Science is Political

5 09 2004

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The principles that govern human behavior on the individual and collective levels have always been a major interest for the social sciences. To understand how human societies function, to chronicle their history, or to predict their future is a major interest of the social sciences.

In a classic televised debate from 1971 titled Human Nature: Justice versus Power Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky discuss their respective approaches to understanding the foundations of social structure. Since Chomsky and Foucault entertain partially contradictory views on human nature and society their exchange highlights the differences of their theoretical departure points.

Chomsky’s stance on human nature, mental structures and language shows how he interprets the human from a material point of view. It seems that our biological make up provides us with the raw material for constructing the structure of language – and this stance is also reflected in his view of human nature and politics.

Foucault on the other hand interprets human society from an intensely social constructivist way where he ascribes primacy to language interpreted as a discourse. And this discourse is formed by the power struggles that take place in society.

Although these positions have fundamentally different foundations for their knowledge claims their juxtaposition in the debate provides an interesting insight into how different views reflect on a political agenda.

Another point to which the discussion returns several times is that of the role of individual creativity – of the inventor, the speaker, the subject. Chomsky’s argument highlights the importance of the individual’s processes of creation while Foucault tries to de-emphasize the historical role of the individual genius.

The debate is an emblematic example of how different views on scientific inquiry embody different views on the subject, society, politics and knowledge. It reminds us of how important it is to reflect on our own scientific deed. Not only from a science perspective – but from the point of personal departure.

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