Tuesday, March 2, 2010

History of Madness - Michel Foucault

History of Madness

Michel Foucault



At the start of this text is a recommendation by R. D. Laing, a founder of the anti-psychiatry school. Laing states:

"... brilliantly written, intellectually rigourous, and with a thesis that thoroughly shelves the assumptions of traditional psychiatry."

As I will later illustrate, Mr. Laing is being somewhat exuberant in his praise. Talking of exuberance, the introduction carries this quote from Georges Dum├ęzil: "Foucault's intelligence literally knows no bounds."
Foucault is widely regarded  as one of the leading lights in modern French philosophy and in limited academic circles is held in very high regard. While not a direct target of the work by Sokal and Bricmont , Foucault does display some of the qualities of thinking which they call into question. The earlier version of this work, Madness and Civilisation, was an abridged version. This version is the full text and at 600 odd pages that is some read. Keep in mind though that the last portion is Foucault's response to Derrida's criticisms of the book. This argument destroyed their friendship and it took some 15 years for a reconciliation to take place.

That this work earned the praise of RD Laing is not necessarily a good thing. A psychiatrist once told me how some of his colleagues had met Laing in London and began to question Laing's stability of mind. Additionally, even Foucault himself has fended off claims that this book is an anti-psychiatry text, he also has fended off claims that he is denying the existence of mental illness as a condition or that the understanding of mental illness is merely a social construct.

That Foucault has been required to fend off interpretations about his work raises questions about his writing style. I can very much sympathise with such concerns because Foucault prose is often meandering and vague. That is putting it politely. I suspect that Foucault is playing a favourite game of some scholars: writing in such obscure ways that the reader is left with the impression he or she is just too stupid to understand the great mind. It is a pretension.

I struggled with comprehending Foucault's prose yet at the same time as I was reading this text I was reading a beautiful little text on Information Theory. I breezed through that even though I know much more about mental illness than Information Theory. (I will later provide a post on that text.) Information Theory is difficult but wonderful stuff. Yet Foucault was a torture to read and this in spite of the fact that a history of madness should be an easy read. Making it complex is a pretension. For a more critical review of this matter have a look at Dawkin's review of the Sokal and Bricmont text.

The Title, History of  Madness, suggests that this text is a History of Madness. It is not. Foucault's sources were predominantly from Paris and some from London. As such it cannot be a history of madness. A much more interesting text would have been a cross cultural comparison of how various various cultures perceives and deals with madness.

Numerous scholars have questioned Foucault's use of sources. The evidence suggests he has been lazy in his footnoting and has misunderstood the London sources.

Now let us return to Laing's comments: 

"brilliantly written" ... can't be, the numerous interpretations, the all too often incomprehensible prose, the rambling nature of the structure, and excessive wordiness, make it a text in bad need of a very good editor.

"intellectually rigourous" ... Sure, if you ignore that the title is a lie, that the footnoting is careless, that the sources do not state what Foucault's claims they state.

"thoroughly shelves the assumptions of traditional psychiatry" ... Can't because it never addresses these, Foucault only goes up to the beginning of the 20th century thereby ignoring the really interesting developments in psychiatry, and given the ambiguity with respect to what Foucault precisely meant such a conclusion is completely unwarranted.

"Unlimited intelligence"

Rank idiocy. One of the most important lessons you can learn is that everyone makes mistakes and everyone's intelligence is strongly limited.

Finally ...

This is the first text I have read by Foucault and it will be the last. In fact I never finished it because I will not waste my time plowing through what is intrinsically incomprehensible. I read a lot of material that I struggle with but that is not because of poor writing but because of my ignorance and I know I can understand those texts by applying myself to learning the appropriate terms and concepts. No such luck with Foucault, he plays with the philosopher's poison of writing turgid prose to appear conceptually complex and to put it bluntly: I hate that.


Anonymous said...

I feel it is your loss for giving up on Foucault so quickly. History of Madness is his first major work. I wonder how far you read before writing this account. In any case, I encourage you to give Madness and Civilisation a try, if History was too long for you, also, The History of Sexuality. If, then, you are still of the same mind, at least you will have given his work the chance it deserves.

xlpharmacy said...

Interesting reading, it sure deserves the time to read about it.

Anonymous said...

What a lousy, superficial, unjustifiably arrogant review.

Anonymous said...

I tried four times over the past month to read History of Madness. I just cannot do it. I have read other difficult stuff, but nothing quite as irritating as Foucault. The individual sentences are comprehensible, but what they mean eludes me.

For example, one paragraph in the first few pages starts with "A sequence of dates speaks for itself." The paragraph then goes on to list the works Dance of Death, Danse Macabre, Narrenschiff, Ship of Fools(painting), and Praise of Folly and their respective dates.

Uh - no. The list of dates does not "speak for itself". Why the fuck is the list there? Why is the paragraph there? WTF are you driving at, Foucault?

There may be some important ideas in Foucault. One of my intellectual "heroes" is Ian Hacking, and he thinks highly of Foucault. But the writing is so fucking turgid and inept that I can no longer be bothered.