This is the first of a two-post series, the second can be found here.
It's probable that one could not find a weaker defense attorney for the cogito, or for what's called the Cartesian subject, than Jacques Derrida. The author of Of Grammatology, Derrida is known as the founder of deconstruction, a mode of critical analysis or hermeneutics that problematizes and complicates the act of reading and demonstrates how books cannot be reduced into comprehensible meanings, but rather can only provide us with “meanings” or “ideas.” (Derrida is infamous for his liberal deployment of quotation marks.) That said, in his book Writing and Difference, Derrida delivers a rather cogent interpretation of Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, an interpretation that remains faithful to something as suspect as Descartes's “intentions.” He does this in response to his mentor Michel Foucault, who, in his book Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, misinterprets Descartes and commits the fallacy of contextomy (quoting out of context, or quote mining).
All of this revolves around three pages that Foucault would later exclude from the abridged English translation of Folie et Déraison titled Madness and Civilization. Derrida responds to those three pages, which only returned to print in English in the posthumous 2006 translation entitled History of Madness. (A full account of this publishing history, provided by Alan Cook, is available at the end of this post.) What was at issue in these three pages was the role Descartes may or may not have played in the suppression of madness in western culture. It seems to me that the treatment Descartes receives was not only an error, but is symptomatic of an error in Foucault's project overall. Foucault's attempt to protect madness from the tyranny of reason, to pull off the impossible trick (as Derrida put it in Writing and Difference) of making “madness the subject of his book in every sense of the word,” required Foucault to posit an ontology so that the mad subject could neatly sidestep the usual epistemological problems that plagued the madman's reasonable counterpart. To put this more plainly, Foucault claimed that the mad have been cast out of the garden of reason and sent to a world quite apart from reason, which, as oppressive as it sounds, was actually a boon for the madman.
Let's put these larger implications aside for a moment and just describe what Foucault wrote about Descartes, then explain how what Foucault wrote was wrong.
Here's the Foucault passage in question:
In the economy of doubt, there is a fundamental disequilibrium between on the one hand madness, and dreams and errors on the other […] Dreams and illusions are overcome by the very structure of truth, but madness is simply excluded by the doubting subject.
The evidence Foucault gives to justify this conclusion is this quote from Descartes's Meditations:
How could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass.
Foucault argues that Descartes's rejection of madness was not merely rhetorical, but was a perhaps unconscious philosophical position. Foucault claims that, for Descartes, the possibility of madness need not lead us to doubt our faculties as dreams do or as flaws in our sense organs do, because any claim to reason requires the philosopher to presuppose that he is in a superior position to those who are mad. This exclusion of the mad from consideration is, for Foucault, just another example of how modernity and humanism robs the world of the wisdom that people of earlier ages could find in madness. What's being excluded is a way of being in the world, a certain subjectivity of madness. And what's worse, from a philosopher's perspective, is that this presupposition of a total difference or separation between madness and reason is unjustified. But, as Derrida points out, Foucault is misreading Descartes, and badly. Derrida critiques Foucault in a chapter entitled “Cogito and Madness” from his book Writing and Difference:
Descartes has just said that all knowledge of sensory origin could deceive him. He pretends to put to himself the astonished objection of an imaginary nonphilosopher who is frightened by such audacity and says: no, not all sensory knowledge, for then you would be mad and it would be unreasonable to follow the example of madmen, to put forth the ideas of madmen. Descartes echoes this objection: since I am here, writing, and you understand me, I am not mad, nor are you, and we are all sane. The example of madness is therefore not indicative of the fragility of the sensory idea. So be it. Descartes acquiesces to this natural point of view, or rather he feigns to rest in this natural comfort in order better, more radically and more definitively, to unsettle himself from it and to discomfort his interlocutor.
To emphasize this again: Descartes wanted to doubt everything that could be doubted. He did this doubting in an effort to discover what, if anything, he would not be able to doubt. The goal was to find a reasonable and justified premise for a true and reasonable understanding of the world. Along the way, Descartes doubted many self-evident truths, among them that he had a body. In fact, what he demonstrated was that most of the then-current beliefs could be thought of as mad or unjustified, merely self-serving delusions. He demonstrated that what was taken to be reasonable was, in fact, mad. For instance, Descartes suggested that, while it seemed reasonable and not crazy, one can't be sure about what one is seeing or feeling because one might be dreaming.
In order for Foucault's argument that Descartes posited a sane subject and relegated madness to a lower level—one not worthy of philosophical investigation—to be proven out, we would have to claim that there is a significant difference between being forever in a dream and being mad, a difference between delusion and insanity. Madness becomes something other than a cognitive error in this reading. Madness is justified—not by means of an innate truth, but simply by default. That is, if there is a subjective position we can call mad that is not merely a subject that holds unjustified beliefs about the world, then this subject must hold beliefs that are justified by something other than reason.
For Descartes, the possibility of always being in a dream, the misapprehension of the world, was madness, and his Meditations on First Philosophy included a process wherein he demonstrated how many of our common beliefs were, in fact, quite mad.
What Descartes ultimately claimed to discover was the reason that remained even if one posited that one was indeed completely mad. What Descartes found in his argument “I think therefore I am,” was a starting point that could not be undone and that applied in every context, even an insane one.
And it was Derrida, the master of deconstruction, who reaffirmed Descartes's original argument and insisted that Descartes be interpreted correctly.
Relevant Publishing History:
—In 1961, Foucault publishes Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique.
—In 1963, Derrida delivers a lecture entitled "Cogito et histoire de la folie." It addresses a three-page passage in Folie et Déraison, in which Foucault discusses the cogito, and its relation to Foucault's overall project in the book as described in the Preface.
—In 1964, Foucault publishes an abridged version of Folie et Déraison. The subtitle of the original book becomes the title of the abridgment: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique. In 1965, the abridged version is translated and published in English as Madness and Civilization. For 40 years, this is the only version available in English; it omits the discussion of the cogito.
—After having gone through a couple of revisions for publications in various journals, a final version of Derrida's paper appears in the 1967 Ecriture et Difference (Writing and Difference).
—At some point in the early 1970s, Foucault writes “Reply to Derrida.” It appears in print in 1972 in the Japanese journal Paideia.
—In 1972, Foucault publishes a second edition of the full-length book. The title is Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (the same as the 1964 abridgment). He deletes the first preface and writes a new one. “Reply to Derrida” appears as an appendix. One of the other appendices, “My body, this paper, this fire,” also revisits in more detail the role that madness plays in the cogito.
—In 2006, the entirety of Histoire de la folie is finally translated into English as History of Madness. It includes all the material that has appeared in either of the two French editions.
Douglas Lain is the publisher of the philosophy and culture imprint Zero Books, a novelist (Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landed), and a sometimes pop philosopher for Thought Catalog. He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast.
Cannon Hubka says
It is nice to see Derrida being treated positively on this site, even if only as it pertains to his defense of a giant of the philosophical canon against a truly egregious misreading by a writer linked (usually pejoratively) with postmodernism. I would love to see more content examining the positive uses of Derrida’s writings – if for no other reason than the rare, religious-style emotions Derrida causes to surge up in me.
I look forward to the eventual “Derrida episode”, given that Wes (and possibly Mark), thinkers that I have great respect for and who express views I am often sympathetic with, seem so deeply critical of him (In a Heidegger podcast Wes said that he gets a whiff of charlatanism from him – ironic to me because that is what I feel when reading Heidegger).
There must be some reason, even if it is purely psychological/sociological, that many people like myself – naturalist who are trained in the hard sciences and who are naturally inclined to a believe in a kind of pragmatist, Popper-style falsifiability criteria view of truth – are drawn towards and find great meaning in Derrida’s writings. He and Nietzsche seem to occupy a kind of spiritual or mystical place in my life – a place probably denied to Heidegger because of my total lack of sympathy towards essentialism and the (to me, absurdly arrogant) idea that human beings are fundamentally different from other animals.
Cannon Hubka says
I admit that at least 20% of my love of Derrida comes from his hair, which is magical.
Paul Rekret says
I don’t think this is a very fair reading of Foucault, mainly because it ignores Foucault’s own powerful reply to Derrida in ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’.
First, Foucault’s claim is that the example of the dream is not a more radical exercise of doubt since it only affects the object of the meditating subject’s knowledge. Thus, it only puts into question the truth of immediate sensory impressions. Madness lies with a different order. It affects the epistemological and medical characterisation of the doubting subject him or herself. This much the essay above seems to assert in part. But in ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’ the point for Foucault is not to reassert madness as a particular access to truth (though he might have at times implied this in ‘History of Madness’). Rather, it is to demonstrate that Descartes has made truth autonomous from any self-transformation since the subject capable of speaking the truth is determined in advance as the one who is not mad. Truth would no longer be, as it had in the main been since at least the pre-Socratics, tied to the being and practice of the subject him or herself. Descartes effectively forever, absolutely separates the subject from the object of truth. In doing so, he de-spiritualises philosophy and truth.
Second, this means that the author’s criticism of Foucault applies at most to ‘The History of Madness’ – the period when Foucault was most influenced by Hyppolite and might be considered as indeed, seeking to resuscitate another order of truth and so, to ontologise madness in some sense. But I think more importantly, the project demonstrates how a given regime of truth supports the carceral institutionalisation of all those who do not speak the truth. It gives a new authority and power to particular forms of truth. I don’t really see though how the argument around the ontologisation of madness applies to any of Foucault’s later work.
Btw, Foucault also offers a pretty convincing rebuttal to Derrida’s interpretation of the text in ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’ but I won’t rehearse it here.
Finally, this isn’t to defend Foucault. Its to point out that I think the stakes of the debate don’t merely lie within the terms that this blog post claims. Both Derrida and Foucault, despite their philosophical brilliance, ultimately bring us to a philosophical dead end.
I’ve made this claim at length here: https://www.academia.edu/9071705/The_Aporia_and_the_Problem and here: https://www.academia.edu/3305161/The_Impasse_of_Post-Metaphysical_Political_Theory_On_Derrida_and_Foucault
Sorry, couldn’t really help self-referencing.
Douglas Lain says
Thanks for this reply. I should tell you that my next post will be precisely on Foucault’s rebuttal and its failure. I’ll respond to your points at length there, however I should point out that”Foucault’s claim is that the example of the dream is not a more radical exercise of doubt since it only affects the object of the meditating subject’s knowledge” is simply wrong on its face. The example of the dream effects the subject, the one who is trying to know, precisely because it puts his understanding of the object in doubt. The possibility of a dream does not, in fact, have any impact on the object because, if one is dreaming then there is no object. The possibility of dreaming only effects the subject. It should also be recognized that madness is a subject position itself.
Paul Rekret says
Thanks – I’ll look forward to your assessment of the reply (which I maintain is rather devastating in its takedown of Derrida’s claim that Descartes merely ventriloquises a naive interlocutor). It doesn’t invaildate Derrida’s position, but it does constitute a nice shot. I’ll hold back from a longer reply except to say (sorry, can’t help it!) that the dream still sits within the order of formal criteria of what counts as truth – as per your own claim. The example of madness sits within a different order, of who might ask the question of true/false and what the conditions of asking the question itself might be. Anyway, I’m sorry, this is all premature and I’ll be interested in the account of the reply..
Douglas Lain says
You can find that reply on the PEL now. http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/08/11/foucaults-madman-and-his-reply-to-derrida-2/
A J MacDonald Jr says
“Shattuck tells us that “Michel Foucault presents as fundamental for the emergence of the modern era out of seventeenth century classicism the fact that Sade revealed to us the truth about man’s relation to nature. Foucault plants his declarations at crucial junctures in his two major works of 1961 and 1966. These four passages reveal the usually obscured center of his ethos:
‘Sadism . . . is a massive cultural fact that appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century and that constitutes one of the greatest conversions of the occidental imagination . . . madness of desire, the insane delight of love and death in the limitless presumptions of appetite.’ (Madness and Civilization, 210)
‘Through Sade and Goya, the Western world received the possibility of transcending its reason in violence . . .’ (Madness and Civilization, 285)
‘After Sade, violence, life and death, desire, and sexuality will extend, below the level of representation, an immense expanse of darkness, which we are now attempting to recover . . . in our discourse, in our freedom, in our thought.’ (The Order of Things, 211)
‘Among the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things . . . only one, which began a century and a half ago . . . has allowed the figure of man to appear.’ (The Order of Things, 386)
“The last quotation from the final page of The Order of Things does not allude to Sade by name. But, in association with the other passages and in context, there can be little doubt that the great cultural ‘mutation’ welcomed by Foucault refers directly to Sade’s moral philosophy and to its practice in actual life.” (Forbidden Knowledge, 246-247)…”
From: “Foucault and the Folly of the Narcissistic Self” – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2F
Alan Cook says
I’ve uploaded to the PEL Citizens’ forum a couple of recent English-language papers that discuss the role of madness in the Meditations:
Fred Ablondi, “Why It Matters That I’m Not Insane: The Role of the Madness Argument in Descartes’s First Meditation” (2007)
David Scott, “Descartes, Madness and Method: A Reply to Ablondi” (2009)
An even more recent installment in this conversation is Thomas Lennon and Michael Hickson’s “The Skepticism of the First Meditation, most of which you can see online at Google Books:
These papers all discuss the issue of whether and how madness is or isn’t different from dreaming, and how each undermines some form of knowledge. None of them discuss the Foucault/Derrida exchange: The only mention of it is in this footnote in Scott’s paper:
“J. Derrida’s treatment of Foucault’s remarks on Descartes’s dismissal of the madness hypothesis is, in spite of its length, not a dedicated examination of the question.”
Sometime soon I’ll try to find time to summarize the various arguments made in these papers and apply them to the present conversation.
Douglas Lain says
Reading through the Ablondi essay I’m struck by how “madness” and the Evil Demon serve precisely the same function if we take his definition of madness (and the consequences of it) to heart. That is, if the evil demon exists then all seemingly reasonable propositions (1+1=2 for instance) can not be relied on because we could be mad or we could be deceived by the demon. .There are no consequential difference between the two causes of self-deception,
The question or objection being posed isn’t really about madness at all, but whether “I think therefore I am” is somehow different in kind from “1+1=2.” I would say that it is different, but how it’s different is worth examining further.
Douglas Lain says
Reading on I see that Lennon and I are in agreement on Ablondi.