FOUCAULT: 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 realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, 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 point…

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature, New York: The New Press, 2006, pp. 57-58. In the video recording @ 1:03:04. Content of the transcript differs from the actual recording. See below for more information

• • •

[UPDATE–March 25, 2014] Lionel Claris has shared a 15-min video recording of a preparation interview conducted by Fons Elders with Michel Foucault, in preparation for the debate with Noam Chomsky: “The Lost Interview”. The recording, made in September 1971 in Paris, is mostly Foucault answering Elders’s question in French. Large, yellow English subtitles are burned-in over the original Dutch subtitles. Lionel Claris offers much more detailed information in the “About” section of the YouTube video. The transcription of the interview was edited into an e-book published in 2013: “Freedom and Knowledge”.

• • •

The video displayed above is a complete 1 hour 11 minutes video recording of the original television program titled “Menselijke Natuur En Ideale Maatschappij” (“Human Nature and Ideal Society”). It took place in November 1971 at the Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Nederlands, as part of the “International Philosophers Project” initiated by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation:

The Dutch Broadcasting Foundation in association with the International School of Philosophy at Amersfoort and the Institute of Extra-Mural Education at the University of Utrecht, invited Fons Elders to arrange and moderate a series of four hour-long television debates between some of the world’s most eminent thinkers: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault; Leszek Kolakowski and Henri Lefèbvre; Alfred Ayer and Arne Naess; John Eccles and Karl Popper. (Fons Elders: Projects)

The Chomsky-Foucault debate was therefore recorded and broadcast by the Dutch National Television. The complete video recording of the program includes opening credits, an introduction by Prof. L. W. Nauta, the entrance of Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, the debate itself moderated by Dutch philosopher Fons Elders, a period of discussion with the audience and end credits. It was uploaded by user withDefiance on Feb. 25, 2013. [UPDATE–May 3, 2013] A “Proper Subtitles” version with English subtitles for the Dutch and French parts was completed on May 3, 2013 (for more information about the translation, see ROAR Magazine: “Now online: the historic Chomsky-Foucault debate” by Tamara van der Putten, May 8, 2013). The video embedded above was updated accordingly.

It’s important to stress out two things. First, this is a complete recording of the television program and not of the debate itself. On the television program, the debate was interrupted by Prof. L. W. Nauta for commentary and parts were edited out. Therefore, large sections of the debate that appear in the transcript (which was first published by Fons Elders in 1974) are not included in the complete video recording of the television program. Second, as mentioned earlier, the transcript differs from the actual recording. It was revised by Michel Foucault and material was added. The text of the debate –all available published versions originate from the same source– does not represent an exact representation of what was said on air in 1971 (more below).

A short 12 min video excerpt of this debate had already been uploaded to YouTube a couple of years ago (it may have originated from the DVD edition of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media). This excerpt was reproduced by many users, sometimes cut in smaller parts (likely because of prior upload limits imposed by YouTube), and subtitled in a wide variety of languages (this video excerpt was also parodied: see “Chomsky-Foucault Debate in 5 seconds”). An animated version of the complete debate based on the transcript and using synthetic voices is also available. However, up until yesterday, the complete video recording was missing.

• • •

In an article published in 1999 in the journal Social Theory and Practice, Peter Wilkin introduces the debate in the following way:

In 1971, Dutch television held a series of interviews and discussions with noted intellectuals of the day to discuss a wide range of issues regarding contemporary social and philosophical affairs. Perhaps the most significant of these encounters was the meeting between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. It brought together arguably the two most prominent Western intellectual-activists of the day in a debate that illustrates clearly the lineage of thought within which each writer is situated. Nominally the discussion was in two parts: the first an examination of the origins or production of knowledge, with particular concern for the natural sciences, the second explicitly focused on the role and practice of oppositional politics within Western capitalist
democracies—in part a response to the unfolding Vietnam War. (“Chomsky and Foucault on human nature : an essential difference?” Social Theory & Practice, 25 (2), pp. 177-210)

Paul Rabinow also discussed the debate in the “Introduction” he wrote for the book The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 3-29).

