Part one of PHILOSOPHERS: DEBATES AND DIALOGUES documents the now-legendary 1971 debate between two very different heroes of the intellectual Left: linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, and cultural theorist and historian of ideas Michel Foucault.
Brought together to discuss their divergent views on the concept of human nature, these two heavyweights trace arguments that resonant well into 21st century politics and thought. At the time, both thinkers were not only heroes within academia, but within the burgeoning counterculture as well, making this meeting one of the most important intellectual events of the early 1970s.
Working from his background in linguistics and his theory of a 'universal grammar', Chomsky posits a human nature premised on a structure of limitations and capabilities "built into the mind."
Foucault counters that our conception of these supposedly innate capacities is, by necessity, circumscribed by contemporary social forms. Behind Chomsky's political arguments, he sees lurking unspoken the notion of immovable ideals.
Chomsky appeals to such ideals in order to show how current political injustices run counter to universal human needs and capabilities. But this appeal, Foucault argues, actually limits our potential to achieve freedom because it posits present human tendencies as eternal and unchanging, preventing us from finding new ways to imagine social and political organization.
Foucault clearly relishes this debate - smiling, gnawing on his finger, waiting eagerly to jump back into the fray once Chomsky has made his point. While the two men have clearly divergent points of view, they also treat each other with restraint and respect.
Both thinkers agree on a view that the history of science does not simply consist in adding new knowledge to previous knowledge, but in examining problems from different perspectives and creating new frames of reference, but their disagreement on human nature has continued to define - implicitly and explicitly - the central tensions within the Left and within contemporary philosophy.