Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

by Michel Foucault

Librarian note: an alternate cover for this edition can be found here.Michel Foucault examines the archeology of madness in the West from 1500 to 1800 from the late Middle Ages, when insanity was still considered part of everyday life and fools and lunatics walked the streets freely, to the time when such people began to be considered a threat, asylums were first built, and walls were erected between the insane and the rest of humanity.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Philosophy
  • Rating: 4.11
  • Pages: 320
  • Publish Date: November 28th 1988 by Vintage
  • Isbn10: 067972110X
  • Isbn13: 9780679721109

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In this volume Foucault illustrates how notions like madness are socially and culturally constructed in any given age and place. Leper colonies housed/confined/kept from society those with this disease, and when leprosy largely died out there were these places of confinement we could use for the poor, criminals, and anyone we didn't like, and this is what we do today, though our ideas about madness--what it is and how to treat it, how to exclude those that have it in various ways--are changing constantly. But Foucault isn't trying to write in this fashion, he has in mind exploring the varieties of madness (as with William James, not what religion is, but The Varieties of Religious experience), showing how madness is depicted in art in various periods, in the Renaissance for instance as a part of the world, as a source (sometimes) of insight and wisdom and difference and mystical or just creative vision, then shifting dramatically in the classical period to horror, to something we need to fear and confine. As I said, in the forty years since it was written, ideas of the social construction of reality have become sort of now commonplace, but it was groundbreaking then, work from one of the 2 or 3 greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, maybe, from someone who may have begun this journey in the late forties when he was taken by his parents to a therapist who suggested a "cure" for his being gay (something that was indeed considered a disorder by psychiatry until relatively recently, though as we know, some people in the world still think it is something one can "cure"). I think in general Foucault, following the Renaissance view of madness, romanticizes it as a kind of alternative truth. So while I think Foucault's book is brilliant--I really do; I like Kind Lear's wise fool and the art of Bosch and the poetry of sweet mad John Clare--it also has to be understood with some caution.

Further, I read it without sufficient context either of this book itself, or of Foucault's corpus, or of the philosophical background in which or against which MF is operating. The problem is intensified by the fact that Foucault is one of those thinkers who changed his mind extensively from first to last on important matters, and therefore the philosophy of this early work is theoretically incomplete and does not fully know where it will end up by the end of MF's life. Add to that that there are out-and-out absurdities of method (his historical method) and metaphysical positions that are ridiculous that are both implicit (or explicit) within structures and ideas that are nonetheless profound and of great signficance, with the result that the naive reader (which I am -- especially given how little I know about Continental thought) can hardly disengage and disentangle or, consequently, even read the book at hand with sufficient clarity to get it in any focus. Thus, a good grounding in good secondary literature is often essential to even being able to begin read the texts with any understanding -- especially if the material is fundamentally foreign to one's way of thinking or intellectual experiences -- postwar thought for me; classical (ancient Greek) thought for others. This is not true for all thinkers -- some can be read and the secondary literature simply debases them. Rated as philosophy or as poetry, this would receive 5-stars for its originality, if nothing else.

But the truly interesting bits of this are around madness as a social construction. If I have concerns about it, they are mainly around the idea that by defining madness as a social construction it did allow governments to close down institutions and put the mad onto the streets with no care and no protection.

However, I do feel I read enough of it to get the general idea. Enter "homo dialecticus." In the appendix we see a hint of what may be Foucault the cultural theorist, hypothesizing that humans need unreason, in the form of dreams, fantasies, madness, etc., in order to define our existences.

Ve elik ettii tarih de pek iç açc bir tarih olmadndan dolay benim için zorlayc bir kitap oldu.

Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality.