66 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2007
First time the full text of Michel Foucault's "History of Madness" has been available in English. The abridged version, "Madness and Civilization", produced some notable misinterpretations and came to be viewed as an apologia for the anti-psychiatry movement of R.D. Laing and others. Although Foucault is no friend of the psychiatric establishment, and has denounced psychiatry as a pseudo science (with more depth and subtlety than Tom Cruise), The History of Madness is much more than a denunciation of psychiatry as a tool of normalization.
Foucault shows how the idea of madness from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the present, has undergone several transformations of meaning. For Foucault, the way in which each historical phase interprets insanity is always an essential key to understanding that phase's entire value system. The projection of the idea of madness on the other allows society to carve out its idea of itself as sane.
In the Renaissance, the mad were often viewed ambiguously as the potential possessors of higher truth (as in King Lear) while the sane could be victims of their own severely limited ideas, and slaves to custom and tradition. The upside-down night-world of A Midsummer Nights Dream and other renaissance fantasies reminds us that madness and sanity could engage in creative interchange. The bastions of world order in those days were hereditary inheritors holders of power, but not yet self-made lords of reason. Even the greatest earthly power was over-ruled by the higher reality of God and Satan and the supernatural realm was inherently a miraulous, magical world, a realm above and beyond earthly reason.
As the belief in pure reason emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, madness and sanity became polarized. Science abolished God and His angels, and made itself the ultimate source of truth and reason. No higher authority existed than the human mind in its "reasonable" aspect. The arbiters of reason could now judge and condemn all others to the inescapable hell of the asylum.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, psychiatry finally rehabilitated madness as an "illness" subject to cure or normalization through therapy and drugs. This final "kind" mutation of the history of madness, is in many ways the most insidious and hypocritical. Especially when we look at some of the more remarkable achievements -- Hiroshima, Nazi Germany, The Iraq War -- of our hideously "sane" and rational society.
Read Foucault and understand the history of knowledge as the skin-shedding, self-justifying forms of control.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
At last the complete version of Foucault's great 'History of Madness' has been released in English. This very fine translation offers a higher degree of clarity and accuracy than the Vintage edition, and it also provides more comprehensive endnotes and Foucault's rejoinder to Derrida's 'Cogito and the History of Madness.' However, Routledge is once again guilty of producing a great and beautiful book but leaving a number of typos in. I don't know if they rush these volumes through production too quickly but it seems to be a recurring volume. In any case, 'The History of Madness' is one of the great works of historical philosophy of the last century. Foucault traces the transmutations and interpretations of insanity from the Dark Ages through the Classical Age and all the way up to modernity with the advent of psychoanalysis. You will never be able to understand the nature of our understanding of insanity without until you have followed Foucault's multi layered analysis. Truly a marvelous book.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2008
Michel Foucault's first book should be a real treat, for those interested in modern theory and (as previously mentioned in another review) for those with a psychiatric history of their own. I say "should be": although Foucault is usually reckoned as attempting to tackle social facticity without any support from either dominant or "liberatory" ideologies, Habermas' charge that he was "crypto-normative" rings oddly true in the case of this work. *History of Madness* is itself an effort in the early-modern genre it chronicles, that of providing a definition for mental illness that explains exactly what is objectionable about the conduct of the alienated from the standpoint of reason, rather than merely explaining their unreason in terms of an undifferentiated objectionability.
And "unreason" is a key word for Foucault's project, as is ably explained in Ian Hacking's introduction. Rather than import the diagnostic categories of contemporary psychiatry back into the Classical age, Foucault explains why the practical failure of persons to integrate themselves into modern social life -- which rather obviously has economic and political dimensions -- became "unreason", a failing which compelled modernizing authorities to regiment the "afflicted" in workhouses and *hopitals* quite unlike hospitals rather than treat them in a medical fashion. Rather than a strict critique of psychiatry, Foucault's analysis is a window onto the social struggles which constitute mental illness as something to be combated in the first place, rather than as poorly-calibrated religiosity or aesthetic sentiment.
Although it is true that Routledge seems not to have weathered the changeover to electronic publishing very well, they should be commended for making this great historico-philosophical work available to an English-speaking audience in its entirety.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2013
The book is not, and should not, be of interest to everyone. On one hand Focault's basic thesis is worthy of consideration. It was quite predictable. Even though I was not familiar with him or his ideas, I immediately suspected that he would argue for some sort of relativism. There is no doubt that what constitutes mental illness is largely the result of popular consensus and "expert opinion." As a history it is a excellent, as a work of theory, it is also engaging. In the few pieces of pure theory I have perused I've found baseless hypothesis supported by hopelessly illogical arguments cloaked in impenetrably confusing jargon. This book, on the other hand, is quite accessible, in spite of being translated from French. While his basic contention is very hard to refute, I find it impossible to completely agree with it. The exploration of how industrial societies produce neuroses and/or do not accept neurotics is beyond the scope of this review---but there are many factors that go into the development of mental illness. Focault focuses only on one of them in this book.
