M. Foucault 

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) French philosopher, historian, social theorist, literary critic 


          Behaviors that many people consider insane may simply be the products of alternative social customs. Irrational thought is nothing more than a different way of getting along in the world.  French intellectual Michel Foucault uses cultural studies to show how our most cherished beliefs about scientific expertise may simply be the creation of our desire to belong in society. By examining the conditions of history, we can learn about who we are today. 

            Foucault observes how different societies have used mental illness as a way of disciplining the population. In the rational thought of the 17th century, once you give a scientific name to an object, you could describe how it behaves.  Even though science granted the philosopher, Rene Descartes, certainty, he still wondered if he could be affected by madness.  Since society feared this kind of doubt, it imprisoned large numbers of people simply because they were different.  Doctors would push manic patients naked into the frigid cold in order calm their hot tempers.             

            The French Revolution emptied the mental hospitals.  And there were now erotic overtones to the caring gaze of the medical doctors.  Doctors were more concerned with ending the suffering of their patients.  By closely examining organic tissue, medicine focused on trying to discover the causes of life-threatening diseases.  It was now up to psychiatrists to treat mental disorders.  The psychiatrist’s gaze was more an act of surveillance.  In Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the 19th century psychiatrist could spy on the inmates of this prison-asylum from atop a large tower.  Anyone who thought of himself as a king was the ideal case for the asylum.  The psychiatrist legitimately assumed the role of supreme ruler as schools, workhouses, and, even the family, adopted an authoritarian model from psychiatry.  With the use of drugs and hypnotism, coercion was even more effective than in the classical age.

            The psychiatrist was now accuser, judge, and executioner.  The History of Madness recounts how Sigmund Freud dissolved all the myths associated with psychiatry: the silence and the gaze, the condemnation of the patient, and the internment in the asylum.  But in this new perspective, the psychoanalyst had a divine status.

            Foucault does not simply criticize the psychiatrist’s method.  He indicates how the female inmates of the asylum staged a rebellion against their confinement. The very notion of hysteria is based on the patient assuming various mental ailments to confuse her doctor.  Freud’s mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot, became lost in this maze of confusing symptoms.  These were the heroines of anti-psychiatry    

            In his works, Foucault depicts the personal struggle of an individual who remains tragically isolated from other people.  He enters a world of his dreams which he does not share with anyone else.  He is desperate for an explanation, but he also fights to liberate himself from his doctor.  With his fascination for the circuits of power, Foucault aspires for the authority of the psychoanalyst.   But he also challenges the vestiges of psychiatric power.

            Psychiatrists continue to wield immense power with their abilities to dispense a host of medicines.  Mental health can be very confusing.  We want answers.  And psychiatrists often see themselves as miracle workers.  Foucault demonstrates the historical roots of these beliefs..  Just as the doctors of the 17th century were exposed as nothing more than faith healers, psychiatry today must face its limitations.  Many of the accepted practices of experts are today’s superstitions that help people remain within the societal norms.  Anti-psychiatry invites the individual to participate in his own diagnosis and not give in to a god-like psychiatrist.