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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Debunking Andrew Scull: Michel Foucault’s History of Madness

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 04/29/07 at 06:44 AM

(cross-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

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.


Just to stir the pot: as a patient Nietzsche was put on display by Otto Binswanger, albeit only to medical students.
“During Nietzsche’s time in the Jena asylum, his mother asked the attending psychiatrist, Dr Otto Binswanger, to look at the notebooks. Binswanger refused, saying he saw no point in it. Second-class patients did not merit such attentions.”
(<a href="http://home.cfl.rr.com/mpresley1/fn.pdf">Source. Source also argues that Nietzsche probably did not suffer from syphilis.</i>)

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 08:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, premature save. Source for Nietzsche on display is Sander Gilman, “Conversations with Nietzsche”, pp. 222-262, esp. 222-3. One of the students who observed Nietzsche was impressed at how well he spoke even as a patient.

Otto Binswanger was quite eminent and was the father of the existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger.

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 08:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t really want to get into the Scull argument. But it really reeked of the resentment of solid, careful American scholars who were angry that Foucault had read hundreds or thousands of books, but none of theirs. Szasz and Laing were dragged in, but they are irrelevant to Foucault except from a history-of-the-sixties point of view; as far as I know, he didn’t rely on them at all. And then there’s the whole positivism problem: Truth is what is important, and truth is produced by collecting accurate facts and then accurately assembling them. There seems to have been no attempt to address Foucault’s argument, except concessively at the beginning to set up the killing blow.

The same attack was made on Mike Davis by LA boosters. In one of his books he wrote that LA County was covered with X billion tons of concrete. Someone showed very convincingly that that was a vast overestimate, and felt that he had refuted everything else Davis had ever said, even though his concrete estimate was a literary flourish and not part of a quantitative argument of any kind.

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 08:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that your critique of Scull’s critique really works, Joseph, for two reasons.

First, your assertion that Scull, since he’s writing a book review, unfairly doesn’t have to write footnotes of his own.  But Scull, in challenging Foucault’s account of matters of fact, can be fairly easily verified or disconfirmed.  In Scull’s reply to criticisms, he reasserts them.  If people are going to be challenging Scull in this area, I’d guess that it was going to happen or has happened within professional publication, with all the footnotes one could want.

Second, you refer to Foucault’s literary interpretations being untouched (I agree), and then to the curious disinclination of some people to defend them.  You write that the reason for this is that some of Foucault’s views are embarrassing with regard to the relationship between art and madness.  Well, this gets into authorial motive, but I disagree.  Looked at, say, the Long Sunday thread, it appears to me that what’s being defended is Foucault’s writing as part of academic sociology.  If Foucault is wrong on matters of fact, the social science based on his work must fall away, and the careers of those who have made themselves expert in this aspect of his work will suffer.  It’s not Foucault being defended, but the professional self.

Your last two paragraphs, which focus on Scull as attacker of the 60s, I’m not as sure about.  Reading Scull’s various replies, I’d guess that he’s animated by advocacy for the mentally ill in the current day, and believes that some aspects of the holdover from this era are harmful.  Certainly I’d call the labelling of schizophrenia as supersanity harmful, as it discourages treatment.  So I think that you may be misreading Scull here, but I’m not sure.

By on 04/29/07 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John E: “The same attack was made on Mike Davis by LA boosters.”

I remember that, having lived in LA at the time.  It escalated to amazing heights, with a special multi-page article in the LA Times in which a group of archivists checked all his footnotes.

But they concluded that his history was fine because of what it was trying to do.  After all, his book was a book, not an academic paper, and could have factoids as rhetorical flourishes if it wanted to without disturbing the larger interest in its ideas.  But this is the exact defense that people haven’t wanted to make about Foucault, because it would affect their own academic interests.

By on 04/29/07 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that I’m not clear what the issue is here. I would have been willing to concede from the beginning that M&C was not a reliable history of the treatment of madness 1750-1850, even though that was one of its topics. I also would agree that people working on that specific topic should read M&C very critically and selectively, though I really doubt that it is so useless that it should be ignored—besides missing some standard works, Foucault dug up a lot of other stuff which was worthy of attention. Even for specialists, I think it should probably remain on the reading lists for that reason.

Next, if people outside the specialty are using M&C as an authoritative standard work on the topic, they should stop doing that.

I really believe that Scull has other targets, though—anti-psychiatry above all, Foucault’s work in general, and as Joseph says, the Sixties in all its works and all its ways. I suspect that most of Scull’s readers took Scull’s piece to be more powerful than it was, and that he intended that (granted, of course, that “intent” doesn’t exist).

One thing that has come out of this is that M&C doesn’t seem to be any Foucauldian’s favorite book. It was his break-out book (after one or two conventional books), but The Order of Things was what made him a star, and he went from there.

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It was his break-out book (after one or two conventional books), but The Order of Things was what made him a star, and he went from there.

Depends on where you’re talking about: Madness and Civilization was translated into English and swept through the humanities in 1965; The Order of Things became a surprise bestseller in France in 1966.  His academic reputation in the States was established on the strength of Madness and Civilization; his popular reputation in France with The Order of Things.

As to Joe’s post, I think we can agree to disagree about the valorization of madness, both in Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari, two thinkers with whom he disagreed, but with whose work his is often linked.  (Says so right in my copy of Anti-Oedipus, in a forward by Foucault.) The reason for my dissent is, I think, because your focus on the work of art “struggl[ing] at the border of madness” differs from work which champions madness-qua-madness as a kind of object lesson for the sane.  It’s the universalization of the analyst and, in a fashion, the dehumanization of the analysand, sensu lato—the mad exist to inspire the sane, to perform for them in the border countries of reason.  In other words, the mad are valuable inasmuch as they reinforce our sanity, not in and of themselves.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/29/07 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, who are the people who uncritically cite M&C? Are there actually a lot of them? I don’t believe that I’ve run into anyone in the last 10-15 years for whom M&C is of much significance. (But then again, maybe those guys just go to different strip clubs than I do.)

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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.

Certainly no ship of fools. Ax to grind, certainly, but I don’t remember this article being off factually: Maher, W. B. & Maher, B. (1982). The ship of fools: Stultifera navis or ignis fatuus? American Psychologist, 37, 756-761. As for ships of fools--settlements of the mad--can’t think of anything.

Of course, if we started dismissing the work of non-medievalists because they got the MA wrong (either on some factual point or by homogenizing it as a time prior to the fragmentations of postmodernity), we’d have to dismiss boatloads of otherwise very good scholarship.

By Karl Steel on 04/29/07 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In his earlier reviews of the book, Scull referred to the “Foucault cult”. In his reply, he calls the “obsessive international intention” that has been bestowed on Foucault and Habermas “astonishing and deeply revelatory of some aspects of the human sciences” in the context of their “comical” misreadings of history. This seems to be resting on the assumption (that Scull must know his false) that their reputations rest on their historical acumen. However, Scull completely ignores Foucault as a philosopher, and this is the root of my frustration with his review and also seems to be me to be the root of lot of the somewhat oddly worded criticisms of his review as not “addressing Foucault on his own territory” or whatever.

Criticism of Foucault’s historical examples is necessary, but are uninteresting if not put in the context of the larger philosophical points he is trying to make in M and C. Most of the examples that Scull raises against Foucault (especially with regards to the great confinement) have long been known, but the key question is if that destroys Foucault’s interpretive framework. From my understanding of M and C (which is really limited), Foucault is doing a highly idealistic interpretive work on how the West has viewed madness. Therefore, a lot of the historical materials he deals with are used as examples, not evidence. What has to be dealt with critically is the effectiveness of his interpretive framework.

Finally, Scull seems to think that his exposure of Foucault’s “shameless cynicism” will finally cause people to stop reading him, and that this would be a good thing. The problem, as all these debates about what the proper place of M and C in Foucault’s ouveure reveal, is that Foucault wasn’t just a historian of madness, and his reputation is based on a lifetime of, for me at least, really interesting and great work. And I have a hard time seeing how it is important to debate whether his footnote practices etc. live up to our standards.

By on 04/29/07 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph—having read the review, and a couple synopses of Scull’s own book on excesses of power and regulation in psychiatry, I wonder if the article’s intent is a defense of psychiatry against its imagined wild hippy enemies, which in itself is laughable, or somehow wrapped up in a defense of the Enlightenment (which he ‘[flags], but [does] not expand on’ in his review).  If anybody would like to clarify that, please do.  But I’m very interested in what you say about the reluctance of other academics to defend Madness and Civilization specifically, rather than Foucault (or the professional self, as Rich suggests) generally.  Mental illness, when it can’t be used as a convenient metaphor but is rather spoken of as a reality indicative of societal norms, is embarrassing.  Phrases like ‘social transformation’ are embarrassing for their lack of affected detachment.

Also, John Emerson, thanks for that completely unnecessary and totally obnoxious sexist aside.  Maybe we can laugh about it while puffing on a couple of stogies and sipping scotch later.

By petitpoussin on 04/29/07 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re welcome, P.P. Rarely do I offend with so little effort on my part.

By John Emerson on 04/29/07 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scull himself is much more reasonable about Foucault in his own book, The Most Solitary of Afflictions: The Most Solitary of Afflictions - Madness and Society in Britain, he writes that “Foucault is a more complicated case [than Thomas Szasz] (as befits someone who is a more sophisticated thinker), and one must acknowledge that heuristically, at least, the intellectual challenges he threw down three decades ago have directly or indirectly been the stimulus for much of the best recent work in the history of psychiatry.” (p.5) This sounds like it is from another world than the one in Scull’s review, which ends on a completely silly note, especially for a historian. It casts doubt on his own ability to assess sources, since there is no evidence that Foucault’s motives were in the least bit dishonorable. It is easy to flyspeck a big work. Indeed, in a review that criticizes Foucault for mistating the number of poor houses in Ireland, Scull himself rather covers up the issue of madhouses in Britain by citing only public madhouses, when of course, it was the golden age of private ones, as he well knows. Foucault had two major themes in History of Madness: one was how the madness became a state, and one was what practices both unfolded from the making of that state and aligned themselves with other practices of the absolutist State. Scull doesn’t argue against the first thesis at all - he does argue against the great confinement thesis. As has Roy Porter. They are pretty good at showing that the confinement, as described by Foucault, doesn’t happen in the 17th and 18th century. Myself, I think both Foucault and Scull and Porter overlook the encouragements to emigration in those centuries. But I don’t think Foucault’s “heuristic”, to use Scull’s term, stands or falls with the confinement thesis - because all sides grant that confinement happened. Foucault could very well amend his thesis by showing how that lag happened. And, indeed, five years later, Foucault shows a more complicated notion of the 17th and 18th century, and finds a rupture roughly going through the early 19th.

