Extreme Prejudice: notes on Andrew’s Scull’s TLS review of Foucault’s History of Madness

Colin Gordon has provided the text of a letter he wrote to the TLS in response to Scull, which they have declined to publish. I’m pleased to be able to present it here for the first time. –Jeremy


Extreme Prejudice: notes on Andrew’s Scull’s TLS review of Foucault’s History of Madness

Colin Gordon

[An earlier version of this piece was submitted for publication in the Times Literary Supplement]

Andrew Scull repeats (Letters, TLS April 20, responding to my letter of April 6) his charge that Michel Foucault’s History of Madness postulated a non-existent ‘Great Internment’ in early modern England (TLS March 21 2007). What did Foucault mean by a ‘Great Internment’? His chapter bearing this title dealt with a cluster of early modern European state initiatives to organize the systematic internment of vagrants, beggars and the idle poor. While Foucault was particularly interested in the impact of these measures on the history of madness, he was, as I remarked in my letter, not focussing in this chapter on institutions designed specifically for the custody of the insane (such institutions of course existed, and he discussed their history elsewhere in his book). Foucault’s reference in this chapter to one such foundation dedicated partly to the insane, at Hainau in 1533, cited by Scull in his response to my letter as though it were a refutation of my remark, is in fact the only such reference in the whole of this chapter. Pace Scull, Foucault was not mistaken in saying that most of the major 16th-century English establishments for the custody of various categories of the destitute (the refounded St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, Christ’s and Bethlem hospitals) were, like Hainau and other German foundations of the same period, established in former monastic premises. (So was the workhouse at Norwich, with its infirmary located in a former lazar-house.)

Foucault’s account of the English form of the ‘Great Internment’, as he thus defines it, is brief but careful. He notes that Tudor and early Stuart legislation to establish workhouses and houses of correction was of limited practical effect, and that before the 18th century the English network of such institutions was modest in its extent. But he correctly points out that in the course the 18th century this cohort grew significantly: he cites a figure of 126 workhouse corporations in England by the end of the century. In fact more recent research shows that this understates the full picture. Already in 1725 the SPCK’s Account of Several Work-houses listed 126 establishments, while an enlarged edition of 1732 added a further 55. According to Paul Slack (1990), the total number of workhouses in operation nationwide by 1732 may have been more than 700. Slack (1998) cites Hitchcock’s (1985) calculation that ‘by the 1740s there were at least 600 workhouses in England, housing and employing almost 30,000 people’. A national survey in 1776 identified about 2000 workhouses, with a capacity in excess of 90,000 – around one per cent of the population. If one does not choose to call this a ‘Great Internment’, it at least represents, for its time, a not inconsiderable custodial archipelago. Foucault clearly acknowledges here the mixed and interacting roles of state, local and private initiative in these English developments (while also making plain that their French equivalent was not the absolutist state monolith commonly imagined by English historians). Foucault does not say a great deal about the English workhouses and their role in the custody of the insane, and he does not claim that their repressive and carceral functionality, effect or scale, was exactly comparable to that of the Hopitaux Généraux which Roy Porter called their ‘twin cities’. In what he does have to say about English history, it is not evident from this review, or indeed from Scull’s other writings, where the offence of gross, fantastical ignorance and charlatanism, or the “comical” Continental ignorance of English affairs which Scull wishes to denounce and deride, is actually to be found. On the other hand, when Scull asserts that widespread institutional internment of the poor “simply never occurred in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, it is he who appears to be in conflict the historical evidence.

English-speaking historians often refer to ‘Foucault’s Great Internment’ as if it were the thesis that there was a systematic policy of early modern European states for the incarceration the mentally ill. Such a contention is nowhere to be found in Foucault’s book. Some of the same scholars, including Scull, have complained for decades either that Foucault elides the differences between French and British history, a charge which any moderately attentive reading shows to be unsustainable, or that he devotes more space and attention to France than to England, which is true, but not normally judged a serious intellectual crime. One can imagine Foucault’s Flaubertian relish at Scull’s judgement on his research: “a handful of archival sources, all of them French”. Scull’s complaints at Foucault’s predominant reliance on French sources would have some point if Foucault had used them to interpret English events; but Scull offers no evidence that he does.

