Sunday, April 19, 2015

Foucault on the History of Madness: A Critique

Foucault’s elaborate theories of madness, mental illness and the history of the asylum were expounded in the following works:
(1) Mental Illness and Psychology (1954; 2nd edn. 1962):
Foucault, Michel. 1954. Maladie mentale et personnalité (1st edn.). Presses universitaires de France, Paris.

Foucault, Michel. 1962. Maladie mentale et personnalité (2nd rev. edn.). Presses universitaires de France, Paris. Presses universitaires de France, Paris = Foucault, Michel. 1976. Mental Illness and Psychology (trans. Alan Sheridan). Harper and Row, New York.
(2) The Birth of the Clinic (1963):
Foucault, Michel. 1963. Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical . Presses universitaires de France, Paris. 212 p. = Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Birth of the Clinic (trans. Allan M. Sheridan). Pantheon, New York; and Foucault, Michel. 2003. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (trans. Allan M. Sheridan). Routledge, London. 266 p.
(3) Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961; abridged version 1964; new full edition 1972):
Foucault, Michel. 1961. Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age]. Plon, Paris. 673 p. (the best translation of this appears to be Foucault, Michel. 2006. History of Madness (ed. Jean Khalfa; trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). Routledge, New York, from the 1972 Gallimard edition).

Foucault, Michel. 1964. Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [abridged version of Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique 1961]. Union générale d’éditions, Paris. 308 p. = Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason [some material from the 1961 edn. put back in by Foucault but cut from the French 1964 edn.] (trans. Richard Howard). Pantheon Books, New York. 299 p.; and Foucault, Michel. 2006. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (trans. Richard Howard). Taylor & Francis, London and New York.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [History of Madness in the Classical Age; 2nd edn.; new preface and appendices]. Gallimard, Paris. 613 p. = Foucault, Michel. 2006. History of Madness (ed. Jean Khalfa; trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). Routledge, New York. 725 p.
These books were written when Foucault was in his Marxist and structuralist phase, though it is known that Foucault dropped a lot of the Marxist theory in Maladie mentale et personnalité by the time of the second edition in 1962. It should also be pointed out that some commentators see Foucault’s work up to the 1960s as being greatly influenced by structuralism even though he was not a full-blown structuralist (Olssen 2003: 191).

His major work L’histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason] (1961) was written in Foucault’s structuralist or quasi-structuralist phase and was based on his PhD thesis. The original French edition of 1961 ran to 673 pages, but an abridged version of 308 pages appeared in 1964, which was translated into English and which has been generally used by English commentators, until a complete translation of the 1961 edition appeared in 2006 as the History of Madness (Foucault 2006).

I will provide a critique of the History of Madness in what follows.

Immediately, the issue of objective truth arises. Even defenders of Foucault admit frankly that the consensus of historians is that Foucault’s work on this subject is “bad history” (Gutting 2005: 51) – that is, it contains too many errors of fact. Some apologists for Foucault even try and counter this by claiming that Foucault’s works are not even meant to be history at all! (Gutting 2005: 51; Flynn 2005: 40).

This is an appalling admission of failure: if Foucault was not writing history, then what was he writing? If apologists for Foucault wish to complain that he wasn’t really doing history and his work can’t be held to standards of objective truth, they have effectively admitted that Foucault’s “history” was an utter joke, since there would be no theories or facts in it to be judged as true or false. Foucault’s work would be in a different genre altogether: it would belong to the realm of theology, fiction, poetry or supernatural metaphysics.

Any rational criticisms of Foucault’s work must start from the premise that it is supposed to be history. If we do not admit there was an objective truth to what happened in history, any attempt by Foucault to do “history” cannot even be taken seriously.

I take it, then, that we must presuppose objective truth and facts in history, which we can discern through the surviving evidence and best historical research.

So what was Foucault’s thesis on madness?

Foucault divided the history of the West’s treatment of the insane into the following periods:
(1) the Middle Ages;

(2) the Renaissance: the discourse of ironic high reason;

(3) the Classical Age or Age of Reason: the 17th to the 18th centuries: the Great Confinement;

(4) the late 18th century and 19th century: the treatment of madness as psychiatric disorder.
We should note that the “Age of Reason” or “Classical Age” for Foucault was from about 1650 to the eighteenth century.

Foucault thought the following about madness in the West. In the Middle Ages, madness was more or less a recognised part of the truth of existence and there was a general open tolerance for the mad (Scull 1990: 62). Even when they were ejected from towns, the mad were not generally confined but could often lead an itinerant existence (Foucault 2006: 9). Even in the Renaissance there was a relative openness to the treatment of the mad who were not locked away en masse (Midelfort 1980: 250).