Scholars can change their mind. Look at Scull’s own statements about Foucault, and how they have evolved over the last 2 years.

By roger on 04/29/07 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Roger, Steven, thank you for your helpful contributions.


I disagree with your claim that what Scull says “can be fairly easily verified or disconfirmed.” That places the burden of proof on each and every one of Scull’s readers, most of whom don’t have access to a research library. That’s not how academia operates. Even if the book review form prevented Scull from making a fully supported response, it was his responsibility to point us towards the relevant books or articles by himself or others. The fact that his responses to critics still contain no actual citations makes his arguments more questionable, not less.

It’s true that I leaned a little on firsthand experience, when I wrote about “embarrassment” towards the sixties. My sense of what academia is today has been molded in part by seminars, informal conversations, and other encounters impossible to cite. Even if I’m wrong about academia, though, I’m not wrong about Scull: my reading of his attitude towards the 1960s is based on the rhetoric of his review.

The idea that only the facts in Foucault are relevant to the social sciences enforces a divide between art and “fact” that has troubled me for a long time. If history is relevant to literary criticism, then surely art is relevant to history as more than an epiphenomenon; the best sociologists, including Niklas Luhmann and Claude Levi-Strauss, pay close attention to art, and try to interpret it.

In addition, it remains unclear why Scull is not suggesting corrections to Foucault’s text, instead of enjoining us to throw it away.

I agree that Scull is motivated by a desire to see mentally ill persons receive treatment. Neither Foucault, nor Deleuze and Guattari, actually pose a threat to the practical response to mentally ill persons in distress. The biggest obstacle to the treatment of mental illness in America is political opposition to mental health funding and comprehensive health care. That said, we find ourselves at a historical moment when antidepressants are being prescribed for “general anxiety disorder.” Surely we need to be questioning the assumptions of psychiatric treatment, and the root causes of widespread mental illness, even while we advocate for treatment. That dual approach is perfectly familiar; it is the scientific method.

This leads us to Scott’s comment. He writes,

As to Joe’s post, I think we can agree to disagree about the valorization of madness, both in Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari, two thinkers with whom he disagreed, but with whose work his is often linked.  (Says so right in my copy of Anti-Oedipus, in a forward by Foucault.) The reason for my dissent is, I think, because your focus on the work of art “struggl[ing] at the border of madness” differs from work which champions madness-qua-madness as a kind of object lesson for the sane.  It’s the universalization of the analyst and, in a fashion, the dehumanization of the analysand, sensu lato—the mad exist to inspire the sane, to perform for them in the border countries of reason.  In other words, the mad are valuable inasmuch as they reinforce our sanity, not in and of themselves.

It makes sense to disagree about whether madness can be read in the ways that Foucault, or Deleuze and Guattari, would like to read it—and it’s true that their readings are not identical. Still, his preface to Anti-Oedipus is full of praise. Foucault writes that Anti-Oedipus is an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” an “art,” and “the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time.”

I also disagree with the idea that Foucault or Anti-Oedipus force mentally ill persons to perform for us, in order to inspire us and reinforce our own self-congratulatory notions of sanity. Modern psychiatry does assign human beings a value in themselves, but not insofar as they are mad—that would be like another doctor conferring inherent value on rubella. Certain works of philosophy are capable of valuing madness differently, and I think there is every reason to those authors to challenge the deceptive simplicity of the diagnosis. Incidentally, the “universalization of the analyst” has already happened: people quite readily psychoanalyze themselves, objectifying their own neuroses and seeking in various ways to treat and/or enjoy them. That is something Deleuze and Guattari actually try to oppose.

I address the whole problem of Anti-Oedipus and its supposed argument “against treatment” in a post called “Madness, Neither Free Nor Pure,” over at The Kugelmass Episodes. That is also where I tried, to the best of my ability, to write about the shootings at Virginia Tech. Note that the entry was written by “René Daumal,” a pseudonym.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/29/07 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

However, Scull completely ignores Foucault as a philosopher, and this is the root of my frustration with his review and also seems to be me to be the root of lot of the somewhat oddly worded criticisms of his review as not “addressing Foucault on his own territory” or whatever.

While I’d characterise my emotional response as “bemused” rather than “frustrated”, I have to agree with pretty much everything Steven Klein’s said here.

For me — and I now fully appreciate that this is not true for everyone, and that this is why the debate has taken the character and direction that it has — Foucault is a philosopher of history and a historian of ideas. To that extent, I see M&C as being not at all about the “history” of madness but rather about the historical (though not only historical) limits and/or specificity of a certain concept of reason.

On the other hand, if it turns out that somewhere some people have been basing on M&C an entire theory of mental illness and a practice for “dealing” with it, then obviously Scull’s claims may have real implications.

But I still find it hard to imagine that anyone would or could have engaged with M&C in such a literal (for want of a better word) way.

By on 04/29/07 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi all.  Not being an academic, I can’t add very much to this Scull-Foucault thing, but I’ve followed it with interest. When Scull and other Foucault-debunkers are talking about the “Foucault cult”, I wonder whether they are thinking of the, er, institutionalization of Foucault among non-academics.  I volunteer at a left-wing bookstore, and we sell a lot of Foucault and Foucaultiana, not all of it to me.  Undergrads across the humanities read a little Foucault, often M&C.  I would bet an awful lot of social services/progressive policy folks/liberal activists who went to college in the last ten years use some big, toolboxy ideas drawn from Foucault in their conversations about policy and social services.  It might not be academic Foucauldians who worry Scull.

