Historical & Philosophical Influences on Foucault and Madness and Civilization

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 helped Foucault get 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 Canguilhem 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 Insanity & Reactions Madness & Civilization

Foucault’s influence on the study of insanity 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.

One example is that Foucault claimed that image of the Ship of Fools at the beginning of Madness and Civilization was real. When historians showed 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, which provoked a stern reply from Foucault.

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