Watch Noam Chomsky Attack Foucault’s ‘Regimes of Truth’ in 2011 Q&A


chomsky noam
Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT and vocal anarchist, has had quite a few feuds with French philosophers, including the likes of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek and Michel Foucault. Two years ago, Chomsky partook in a Q & A at the Théâtre National Raison on March 19, 2011 that continued this trend.

Chomsky begins by addressing the question of moral relativism, arguing that some variants of moral relativism are widely accepted and factually true. Chomsky points, in this case, to the existence of multiple moral systems across the globe.

But, for Chomsky, to claim that there is a universal horizon to human behavior unconstrained by basic moral principles is incoherent, as the very thought of morality entails constraints. He then goes on to argue multiple circumstances where power regimes changed and moral rules which were once set in stone were made undeniably better. He cites such examples as the repression of homosexuality, the subjugation of women and slavery. Chomsky differentiates this “factually true” moral relativism for the more extreme forms which he finds incoherent, citing specifically the work of Michel Foucault.  The argument isn’t too clear, and Chomsky continues to discuss the moral debate slave-owners had with Northern industrialist (most likely in reference to George Fitzhugh).

But then Chomsky proceeds to answer a question concerning Foucault’s idea of regimes of truth, attacking Foucault as someone who “wildly exaggerates” the influence of power in scientific discourse. This is the idea that what is portrayed as incontrovertible scientific fact is rather a product of specific power relations which produce that fact as truth. Instead, he argues,

I think Foucault wildly exaggerates. There’s kind of a truism which is not controversial that power systems have some effect on how scientific work proceeds so that it can be accepted and so on. At the extreme it’s Stalinist biology, there’s corporate influence on how drug trials are conducted, that’s true, there are professional constraints, I’ve lived through them in my entire life, when I started my work I couldn’t publish because it was too inconsistent with accepted ideas. In fact, the first book I wrote in 1955, it didn’t come out for 20 years. When it came out then it was submitted but rejected. When it came out later it was more a historical interest as the field had grown. But it’s marginal. There are self-correcting procedures in the sciences which work pretty well…not perfectly…but pretty well. So there is an element of power relations that enter into say, scientific work, to talk about regimes of power that seems to me to be radically overstating the case. Like moving from non-controversial moral relativism to incoherent moral relativism.

Watch the full video below, and as always, feel free to bitterly attack each other with ad hominems about whether Foucault or Chomsky is right (really, cut that shit out). The “regimes of truth” comments starts around 11:15.

[H/T Environmental Justice TV]

  • Dogma

    In this case, Chomsky is absolutely correct. Moral relativism is an artificial theoretical construct– (ironically the exact same type of artificial social construct Foucault aims to undermine).

    We are hardwired for moral values for no other reason than preservation of the species.

    (That’s not to say moral values are the same for everyone in every epoch. Obviously they are not– and Chomsky even acknowledges this. There is some variation, but not as much as Foucault suggests).

    • Gabriel Chase

      Definitely true. Even though ‘objective morality’ as such doesn’t exist (it wasn’t floating around since the Big Bang waiting for us to discover it), there are certain values we can uphold for the good of society and humanity as though they were universal.

      We do, however, need to take into account other people’s bases for morality. A lot of the world (my community, for example, is South Asian) places family and community obligations more highly than individual liberty, whereas we in the West focus more on autonomy.

    • Edward Calamia

      This totally begs the question. Why couldn’t someone just argue that biology is also an ‘artificial theoretical construct’ along with its ‘artificial’ notions like “species preservation”? This is not at all as obvious as you make it out to be.

      • Dogma

        The problematic word here being ‘artificial’. I get it.

        On the surface, yes, morality is almost always a social construct. Religions, laws, rules, social norms etc. are man-made (artificial). But their purpose – however dysfunctional – is survival of the social group, which is not so artificial.

        And yet I would say there exists a deeper morality (in our DNA? Soul??) – which I think Chomsky was arguing.

        Example: a dog will sometimes put himself in great danger to save his master.

        There is no nuanced language or relativism there; it’s Life or Death, Action or Non-Action. And the dog will often do the selfless thing.

        I agree with you though, life isn’t always this clear. But the notion that morality is JUST a social construct, as Foucault claims, is incorrect.

        • Cosmo

          Where does Foucault claim “morality is JUST a social construct”?

    • Magnus Pharao Hansen

      If humans are hardwired for moral values then what does that make Foucault? Maybe you think as Chomsky later suggested that he was “from a different species” or something? The idea that humans are hardwired for any morality is constantly contradicted by the facts of actual human behavior. or maybe the only thing we are hardwired for is hypocrisy. Even in that case then Foucault would be “less than human”.

  • Jesse Walters

    I’m not sure what Chomsky thinks this accomplishes. Foucault was always highly specific in his analyses. His ideas were meticulously traced through historical works, always tied to the specifics of particular texts. He wasn’t a Sartrean existentialist – moral ideas do not come from nowhere in Foucault’s work. They’re highly conditioned and historically specific. Just because he doesn’t use a neo-Kantian biologism to frame his work is no reason not to take it seriously. And, why is it so controversial to admit that sciences are disciplines? That they have a conditioning process in schools and universities that runs a lot deeper than corporate funding for research projects or the conservative nature of peer reviews.

    If Chomsky’s going to discuss Foucault’s work, why not actually discuss his work? This sort of anti-intellectual dismissive stance is all too prevalent, and disappointing coming from him.

  • Rudy

    Aknowledging a behavior as universally relevant based on its supposed social “efficiency” remains nonsense, you guys know it.
    Jesse is right obvs.

  • C C

    I think Chomsky wildly exaggerates. Foucault takes aim at the epistemic authority of the human sciences, it’s not exactly as if he’s questioning whether physics is a real discipline or whatever nonsense people try to ascribe to him. How are people complicit in their own subjugation, in which ways are people are routinized, categorized, and disciplined by power? These are questions Foucault would ask. To say he’s just an extreme moral relativist is just extremely lazy and misses some of the finer points that actually DO jeopardize Foucault’s project.