The Order of Madness

aug 2013

Even though Michel Foucault’s critical readings of health and health institutions have proved infinitely insightful and in turn, inspiring for the updating of these institutions, his enterprise did not only receive praises. One of the most rigorous and thorough critiques came from a budding celebrity, Jacques Derrida, who used to be a student of Foucault. Less than two years after the publication of Folie et Déraison (Madness and Civilization), Derrida presented the outcomes of his reflections about the project attempted by Foucault, during a lecture at the Collège Philosophique in March 1963. Initially published in the Revue de métaphysique et de morale, the piece, entitled “Cogito and the History of Madness” would finally be combined with ten other articles to form Writing and Difference (L’Ecriture et la Différence, 1967). The article has, since then, been considered as one of the finest pieces of Derrida, and is recognized as a major breakthrough on Foucault’s shortcomings. This essay is meant as an introduction to the main arguments of Derrida, in the initial sections of his critique. These lay the foundations of a new understanding of Foucault’s attempt, towards the construction of a more satisfactory project.

It is, fundamentally, one move that Derrida criticizes in Foucault’s project: to reduce madness or insanity through the frame of reason. René Descartes is behind some of the most influential considerations on reason, in modern philosophy, and Foucault refers to him as a starting point to his undertaking. But Derrida finds this treatment too quick and simplistic:

“In this 673-page book, Michel Foucault devotes three pages … to a certain passage from the first of Descartes’s Meditations. In this passage madness, folly, dementia, insanity seem, I emphasize seem, dismissed, excluded, and ostracized from the circle of philosophical dignity, denied entry to the philosopher’s city, denied the right to philosophical consideration, ordered away from the bench as soon as summoned to it by Descartes — this last tribunal of a Cogito that, by its essence, could not possibly be mad” (Derrida 2005, 37).

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This is the main turn to which Derrida reacts: Foucault wants to give a voice to madness, but this very voice will expect of madness to adapt to the frame of reason. In other words, Foucault attempts to shine a light on what always remained in the darkness of ignorance and indifference, but by doing so he only brings it to another, already constraining structure.

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According to Foucault, Descartes saw reason and folly as contradictions: the one cannot reside in the realm of the other, and as far as philosophy is concerned, the only realm of interest is that of reason. In other words, the Cogito, central to any intellectual undertaking after Descartes, could not accommodate within its discourse anything related to un-reason. Derrida argues that this very reading of Descartes is in itself problematic. This rebuttal, however, is not even necessary for Derrida to build his case, as the words of Foucault, in his own work, will suffice to demonstrate the slow and steady deconstruction of the project itself. For instance, Derrida reacts to Foucault’s desire to write a history of madness ‘itself.’ This ‘itself’ can point to its syntactic subject, that is, here, ‘madness as such,’ madness as the core subject of inquiry, and not specific other elements related to madness. But, ‘itself’ also means ‘by itself’. With this key formulation, Foucault also expects, or plans, to construct a space where madness could present its history itself, that is, a sphere of discourse open to madness as voice. This is the main turn to which Derrida reacts: Foucault wants to give a voice to madness, but this very voice will expect of madness to adapt to the frame of reason. In other words, Foucault attempts to shine a light on what always remained in the darkness of ignorance and indifference, but by doing so he only brings it to another, already constraining structure.

Foucault appeared to be aware of some of these potential limits. In the introduction of Madness and Civilizations, he explained: “The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason on madness, could be established only on the basis of such a silence. I have not tried to write the history of that language but, rather, the archaeology of that silence” (Foucault, Folie et Déraison, x-xi). Two keywords are to be noticed here: archaeology and silence. First, by archaeology, Foucault means the historian’s quest not just for causally connected events of recorded history, but also and especially for the roots, the preserved strata of ramifications, the hidden layers of imprisonment of the very concept of folly, before its proper, public evolution since the early Renaissance.

