Steve's Reviews > Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
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's review
Aug 30, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: philosophy

I was a double major in psychology and English as an undergraduate, with a minor in philosophy. When I graduated in January of 1998, I hadn't yet heard about whether I'd been admitted to graduate school and couldn't find a job teaching English, my back-up plan. I decided to turn my philosophy minor into a major, as I already had more courses than required for a minor and was only 4 away. It so happened that I was missing were mostly already determined: (1) history of ancient philosophy, (2) classical modern philosophy, (3) senior seminar. I also had one elective (I took contemporary European philosophy with Tom Sheehan). For my senior seminar, I decided to take a graduate course on Foucault and Deleuze, as I had generally enjoyed continental philosophy and especially Deleuze (in a class I had read Marcuse, my prof suggested I read Deleuze and Guattari's "Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia" and chat with him about it over coffee). Unfortunately, most of the class was on Foucault and we only covered two Deleuze texts: (A) Foucault, and (B) Difference and Repetition. However, this means I'm more well-versed in Foucault than I'd care to be. Before the class started, I talked to my prof, Andrew Cutrofello, and asked if there was anything he suggested I read before class started. He suggested three: (1) James Miller's (by the way, my father's name) "The Passions of Michel Foucault," as a biography of him, (2) Madness and Civilization, and (3) Discipline and Punish. We wouldn't be reading (2) and (3) in class, as the focus was more on Foucault's epistemology (i.e., The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, etc.). So, I read them all -- (1) was full of stories of Foucault's sex life, anal fisting, and the like -- I had a hard time thinking of a person with my father's name writing about these. However, (2) and (3) were interesting to me. Madness and Civilization was especially interesting, as I was a psychology major, with interests in clinical psychology. Unfortunately, I took the work to be founded on historical facts, and it wouldn't be until my Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, where I wrote my history of psychology paper on changing bases of diagnoses of mental illness, that I found that Foucault's historical facts were often debated and sometimes made up.

The Mahers, two Harvard historians, published a reply to Foucault's text in "The American Psychologist." According to them, in 1494, Sebastian Brant's wrote a book called "Narrenschiff," or "Ship of Fools." However, Brant intended "Narrenschiff" to be a historical allegory, and not actually a recounting of historical facts. In fact, the only evidence of such ships were wood cutting with pictures of boats and "ruffians" on then. Foucault mistakenly took this to mean that these ships were real entities. He went on to base a large portion of his text on the idea of such things. While there clearly is reason to believe in culturally and temporally specific aspects of diagnosis, the rather radical epistemological break that Foucault was propagating was largely false. Furthermore, the psychologists, who rarely go so far as to research things they like for themselves, started publishing Foucault's work as fact, thereby leading to falsities being largely believed in the field. According to the Mahers, psychology texts in the 1980s took the satire of the ship of fools to be fact because of Foucault. If you're interested in reading their research, see the following article:

Maher, W.B. & Maher, B. (1982). "Stultifera Navis or Ignis Fatuus?" American Psychologist, 37(7), 756-761

I hear that "Madness and Civilization" was a shorted version of Foucault's text, "The History of Madness." I have not yet read the latter, and am certainly hoping that his sloppy scholarship was explained in it. Maybe that should be on my "to read" shelf, of maybe I'm too disappointed in the let-down of a seemingly good text being flawed that makes me not wanting to read it more.
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10/04/2016 marked as: read

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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike "The Narrenschiff, of course, is a literary composition, probably borrowed from the old Argonaut cycle, one of the great mythic themes recently revived and rejuvenated, acquiring an institutional aspect in the Burgundy Estates. Fashion favored the composition of these Ships, whose crew of imaginary heroes, ethical models, or social types embarked on a great symbolic voyage which would bring them, if not fortune, then at least the figure of their destiny or their truth..." p. 8

Foucault was perfectly aware of the fact that "Brant intended 'Narrenschiff' to be a historical allegory, and not actually a recounting of historical facts." I think this is reasonably obvious, given that he highlights that very fact on page eight. As such, the assertion that "Foucault mistakenly took this to mean that these ships were real entities" is mistaken.

In addition, he did not "base a large portion of his text on the idea of such things." Instead, the Narrenschiff accounts occupy a small portion of the text. But had he dedicated a large portion of the text to these accounts, given his full awareness of the fact of their allegorical and symbolic status, I fail to see how this would have been problematic (except that he would have been perhaps spending too much time on something which is, in fact, a detail).

Finally, if "psychology texts in the 1980s took the satire of the ship of fools to be fact," then this is a product of poor scholarship on the part of the authors of those textbooks. As illustrated above, Foucault makes perfectly clear his awareness of the symbolic status of the Ships of Fools.

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