Phi Beta Cons

Foucault the Historian

A new translation of the book that launched Michel Foucault’s international fame has just come out.  The book is Madness and Civilization, and the first translation back in 1965 was a shortened version of the original French publication.  When it appeared in English, it was a sensation, and its thesis against Enlightenment reason found fans throughout the social sciences and humanities.  Missing in the English version were several chapters and more than a thousand footnotes, and what remained was a sweeping indictment of the human sciences, large claims about the nature of madness and normalcy, and the transition into modernity.  People loved it, and to anybody passing through graduate school in the last 30 years Foucault was a Pantheonic figure.  It is hard, indeed, to communicate to outsiders just how powerfully Foucault’s work and thought gripped substantial and powerful cliques in the academy.
The current translation includes the material left out of the earlier translation, and it offers an entirely different picture of the book.  In a word, it includes all the historiographical labor that grounds the grandiloquent theses–all the books Foucault read and cited, the original documents he gathered, his representations of concrete historical situations, the latest scholarship he consulted on the issues.
But there’s a problem, and this new version lays it out in detail.  The scholarship is a mess.  Foucault attributes positions to documents that are not to be found there. He takes dubious 19th-century sources at face value.  He gets basic facts wrong.  He ignores recent scholarship.  The most celebrated and revered historian of the last 50 years, a presiding deity of cultural studies, an icon of gender theory, interdisciplinarity, and poststructuralism, it turns out, committed one historiographical crime after another to push a counter-Enlightenment thesis. 
Here is the conclusion to a review of the new translation in TLS by Andrew Scull:

The back cover of History of Madness contains a series of hyperbolic hymns of praise to its virtues.  Paul Rabinow calls the book “one of the major works of the twentieth century”; Ronnie Laing hails it as “intellectually rigorous”; and Nikolas Rose rejoices that “Now, at last, English-speaking readers can have access to the depth of scholarship that underpins Foucault’s analysis.”  Indeed they can, and one hopes that they will read the text attentively and intelligently, and will learn some salutary lessons.  One of those lessons might be amusing, if it had no effect on people’s lives: the ease with which history can be distorted, facts ignored, the claims of human reason disparaged and dismissed, by someone sufficiently cynical and shameless, and willing to trust in the ignorance and credulity of his customers.


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