362: Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault

by Gerard

362.209: Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 1988. 289 pp. ISBN 0-679-72110-X.

This book was a little tricky to assign. The original Dewey number for this book was 157 (Insanity), but that section has since been cleared out as “Unassigned.” Even though it’s about psychology and the treatment of madmen throughout history, this book doesn’t go in the 100s (Philosophy and Psychology), but rather at 362.209, which breaks down thus: 362 for Social problems, 362.2 for Mental Illness, and the -09 for historical treatment.

Foucault’s Madness and Civilization isn’t just a pain to classify, but it’s also a pain to read (unless you’re into obscurantist French meandering). Foucault’s ostensible goal is to outline the understanding and treatment of “mad persons” during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Europe. What he ends up doing is dragging the reader around by their earlobes into ever-spiralling paths of Enlightment philosophy. Much like Gould, I don’t think he cares whether the reader can follow him, but rather attempts to understand madness and treatment of madness through the eyes of those doing the treating.

There is a great deal of scholarship behind the text, though. Foucault clearly read volume upon volume of works by period practitioners, and he tries to take them at their word. When past doctors talk about how to rattle or drown the mania out of a person, Foucault goes along with it and tries to come with a philosophical theory of “doctorship” for the age. The problem comes when, naturally, competing doctors had contradictory theories on how to treat the insane, thus leading Foucault to include both theories into a dual master theory. This gets very tedious very fast.

I wish I could say that I understood 100% of the material in this book. The few things I did take away from this one are how the treatment of lepers evolved into the treatment of poor persons and then into the treatment of the mentally ill. They were simply isolated from the community and cared for sparingly. It wasn’t until later that people tried to actually help or cure the ill. And, of course, if your understanding of physical and mental health relies on the long outdated “humors” system, then treatment is slightly better than folk medicine.

This is one of those books that makes you wish you were smarter. My next one may be a little more down-to-earth — I hope.