for Foucault, Derrida, for Derrida, Foucault

A Reading by René Descartes

"I would be tempted to consider Foucault's book ... a Cartesian gesture for the twentieth century." -Jacques Derrida
"Derrida is continuing the Cartesian exclusion." -Michel Foucault
2002.05.08@17:34 $ xxx says Have you read Foucault's response to Derrida's criticism of Madness and Civilization? Interesting index of one point of difference between the two. Derrida's piece, which criticizes Foucault's reading of Descartes in History of Madness, is called "Cogito and the History of Madness," and can apparently be found in Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 1978). Foucault's response is called "My Body, This Paper, This Fire," and is found in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology (vol 2 of Rabinow's two-volume F. collection, which I highly reccommend)

There is a great deal at stake in the way that we might read the Meditations of René Descartes, who is, according to many, the father of modern philosophy. In fact, Michel Foucault remarks on this precisely when he says, regarding Jacques Derrida's criticism of Foucault's reading of Descartes, that "the stakes of the debate are clearly indicated: Could there be anything anterior or exterior to philosophical discourse? Can its condition reside in an exclusion, a refusal, a risk avoided, and why not, a fear?" (MBTPTF, 395).

In their respective readings of the Meditations are indexed important differences between the methodologies and concepts informing the work of these two great French thinkers who are, in many respects, in fraternity with one another. In fact, we can, in these two readings, discern a difference in the conceptions of philosophy that inform the work of Foucault and Derrida, who are both perhaps (but certainly Foucault more than Derrida) only philosophers on the margins, marginalized as philosophers; but also thereby two writers who are expanding the borders of that which is gathered under the name 'philosophy', who are redetermining philosophy, retracing the (improper) path(s) of philosophy. What is at stake here is no less than an answer to the question 'What is Philosophy?' An answer to this question would seek not only to determine the proper purview of philosophy, but also to determine that which is excluded by the thinking of the philosopher. In this respect, then, we can understand the resistance that both of these thinkers might have to this question and all that it presupposes. Insofar as they do answer this question at all, it is only from the margins, from that which is always already excluded by philosophy.

The passage in question is found in Descartes' First Meditation. Descartes wrote:

But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed in gold and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.
Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming (Meditations I, paragraphs 4 and 5).1

As far as the discourse and practice of philosophy is concerned, a great deal is set in motion by a reading of this text, which is essentially about the relations that might (or might not) hold between: reason, madness, and dreams.

According to Foucault's initial analysis in his now-famous work Madness and Civilization, classical reason (which is exemplified by Descartes) disallows madness from its epistemological speculating. "Madness is excluded" (MBTPTF, 393). On Foucault's reading, madness, in all its varieties, came, in the classical age, to occupy a position that was the former location of leprosy -- madness is not so much a phenomenon of knowing, but rather a phenomenon of socializing -- it is regulated not by an epistemology but by a social theory and a politics, all the relationships that power assumes. Madness marks that place, we could name it the 'exterior', where formerly leprosy had insured the identity, regularity, and goodness of the normal functioning of society. If madness is scrutable, it is only under the well-regulated laws of a medicine or a science that is already sure of itself, sure that it cannot be mad. "Madness is not an instrument or stage of doubt" (MBTPTF, 393).

So, on Foucault's view, by the time we get around to classical epistemology, a theory of knowledge in the classical age, madness has always already been excluded from our work -- madness is not an object of proper philosophical contemplation, because madness has already been outcast by the discursive regularities that determine the social being of the human. (Remember: philosophy in the time of Descartes was a public act, it could not happen in a bubble, isolated from the society it seeks to represent -- Descartes' meditations were, after all, not primarily private acts, but public texts, about which Descartes had definite concerns over potential troubles resulting from their publication; in these respects Descartes and his contemporaries (Spinoza is an even better example) were quite unlike, say, an Emerson or a Thoreau who were free thinkers in a natural world, determining the order of things without great concern over the public reception of the truth). In taking the extravagant example of madness seriously, Descartes would undermine his own qualification as a doubting subject. He abandons the insane as exemplary of doubt because, "I would be ... juridically disqualified if I followed their example" (MBTPTF, 402). Descartes, could not admit madness as a form of doubt, to do so would be to exclude himself as a doubter.

Foucault's reading of madness in Madness and Civilization does not read madness as that which discursive practice must seek to overcome and regulate, but as that which discursive practice always already regulates. Madness is not reduced to silence within the universality of the category it names. Rather, the very existence of the category 'madness' is historically determined, along with its opposite 'reason'; that is, it is determined, through power relations, historically. As Foucault conceived, power/resistance flows between the two: reason and madness let each other speak: only madness is always a silent resistance submitting to reason. "Madness, the absence of a work." The presence of a work, a meditation for example, marks the exclusion of madness.

Derrida was troubled by Foucault's historical reading of madness.

This would lead to a more than 15 year caesura in their friendship.

On Derrida's view, madness is not that which is always already excluded by philosophy, but rather that which philosophy excludes within its practice. Madness is not excluded from philosophical activity, by the power that regulates what philosophy could be. Madness is rather excluded by philosophical activity. On this reading, madness is only another stage of doubt, as are dreams, that the philosopher can (and presumably, should) regulate.

Derrida: "The hypothesis of insanity seems neither to receive any privileged treatment nor to be submitted to any particular exclusion" (50). Classical reason deals with madness in the same manner as dreaming. Contrast this to Foucault: "Dreams or illusions are surmounted within the structure of truth; but madness is inadmissible for the doubting subject" (MC). Under Derrida's reading, madness is construed as the hyperbolic expression of doubt at its extreme, that which exceeds the totality of doubt and certainty, and so punctures it. In Derrida's view, this occurs in the text precisely where it is not named: in the figure of the evil genius (see Meditations I, paragraph 9). The difference in the two interpretations is summarized by Foucault's remark that, "If the evil genius takes on the powers of madness, this is only after the exercise of meditation has excluded the risk of being mad" (MBTPTF, 415). Derrida reads the evil genius as the supreme and final test that Descartes' epistemology will submit madness to. Foucaults reads him as confronted from already within the comfortable space of epistemology, where the possibility of the speculator (Descartes) being himself mad has already been excluded by the very fact of his discourse. On the one hand madness is a total exaggeration of doubt, and on the other hand madness could not situate certainty and doubt.

According to Derrida, madness, penultimately represented in the exagerated figure of the evil genius, torments Descartes' criteria of certainty to their very wits' end. Subjected to the figure of the evil genius, all the normal tropes of certainty seem to fade away and dim: my body, this paper, this fire, are all subject to the presence of their own illusion. We can only be brought back from this precipice, transparently separated from instant and total madness, by the saving grace of the Cogito. Certainty, and all that it founds, is dependent in the end upon the supreme philosophical act: the metaphysical presence of the thinker thinking. I think therefore I am. It is only in the last moment that we are rescued, and it is the presence of philosophy that rescues us. "Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness" (59). (Of course, Derrida himself does not believe that Cartesian thought is really all that reassuring.)

