Last Updated 11 Mar 2020

How can Foucault’s discourse on madness describe “madness” as neither a subject nor an object?

Category Experience, Subject
Words 7466 (29 pages)


Michel Foucault constructs a discourse on madness wherein madness is considered as neither a subject nor an object. Subject-object distinction poses a problem within philosophical study in terms of analysis of and discourses on human experience, insofar as things within experience are often divided in terms of whether they are entities in themselves, or whether they consist of subjective experiences and consciousness. Subject-object distinction is concerned with what, within experience, might be either objective or subjective, since a subject has the faculties to observe and think of things as well as speak for itself, while objects are things to be observed and thought of. When something is objectified, it is regarded as an entity with a preassigned identity; therefore, to study madness as an object is to assume that there is something which exists in itself and may be deconstructed in its preassigned state. Ergo, a subject exists for itself insofar as it is constituted by its continuing autonomy and consciousness, while an object exists in itself since it is already determined. Furthermore, if an object is something which is predetermined, then it may be studied as something for which we can obtain true and inherent knowledge. For Foucault, madness does not exist as such an entity. It is, instead, something that exists as concept which is relative to different discourses. Heidegger describes the subject-object distinction as false, and instead suggests the study of being, that which simply is, in terms of modes or states. This sort of understanding proposes a conception of madness wherein madness simply ‘is.’ Furthermore, by turning it into a subject or object, whatever madness itself might be can only be fissured within any attempt at analysis or discourse. Similarly, Foucault dismisses the subject-object distinction as obsolete within his discourse on madness. Rather, discourse is to be thought of as entirely positive as well as in terms of relations and shifts. Madness is therefore thought of in terms of how it is continually constructed within discourses of reason; so, it cannot be an object or a subject. For Foucault, madness could be described as separate from any subject-object distinction: a wild state.

Since Foucault’s method of study is not analytical, he employs the term ‘archaeology’ to describe his historical approach. It is imperative to establish an understanding of how his archaeological method impacts his discourse on madness. Foucault denounces the importance of subject-object distinctions so that he may go on to study madness as continually relative. Once we have established the importance of the role of archaeology within Foucault’s discourse on madness as well as how his discourse on madness is one wherein madness is presented as neither a subject nor an object, we may begin to explore what madness might be for Foucault as well as conceptions of madness and practices subsequent to these conceptions which he criticises vehemently. Foucault studies madness in terms of how it is presented within discourses of reason, the act of separating madness from reason, how madness came to be a social problem and how the problem of madness was treated, the view that madness might be socially constructed within different periods and cultures, and the capture of madness as an object at the disposal of reason. Since, for Foucault, discourse is to be thought of in terms of relations and changes in these relations, he examines the conditions in which madness emerges and transforms within different discourses of reason. An important part of Foucault’s discourse on madness is what is conceived within psychology as a progression away from the concept of madness to a new concept of mental illness, and the psychiatric practices which would result from such a shift.

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Essentially, Foucault’s discourse on madness is one that communicates madness as entirely relative; furthermore, he criticises the assumption that any discourse, including his own, is free from instability, incompletion and error. Foucault’s archaeological study is one through which we may gain an understanding of madness as the result of constructions within reason itself, whilst appreciating the problematic nature of the proposal of such a project. Essentially, a history of madness can be conveyed where madness is neither an object nor a subject insofar as conveying a history of how different visions of madness impact scientific and social theories concerning madness as well as the treatment of those considered to be mad.

The Role of Foucault’s Archaeological Method in his Discourse on Madness

In his writing, Foucault undertakes a historical approach to his discourse on madness which he terms the ‘archaeological method.’ When Foucault uses the term ‘archaeology’, he is describing an approach to history wherein discourses are to be expressed as a series of relations and shifts; furthermore, discourse is not be thought of as necessarily stable. This means that within discourse, we cannot expect to form a clear and pure set of events which stand alone as raw materials for study; rather, events must be studied in terms of how things relate to each other and how these relations change. For instance, the relations of reason and unreason, subject-object distinction, socioeconomic factors, epistemology and so on would be vital in the study of madness. Foucault describes an “archive” as the conditions of possibility in which discourse can be expressed at all. The collection of different texts we use in our study provide us with relations, this allows statements to exist insofar that they are interconnected. We traditionally think of an archive as a collection of separate books which will enable us to study a subject; for Foucault, an archive is composed of relations. Since these relations exist as an archive, the archive is a system of emerging, shifting relations. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation is an archaeological study of such shifts in relation to discourses of reason. Since the archive is understood in terms of relations, discourse is to be understood at a level wherein each statement possesses conditions, possibilities and relations.

Archaeology rejects the notion of something that must be unearthed through analysis within discourse. Herein, Foucault creates a distinction between analysis and discourse: analysis is the exploration of a single component while discourse requires the communication of different elements. Discourse has an interactive, communicative element which analysis seems to lack; in terms of conditions, for discourse to occur, it is necessary that there is something for the subject of examination to interact with, hence the study of relations. If not for these relations, there would not be discourse, but analysis. Furthermore, analysis seems more subject-object orientated in terms of focussing on a single component; Foucault avoids this type of orientation within his work, since discourse is thought of in terms of conditions wherein relations emerge and shift. For example, in the study of madness, Foucault takes into account various socioeconomic factors as well as the role of power within a society wherein one could claim authority over those considered to be mad. These factors are examined in terms of their relations with madness; if we understand the exercise of power within society in terms of exclusion, confinement, discipline, and correction. These different elements are communicated within discourse as relating to each other, and we can only understand how society reacted to the problem of madness at various points through discourse.

Foucault’s method could perhaps be said to make historical study more convincing simply insofar as he maintains an awareness of the problematic nature of his own project as well as the problematic nature of the act of narration and therefore in constructing a discourse on madness. This refers to the tension between his dismissal of subject-object distinctions for madness and the attempt to construct a discourse on madness; a tension which exists insofar as Foucault studies madness without attempting to actually capture it as definable and objective. This tension, and Foucault’s recognition of this tension, is an important feature in Foucault’s writing and cannot be dismissed, since this addresses his own project in terms of the difficulty and awkwardness of the announcement of an endeavour of a discourse on madness. This poses a question as to why Foucault endeavours a history of madness despite his own critique of the notion that madness is a subject itself or an object of knowledge.

For Foucault, historical study, or archaeology, must essentially maintain its positivity; this means that discourse is operative insofar that it conveys a set of emerging, transforming statements. This positivity dismisses any idea of concealment, of something to be discovered, within discourse. Essentially, Foucault’s archaeological method charges that we should not regard our study of discourse as a series of discoveries, but rather, an examination of possibilities and relations. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation studies historical shifts within different discourses of reason in terms of how madness is thought of and treated within society. Discourse is not, for Foucault, a set of articulate propositions or something which must be studied at a psychoanalytic level. Madness and Civilisation is a discourse on madness which examines a set of relations in terms of how madness relates to reason and how madness relates to power, and so on; furthermore, studying the conditions which allow for the possibility of these relations. For Foucault, madness cannot be understood as a subject or an object, but as something that simply is. When something is, it is a component of the ‘archive’. If one was to analytically study Madness and Civilisation, we could focus on the book in isolation, as a singularity; yet, if we consider the book within the archive, the book is not studied as a singularity, but as a relation to everything within the archive. In terms of madness, it is not madness we are studying as an object, but rather, how madness might be; meaning, how the idea of madness came to be through the separation of reason and unreason, how madness became a problem for society and so on. Essentially, madness is not an object within Foucault’s text, nor a subject which is allowed to speak for itself; instead, it is something which exists relatively. Foucault emphasises the importance of differentiating what he is doing from social science so as not to analyse society, but facts of discourses; this analysis is not to be associated with philosophical hermeneutics. Through the term ‘archaeology’, Foucault describes a method which is neither “neither formalising nor interpretive”,[wherein discourse is positive since it the only way we can access the thought of our preceding thinkers. The archive is not a record of cultural meaning or a narrative of consciousness, since this would dismiss the level of historical a priori for which all discourse depends. For Foucault, the positivity of a discourse is a historical a priori; meaning, there is a level of historical language which exists operatively. This a priori is not formalised and unwavering; rather, it is inherently transformable within each discourse. This means that Foucault’s discourse on madness depends on the positivity of this very discourse; since historical a priori is a concept which exists as an operative discourse which is not necessarily stable, it shifts with the transformations of positivity within discourse wherein statements have conditions for emergence.

For Foucault, an understanding of the archaeological method is meant to accompany the study of discourse. We must bear in mind that discourse is subject to incompletion, inaccuracy and instability. Since discourse is distinguished from analytics, to which subject-object distinctions are generally inherent, the communicative and interactive aspect of discourse essentially means that there will always be gaps, therefore incompletion is unavoidable. Rather than trying to construct a narrative of social progressiveness, Foucault studies the conditions of possibility within discourse. With this in mind, in our reading of Madness and Civilisation, it is imperative to recognise that Foucault maintains his archaeological rejection of any such discourse which attempts to provide a narrative which will, through analysing progression towards a more ‘correct’ perception of scientific theory and objectivity. In relation to madness, this progression would be from primitive attitudes towards and treatment of those considered to be mad to a nurturing, corrective approach. Essentially, studying social processes cannot explain shifts in scientific focus and rationality. The fact that something becomes a scientific problem or becomes a problem for society to solve, however, is something which can be studied through social processes. This is to say that, for Foucault, it would be obsolete to attempt to explain shifts in relations in a discourse on madness; yet, how madness became a social dilemma can be understood through the study of social processes. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation has indeed been read in a critical fashion wherein it is understood as an attempt to capture and master madness. Yet, if for Foucault, discoveries are not the end of discourse, then his discourse on madness cannot be an attempt to capture madnes.

Madness as the Other of Reason

Madness should not, for Foucault, be studied or constructed within discourse as an object. Since madness does not exist as its own entity which is separate from reason, reason and unreason cannot escape their inherent co-dependency. To conceive something as reasonable, there must be something that exists as an ‘other’ of reason. Jacques Derrida rejects Madness and Civilisation as a discourse wherein Foucault conveys an opposition to the treatment of madness as that which is inherently ‘other’ than reason. Derrida understands Foucault’s text as one that attempts to discover madness as a “primitive, untamed state”; furthermore, to discuss madness “without expelling it into objectivity is to let madness say itself.” This means that Derrida criticises Foucault’s discourse on madness insofar that if madness is not an object of reason, then it must be, for Foucault, a subject. If madness is a subject, then through Madness and Civilisation, it must speak for itself. Herein, Derrida neglects the role of Foucault’s archaeological method, since he ignores the fact that subject-object distinction is to be discarded, for Foucault.

Furthermore, Derrida accuses Foucault of opposing reason from within reason as well as using the language of reason. Since, for Derrida, a distinction between reason and unreason necessarily exists within each discourse, the fact that Foucault opposes reason from within reason is “the very infeasibility” of his text. Since madness, as the other of reason, cannot be reached by reason, a discourse on madness using the language of reason is impossible for Derrida. Yet, Derrida does not credit Foucault for his recognition of this very impossibility. This illustrates two different stances: Foucault confronts reason, while Derrida displays a fervent assertion of reason as being dominating and unsurpassable, since there is no alternate method of study. Foucault does not deny that madness cannot be thought of other than in relation to reason, and he does not examine madness as something to be revealed in its purity through discourse; ergo, Foucault writes a discourse on madness from within the language of reason, and recognises this, but confronts reason as unable to successfully construct an other of itself which can be specified. Derrida averts this in his reading of Madness and Civilisation.

Rather than being a subject that speaks for itself, as Jacques Derrida expresses in his reading of Madness and Civilisation, madness is presented by Foucault based on how its possibility might be conditioned. Since madness has the position of the other of reason within societies, madness is conditioned by reason insofar that it exists as a construction of reason; also, for reason to be conceived at all, there must be an other, which is unreason. Since madmen are excluded from society as regarded as ‘other’ than reasonable people in the same fashion, madness, as a concept, emerges from this separation of reason and unreason. Both reason and unreason are conditioned by each other, therefore discourses that claim to speak for reason and oppose unreason emerge concurrently from an act of decision which ties reason and unreason together. This is to say that reason and unreason cannot exist independently of each other; because of this, a discourse of or by madness itself works against itself, since madness is a construction within reason, and since reason tries to master madness, reason works against itself.

The archaeological method that Foucault employs stands in opposition to discourses of reason which essentially narrate social growth; herein, it is evident that Foucault does not attempt to construct an account of various constructions of madness as a continuing source of disruption which works against reason within different eras. Since the object of his study is not to form such an account, Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation examines the destabilisations of discourses of reason by madness while simultaneously maintaining a stance which critiques the visions of madness which exist within discourses of reason. Within Madness and Civilisation, we are to understand madness as something which is constantly relative to the discourse of reason which addresses madness.

Foucault addresses a “void installed between what is reason and what is not.”The notion of madness exists as a consequence of reason already having decided itself to be separate from unreason; thus, for Foucault, madness is constituted “in the act of division.” When a person thinks of madness, it is perceived as having already assessed and assumed madness; because of this, for Foucault, there is no method of seeing and understanding madness with any purity. This “severance”is not, for Foucault, something which divides something that was once whole, which Foucault will attempt to piece back together through his text. There is a schism which exists between reason and unreason which is the result of a moment of decision, wherein, through a single act, reason and unreason are both linked and separated. Through this moment of the expulsion of unreason from reason, Foucault is addressing the shifting, transforming decisions which separate reason from unreason and construct social visions of madness. Madness is captured by institutions, the role of authorities, scientific theory and so on; for Foucault, it is important to conduct a historical study of these of these factors to form social context. Yet, since madness cannot be objectified as a state which can be reassembled through discourse, the purpose of such study is to address the decisive act, or acts, which separated madness from reason.

Madness as a Social Construction

Foucault begins his discourse on madness at a point in history during the Middle Ages wherein lepers were socially excluded, specifically within European societies. As leprosy met with a gradual disappearance, the tradition of social exclusion persisted, replacing lepers with those considered to be mad. Herein, Foucault begins to address the powerful entity of social exclusion, which, despite meeting with shifts, remains consistent in societies throughout history. Furthermore, Foucault addresses a necessity within society which is the position of ‘other.’ As well as the other of reason, madness came to occupy the position of the ‘other’ of social and behavioural norms. Henri Tajfel used the terms ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ in order to describe a need for components of society to experience inclusion as well as to exercise opposition and contempt towards other groups. Since various norms are constructed within societies, different social groups are formed based on religion, political stances, sexuality and so on. This demonstrates exclusion as a social trend; therefore, the notion of reasonable people and mad people came to be constructed as opposing social groups. The ‘excluded’ would essentially represent an entity which social order must oppose and push to the edges. Both lepers and those considered to be mad have been thought of as a threatening and stubborn persistence which would continue despite expulsion, confinement, and, eventually, attempts to cure.

The Narrenschiff, or Ship of Fools, illustrates the emergence of unease in the face of the notion of madness; a literary expression of an existing 15th century practice of expulsion wherein those thought of as mad were sent away on ships. The Ship of Fools emerged as a symbol of a new unease at the ambiguity, danger and confusion caused by social deviance and unreasonable behaviour and thought which came to be regarded as madness. During the Middle Ages, madness came to be understood as something that reasonable humans should master in order to protect and preserve the order of society and the well-being of people within societies. During the renaissance, this attitude shifted to one wherein madness became increasingly romanticised as something wherein madmen were aware of dark, hidden truths which reasonable men could not see. As art and literature continued to dabble with the idea of madness, madness became connected with weakness and self-consciousness. In Shakespeare’s plays, madmen often possessed wisdom that other men did not; madness would cause men to act desperately and the plays would end tragically. Madness, at this time, holds a fascination insofar that it becomes something which is essentially part of human nature. As the threat and romanticism of madness subsided, a ‘classic’ notion of madness began to develop. Madness is something which began to nag at Western imagination as a problem that must be overcome. Rather than sending the mad away on ships, asylums became the new solution. During the 17th century, society adapted a sense of duty to be hospitable to madness; Foucault describes this as an era of Great Confinement wherein those considered not only mad, but socially deviant or unreasonable, within society were excluded from social space and detained be means of institutionalisation. Foucault preoccupies himself with confinement during this time in terms of “the attitudes and perceptions of madness connected with it;” confinement is central to what Foucault refers to as the “classical experience of madness.”

Establishments of confinement were an exercise of power wherein practices of discipline would be imposed on those confined, rather medical establishments. Foucault discusses these attitudes in relation to the social matters of economy and attitudes to labour and social norms. The classical era refers to a period where madness was no longer something which “in theory, constantly posed a threat to the link between subjectivity and truth;” rather, the fear and fascination with madness became cast aside by reason in a newfound contentment with confinement and exclusion: the solution is that the mad would be shunned from social space. Through Foucault’s discourse, visions of madness within society are continually socially constructed insofar that a theme of exclusion and enclosement could be described to be embedded within social culture. The classical era constructed madness as something which should be behind closed doors: out of sight and out of mind.

