Chomsky begins with examples from linguistics to illustrate the notion of "innate structures". Children are successful in learning the language because they can use "innate language" or "instinctive knowledge" to transform limited data they get exposed to into organized knowledge. This instinctive knowledge, which allows children to build complex knowledge structures from partial data, is a fundamental constituent of human nature. Such a constituent (a collection of innate organizing principles) must be available in other domains, such as human cognition, behavior, and interaction. This is what Chomsky refers to as human nature.
Foucault mistrusts the notion of human nature - it is one of the concepts that while not being strictly scientific, has the ability to "designate, delimit and situate" certain types of discourses. For Chomsky it is ok to start with the concept of human nature as somewhat mystical (similar to gravitational forces or other scientific concepts) and later explain it through physical components (e.g., neural networks). Chomsky describes his approach as looking at the earlier stages of scientific thinking (great thinkers, more specifically) and understanding how they were able to arrive at concepts and ideas not available to anybody before.
Foucault makes a distinction between individual attribution of a discovery and collective production of knowledge, which can be referred to as "tradition", "mentality", or "modes". The former has been highly valued, while the latter is usually negativized. Another distinction is between knowledge as human activity and truth. The latter may be hidden from humans, but it will be unveiled. Attribution and relation to truth are interconnected. Throughout history we see examples of how the subject of truth (the individual revealing it) has to overcome myths and common thought, he has to "discover". What if this close relation of subject to truth is an effect of knowledge? What if truth is a complex non-individual formation? Can we replace individuals in the production of knowledge?
This position highlights a difference between Chomsky's and Foucault's approach to creativity. According to Foucault, Chomsky had to introduce the speaking subject into linguistics because language has been commonly studied as a system with a collective value. In language we have a few rules and elements and an unknown system of totalities that can be brought to light by individuals. In the history of knowledge, it's similar, but one has to overcome the dominance of individual creativity to show that there are rules and elements that can be transformed without explicitly passing through an individual.
Throughout the debate both scholars touch on many concepts from science and politics. Some of them are described below to highlight their differences:
|Human nature||Comprised of innate structures that allow for learning and arriving at complex knowledge based on partial information||A historical construct that can organize knowledge, but also can delimit how we see human behavior|
|Creativity||A common human act of thinking about a new situation, describing it and acting in it||An individualistic act that has been emphasized throughout history without looking at general communal rules that are behind it|
|Freedom||Limited number of rules with infinite possibilities of application||"Grille" of many determinisms that affects how we arrive at knowledge and understanding|
|Ideal model of society||A federated, decentralised system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions||No such model can be proposed, it is more important to expose the power that controls society, especially institutions such as education and medicine that appear neutral|
Somewhere in the middle, Chomsky also tried to bring their differences closer:
CHOMSKY: ... That is, I think that an act of scientific creation depends on two facts: one, some intrinsic property of the mind, another, some set of social and intellectual conditions that exist. And it is not a question, as I see it, of which of these we should study; rather we will understand scientific discovery, and similarly any other kind of discovery, when we know what these factors are and can therefore explain how they interact in a particular fashion.
While Foucault didn't completely agree to that, the conversation was still building upon each other's ideas:
FOUCAULT: ... ultimately we understand each other very well on these theoretical problems. On the other hand, when we discussed the problem of human nature and political problems, then differences arose between us. And contrary to what you think, you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realisation of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilisation, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should - and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification.