of Madness

History of Madness


Questioning the western and eastern perception of mental illness and psychotic experience and how they relate.
When it was first published in France in 1961 as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la Folie à l’âge Classique, few had heard of a thirty-four year old philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault. By the time an abridged English edition was published in 1967 as Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault had shaken the intellectual world. This translation is the first English edition of the complete French texts of the first and second edition, including all prefaces and appendices, some of them un… more about book…

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Questioning the western and eastern perception of mental illness and psychotic experience and how they relate.(r/askphilosophy)

I think Foucault’s History of Madness would resonate strongly with your horizon and project. In it, he undertakes an almost historical analysis of the ideational genealogy (a term borrowed from Nietzsche) of ‘madness’, where he finds that the mad person has had ascribed an almost schizophrenic, if you will, range of attributes to them throughout history.

In ancient Greece, for instance, madness was linked to a notion of this particular individual being able to mediate attitudes of the gods through them; in Romantic art and thinking, there’s a certain “Sturm und Drang” dignity and exaltedness surrounding the mad individual (as with for instance the somewhat sanguine character of Beethoven, and the role epilepsy played in the work and life of Dostojevskij); Freud and early psychoanalysis apprehended madness as somewhat more complex, in that it largely dissolved the traditional dichotomy of madness and ‘normality’ (claiming, for instance, that all of us are slightly neurotic), which in turn points outwards on the society that fosters and cultures us;

and today, primarily in European psychology, there’s a growing focus on social psychology and an opposition to formal systems of diagnosis – after all, as you seem to grasp, or at least feel, very intimately yourself, isn’t the very act of dubbing someone as a schizophrenic itself just a mode of conceptualizing what is, in fact, much more complex than what can be reduced to an instance of this or that particular mode of orientation on the part of the psychologist? And what effect does this have on the individual being diagnosed, being told that the entirety of what they are, the mental framework that constitutes them, and in turn the content of that constitution, is a certain anomaly by definition? All of a sudden, you’re now a schizophrenic – this also has social implications, and as such in turn also pregnant implications to your idea of self, or identity.

This is where the ‘power’ aspect of Foucault starts to shine through – this particular individual above has had power exerted over them, they have been forcefully constituted in a certain way by the systemic surroundings they’re present in; and these systemic surroundings, and the way they function in relation to people, are products of the historically mediated development of ideas, what we mean and understand by them.

I should mention that I’m aware my post so far presents itself as rather heavy-handedly critical. I’m merely trying to introduce some basics of Foucault, and ‘walk through the motions’ of what an initial result of a power relations analysis might look like. It’s focal to mention in the above example, that yes, power was exerted, but no matter what, power will be exerted – Foucault is explicit about this himself. In the 80’s and 90’s, critical/continental academica seemed to jump all aboard the “analyze and decimate the repressive modes of power in society!”, to varying degrees of success, while contemporary academica working with Foucault seems much more focused on applying his theoretical horizon and derived tools with regards to analysis – working out from the idea that complex problems require equally complex investigations, and that a Foucaultian approach possibly can grasp a fuller picture of a given status quo, than, say, a more formal systems analysis (e.g. Luhmann).

In this way, one can look at how power is distributed in a given situation or social sphere and how this in turn constitutes the people in it – as such, this would be a way of conceptualizing an analytical framework for looking into, for instance, how people’s ethical beliefs and convictions come about. Obviously, also, one can look at how, for instance, their neurotic behaviours or ideas of self can come about – but my point is, such an analysis needn’t be inherently critical in perspective.

With regards to your intentions of linking Western and Eastern perspectives on matters such as these, I’m in the dark, as I’m no expert on Eastern ideas of madness. I know that in Islamic philosophy, we find the sufi tradition which emphasizes mystical wisdom (often relating itself to religious, Islamic doctrines) mediated through trance, dance, meditation, “holy self-annihilation” and the like, but that’s about the extent of my horizon there. You might want to check this and this out, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

That said, my personal opinion is that if you suspect that you’re a clinical schizophrenic, you should definitely go and get that checked out. This happens to be one of the diagnoses that can be alleviated with medicine that has effects which are well documented. I happen to agree with you that once we’re talking about these matters of mental health, normality, the medicated life, social apprehensions and stigma of disease, etc., a hard-liner approach based purely on biological/neuropsychology, behaviouristic models of human well-being and an itchy finger on the medicine trigger is a self-defeating institution, in that one very quickly, as you do, feel thoroughly alienated from this mode of conceptualizing the problems and feelings one can sit with. I’ve tried it once, and it drove me, paradoxically, to try and off myself two times.

However, as with anything there are no black and white arguments, and schizophrenia can be managed, among other things, by way of medicine – and taking this medicine will be beneficial, because it helps you, not because it’ll keep you in line.

EDIT: grammar, wording.


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