Foucault describes how this method of confinement and expulsion works against itself. As the asylum was born, so was a source of fantasy for those who imagined unrestrained deviant pleasure, where man was thought to be given free reign outside the shackles of society. In a world where confinement is exercised, there must be authorities who would decide to and actively confine people based on their own assessment of normality. This would evidently be problematic in a world where abnormality is a matter of opinion and often judged based on deviant social behaviour which isn’t necessarily harmful, such as sexuality. In the 18th century, madness came to be seen as the opposite of reason: since reason is thought of in terms of imperatively human ‘ought’s. the mad were considered separate from humanity, and were therefore treated as animals. During the 19th century, attitudes towards madness met with a further shift and became regarded as mental illness which should be cured. Herein, the idea of madness meets with medicalisation. If madness is something which can be cured, then it must be something which can be overcome through scientific study. Foucault criticises the employment of models of human personality that came to be developed within psychology; he proposes that a phenomenology of mental illness is necessary. This is to say that in order to understand mental conditions and illnesses in any case, it is paramount to take into account the active experience of the subject throughout his being. He proposes that it is imperative to study cultural experience in relation to madness as well as historical discourses on madness; the purpose of such study is, for Foucault, to serve as conceptual tools to be related to our own “effort to question the philosophical status of the rational, autonomous and constituting subject.”[12]

Foucault described the role of power in relation to the treatment of madness as madmen being objects at the disposal of reasonable people; this is to say that reasonable people would act in a manner which asserted power over the madman in an endeavour to cure him of his ailment. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation addresses madness in its relation to power, since the text is a study of the shifting status of what people regard to be madness throughout history. Essentially, the role of power in discourses on madness is important insofar that reason has continually tried to assert itself over madness, and this is the common factor that discourses of reason have sustained in relation to visions of madness. Foucault addresses specific relations to madness and shifts in such relations between the 16th and early 18th centuries; these shifts occur due to various social issues. Social context provides one with the means to understand why specific scientific theories emerge and develop in relation to madness.

If madness is an object for reason to master, this is because reason needs madness to constitute reason’s very reality insofar that this division simply means that both must exist together as a rule; reason would in fact be “bored with itself”[13] without its other. If madness is something which is constructed within reason, and any discourse on madness exists with reason, then by opposing madness, reason may only work against itself. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation addresses madness in its relation to power, since the text is a study of the shifting status of what people regard to be madness throughout history. Essentially, the role of power in discourses on madness is important insofar that reason has continually tried to assert itself over madness, and this is the common factor that discourses of reason have sustained in relation to visions of madness.

Madness as an Object at the Disposal of Reason

By describing the attempt at a discourse on madness outside of reason as an “impossible task” , Foucault displays an awareness that to convey a discourse on madness in a fashion that is intelligible to others, madness is unavoidably turned into an object of reason simply in the attempt to study it. Herein, Foucault addresses the problem with regarding madness as a thing which exists as a separate entity from reason. Rather than attempting to achieve an accurate history of madness, Foucault provides a sort of conceptual “toolbox that readers could rummage through”in order to understand attitudes and practices in relation to madness, as well as reassess madness as something that has been socially constructed and met with various shifts throughout history.

Foucault describes a moment of decision where madness is and continues to be constituted; herein, madmen are constructed as objects at the disposal of reasonable people. This is demonstrated by Foucault through the study of practices of confinement and correction throughout history, as well as the emergence and development of practices and attitudes within psychological theory as well as psychiatry. The notion of madness creates the conditions for psychology to develop, since the need to psychoanalyse with the end of a progression towards improved mental health could only be the product of the idea that men might be mad or mentally unhealthy. Foucault criticises psychology as a discipline which regards the emergence of theory as discovery. Furthermore, this assumption of uncovering hidden truths behind human conditions and behaviour is one that acts in a manner of exposing an object which existed and then became unearthed rather than something which is in fact constituted by its discovery; this is precisely the objectification within psychology which Foucault criticises. Since Foucault rejects the approach of study as one with the end of discovery, he rejects the notion that one can analyse the human as such, as an object at reason’s disposal, for reason to capture, confine and correct.

