Not Saussure

March 23, 2007


Filed under: Books, history — notsaussure @ 11:35 am

Via Westminster Wisdom, a review in The Times by Andrew Scull of a new translation of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation; the previous translation was apparently a greatly truncated version of the original French text, and this new edition restores several missing chapters and all the footnotes.   Gracchus explains,

What Scull does is demolish the factual basis upon which Foucault’s work rests- he goes after Foucault’s footnotes- it is a fine example of the way a thesis can be destroyed by a historian just going through the empirical work of examining the citations. The overall thesis and historical image once detached from reality then become not meaningless but useless as an analytical tool to understand the past with- their empirical basis undermined they float off to join the suggestions that Arthur conquered Burgundy, that Alfred burnt the cakes and that Britain was founded by Brutus,

though this does not, as Gracchus notes, necessarily invalidate the philosophical points Foucault seeks to make.    Foucault, however, has found some defenders in The Times, one of whom tries to make the perfectly reasonable point that Foucault’s trying to study what people had to say about madness at particular times rather than determining whether or not they were accurately describing social conditions.     That’s a perfectly fair point, but Andrew Scull’s complaint is that Foucault frequently goes further than this and treats the material he discusses as accurate statements of fact; it is, to use Gracchus’ analogy, one thing to discuss the idea that Britain was founded by Brutus (not the Et tu chap, but a mythical character, Brutus of Troy) and the importance of this pseudo-historical fact in the Middle Ages.   It’s quite another to write as if you think he did, in fact, found Britain.   

This, it it seems, is the mistake Foucault frequently makes; he moves from a perfectly justified examination of the significance of descriptions Bedlam Hospital in Eighteenth Century writing, and what these descriptions tell us about ideas about madness and sanity at the time, to various conclusions based on the demonstrably false premise that these descriptions were in any way accurate accounts of  that institution.       It’s one thing to study British social attitudes about asylum seekers from the way they’re reported in the popular press; it’s quite another to believe everything you read about them in The Daily Express.

Consequently, it’s rather unfortunate that one of people commenting in The Times, Paul North, of New York City, USA, comes out with the observation

In fact, Scull’s insistence that he check his facts is a symptom of the same progressivism that Foucault critiques.

Insisting he check he check his facts!  Quelle effronterie!

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