have the right to stop
criminals from committing murder. Just because the criminal
happens to call your action illegal when you try to stop him, it
doesn't mean it is illegal.
A perfectly clear case of that is the present case of the
Pentagon Papers in the United States, which, I suppose, you know
Reduced to its essentials and forgetting legalisms, what is
happening is that the state is trying to prosecute people for
exposing its crimes. That's what it amounts to.
Now, obviously that's absurd, and one must pay no attention
whatsoever to that distortion of any reasonable judicial process.
Furthermore, I think that the existing system of law even
explains why it is absurd. But if it didn't, we would then have
to oppose that system of law.
So it is in the name of a purer justice that you criticise the
functioning of justice ?
There is an important question for us here. It is true that
in all social struggles, there is a question of "justice". To put
it more precisely, the fight against class justice, against its
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 present time in
France the function of justice and the police is the target of
many attacks from those whom we call the "gauchistes". But if
justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of
power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or
another society, people will be rewarded according to their
merits, or punished according to their faults. Rather than
thinking of the social struggle in terms of "justice", one has to
emphasise justice in terms of the social struggle.
Yeah, but surely you believe that your role in the war is a
just role, that you are fighting a just war, to bring in a
concept from another domain. And that, I think, is important. If
you thought that you were fighting an unjust war, you couldn't
follow that line of reasoning.
I would like to slightly reformulate what you said. It seems
to me that the difference isn't between legality and ideal
justice; it's rather between legality and better justice.
I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a
system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create
an ideal society in our minds. We don't know enough and we're too
limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are
in a position-and we must act as sensitive and responsible human
beings in that position to imagine and move towards the creation
of a better society and also a better system of justice. Now this
better system will certainly have its defects. But if one
compares the better system with the existing system, without
being confused into thinking that our better system is the ideal
system, we can then argue, I think, as follows :
The concept of legality and the concept of justice are not
identical; they're not entirely distinct either. Insofar as
legality incorporates justice in this sense of better justice,
referring to a better society, then we should follow and obey the
law, and force the state to obey the law and force the great
corporations to obey the law, and force the police to obey the
law, if we have the power to do so.
Of course, in those areas where the legal system happens to
represent not better justice, but rather the techniques of
oppression that have been codified in a particular autocratic
system, well, then a reasonable human being should disregard and
oppose them, at least in principle; he may not, for some reason,
do it in fact.
But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in
which you said that if you didn't consider the war you make
against the police to be just, you wouldn't make it.
I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that
the 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.
Yeah, I don't agree.
One makes war to win, not because it is just.
I don't, personally, agree with that.
For example, if I could convince myself that attainment of
power by the proletariat would lead to a terrorist police state,
in which freedom and dignity and decent human relations would be
destroyed, then I wouldn't want the proletariat to take power. In
fact the only reason for wanting any such thing, I believe, is
because one thinks, rightly or wrongly, that some fundamental
human values will be achieved by that transfer of power.
When the proletariat takes power, 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.
But if you ask me what would be the case if the proletariat
exerted bloody, tyrannical and unjust power towards itself, then
I would say that this could only occur if the proletariat hadn't
really taken power, but that a class outside the proletariat, a
group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy or petit
bourgeois elements had taken power.
Well, I'm not at all satisfied with that theory of revolution
for a lot of reasons, historical and others. But even if one were
to accept it for the sake of argument, still that theory
maintains that it is proper for the proletariat to take power and
exercise it in a violent and bloody and unjust fashion, because
it is claimed, and in my opinion falsely, that that will lead to
a more just society, in which the state will wither away, in
which the proletariat will be a universal class and so on and so
forth. If it weren't for that future justification, the concept
of a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat would
certainly be unjust. Now this is another issue, but I'm very
sceptical about the idea of a violent and bloody dictatorship of
the proletariat, especially when expressed by self-appointed
representatives of a vanguard party, who, we have enough
historical experience to know and might have predicted in
advance, will simply be the new rulers over this society.
Yes, but I haven't been talking about the power of the
proletariat, which in itself would be an unjust power; you are
right in saying that this would obviously be too easy. I would
like to say that the power of the proletariat could, in a certain
period, imply violence and a prolonged war against a social class
over which its triumph or victory was not yet totally
Well, look, I'm not saying there is an absolute.. . For
example, I am not a committed pacifist. I would not hold that it
is under all imaginable circumstances wrong to use violence, even
though use of violence is in some sense unjust. I believe that
one has to estimate relative justices.
But the use of violence and the creation of some degree of
injustice can only be justified on the basis of the claim and the
assessment-which always ought to be undertaken very, very
seriously and with a good deal of scepticism that this violence
is being exercised because a more just result is going to be
achieved. If it does not have such a grounding, it is really
totally immoral, in my opinion.
