Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

By Palencia-Roth, Michael | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine


Palencia-Roth, Michael, Comparative Civilizations Review


Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine. Princeton University Press, 2015.

In the concluding sentence of this long and impressive book, Andrew Scull writes: "[Madness] remains a fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself' (411). He wants to leave us with this fundamental truth: the question of madness is inextricable from the question of civilization. In two previous works, Museums of Madness ((Penguin Books, 1979) and The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700-1900 (Yale UP, 1993), Scull's frame of reference was "societal." In Madness and Civilization, his frame of reference has expanded to an inquiry into that largest collectivity that is the raison d'etre of the ISCSC: "civilization".

Madness in Civilization mines Scull's Madhouse (Yale UP, 2005), The Insanity of Place, the Place of Insanity (Routledge, 2006), and Masters of Bedlam (Princeton UP, 2014). In the preface to the second edition of his 1977 book entitled Decarceration (Rutgers, 1984), Scull writes of his own work as a scholar: "I hope it is not immodest to suggest that the republication of the original text is testimony to the continuing impact of my attempt to develop a historically informed macrosociological perspective on the structure of social control in contemporary England and the United States." Writing today, Scull might substitute for "macrosociological" the word "civilizational".

Madness in Civilization is therefore a kind of omnium gatherum that brings together all his previous work and thought on the subject and also provides a scholarly testament to the "continuing impact" of his life's work. Scull habitually mines previous work and even repeats certain chapters in successive books. For example, a chapter entitled "The Rise of the Asylum" from Museums of Madness (pp. 13-48) is repeated, with that title, in The Most Solitary of Afflictions, and then expanded upon (pp. 1-45). Some of the language, details, and paragraphs from this and other chapters are distributed through Madness in Civilization. All of that makes an evaluation of Madness in Civilization difficult.

Other scholars have written on madness and mental illness from broadly historical and societal perspectives. Consider, for example, the co-authored book by Franz G. Alexander and Sheldon T. Selesnick, The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought and Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present; E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational; Roy Porter's books, including A Social History of Madness and Madness: A Brief History; The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health, edited by Greg Eghigian; Petteri Pietikäinen, Madness: A History; and of course Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, which is the abridged translated version (1965) of his massive Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie a l'âge classique (1961) . Folie et Déraison was translated into English as History of Madness in 2006 and 2009. But Scull is more comprehensive and more wide-ranging on this subject than any other writer I have come across. Even Foucault's History of Madness, longer (by more than 200 pages) than Scull's Madness in Civilization, covers a briefer time period and has a more limited geographical scope.

Much of the work in the comparative history of civilizations has to do with such large and often rather abstract issues as state systems, symbolic systems, comparative religions, migrations, urbanism, economics, world-system theory, trade networks, urbanization, imperialism, industrialization, war and peace, and the like. Much attention has also been paid to the conception of "civilization" itself and the taxonomy of civilizations (how many there are, and where). Seldom is work in comparative civilizations reduced to the self, in particular to the mind and its illnesses, in relation to the society or civilization in which it is embedded. …

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