Madness and Civilization Critical Context - Essay

Michel Foucault

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.)