Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault

Via Aeon I came across this fascinating excerpt of a conversation held in 1971 between these two highly influential thinkers about social and political power structures and what we might seek to achieve through them.

From the Aeon description of the exchange:

In 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault met at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands for their first and only debate. Produced by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation as a part of their International Philosophers Project, the programme featured discussions with eminent thinkers on the topic of ‘human nature and ideal society’. In recent years, their debate – the fourth and final of the series – has been somewhat overshadowed by events surrounding it. Namely, it’s rumoured that the programme’s host, the Dutch philosopher Fons Elders, paid Foucault for his appearance in hashish, and repeatedly encouraged him to put on a bright red wig to spice up the proceedings.

However, the debate itself – seen here excerpted and translated by the YouTube channel Philosophy Overdose – has appeal beyond the pleasures of watching the provocative Foucault spar with the professorial Chomsky. With the Vietnam War near its height, Chomsky and Foucault agree that contemporary power structures need to be attacked and dismantled. However, while Chomsky advocates for a system of ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ rooted in justice, sympathy and human creativity, Foucault argues that these concepts are products of the same bourgeois system that needs replacing. Probing age-old philosophical questions as well as the politics of the moment, the interview offers a revealing glimpse of the divergent styles, attitudes and outlooks of two enduringly influential thinkers.


  1. says

    A fascinating meeting of intellectual giants. It’s too bad there’s no similar video of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sole meeting, which was said to have been fireworks.

    It’s also a damning statement on today’s notion of “debate” of hurling soundbites, where interrupting and outshouting the other person is the norm, even amongst those who might agree (re: the democrat debates).

  2. Mano Singham says


    You might enjoy the book Wittgenstein’s Poker that discusses the 1946 meeting at Cambridge University where apparently Wittgenstein picked up a poker from the fireplace to hit Popper with. It was the presence of the elder Bertrand Russell, whom they both respected and who was the real audience they were debating for, that resulted in no blows actually being inflicted.

    The actual details of the story, as all such stories tend to be, are a little murky. The meeting actually lasted for only about ten minutes.

    I totally agree with you about the quality of the Chomsky-Foucault debate. A genuine and enlightening exchange of idea.

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