Fouc. and Witt. Revisited

First, thanks to Steven Meinking for alerting us to the Derrida stuff in
Critical Inquiry regarding Foucault. (Haven't read it yet, but I plan

A way back, I brought up the topic of Foucault and Wittgenstein, and
there were a few interesting postings. I have made a bit of headway
in thinking about this, and the Derrida writings perhaps constitute --
what do the po'mo's say? -- a 'discursive rift' in the email fabric in which
to revisit the topic.

If I may be so bold, I could provide a bit of background to the
Derrida/Foucault debate on Foucault's _Madness and Civilization_. This
is only my understanding of the debate, so all may feel free to critique
and correct it! (I sometimes feel as though a bit of background in our
postings would let more people participate.)

In M and C (actually, in Folie and deraison) Foucault briefly cites
Descartes' mention of madness in the formulation of the Cartesian Cogito
-- "Cogito, sum (I think, I am)". As you know, Descartes is attempting
to establish what he can be certain of knowing, by dismissing all those
beliefs which could possibly (but reasonably) be doubted. What reasons
can he find for doubting? Well, he has been deceived by his senses in
the past, so that's one problem. But that's usually only when objects
are in the distance or very small, etc. Descartes then notes that there
are people who are mad, and take themselves to be made of glass, or to
have no head, or whatever. Descartes also notes that he could be
dreaming, and so be wrong about certain things; or that he could even
have thoughts placed in his head by an evil demon. So in a sense he has
cited four factors which could supply reason for doubt -- the senses,
madness, dreams, and an all-powerful evil deceiver.

Foucault, though, says that even if Descartes is the first to put all
these things down in such a form of radical doubt, they have been used
in the past as reasons for scepticism. What changes with Descartes,
according to Foucault, is what is done with madness. To that time,
something like madness had been a reason for scepticism. But, says
Foucault, Descartes actually didn't think of madness as a reason for
being sceptical at all. Descartes thought that as a thinker trying
to establish certainty he simply could assume that he isn't mad (to
assume he was mad would be just as mad!).

So instead of thinking of madness as a reason for
scepticism, Descartes actually EXCLUDES
madness from the (modern, or, in F's terms, the 'classical') thinker.
In a sense, the thinker for Descartes must be, essentially, NOT mad.
Descartes isn't using madness as a reason for doubting, but is instead
making an ontological claim about what a thinker essentially is. In
doing so, Foucault thinks, a radical shift occurs with Descartes -- one
in which reason and unreason become in a sense opposites, mutually
exclusive. (Foucault contrasts this with the Greek Logos, which,
according to Foucault, "had no contrary.")

Unreason, Foucault suggests, thus became an object for possible
knowledge by reason -- and the madman (or, better, madness incarnate)
became an object of knowledge for the thinker, the subject who does the

Derrida criticizes Foucault for attempting to "write a history of
madness itself," that is, madness before it has been "captured" by
reason. According to Derrida, Foucault should have realized that within
Foucault's own scheme, anything that one might say (or write) about
madness would only work to replicate the incarceration of madness --
madness cannot speak for itself, because it's the antithesis of reason
and language. (Much debate centers on whether Foucault really thought he
could let madness speak for itself, or whether he in fact recognized
that impossibility. Probably the latter is more accurate, I think.)

Derrida thinks that Foucault's reading of Descartes is wrong anyway,
that Descartes didn't summarily dismiss madness as a reason for
scepticism. Derrida thinks that all Descartes is saying with the Cogito
that whether one is mad or sane, dreaming or not, deceived or not, one
can in fact know that one is thinking. Right or wrong, "Cogito, sum."

Things get a bit murky when the two start debating the translation of
Descartes's Latin and such, and I won't get into that here. Instead, I
want to throw into the mix a bit of support for, and a subsequent reading of,
Foucault. And this is, I think, where Wittgenstein can come in. Don't
worry, I'll be brief...

In _On Certainty_, Wittgenstein is responding to G.E. Moore's assertion
that scepticism is wrong when it calls "common sense" truths into doubt.
Moore says that he can "know," for example, that "here is one hand, and here is
another." Or that the earth existed for some time before his birth.
And so on. Wittgenstein's response is not so much to say that Moore
cannot know these common sense facts, but rather to suggest that to say
that one knows such things is simply to misuse the term "know." Those
aren't the sorts of things which we ever claim to know, rather they are
the very sort of thing (the background, as it were) which are held
constant when making claims about what we actually know.

Wittgenstein thinks that, of course, there are disagreements between
people about what each claims to know. He says that these disagreements
can be classified in two ways. Suppose you tell me you know there are
thirty chairs in the next room. And I know there are thirty-one. I
could provide reasons why I think you might be wrong -- you miscounted,
or you didn't see the one behind the curtain, or whatever. But suppose
you told me that you knew your head was made out of glass. There is
nothing I could appeal to to make you understand your error. All I
could do is attempt to explain that error by providing a cause -- say,
that you are mad. So the two types of errors are those that can be
explained by reasons and those that can be explained by causes.

Now it seems to me that this is very like the Foucauldian reading of
Descartes's Meditations. Because Foucault thinks that Descartes is
himself drawing a distinction between reasons (misperceptions, dreaming,
evil deceivers) and causes (madness). [It shold be noted that
Wittgenstein takes dreaming to be more a cause than a reason for error,
and I think he's right. Not to say Foucault wouldn't agree with this;
remember he is only trying to interpret Descartes.]

So Wittgenstein's work her seems to me to provide support for a general
shift in the understanding of what madness is in Descartes. Of course
there's a problem in determining just what Descartes's intentions were,
but whether Derrida or Foucault is correct here, I think Foucault notes
something of importance in sensing the possibility of a conceptual
change. And Wittgenstein's work supports that alternative reading.

Given the fact that Wittgenstein and Foucault are similarly disposed to
talk of truth in terms of the rules for producing true statements, as
opposed to a quality inherent in the statements themselves, leads me to
think that Foucault and Wittgenstein were very much on the same track.

My story doesn't end there, but my posting does. While this description
of the Derrida/Foucault debate is done roughly, I will stand by it for
the purposes of this list, and take the critiques of my reading that may
come. I would be interested in hearing any other ideas, or, if anyone
is interested, in sharing my reading of the later work of Foucault that
stems from this central issue. I have just completed a paper on this
and am looking for feedback on the general ideas, hence the posting.

Reading over my posting, I'm reminded of a famous line from an editor:
"This work is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are
good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good."

But there you go.

Blaine Rehkopf
York University
North York, Ontario



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