I don't think that as far as the aim which the proletariat
proposes for itself in leading a class struggle is concerned, it
would be sufficient to say that it is in itself a greater
justice. What the proletariat will achieve by expelling the class
which is at present in power and by taking over power itself, is
precisely the suppression of the power of class in general.
Okay, but that's the further justification.
That is the justification, but one doesn't speak in terms of
justice but in terms of power.
But it is in terms of justice; it's because the end that will
be achieved is claimed as a just one.
No 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
The idea is-and for the reasons I mentioned I'm sceptical
about it-that a period of violent dictatorship, or perhaps
violent and bloody dictatorship, is justified because it will
mean the submergence and termination of class oppression, a
proper end to achieve in human life; it is because of that final
qualification that the whole enterprise might be justified.
Whether it is or not is another issue.
If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this; in
other words, it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is
an idea which in effect 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, in any case, the notion of justice
itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by
the oppressed class and as justification for it.
I don't agree with that.
And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still
use this notion of justice.
Well, here I really disagree. 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
I think it's too hasty to characterise our existing systems of
justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don't think that
they are that. I think that they embody systems of class
oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they
also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable
concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and
sympathy, which I think are real.
And I think that in any future society, which will, of course,
never be the perfect society, we'll have such concepts again,
which we hope, will come closer to incorporating a defence of
fundamental human needs, including such needs as those for
solidarity and sympathy and whatever, but will probably still
reflect in some manner the inequities and the elements of
oppression of the existing society.
However, I think what you're describing only holds for a very
different kind of situation.
For example, let's take a case of national conflict. Here are
two societies, each trying to destroy the other. No question of
justice arises. The only question that arises is which side are
you on ? Are you going to defend your own society and destroy the
I mean, in a certain sense, abstracting away from a lot of
historical problems, that's what faced the soldiers who were
massacring each other in the trenches in the First World War.
They were fighting for nothing. They were fighting for the right
to destroy each other. And in that kind of circumstance no
questions of justice arise.
And of course there were rational people, most of them in
jail, like Karl Liebknecht, for example, who pointed that out and
were in jail because they did so, or Bertrand Russell, to take
another example on the other side. There were people who
understood that there was no point to that mutual massacre in
terms of any sort of justice and that they ought to just call it
Now those people were regarded as madmen or lunatics and
criminals or whatever, but of course they were the only sane
And in such a circumstance, the kind that you describe, where
there is no question of justice, just the question of who's going
to win a struggle to the death, then I think the proper human
reaction is : call it off, don't win either way, try to stop
it-and of course if you say that, you'll immediately be thrown in
jail or killed or something of that sort, the fate of a lot of
But I don't think that's the typical situation in human
affairs, and I don't think that's the situation in the case of
class-conflict or social revolution. There I think that one can
and must give an argument, if you can't give an argument you
should extract yourself from the struggle. Give an argument that
the social revolution that you're trying to achieve is in the
ends of justice, is in the ends of realising fundamental human
needs, not merely in the ends of putting some other group into
power, because they want it.
Well, do I have time to answer ?
How much ? Because. . .
Two minutes. [Foucault laughs.]
But I would say that that is unjust. [Everybody laughs.]
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. That's the
Mr. Foucault, if you were obliged to describe our actual
society in pathological terms, which of its kinds of madness
would most impress you ?
In our contemporary society?
If I were to say with which malady contemporary society is
most afflicted ?
The definition of disease and of the insane, and the
classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to
exclude from our society a certain number of people. If our
society characterised itself as insane, it would exclude itself.
It pretends to do so for reasons of internal reform. Nobody is
more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern
world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in
fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain
patterns of behaviour.
So I don't think that one can, except as a metaphor or a game,
validly say that our society is schizophrenic or paranoid, unless
one gives these words a non-psychiatric meaning. But if you were
to push me to an extreme, I would say that our society has been
afflicted by a disease, a very curious, a very paradoxical
disease, for which we haven't yet found a name; and this mental
disease has a very curious symptom, which is that the symptom
itself brought the mental disease into being. There you have
Great. Well, I think we can immediately start the
Mr. Chomsky, I would like to ask you one question. In your
discussion you used the term "proletariat"; what do you mean by
"proletariat" in a highly developed technological society ? I
think this is a Marxist notion, which doesn't represent the exact
sociological state of affairs.