On Derrida's view, madness is that which is always already regulated by the normality of the text, by the iterability of the text. No particular historical form (such as classical reason) can ever exclude madness, and so Foucault's reading of Descartes fails to properly account for the meaningless-silence that meaning always excludes. On Derrida's reading of Descartes, madness is excluded by the philosopher, and not from him qua philosopher. Descartes' exclusion isn't anything Derrida would approve of, by the way, because Descartes, just like Foucault, fails to understand that madness will already have been regulated by the very act of his speech meaning anything, rather than by the particular speech he gives, or by the discursive regularities that historically isolate this speech from its exterior. This is what Derrida is expressing in writing that: "If discourse and philosophical communication (that is, language itself) are to have an intelligible meaning ... they must simultaneously in fact and in principle escape madness. They must carry normality within themselves. And this is not a specifically Cartesian weakness ... is not a defect or mystification linked to a determined historical structure, but rather is an essential and universal necessity from which no discourse can escape, for it belongs to the meaning of meaning" (53). Foucault's reading has this glaring defect: in construing the exclusion of madness as an historical structure, madness can no longer function as the general silence against which history, a history of anything, can be heard. Madness can never be heard if we do not respect that it is always silent. And so, Foucault, says Derrida, perpetuates the totalitarian torture of nonmeaning by meaning. Foucault, "risks erasing the excess by which every philosophy (of meaning) is related, in some region of its discourse, to the nonfoundation of unmeaning" (note 26). Such an erasure deflates the hyperbolic terror that will always press philosophy all the way to the ceiling of madness. It effaces the unmeaning residual within any meaningful text.

The very exclusion of madness supposed by Foucault reveals an excess in the tension between philosophy and madness that will always collapse the border between the two. And this is the essential point of Derrida's criticism of Foucault. Foucault attempts to demonstrate that madness was discursively excluded in the classical age -- but in so doing he closes forever the border between philosophy and madness. Derrida instead sees Descartes as trying to philosophically effect an exclusion of madness -- but this can never fully close the border between philosophy and madness for it reveals what is universal about all discourse: namely that madness (unmeaning) will always locate the condition of philosophy (meaning). Hence all of Derrida's rather cryptic obsession in his essay with excess, exceeding, exaggeration, overflowing, and rhetorical hyperbole. "That is why, by virtue of this margin of the possible, the principled, the meaningful, which exceeds all that is real, factual, and existent, this project is mad, and acknowledges madness as its very liberty and its very possibility" (56). Derrida's own reading of Descartes is not subject to the same criticisms as Foucault's precisely because the former's demonstrates that philosophy, contrary to what Descartes might have written, will always be in a relationship with its margins, battling them, but also accepting them. Philosophy will always labor within a general meaning that is centered only by the nonmeaning madness that defines its borders. This is what is meant by, "I philosophize only in terror" (62). It is this terror that locates philosophy.

Foucault's response to Derrida also reveals some of their most important differences as concerns their views on the nature and practice of philosophy. It is important first of all to remember that Foucault's criticism consists largely of a careful reading of Descartes' texts (there are at least two: the original Latin of 1641 and the French translation of 1647). Foucault tortures Derrida's reading, submitting it to a revealed systematic difference in the two Descartes paragraphs quoted above. Foucault's reading exposes what appear to be some very large holes in Derrida's interpretation, and even he is surprised at the poor showing Derrida has made. Still, it is often Derrida's intention to (re)trace a text, to stitch it to itself, but painfully so, and to let it deconstruct itself, to submit a text to the tortures of its own logics.

It is, in the end, deconstruction that Foucault is rallying against, and it is here that we can read a gap between these two writers. Derrida submits the text only to itself, 'madness' and 'reason' are only opposed within a reading. Foucault is more concerned with discursive practices and the shapes of power that the text archives. For Derrida, "there is nothing outside the text", but for Foucault the text is not irreducible, but is that which power generates -- power archives itself and leaves a text as a trace of this. For Derrida, power is traceable only through a text -- power, like everything else, is only available as an experience of interpretation (see Limited Inc, 148). On Derrida's view, it is particularly pessimistic to view the speech of the philosopher and the madman as always already determined by the discursive practices and social forms of the classical age. For Derrida, Foucault's notion of power as that which is always going to be regulating the totality of our activity is only going to encourage pessimism and self-defeat, a sort of realization-submission that our particular historical situation can't be improved piecemeal, and certainly not through revolution. Derrida's reading reflects this: no particular historical factor can determine a boundary between the philosophical and the mad (Foucault hints at precisely this; "it would establish between them a relationship of exteriority" (MBTPTF, 412)), because all discourse is always already exterior to total madness insofar as discourse, in general, must be meaningful and madness is precisely the silence where meaning cannot speak.

