Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization Study Guide

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason is the 1965 abridged translation of Michel Foucault’s 1961 French text, Folie et Déraison. A more recent, unabridged translation has been released by Routledge under the title History of Madness, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jan Khalfa. However, the earlier Madness and Civilization remains the most influential and widely read, having an impact on a larger number of theorists and philosopher in the latter part of the 20th century.

The book is a history of concepts of mental illness from roughly the late 1500s to the late 1700s. It is not a history of illness itself, or an account of when different kinds of illness arose or what their symptoms were. Rather, it is a history of how madness was understood in Western societies, and how those societies developed different categories of illness in the first place. In this way, the book is similar to another book from 1965, published in the United States: Ilza Veith’s Hysteria: The History of a Disease. Veith, like Foucault, was interested in the cultural meanings of hysteria, a kind of madness, in particular the politics of how it was understood to originate. Foucault goes a step further than Veith, however, in also reflecting on historiography, that is, the process of writing history itself. Foucault looks at the changes in discourse, or how people spoke and wrote about madness, to see how societies developed shared understandings of what madness means through literature, law, medical documents, and other circulations of language.

Madness and Civilization has been vastly influential in a number of academic fields. For historians, it provides a model of reading the past through discourse. For critical theorists, it has provided an account of how modern concepts of morality developed in tandem with shifting medical and psychological discourses. And for political scientists, it has provided a theory of how Western societies developed institutions that enforce state-like power, nearing imprisonment, but outside the authority of the state itself. Given its range of interests, as well as the liveliness of Foucault’s writing, the book continues to influence countless academics, and to inspire a broad range of readers and thinkers.