Re: Fouc. and Witt. Revisited

I'm glad to see this topic revisited (by Blaine Rehkopf), as I was not here
for the original visitation. I'm not that familiar with this particular
squabble between Derrida and Foucault (concerning Descartes), but a few
points came to mind in reading this post.

First, Descartes' use of madness (in the Meditations, at any rate) seems to
me to be somewhat different from what you describe. The famous quote
occurs, not in the 2nd (where he is establishing the 'cogito'), but in the
1st where he initiates the methodological doubt. He is asking himself
whether it makes sense at all to engage in radical skepticism, or whether
this would be a sign of madness. He writes:

"And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine, unless I am
to compare myself with certain lunatics whose brain is so troubled and
befogged by the black vapors of the bile that they continually affirm that
they are kings while they are paupers, that they are clothed in purple
while they are naked; or imagine that their head is made of clay, or that
they are gourds, or that their body is glass? But this is ridiculous;
such men are fools, and I would be no less insane than they if I followed
their example." (Sorry to quote at such length, but I love this passage.)

Of course, he continues with "Nevertheless. . .," concluding that he should
engage in radical doubt anyway (at the risk of seeming mad). Descartes'
offhand dismissal of the thought that he could be mad is perhaps very good
evidence for the sort of "ontological assumption" Foucault alludes to. I
believe, however, one of Derrida's points is that Descartes is, at this
point, not explicitly identifying himself (the thinker) in opposition to
madness, but rather inadvertently drawing himself near to it. To doubt
that, e.g., his hand exists would be dangerously similar to those "certain
fools," and yet he must do it anyway. (Incidentally, this is the more or
less the response I usually get when I teach Descartes to freshmen: it's
'crazy', 'insane' to be so skeptical.) I think Derrida is right to point
to this as an instance (a rupture?) where an item within a text (the
rational subject) momentarily turns into its opposite (the madman). It is
a moment of forgetfulness, in that Descartes allows himself to *assume*
that he is not mad, even though he knows that one who is indeed mad makes
(or can make) the same assumption.

I thought the connection to Wittgenstein was interesting. It occurred to
me, though, that the affinity between Foucault and Witt. concerning the
objectifaction of 'madness' as a cause rather than a reason could be
coordinated with another more direct connection which runs from "On
Certainty" straight back to Descartes (via Moore and Russell). Viz.,
Wittgenstein is responding to the problem of scepticism, and particularly
Moore's arguments that radical (Cartesian) scepticism runs afoul of
everyday beliefs which we do "know for certain". Witt.'s response is, I
take it, that the Cartesian project fails, not because we do have "certain
knowledge" about somethings (that the earth exists, for example), but
rather that such beliefs serve a function in our "language game" (they are
part of the background) such that doubting and affirming don't apply in the
way Descartes (or Moore) wants. It is a mistake to say that we hold these
beliefs to be true; rather they constitute, as he says, the background
against which we distinguish true and false.

I believe (but I don't have it at hand) that W. even uses the term "mad"
(or insinuates madness) in "On Certainty" to describe the condition of
radical scepticism, of doubting such things as "I know I have two hands,"
and so on. In any case, It describes a (perhaps impossible) condition in
which one lacks a framework in which to even formulate propositions,
including doubtful ones. Thus, Descartes' brief rumination on madness was
more telling than he could have imagined: the state of the radical
skeptic is, in a certain sense, indistinguishible from a state of madness.

Of course, this sort of "madness" is not necessarily equated with a
psycho-physical syndrome or disorder (as in psychiatry). I was interested
in the connection drawn between Foucault and Wittgenstein on madness as a
cause (rather than reason) of belief, which is used to "explain"
idosynchronic belief. I wonder how far this can be pressed, and whether
Witt. really thought this could be an *informative* explanation (rather
than simply an assertion that something makes no sense), as it is supposed
to be in psychiatry. This could be discussed more (though, I know, this
isn't a Wittgenstein list). Also, I was a little unclear about how it is
that (according to the post) F. and W. are of like mind here. I doubt W.
would agree that this is a particulary *modern* way of understanding
madness (W. always seemed to me to be remarkably uninterested in historical
analyses). Or is the point that W., as one who worked within this
"episteme", was required to mark off madness as a cause rather than reason?

Anyway, I've said quite enough for now.


David Hodges


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