It is this generalizing view of meaning that Foucault takes issue with. He believes that Derrida's reading of Descartes only serves to further perpetuate the classical misunderstanding of madness; that madness is excluded by textuality, by the very institution of textuality (since that is all there is on Derrida's view), rather than by the discursive practices that inform, regulate, sustain, and constitute any particular text, or speech, or act. For Foucault, the text is exceeded, its traces do not represent a totality. Exclusion, repression, triumph, success, do not occur within the text, but rather are constituted by the same that constitutes the text: power. And yet power is never just one thing, one act, one generalized totality such as: text. Foucault reads Derrida as a representative of a philosophy that stands for, "the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events produced therein and the retention of only marks for a reading" (MBTPTF, 416). He calls this, very derisively, "a historically well determined little pedagogy". The reduction of everything to the text sustains the imbalances of textuality, of reading, of the very exclusion that reading produces: those who are well-read and those who cannot read: the qualified philosopher and the mad who cannot speak, who cannot read, who cannot even let themselves speak or trace themselves in the archive.

"For Foucault, Derrida was a defender of the one form of understanding that would always remain the same, that would always produce holy wars in the name of truth, and sanctified divisions between the experts and the ignorant, for Derrida, Foucault's subtle defence of the established order was the false promise of Utopia, an image which if pursued would always lead to disillusionment and the acceptance that nothing can ever change the way the world is" (Boyne, Roy. Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason. Routledge, 1990. page 4.)

Footnote 1. Original Latin text of Descartes' two paragraphs:

Sed forte, quamvis interdum sensus circa minuta quaedam & remotiora nos fallant, pleraque tamen alia sunt de quibus dubitari plane non potest, quamvis ab iisdem hauriantur: ut jam me hîc esse, fovo assidere, hyemali togâ esse indutum, chartam istam manibus contrectare, & similia. Manus verò has ipsas, totumque hoc corpus meum esse, quâ ratione posset negari? nisi me forte comparem nescio quibus insanis, quorum cerebella tam contumax vapor ex atrâ bile labefactat, ut constanter asseverent vel se esse reges, cùm sunt pauperrimi, vel purpurâ indutos, cùm sunt nudi, vel caput habere fictile, vel se totos esse cucurbitas, vel ex vitro conflatos; sed amentes sunt isti, nec minùs ipse demens viderer, si quod ab iis exemplum ad me transferrem.

Praeclare sane, tanquam non sim homo qui soleam noctu dormire, & eadem omnia in somnis pati, vel etiam interdum minùs verisimilia, quàm quae isti vigilantes. Quàm frequenter verò usitata ista, me hîc esse, togâ vestiri, foco assidere, quies nocturna persuadet, cùm tamen positis vestibus jaceo inter strata! Atqui nunc certe vigilantibus oculis intueor hanc chartam, non sopitum est hoc caput quod commoveo, manum istam prudens & sciens extendo & sentio; non tam distincta contingerent dormienti. Quasi scilicet non recorder a similibus etiam cogitationibus me aliàs in somnis fuisse delusum; quae dum cogito attentius, tam plane video nunquam certis indiciis vigiliam a somno posse distingui, ut obstupescam, & fere hic ipse stupor mihi opinionem somni confirmet.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. "Cogito and the History of Madness" originally given as a lecture and printed in 1963, as reprinted in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass into English in 1978.

Descartes, Rene. The Meditations, 1641, translated into the English by John Vietch in 1901, hypertext version edited by David B. Manley and Charles S. Taylor at

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization, 1961, translated by Richard Howard into English in 1965.

Foucault, Michel. "My Body, This Paper, This Fire" originally printed as an appendix to the 1972 French edition of Histoire de la folia, as reprinted in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, translated into English by Geoffrey Bennington.

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