Yes, I think you are right, and that is one of the reasons why
I kept hedging on that issue and saying I'm very sceptical about
the whole idea, because I think the notion of a proletariat, if
we want to use it, has to be given a new interpretation fitting
to our present social conditions. Really, I'd even like to drop
the word, since it's so loaded with specific historical
connotations, and think instead of the people who do the
productive work of the society, manual and intellectual work. I
think those people should be in a position to organise the
conditions of their work, and to determine the ends of their work
and the uses to which it's put; and, because of my concept of
human nature, I really think of that as partially including
everyone. Because I think that any human being who is not
physically or mentally deformed-and here I again must disagree
with Monsieur Foucault and express my belief that the concept of
mental illness probably does have an absolute character, to some
extent at least-is not only capable of, but is insistent upon
doing productive, creative work, if given the opportunity to do
I've never seen a child who didn't want to build something
out of blocks, or learn something new, or try the next task. And
the only reason why adults aren't like that is, I suppose, that
they have been sent to school and other oppressive institutions,
which have driven that out of them.
Now if that's the case, then the proletariat, or whatever you
want to call it, can really be universal, that is, it can be all
those human beings who are impelled by what I believe to be the
fundamental human need to be yourself, which means to be
creative, to be exploratory, to be inquisitive. . .
May I interrupt ?
. . to do useful things, you know.
If you use such a category, which has another meaning in
That's why I say maybe we ought to drop the concept.
Wouldn't you do better to use another term ? In this situation
I would like to ask another question : which groups, do you
think, will make the revolution?
Yes, that's a different question.
It's an irony of history that at this moment young
intellectuals, coming from the middle and upper classes, call
themselves proletarians and say we must join the proletarians.
But I don't see any class-conscious proletarians. And that's the
Okay. Now I think you're asking a concrete and specific
question, and a very reasonable one.
It is not true in our given society that all people are doing
useful, productive work, or self-satisfying work-obviously that's
very far from true - or that, if they were to do the kind of work
they're doing under conditions of freedom, it would thereby
become productive and satisfying.
Rather there are a very large number of people who are
involved in other kinds of work. For example, the people who are
involved in the management of exploitation, or the people who are
involved in the creation of artificial consumption, or the people
who are involved in the creation of mechanisms of destruction and
oppression, or the people who are simply not given any place in a
stagnating industrial economy. Lots of people are excluded from
the possibility of productive labour.
And I think that the revolution, if you like, should be in the
name of all human beings; but it will have to be conducted by
certain categories of human beings, and those will be, I think,
the human beings who really are involved in the productive work
of society. Now what this is will differ, depending upon the
society. In our society it includes, I think, intellectual
workers; it includes a spectrum of people that runs from manual
labourers to skilled workers, to engineers, to scientists, to a
very large class of professionals, to many people in the
so-called service occupations, which really do constitute the
overwhelming mass of the population, at least in the United
States, and I suppose probably here too, and will become the mass
of the population in the future.
And so I think that the student-revolutionaries, if you like,
have a point, a partial point : that is to say, it's a very
important thing in a modern advanced industrial society how the
trained intelligentsia identifies itself. It's very important to
ask whether they are going to identify themselves as social
managers, whether they are going to be technocrats, or servants
of either the state or private power, or, alternatively, whether
they are going to identify themselves as part of the work force,
who happen to be doing intellectual labour.
If the latter, then they can and should play a decent role in
a progressive social revolution. If the former, then they're part
of the class of oppressors.
Yes, go on please.
I was struck, Mr. Chomsky, by what you said about the
intellectual necessity of creating new models of society. One of
the problems we have in doing this with student groups in Utrecht
is that we are looking for consistency of values. One of the
values you more or less mentioned is the necessity of
decentralisation of power. People on the spot should participate
That's the value of decentralisation and participation : but
on the other hand we're living in a society that makes it more
and more necessary--or seems to make it more and more
necessary-that decisions are made on a world-wide scale. And in
order to have, for example, a more equal distribution of welfare,
etc., it might be necessary to have more centralisation. These
problems should be solved on a higher level. Well, that's one of
the inconsistencies we found in creating your models of society,
and we should like to hear some of your ideas on it.
I've one small additional question--or rather a remark to make
to you. That is : how can you, with your very courageous attitude
towards the war in Vietnam, survive in an institution like MIT,
which is known here as one of the great war contractors and
intellectual makers of this war?
Well, let me answer the second question first, hoping that I
don't forget the first one. Oh, no, I'll try the first question
first; and then remind me if I forget the second.
In general, I am in favour of decentralisation. I wouldn't
want to make it an absolute principle, but the reason I would be
in favour of it, even though there certainly is, I think, a wide
margin of speculation here, is because I would imagine that in
general a system of centralised power will operate very
efficiently in the interest of the most powerful elements within
Now a system of decentralised power and free association will
of course face the problem, the specific problem that you
mention, of inequity-one region is richer than the other, etc.
