Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault: A Conversation on Justice

Writing 150 Fall 2020
3 min readNov 26, 2020


I recently watched a video of a debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, titled “Justice over power” which delves into the abstract under-casings of the implementation of justice within society. Chomsky criticized the powers structures that uphold oppression in societal structures and prompts the push for justice. Foucault talks about how the power structures emerges and the subjugation of the institutions influences the tide of justice amongst it as he argues Chomsky’s view by stating “justice embodies systems of class oppression and not independent of each other”. Moreover, Foucault’s viewpoints, whose debates are more of European influenced philosophy, reflect the different cultural philosophies as well.

The debate of how the notion of “human nature” is perceived amongst the philosophers also shapes their arguments on the connections between justice and power. It is clear that there is disagreement amongst Chomsky and Foucault in terms of the validity of justice within the framework of the basis of human nature. It was very eye-opening to see the contrasting views and questions posed by Foucault as I had only solely looked into the work of Chomsky previously.

Foucault noted that “If you say that a certain human nature exists, then this human nature has not been given in actual society the rights and the possibilities which allow it to realize itself”, in this statement, he further bases many of his argument towards the class system and the implementation of capitalism. Through those, it helps to state the boundaries of his notion of justice as “human nature is alienated within a capitalist system”. As the capitalist system supports the Marxist ideology, to which it “admits that in capitalist societies mankind had not reached its full capacity for development and self realization”.

Chomsky, contrasting to Foucault, encourages the embrace of error in societal systems and less focus on the risk of the error. This less consequential worry carries through his view point as an anarcho-syndicalist, which is someone who questions political hierarchy and encourages the dismantling of oppressive institutions, pushing justice. As for Foucault, he states that“the power is within the hands of the government and is exerted through different institutions” and to which he questions Chomsky “Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary ? If you refer to ideal justice, that’s my problem.” as he also criticizes more of the independent institutions that cater to the people who have the resources to education, the upper class (to which he calls the real political class task), and less about the political powers. Foucault provides perspective on the limitations that arise as the“notion of justice functions within a society of classes, as a justification for the class which is oppressed”, by questioning the whole existence of justice as “in a classless society, Im not sure that we would still use this notion of justice”.

Foucault concludes that “one cannot put forwards these concepts to describe or justify a fight which should in principle, overthrow the very fundamentals of our society”. Yet in theory, according to Chomsky, regardless of the outcome, the recognition of both sides is needed to further the prospect of a “just” society within the broader umbrella of human nature. He articulate this by saying “our concept of human nature is partial, socially conditioned and contained by our own character defects and limitations to the intellectual culture in which we exists, yet it’s important to know of these “impossible goals” we as humans are trying to achieve”. In institutions of education, much like USC, we are encouraged to engage in political debate and implement our own ideas on the future of a just society. Chomsky prompts us to be “bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge”. So, we must remain open to understanding that we are still a long way from implementing such understandings.

Video of reference below: