Michel Foucault’s premise in Madness and Civilization is that madness is the mirror image of sanity, a dark looking glass through which sane people can recognize their own features, if somewhat distorted and reversed. According to Foucault, madness is not in itself something apart and other, since its alienation and exclusion are the historical processes which Madness and Civilization recounts. Nor is madness a morbid entity that infects and attacks people who become mentally ill. He dismisses the concept of mental illness as a fiction which the psychiatric reformers such as Philippe Pinel invented to rationalize their newly acquired power over mad people. In short, the history of insanity is the story of the alienation of one aspect of the human condition. Foucault’s work actually resembles a psychiatric case history of split personality: It begins in the healthy Middle Ages but ends in a modernity alienated from itself.
This story can also be told in spatial terms. Madness during the Middle Ages was undifferentiated experience coextensive with everyday life and reality. A differentiation occurred during the Renaissance, when madness became located on the margins of life. The Renaissance ambivalence toward madness expressed itself in symbols such as the Ship of Fools and Tom o’Bedlam, madness confined in a ship in order to be liberated on the waterways of Europe and madness liberated on the highways of England in order to be confined in the role of Poor Tom. These symbols placed madness “betwixt and between,” on the threshold, on the inside of the outside and on the outside of the inside—in other words, in the position of liminality which explains its prominence in Renaissance culture.
The Great Confinement, which Foucault dates between 1657 and 1794, forced madness out the door, and reason then slammed the door shut. Thus, during the Age of Reason madness was excluded; its voice was silenced. The supposed “liberation” of the insane in fact intensified its exclusion in the moral...
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Nearly every academic historian who has criticized Madness and Civilization has censured Foucault for violating the rules of historical scholarship concerning evidence, argumentation, and expository style. Specialists in medieval, early modern, and modern European history have taken exception to every one of his abstractions and generalizations, including his central one about the Great Confinement between 1657 and 1794. Historians have predicated their censure upon the mistaken belief that Foucault’s work is conventional historiography, when in fact Foucault ridicules conventional historiography in Madness and Civilization and writes instead a counterhistorical mythology about the past.
Some philosophers of history and literary critics have been appreciative of Foucault’s work and its destructive, antihistorical purposes. Perhaps the best way to comprehend how fundamentally different Madness and Civilization is from conventional historiography would be to consider the orthodox historian George Rosen’s Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (1968), which unsuccessfully attempts to transpose Foucault’s mythic images (without acknowledging his debt to Foucault) into a conventional historical narrative. Madness and Civilization is not faulty historiography but brilliantly scintillating mythopoeia. Myth is not false; it is true in a way quite different from scientific...
(The entire section is 564 words.)