Foucault's "Madness and Civilization"

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason was Foucault’s doctoral dissertation that subsequently became a book. It exemplifies the genealogical method, tracing the concept of madness from the late Middle Ages to the 20th century. During the Renaissance, madness was viewed ambivalently: if plague represented the death of the body, madness represented the death of the mind. Yet madness also represented a sort of wisdom, as illustrated in literature by the fool in King Lear.

Foucault’s main interest was in the classical period, the years between 1650 and 1800. It is during this time that madness was believed to be a moral and physiological degeneration, the mad being characterized as dangerous animals who needed to be lodged in special houses of internment. London’s main hospital, Bedlam, became famous for charging the curious to come and view the lunatics. It was not until the 19th century that asylums became the main repositories for the mad and the treatment more humane: corporal punishment ended and attempts made to modify behavior through moral instruction. Psychoanalysis was viewed as the most progressive treatment--it affirmed the dignity of patients, allowed them to live outside asylums, and used dialogue to identify the traumatic events of childhood. In spite of these humane changes, Foucault argued that the mad were still victimized because the underlying assumption about madness, that it was an illness that needed to be controlled, was unchanged. By the book's end the following conclusions can be deduced: (1) mental illness is a social construction, (2) it was created, and continues to be maintained, by a powerful institution--the medical profession, and (3) this institution monopolizes knowledge and ensures that no other model is seriously debated.

Any abridged edition of Madness and Civilization is acceptable (the unabridged is close to 600 pages). The Vintage, 1988 edition is available from; prices range from $4.06 (used) to $6.85 (new). The total number of pages is 320. A free public domain copy is available here.

The resources below provide analyses, bibliographies, lecture notes, videos, and relevant art work. Note: to understand Foucault's terms is to understand Foucault. I strongly recommend consulting the dictionaries before reading the text.

Wikipedia: "Michel Foucault","Madness and Civilization" "Genealogy (Philosophy)", "Foucauldian Discourse Analysis", "Governmentality", "Episteme", "Dispositif", "The Panopticon as Metaphor" (subsection of “Panopticon”), "Foucault and the Concept of Biopower” (subsection of “Biopower”)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Michel Foucault"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Michel Foucault", "Michel Foucault: Ethics", "Michel Foucault's Political Thought", "Foucault and Feminism"

Michel Foucault Quotations (Wikiquote)

Philweb Bibliographical Archive: Michel Foucault (excellent for primary and secondary sources)

Foucault Dictionaries: "Key Concepts" (compiled by Clare O'Farrel of; "Dictionary for the Study of the Works of Michel Foucault" (compiled by Lois Shawver, Dept. Of Romance Languages and Literature, Villanova University).

Hubert Dreyfus. "Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault." (author is Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley).

Ismaël al-Amoudi. “The Economy of Power, an Analytical Reading of Michel Foucault” (author is Professor of Business, University of Reading, UK).

Steven Best and Douglas Kelher. “Foucault and the Critique of Modernity”. In Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. The Guildford Press, 1991: 34-75.

John Hartman. "Power and Resistance in the Later Foucault." Presented at the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Foucault Circle, John Carroll University, Cleveland Ohio, February 28-March 2, 2003.

Elisabetta Basso. "On Historicity and Transcendentality Again: Foucault’s Trajectory from Existential Psychiatry to Historical Epistemology. Foucault Studies 14 (September 2013), pp. 154-178.

Linda Martin Alcoff. “Foucault’s Philosophy of Science: Structures of Truth/Structures of Power” (author is Professor of Philosophy, Hunter College).

Réal Fillion. "Freedom, Truth, and Possibility in Foucault’s Ethics." Foucault Studies 3 (November 2005), pp. 50-64.

Robert J. C. Young. “Foucault on Race and Colonialism.” New Formations 25 (1995), pp. 57-65.

Mark Kingston. "Subversive Friendships: Foucault on Homosexuality and Social Experimentation." Foucault Studies 7 (September 2009), pp. 7-17.

Joel Whitebook. "Freud, Foucault and 'the Dialogue with Unreason'." Philosophy & Social Criticism 25.6:29-66.

Craig W. J. Minogue. "Is the Foucauldian Conception of Disciplinary Power Still at Work in Contemporary Forms of Imprisonment?" Foucault Studies 11 (February 2011), pp. 179-193.


Alain Beaulieu. "History of Madness." Foucault Studies 5 (January 2008), pp. 74-89.

Colin Gordon. "History of Madness." Notre Dame Philosophical Review (February 23, 2007).


“Body/Power" (1975).

“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault" (1984).

Lecture Notes

"Madness and Civilization" by Professor John Protevi, Dept. of French Studies, Louisiana State University.

"Madness and Civilization: History of Insanity in the Age of Reason" by Dept .of Communication Studies, University of Minnesota.

“Michel Foucault” by Professor Ron Yezzi, Dept. of Philosophy, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

"Foucault I: On History", "Foucault II: On Panoptic and Carceral Society"; "Foucault III: On Power" (part of a a series on Historicism authored by the English Dept., Purdue University).


"Noam Chomsky versus Michel Foucault Debate "Justice vs. Power" (1971).

"A Critical Introduction to Foucault" by Michael Roth, a History Professor who is currently President of Wesleyan University.


"Images from Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, Chapter 1" assembled by Professor Christa Albrecht-Crane, Dept. of English, Utah Valley University.

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