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The Concept And Purpose Of Madness in Western Thought

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In this essay I am going to discuss the claim that madness as a concept and category of Western thought is designed to control and suppress inconvenient behaviour and undesirable people.

Madness and Civilization

Focaults, Madness and Civilization claims that madness is a socially constructed concept and that its institutions have been highly influential. He aimed to demonstrate that rather than madness being a stable condition, mental illness should rather be seen as the result of social contradictions in which humans are historically alienated. He saw madness as being constructed as a particular point in history ; madness is constituted to ring fence reason or sanity and to create a clear distinction between madness and sanity. Focault explored how it was constructed in different forms and judged throughout history. Where it all beganIt all began when Psychiatry developed the concept of madness and how to treat it. Madness became a category instead of making madness into something more real. Psychiatry was developed to give reason over their newfound control over people. For example inconvenient behaviour such as hearing voices in your head in the past would have been seen as being possessed by Satan or some sort of Spirits. The Church took control and made it into something that needed to be treated with drugs and by confinement. In other words they tried to get rid of anyone that was a black sheep. They wanted to hide and lock away the behaviour that was not considered normal by society. During the Middle Ages madness was not divided into sane and insane. During the renaissance madness was free from social conventions. Madness was present everywhere and mingled with every experience by its images or its dangers. During the classical period, madness was shown, but on the other side of the bars: if present, it was at a distance under the eyes of a reason that no longer felt any relation to it and would not compromise itself by too close a resemblance”.

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Throughout the classical period madness was portrayed as manifestation of animality rather than an illness. “The animality that rages in madness dispossesses man of what is specifically human in him; not in order to deliver him over to other powers but simply to establish him at the zero degree of his own nature”.

The Great Confinement

Availability of houses contributed to the confinement of individuals. Institutionalisation of those considered to be mentally ill developed from the practice in the 12th century onwards to prevent leprosy. Leper houses were built in Europe from the 12th century to prevent leprosy from spreading to the rest of the population. In England and Scotland roughly 220 houses were built dedicated to lepers. Due to this segregation and control the contagion was removed. Leprosy was now replaced with madness. In the 17th century hospitals which were built to house lepers were taken over to be used as asylums for those who were socially undesirable. This included the poor, unemployed and prisoners as well as anyone whose behaviour was considered abnormal. This is clear evidence that madness was designed to suppress and control the “socially useless”. For example, individuals that could not work or would not work were placed under the category of madness and were placed in these confinements that had really harsh treatment of its patients. “More than one out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined”. This detachment of people from society due to conditions or circumstances they cannot control is wrong. People do not choose to be mentally ill. Society must be open and educated about these individuals. While these institutions are vital and there should be separation between the mentally unstable and non “law abiding” citizens; they should not house every individual that does not meet the social standards. In 1656 The Church and the French Government came together to work on confinement of undesirable people. The Hopital General in Paris was founded especially for this. The Church and government had complete dominion and power over its “patients” without appeal.

The purpose of law and government is to ensure the smooth running of society, not to hide individuals seen as inconvenient from society. For example, criminals should be separated from society because they are facing consequences for breaking the law. The treatment of the individual should be based upon their actions, not through grouping them all into one category. Focault argued that the asylum no longer punished the mad-man’s guilt but it did more. It organised that guilt. It organised it for the madman as a consciousness of himself. Therefore, unlike with any other illness, the diagnosis of mental illness seems to imply a failing on the part of the individual for which they can be blamed. “The asylum is not a free realm of observation, diagnosis and the therapeutics: it is a juridical space where one is accused, judged and condemned and from which one is never released except by the version of this trial in psychological depth, that is remorse. Madness will be punished in the asylum, even if it is innocent outside for it. For a long time to come, and until our own day at least, it is imprisoned in a moral world”. This has led to stigmatisation of mental illness. In situations where it is evident that the root of this madness is due to social or economic conditions, the individual is still held accountable and gets the blame. In the 19th century confinement was criticised and attempts were made to free the people locked away in these institutions. These institutions started to represent economic error as well the the humanitarian issue. The place of madness became unforthcoming. The mentally insecure person became the moral outcast and the people in charge tried to act upon his conscience and feelings of guilt.


The line between what behaviour is considered acceptable and what is considered undesirable is very thin. Whether a person falls into the bracket of sane or insane is established by social norms. We expect people to behave a certain way and if somebody behaves any different they’re seen as an outlier. They are breaking social norms.It is clearly evident looking back on society and as well as looking at modern society that people are controlled. Institutions have jurisdiction over people’s lives. If people don’t conform to the standards set by society to behave a certain way or be a certain type of person they are made feel guilty or are punished for their behaviour be it through confinement or many other ways.


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