Tag Archives: CHOMSKY

and (powerful) Justice for all: Chomsky, Foucault and Tarot…

20th century philosophy was dominated by two major methodologies: the continental and the analytical. Analytical philosophy is especially common in Anglo-American countries and focuses on the formal structure the philosophical arguments. In contrast, continental philosophy does not tend to use structured or formal arguments but a more holistic methodology. This distinction does not mean that continental philosophy is not concerned with weighty issues compared with analytical philosophy: it just does not assume that the formal arguments should be exclusively used to strengthen its case. Hence analytical philosophy is based on constructing the philosophical problems from their tiny logical building blocks. In contrast, continental philosophy deals with the “big picture”, that is, it discusses the philosophical questions as part of a whole narrative.

One of the more interesting clashes between these two fields of study occurred on a televised debate between the late French philosopher Michel Foucault and the American linguist Noam Chomsky. It was a “Heavy-Weight” philosophical discussion: from one side of the arena was Foucault, then a rising star in the world of philosophy and from the other side was Chomsky, one of the fathers of modern linguistics. At first, the two discussed calmly but as the debate continued, political issues were raised and the discussion heated up. Chomsky’s initial conditions in the debate were inferior to Foucault’s: while he was one of the leading figures in analytical linguistics, his political philosophy was playing in the continental field where Foucault was the “new king”. However, it should be emphasized that Chomsky’s humanist philosophy is alive and kicking and he continues to publish his political doctrine all over the world.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested a theory ​​of justice which assumes the existence of universal truths for all human beings. This philosophical approach links the humanistic justice to truth: we say that a certain thing is justified because it corresponds to a universal truth. Various forms of Humanism are defined by the object of their truth value. For example, one Humanist position may argue that the truth is based on our rational deliberation on justice and other position may argue that the truth is based on our justified gender principles, and so on. What is common to all Humanists is that they assume that humans have a definite nature according to which they can develop a theory of justice. For example, we can say that human nature does not include eating living things in order to claim for animal’s justified rights. In contrast, Anti-Humanism will argue that humans don’t have any nature. The only natural thing about humans is that they are social beings tied with social relations. There is no objective truth: truth is a function of social interest and therefore justice is never objective. We should note that Anti-Humanism does not claim that there is no truth but argues that it is always an expression of normative power rooted in society. Justice always expresses the interests of a particular group in society.

Needless to say that in the debate Chomsky is the representative of Humanism and Foucault is the representative of Anti-Humanism. The humanist claims that humans have a certain nature and Chomsky claims that our natural capacity to produce original sentences is the human nature. In contrast, Foucault claims that if there is a universal truth about humans than anyone outside of it could be excluded from society.  For example, we can examine the definition of the abnormalities of sex as part of the truth about sexuality. The dispute between Foucault and Chomsky is essentially a Kantian dispute: Chomsky claims, like Kant, that our recognition of the world has a certain innate structure and Foucault agrees that our recognition has a structure but its source is social and not natural.  Foucault argues that human nature is not scientific: concepts like man, justice, power change their meaning through history and do not have universal validity. Human society is the one which creates its own truths from time to time thus man has no universal and eternal nature. What we perceive as a “person” or a “subject” is a just a cluster of powers which have no relation to justice. Therefore, in order to understand ourselves we have to describe those powerful relations in society through history.  Power is blind to justice and often we can’t even sense its institutional presence; for example, we can describe the history of hospitals, prisons and the mental institutes as a history of depressing power in various forms. Compared to Foucault, Chomsky’s philosophy is seeking to define a universal truth which is not historical. This universal truth resides in all phenomena and its cognitive basis can only be reached through scientific research.

Both thinkers describe the relationship between justice and power as part of their theory about the nature of man.  Chomsky the Humanist claims that the principles of justice stand above the laws of the state. Thus, citizens should oppose the state laws if they negate the universal principles of justice. Foucault the Anti-Humanist claims that human nature is a dangerous idea because it gives a seal of approval to dangerous institutions like hospitals, prisons etc. According to Foucault the Humanist, on the one hand, objects the use of violent power in society, but on the other hand supports the non-violent power by defining its “Human” standards. The assumption that one can reach the truth about human nature leads to the exclusion of individuals from society because they don’t conform to this universal truth.

So far we have seen that the debate between Chomsky and Foucault concerns the foundations of justice, truth and power. Foucault’s relativistic position relies primarily on his historical analysis of the mechanisms of power. Chomsky’s humanistic approach always returns to the universal principles of justice which must relate to a universal truth. Chomsky assumes that we can articulate the truth about human nature and thus we can subordinate power to it. Naturally, most of us tend to prefer the humanistic approach; we feel that if we will have no justified values to be proud of – chaos will prevail. Without a clear winner in the debate, it is interesting to see that the Tarot cards of power and justice debate between themselves as well. As we shall see below, if we place the power card before the justice card we will get Foucault’s position. Conversely, we will get Chomsky’s position if we choose justice before power.

