Debunking Andrew Scull: Michel Foucault’s History of Madness

(x-posted to The Valve)

It is time, at last, for me to confront Andrew Scull’s recent review (now a little less so) of Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization. The book has come out in an expanded and newly translated edition.

I will be brief. Scull’s review is a disaster, and the worst of it is that some of his criticisms are undoubtedly just. Furthermore, some of what has been written against Scull is useless.

This post follows up on Scott Eric Kaufman’s two excellent posts on the subject, here (1) and here (2). I’m indebted to Scott for the links below. Though I disagree with him about the value of Foucault’s book, I think his comparison of “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” with Madness and Civilization is very helpful.

I am not merely aiming to pick apart Scull’s response to Foucault; my real target is Scull’s blithe cynicism about the 1960s. That decade, which already signifies an irresponsible utopianism in most public discourse, is now slowly being rejected by academia as an embarrassment. We literally run the risk of losing works like Madness and Civilization, Eros and Civilization, and Life Against Death to this smug and unreasoning process of expulsion.


To begin with, Scull’s project is fundamentally dishonest because of the difference between media. Foucault is writing an immense work of historical research, now properly annotated. Scull is writing a book review. As a result, Scull has to ask us to take a great deal on faith, without ever providing footnotes or citations of his own, and he does so in the service of a critique of a blindly credulous audience.

Let’s grant Scull as much of his argument as we can. Let’s assume that Foucault drastically over-stated the number of mental patients being held as prisoners in Western Europe; in defense of this assertion, Scull cites a book entitled Madness and Democracy, published in 1999. Let’s assume that Foucault was working from erroneous sources, when he described the public paying to observe inmates at Bedlam. Scull claims that public visitation ended much earlier, and that no fixed price was set for admissions. Finally, let’s accept the idea that most of the new asylums were not constructed on the sites of convents or monasteries.

These are frustrating mistakes to uncover. For somebody writing a history of the physical treatment and confinement of the insane, they may be fatal. Still, they are subject to qualification.

First of all, whether or not madmen continued to roam in the streets in the Classical Age, it is still possible to trace a trend favoring the establishment of asylums and hospitals. Scull himself admits that by the 19th Century, “vast museums of madness” had sprung up with the help of public funding. People with mental illnesses still walk the streets today: they show up in our lives as sources of disruption, and in our artworks as saints, apocalyptic prophets, and harbingers of magic. That hardly makes the history of institutionalization irrelevant to contemporary life. In fact, given the number of people who are now treated for various mental disorders on an outpatient basis, one could say that the asylum is now a much more real, and less visible, presence in our lives.

As for exhibiting patients at Bedlam, Scull tries his best to disguise the fact that they were exhibited, and there was a price, even if Foucault got the dates wrong, and the price was never fixed. As Richard Prouty notes at the blog One Way Street, bringing this phenomenon to our attention “is far more illuminating and provocative than knowing that the public visitation of patients at Bedlam ceased in 1770, and did not continue into the nineteenth century, as Foucault asserted. What’s important is that the patients went on display in the first place.”


Scull claims that “such massive incarceration” as Foucault describes, “simply never occurred in England.” He also claims that the “ships of fools” — the plural of Foucault’s historicizing metaphor for the mad individuals who, during the Middle Ages, occupied the interstices between settlements — didn’t exist, either. Since he gives absolutely no supporting evidence for these claims, he inspires me with nothing beyond a slight doubt. I am likewise unimpressed by his careful tallies of which of Foucault’s sources were written when. Scull gives us no clue as to which texts specifically are out of date, and which are not.


Scull continues, “Foucault’s isolation from the world of facts and scholarship is evident throughout History of Madness.” What he really means, in this single reference to an incredible omission, is that for large stretches of Madness and Civilization Foucault is concerned with interpreting works of art and philosophy that deal with madness.

This is where Foucault is on his most unassailable ground. As Gracchi remarks, at Westminster Wisdom, “the philosophical points that Foucault makes, so far as they are unrelated to the empirical evidence, are left untouched.” Foucault’s references to the “Ship of Fools” are metaphorical, even though Scull tries to make it seem as though Foucault is describing whole crews of madmen. Foucault is describing the philosophico-aesthetic (really epistemic) lenses through which even one madman on a ship would have been viewed.

The only thing that can disprove Foucault’s dozens of literary readings, stretching all the way from Erasmus, to Albrecht Dürer, to Friedrich Nietzsche and Antonin Artaud, is a recourse to those works themselves. So why, then, should we want to abandon Foucault’s appeals to conscience on the grounds of a mistake about admission fees at Bedlam? We can interpret the following statement of the strength of 19th and 20th Century art alone:

There is no madness except as the final instant of the work of art—the work endlessly drives madness to its limits; where there is a work of art, there is no madness; and yet madness is contemporary with the work of art, since it inaugurates the time of its truth…the world that thought to measure and justify madness through psychology must justify itself before madness. (trans. Howard, 289)


Craig, writing at Long Sunday (here [1] and here [2]) in response to Scott, as well as Jeremy at FoucaultBlog writing in response to Scull, claim that Scull is trying to discredit all of Foucault’s work. There is no evidence for this. Scott’s deft use of Foucault’s essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” against the errors of Madness and Civilization proves that the critique can be immanently contained.

In fact, the entry at FoucaultBlog shows a curious unwillingness to defend Madness and Civilization. Similarly, Craig’s two posts seek to wall it off from the rest of Foucault’s work, by arguing that this Foucault was unpolished, and lacked the genealogical rigor he would bring to The Birth of the Clinic.

So why give up on Madness and Civilization, while valiantly defending Foucault against an imaginary slippery slope? We’ve known the answer for several years now: Foucault writes as though, through madness, “the world is made aware of its guilt” (288). He writes as though art that struggles at the border of madness could reveal hitherto unsuspected potentials for social transformation. And all this is embarrassing. It is not even Foucauldian enough, we hear nowadays.

Scull hopes to use the chinks in Foucault’s armor to discredit the whole history of 1960s anti-psychiatric sociology. We are told that Erving Goffman was “brilliant if idiosyncratic,” and that his “loosely linked essays lent academic lustre to the previously polemical equation of the mental hospital and the concentration camp.” Leaving aside Scull’s painful alliteration, the point is clear: he’s fond of those 60s liberals, with their academic lustre and idiosyncratic brilliance, but they were — let’s face it — a bit off the mark. He dismisses Ronnie Laing as “yesterday’s man,” and he may be right, but calling “schizophrenia” a form of “supersanity” (as Laing did) is passingly close to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, who are still read and debated widely. Scull overloads his language with rhetorical devices. He calls Laing a “guru,” to remind us again of that decade’s crazy excesses, and describes a generation of historians as “midwives.” Even his description of the translated title, Madness and Civilization, is meant as a warning about the seductive power of intellectual provocation.

Scull may be right that the real historical conditions in mental institutions did not always match the rhetoric of the age. He calls Foucault out as a fortunate deceiver, “cynical” and “shameless,” and hints darkly at Foucault’s effect on “people’s lives.” But if we have learned anything from Foucault, and from his predecessor Nietzsche, it is that certain kinds of ideological errors react with material histories, and alter them. To treat the lot of Foucault’s textual criticism of madness as nothing — that is pure, indefensible ideology. It endeavors to silence Foucault, and restores to us a good conscience we have done nothing to deserve.