Foucault’s Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization is one of those must-read texts of 20th century continental philosophy. In it, Michel Foucault argues that reason is based on the exclusion of the mentally ill, who are placed in institutions where society attempts to forget them. This, he says, came as a result of the classical age and the Cartesian concept of cogito, where sane people were supposed to be able to exorcise madness from correct thinking, and mad people were those who gave primacy to their hallucinations. They were once romanticized in art, like in the proverbial ship of fools, but now they are bound to reason.

He traces the great confinement – a term he uses for the locking away of the insane – to the closing of the lazar houses in the 17th century. These institutions were then used to collect the rabble and the mentally unfit. Unreason, therefore, became akin to disease, and now it replaced leprosy as the great unknown terror. Later, in the industrial age, they were seen along with the rabble as potential cheap labor.

He argues that the conception that madness is defined along scientific terms is mistaken – it is really the prevailing morality that defines what madness is. Madness confined cannot cause fear, and it cannot offend reasonable and moral citizens of a state.

The book – while dressing itself in the garb of a rigorous historical and scientific analysis of madness – takes too much poetic license and makes too many unprovable assertions for it to have any real historical and scientific value. The link he points out between the closure of the lazar houses and the creation of the houses of correction neatly fits his thesis that madness was feared as a disease and that it needed to be confined, but despite a torrent of ink on the matter, it still only seems like two events following each other chronologically, not two events in a direct causal chain. Similarly he states that madness in the 18th century got such labels as hysteria, which was believed to be caused from too much sensational input because of an “immoral life”. Nowhere does he cite any documents that state this. Similar cheats run throughout the book – but they are hard to spot sometimes because of his convoluted language. The quality of his writing varies wildly, from the interesting turn of phrase, to poorly conceived sentences and outright obfuscation:

Joining vision and blindness, image and judgment, hallucination and language, sleep and waking, day and night, madness is ultimately nothing, for it unites in them all that is negative. But the paradox of this nothing is to manifest itself, to explode in signs, in words, in gestures. Inextricably unity of order and disorder, of the reasonable being of things and this nothingness of madness!

What he is saying is that madness is essentially nothing because the hallucinations taken for real by the madman, and the real world as envisioned by the sane man, cancel each other out, therefore becoming nothing. It is obvious what he is doing with his dialectic: playing with words.

Overall, there is plenty of food for thought here, especially in the concluding chapter in which he praises the genius of artists like Goya and writers like Nietzsche and de Sade. It’s clear where his sympathy lies – that is, somewhere in the “beyond”, in the ship of fools, in primitive savagery, in passion and desire. It shouldn’t be taken as anything other than a reflection of Foucault’s opinion on the subject matter. In all fairness, he does raise a pertinent question to the idea of what we call madness: whether what we call madness is really just a moral projection of our society, and not a hard scientific fact. Since his day we have seen changes in society – such as with gay rights – that have shown how some erstwhile psychological maladies are now considered as biologically inherent (no doubt the gay rights issues was the elephant in the room when he was writing this). But, this is not a good objective analysis of madness because each instance of his historical exposition is driven by his underlying thesis that madness is the bogeyman of so-called reasonable society (and therefore an untenable moral construct). So in the end, Foucault raises interesting questions, yet he does so with an overwhelming abundance of verbiage, and, despite his philosophical dialectic, he does not really prove anything.

Based on the translation of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, by Richard Howard for Routledge Classics (2001)

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UPDATE: Thanks to Jeremy at Foucault blog, I was able to make more sense of the quote I pulled (pgs. 100-101, Routledge edition). In the Heidegerrian sense of “nothing”, where “being” and “nothing” create a plenum, that is they both create a whole, Foucault is saying that madness is like “reason dazzled”, or, if you like, “unreason” – and this “unreason” is the complement of “reason”. Further, because in Heideggerrian thinking “nothingness” is “something”, simply because “being” can’t even be without the concept of “nothing”, this “unreason” resulting from “reason” makes the unreasonable madman a “nothing”, a “non-being”. Seriously, I’m going mad just thinking about this.

Jeremy says that this is what Foucault is pointing out: that the madman is “nothing” personified.

This quote from Foucault ought to clarify where he was going going with that train of thought:

Confinement is the practice which corresponds most exactly to madness experienced as unreason, that is, as the empty negativity of reason; by confinement, madness is acknowledged to be nothing. That is, on one hand madness is immediately perceived as difference: whence the forms of spontaneous and collective judgment sought, not from physicians, but from men of good sense, to determine the confinement of a madman; and on the other hand, confinement cannot have any other goal than correction (that is suppression of the difference, or the fulfillment of this nothingness in death)…

The reason for his wordplay on madness being “nothing” is now clear to me. But still … is it not wordplay and nothing else?

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27 Responses to “Foucault’s Madness and Civilization”


  1. 1 trabizon

    I figured it was a great historical & poetical sourcebook, but quite a lot of universities still force students to go through the motions of searching it & his other stuff for scientific truth.

  2. 2 unnatural habitat

    quite a lot of universities still force students to go through the motions of searching it & his other stuff for scientific truth.

    and given our fetish for scientific truth that’s kind of sketchy!

    I’ll read more by him before I judge the entire body of his work.

  3. 3 unnatural habitat

    Did you read him in French, trabizon? I was wondering if his original text read better. I might try him in his mother tongue, but my French isn’t the best.

  4. 4 trabizon

    Madness in French – I was sharing a house with a Francophile madman at the time – and everything else in English. It’s not like with Derrida, whose universal theories only work for French speakers.

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