In the “Age of Reason” (17th to 18th centuries) there was a fundamental break in the treatment of the mad. There began a “Great Confinement” as the insane were locked away in “general hospitals,” workhouses, and later asylums, and often with the poor, aged, criminals, prostitutes and beggars (Midelfort 1980: 250). Madness became a type of immorality and the mad were regarded as those who had lost their reason and as being like animals.

From the late 18th century, there was another transition: madness was now considered a mental illness and medical problem. Modern insanity as a mental illness was “invented” by medical reformers (Midelfort 1980: 251).

Furthermore, Foucault’s interpreters argue that his fundamental thesis is that modern scientific psychiatry has not progressed towards the truth about human mental illness, but that modern psychiatric medicine is just a new form of “social control” (Khalfa 2006: xvi). In other words, Foucault is supposed to have proved that madness is just a “social construct” (Gutting 2005: 50). I strongly disagree, but I will return to this at the end of the post.

A central element of Foucault’s ideas on the treatment of madness in the Middle Ages is the idea of the “ship of fools” (Narrenschiff). These were ships in which the mad were sent on journeys or pilgrimages together away from towns so that they could “find” their reason and sanity. Foucault is quite clear that the ship of fools was a real phenomenon (Foucault 2006: 9). Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence that such ships – as Foucault understood them – actually existed (Midelfort 1980: 254; Scull 2007: 4; Scull 1990: 63). They were just literary or artistic themes in medieval and Renaissance art and literature, such as, for example, Hieronymus Bosch’s painting the Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500).

Foucault’s contention that before the Age of Reason madness was considered a natural part of life and that there was even a positive attitude to it is one-sided. In fact, one prominent negative medieval and Renaissance view of madness seems to have been that madness was the consequence of sin (Midelfort 1980: 254), and this contradicts Foucault’s theory of a relative openness in ideas on madness before the Classical age. As late as the 16th century, madness was still sometimes explained by demonic possession (Midelfort 1999: 9), and treated with fear and horror.

Worse still, despite Foucault’s myth of openness in the Medieval period, historians find many instances of extreme cruelty to the mad in the Middle Ages, and dangerous madmen were generally locked up, sometimes in chains (Midelfort 1980: 253). The imprisonment of the insane (especially dangerous ones) in cells, prisons or cages was not infrequent in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance (Midelfort 1980: 253).

One of the first hospitals for the mad was established by the friar Juan Gilabert Joffre in Spain in 1409 (Pérez et al. 2012), and by the later 15th century in Spain, there was a network of charitable hospitals for the mad (Midelfort 1980: 253; Merquior 1991: 27), and elaborate theories on how madness was a human physiological disorder were well known in late medieval Europe, often from Islamic medicine (Merquior 1991: 27; Midelfort 1980: 253). Even cruel medical treatments for madness as an illness were practiced in the Middle ages and go right back to the ancient Greek and Roman world (Merquior 1991: 27).

It is clear, then, that treatment of madness as an illness existed well before the 18th century (Midelfort 1980: 253), and if Foucault meant to suggest that the Medieval age was one of relative tolerance and permissiveness towards madness, it turns out to be largely a fiction.

What of Foucault’s “Great Confinement”? Defenders of Foucault argue that his major point was the exclusion and confinement of the mad in the Age of Reason occurred in a way fundamentally distinct from earlier ages (Gutting 2005: 52). This is wrong. In England and Germany, the facts do not fit Foucault’s theory of the Great Confinement (Merquior 1991: 28; Midelfort 1980: 256–257; Midelfort 1999: 7–8; Porter 1990: 48). There was no European-wide “Great Confinement” as imagined by Foucault (Scull 2007: 4).

But there was a real phenomenon: a forced confinement in the 17th and 18th centuries in France and some other countries that was directed against poverty, poor beggars, poor deviants, poor criminals and poor madmen (Midelfort 1980: 255). But it was only a narrow class of madmen who were affected by a Great Confinement in France who were sent to general hospitals (Midelfort 1980: 255). Even in this confinement, the general hospitals largely developed out of medieval hospitals and monasteries, not largely from reopened leprosaria as in Foucault’s theory (Merquior 1991: 28; Midelfort 1980: 256).

Foucault’s “Great Confinement” – the idea that a general confinement by a rising bourgeois society of the work-shy poor, mad, deviants, beggars and criminals to general hospitals in the Age of Reason – is therefore a quasi-Marxist fantasy (Midelfort 1980: 257; Windschuttle 1994: 140).