Scull alleges, in an attempt at panoptic biographical knowingness, that Foucault was unable to research his book properly from archival sources because at the time he was ‘in intellectual exile in Sweden, at Uppsala’. In fact Foucault was at that time the owner of a Jaguar car which he drove often and fast from Uppsala to Paris, and he regularly spent summer months working in the archives of the Arsenal and the Bastille. Foucault later co-edited, with Arlette Farge, Le Désordre des Familles, a volume of documents from these archives, and Farge has testified to Foucault’s mastery of these sources, dozens of which are referenced in History of Madness – the majority of them being not, as Scull suggests, printed official regulations, but manuscript records of the internment, examination, and treatment of named individuals (the same category of documents was later discussed in Foucault’s memorable essay ‘The Lives of Infamous Men’; Foucault also edited two book-length editions of memoirs written by the interned: I, Pierre Riviere and Herculine Barbin). The named individual patient and internee appears in Foucault’s pages rather more frequently than in those of Scull’s self-styled ‘history from below’.

Scull has, however, an interesting touch in the use of biographical detail. He writes that Foucault’s first book was published “in the aftermath of a bout of depression and a suicide attempt”. During the interval of four years (1950-54) between these respective events, apart from writing the book in question, Foucault passed his agrégation, taught psychology at the ENS and Lille, worked as a clinical psychologist at the Sainte-Anne hospital, started work on a thesis on the post-Cartesian origins of psychology, had an affair with the composer Jean Barraqué and wrote a major essay on a text by Binswanger which he co-translated from the German. Some “aftermath”.

As far as the French historical content of History of Madness (that is, most of its content) is concerned, Scull fails to identify a single demonstrable error. In his scornful appraisal of Foucault’s bibliography, Scull fails to name a single missing primary or secondary source whose neglect could be claimed to have vitiated Foucault’s analysis. Who, according to Scull, are Foucault’s unjustly neglected precursors? In 1993, one finds Scull informing readers of his own rewritten Museums of Madness that, with the exception of two works (by Parry-Jones and by Hunter and Macalpine), fifteen years earlier the history of madness in early modern England had been, “to borrow Sir Richard Blackmore’s phrase, ‘an intellectual Africa'”. As for the use of archival sources in historical research, one may perhaps guess that Scull’s true level of commitment to this practice is conveyed in his impatient reference, in another of his scathing book reviews, to “myopic manifestations of historians earnestly working their way through internal memoranda and hospital records that might better have been left to moulder in a decent obscurity”.)

Turning to questions of factual accuracy, one can imagine Foucault penitence and mortification in the face of Scull’s damning revelation that the spectator admittance price at Bedlam was not always one penny, and that visits on Sundays were discontinued and public admission limited after the 1770s. Except that a fairer judge of exactitude than Scull might have noticed that Foucault, even in 1961, expressed some prudent uncertainty about the evidence on Bedlam visits. Scull neglects, more importantly, to acknowledge that Foucault was not alone in his mistake. Scull himself, for example, was still writing, nearly thirty years after Foucault, that “throughout the century, the doors of Bethlem were open to the public and the inmates exhibited to satisfy the impertinent curiosity of sightseers at a mere penny a time”. Scull afterwards acknowledged this error and confessed to “relying upon and helping to disseminate this myth in some of my earlier work”; for unexplained reasons, the absolution he appears to have granted himself for this misdemeanour is not made available to Foucault. When Foucault is denounced by Scull for describing as a ‘refurbishment’ (in the original French, a ‘reconstruction’) the relocation of Bethlem to a new purpose-built building on a new site, one wonders if this is the kind of material, however inflated by Scull’s blustering insolence, on which a credible charlatan-hunt can be sustained, even in the current pages of the TLS. (Scull serves up, once again, some stale mockeries of Foucault’s opening chapter on the condition of the mediaeval insane and the iconography of the Ship of Fools, ignoring, yet again, Foucault’s perfectly credible references to the widespread late mediaeval European practice of religious pilgrimage to shrines reputed to cure insanity. )

