Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

By Marcel Gauchet; Gladys Swain et al. | Go to book overview

Foreword
Jerrold Seigel

AS ITS ENGLISH title suggests, Madness and Democracy couples the history of insanity and psychiatry with the history of politics. On one level, what Marcel Gauchet and Gladys Swain give us is a story about the innovations in theory and treatment made by the French alienists Philippe Pinel and Jean-Etienne Esquirol in the years around 1800, about their utopian hopes for effecting radical and complete cures of mental illness, and about the institutions that developed as these hopes waned. But at another level, this history becomes the material for a meditation on modern democratic society, in particular on the relationship between individuals, power, and collective life that emerged in the era of the French Revolution. The book belongs to a genre that is little practiced in the United States, so that a word or two about its method at the start may help prepare readers for what they will find in it.

The history Gauchet and Swain write is also philosophy. Their way of combining the two disciplines belongs neither to the “analytical” philosophy of history practiced by Anglo-American thinkers who descend from Wittgenstein, nor to the “speculative” philosophy of history that we identify with such great nineteenth-century names as Hegel, Marx, Ranke, or Michelet. As historians our authors pay close attention to persons and movements, texts and contexts, but as philosophers they often meditate on these matters with a conceptual intensity to which historians—happily or not—seldom aspire. Nor do historians usually aim for as highly theorized an understanding of modernity, of how it contrasts with the forms of life that preceded it, and of what it has so far been and meant, as the one at work here.

One writer with whose method Gauchet and Swain share a good deal is the very one against whom their work is in many ways written, but whose powerful example and influence they acknowledge, Michel Foucault. The subject of insanity and its treatment is one of many topics that have been enlivened by Foucault's provocative dealings with them; it was he who first made clear how forcefully the understanding of mental illness bears on questions of modern individuality, freedom, and power. 1 Like Foucault, our authors make these crucial issues their intellectual quarry; their interpretations, however, their understanding of the history of psychiatry and their sense for the way its emergence helps to reveal the inner shape of modern life, are strongly at odds with his. One way to describe this differ-

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