Madness: Unreason or Beyond Reason?

The concept of madness is one that has been around in one form or another since antiquity, however exactly what is meant by the term mad has never been laid down instead it has changed with each passing era. In some it has been the height of wisdom in others a disease on humanity’s reason, but despite the term mad being relatively new its characteristics have been around for millennia. By analysing madness from a genealogical viewpoint it should become clear that madness is less real than we first assume it to be, it is in actuality a mechanism used by institutions power to separate a conceived ‘norm’ of society from the remainder in a bid to increase their power and control over societies. Therefore madness is neither a heightened form of wisdom, nor a diminished form, but simply a tool for segregation. As already mentioned this is to be argued from a genealogical viewpoint so to begin let us first look at how madness was perceived during antiquity.

Within antiquity there was no concept of the term madness nevertheless the traits usually associated with madness still existed within society. Ancient Greece had its ‘mad’ placed within temples of worship, segregated from the rest of society, where they would be sought out for their divine wisdom. A number of these oracles existed, although the best known one is that of Delphi, the Oracle was considered to be a women, known as the Pythia (a form of high priestess), whose wisdom transcended Earth as she “was chosen to speak, as a possessed medium, for Apollo, the God of prophecy”[1], in other words she heard the voice of the gods, a trait which is often associated with the schizophrenic. Hence we can see even in this early age that the segregation of the mad occurred and it was the integrated institution of the city-state and religion which was responsible for the separation of the norm and the wise.

This view of madness as being a form of wisdom inspired by the gods continued on throughout the Roman era as soothsayers and state-augurs were held in heavy esteem for their prophecies, although both the Greek oracles and Roman soothsayers often presented their wisdom in cryptic messages, such as the famous one claimed to have been said to Julius Caesar “Beware the ides of March!”[2]. In the same way the Greek Oracles were employed by the state so too were the soothsayers, so they too were products of the institution although were integrated more within society than their Greek counterparts. In modernity such cryptic messages are often posited to be the wisdom of the drunkard and therefore ought to be disregarded as nonsense, a mirror image of the Ancient view. Now we have established of the position of madness within antiquity it is time to look at its position during the medieval and early-modern periods where Christian institutions and the Occult took madness into its next stage of evolution.      

Prymus notes that the Middle Ages was a period of significant change when regarding the view of madness as the previous mystical beliefs came into conflict with a new religious order, the rise of Christendom. Both sides still held “the common characteristics of madness…to be signs of a veiled wisdom”[3], although they regularly came into conflict with each other as the two spheres of institutionalised power clashed.

On the one side there was the old mysticism which remained in the form of the Occult and Paganism where Druids replaced the oracles and soothsayers, and new tools of divination came into existence such as tarot cards. One of the more important cards in the tarot deck is The Fool which can be used as either a symbol whereby it “represents ideas…which endeavour to transcend Earth”[4], thus a higher form of wisdom, or “if badly dignified, folly, eccentricity, even mania”[5], an irrational form of wisdom. The Fool could also be used to directly represent the person asking the question to the deck’s interpreter, hence the person was claimed to be a madman bearing either intellect or mania depending on the fall of the card in relation to the others, although the interpretation of the fall was left to the discretion of the interpreter so madness was still the mechanism used by institutions to control sections of society.

The other institution of power during this period, vital to understanding the concept of madness, is the Christian Church. Prymus claims that “the transformation from insanity as veiled wisdom to madness…begins with Christian views of the…human inability to comprehend the reason of God…those who come too close to such understanding will be driven insane”[6]. What can be said about Christianity is it tried to alienate those who practised the Occult methods by teaching in The Bible that such methods were the work of The Devil, for it says in the book of Deuteronomy “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.”[7], however this view of divination, prophecy and witchcraft as being madness and a plague on humanity was not a one-dimensional view since it was permissible to suffer from hallucinations, both visual and auditory, and be regarded as speaking the word of God, and consequently the highest possible form of wisdom. There are numerous occasions when the schizophrenic have been esteemed for their madness during the height of Christendom, for example Saint Joan of Arc who led the French to war after hearing God speak to her. So it can be argued that there was a divide between institutions of power and their view of madness during this period, however both sides held a dualistic view as to what madness was allowing them to redefine it when necessary. This dualistic interpretation of madness died out during the Enlightenment when madness was seen largely as a disease on humanity rationality. 

From the seventeenth century, and to some extent for the following two centuries, Europe saw a transformation of how power was used by institutions, Foucault documented these changes in his works in which two texts are of great significance; Discipline and Punish following the story of the prison, and Madness and Civilisation following the story of the asylum. The message behind both is clear, power is used by institutions to divide and control sections of society by means of labelling them with terms such as; mad, criminal and normal[8]. It is here that the concept of madness becomes real.

Foucault points out to us that the Enlightenment era was the age of ‘The Great Confinement’ where an established norm was held and anyone who deviated from it, in any way, was to be segregated from society for these abnormalities were “aspects of evil that have such a power of contagion…that any publicity multiplies them”[9], in other words madness was a plague which needed containing before man’s rationality was corrupted. The mad during this period were, once diagnosed, placed into asylums on which it had been said “one thing is clear: the Hôpital Général is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semi judicial structure”[10]. So Foucault argued that madness had been invented during the Enlightenment as a means of controlling those whose behaviour differed from the norm, when in fact there was nothing medically wrong with them. Foucault himself even pointed this out by stating, when talking about the mind of a madman, “the marvellous logic of the mind which seems to mock that of the logicians because it resembles it so exactly, or rather because it is exactly the same”[11]. This view of madness as that which does not follow the norm has lasted, to some degree, into modernity and it is modernity which shall be the next point of focus.             