But my own guess is that we're safer in trusting to what I hope
are the fundamental human emotions of sympathy and the search for
justice, which may arise within a system of free
I think we're safer in hoping for progress on the basis of
those human instincts than on the basis of the institutions of
centralised power, which, I believe, will almost inevitably act
in the interest of their most powerful components.
Now that's a little abstract and too general, and I wouldn't
want to claim that it's a rule for all occasions, but I think
it's a principle that's effective in a lot of occasions.
So, for example, I think that a democratic socialist
libertarian United States would be more likely to give
substantial aid to East Pakistani refugees than a system of
centralised power which is basically operating in the interest of
multinational corporations. And, you know, I think the same is
true in a lot of other cases. But it seems to me that that
principle, at least, deserves some thought.
As to the idea, which was perhaps lurking in your question
anyway-it's an idea that's often expressed-that there is some
technical imperative, some property of advanced technological
society that requires centralised power and decision-making-and a
lot of people say that, from Robert McNamara on down-as far as I
can see it's perfect nonsense, I've never seen any argument in
favour of it.
It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of
data-processing, or communication and so on, has precisely the
opposite implications. It implies that relevant information and
relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It
doesn't have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of
managers who control all knowledge, all information and all
decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it
has the property of being possibly liberating; it's converted,
like everything else, like the system of justice, into an
instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly
distributed. I don't think there is anything in modern technology
or modern technological society that leads away from
decentralisation of power, quite the contrary.
About the second point, there are two aspects to that : one is
the question how MIT tolerates me, and the other question is how
I tolerate MIT. [Laughter.]
Well, as to how MIT tolerates me, here again, I think, one
shouldn't be overly schematic. It's true that MIT is a major
institution of war-research. But it's also true that it embodies
very important libertarian values, which are, I think, quite
deeply embedded in American society, fortunately for the world.
They're not deeply embedded enough to save the Vietnamese, but
they are deeply embedded enough to prevent far worse
And here, I think, one has to qualify a bit. There is imperial
terror and aggression, there is exploitation, there is racism,
lots of things like that. But there is also a real concern,
coexisting with it, for individual rights of a sort which, for
example, are embodied in the Bill of Rights, which is by no means
simply an expression of class oppression. It is also an
expression of the necessity to defend the individual against
Now these things coexist. It's not that simple, it's not just
all bad or all good. And it's the particular balance in which
they coexist that makes an institute that produces weapons of war
be willing to tolerate, in fact, in many ways even encourage, a
person who is involved in civil disobedience against the
Now as to how I tolerate MIT, that raises another question.
There are people who argue, and I have never understood the logic
of this, that a radical ought to dissociate himself from
oppressive institutions. The logic of that argument is that Karl
Marx shouldn't have studied in the British Museum which, if
anything, was the symbol of the most vicious imperialism in the
world, the place where all the treasures an empire had gathered
from the rape of the colonies, were brought together.
But I think Karl Marx was quite right in studying in the
British Museum. He was right in using the resources and in fact
the liberal values of the civilisation that he was trying to
overcome, against it. And I think the same applies in this
But aren't you afraid that your presence at MIT gives them a
clean conscience ?
I don't see how, really. I mean, 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.
Is there another question ?
I would like to get back to the question of centralisation.
You said that technology does not contradict decentralisation.
But the problem is, can technology criticise itself, its
influences, and so forth ? Don't you think that it might be
necessary to have a central organisation that could criticise the
influence of technology on the whole universe ? And I don't see
how that could be incorporated in a small technological
Well, I have nothing against the interaction of federated free
associations; and in that sense centralisation, interaction,
communication, argument, debate, can take place, and so on and so
forth, and criticism, if you like. What I am talking about is the
centralisation of power.
But of course power is needed, for instance to forbid some
technological institutions from doing work that will only benefit
Yeah, but what I'm arguing is this : if we have the choice
between trusting in centralised power to make the right decision
in that matter, or trusting in free associations of libertarian
communities to make that decision, I would rather trust the
latter. And the reason is that I think that they can serve to
maximise decent human instincts, whereas a system of centralised
power will tend in a general way to maximise one of the worst of
human instincts, namely the instinct of rapaciousness, of
destructiveness, of accumulating power to oneself and destroying
others. It's a kind of instinct which does arise and functions in
certain historical circumstances, and I think we want to create
the kind of society where it is likely to be repressed and
replaced by other and more healthy instincts.
I hope you are right.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think this must be the end of
the debate. Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Foucault, I thank you very much for
your far-reaching discussion over the philosophical and
theoretical, as well as the political questions of the debate,
both for myself and also on behalf of the audience, here and at