Michel Foucault: Should we have been shocked by "revelations" about his book on madness?

Historians in the News

[Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week.]

... Another combined experience of deja vu and “so what?” came in the wake of the recent appearance in English of the whole of Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, published by Routledge. It was accepted as a doctoral thesis by the Sorbonne in 1960 and published in France the following year.

Foucault's abridged version has long been available under the title Madness and Civilization, translated by Richard Howard. His first major work, it is lyrical and sweeping even in the more compact version — an account of the emergence of the “Age of Reason” through the psychiatric policing of public space. For Foucault, the insane asylum is one of the cornerstones of a new cultural order emerging between the 17th and 19th centuries. Locking away the mad, subjecting them to control and to study, bourgeois society sought to contain the irrational and reassure itself of its own perfect rationality.

An exciting book, and one that found its first audience in English among the “anti-psychiatry” movement of the late 1960s that challenged the authority of the mental-health establishment. That movement is often blamed for the release, a couple of decades later, of many thousands of psychotics to wander homeless in the streets. Well, maybe. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that legislators studied Foucault’s work and found in it a perfect justification for cutting social-service budgets. Ideas have consequences! But I do tend to suspect that the barking men and dead-eyed women haunting my neighborhood are more the “consequences” of free-market economic doctrine than of Parisian structuralism.

Be that as it may, the resurfacing of Foucault’s book in unabridged form has been an occasion for a closer look at its claims. In March, the Times Literary Supplement in London ran a very critical review pointing out that Foucault’s command of the historical evidence concerning the treatment of the insane in the past is unreliable.

The critic, Andrew Scull, is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Some of his review is a bit over the top. The impulse to denounce the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s is, like the tendency to mock hippies, quite understandable; yet both are largely unnecessary and should for the most part be avoided.

But many of Scull’s complaints hit their target. Foucault drew on out-of-date or otherwise questionable sources. Even then he sometimes cited them inaccurately, and in the case of medieval references to “ships of fools” (boats filled with madmen) he construed a literary allegory as literal social history. “What interested him, or shielded him,” writes Scull, “was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong.”...

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