Historical discourses of psychiatry have had the consistent tendency to present those regarded to be mad during the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period as having been neglected psychiatric help. Because of developments within psychology, this image of those regarded as mad shifted to one where they came to be seen as mentally unhealthy patients who had been denied the correct understanding and treatment that they should have received. Within psychology, this is an important shift which is conceived as a growth towards an enlightened understanding and therefore treatment of those considered mad, mentally ill, or abnormal. Foucault rejects the presupposition which necessarily exists within psychology that there is a correct form of an incorrect practice which previously trapped mentally ill patients in the narrow conceptions and disciplines within preceding societies. As psychology develops, a distinction between madness and unreason begins to grow insofar as madness becomes seen as a primitive and outdated concept which would be replaced with disorderly behaviour and mental illness. With the emergence of psychological theories, European societies began to see the previous attitudes towards madmen as an error which had developed due to the misleading notions within religion and superstition; yet, there was still the objective being who was characterised by traits of deviance and abnormality, but with a new label: ‘mentally ill.’ Foucault addresses the fact that the idea of such a figure exists no less than it had done before; what has changed is the emergence of the notion that such a figure had been previously misinterpreted or mistreated. The idea of such a figure creates the conditions for psychology to emerge and develop as well serving as a justification for psychiatric practice. Psychology regards itself to be a representation of societies outgrowing the previously inhumane treatment of madmen. However, Foucault does not see the emergence of the concept of ‘mental illness’ as a replacement for ‘madness’ as an obvious step forward, as it is seen to be within psychology. This shift from madness to mental illness called for a new need within society: treatment for the mentally ill.

Since psychology focuses on progressing towards a better understanding of mental illness and the treatment of such illnesses, it is something that claims to be a neutral science which has transcended the preceding misconceptions of religion and superstition, therefore progressing towards an ethically superior treatment of the mentally ill. However, Foucault asserts that within the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, those regarded as mentally ill continue to be the ‘other’ within society. Since psychiatric treatment is the new solution, those regarded as mad or mentally ill would continue to be objects at the disposal of reasonable people: objects to be analysed, experimented with and corrected. Foucault did not regard the increase of scientific and apparently humanitarian treatments which resulted from the 19th century emergence of the notion of mental illness as a replacement for madness as positive or humane at all. This conception of improvement was false; rather, the institutionalisation and treatment of those considered deviant or insane was a method for asserting power and control over those who would stray from a traditional bourgeois moral system.

Foucault describes an era of Great Confinement, wherein institutions were created with the function of detaining those considered to be mad. Samuel Tuke and Philippe Pinel are two figures whom Foucault addresses as closely linked with the emergence of madness as mental illness and the institutionalisation of those considered to be mentally ill. Foucault rejects the positive image of institutionalisation as an enlightened method which would provide the mentally ill with the proper treatment that they had previously been denied, which is often projected within psychiatry. Instead, he discusses the real operations which were used: the provocation of fear and guilt to assert power and control within institutions. Samuel Tuke founded an institution for the mentally ill wherein religious principles were seen as able to control and cure madness. Herein, he was able to embed within those detained “the stifling anguish of responsibility.” In other words, Tuke was able to organise an experience of guilt and responsibility for disrupting society through confinement and assertion of strict moral rule. Since madness was assessed based on the observation of actions, a psychology of madness was possible. If our understanding of madness or mental conditions is entirely based on observation, then any change in behaviour as a result of asserting moral rule over confined persons is seen as a cure. This pattern remained consistent despite the fact that Pinel had a different to approach to institutionalisation than Tuke’s method of religious segregation; he endeavoured the construction of an asylum which would function on morality in order to purify its patients. Pinel employed forms of treatment which entailed the use of methods which could hardly qualify as humane, such as ice-cold showers and detainment within straitjackets. For Pinel, what was to be corrected for the patients within his institution was social failure; ethical continuity would abolish madness.

Foucault describes such methods as an assertion of brutal and merciless control which would embed a fear of punishment within the patients so that they were forced to ‘correct’ their behaviour to fit in with a bourgeois moral system. Curing mental illness would be seen as awakening a patient from an unreasonable state of mind, either through a process of assertive authority or by means of violence. There is a stark difference between a person institutionalised for murder or violent behaviour and those institutionalised simply for what was outside bourgeois standards of appropriate behaviour, such as a lack of work ethic or sexual orientation. There is an evident problem in the fact that such a range of behavioural traits would be regarded as mental illness. For Foucault, changes in behaviour which occurred within institutions were not the result of the “enlightened liberation” of madmen, but a result of disciplinary processes of moral guilt and fear.

