The Public Interest

Madness and Enlightenment

Brian C. Anderson

Winter 2000

IN his highly influential book, Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault indicted tile modern West for its treatment of the “insane.” According to Foucault, Western societies, bowing before the Enlightenment idol of Reason, built a theoretical and institutional quarantine against madness. The Cartesian rational mind must not suffer from exposure to irrationality; the madman must not roam freely through town and country as he did during the Middle Ages, a mocking reminder of human mortality and God’s infinite wisdom. Instead, Foucault claimed, the insane were thrown into cells with other dissidents from the rising bourgeois moral order—the poor, the criminal, and the licentious. The supposed liberation of the mad during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by “alienists” Phillippe Pinel in France and William Tuke in England, he argued, only furthered their exclusion. These reformers herded the mad into asylums, where an arid “science” of psychiatry silenced their Dionysian voices. Enlightenment, Foucault held, was bought at the cost of excluding the mad: Such was the heavy price of Reason’s “progress.”

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