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René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) explains how madness cannot know itself because a person who thinks they are mad is simply experiencing doubt. Therefore, doubt can be banished from a person’s mind through the realisation that she/he is being deceived by her/his senses. Roy Boyne qualifies the argument by observing how Descartes exemplifies the superiority of reason through his ‘refusal to question reason itself’ (Boyne 48). Michel Foucault’s reading of Descartes serves as a preface to the second chapter of History of Madness (1972) entitled The Great Confinement. The implication is that Descartes’ banishment of madness by reason leads to a significant event in Foucault’s history of madness – the Great Confinement of 1657.

The event ambivalently sets madness and reason” /> as binary opposites but also, as Foucault observes, posits them closer together. He argues that ‘the men chained to the walls of the cells were not seen as people who had lost their reason, but as beasts filled with snarling, natural rage’ (Foucault 147). The violence of reason’s actions is justified by madness’ inhumanity that symbolises a double confinement – one where reason confines itself within an unchallengeable discourse, and the other illustrating the bestial alternative of deceit that could poison reason’s purity. Foucault traces a similar double expulsion of madness in Descartes’ ‘economy of doubt’ (Foucault 45). Descartes not only banishes the possibility of madness from the rational mind, but also from dreams.

Professor of political theory Lois McNay identifies in Foucault’s Cartesian reading, how ‘a parallelism exists between Descartes treatment of sensory doubt and doubts deriving from the imagination and dreams’ (McNay 21). In both cases, doubt only momentarily disorients the meditating subject. The rational mind is always guided by ‘truth’, and can only be deceived into thinking itself mad by the illusional nature of sensory doubt and dreams. In Descartes, Foucault discounts the possibility that a person of reason can awake from an unreasonable dream to find him or herself mad, ‘because madness itself is the condition of the impossibility of thought’ (McNay 22). Descartes cannot be mad if he is still able to reason.

However, Jacques Derrida argues that Foucault’s interpretation of Descartes’ banishing madness from the ‘economy of doubt’ is hyperbolic and naive. Derrida observes there is never any real doubt in Descartes’ thought, or that his senses are vulnerable to the deception of ‘some evil genius’ (Descartes 138). Madness does not exist in a reasonable mind through a process that Derrida describes as the ‘simplicity of intelligible generalization’ (Derrida 60). In other words, no matter how illusory or deceptive a dream or doubt is, the sane mind will still recognise simple truths. Derrida uses Descartes’ analogy of painting to illustrate simple intelligibility, which enables Descartes to dismiss the disturbing irrationality of his dreams. No matter how weird or imaginative a painting is, the painting can be reduced to the ‘simple and real element’ of colour (Derrida 58). The fact that the painting contains colour can never be distorted or refuted. At the core of reason is a simple intelligibility that madness cannot access or influence.

The only doubt that Descartes considers is, as Bernard Flynn observes, ‘metaphysical doubt’ (Flynn 207). These are the extract thoughts that cannot be easily dismissed by reason, as they have no concrete basis in the natural world. Metaphysical doubt is perceived, at best, by Descartes as irritating. Derrida recognises irritation through what he perceives as Descartes’ persona of ‘the astonishment and objections of the non-philosopher’ (Derrida 60). The ostensible philosophic debate over metaphysical doubt can be settled, as Descartes appears to realise, by the common person. The non-philosopher can accept the natural doubt of genuine philosophical concern, but cannot except the irrationality that questions simple truths such as the irrefutable fact that Descartes has hands and a body. Derrida states through the fictional Cartesian voice of a non-philosopher, it would be madness itself to think like a madman.

Another important point Derrida questions is the seriousness that Descartes attributes to madness. Foucault’s perceived banishment of madness from reasonable thought in the First Meditation, is read as a trivial example by Derrida. Descartes simply uses madness as one example of sensory error in the human mind. In fact, the deceptive illusions of dreams are welcomed by Descartes ‘as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty’ (Descartes 138). Instead of fearing the folly of dreaming, Descartes is weary of returning to the waking reality that the reasonable mind must endure, as it is to be burdened by metaphysical doubt. Derrida also notes the playfulness of Descartes’ evil genius. The recognition of an ‘evil genius’ appears to situate Descartes’ thought on par with madness. Yet Derrida observes that Descartes’ fictional evil genius ‘reassures himself against any actual madness’ (Derrida 66). Also, by fictionalising madness, Descartes protects himself from the impulses of doubt that plague him.