Second, by using the word silence, Foucault acknowledges that folly cannot properly be called a language. It is precisely a perspective, an existence that lacked a language, that lacked a voice, that lacked a power of expression. Folly was the mute child who could not cry for help. But this new set of arguments calls for their own Derridean refutations. By (pretentiously) providing a voice to the mute, Foucault is again modifying the reality of folly to make it match the limitations of a particular language. A ‘mad’ individual, in a concrete situation, could not feel that his ‘voice’ is heard thanks to Foucault, because the very move of gifting her a voice is a diversion of the actual state of madness – in its historical development, but even in its reality today for the singular individual affected by a mental disturbance. One possible option, Derrida explains, would have been to “follow the madman down the road of his exile” (42). This radical alternative, would expect of Foucault to ‘give in’ for folly in order to truly experience the state of the mad, before writing about it – and possibly, writing about it while still experiencing this condition. On another level, Deleuze and Guattari’s Schizoanalysis would take up something close to such an idea. Not only did they set the theoretical framework of new understandings of mental health (Anti-Oedipus, 1972, A Thousand Plateaus, 1980), but Guattari also subverted existing health institutions towards the formation of an inner system where patients and doctors would share all the aspects of daily life. By renouncing to go so far, and by constructing a rational and logical archaeology of madness, Foucault missed the occasion to criticize the irony of reason’s rejection of madness. Therefore, “order is then denounced within order” (42): Foucault’s attempts are in vain; his critique of reason, rationality and Enlightenment as the mean judge of folly, is only a surrendering to this very judge. We could argue that, before his Order of Things (1966), Foucault forcefully set madness in order; he took out the ‘messy’ condition of madness to make it fit a clean Order of Madness.

Derrida finds other internal contradictions (or differances) in the very fundamental presuppositions of Foucault’s project. He reacts, for instance, to Foucault’s desire to set “a language without support” (44). By this, Foucault meant apparently to find a language whose structure and historical heritage are flexible enough to respectfully allow the inclusion of folly’s original contribution. But, Derrida responds, this is nearly impossible: according to him, a language without support would be “a language declining, in principle if not in fact, to articulate itself along the lines of the syntax of reason” (44). Such is indeed the logical and ultimate wall that Foucault faces, and is bound to face: the syntax of reason. It is not habits, institutions, or even language that Foucault must vanquish in order to give a voice to the mad. It is the overwhelming and hegemonic Logos, the deceitful letter bomb left to western societies by the Presocratics, and found till date in our logic-fed languages. To renounce control, Foucault should renounce not only societal habits, but also any form of language or discourse, and ultimately, the very possibility of a rational, logical expression.

But Derrida’s critique, if deconstructive, is not destructive. He offers his own alternative to some of the points defended by Foucault. For instance, Derrida explains that Foucault’s use of the word Decision to refer to the hypothesized 16th century origin of the division between reason and folly, within reason, is misleading. Derrida, playing, as always, on the musicality of words, suggests instead the term dissension. This term, he explains, “underlines that in question is a self-dividing action, a cleavage and torment interior to meaning in general, interior to logos in general, a division within the very act of sentire” (46). Note that Derrida is playing on the word sentir, French for ‘feeling’, to which the etymological root of dissension can be related. More generally, this quote is important as it locates division within the process itself. This is a strong argument, since it liberates the historicity of an actual ‘switch’ away from the responsibility of particular agents (doctors, philosophers, etc.), but also because it locates both the potential and the actual responsibility of the division within the concept itself. In other words, it is reason itself, logos itself, which was bound to end up dismembered, cut in two, dis-unified. Dis-unified — thus is also the larger project of Foucault. Through his critique, Derrida points to the instances of logical and internal incoherence, which make of Foucault’s research an incomplete enterprise.

Later on, Foucault would provide a set of responses to Derrida’s arguments. His following works, in particular Birth of the Clinic (1963) and Order of Things (1966) would contain segments and annexes offering counter-arguments to Derrida’s thesis. But it is only twenty years later, in the early 1980s, that the two philosophers would sit and close a long dissension, towards the building of a more fruitful and reasonable relation.


Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London, UK: Routledge. 2009 [1977].

Foucault, Michel. Folie et Déraison. Paris: Plon. 1961.

Image courtesy: JR Benjamin and Roar Magazine