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Madness and Civilization

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Originally published




Michel Foucault

Psychology, Philosophy

Madness and Civilization t1gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcQoSni8YNJh7qG2

Original title
Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique

Richard Howard (abridged edition) Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (unabridged edition)

Media type
Print (hardcover and paperback)

299 (Vintage edition) 725 (unabridged edition)

Works by Michel Foucault, Philosophy books, Mental disorder books

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (French: Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique) is a 1964 abridged edition of a 1961 book by French philosopher Michel Foucault. An English translation of the complete 1961 edition, entitled History of Madness, was published in June 2006.


Foucault's first major book, Madness and Civilization is an examination of the evolving meaning of madness in European culture, law, politics, philosophy and medicine from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century, and a critique of historical method and the idea of history. It marks a turning in Foucault's thought away from phenomenology toward structuralism: though he uses the language of phenomenology to describe an evolving experience of the mad as "the other", he attributes this evolution to the influence of specific powerful social structures.


The book developed out of Foucault's earlier writing on psychology, his own psychological difficulties, and his experiences working in a mental hospital, and was written mainly between 1955 and 1959 while working in cultural-diplomatic and educational posts in Sweden (as director of a French cultural centre attached to the University of Uppsala), Germany, and Poland.


Foucault traces the evolution of the concept of madness through three phases: the Renaissance, the "Classical Age" (the later seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries) and the modern experience. He argues that in the Renaissance the mad were portrayed in art as possessing a kind of wisdom – a knowledge of the limits of our world – and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be. Renaissance art and literature depicted the mad as engaged with the reasonable while representing the mysterious forces of cosmic tragedy, but the Renaissance also marked the beginning of an objective description of reason and unreason (as though seen from above) compared with the more intimate medieval descriptions from within society.

Foucault contends that at the dawn of the age of reason, in the mid-seventeenth century, the rational response to the mad, who until then had been consigned to society's margins, was to separate them completely from society by confining them, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers and the like, in newly created institutions all over Europe – a process he calls "the Great Confinement."

The condition of these outcasts was seen as one of moral error. They were viewed as having freely chosen prostitution, vagrancy, blasphemy, unreason, etc. and the regimes of these new rational institutions were meticulous programs of punishment and reward aimed at causing them to reverse those choices.

The social forces Foucault sees driving this confinement include the need for an extra-judicial mechanism for getting rid of undesirables, and the wish to regulate unemployment and wages (the cheap labour of the workhouses applied downward pressure on the wages of free labour). He argues that the conceptual distinction between the mad and the rational was in a sense a product of this physical separation into confinement: confinement made the mad conveniently available to medical doctors who began to view madness as a natural object worthy of study and then as an illness to be cured.

For Foucault the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be seen as the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered. He sees the nominally more enlightened and compassionate treatment of the mad in these modern medical institutions as just as cruel and controlling as their treatment in the earlier, rational institutions had been.

...modern man no longer communicates with the madman [...] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence.


Sociologist José Guilherme Merquior discusses Madness and Civilization in Foucault (1985). Merquior argues that while Foucault raises important questions about the influence of social forces on the meaning of, and responses to, deviant behavior, Madness and Civilization is nonetheless so riddled with serious errors of fact and interpretation as to be of very limited value. Merquior notes that there is abundant evidence of widespread cruelty to and imprisonment of the insane during eras when Foucault contends that the mad were perceived as possessing wisdom, and that Foucault has thus selectively cited data that supports his assertions while ignoring contrary data. Madness was typically linked with sin by Christian Europeans, noted Merquior, and was therefore regarded as much less benign than Foucault tends to imply. Merquior sees Madness and Civilization as "a call for the liberation of the Dionysian id" similar to Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (1959), and an inspiration for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's Anti-Oedipus (1972).

Author Kenneth Lewes writes that Madness and Civilization is an example of the "critique of the institutions of psychiatry and psychoanalysis" that occurred as part of the "general upheaval of values in the 1960s". Lewes sees Foucault's work as being similar to, but more profound than, Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness (1961).

Philosopher Gary Gutting writes in Michel Foucault's Phanomenologie des Krankengeistes (1994):

The reactions of professional historians to Foucault's Histoire de la folie seem, at first reading, ambivalent, not to say polarized. There are many acknowledgements of its seminal role, beginning with Robert Mandrou's early review in Annales, characterizing it as a "beautiful book" that will be "of central importance for our understanding of the Classical period." Twenty years later, Michael MacDonald confirmed Mandrou's prophecy: "Anyone who writes about the history of insanity in early modern Europe must travel in the spreading wake of Michael Foucault's famous book, Madness and Civilization." Later endorsements have been even stronger. Jan Goldstein: "For both their empirical content and their powerful theoretical perspectives, the works of Michel Foucault occupy a special and central place in the historiography of psychiatry." Roy Porter: "Time has proved Madness and Civilization far the most penetrating work ever written on the history of madness." More specifically, Foucault has recently been heralded as a prophet of "the new cultural history." But criticism has also been widespread and often bitter.


Madness and Civilization Wikipedia