Scull questions whether many readers will wish to ‘plough through’ this unabridged translation of Histoire de la Folie. The complete failure of his 3700-word review to give an intelligible account of the book’s main ideas, and the reliance on little more than perfunctory recital of chapter headings to convey the content of 300 pages of newly translated material, entitles one to wonder (not for the first time) whether Scull himself has ever ploughed, or only flicked, either in French or English, through the full text of the celebrated work which he is so determined to eliminate from the scholarly canon. One must also wonder why Scull chooses to gamble his own scholarly credibility on such an ill-founded and malevolently unbalanced polemic. For while Scull has certainly criticised Foucault in the past, new readers of Scull’s current annihilating judgement on Foucault would scarcely guess that Scull had written as recently as 1989 that ‘almost all those who have worked in the history of psychiatry during the past two decades and more owe multiple debts to the late Michel Foucault’, or that in 1989 Scull considered it worth citing Foucault’s work as sharing his own view that the moral treatment of the insane introduced by Tuke and Pinel was a significant break from prior medical practice, or indeed that a quotation from Madness and Civilisation served as an epigraph to Scull’s Museums of Madness, a work whose very language is in places steeped in Foucault’s influence.

Let us remind ourselves that the “salutary” lesson which Scull now expects readers to learn from Foucault’s book, “which might be amusing, if it had no effect on people’s lives” is “the ease with which history can be distorted, facts ignored, the claims of human reason disparaged and dismissed, by someone sufficiently cynical and shameless, and willing to trust in the ignorance and the credulity of his customers”. Historians as little given to Foucault-devoteeship as Roy Porter and Jan Goldstein acknowledged some time ago that something had been amiss with much English-speaking commentary on Foucault and the history of madness; in Porter’s words, “the standard criticisms have often been products of prejudice, misunderstanding and ignorance (not least, ignorance of those parts of Folie et déraison omitted from the English translation)”. Today, rather than take the overdue opportunity to move on and allow a more informed and open-minded reassessment, Scull, a keen propagator (alongside Porter himself) of a number of those “standard criticisms”, decides to raise the stakes and reach for the airbrush. It is hard to say what is more astonishing in Scull’s TLS review and his subsequent letter: their obtuse malice and aggression, their indolence and hypocrisy, or their arrogant attempt to silence dissenting voices. One is reminded of Foucault’s remark in reply to a similar attack 25 years ago by Lawrence Stone: “I fear you have taken a considerable risk. Think of those who have read my book; think of those who will read it and want to collate it with your review of it.” It has just got much easier for many people to do exactly that.

My review article on Foucault’s book is here.

Another web article on the factual basis of Scull’s review is here.

References and resources

Sources on English workhouses:


Slack, Paul. The English Poor Law, 1531-1782, 1990.

“Slack (1998) cites a calculation”: Paul Slack, From Reformation to Improvement. Public Welfare in Early Modern England. OUP 1998, 133.

Hitchcock, Tim. Paupers and Preachers: The SPCK and the Parochial Workhouse Movement in Lee Davison et al (eds), Stilling the Grumbling Hive: The Response to Social and Economic Problems, 1688-1750 1992, Alan Sutton.

“relying upon and helping to disseminate this myth in some of my earlier work“: Andrew Scull, The Most Solitary of Afflictions. Madness and Society in Britain, p 51 n17.

“myopic manifestations… to moulder in a decent obscurity”: Andrew Scull, “Bethlem Demystified? Medical History 1999 April; 43(2): 248-255: review of Jonathan Andrews, Asa Briggs, Roy Porter, Penny Tucker and Keir Waddington, The History of Bethlem, Routledge, 1997,

“the standard criticisms”: Roy Porter, Rewriting the History of Madness, 119.

“an intellectual Africa”: The Most Solitary of Afflictions, xvii. Scull continues: “Much exploration still remains to be done, but our maps of the territory are by now far more detailed and accurate… we have moved decisively beyond the period of writing fables about a dark and dimly understood continent”.

Foucault’s reply to Shorter: “An Exchange with Michel Foucault”,

Michel Foucault, reply by Lawrence Stone. The New York Review of Books, Vol 30, No 5 March 31, 1983

Biographical information on Foucault: Daniel Defert, “Chronologie”, in Michel Foucault, Dits et Ecrits 1994, Vol 1 13-64.