By on 04/29/07 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Foucault is very clear about the difference between the literary “ship of fools,” and the actual individuals, vagrant and usually solitary, who were exaggerated into the literary device when that device was introduced.

They didn’t have settlements of their own, at all. Foucault writes:

But of all these romantic or satiric vessels, the Narrenschiff is the only one that had a real existence—for they did exist, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town. Madmen then led an easy wandering existence...Frequently, they were handed over to boatmen: in Frankfort, in 1399, seamen were instructed to rid the city of a madman who walked about the streets naked; in the first years of the fifteenth century, a criminal madman was expelled in the same manner from Mainz. Sometimes the sailors disembarked these bothersome passengers sooners than they had promised; witness a blacksmith of Frankfort twice expelled and twice returning before being taken to Kreuznach for good. Often the cities of Europe must have seen these “ships of fools” approaching their harbors. (8)

In other words, a ship with one or two madmen at most, who were onboard at the behest of another town.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/29/07 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I unreservedly cited Foucault’s readings of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly in a paper on Erasmus and Rabelais.

Your parenthetical statement made me think of this:

A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom...[we] appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making.
-Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/29/07 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Actually, the first entry at FoucaultBlog, linked up above, does a great job dealing with the specifically pro-Enlightenment strain in Scull’s critique. Jeremy makes the point that Foucault is not so much purely anti-Enlightenment, as he is a critic of the Enlightenment working within the Enlightenment tradition. He’s right.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/29/07 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I disagree with your claim that what Scull says “can be fairly easily verified or disconfirmed.” That places the burden of proof on each and every one of Scull’s readers, most of whom don’t have access to a research library.”

That’s not really what I meant to imply.  I guess that my mental model of what has happened / is going to happen goes something like this: Scull criticizes Foucault in book review, many people respond to Scull, in response Scull writes academic paper, people respond to academic paper.  At some point, people generally agree on whether Scull is right about the facts or not, based on peer-reviewed work.  Therefore, it isn’t really necessary for everyone to go to the research library, it’s only necessary to reserve judgement and wait.

My confusion of verb tenses is because I think that this process may have already at least partially occured.  Scull seems to have been writing about this for a couple of years, I haven’t seen anyone challenge him on a purely factual basis, and I’d guess that various other experts would if they could.  Instead, the general idea seems to be that his factual objections aren’t important.

“The idea that only the facts in Foucault are relevant to the social sciences [...]”

I’m not saying that only facts are relevant to the social sciences.  I would claim, though, that if the facts are wrong, the work can’t be of any more than historical interest to the sciences.

“I agree that Scull is motivated by a desire to see mentally ill persons receive treatment.”

But the de-institutionalization movement really is linked in with anti-60s sentiment in this context.  There was an idealistically laudable push towards treating mental problems in community health centers, which was subverted by conservative politicians who lowered costs by emptying the institutions and not funding the community health centers.  You characterize Scull as “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.” But they were more than off the mark, they were part of an important failure in practical politics, rather like the failure that would predictably occur if Social Security were means-tested so that only the poor got it.  Scull may be wrong to link this practical failure with the ideas that in part motivated it, but I think there’s more than simple anti-60s prejudice at work.

By on 04/29/07 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sometimes I wonder how many hours of my life are spent stuck in a queue… Surely, there’s some profound song lyric I could cite here (notwithstanding the fact that “profound song lyric” is an oxymoronic phrase).

By on 04/29/07 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I understand the model you’re using here, through which the truth eventually “outs.” The problem is that, while many people read The Times Literary Supplement, not many people would be able to follow that thread from beginning to end, particularly given the delays involved. One would have to know which critics take Scull on; which ones he deigns to recognize, and how; where he publishes his full critique, if and when he chooses to do so; and how that critique is received by others besides the accepting journal.

Such an odyssey poses no problem if, at each stage, the form of the exchange is symmetrical. But in this case it is not, and it is worth keeping in mind the rhetorical efficacy of tactics like Swift Boat.

roger has provided a helpful example of the disjunctions that can exist between Scull’s unchallenged, focused publications, and this new response to Madness and Civilization.

I don’t really know how important Scull’s factual objections are to parts of Foucault’s text, and unfortunately, his review does not give me the tools I would need to decide. It does change my reading of Madness and Civilization to doubt whether the madhouses were really built on the sites of old monasteries. On the other hand, since there clearly was a developing inclination towards a “great confinement,” it may not matter that it happened later than Foucault asserts.

Works of theory by writers like Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault do not, in general, advocate for specific reforms, such as moving treatment to community health centers. For example, Foucault never claims that Artaud should not have been institutionalized. This is not the result of indifference, or the armchair, or the ivory tower. It is simply a question of emphasis: books like Madness and Civilization and Anti-Oedipus are critical of the social forces that leave us no option besides the institutionalization of so many persons, and the medication of so many more. They do not confuse the effect (treatment) with root causes; they only aim to show that a concern to provide treatment should not become another excuse for the status quo.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/30/07 at 03:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The problem is that, while many people read The Times Literary Supplement, not many people would be able to follow that thread from beginning to end, particularly given the delays involved.”

