Skip over navigation

Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault

Passion and Delirium

The Insane

Aspects of Madness


Foucault explores the relationship between madness and passion. The danger of madness is related to the danger of the passions. The passions were denounced as the cause of madness, but they were more fundamentally linked. Madness was related to the very possibility of passion. Before and after Descartes, passion was the place where the body and soul met. The medicine of spirits and humors explains how passions and the body's movements interacted. Passion offers the possibility for madness because it allows diseases like madness in which the body and soul are affected. Passion makes madness possible. Before the eighteenth century, passion and madness were closely related. But the classical period was original. The Greeks and Romans saw passion as temporary madness. But in the classical period passion offered the chance for madness to penetrate into the world of reason. Madness was not just the consequence of passion; it was created by the unity of body and soul, and put that unity into question.

Madness beginning in passion is also the suspension of passion and the dissolution of the unity of body and soul. The body convulses, and is out of touch with the train of thoughts. In madness, the totality of body and soul is divided up according to images that unite segments of body and soul. Beginning with passion, madness is an intense movement of the unity of body and soul. This is unreason, but it becomes irrational movement. Then the unreal appears. The unreal must be examined. What Foucault calls the circle of non-being is that of hallucinations and error.

Imagination is not madness. Madness is beyond imagination because it asserts that imagination is truth, but yet it is rooted in imagination. Madness has its own strange logic. It takes an image, undermines it and organizes it around a segment of language. The ultimate language of madness is reason, but reason enveloped in the importance of the image. Classical madness has two levels: a perfectly organized surface discourse, which is a kind of reason in action, and a second delirium of pure reason which makes it truly madness. In the classical conception of madness, there are two forms of delirium. The first is a special form that is linked to certain diseases of the mind such as melancholia. This delirium is part of the signs of madness. The second is implicit delirium, which exists in all alterations of mind. Discourse understood in this way covers the entire range of madness. Classical madness is essentially the existence of delirious discourse, not a change in mind or body. Delirium comes from the Latin word deliro, meaning to move out of the proper path. Language is an essential structure of madness. Madness is a structure of discourse which gives it a hold over body and soul. But what makes this language delirium? What makes it true madness? Why does this discourse declare the absence of reason? We need to approach this question through the language of dreams and delirium.

The resemblance between madness and dreams is traditional. The seventeenth century preserves this resemblance, only to break with it. Dreams and madness are seen as the same substance. Madness occurs when the madman deceives himself about dream-like images. Madness begins where access to the truth is clouded. The relationship to the truth defines the type of madness: deliria alter the relationship to truth in perception, hallucinations alter representation, and dementias weaken the faculties that afford access to the truth. Blindness comes close to the nature of classical madness. Madness, which includes blindness and sight, night and day, is ultimately nothing because it unites negative things. Classical madness is always retreating but always visible in the figure of the madman.

Unreason is the only word that describes all of these traits. Unreason is not reason alienated or lost, but reason dazzled. The madman looks at the same light of reason as the sane man, but sees nothing. The Cartesian formula of doubt is a great exorcism of madness. It closes its eyes to the daylight and is therefore secured against madness. The opposition of day and night is vital in classical thought; it is a kind of law. This law prescribes the inevitable order and makes truth possible. But there are extremities where it can be transgressed. On one side is tragedy, on the other, madness. Foucault analyzes classical tragedy, in which day and night confront each other. This picture of unreason allows a better understanding of confinement. The madness of the classical period stopped being a sign of another world and became a paradoxical manifestation of non- being. Confinement relates to madness as non-being, as nothing. Did madness vanish from the classical horizon and become non-being? Foucault argues that we need to let classical culture formulate its experience of madness.


Foucault's treatment of madness and the passions emphasizes the intellectual and cultural role of the passions in creating a space where madness could occur. Descartes's analysis of the passions, The Passions of the Soul (1649) is one of the most famous works of passions psychology. Descartes and other writers argue that the passions are feelings and emotions that move people to action. Anger, envy, and lust are all passions. Passions are experienced in the mind, but have a physical effect, provoking bodily movement. Seventeenth century philosophers, particularly Descartes, were greatly interested in the relationship between mind and body. The passions link mind and body, because they begin in the mind and lead to action.

There is a long tradition of opposing the passions to reason, and discussing their harmful effects. As Foucault points out, the link between passion and madness was well-established. But Foucault goes further by arguing that a theory of the passions which links body and soul helps to create something like madness, which affects both body and soul. Foucault automatically assumes that madness affects body and mind, even though very few passion theorists argue about madness in these terms.

Foucault's analysis of classical madness and passion deals with the effects of madness on the body. But what interests him more are the products of the insane mind: delirium and hallucinations. He examines the insane mind by contrasting madness with two similar states, imagination and dreaming. Both involve strange and unreal images that are similar to those seen and experienced by madmen.

However, for Foucault the key difference between madness and these unreal images is truth. Foucault says that madness exists when someone believes that fantastic images are true. Madness involves a distortion of the truth as the mad person experiences it. Foucault stresses the coherence and logic of madness. It has its own language, and the delusion of the madman makes sense within his distorted world. While delirium is a symptom of certain kinds of mental disease, Foucault identifies a different form of delirium, which he calls a discourse.

Discourse is a central concept for Foucault. He first introduces the concept in Madness and Civilization. A discourse is essentially a total system of knowledge that makes true or false statements possible. The madman believes unreal things to be true because the discourse that structures his belief dictates it. In Foucault's later work, he examines the discourses of psychiatry, medicine, and sexuality. Here, he emphasizes the unreal but powerful nature of delirium. Delirium structures perception and truth and makes "unreal" beliefs possible.

Delirious discourse is a phenomenon of language and belief, but it affects the body and mind. Foucault is clear that delirious discourse does not originate in the mind or body. The idea of discourse and truth underlies all the different types of madness that the classical period identified. Deliria, dementia and hallucinations were seen as different types of madness, but in fact they all relate to truth and to a distorted discourse.

Blindness shows the relationship of madness to reason. The madman sees the same reason as the sane man, but in a different way. This is also the first appearance of Foucault's analysis of Descartes. Descartes's argument against skepticism about his own existence and sanity, the Cogito, is seen by Foucault as evidence of the self-assurance of classical reason. For Descartes, the fact that he doubts proves his own existence, and proves that he cannot be mad. Essentially, his reason denies the possibility of madness. Foucault's interpretation of Descartes is one of the most controversial sections of this work, and provoked a controversy with the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Foucault argues madness is expressed and explored through art. Tragedy and madness are the outer limits of reason for Foucault, and in tragedy the tragic figure and the madman confront each other. The two limits come together. A final shift occurs at the end of the section. Whereas the animal nature of classical madness took away the humanity of the madman, now the idea of non-being takes away everything. Madness ultimately becomes an expression of nothing and non- existence.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us