Madness and Civilization

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Foucault dated his own scholarly career from the publication of Madness and Civilization. Madness and Civilization (Folie et Déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 1961; abridged by Foucault in 1964; translated as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason in 1965) was Foucault’s first major, independent work. He had first offered it as a doctoral thesis while at Uppsala. It was rejected at Uppsala, but accepted as a doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne, alongside a complementary thesis on Kant’s Anthropology, with help from the prominent French intellectual historian Georges Canguilhem. Publicly, it was fairly well received but not widely reviewed.

Madness and Civilization can be taken as a model for Foucault’s works. In Foucault’s own words, it is “a structural study of the historical ensemble—notions, institutions, judicial and police measures, scientific concepts—which hold captive a madness whose wild state can never be reconstituted.”

Perhaps Foucault’s most famous insight is that the asylum was born in the classical age (seventeenth/eighteenth centuries) in an effort to normalize behavior to conform to bourgeois ideals. The two key events are the “Great Confinement” of the 1650s, when, by royal decree, the mad, among others (including the poor, sick, and idle) are no longer allowed to roam freely, as in the renaissance, but isolated and confined; and Philippe Pinel’s unshackling of those committed to asylums in the French revolutionary period. Foucault argues that Pinel transformed the asylum into a juridical space—not of treatment, but of social control. The switch is intended to be humane and enlightened, but the outcome is to segregate and “silence” madness, depriving it of any place within everyday society.

Chris Barker

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