I assume, though, that people who work on Foucault would be able to do so.  I certainly wouldn’t deny the rhetorical effectiveness of Swift-Boating, but I think it’s important to clarify which audience you think is being addressed, and why.  Is there any important sense in which people who are going to read the book review and not follow the controversy otherwise are really going to affect academic work on Foucault?  The actual Swift Boating incident carefully matched its audience and its intended effect.

Another illustration of the difference might be between that of the difference between the Valve and Horowitz’ FrontPage.  There were many accusations that the Valve, in speaking (presumably univocally) “against Theory”, was attempting to stage a political intervention of some sort.  Without regarding the many other problems with this narrative, it was never clear to me exactly how this was supposed to work.  Intervention, as Horowitz illustrates, is generally not that subtle; the chain of causation between the “Theory’s Empire” book event and the driving out of continental philosophers appeared to have several missing links.  Obviously your post is nowhere near that bad; I’m illustrating using an exaggerated case.  But it seems to me that the missing link in this case has to be an academic publication, with the concomitent ability for people to shoot at Scull’s references.

Perhaps there is some sense in which Scull’s book review, unsupported by academic publication, crystalizes a widespread change in how people think about Foucault.  But if a book review, unsupported as you say by references, can do that, then maybe there was something shaky about the edifice in the first place.  You write that “It does change my reading of Madness and Civilization to doubt whether the madhouses were really built on the sites of old monasteries.” That seems like a pretty clear indication that the factual claims within the work are not merely rhetorical flourishes; they affect how you read the work at some important level.

By on 04/30/07 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But if a book review, unsupported as you say by references, can do that, then maybe there was something shaky about the edifice in the first place.

I’ve never been able to understand the process by which whole approaches become passe. Scull seems to be trying to shift the mood in this area of study, though I doubt that his piece standing alone will be able to do so.

Starting all over again: the piece included a few nuggets of substantive criticism in the midst of a long string of journalistic devices which had the general affect of making the reader skeptical about Foucault. As I said above, for example, Szasz and Laing are irrelevant since Foucault did not use their work. It did this without addressing what Foucault was actually trying to do in M&C—it was fly-specking, as someone above said.

Anti-positivism is probably out of style again, but if you believe that big truths are made up of accumulated small truths the way walls are made up of bricks, then fly-specking is a valid critical method. If you don’t believe that, then it isn’t.

I would have been happy to read a well-informed empirically-based critique of Foucault’s research in M&L which made a connection with Foucault’s actual research goals, showed how his various errors invalidated his conclusions, and proposed a different line of inquiry on the same topics. A sketch version of that could have been done within the space limitations Scull was working under. From what I’ve seen it seems that he may not be capable of that, though.

By John Emerson on 04/30/07 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But John E., if you imagine that Scull was making a political intervention within the limits of his book review, then the reason for mentioning Szasz and Laing becomes clear; the target of the intervention was not really Foucault.  It was the remnants of the anti-institutionalization movement.  Despite what Joseph says above about how Foucault didn’t advocate for specific reforms, that’s not necessarily how he was read in the U.S. by the same kind of people who read these book reviews.

And reductionism isn’t really positivism.  There’s a sense in which science as science can be reductionistic but not necessarily positivistic.

By on 04/30/07 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, if the target was the anti-intervention movement, the review is certainly the long way around the barn. The validity of the critique of that movement has little to do with the facts about monasteries converted to asylums (or not), ships of fools (or not), the great confinement (or not), etc.

I think that a lot of the frustration over the review comes because it isn’t really clear what Scull is targeting. It seems to be a lot broader than just the details of mental health reform 1750-1850, but Scull’s critique is pretty much limited to that part.  It’s totally journalistic and seems just to scrape up as many oblique hits on anti-institutionalism as possible (e.g., what he wrote about Goffman, which certainly couldn’t make anyone feel any better about Goffman even though there was no substantive criticism at all.)

By John Emerson on 04/30/07 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"One of those lessons might be amusing, if it had no effects on people’s lives: the ease with which history can be distorted, facts ignored, the claims of human reason disparaged and dismissed, by someone sufficiently shameless and cynical, and willing to trust in the ignorance and credulity of his customers.”

Er..., that’s a pretty broad brush attack on the substantive normative/conceptual, i.e. philosophical, claims of Foucault’s work, which doesn’t just amount to Foucault having gotten some of his facts wrong, but, of course, without ever addressing those substantive issues. Furthermore, the original French addition has been in existence all along, sitting on library shelves in France, and it doesn’t take an English translation for scholars to take it off the shelf and check its footnotes and sources. And the point of the attack is not just that Foucault’s work rejects empirical historiography and the sorts of “standards” it imposes, together with its presuppositions about historical processes, their interpretation, and the aims of historical inquiry, but that it takes aim at the normativity of “reason” itself, which is what ultimately renders it so “cynical” and “shameless”. But then only specific points of fact are addressed by the review, leaving a reasonable suspicion that the aim of the review is to shut down the sorts of questions and modes of inquiry that Foucault’s work aimed at.

The fact that in the U.S.A., .7% of the citizens are currently incarcerated suggests that some of the questions that Foucault raised are scarcely obsolescent.

By on 04/30/07 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Specialists who work on the history of mental illness most or all of the time might be able to follow the thread we’re describing here. I’m an academic who works occasionally with Foucault, when he’s relevant to my literary research. I certainly can’t keep up with every journal publication on the subject; who knows how long renewed debate about Scull would take to reach even me.