The fictional safety net that comes between actual insanity and the philosophical intellect or Cartesian Cogito, provides Descartes with the opportunity to investigate his experience of doubt. It is, therefore, worth noting that the subheading for the First Meditation is ‘Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful’ (Descartes 134). Within this sphere, the Cartesian experience of metaphysical doubt is both illuminating and disturbing.

The opportunity language offers to explore the possibilities of the impossible is where Derrida awards Foucault’s book with critical value. He writes: ‘I would be tempted to consider Foucault’s book a powerful…Cartesian gesture for the twentieth century. A reappropriation of negativity’ (Derrida 66). Through language, Derrida argues that Foucault simply rearranges the reason/unreason dichotomy. It can be argued that in this ‘different form’ madness is given privileged status, while reason is perceived as the clinical, and often violent, figure of banishment and segregation. The end result is that madness has a more sympathetic image than the inhuman bestiality accorded to it by reason. Therefore, metaphysical doubt becomes a metonym for Foucauldian madness.

In his essay ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’ in the second appendix in History of Madness, Foucault challenges Derrida’s critique of his Cartesian reading. He focuses on the importance of dreaming in Descartes’ First Meditation. Whilst Derrida acknowledges dreaming as being more common and universal than madness, Foucault sees a direct correlation between the two through individual experience. Foucault argues that dreaming enlightens Descartes meditation, and is not simply dismissed as metaphysical doubt. Dreaming, however, is a gamble as Descartes ‘may no longer be at all certain of being awake’ (Foucault 555). Dreaming, even meditating upon it, is seen by Foucault as a madness fictionalised by dreams.

The dreamer experiences madness through doubt. The person may know they are only dreaming, but this is coupled with the uncertainty that the person may never wake up. The dream’s demonstration of madness could become reality, or already be reality. Foucault uses the insight to challenge Derrida’s claim that Descartes disregards madness. He writes that it is inappropriate ‘to say simply that madness is an insufficient and pedagogically clumsy example among the reasons for doubting, because the dreamer is…madder than the madman’ (Foucault 558). Descartes’ meditation on his dreams, for Foucault, is tantamount to a philosophical discourse on madness. He treats dreams as a version of madness that is just as serious as being an actual mad person ‘whose cerebella [is]…troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile’ (Descartes 135). In other words, dreams are recognisable as the metaphysical version of ‘black bile’. What is troubling for Descartes is that he may never escape from these metaphysical doubts.

Foucault argues that Descartes’ fiction of the evil genius ‘deceives more effectively than a swollen brain’ (Foucault 572). Like dreams, the evil genius is a simulacrum of madness, which has enough substance for the meditating mind to dismiss ‘the risk of being mad‘ (572). The literary critic Shoshana Felman writes that Foucault’s account of the evil genius signifies the crucial difference between the philosopher and the mad person. The philosopher orientates ‘himself in fiction…in order to abandon it’ while the mad person ‘is engulfed by his own fiction’ (Felman 49). Felman’s contrast explains Foucault’s critique of Derrida. Descartes’ doubt teeters on the verge of being overwhelmed by his fictional dialogue of madness. No matter how absurd or irrelevant the Descartes’ non-philosopher thinks of madness, the doubt of it being able to take control of his thoughts remains. As Felman observes Foucault, unlike Derrida, argues that madness challenges philosophy (Felman 48). Also, through Foucault’s account of dreaming, it can be surmised that madness even enlightens philosophy through its discursive nature.

In another essay simply entitled ‘Reply to Derrida’ that is Appendix III in History of Madness, Foucault challenges Derrida on the omnipotent superiority of philosophy or reason. He argues philosophy is part of a discourse, which contributes to ‘the formation of knowledge’ (Foucault 578). It has no critical importance over any other form of discourse. Foucault states the aim of History of Madness is to study a discourse, which does not subscribe to the notion of the implied historical progress of knowledge, or seeks to replicate its rationality. He claims knowledge does not have ‘a Freudian unconscious’, but ‘has an unconscious…[of] its own specific forms and rules’ (Foucault 578). Although he does not elaborate, Foucault implies that knowledge’s unconscious functions within its own body of knowledge. The rational discourse of knowledge is part of a network that informs and displaces other discourses. Foucault is not exposing repressed discourses as such, but discourses that have been misinterpreted by reason. He claims Derrida has not only misinterpreted his reading of Descartes, but has also falsified it (Foucault 578).

