Cogito and the History of Madness

"Cogito and the History of Madness" is a paper by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida that critically responds to Michel Foucault's book the History of Madness.[1] In this paper, Derrida questions the intentions and feasibility of Foucault's book, particularly in relation to the historical importance attributed by Foucault to the treatment of madness by Descartes in the Meditations on First Philosophy. Derrida's paper began a high-profile exchange between Derrida and Foucault as well as a considerable amount of attention from scholars.[2] Foucault responded directly to Derrida in an appendix added to the 1972 edition of the History of Madness titled "My body, this paper, this fire." Derrida again considered Foucault's 1961 text on madness with "To do Justice to Freud: The History of madness in the age of psychoanalysis" in 1991. The exchange between Derrida and Foucault was sometimes acrimonious and it is said that "the two writers stopped communicating for ten years."[3] Commentators on the exchange include Shoshana Felman, Gayatri Spivak, Geoffrey Bennington, Slavoj Žižek,[4] Edward Saïd, Rémi Brague, Manfred Frank, and Christopher Norris.

It had been stated that Derrida first used the neologism différance in "Cogito and the History of Madness",[5] but more recent research has called this into question.[6]

Presentation and publication

Derrida presented the paper “Cogito and the History of Madness” at the Collège Philosophique in 1963. Derrida sent a letter inviting Foucault to attend this presentation.[7] The paper was subsequently published in the Revue de métaphysique et de morale in 1963 with the addition of a short passage inserted between brackets. Additional notes to the paper were published in the next issue of the Revue de métaphysique et de morale in 1964. The paper was subject to a further revision for its inclusion in the 1967 collection L'écriture et la différence. The paper was translated into English by Alan Bass in 1978 as part of Writing and Difference.

Structure of the paper


Derrida prefaces the paper with two quotations. The first quotation is Søren Kierkegaard stating that "The instant of decision is madness".[8] Kierkegaard characterises the instant of decision as madness because it is only when one choice is not clearly superior to another when reason fails to indicate which option is better that a choice really needs to be made. The second quotation is James Joyce stating of Ulysses that "In any event this book was terribly daring. A transparent sheet separates it from madness."[8]

Point of departure

Derrida states that his point of departure for "Cogito and the History of Madness" is Foucault's 1961 book Folie et déraison.[8] Derrida's paper primarily relies on two sections of Foucault's work, the original 1961 preface in which Foucault makes a number of general comments about the book, setting forth his intentions and methodology, and two and a half pages at the start of the second chapter where Foucault links Descartes to an historical event that silenced madness at the end of the classical age. Foucault's 1961 text was heavily abridged for a popular edition in 1964 that formed the basis for Richard Howard's translation of the text into English as Madness and Civilization. The abridged 1964 edition removed the pages concerning Descartes on which Derrida had explicitly based his argument in "Cogito and the History of Madness." These pages on Descartes were only made available in English with Jean Khalfa's 2006 translation of Foucault's work on madness.

Allusion to Hegel

Derrida makes an allusion to the master–slave dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit in the opening pages of "Cogito and the History of Madness."

Argument concerning Descartes

Foucault writes at the start of the second chapter of Madness and Civilization of a strange violent event that silenced madness at the end of the renaissance and the beginning of the classical age. He then discusses the treatment of madness by Descartes in the Meditations on First Philosophy. Foucault argues that Descartes refuses to recognise a commonality between himself and people who are mad and uses this dissociation as an excuse not to take madness seriously as a grounds for doubt. For Foucault this exclusion of madness by Descartes leads to a cogito that is more or less arbitrarily self-assured of its own rationality.

Derrida argues that Descartes might appear to dismiss madness at the point of the meditation to which Foucault refers but shortly after this takes madness seriously as a ground for doubt when he considers the possibility of there being an evil demon controlling his thoughts. Derrida argues that Descartes includes the possibility of his own madness when he hypothesises that an evil demon could corrupt even the most assured and reasonable judgements he can make, such as those of basic arithmetic. Derrida argues that madness is not subject to an arbitrary exclusion by Descartes but that once Descartes earnestly but momentarily enters into the hypothesis of the evil demon he must be reassured by the ordered operative norms of his language and project of self-reflection.

See also


  1. Derrida, Jacques, 1978. "Cogito and the History of Madness" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routledge. pp. 36–76.
  2. Boyne, R., 1990. Foucault and Derrida: The other side of reason. London: Unwin Hyman. p. 1.
  3. Khalfa, J., 2006. "Introduction" from M. Foucault History of Madness. Translated by J. Murphy and J. Khalfa. Edited by J. Khalfa. London and New York: Routledge. p. xxiii.
  4. Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 2nd Ed. (New York: Verso, 2008), 36.
  5. "Schultz, W.R. & Fried, L.B., 1992. Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. London & New York: Garland."
  6. James, Seferin. 2011. "Derrida, Foucault and 'Madness, the absence of an œurvre'" in Meta: Research in Hermeneutics, Phenomenology and Practical Philosophy Vol. 3(2). pp. 380-381.
  7. Foucault, M., 1994. Dits et Écrits 1954–1988, vol. I: 1954–1969. Edited by D. Defert, F. Ewald, J. Lagrange. Paris: Gallimard. p. 26.
  8. Derrida, Jacques, 1978. "Cogito and the History of Madness" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routledge. p. 36.
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