Mysterian

Jackson Lears

  • Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky
    MIT, 215 pp, £18.95, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 262 03424 1
  • Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky
    Penguin, 199 pp, £9.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 97248 9
  • What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky
    Columbia, 167 pp, £17.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 231 17596 8
  • Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky
    Hamish Hamilton, 307 pp, £18.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 18943 6
  • Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals by Neil Smith and Nicholas Allott
    Cambridge, 461 pp, £18.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 44267 2

In 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault faced off on Dutch television, or at least that’s what their host, Fons Elders, kept prodding them to do. They were discussing the idea of human nature, and though Elders knew they shared a left libertarian politics, he assumed they would have philosophical disagreements, that Chomsky would defend the idea of an essential human nature, rooted in biology, and that Foucault would dismiss it as a mere social construction. Yet the men kept agreeing with each other, until Chomsky said that violent resistance to illegitimate power could only be defended ‘in terms of justice … because the end that will be achieved is claimed as a just one.’ Foucault responded: ‘If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this … it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power.’ And Chomsky replied: ‘Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis – if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out – ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded.’

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