Scull’s audience is mixed, of course, but a large portion of it will consist of lay readers and non-specialists. Already, in this thread, we’ve indebted to a few readers who’ve been able to quote Scull to Scull, and the results have not been consistent with the polemical approach he takes in his review.

I completely agree that the missing link is an academic paper by Scull about Foucault; that was my point about the “asymmetry” of his response, and no, he can’t borrow on credit while attacking us for believing Foucault too easily.

The facts matter here; a shift in our factual understanding may be enough to complicate our account of the religious strain in psychiatric treatment, as Foucault describes in it his book. But the “shaky edifice” is more a symptom of closed-mindedness and laziness than anything else. Academics, particularly those in fields like literary criticism, have been asked to absorb such a huge canon of new theory (Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, the Frankfurt school, Foucault, Derrida, Levinas, Luhmann, Kristeva, Lacan, Hardt and Negri, Baudrillard, Habermas, and more) that theory has become a matter of immediate ideological sympathy rather than rigorous debate. Lots of people will take this opportunity to throw out Foucault, but not for any particularly good reason.

Finally, there is no comparison between the theoretical allegiances of a given writer at the Valve, and the political intervention Scull is attempting here. Scull is trying to poke holes in the factual basis of Foucault’s argument, without following the rules of academic debate. More important, he’s trying to use these disagreements over fact to discredit Foucault’s philosophical work in Madness and Civilization, as well as to go after writers like Goffman. That’s quite different from presenting theoretical or methodological objections to works of theory, which is what we do here, and why we can reasonably claim to be meeting such works on their own ground.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/30/07 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I think that we’re probably mostly agreeing at this point, or know each other’s disagreements.  But I’m still not quite accepting of the “no references in a book review” criticism.  If academic publication about Foucault would take that long to reach you, even though you work occasionally with him, then paradoxically Scull was right to make stronger claims in his book review than elsewhere.  After all, the resulting furor ensures that you’ve heard about it, and a book review is not expected to be as careful as an academic publication. 

And I don’t really see the distinction you’re trying to make in your last paragraph.  Is there really a difference in kind between a book review and a blog post?  If someone on the Valve wanted to make a factual attack on a philosopher (if Scott attacked Lacan via saying that psychoanalysis didn’t actually work, say), I certainly wouldn’t criticize them for doing so, and they pretty much by definition of the blogged medium wouldn’t be following the rules of academic debate.  I don’t really see the distinction between theoretical and methodological and factual objections, or rather I do, but I think that saying that you can have any of these things firmly seperated from the other two is a particular theoretical stance in itself and shouldn’t necessarily be generalized.

If the difference is that Scull is trying to make a political intervention, well, I don’t see why that is bad in itself.  Everyone makes political interventions.

By on 04/30/07 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the problem with Scull’s review, qua review, is that he is too eager to make the kill. It’s the Fred Crews disease - an objection to a systematic thinker, which very well might be one of a series of objections, has to bear the weight of all those objections which the review doesn’t have space for. The result is a review that seems angrier than is justified by the material it gives us, and one that, for a reader wondering, say, what is Foucault’s History of Madness about, quickly becomes opaque. A fair reading of a book that is written in 1961 entails looking at the footnotes, surely, but in relation to other scholarship in 1961 - then looking at the way Foucault might have modified his thesis, or complicated it (which is what Roy Porter does) - then making the claim, which Scull wants to make, that the periodization is off and it casts into doubt the connection Foucault claims to discern between features of the early modern period. This is, basically, Scull’s claim, minus the assessment, which come out of nowhere, of Foucault as some kind of cynical charlatan. For that, he adduces no evidence. If Foucault didn’t include his footnotes, or plagiarized, that would be appropriate - as it is, it is simply bizarre.  Not only that, but it does seem to avoid coming to grasp with Foucault’s fundamental point - which is that with madness, unlike other sicknesses, or crime, or poverty, the madman’s own history of madness is discounted from the outset. Which of course is still true. While there are plenty of memoirs of madness, they are written from the standpoint of those who are, however precariously, cured. This gives madness a pretty interesting status as an historical object. Noticing this was pretty cool of Foucault.

As to the “utopian” or romantic parts of Foucault’s heritage, I gotta say, I don’t get that. I think, on the contrary, that the heritage has become part of the grain of our lives. Foucault, along with a lot of writers of the sixties - Goffman, Galbraith, Rachel Carson, even Djalas - wrote against the big cold war bureaucracies and put a suspicion in the culture of expertise that is lively today. I don’t see how, for instance, the terribly oppressive relationship between medicine and women would have changed without a shift in asking questions about the very roots of medical expertise. A lot of things made this suspicion relevant, from environmental degradation to the continual scientific coverup of the dangers of radiation. The intellectual attack, however, on expertise, for better or worse, is now our lingua franca. Who doesn’t look for the funder of the latest medical breakthrough? And who questioned that in the fifties?
Good things, to my mind.

By roger on 04/30/07 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I can’t really answer the first point without repeating myself, but I certainly can speak to the second.

When I attacked Paul de Man in the post entitled “Paul de Man’s Misreadings,” I attacked his theories and interpretations, not his facts. I never claimed, for example, that he had mistranslated Pascal, or that he was using a faulty edition of Pascal, or that he had overlooked the historical usages of a word, or that he was wrong in asserting the relevance of Pascal’s geometry to the later work of the Penseés.

In other words, we agreed on the facts; we just didn’t agree on what they meant. Likewise, a given statistic might be wrong, but depending on the degree of error, the interpretation might still hold up.