We see that the card of Power holds the lion’s head near her genitals. Like Foucault’s perception of power, she suggests that power is like a masturbation act:  it has no real added value to our lives but it is always present in every dimension of them. Therefore we can conclude that we are always aware of the presence of power in our lives even though it tells us nothing about truth. Foucault argued that truth will be found only by investigating the historical mechanisms of power in society. The effectiveness of these mechanisms is achieved by controlling our emotional nature. Similarly, the card shows us that emotional detachment of the power figure makes her fear the sexual and spiritual orgasm. We have no real control on the mechanisms of power. The reign of power over justice is manifested if we place the card of Power before the one of Justice.  Like a puppeteer moving her puppets, power gently moves the hand of justice without any resistance. The motif of the infinite in the cards suggests the same domination: the infinite in the power card appears in the form of her colorful hat and in justice card it appears in the form of her heavy body sitting on the chair. Thus, power constitutes her reign over justice by the infinite mind while justice is just the earthly expression of power’s infinite thought. The infinite power controls the endless movements of justice and our lives as well.

The figure in the Justice card considers the universal principles of justice and thus reminds us about Chomsky’s Humanism. The principles of justice are common to all humanity and the figure’s sword points upward towards those transcendent principles. The process of weighing the evidence by justice is done by examining the degree to which the matter in question suits a more general principle.  Chomsky believes that justice should be served by critical analysis of our principles. Clear, decisive and inflexible decisions are structured in the principles of justice and they entail the use of reasonable power. Our human existence contains the mixture of good and evil and therefore we must cultivate our critical nature. The critical nature of human beings is embodied in the Justice card by the sword. The hand holding the sword keeps us from deviating from the critical path while our other hand uses a gentle, humanistic and reasonable power to reflect the state’s laws. The card reflects Chomsky’s claim that justice is a judicial expression of a cosmic principle defended by a reasonable power. The supremacy of Justice over Power is manifested if we place the card of Justice before the one of Power. Justice’s crown, sword, clothes and ornaments are all facing up while power’s hat, hands and clothes are pulling down. Thus, the Principles of justice are turning towards a supreme force while the execution of power is more mundane. Therefore, the cards suggest that justice determines the boundaries of power. We see that the power figure is unable to lift the lion’s head beyond her waist and she is frozen in her position of holding its jaw. The imaginary line that power is unable to pass is exactly the line of the scales of justice. This is also the line that most of us feel in our daily routine – a line we should not cross. Although Foucault debate with Chomsky ended with their mutual disagreement, Chomsky and Humanism have won the battle for human minds. Like the Humanist position, the vast majority of people believe that the boundaries of power are exactly where the general principles of justice mark the line.

It is interesting to note that Justice is characterized by the Tarot lacking the common artistic theme of the “Blindfolded Lady Justice”.  The blindfold highlights two important features of justice: equality and generality. Equality means the justified decisions are not affected by our nature and generality means that our justified decisions are always general and rational. Foucault will claim that power has covered the eyes of justice in order to control her “justified” principles about human nature. Chomsky’s humanism will claim that justice eyes should always be covered in order to learn something general about our human nature.

Surprisingly, the first artistic representation of the blindfolded justice appeared only in the 16th century. It was a rather anonymous sculptor named Hans Gieng from Bern in Switzerland who created the first blindfolded statue of justice. Gieng did not become famous outside of the artistic milieu but his work is one of the most influential works of modern sculpture.  His piece deeply influenced our public space today where halls of justice all over the world copy his blindfolded theme. It is interesting to know that Gieng artistic choice to carve justice as blindfolded was a caricature: instead of the equality or rationality symbols we have today, his blindfolded statue meant to show that justice is plainly blind.  In fact, his famous work makes an excellent example for the complex relations between the power and justice. On one hand, halls of justice around the world use (rightly or cynically) Gieng’s blindfolded theme, and on the other hand his long-awaited private justice was not served.

In October 1986 the original statue has been shattered by a vandalistic act. 443 years after it was placed in a lively fountain the statue was drawn by force and was smashed to pieces on the floor. A young social activist was arrested and although he did not confess, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 months in jail and a fine of 200,000 Swiss Francs. The broken particles of the statue were meticulously collected and its restoration work continues to this day in the local museum of Bern. Instead of Gieng’s original work a restored copy is currently placed in the fountain. It turns out that perhaps Foucault was right: power determines the truth about things in our world – even if it is shattered to pieces.

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