Fifty years of Madness and Civilisation

ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone has a fantastic programme discussing Michel Foucault’s influential book ‘Madness and Civilisation’ on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

The book is nominally a history of madness since the enlightenment. Foucault argues that the age saw a cultural shift where madness was distinguished from reason and the civilised mind and where the mad were marked out and separated from mainstream society.

He argues that Europe began creating legal and social mechanisms to control those they deemed mad. Not least among these was the invention of the asylum and Foucault cites the 17th century as where lunatics began to be banished to these imposing human warehouses in what he called the ‘great confinement’.

Except, it never happened. As the late great medical historian Roy Porter noted in his book A Social History of Madness (ISBN 1857995023), there is no evidence of a systematic confinement of the mad in the 17th century.

The records show that France was the only country in Europe to centralise its administration of services for the ‘pauper madman’ while other countries didn’t typically have any legislation in place until the 19th century.

This detail is glossed over by the programme but, by examining some other of Foucault’s claims, it does make a similar point that Madness and Civilisation isn’t actually a very good history book.

This has only recently become clear to many as while an abridged version has been available for years in English, the full translation, including the now clearly inadequate references to historical sources, was only published in 2005.

Perhaps the book’s lasting legacy is not in the details of the rather shaky arguments but in the way in which Foucault approached the subject: showing that medical and scientific concepts are influenced as much by cultural beliefs and fashions as by empirical data.

By the way, Porter’s A Social History of Madness is a little academic in it’s style but is otherwise absolutely fantastic. It got glowing reviews from pretty much everyone in psychiatry including arch ‘anti-psychiatrist’ Thomas Szasz, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on Madness and Civilisation.

2 thoughts on “Fifty years of Madness and Civilisation”

  1. I am one of a tiny minority — indeed, I am not even sure there are any others — who thinks Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic is significantly more important in unpacking social and cultural frames of illness in Western society than any of his other texts. I include mental illness in this characterization, and in fact I myself apply a Foucauldian frame to the problem of pain.
    I am also confident that TBOC is on much firmer and sounder historiographical ground than some of his more-analyzed works.

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