Scull never directly attacks Foucault’s interpretations of madness; instead, he goes after his facts and his intentions, as discussed in the post and earlier comments. He also tries to smear Foucault with a sort of reciprocal game of using Foucault’s inaccuracies to make other writers look bad, and using those writers to make Foucault look like an opportunist.

I don’t think it’s a universalizable distinction. It’s just one that happens to hold up in this instance—and this instance is important.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/01/07 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry to drag this out.  But, given that some other people apparently think that facts are a kind of disposeable underlayer to philosophic argument, I have to say that if you had chosen to attack Paul De Man on the basis that he had mistranslated Pascal, that would have been a perfectly reasonable attack.  The statement about how there wasn’t an attack on “historical usages of a word” would be a direct attack on historicism, if generalized.  People need not agree on the facts, or consider the facts to be unimportant, when criticizing a theorist.

And what I’ve been trying to express (badly) is that there are classes of types of relationships between facts and interpretations.  If the work is considered to be within the genre of social science, the interpretation can’t hold up if the facts are significantly wrong.  We can argue about the degree of error, as you say, but you’ve also said that a change in your belief about a particular matter of fact would change how you read this work, so the error if any can’t be insignificant for you.

Even within the class of non-social-science writings, though, the attack on facts has power, because writers often implicitly try to use them for their added convincing value.  Here’s an example from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence: he’s writing about different ideas about anxiety and implicitly says that his are superior because his types of misreading are based on Freudian defense mechanisms, which are real science.  “Anxiety, [Freud] says, is unpleasure accompanied by efferent or discharge phenomena among definite pathways.” (pg. 57) Bloom’s ideas don’t really depend on Freud in the sense that if Freudian ideas are found to be factually incorrect, Bloom’s also fall, but they certainly attempt to draw authority from fact.  Likewise, in this instance, Foucault’s attack on rationality has to use facts before it ironizes them; you can point at his later conclusion and say that it doesn’t depend on facts, but he couldn’t have got there without them, or something that looked like them.

Lastly, about the reciprocal game of smearing Foucault—I think that you aren’t reading the book review for statements about what Scull is really trying to do.  He writes: “[...] the facts that the complete text reveals about the foundations of Foucault’s scholarship on the subject of madness; and – an issue I shall flag, but not expand on here – one’s stance vis-à-vis his whole anti-Enlightenment project.” So he knows that he’s ignoring the philosophic implications; he directly implies that he doesn’t have room in his book review to consider them.  What is he making room for?  An extended consideration of how Foucault was received in the U.S. within history.  That’s where Goffman, Szasz, and Laing are introduced, in a paragraph that ends “More prosaically, a new generation of historians, abandoning their discipline’s traditional focus on diplomacy and high politics, were in these years embracing social history and “history from below”, and doing so in an intellectual climate of hostility to anything that smacked of Whig history and its emphasis on progress. The birth of the revisionist historiography of psychiatry was thus attended by many midwives.”

The “smear” then really seems to be mostly based on the last sentence, which is where cynicism and shamelessness pops up.  Perhaps Scull shouldn’t have written that sentence.  But it’s not the sum of what he’s saying.

By on 05/01/07 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, the more one looks at that Scull review, the more one has to say, wtf? Scull spends almost a whole paragraph on Foucault’s mentions of Bedlam – which isn’t surprising, because English madhouses are his specialty. However, his problems with Foucault are a little bizarre. Foucault cites a report to the House of Commons in 1815 that claims that Bedlam still receives visitors, and that they are charged a penny. He then cites an article by Ned Ward in the English Spy, which published a famous account of a visit to Bedlam in 1703. Ward, according to Foucault, claims it cost 2 pence. Scull claims the cost was apocryphal – which isn’t surprising, since Scull doesn’t like Ned Ward much. The skepticism about Ward’s account comes from Porter – who of course wrote long after 1961, when Foucault was writing. So, making a mountain out of this molehill, Scull claims that Foucault was wildly wrong about the date that Bedlam cut off visitors and that he was wrong about the charge for touring Bedlam. The latter charge is, as Scull well knows, ridiculous. Foucault would have no access to a text that was written after he’d written his History. The other does have force, even though Foucault himself cites this report to (and not of) the House of Commons with the phrase, “if one is to believe.” But, for all Scull’s heavy weather here, has he disproved Foucault’s point? Which was that Bedlam and the hospitals in Paris were visited for entertainment in the l’age classique. No, he hasn’t touched it, because he knows it is true. He admits as much – until 1770, visitors went to Bedlam. And, getting picky myself, since Scull is such a stickler for original sources, he should certainly have checked the french when he says:  “And he speaks of Bethlem’s “refurbishment” in 1676. In reality, it had moved in that year from its previous location in an old monastery in Bishopsgate to a grandiose new building in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke.” Sorry, no cigar. Foucault actually says:  Après la reconstruction de 1676, l’hôpital peut contenir entre 120 et 150 personnes. And you know what? Scull doesn’t even have the excuse of having to research his review in Uppsala.

The more you look at the review, the shoddier it becomes.

By roger on 05/01/07 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS - for those interested in a more tedious takedown of Scull’s “facts” (in the space of a short review, he manages to make an astonishing number of blunders), see my site:

By roger on 05/02/07 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Roger’s piece is what I was envisioning above, though in a non-blogged context—Scull makes his claims of fact, other people check them out, and they turn out to be right or wrong.

