Noam Chomsky Explains Why Nobody Is Really a Moral Relativist, Even Michel Foucault


Noam Chomsky made his name as a linguist, which is simple to forget in the middle of the large range of topics he has actually dealt with, and continues to resolve, in his long profession as a public intellectual. On a much deeper level, his commentary on politics, society, media, and a host of other broad fields sounds not unlike a natural outgrowth of his customized linguistic theories. Throughout the previous 5 or 6 years, he’s sometimes made the connection specific, or almost so, by drawing examples in between language and other domains of human activity. Take the panel-discussion clip above, in which Chomsky deals with the concern of why he does not accept the concept of cultural relativism, which holds ethical standards as not outright however produced entirely within specific cultural contexts.

” There are no doubters,” Chomsky states. “You can discuss it in a viewpoint workshop, however no human can, in truth, be a doubter. If they were, they would not make it through for 2 minutes. I believe practically the very same holds true of ethical relativism. There are no ethical relativists: there are individuals who proclaim it, you can discuss it abstractly, however it does not exist in normal life.” He determines “a propensity to move from the uncontroversial idea of ethical relativism”– that, state, particular cultures at particular times hold particular ethical worths, and other cultures at other times hold other ones– “to a principle that is, in truth, incoherent, which is to state that ethical worths can vary forever,” connected to no unbiased basis.

If morality is sent through culture, “how does an individual obtain his/her culture? You do not get it by taking a tablet. You obtain your culture by observing a rather restricted variety of actions and habits, and from those, building, in some way, in your mind, the set of mindsets and beliefs that makes up culture.” He draws a natural contrast in between this procedure which of language acquisition, which likewise depends upon “having an abundant integrated range of restrictions that permit the leap from spread information to whatever it is that you obtain. That’s practically reasoning.” Therefore, “even if you’re the most severe cultural relativist, you are presupposing universal ethical worths. Those can be found.” When he mentioned “the most severe cultural relativist,” he was thinking about Michel Foucault?

Back in 1971, Chomsky engaged the French theorist of power in a debate, broadcast on Dutch television, about humanity and the origin of morality. There he almost lead with linguistics: a kid discovering to talk starts “with the understanding that he’s hearing a human language of a specific and really narrow type that allows a really little series of variation.” This “extremely arranged and really limiting schematism” enables him to “make the big leap from spread and degenerate information to extremely arranged understanding.” This system “is one essential constituent of human nature,” in not simply language however “other domains of human intelligence and other domains of human cognition and even habits”. Possibly we do have the liberty to speak, believe, and act nevertheless we want– however that really liberty, if Chomsky is proper, emerges just within stringent, outright, entirely un-relative natural borders.

Related material:

Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV (1971)

An Animated Introduction to Michel Foucault, “Philosopher of Power”

A Brief Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory, Narrated by The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson

Michel Foucault Offers a Clear, Compelling Introduction to His Philosophical Project (1966)

Noam Chomsky Explains the Best Way for Ordinary People to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunting

Moralities of Everyday Life: A Free Online Course from Yale University

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall broadcas and composes ts on cities, language, and culture. His jobs consist of the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here