Now online: the historic Chomsky-Foucault debate

by ROAR Collective on May 8, 2013

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Excerpts from the Foucault-Chomsky debate on human nature and power have circulated online for years — now it’s available in full for the first time.

In 1971, with the Vietnam war in full swing and radical social movements destabilizing the social, political and cultural order throughout the Western world, Dutch philosopher Fons Elders invited two of the world’s leading thinkers — the American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and the French social theorist Michel Foucault — to debate a thorny and perennial question: is there such a thing as an “innate” human nature, and if so, what are its implications for our ideas about power, justice, revolution, and the shape of the ideal human society?

The resulting dialogue has been described as one of the most original, provocative, and spontaneous exchanges to have occurred between contemporary philosophers, and above all serves as a concise introduction to their basic theories. What begins as a philosophical argument rooted in linguistics (Chomsky) and the theory of knowledge (Foucault), soon evolves into a broader discussion encompassing a wide range of topics, from science, history, and behaviorism to creativity, freedom, and the struggle for justice in the realm of politics.

In his book, The Passion of Michel Foucault, James Miller recounts that, while Chomsky and Foucault prepared for the debate in the preceding hours, “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, hat tip to Aphelis for this quote).

Excerpts from the video of the debate — which was broadcast on Dutch television — have been circulating online for many years, and a book with a (rather liberally) translated transcript of the discussion has been published and republished many times. More recently, however, a full video of the debate has surfaced, allowing a group of Dutch anarchists to assist in a new translation of the debate. Now that this project has been completed, we can finally share the first version of the full Chomsky-Foucault debate with English subtitles.

UPDATE 10/05/’13: We are terribly sad to announce that the YouTube video of the legendary Chomsky-Foucault debate has now been removed following a copyright claim by the New York-based distribution company Icarus Films. ROAR never claimed ownership over the video; we just helped to provide proper subtitles to a full version that had already been circulating online for months. Copies unrelated to ROAR are widely available on YouTube: we will not share those, but search and you will find. We have now published a statement here.

UPDATE 27/12/’13: A good copy of the full debate survived the purge earlier this year and can still be seen on YouTube. ROAR is not responsible for uploading this copy nor did we do the subtitles for this version:

Noam Chomsky (1928): linguist, historian, philosopher, critic and political activist. As the “father of the modern science of language” (linguistics), Chomsky focused on the issue of the innate versus the learned. Over the course of his career, Chomsky evolved into a major critic of US foreign policy (from Vietnam to South America and the Middle East) and the propaganda of the mass media. One of his major works is ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’, co-written with Edward S. Herman. Chomsky continues to write prolifically today.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984): French philosopher, social theorist, historian and literary critic. In his work, Foucault dealt with the issue of power and how it works in practice; how it influences knowledge; and how it is used as a form of social control. Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions such as psychiatry, social anthropology, the penitentiary system and the history of human sexuality. His works are still very influential in academic circles. One of Foucault’s major works is ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’.

Editor’s note: a file with subtitles translated and transcribed by Tamara van der Putten can be found here. By changing the .txt extension to .srt you can use the file to get proper subtitles for the debate, should you manage to find it online somewhere.


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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

RuralBoy May 9, 2013 at 00:03

The video you embedded doesn’t have the subtitles in it, FYI.


Jerome Roos May 9, 2013 at 00:06

Yes it does. If they don’t show up, just click the “captions” button at the bottom of the video.


Haris Heizanoglou May 9, 2013 at 00:24

I had been looking for a full version of this debate for years! Thank you!


Cris May 9, 2013 at 05:37

someone translate this to portuguese or spanish, please, it’s very important disseminate this interview in many languages as possible, thanks


Adam Ant May 9, 2013 at 05:46

this full video has been online for like 2 months on youtube already


Jerome Roos May 9, 2013 at 05:52

As we noted in the announcement, the full version of the debate surfaced a while ago and numerous versions have been uploaded on YouTube since. What’s different is that we took specific care to get a high-quality translation with proper, well-timed subtitles. In addition, this version includes the comments by the Dutch host, which have been cut out in some of the other versions (presumably because they couldn’t translate these parts).


myra landau May 9, 2013 at 09:44

congratulations! very, very good, very explicative,!


m.ilham mukmin May 9, 2013 at 09:56



Pepe May 9, 2013 at 11:18

Thank you from Spain for such a valuable effort. This new version, with the Dutch introducer and the whole transcript is a price jewel for the historic record of these two giants of phylosophy and political activism. It will help at making Spanish (or any other language) captions.
THANKS TO withDefiance and Tamara van der Putten


Pepe May 9, 2013 at 11:24

It´s a kind of suprise&pride that a group of anarchists in Holland (and not any TV station) had rescued this historic debate. THANKS


Lucy Graham May 9, 2013 at 18:12

thank you!!


consumedmind May 9, 2013 at 22:01

Would it be possible to get the subtitles emailed as an txt or srt file?
I would appreciate it very much!
Great job!!!


Bakunin May 10, 2013 at 02:17
consumedmind May 10, 2013 at 02:21



Cindy May 10, 2013 at 00:27

No captions button for subtitles


Mark H May 10, 2013 at 09:49

Yes there is.


Geoff Dean May 10, 2013 at 01:41

You can see the English transcript at


FatMountain May 10, 2013 at 09:08

It’s astonishing how much of an unrepentant, bloodthirsty Marcusian Marxist Foucault appears in this interview. In his historical works, this foundation of his thought is hidden beneath post-structuralist verbal fireworks and formidable scholarly detail. Here he sounds positively Leninist, which personally disgusts me. His glorification of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is repellent. Chomsky, on the other hand, comes across as the defender of pragmatism, only with its sights trained on the betterment of the human condition for all rather than getting and spending–a richly American approach to social justice. This is another shovelful of dirt on my college fascination with Foucault.


john doe May 10, 2013 at 16:24

Let’s all thank Icarus Films for spreading the knowledge by taking the video off youtube.. yay


Rafael May 10, 2013 at 17:57

Is there any other website where I can watch this video?


The Muser May 10, 2013 at 21:21

I found it here, not sure for how long it will remain available though :)


Bakunin May 10, 2013 at 21:41

the subtitles of the debate are available here:

just change the extension of the file from .txt to .srt and upload it to the captions section in youtube or any other website.


sean May 11, 2013 at 05:56

It’s already gone?!?! I didn’t even get to finish watching it :(


sean May 11, 2013 at 06:27
Merdeka May 18, 2013 at 17:35

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