Madness And Civilization Book Summary, by Michel Foucault

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1-Page Summary of Madness And Civilization


Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization is about the way that Western societies came to conceptualize mental illness. He argues that during the classical age, which was from the late 1500s through the late 1700s, madness became a distinct phenomenon requiring its own special medical knowledge and cures.

In Chapter 1, Foucault describes the emergence of leper colonies and houses in the Middle Ages. These places were used to isolate people with leprosy apart from society. This isolation method continued into the Renaissance and classical age but was instead applied to those who were thought to be mad rather than lepers. As society stopped being concerned about leprosy, it began obsessing over madness instead.

Chapter 2 talks about the Great Confinement of the classical age. It started with a General Hospital in Paris, France that was more like a prison for confining people who were considered threats to society. This included poor people, criminals and madmen/madwomen. The main idea behind this confinement was to keep out poor people because they weren’t contributing enough to society. They saw it as a moral failing rather than an economic problem that needed fixing (like today’s welfare system). Madmen/madwomen were confined along with the poor because they too weren’t productive members of society at the time.

Chapter 3 continues this discussion by focusing on what Foucault calls “the great medicalization” of madness during and after the 18th century Enlightenment period, when doctors began studying mental illness using new scientific methods borrowed from biology and medicine. In particular he examines how these doctors came up with new ideas about madness based on their observations; for example, linking psychological disturbances such as depression or anxiety not only to physical problems but also to specific bodily locations within organs or nerves—a theory known as “neurosis localizationism” which became popular around 1800 and lasted until well into the 20th century.

In the classical era, people started to view madness differently. This was partly because of an increase in scientific and philosophical attention on different kinds of madness such as mania, melancholia, hysteria and hypochondria. People used to think that one’s insanity was caused by a build-up of fluids called “humors” in one’s body; now they thought it was more related to feelings of guilt for something bad that had been done. As Foucault describes in Chapter 6, this also led to new methods for curing someone who is insane: confronting their perceived moral failings.

Foucault argues that as society became more advanced, the definition of madness changed. People no longer thought it made sense to confine mentally ill people with criminals and other undesirables in one category. Instead, they needed to be confined because others were afraid of them and didn’t want to get near them.

The medicalization of the mad was a new trend in confinement, because it separated the mental patients from criminals. The goal was to study and cure their illnesses, rather than punish them for their crimes. Foucault concluded his study with an analysis of two innovators: Samuel Tuke (England) and Philippe Pinel (France). They were both doctors who wanted to have ultimate authority over the asylum and treat its inmates’ illnesses.

Preface and Chapter 1

Foucault begins the book by saying that it is difficult to write about madness because people who are deemed mad don’t usually write their own stories. Instead, doctors and other experts write down what they believe about madness. This creates a situation where there isn’t a dialogue between these two experiences of being mad versus not being mad. The discourse is monopolized by those who aren’t considered mad, so it’s hard to understand how one becomes or remains mad during this time period called “the classical age.”

Madness And Civilization Book Summary, by Michel Foucault