For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

History of Madness

by Foucault, Michel (2013)


When it was first published in France in 1961 as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la Folie à l'âge Classique, few had heard of a thirty-four year old philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault. By the time an abridged English edition was published in 1967 as Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault had shaken the intellectual world. This translation is the first English edition of the complete French texts of the first and second edition, including all prefaces and appendices, some of them unavailable in the existing French edition. History of Madness begins in the Middle Ages with vivid descriptions of the exclusion and confinement of lepers. Why, Foucault asks, when the leper houses were emptied at the end of the Middle Ages, were they turned into places of confinement for the mad? Why, within the space of several months in 1656, was one out of every hundred people in Paris confined? Shifting brilliantly from Descartes and early Enlightenment thought to the founding of the Hôpital Général in Paris and the work of early psychiatrists Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, Foucault focuses throughout, not only on scientific and medical analyses of madness, but also on the philosophical and cultural values attached to the mad. He also urges us to recognize the creative and liberating forces that madness represents, brilliantly drawing on examples from Goya, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Artaud. The History of Madness is an inspiring and classic work that challenges us to understand madness, reason and power and the forces that shape them.

Key Passage

‘What  then  is  the  disorder  of  an  idle  life?  Saint  Ambrose replies quite unambiguously that it is a second revolt against God.’ In the houses of confinement, work therefore took on an ethical significance: as idleness had become the supreme form of revolt, the idle were forced into work, into the endless leisure of labour without utility or profit. The economic as well as moral demand for confinement was thus the result  of  a  certain  experience  of  work.  In  the  classical  world,  work  and idleness created a dividing line that replaced the exclusion of the lepers in the medieval world. Both literally and in spirit, the asylum took the place of the leprosarium in the landscape of the moral universe as in the physical geography of haunted places. The ancient rites of excommunication were once again renewed, but this time in the world of production and commerce. And in these places where the evil of idleness was condemned, the inventions of a society that read an ethical transcendence into the law of work, madness too one day appeared, eventually making this space its own. The day would come when these barren, idle places would be taken over  by  the  mad,  as  though  in  accordance  with  some  obscure,  ancient right. The nineteenth century will consider it rational, even necessary that these  places  be  filled  with  the  insane,  where  150  years  earlier  it  had seemed normal to lock up paupers, beggars and the unemployed. (p.71)


Foucault, Madness, Civilization, Foucauldian, Postmodern, Poststructuralism, Idleness, Religious Views On Work, Punishment


History of Madness

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