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Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault

The New Division

The Great Fear

The Birth of the Asylum


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, psychiatrists and historians condemned confinement. The age of positivism claimed to be the first to free the mad from an association with criminals. However, many in the eighteenth century made similar claims. However, the same protests in different centuries did not have the same value. The nineteenth century felt that madmen should be treated better than prisoners; the eighteenth century felt that prisoners did not deserve to be treated like the insane. We need to understand this difference to understand how awareness of madness evolved in the eighteenth century. This awareness did not evolve as a result of the humanitarian movement, or a scientific need to listen to madness. If it changed, it did so as within the space of confinement. A new awareness of madness came from within confinement. If the eighteenth century saw that some of the confined were different, this was due to their protests. Madness in a way represents the punishing powers, so that being confined among the mad was itself a punishment.

Eighteenth century polemics dealt with the mixing of mad and sane, but not with the relationship between madness and confinement. The political critique of confinement made madness a symbol of the confining power and designated it as the object of measures of confinement. Madness became the only reason for confinement.

An abyss opened in the center of confinement. Madness was denounced and isolated. The presence of the mad was an injustice for others. At the same time, confinement suffered another crisis from within. Poverty was slowly freed from its former moral confusions. Poverty became an economic phenomenon. A certain kind of poverty was a permanent feature of life. It had a necessary role in society. The pauper was rehabilitated and received back into the state. Where the development of industry required manpower, the pauper had a new role. Economic thought developed a new role for him. The eighteenth century discovered that instead of the pauper there were two realities. First was poverty, an economic situation related to commerce, agriculture and industry. Second was population, a force contributing to the state of the nation. The two were inter- related.

Confinement was an economic error because poverty had to be suppressed by removing or maintaining a poor population. There was a need to utilize a pool of poor labor. Confinement can be criticized for its effects on the labor market and for the way it was financed. Setting aside wealth to finance confinement actually led to an increase in poverty. The necessity of confinement disappeared in the eighteenth century. Madness was set free before Pinel, not from its actual constraints but from the power of unreason.

Even before the French Revolution, madness was free. Left alone within confinement, madness was a problem. Legislators no longer knew where to situate madness; this was reflected in pre-Revolutionary measures. After the Revolutionary reforms, the era of confinement was over. Imprisonment shared by criminals and the mad remained. There was a need to separate the insane from criminals. An ambiguous need existed to protect the population from madness and to give it special treatment. The revolutionary reforms reserved confinement for certain criminals and madmen, who were to be confined in hospitals. But material difficulties frustrated this plan. Great confusion reigned over how to determine the place of madness within a social sphere that was being restructured.


The "new division" that Foucault discusses here is the split that emerges between madness and other forms of confinement in the late eighteenth century. The nineteenth century division between madmen and criminals puts considerable value on the madman. But it does not do so simply because society feels that the madman deserves sympathy. Foucault always denies such humanitarian motives. Instead, he sees structural changes in the nature of confinement as more important. Within confinement, madness mutated into something different.

Foucault emphasizes that the voices of the mad are silenced in confinement, but that these changes show how powerful their voice can be. Foucault is generally concerned to allow the voices of the confined, prisoners and the mad to be heard.

Changes of confinement are due to two factors: first, a change in the status of madness and second, economic change. It was no longer appropriate for madmen and otherwise sane deviants to be mixed together; therefore madness had to be isolated. It was separated from other social ills to become a special category. The second cause was perhaps the most powerful. In the second section of Madness and Civilization, Foucault explains how confinement was structured by the seventeenth century economic crisis and changing attitudes to labor. The role of confinement within society depended to a great extent on its economic value. When its economic value disappeared, its profile had to change.

Eighteenth century French economic thought replaced the figure of the pauper with two variables. In doing so, it found a new role for poor people. If they could be put to work, then confining them was a mistake. Changes in confinement essentially involved removing certain things from the domain of unreason. Poverty and madness were no longer unreason. Madness was set free because it was no longer seen as something that needed to be confined, even if in practice it was.

The revolutionary reforms that Foucault refers to began by separating madmen from political subversives and counter-revolutionaries in prison. At its center was the idea taken form the Declaration of the Rights of Man that people could only be detained according to the law. According to this notion, criminals should be put in prison, but madmen should be treated. All the other deviants and social undesirables must be set free. This led to certain problems. The position of madness was uncertain. Reforms intended to treat the mad, but no facilities existed for this. Again, Foucault is somewhat cynical about the aim of the reformers. He sees the revolutionary decrees as attempting a difficult restructuring of society, rather than a humanitarian attempt to set people free. Problems with madness and confinement arose from social uncertainty. As society changed, the role of the madman had to change too.

The economic and social explanations for these changes in confinement may surprise some people. Foucault's critics generally accuse him of imposing general, abstract theories and ignoring more practical historical detail. However, he is interested in the systems of knowledge and culture that define and create certain terms and structures; for him, these systems can be economic, political or intellectual. Foucault does not ignore economic and social explanations, even if he views them in different ways to other historians.

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