To review quickly, Foucault charged Descartes with excluding madness from consideration in his Meditations on First Philosophy. The relevant passage from Foucault’s Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique follows:
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.
Foucault’s claim is that, for Descartes, the possibility of madness need not lead us to doubt our faculties while dreams, bad eyesight, and other forms of misperception do. Why? Because philosophers rule out the possibility that they are mad from the start. According to Foucault, Descartes’s process of doubt necessitates the exclusion of the mad.
Derrida objected to this assertion from Foucault, and pointed out how the objection was based on a (I think rather willful) misreading of Descartes. The details of Derrida’s objection to Foucault are the subject of my earlier essay, but to sum it up again quickly, Descartes makes no such claim about the structure of madness, but rather suggests that all perception and cognition might be in error and therefore subject to doubt. It is only by taking Descartes’s comments about madness out of the context, only by reading Descartes’s objection to his own doubt as a final objection, that Foucault can maintain his reading.
After Derrida published his objection to Foucault’s misreading of Descartes in a book entitled Writing and Difference, Foucault defended himself in an appendix to the second edition of his Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (History of Madness). This appendix was titled “Reply to Derrida.”
Foucault’s reply begins with a list of what he claims are Derrida’s postulates but which, upon closer examination, are actually his own objections to Derrida. His first objection is that Derrida glossed over 650 pages of historical facts and zeroed in on a philosophical issue. Foucault objects to the supposition that “all knowledge, or in an even broader sense all rational discourse, entertains a fundamental relation with philosophy, and that is in this relationship that this rationality or this knowledge have their foundation.”
This is a tricky argument on its face, but it disappears fairly quickly if one considers what philosophy is and what its aim is: to the root of our understanding. That is, we might not expect every set of facts to have a relationship to a particular school of philosophy or to be based on a developed set of philosophical arguments, but it is fair to insist that all interpretations of facts will have epistemic and/or ontological suppositions, and that it is acceptable for the philosopher to attempt to ferret out those suppositions.
Rather than objecting to the use of philosophical reason itself, Foucault could have challenged Derrida’s claim that Foucault’s interpretation of Descartes had far-reaching implications for the rest of his text. If it wasn’t the case that Foucault’s mistaken interpretation of Descartes reflected a philosophical mistake that influenced all levels of the 650-page book, then Foucault needed only to have admitted his mistake. If it were merely a single and isolated misinterpretation, then Foucault could have pointed to other instances in the text wherein his history of madness was based on a different epistemic or ontological supposition. However, Foucault did not choose to do this precisely because his misinterpretation of Descartes was indicative of a profound philosophical error.
The second objection Foucault makes is that, by judging Foucault’s philosophical mistake, Derrida acted like a Christian on a mission to eradicate sin. The sin Derrida hoped to eliminate was “philosophical naivete or naive realism.” This objection amounted to name-calling and whining on Foucault’s part. Derrida demonstrated that it was Foucault who made the the cleave between reason and madness much more so than Descartes did, and further that Foucault’s purpose for making this cleave was in part to establish madness as a epistemic position that need not be touched by reason, which need not subject itself to radical doubt, but which could be taken up by the mad subject in the place of reasoned knowledge precisely because it was untouched and excluded by reasonable subjects. This move by Foucault was indeed philosophically naive and unjustified.
Foucault’s third objection to Derrida is that Derrida sides with a tyrannical and totalitarian reason. That is, by refusing to allow madness to lay on the outside of reason, by objecting to Foucault’s conception of madness as a form of direct knowledge without the interpretive mediation or the doubt that comes with all other forms of knowledge, Derrida was universalizing reason.
“Philosophy presents itself as the universal criticism of all knowledge (the first postulate), without any real analysis of the content or the forms of this knowledge,” Foucault says.
What Foucault ignores is that Descartes’ project, while precisely this attempt at a total criticism of all knowledge, pointed out the dialectical form of knowledge. Descartes’ meditation, then, is nothing but an analysis of the form knowledge takes. That form is called the Cogito and it is vulnerable to madness and all manner of other errors.
At this point, we should feel free to put aside these postulates and instead take a look at the substance of Foucault’s response. After all, Foucault ultimately has to attempt an actual defense of his reading of Descartes.
Again, Derrida objected to Foucault’s misreading of Descartes, specifically to Foucault’s interpretation of these lines from the 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 suggested that Descartes was excluding madness from reasonable consideration. Derrida responded that Foucault’s conclusion requires that we read this quote from Descartes out of context. Derrida claimed that rather than asserting that madmen are utterly different from the sane, Descartes is merely presenting the perspective of the naive reader. Descartes posited a fictional interlocutor in the place of the reader, and while Descartes placated this naive other in the text he did so only momentarily, as he did go on to argue that the beliefs of madmen do not appear unjustified or counterfactual when one considers the possibility that one is dreaming.
“Descartes replies by quoting the case of dreams which produce eccentricities as great as those of madness, but to which we are all, each one of us, exposed,” Foucault correctly summarizes Derrida’s argument.
Foucault responds first absurdly, suggesting that somehow this objection proves Foucault’s own point. It does not, and Foucault makes no argument to suggest that it does.
But the big point Foucault makes is that there is no other voice in the text but rather a single fluctuating voice in meditation. That is, the subject of the text doesn’t remain fixed but tries on positions, moves around, and questions his own assertions. The long and short of this argument from Foucault, and it has been touted as the most substantial refutation to Derrida’s objection at least by one commenter on the blog, is that as he writes his meditation Descartes is talking to himself. Descartes tries out different assertions and positions, ones he thinks he can believe, until, in the next moment, he subjects his beliefs to doubt.
In the case of madness, however, Descartes does not object. He may doubt his senses, he may doubt his body, but he never takes up madness as his own subjective position.
For Foucault, everything hinged on proving that this distinction between the subject who finds himself in a perpetual dream and the subject who is mad was Descartes’s distinction. However, such a proof, based on tortured etymologies and arguments about translations, should have no significance for us. After all, if it were true that Descartes considered mad hallucinations about having a pumpkin for a head as something separate, something fundamentally different, from the dreamer’s hallucinations that he is not asleep in his bed but sitting his drawing room, the question would remain as to whether Descartes is correct in this distinction.That is, we could grant that Descartes held this absurd position about madness while simultaneously recognizing that the cogito applies equally well to the dreamer and the madman.
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.