The English transcription of the debate has appeared in at least three books and can also be found online. As far as I know, all transcripts originate form the one edited by Fons Elders in 1974 (there are differences between the transcript and the video recording: an example is provided below). The source for English transcripts are the following:

  • It was first published in Reflexive water: the basic concerns of mankind, edited by Fons Elders (London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1974, pp. 135-197). This book is a collection of four debates that were recorded for the Dutch National Television. Aside from the debate between Chomsky and Foucault, it also contains transcriptions of a discussion between Alfred Ayer and Arne Naess, between Sir Karl Popper and Sir John Eccles, and between Leszek Kolakowski and Henri Lefèbvre.

  • It’s included in Foucault And His Interlocutors edited by Arnold I. Davidson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 107-145).

  • Finally it was also published as a single book in 2006 with a foreword by John Rajchman: The Chomsky-Foucault Debate On Human Nature, New York: The New Press. The book also includes additional texts by Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky.

  • Online the complete English transcript is available at under the original English title “Human Nature: Justice versus Power”. A copy of the transcript that was published in 1974 is also available at CriminyJicket.

The French version of the transcript is also a translation of the one edited by Fons Elders. It was translated by Anne Rabinovitch and published by L’Herne (Paris) in 2007 as De la nature humaine : justice contre pouvoir. At the time of writing, this edition is out of print but used copies are available online.

As I pointed out, there are differences between the video recording and the transcript edited by Fons Elders. In his book The Passion of Michel Foucault, James Miller provides this explanation:

It is worth mentioning that Foucault’s remarks were revised for publication by Foucault himself; [Reflexive water: the basic concerns of mankind] is not a verbatim transcription (…) (Harbard University Press, [1993]2000, n.145, p 430)

For example, regarding the quote which opens this post, here’s an exact transcription in French of what Foucault said at the very end of the debate (prior to the discussion with the audience):

Non, mais je ne peux pas répondre en si peu de temps. Je dirais simplement ceci. Je ne peux pas m’empêcher, contrairement à ce que vous pensez, je ne peux pas m’empêcher de croire que cette notion de nature humaine, cette notion de bonté, de justice, d’essence humaine, de réalisation de l’essence humaine, tout ça ce sont des notions et des concepts qui ont été formés à l’intérieur de notre civilisation, dans notre type de savoir [etc…]

A whole part was added during the editing which does not appear in the recording. It starts just after Foucault’s remarks to the effect that he cannot answer “in so little time”:

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.

Another example is the question Fons Elders asks Foucault after this reply, just prior to the discussion with the audience :

Mr. Foucault, if you were obliged to describe our actual society in pathological terms, which of its kinds of madness would most impress you?

This question as well as Michel Foucault’s answer do not exist in the video recording of the debate, nor were they edited out: they were added, later, when the transcript was produced.

But perhaps the most colorful account of the debate comes from James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault. Miller’s account –drawn largely from an interview he did with Chomsky on January 16, 1990– starts with this introduction:

As Chomsky recalls, they met and spent several hours together before the program was taped, establishing some common ground despite the language barriers (Chomsky spoke little French, and Foucault was not yet as proficient in English as he would become). They exchanged political small talk, and discussed the Port-Royal grammarians, one of their shared scholarly interests.

But there were already signs that this was not going to be any ordinary debate. Hoping to puncture the prim sobriety of the Dutch audience, the program’s host, Fons Elders, a professed anarchist, had obtained a bright red wig, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Foucault to wear. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Chomsky, Foucault had received, in partial payment for his appearance, a large chunk of hashish, which for months afterwards, Foucault and his Parisian friends would jokingly refer to as the “Chomsky hash.” (Ibid., p. 201)

Still from the complete video recording of the Chomsky-Foucault debate that took place in 1971.
Still from the complete video recording of the Chomsky-Foucault debate that took place in 1971.

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