Madness and Civilization

Review of Madness and Civilization from a blogger, Andrew Minh, at Unnatural Habitat, who observes:

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.

Further on, wanting to take issue with some looseness he sees in the book both historically and grammatically, he cites this passage:

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.

I’m sure it appears this way, and it’s funny that we just a blog post about Searle’s admiration for Foucault’s clear(er) writing compared to his opinion of Derrida, but isn’t Foucault here riffing on the well-known issue that Heidegger brings up about the nothing and what it “is”? I think this is more than just a canceling out, but a manifestation of the nothing.

Or try this, discussing a man with a fantastically good memory:

Take the word nothing. I read it and thought it must be very profound. I thought it would be better to call nothing something…for I see this nothing and it is something.

So I turned to my wife and asked her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.” I understood it differently, I saw this nothing and felt she must be wrong…. if nothing can appear to a person, that means it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in…

The Mind of a Mnemonist, by A.R. Luria, p. 131. Italics in original.

So that’s the issue: when nothing can appear to a person.


4 Responses

  1. When Foucault argues about the “nothing”, he´s describing the déraison of XVII and XVIII siecles, not talking about some subject related to Heidegger. He´s talking about Sauvages, Zacchias, Pitcairn, and other scientists and jurists writing about madness.

    But there´s a good question: is Madness and Civilization one of the most readed books of XX century? Or one of the most misunderstood books?


  2. Thanks for the link and the clarification on that quote. I haven’t read much Heidegger, so I didn’t immediately get that reference – which from what I understand is like the plenum that being and nothingness create.

    This quote in its entirety, by the way, is on pages 100-101 in the Routledge edition.

    This quote at the end of that chapter sums up where he was going with that:

    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. Thats, 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)….

  3. Why do i feel that foucault is underated…he makes much more sense than some other philosophers, yet is not taken in the same way. I’ve just started reading his madness and civilzation and every sentence is understandable and just makes sense to me!

  4. @Miss Manic: You probably feel he is underrated because, if your chosen pseudonym is any indication, you have a personal investment in the culture of madness.

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