Focault chronicles the evolution of Western's civilization's conception of madness, which may not be the most interesting topic. The antiquated paradigms of science are of interest only to historians of science; most of us want only the cutting-edge. Yet, there is some benefit to exploring outmoded means of thinking; sometimes there is virtue in their reasoning, even if their conclusions, or explanations for their conclusions, are wrong. The book has a few wonderful stories. My favorite is about the inmate who was able to withstand incredibly bitter winters without clothes, blankets or heat sources. It nicely illustrates the power of the mind and the power of madness itself.
Focault's central point is correct, but there are disorders that have clear biological causes and are alleviated greatly by drugs like lithium. Other disorders, like ADHD, appear to be fabricated illnesses with diagnostic criteria so vague that they are applicable to nearly everyone. It seems odd that restlessness in preadolescent boys is now considered an incurable disease. Having an abundance of energy and being bored by school subjects, and the boring ways in which they are presented, strikes me as a sign of good mental health, but my views are not sanctioned by any large organizations.
Fair warning: this is not the sort of book one brings to the beach; it is not the sort of book one can read quickly.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2009
I think this new translation of History of Madness is one of the most important "book-events" (to use Foucault's term) of the last decade. Although the original French version of this book was published in French in 1961--it was Foucault's first major book, and the first to turn away from his phemonenological roots--it has taken over forty years for it to be fully translated into English. The 1965 English translation, Madness and Civilization, is only about half of the book's original length. Important passages are missing from the 1965 abridged translation, including the two pages on Descartes's exclusion of madness from the cogito which forms the basis of the famous Foucault-Derrida debate. History of Madness gives us, in my view, the seeds of all of Foucault's later ideas, including his ideas about power and ethics. For more on this argument that scrambles typical periodizations of Foucault's work, see my recent book, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory, which gives a detailed reading of History of Madness in light of the new translation.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2014
I was terrified when I got this book in the mail because I didn't realize it was 700 pages--and Foucault isn't exactly known for his easy-going writing. But this translation is excellent--it's readable, not bogged down, and the footnotes are helpful but not overwhelming. Sure, Foucault skips all kinds of ancient history and only starts in the Middle Ages--but what he does cover, he covers in-depth, clearly, and with interesting anecdotes and historical support. I can't believe I'm saying this about Foucault, but it almost reads like a story.
I went into this book daunted and thinking I would quit 20 pages in, but I really can't put it down (except physically--it's huge).
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2012
I still fail to understand what Derrida found unacceptable about this work, now available to us in English, restored to its full length and original title. Let's remember, this is not directly a work of philosophy. In terms of importance, one should compare it to Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...in short, a history book. But ye, more than that...a history of attitudes and unique human evasions, establishing patterns of taboo. Read along side George Bataille's "Death and Sensuality" one begins to respect "un-reason" and the strange reactions of society when confronted with taboo phenomena. One should use this book as a means to seeing how our current modes of viewing the world are not privileged. As Dr. Jack Kevorkian points out in his book "Glimmeriqs", our established conventions for determining the moral rectitude of an act are not only relative, but more importantly, almost totally unexamined, prejudiced and irrational based on whatever seems the norm of our current cultural zeitgeist, which at present is half-positivist science and half-christian hodge-podge. Nihilism remains unspoken.
(Glimmeriqs is a terrible, if not un-readable book, but its author was at least a man of interest, and I think him a nice example of our own present day taboos. Take a moment to watch the documentary on him. It's quite enjoyable.)
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2007
Foucault is right on the mark with this newly translated book. And so are the translators. It is insightful and informative, giving a history and an oh so subtle analysis. If you have been in a mental institution in the past 20 years then you can even gain more insight into what is going on in the book. Although it can be a bit unsettling, the rewards far outweight any frightening revelation you might come across. Why are the mad treated the way they are today? Where does that treatment come from? Are we really as advanced as we think we are, or are we actually still basing our medical treatments of the mad on the foundations of what confinement and frenzy since the middle ages have built? Redundant, yes, huge, yes, brilliant, no doubt. I am glad this book is finally in english, my french is ok, but not advanced enough for this book. Still has some editing errors, but that gives it charm.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2012
Foucault's study of the history of how society has viewed madness over time is an important and thought provoking work. Anyone with an interest in mental health would find this work of value, How we as a society view madness impacts on how we treat our fellow humans.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2009
Finally, the first great work by the 20th century's most influential and prescient thinker is available in full in a beautiful translation. Routledge is one of my favorite publishers and both the paperback and hardback editions meet their usual high standards. As is usual with Foucault, there is so much to think about in every sentence the work is best taken in small doses. It's also very depressing, but amply repays the effort and stamina required to read.