Derrida’s trope of the Descartes’ non-philosopher is viewed by Foucault as a conceit. He seizes on the word ‘meditation’ to connote a philosophy that is not of static deductive reasoning, but of a ceaselessly inventive and contradictory subjective discourse. In the First Meditation, Foucault links dreaming to the uncertain doubt that Descartes rejects as madness. Dreaming displaces madness as a simulacrum of madness. Descartes’ realization that he is not mad through deductive reasoning is adjusted by the realization that he can experience madness through dreaming. Foucault then adds that Descartes can experience his dreaming through his meditation. Madness is therefore passed along a metonymic chain of experience.

Foucault, however, makes madness synonymous with dreaming ‘as dreamers are even more eccentric than the mad, madness dissolves quite naturally into dreaming’ (Foucault 582). His main point hinges on dreaming being a valid discourse of knowledge. It represents Cartesian doubt that is ‘at least as convincing as madness’ (Foucault 581). Foucault argues that Derrida misses the important link between dreaming and madness, in which dreaming is an experience Descartes cannot refute. While madness is an experience Descartes cannot relate to through the trope of mad people believing they have bodies made of glass, dreaming is a form of madness Descartes is able to recognise.

The oneiric projection of his image sitting beside the fire while he is asleep in bed causes Descartes to doubt his sanity – how does the meditating person know if they are dreaming, or are actually sitting beside the fire or ruminating between the two? Foucault claims Derrida falsifies the First Meditation in order to criticise History of Madness. He argues that Derrida reads the text as though the meditations are resolutions of a theoretical discussion, rather than comprising of a series of transformations constituting the meditating person’s identity. Through metaphysical doubt, Foucault claims the meditating person momentarily experiences madness. Yet their identity becomes transformed into the rational philosopher through excluding madness from their thoughts. In order to become a rational philosopher, a person must experience madness so they can disparage it by comparing it to their more irrational dreams. The meditating subject’s experience of madness also allows a person to speak of madness in relation to reason.

It is not until after Foucault’s death that Derrida returns to History of Madness. In his essay ‘”To Do Justice to Freud”: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis’, Derrida relates the Cartesian evil genius to Sigmund Freud who, he argues, resists psychoanalysis in the essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Derrida Resistances 86). He uses Freud to emphasise his point ‘that the Evil Genius is anterior to the cogito, so that its threat remains perpetual‘ (Derrida Resistances 86). In other words, the evil genius is present in those moments of Cartesian doubt as thoughts that appear alien to the rational philosopher. It challenges reason’s rational of exclusion by refusing to remain excluded – a chiasmus that Derrida claims lies at the centre of History of Madness.

Freud becomes part of an order that mystifies madness through a dialectic of exclusion, which is the same process of reasoning that Descartes adumbrates in the First Meditation. Derrida reads Freud as a descendant of Descartes in which ‘Cartesian exclusion…is repeated in a deadly and devilish way’ (Derrida Resistances 95). According to Derrida, Freud challenges human rationality with the omnipotent logic of reason. He is the evil genius who casts constant doubt on the human subject through a discourse of morality. Freud’s exposure of the repetition compulsion and the sex drive is moralised by the resistant ego that, in a healthy person, represses the neurosis of narcissistic pain and desire into the unconscious. The unconscious is effectively anterior to rational thought and, through Freud’s analysis, becomes a voice of Cartesian doubt. As Joel Whitebook observes psychiatric treatment is ‘moral rather than medical’ (Whitebook 320). Its purpose ‘is to adjust the patient to the norms and behaviour of respectable bourgeois life’ (Whitebook 320). Whitebook’s comments are similar to the discourse that Descartes inflicts on himself – the anxiety of no longer being respectable through the belief of having a body made of glass, which manifests itself through the constant questioning of one’s sanity. Derrida argues that questions like these constitute the logic of reason; a paradox that humanity is trapped within. Derrida notes that Foucault’s History of Madness is, in fact, a history of reason attempting to free itself from its own paradoxical logic.


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