Moreover, even in the Classical age madness was often treated as an illness and the mad were given medical cures (Midelfort 1980: 256). If anything, the increasing “medical” attitude to madness in Foucault’s Classical age was just a stronger development of trends already seen in the Middle Ages, and did not constitute a sharp break with some earlier golden age of tolerance (Merquior 1991: 27).

If there was no Great Confinement directed at all madmen (but simply at poor ones), then it follows that many of the mad continued to have a great deal of freedom right down to the 18th century. The evidence confirms this. Even by the late 18th century in France recent research shows that only about 5,000 mad or mentally-disturbed people were locked up in the hôpital general institutions – a small of minority of the total number of mentally-ill people who were mostly still at large in French society (Midelfort 1990: 43; Scull 2007: 4).

In Britain, the story is similar. Even by the late 18th century most of the mad remained at large or were looked after at home by relatives (Windschuttle 1994: 146). There were a small number of private asylums but the numbers of people incarcerated here were small (Windschuttle 1994: 146). Even Foucault’s claims about Britain’s infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital (or “Bedlam”) are untrue. Foucault asserted that in the early 1800s the inmates of Bedlam were put on public display on Sundays, and that this attracted some 96,000 visitors a year (Foucault 2006: 143). In reality, none of this is true (Scull 2007: 4). In England, within the small numbers of private asylums for the mad, the tendency was to separate the insane from other social outcasts like beggars, the elderly and the poor, which, once again, contradicts Foucault’s theory (Porter 1990: 49).

Even more damagingly, it was in the 19th century that the confinement of the mad really became strong and intensified and was much more prevalent than in the Classical age (Merquior 1991: 28). It was the 19th century that was the age of confinement, if we want to use that term (Midelfort 1990: 43; Midelfort 1980: 257).

Yet at this time in 19th century America there was even a well-documented turn away from psychiatric treatment towards merely custodial care of the insane (Merquior 1991: 29) – contradicting Foucault’s theory.

Finally, regarding the idea that madness has just been “invented” by modern doctors and psychiatrists, what can we say about this? There is fallacy of equivocation here, however. Are we talking about
(1) each age’s definition of madness, explanation of madness, its attempts to categorise it and attempts to cure it, or

(2) actual biological and empirical questions about whether mental illness is produced by brain dysfunction, and the evidence for and against this?
That people in the past had different views of madness and its causes (and in turn prescribed different things for its treatment) hardly proves that modern science-based, clinical psychiatric medicine has done no better in actually identifying the causes of mental illness and proving effective treatment (N.B.: I am utterly excluding Freudian psychoanalytic pseudo-science from science-based medicine here). On the contrary, the very success of modern medicine and the highly effective treatments for many mental disorders as against past “treatments” for madness are strong evidence that science has got something right which people in the past have got wrong.

People in the past were just incredibly ignorant about many things, and their science was weak. They made bad mistakes. We can easily apply this to the history of infectious disease, cancer and all other maladies from which human beings suffer. The fact that different ages classified diseases in different ways from us and had different explanations and cures for them hardly proves that modern scientific medicine is just a “narrative” or “social construct,” or that it has no strong claim to coming closer and closer to objective truth about disease.

Foucault, Michel. 2006. History of Madness (ed. Jean Khalfa; trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). Routledge, New York.

Flynn, Thomas. 2005. “Foucault’s Mapping of History,” Gary Gutting (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2nd edn.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. and New York. 29–48.

Gutting, Gary. 2005. “Foucault and the History of Madness,” in Gary Gutting (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2nd edn.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. and New York. 49–73.

Khalfa, Jean. 2006. “Introduction,” in Michel Foucault, History of Madness (ed. Jean Khalfa; trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). Routledge, New York. xiii–xxvi.

Merquior, José Guilherme. 1991 Foucault (2nd edn.). Fontana, London.

Midelfort, H. C. Erik. 1980. “Madness and Civilisation in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault,” in Barbara C. Malament (ed.), After the Reformation: Essays in Honour of J. H. Hexter. Manchester University Press, Manchester. 247–265.

Midelfort, H. C. Erik. 1990. “Comment on Colin Gordon,” History of the Human Sciences 3.1: 41–45.

Midelfort, H. C. Erik. 1999. A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Olssen, Mark. 2003. “Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Neo-Liberalism: Assessing Foucault’s Legacy,” Journal of Education Policy 18.2: 189–202.

