Friday, February 15, 2008

Madness: Summary

Tapping Philosophy: Madness – Summary

·      I  It was my intent to frame the discussion for the night in terms of the Foucault/Derrida debate over Descartes’ reading of madness, as it is a useful tool for framing the relationship between reason and madness, in terms that are conceptual and historical.  Thus, when people brought up their concerns with relationship to madness, I often found myself referring to the debate, as the debate not only has consequences for the concept of madness, but also for the place and authority of philosophy and history.  I’ll give the abridged version of the debate.

o   Foucault wishes to examine madness from how it is situated in a historical and cultural context.  Thus, for Foucault, there is not an essential concept of madness in general, but rather, there’s madness in the Renaissance, madness in the classical age, and madness in the modern age.  More specifically, Foucault is not concerned with the pathology of madness, but rather how specific groups of people are produced as mad subjects, by authoritative institutions.  Foucault claims that Descartes’ exclusion of madness is a sign of the forthcoming classical episteme (model of knowledge) wherein madness is excluded from thought proper.

o   Derrida critiques Foucault’s reading of Descartes, in that he fails to adequately grasp the concept of madness, a concept that is central to his history, at least in Derrida’s interpretation.   Derrida thinks Foucault has too drastically historicized this madness, and that this madness is actually central to all intelligibility, as the conditions for the possibility of being understood in the first place, and in this way, madness is always staring philosophy in the face.

·           Some good points were made with relationship to this debate:

o   Is it really impossible to have an insane thought?  Most of the people at the table seemed to agree on the possibility of these types of thoughts.  Indeed this notion of insane thoughts also seems intelligible for Foucault considering his penchant for literature of transgression.

o   However, if we to take Descartes seriously, as read by Foucault, these thoughts would simply be either or in error or illusion, and there would be no question of madness, but simply a question of falsity.

o   What would the difference be in practice for the erroneous person and the madman if they were both doing the same action?  Indeed, this question is valuable, because it reveals that the key location for this debate is mental, and not necessarily material.  For Descartes, the answer might be that the madman would not be able to take that objective step back and realize that he was in error while the rational person would have this capability.

o   What about the potential of conflicting schemas of rationality, does this not produce a certain type of madness in itself?  There is something to be said for the dialectical nature of reason and madness, but I would want to be really strict here.  The example used was the The Bridge Over the River Kwai, where a lieutenant ends up fighting his own countrymen because he sees following war-time rules of engagement as the highest value.   This movie seems to bring up the classical distinction between utilitarianism and deontological morality.   Clearly here we have a case of the officer being particularly susceptible to a deontological conception of morality with relationship to the rules of engagement.  I think you’d have to argue that it was simply an error in his moral calculation that lead him to conclude these rules were the highest good, as opposed to claiming that madness springs out of conflicting rational schemas.

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