As anticipated, Andrew Scull has replied to the letters defending Foucault’s History of Madness. He begins by attacking Colin Gordon:
Sir, – As a devout Foucaldian, Colin Gordon has long been in the habit of trying to manoeuvre disputes about the substance of Michel Foucault’s scholarship into the safer harbour of squabbles about particular quotations. Years ago, for example, he attacked Erik Midelfort, the eminent historian of madness and witchcraft in early modern Germany, in this fashion, ignoring the devastating critique Midelfort had offered of Foucault’s claims about the treatment of the mad in the Middle Ages, and instead making a huge fuss about the meaning of the ambiguous sentence “Les fous avaient alors une existence facilement errante”.
This is the famous line stating that the mad had “an easy, wandering existence.”
He goes on:
He’s at it again. He accuses me of “manipulative misquotation” (Letters, April 6) and informs your readers that when I wrote that Foucault asserted that English lunatic asylums were established in former monasteries I was, not to put too fine a point on it, lying; and that Foucault was instead talking here about “foundations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses of correction in England and Germany”.
I looked at this passage after reading Gordon’s letter. Gordon says this is all about the poor and it’s true that this section as a whole is about the poor. However there are one of two sentences where it would be possible to apply Scull’s interpretation if one were reading loosely, where indeed it may be a matter of translation.
I don’t see anything wrong with focusing on translation.