Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
Vintage Books, 1965
Genre: Historical nonfiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I’ll have to come back to this one at some point. It’s dense and there were plenty of things I probably missed the first time around.
Reviewed by Indiana
As is usual for a work by Foucault, Madness and Civilization is a dive into both history and philosophy. If you’ve never read (or even heard of) Foucault a bit of background is in order. He was a French philosopher who believed that studying history was only important if the study led to change (like the cliche, we should study history to learn from the mistakes we made). Historians often dislike his works because his books tend to focus on analysis, rather than straight history. Regardless, there’s no doubt Foucault has made some astute observations that have been an impetus for social change during his lifetime and beyond.
Within Madness and Civilization, Foucault breaks down the way Western society has categorized and treated mental illness. During the 15th century (and possibly beforehand), those who were considered “mad” would be cast out from the gates of civilization and placed on Ships of Fools. Judging from various literature from the time, Foucault found that madness became more fascinating and more terrifying than death. Throughout the Renaissance, the mad were thought to have some hidden knowledge of the beyond, that related to the end of the world.
Of course, this eventually changed and civilization began to perceive the mad as morally deficient. The mad no longer had divine knowledge of the end times and therefore weren’t feared. The Ships of Fools were eventually docked and the mad were instead brought to hospitals.
Throughout the book, Foucault reverses the perspective to look at how the mad were thought to have thought (if that makes any sense). “The marvelous logic of the mad which seems to mock that of the logicians because it resembles it so exactly, or rather because it is exactly the same, and because at the secret heart of madness, at the core of so many errors, so many absurdities, so many words and gestures without consequence, we discover, finally, the hidden perfection of a language. The ultimate language of madness is that of reason,” Foucault writes.
He also branches out to take a look at how doctors diagnosed and treated their patients with mental illness throughout various centuries. It’s a rather depressing chapter to read, given all the information and treatment options available today. Foucault breaks down various cures and patient studies to illustrate how doctors spoke with, diagnosed and decided upon the treatment of their patients (spoiler alert: these are not happy or necessarily successful studies). “Fear, in the eighteenth century, was regarded as one of the passions most advisable to arouse in madmen. It was considered the natural complement of the constraints imposed upon maniacs and lunatics;” Foucault writes.
A book about the history of madness would hardly be complete without a look into asylums. It’s another tough chapter to read through, perhaps more so than the doctor/patient chapter. There were varying philosophies in how to run asylums, but Foucault does not portray any through a rose-colored lense. “Now madness would never -could never- cause fear again; it would be afraid,” Foucault writes as the underlying philosophy of the institutions.
While Madness and Civilization was a dense read, it was worth it. Besides, there’s value in diving into books that refuse simplicity.