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Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault




Background information

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on October fifteen 1926 in Poitiers. His father was a doctor, and he had a standard provincial upbringing. He was educated at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) in Paris from 1946 to 1950, where he studied philosophy and psychology and was briefly a member of the French communist party. Foucault observed clinics at the Sainte-Anne mental asylum whilst he was at the ENS. After graduating, Foucault taught psychology at Lille University. In 1955 he went to Sweden as the head of the French cultural delegation to Uppsala. He wrote much of Madness and Civilization, his first major work, at the University of Uppsala. Foucault was transferred to Poland, then to Hamburg.

Madness and Civilization was presented as his doctoral thesis in 1960, and was published in 1961. Foucault became a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1960. This appointment represented the beginning of his career as a public intellectual. He joined the editorial board of the French critical journal, Tel Que. Other works followed: a study of the poet Raymond Roussel (1963), The birth of the clinic (1963), The order of things (1966), The Archeology of Knowledge (1969) Discipline and Punish (1975) and the three volumes of his ##History of Sexuality##. Foucault taught in Tunisia and at the University of Vincennes before his appointment to a Professorship in the History of Systems of Thought at the highly prestigious College de France in 1970.

Foucault was not only an intellectual and philosopher, but also a political activist. He was involved in a wide range of protests and campaigns: against the war in Algeria, against racism, against the ##Vietnam War##, for prison reform. For much of the 1970s his political work occupied him almost entirely. Foucault was openly gay, and lived with his long-term partner Daniel Defert. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1984.

Historical and Philosophical contexts

Foucault's intellectual family tree is hard to trace. Throughout his career, he was hostile to attempts to link him to any philosophical movement. He did suggest several important influences on Madness and Civilization. The first is the historian of religion Georges Dumezil, who got Foucault a job at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Dumezil was an expert on Indo-European religion, and emphasized sets of relations between various traditions and structures. He is often seen as a forerunner of the structuralist movement. Foucault claimed that Dumezil's notion of the importance of structure influenced him greatly. Dumezil was also important in introducing him to the medical and scientific libraries of Uppsala, which provided much of the raw material for Madness and Civilization.

Foucault's relationship to "structuralism" itself is complex. He repeatedly denied being a "structuralist", but many critics have nevertheless linked his work to that of structuralist thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Lacan. Structuralism as a movement attempted to study particular philosophical structures and systems of language. It derives from the work of the linguistic theorist de Saussure, who emphasized the role of "signs" in language. Signs are composed of the sounds that "signify" a word, and the object or concept that they signify. Speech and language are a complex interplay of different signs.

Many of Foucault's concerns might be described as "structuralist", such as his interest in the role of language and systems of power in controlling individuals. More importantly, his conception of the individual resembles that of many other structuralists. Although much of Foucault's work is aimed at giving individuals trapped within a particular discourse a "voice", universal ideas of human nature or man are meaningless. For him, the wider structures that control and create man are more important.

Another key figure is Foucault's mentor, Georges Canguilhem. Canguilhem was a historian of science who taught Foucault at the ENS in Paris. Foucault claimed that Canguilhem was a major influence over the original dissertation from which Madness and Civilization was drawn, a claim he always denied. Certainly, Canguilhem acted as an examiner of the thesis and academic patron. His comments on Madness and Civilization are particularly perceptive.

A more practical context is Foucault's experience of psychiatric hospitals as a student. He was briefly hospitalized for depression in his twenties, and later became interested in the practice of psychiatry. He observed clinics and worked with doctors at the famous Sainte-Anne mental hospital near Paris, eventually taking a diploma in psychology. Foucault briefly considered a career in psychiatry before turning to philosophy and philosophical psychology. It is uncertain exactly how these experiences informed his work, but it is clear that Foucault had first-hand knowledge of the modern treatment of madness.

Foucault's influence on the study of madness is considerable. This influence is particularly marked in America, and is most evident in the adoption of his terminology by other philosophers and historians. The "anti-psychiatry" movement, which opposed many modern psychiatric practices, also claimed Foucault as a patron saint. A diverse range of writers on the history of science, medicine and psychiatry have also been influenced by him. Arguably, many writers adopt Foucault without considering the implications: his role as the fashionable theorist of 1980s and 90s has resulted in many bad books allegedly inspired by him.

It is possible to see many of the important themes of Foucault's later thought introduced in this work. The idea of deep structures, of writing a history of knowledge about a certain topic, and of the discourse are all introduced here. Madness and Civilization represents the beginning of Foucault's various attempts to unravel the working of various types of power in modern society. Criticism of Foucault's methods and conclusions is also widespread. Traditionally, he is accused by historians of mishandling evidence and ignoring previous work in various fields. Foucault's legendary carelessness with footnotes and references may have something to do with this. For example, Foucault claimed that image of the Ship of Fools at the beginning of Madness and Civilization was real. Historians proved that it in fact existed only in books; Foucault declined to comment. Of all the criticisms of Madness and Civilization, however, that of Jacques Derrida is best known. In "Cogito et Histoire de la folie", Derrida argued that Foucault fundamentally misread Descartes. This provoked a stern reply from Foucault.

Formidable opposition is lined up against Foucault: his obscurity, hostility to traditional institutions and sloppy scholarship do not endear him to some people. Indeed, one critic said that "Foucault-bashing is the favorite indoor sport of American academics".

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