Pérez, Jesús, Baldessarini, Ross J., Undurraga, Juan and José Sánchez-Moreno. 2012. “Origins of Psychiatric Hospitalization in Medieval Spain,” Psychiatric Quarterly 83.4: 419–430.

Porter, Roy. 1990. “Foucault’s Great Confinement,” History of the Human Sciences 3: 47–54.

Scull, Andrew. 1990. “Michel Foucault’s History of Madness,” History of the Human Sciences 3: 57–67.

Scull, Andrew. 2007. “Scholarship of Fools,” Times Literary Supplement no. 5425, 23 March 2007, pp. 3–4.

Still, Arthur and Irving Velody. 1992. Rewriting the History of Madness: Studies in Foucault’s ‘Histoire de la folie’. Routledge, London and New York.

Windschuttle, Keith. 1994. The Killing of History: How a Discipline is being murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists. Macleay Press, Sydney.

Windschuttle, K. 1998. “Foucault as Historian,” in Robert Nola (ed.). Foucault. F. Cass, London and Portland, Or. 5–35.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Foucault versus Chomsky: The 1971 Debate

In 1971, Michel Foucault had a famous debate on Dutch television with Noam Chomsky on justice, power, politics and human nature. An edited video version of that debate (with English subtitles) is below.

The full version of the debate (but without subtitles) is available in the video below, but if you do not speak Dutch or French it will be largely unintelligible to you.

Personally, I prefer reading the transcript of the debate in full, as it can be found here:
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
It is important to note that both Foucault and Chomsky were, politically speaking, left libertarians or anarchists. The difference is that Chomsky was committed to the defence of objective truth, the best principles of the Enlightenment, modern science and the view that there is a core human nature determined by biology.

Foucault, by contrast, denied objective truth, despised the Enlightenment, and was committed to an extreme social constructivism that denies any type of fixed human nature.

In what follows I make some observations on the most important aspects of the debate.

Chomsky starts the debate by endorsing the view that there is a core human nature determined by biology, by using universal grammar as an example.

From the beginning, Foucault seems to reject even the concept of “human nature” as describing something objectively real. Instead, Foucault seems to think human nature is something culturally constructed:
“[Foucault:] It was not by studying human nature that linguists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists the structure of myths. In the history of knowledge, the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of an epistemological indicator to designate certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history. I would find it difficult to see in this a scientific concept.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Chomsky rejects this and appeals to the evidence of the natural sciences, and makes the point that even good and sound scientific concepts are grounded in empirical reality.

Chomsky is right. The evidence before our eyes is overwhelming that human beings have their essential traits because of biology. Extreme social constructivism is refuted by the natural sciences, and in Foucault’s other writings there does seem to be a radical social constructivism, as in this statement:
“We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is false. The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances. ‘Effective’ history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.” (Foucault 1984: 87–88).
Yet the human genome makes a human being, and not, self-evidently, a tree or a cat. The human visual system, for example, is capable of detecting and representing electro-magnetic radiation only within the narrow bandwidth we call the visual spectrum of light, and not radio waves, x-rays or gamma rays. Humans cannot “see” radio waves and this is a universal attribute of any biologically normal human being. Human eye colour and blood type are 100% determined by the genes.

Chomsky is right to reject the naïve “blank slate” empiricist view of human nature and extreme social constructivism. But, of course, this is not to endorse vulgar biological determinism by any means. Many things are culturally or socially determined, and numerous traits that human beings have – from height, personality, or intelligence, etc. – are a very complex mix of both genes and environment. But that doesn’t mean we cannot identify a core of universal traits that we can call human nature.

In short, on this issue, Chomsky is correct; Foucault is wrong.

With regard to justice, we can see that Foucault really has an irrationalist view of justice influenced by Marxist class analysis. In the following exchange with Chomsky, Foucault seems to reduce just political action to the victory of the proletariat in a class struggle:
FOUCAULT: But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in which you said that if you didn’t consider the war you make against the police to be just, you wouldn’t make it.
I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don’t agree.

FOUCAULT: One makes war to win, not because it is just.

CHOMSKY: I don’t, personally, agree with that.
For example, if I could convince myself that attainment of power by the proletariat would lead to a terrorist police state, in which freedom and dignity and decent human relations would be destroyed, then I wouldn’t want the proletariat to take power. In fact the only reason for wanting any such thing, I believe, is because one thinks, rightly or wrongly, that some fundamental human values will be achieved by that transfer of power.

FOUCAULT:When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.
But if you ask me what would be the case if the proletariat exerted bloody, tyrannical and unjust power towards itself, then I would say that this could only occur if the proletariat hadn’t really taken power, but that a class outside the proletariat, a group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy or petit bourgeois elements had taken power.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
There is no mistaking the Marxist class element in Foucault’s thinking, but it is reduced to a type of morally nihilist anarchism for Foucault.