The end of psychology is one that is corrective; Foucault’s discourse on madness criticises psychology as regarding itself to be able to present a psychology of normality which works against abnormality. This is a manifestation of reason working against unreason on a disciplinary level, where those that are considered outside normality are opposed by those thought to be reasonable. Psychology claims to offer inherent truths about human nature and behaviour; for Foucault, what is regarded as such discovery within psychology is in fact no more than the expression of ethical, social and political commitments within specific societies. This is to say that norms are constructed based on these commitments; as these norms are established, corrective attitudes of those within those norms towards those outside those norms are developed, and herein lies the constitution of psychiatry. Furthermore, psychology has, over a period of time, assumed that models of human personality are beneficial and would progress psychiatry. This means that models of deviant and abnormal personalities would be formed, and these models would represent the aforementioned ethical commitments. The idea of behavioural disorders emerged, and would entail some of the same traits for which persons would be institutionalised within Pinel and Tuke’s institutions: a lack of work ethic, promiscuity and homosexuality. The construction of models of personality that would be applied to the cure of those considered mentally ill in fact treats the patient as an object that that is able to fit into a stencil of human personality and corrected accordingly. In this way, psychology enforces the continuing trend of the social exclusion and confinement of those that deviate from the moral commitments of particular society, but with an objectifying, medicalised conception of correction through psychiatric practices. Foucault proposes that only a phenomenology of mental illness can be positive and progressive, since mental conditions and illnesses in any circumstance can only be understood through the study of the active experiences throughout the being of the patient.

Psychology came to focus on medicine in terms of probing for “organic causes” or “hereditary dispositions.” Doctors were granted the corrective duties which had previously existed within asylums. Foucault addresses Freud as having “transferred all the structures Pinel and Tuke had set up within confinement” to doctors, since he is the first to “accept the reality of the physician-patient couple” as a relationship wherein the doctor was granted the power of turning the patient into a scientific object of observation, science and judgement. The patient shifted from an object at the hands of the asylum to an object in the hands of the doctor. Freud created a vision of psychology and the psychiatric treatment of the doctor as miraculously able to undo insanity; and as the scientifically neutral method that would be the solution of the phenomenon of mental illness.

“The history of madness is simultaneously a history of what is made possible by the appearance of psychology,” since the concept of madness itself in its transformations through history has always constituted something within the human mind that it is to exist outside society or to be fixed. The modern concept of mental illness replaces the classical notion of madness; yet, the surrounding social functions of exclusion, confinement and correction remain. ‘Madness,’ for Foucault, describes something which is constructed within society that is not ever understood definitely, something reason works against and experiments with in an endeavour to correct. What Foucault rejects is the presumption within psychology and psychiatric practice that claims the role of correcting mental and behavioural problems. Whether by means of confinement within asylums, by medication or by doctors, there is a consistent pattern of people who regard themselves as reasonable and therefore able and permitted to assert power over the other according to their own assessment. Essentially, psychology presents itself as an objective and progressive route of neutral scientific discovery. Instead, Foucault regards psychology and the role of psychiatry to be an assertion of ethical commitments. This view presents society as disciplinary: ethical commitments that oppose certain behaviour which is considered to be deviant, for example, homosexuality, will construct an understanding within psychology that homosexuality is the product of illness and correctable. For Foucault, psychology and its subsequent psychiatric practices would only enforce social constructions of ‘other’ than normal and mentally healthy. What Foucault rejects is the continuing social tendency to objectify what is considered ‘other’ than normal; whether mad or mentally ill, the figure which reasonable people endeavour to confine and correct remains the same.


Foucault presents archaeological study as something which has already distinguished discourse from analysis, and asserts that we must not treat emergences and shifts and the reasons behind these, as we recognise them, as discoveries. If discoveries are not the end of discourse, then Foucault’s discourse on madness inherently separates itself from any attempt to capture madness as an object. Since the establishment of subjects and objects is unimportant within archaeological study, Foucault’s work is dyed with the recognition of discourse as positive, and for which subject-object distinction can only be negating. Rather than a subject or an object, Foucault presents madness as something for which possibility is conditioned by reason, and also something which conditions reason; this is to say that the idea that reason exists means that unreason must exist, and vice versa. Any discourse of reason or discourse on unreason is a construction based on a decision which separates reason from its other: madness. Ergo, Foucault regards madness as something that certainly does not exist as its own entity with a preceding, divided and opposed existence to reason. Instead, it is the result of a construction within reason itself.

Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation studies in much detail the various methods with which certain people would be decided as mad by various discourses of reason during different eras. This essentially draws attention to the similarities that emerge during such a study: herein, madness is consistently considered as the ‘other’ of reason, as well as something to be analysed and corrected by reason. The methods for this have consistently involved either reformation, exclusion or confinement. In any discourse, reason cannot drive away or destroy madness, since madness exists as the other of reason; yet, the problematic threat of undoing has always accompanied any conception of madness within Western reasoning. The failure to capture and master madness within discourses of reason despite endeavours to exclude, confine or reform is central to reason’s experience to madness, since madness is continuously conditioned by conceptions of unreason within discourses on reason.

Foucault addresses the replacement of leprosy by madness; herein, he is addressing a connection of social roles between the exclusion of lepers and the exclusion of those considered to be mad: a comment on the consistency of the continuing method of exclusion which is employed within society. These patterns which persist in terms of relations between madness and continuing social structures are how we might regard madness to be socially constructed. Each era holds its own construction of madness wherein reason is essentially trying to conquer madness. Yet, Foucault’s study reflects a tradition of exclusion and continuous social construction which persists within each discourse of reason; furthermore, madness is, within each of these discourses, something with an ambiguous yet clinging position in relation to reason. Within each discourse, reason somehow turns against itself in its endeavour to conquer madness; this is to say that there is a force within any discourse of reason which defeats itself simply in its endeavour to capture madness as an object and discover, through progress, a method for mastering it.

Foucault develops within his method of study a critique which must accompany discourses on madness; this is essential to his own discourse on madness. This critique challenges the assumption of coherent, objective and stable discourses which entail unified relations within a narrative, therefore communicating madness in terms of its emerging and transforming relations, whether to its separation from reason or its social roles. A discourse of madness is, then, one of a process of turbulence which lies in all operative discourse. Rather than as a development in terms of improved conceptions and ethical treatments of those considered to be mad, madness is to be approached as a discourse of various functions within society and the changes which occur within these functions. Foucault announces that he will write a discourse on madness, although this cannot be done successfully; perhaps this is where Foucault’s success lies, in producing a history of madness that fully appreciates the incompleteness of discourse, and an approach to history which is functional and does not regard itself as pure or inherently truthful. Foucault does not attempt to define madness as a concept. ‘Madness,’ for Foucault, is something which has continually been passed around as an object in the hands of reasonable people through various social constructions of what madness is and how madness should be treated. Whether ‘madness’ or ‘mental illness’, the figure remains the same: the ‘other,’ the deviant of society which is to be corrected by reason. Foucault describes this figure as taken time and time again into the hands of reasonable people to observe, confine, to mould into a shape that is allowed to exist within society. Different visions of madness as well as treatments of madness are constructed within society, shifting from exclusion through the Ship of Fools, to confinement within asylums, to corrective psychiatric practices. Foucault rejects the fact that, although madness has consistently been uncertain and ambiguous, it has been treated with great certainty throughout the development of psychology. Foucault is not interested in defining madness as a concept; rather, he is interested in how, from one idea, so many social functions of exclusion, confinement and correction emerged and transformed and continue to do so today. Ergo, for Foucault, madness is a continually relative concept which depends on how it is objectified within each discourse of reason.


Boyne, R. Foucault and Derrida: the Other Side of Reason. Routledge 2001.

Derrida, J. Writing and Difference Routledge 2001.

Gutting, G. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge University Press 1994.

Foucault, M. Archaeology of Knowledge Routledge 2002.

Foucault, M. Madness and Civilisation Routledge 1st ed. 2006.

May, T. Between Genealogy and Epistemology: Psychology, Politics and Knowledge in the Thought of Michel Foucault. Pennsylvania State University Press 1993.

Oksala, J How to Read Foucault Norton & Co 2008.

Visker, R. Michel Foucault: Genealogy as Critique. Verso 1991.


Michel Foucault: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Michel Foucault- Lecture at Berkley:

Further Reading

I used the following books to further extend my knowledge of the subject of my project:

Rabinow, P. The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. Penguin Social Sciences, New Edition, March 1991.

Gutting, G. Foucault: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, March 2007.

Foucault, M. The Order of Things: Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Routledge 2nd edition, 2001.

Oliver, P. Foucault, The Key Ideas: Teach Yourself. Kindle Edition, 2010.

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