Previous encounters: Colin Gordon, “Histoire de la Folie: An unknown work by Michel Foucault”, History of the Human Sciences 3:1, Feb 1990, 3-26; reprinted with minor amendment in Rewriting the History of Madness. Studies in Foucault’s Histoire de la Folie, eds. Arthur Still and Irving Velody, Routledge 1992, 19-42. Andrew Scull, Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, History of the Human Sciences 3:1, Feb 1990, 57-68. Colin Gordon, “History, Madness and other errors; A Response” History of the Human Sciences 3:3, Oct 1990, 381-396. “A failure to communicate? On the reception of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie by Anglo-American historians”, in Rewriting the History of Madness 150-166. Colin Gordon, “Rewriting the history of misreading”, ibid. 167-184.

Scull on Foucault’s style: “the idiosyncratic intellectual pyrotechnics of Michel Foucault -who attempts a peculiar marriage of history and French structuralism in a style evocative of James Joyce at his most obscure”. Andrew Scull, Social Order / Mental Disorder. Anglo-American Psychiatry in Historical Perspective. University Of California Press 1989, p 252

Scull on the abridgement of Madness and Civilisation and Foucault’s methodology: “For reasons that remain obscure, what appeared in English was the abbreviated text of the French paperback edition, an abridgment that omitted at least 40 percent of the original version, as well as the bulk of the footnotes and references. (Perhaps Foucault did not object too strenuously, since in this version the transitions between madness in the medieval, the classical, and the modern periods seem much more mysterious than in the original, thus according with his later emphasis on the impossibility of explaining epistemological transitions or ruptures.)” ibid 15

Scull and Foucault on Tuke and Pinel: “On one fundamental issue, whether the reforms of the moral treatment era constituted a rupture with the past, I think Foucault is more correct than not. Roy Porter, in particular has recently sought to argue that, on the contrary, the activities of Samuel Tuke and Philippe Pinel exhibit fundamental continuities with earlier views and practices-a contention that, given historians’ proclivity for emphasizing continuities rather than drastic change, is likely to find a receptive audience. But, granted that Foucault’s metaphysics leads him to adopt an overly schematic notion of a radical epistemological break with the past and that one can indeed uncover anticipations and adumbrations of moral treatment earlier in the eighteenth century, still I think he is right to insist on the importance of the change that moral treatment represents.” Ibid 15-16

“multiple debts to the late Michel Foucault”: Ibid 13

“throughout the century…. a mere penny a time”: Ibid 51

8 Responses

  1. Interestingly, found this at the foucault.info site — where gordon says “Scull fails to identify a single demonstrable error. …” I’d have to check again but if my memory is good I’m certain that he did point out some errors in Foucaults text.

    Some of which were obvious enough to be convincing…

    However inaccuracies and all, that does not change the value of Foucault’s work, just finds errors…

    • Alot of other commentators agree with Gordon in their findings that Andrew Scull fails to demonstrate any real error in Foucault’s book.

  2. […] de Scull al Times Literary Supplement. El texto (en ingles) fue reproducido el Foucault Blog: https://foucaultblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/extreme-prejudice/ Este blog tiene tambien entradas adicionales sobre este […]

  3. […] moment. In the meantime, I recommend a post on Jeremy’s Foucault blog that has an unpublished rebuttal to the Scull article about Foucault that I somewhat flirted with (albeit not uncritically) the other day. It’s just one of the […]

  4. Another error in Scull’s review:
    Scull (and Porter before him) attributes to Foucaul the idea that Pinel and Tuke represent a full break from the past in terms of uncovering madness.
    On the contrary, I think is exactly the idea that Foucault critiques in his book by showing that Pinel and Tuke, far from proving to be the medical revolutionaries about the true nature of mental illness from a medical standpoint, ended up being subliminally an evolution from previous constraints on madness.
    See Canguilhem’s review of the book.

  5. […] Scull again accuses Foucault’s work of being “superficial and dated” and again claims that because he was in “intellectual exile” in Sweden at the time he wrote it that he didn’t have access to the proper documents and archives. If these claims sound familiar it’s because they were made already by Scull in the TLS. Colin Gordon already wrote a long rebuttal that you can see here. […]

  6. In fact, I’d also add that many average histories of mental health themselves also define Pinel and Tuke as being the first or among the first to create a revolution in how the mad were treated..

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