In particular, Foucault’s statement here stands out for its disgusting moral nihilism:
FOUCAULT: When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this. “Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
This is clearly the sort of thinking that would justify any kind of murderous, genocidal authoritarianism – as long as it was a Leftist one that Foucault approved of.

Here, once again, Foucault is not only wrong, but also insanely and shamefully wrong.

We can also see that Foucault has a reflexive, dog-whistle hostility – so characteristic of Marxists – to virtually everything in modern “bourgeois” society, even the justice system:
FOUCAULT: If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this; in other words, 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. But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that.

FOUCAULT: And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

CHOMSKY: 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.

I think it’s too hasty to characterise our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real.” “Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
For Foucault, like any crass Marxist, the current justice system is just a “bourgeois” system of repression. For Chomsky, there may well be some oppressive aspects, but it also embodies real and powerful moral ideas.

Yet again, Chomsky is right; Foucault is wrong.

As regards to politics, Chomsky at one point sketches his vision of a future society:
“Let me begin by referring to something that we have already discussed, that is, if it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximise the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realised. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue.
Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavour, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defence against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated.

And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it's necessary, can be shared among the population; where centralised autocratic control of, in the first place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a destructive vestige of history.

They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated in favour of direct participation in the form of workers' councils or other free associations that individuals will constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence and their productive labour.

Now a federated, decentralised system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realise itself in whatever way it will.
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Chomsky has an anarcho-syndicalist vision of society, but Foucault actually admits he has no model or substantive vision of a future society at all, but just thinks that people should struggle and fight against power.

Here I think both Chomsky and Foucault are wrong.

Foucault is incapable of understanding or appreciating that a great deal of power even in modern society is just and morally right. Objective truths are not created by power systems, and Foucault’s view of power is almost conspiratorial in its irrationalism. The rights and power that responsible parents have over their children are morally just. It is right that power should be held temporarily by people who are merely elected in constitutional and representative democracy, and who can be thrown out of office if and when they lose support. Our modern legal systems, for all their faults, bring about a great deal of justice, and the law and order created by the state is vital to any civilised society. The power that secular universities and schools have to exclude, say, religious “creation science” (and lots of other superstitious nonsense) from the natural sciences curriculum is completely just. The power that the medical professions have to exclude faith healers, incompetent doctors or other quacks from their ranks is just and right. And the list goes on. For all the faults and problems of modern democratic societies, there is so much that is right and worthy of defending and preserving.

What about Chomsky’s views? I would regard Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist libertarianism as a utopian fantasy, for the simple reason that a society without strong central government is unworkable – certainly in the modern world. When left libertarians are pressed, they tend to admit that their vision of a future society just reduces to replacing current governments with institutions that fulfil almost the same functions. The only exception is that the anarcho-syndicalist model of human society as a “federated, decentralised system of free associations” seems incredibly naïve to me. Human beings are far too attached (whether rightly or wrongly) to their own languages, cultures, nation-states, traditions and interests for such a vision of society to be an effective system.

At least there is one redeeming feature to Chomsky’s view of politics. In his various comments over the years, Chomsky has had the good sense to tacitly admit that his left libertarianism remains an unrealistic utopia. When pressed about what economic policies he supports now, he invariably supports social democratic, Keynesian policies.

Finally, I cannot resist correcting this howler by Foucault about the history of dissection:
“Let me take a very simple example, which I will not analyse, but which is this: How was it possible that men began, at the end of the eighteenth century, for the first time in the history of Western thought and of Western knowledge, to open up the corpses of people in order to know what was the source, the origin, the anatomical needle, of the particular malady which was responsible for their deaths?
The idea seems simple enough. Well, four or five thousand years of medicine in the West were needed before we had the idea of looking for the cause of the malady in the lesion of a corpse.”
“Human Nature: Justice versus Power: Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971.”
Unfortunately, he is wrong. The ancient Greeks and Romans had schools of doctors and scientists who engaged in both human dissection and vivisection in attempts to understand human anatomy, and a long history of explaining diseases by autopsy. For example, the Greek scientist Herophilos stands out as an early pioneer of all these things.

Also, even in Christian Europe human dissection for anatomical purposes actually began in a significant way in the 13th century.

Further Reading
“Chomsky’s Rationalism,” September, 2013.

Gutting, Gary. 2003 (rev. 2013). “Michel Foucault,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History” [1971], in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 76–100.