Where I’d disagree is with Roger’s quote “That perception is wholly based on the idea that Socal is a hard scientist, a physicist.” I don’t want to rehash the Sokal affair, but it was not merely a triumph of the argument from authority.

By on 05/02/07 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops - shouldn’t have misspelled Sokal in my post! Thanks Rich.

The deal about such posts is this: we have a great deal of scholarship power, now, on the Internet. It really is possible to, uh, look up claims, instead of pretending that it isn’t my field of expertise. Especially when the claims are pretty simple matters of who what when and where.

By roger on 05/02/07 at 03:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

roger, thank you for this series of detailed, precise, and well-researched rebuttals to Scull’s claims.


I think that you aren’t reading the book review for statements about what Scull is really trying to do

No, that is exactly what I’m doing. Scull wants to “flag” things without taking them on directly. He wants to cast a general haze over Foucault’s whole anti-Enlightenment project without addressing it—as Jeremy notes at FoucaultBlog, linked above, without even considering to what extent Foucault really was “anti-Enlightenment.”

Of course I could have written about a factual inaccuracy in de Man, if I had discovered one. But that wasn’t my focus. I was looking at de Man’s ideas, and the notion of discussing Foucault’s reception without critiquing his ideas is nothing but a dodge.

If the work is considered to be within the genre of social science, the interpretation can’t hold up if the facts are significantly wrong.

Absolutely. In this case, and in more than one sense, some of these facts aren’t significant, either because of the literary readings alongside of them, or because the errors aren’t big enough (i.e. public exhibitions at Bedlam, which I noted in the original post, and roger has re-raised).

The final sentence on Goffman et al is designed to suggest that a whole generation was putting prejudice ("anti-Whig" prejudice, apparently) ahead of fact and disciplinary tradition. It also bestows on us the irrelevant, sexist crack about midwives.

Actually, the sentence about shamelessness is the whole point of the review, and is consistent with everything preceding. That’s where the review is headed from the moment we observe young, shameless Foucault hard at work in the barbarian lands of Sweden, trying to recover from a suicide attempt through the dedicated practice of cynicism.

The way that Bloom quotes Freud is exactly the way another literary critic would introduce an idea by Kant or Plato. Bloom has become quite outspoken about the fact that he considers Freud to be one of the greatest “historical novelists” of the 20th Century, and insists on reading him as such, rather than as a scientist.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/02/07 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I think the reference to Bloom is apropos. There seems to be some idea on this thread that Scull is a hard core cog sci person, or an evo psy person. This isn’t so. Following in Roy Porter’s footsteps, I think Scull is pretty much a humanistic, Weberian kind of guy much more influenced by Foucault than he lets on. Or perhaps I should say that the influence is now part of the template of that particular kind of history.

In the prologue to Scull’s Madhouse – the story of a psychiatrist and his treatments – Scull, while acknowledging the profound effect of psychotropic drugs, writes: ”I remain deeply skeptical that psychiatric science has at last succeeded in cutting nature at the joints. And I suggest that even in the aftermath of the so-called ‘decade of the brain”, the tale of Dr. Cotton and his treatments has some salutary lessons to teach, not least to those who promote or credulously accept the latest siren songs about the biological bases of mental disorder.” Though his language veers towards the apocalyptic about the sixties, he isn’t simply advocating a scientific breakthrough point of view.

As far as Foucault is concerned, what is at issue, to my mind, is that Foucault definitely believes in immersion in the “discursive surface” instead of imposing a telos on an historic sequence. And I think this seems to Porter, and to Scull, an opening towards mysticism, and doing without a hard quantitative parameter.

Here’s a good example. When Scull talks about Foucault’s mistaken notion about monasteries becoming asylums, what is at issue, really, is the way to analyze the religious aspect of changes in asylum practice. At the end of History of Madness, Foucault makes an interesting connection between the Quakers, like Tuke, who pioneered these new asylum strategies and the Quaker practice of speaking when inspired by the holy spirit. In other words, in the fiber of eighteenth century society there are fibers, modes of being, that seem to touch on unreason. Porter, on the other hand, wants to attribute this to the bourgeois spirit - to the privatizing that the bourgeoisie could afford in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. By framing the issue in this way, one can say that the social pattern was rational, and was heading somewhere. Foucault’s interpretation makes that harder.

By roger on 05/02/07 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’ve probably hashed whatever I have to say on the topic to death at this point, but I really don’t see that as where the review is headed from the beginning.  To go back to your origiinal post, Scull can’t really be trying to “discredit the whole history of 1960s anti-psychiatric sociology” by linking it to shameless cynicism—whatever the 60s were, they weren’t cynical, or shameless in the sense of knowing but rejecting shame (idealism may be “shameless”, but in a different sense).  In my interpretation, the phrase “if it had no effect on people’s lives” indicates why Scull goes overboard with this sentence; he’s angry about the effects of the 1960s history that he’s referred to, and which he believes that Foucault’s reception in the U.S. contributed to.

Parenthetically, I don’t think that the Bloom quote really is the same as one introducing Kant or Plato, in context.  The first sentence of the paragraph is “We live increasingly in a time where soft-headed descriptions of anxiety are marketable, and cheerfully consumed.  Only one analysis of anxiety in this century adds anything of value [to the legacy of the classical moralists and Romantic speculators].” Then he goes into a couple of sentences about discharge phenomena.  It’s minor, but I think that it qualifies as a gesture towards scientism.

By on 05/02/07 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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