Philo revives Foucault vs. Chomsky debate

The Philomathean Society hosted the first public screening of the Foucault vs. Chomsky debate since 1971

· February 17, 2010, 5:42 am   ·  Updated February 17, 2010, 12:00 am

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Students and faculty watch the first-ever public screening of the 1971 debate between philosophers Michel Focault and Noam Chomsky since it was originally broadcast in Europe.


Last night, 60 students took part in history.

They witnessed a rarely screened debate between philosophers Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, presented by the Philomathean Society and the Department of History.

In 1971 Chomsky and Foucault took part in a televised debate — a common practice in Europe at a time when philosophical icons and ideas played a prominent role in the media. Since the orginal airing there had never been another public screening of their dialogue.

The film provides footage of Foucault speaking in French, while Chomsky speaks in English. Without a translator, they discussed human nature, justice, creativity and war.

While language did not pose a problem for the philosophers, each appeared to find it difficult to respond to the other while remaining on point. But, as the mediator said, “both philosophers have points of commonality and points of difference.”

Aro Velmet, a College senior, spoke on behalf of Philo and its mission to “increase the learning of its members and the academic prestige of their society.”

Velmet explained that he organized last night’s screening of the debate by writing to the Dutch National Archives and requesting a copy. An original organizer of the 1971 debate sent a VHS to Philo on the condition that the screening would be free to the public.

“I think it’s really easy to watch,” Velmet said. “Chomsky and Foucault are notoriously difficult philosophers, but they are charismatic people, concise and understandable.”

History professor Warren Breckman introduced the debate, offering insight into the circumstances surrounding the meeting of the minds. “It starts in the domain of knowledge as it relates to human nature, but then moves to the question of politics,” he said.

Yesterday’s audience was just as engaged as the audience of 39 years ago appeared to be, though quick closeups of 70s-styled Dutch intellectuals inspired laughs.

Nantina Vgontzas, a College junior and attendee, said she was eager to watch the debate because she was familiar with the work of Chomsky and Foucault and was keen to “see how they expressed themselves vocally.”

The screening ran a little over an hour and was followed by a question and answer session with Breckman and Velmet.

Students also expressed excitement for the next upcoming Philo event, when Judith Butler will give the Philomathean Annual Oration on March 3.

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