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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.

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