Finally we come to modernity where the term madness has become quite broad in its scope as “we often call folks crazy when we simply find their behaviour odd”[12], so madness needs to have no medical background it only needs to be considered different from the established norm. Some of the Enlightenment’s medical view has remained since “the therapeutics of madness…whose chief concern was to sever or to ‘correct’ continued to develop”[13] in a number of guises including psychodynamic psychology, developed by Freud and Jung.

There have also been attempts to return back to the mysticism of antiquity and The Middle Ages, often referred to as new age movements, which like the druids, mystics and witches of the old regime who were condemned as mad by the influential institutions of their day, so too are the druids, mystics and witches of modernity to some lesser and greater degree. Nonetheless these new age movements have helped to highlight a point brought up by Foucault, “madness fascinates because it is knowledge. It is knowledge…of a difficult, hermetic, esoteric learning”[14] said to be associated with the wisdom of the cosmos, nature or higher entities depending on which institution you happen to find yourself within.

So it seems that modernity holds a broad spectral view of madness where it serves as both unreason and wisdom which is beyond reason, as well as everything in between so long as it differs from a perceived normality imposed by an institution of power which on occasion come into conflict for “it has become popular for psychiatrists to assume…witches were unfortunate women who ‘fell ill’ with ‘mental illness’[15]. This point has been noticed by Szasz who said “anything and everything…based on no matter what norm…agoraphobia… homosexuality…divorce…crime, art, undesired political leadership, participation in social affairs or withdrawal from such participation – all these things and many more are now said to be symptoms of mental illness”[16].

It seems to be then that madness is not something which can be regarded simply as unreason or wisdom which goes beyond reason for it depends upon the institution of power you happen to find yourself in. This suggests that there is no such thing as madness, and from this mental illness, the whole concept is down to imposed suggestions by those at the head of power within the institution. “During Charcot’s lifetime…it was suggested…that the phenomena of hysteria were due to suggestion…a charge that has since been fully substantiated”[17], this has been supported by Szasz, Foucault and Laing, amongst others, in a movement known as the anti-psychiatry movement.    

Laing argued that madness was a concept devised by others in an attempt to control and correct those who went against the norm by stating in his book The Divided Self “the technical vocabulary currently used to describe psychiatric patients is that it consist of words which split man up”[18] allowing the normal to be segregated from the mad. He also noticed that within the institution of psychiatry the guidelines for what were considered normal where not properly defined as “the textbook ‘signs’ of schizophrenia vary from hospital to hospital”[19], suggesting two things; firstly that institutions can be broken down into micro-institutions who are able to redefine normality to suit their localised needs, and secondly that there is no such thing as madness, it is a man-made construction. This may provide an answer as to why the term had never been used until the time of The Great Confinement previously mentioned.

Further support for the notion that madness is an imposed conception used by institutions to exercise their power over society in order to retain some sense of normality comes from Szasz who claims “we construct – and then ourselves come to believe in –various types of mental illnesses”[20]. In other words once we have been picked out by society as abnormal by our “failure to learn or comply with imitative rules”[21] then institutions place conceptions upon us, each with its own name and label, which we then absorb into our identity and subconsciously act within whatever framework is expected of our associated label having the belief that we have been told we are X so we must be X, and if I am X then I must act in the way an X would.

Consequently the concept of madness is strengthened as it becomes ingrained into our schemas and cognition of the world, or as Foucault puts it “the discursive movement of reason reasoning with itself, and which addresses madness as error”[22]. Once this self-cognition and acceptance has been established we fall under the control of institutions, and therefore more susceptible to their power which is exercised over us through disciplinary mechanisms[23]. Szasz and Foucault argue that these labels, disciplinary mechanisms and to some extent even our actions belong to the institutions as “the names and hence the values…depend on the rules of the system…that we use…all systems are made by people”[24].    

To conclude madness cannot be simply defined as either unreason or beyond reason, instead it needs to be looked at from a different viewpoint. If we look at madness as a man-made conception rather than a medical phenomenon then we come to see that madness is a shape-shifting term used by institutions of power to segregate and control sections of society who fail to comply with their imposed normality. This view of madness has existed since antiquity and since then it has been evolving into the complex network of disciplinary institutions we have in the modern western world.   


  • Foucault. M, 1991, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin
  •  Foucault. M, 2001, Madness and Civilization, Abingdon: Routledge
  • Laing. R, 1969, The Divided Self, London: The Camelot Press Ltd
  • Prymus. K, 2009, ‘Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucault: Madness and Nihilism in Final Fantasy VI’, in Beaulieu. M & Blahuta. J, ‘Final Fantasy and Philosophy the Ultimate Walkthrough’, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc, pp 20-33
  •  Robichaud. C, 2008, ‘The Joker’s Wild: Can we Hold the Clown Prince Morally Responsible?’, in Arp. R & White. M, Batman and Philosophy, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, pp 70-85
  •  Szasz. T, 1981, The Myth of Mental Illness, St Albans: Granada Publishing Ltd
  • The Holy Bible (King James Version), 2000, Michigan: Zondervan
  • ·Wasserman. J, 1978, Instructions for Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck, New York: Noble Offset Printers

[2] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, 15–19

[3] Prymus. K, Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucault: Madness and Nihilism in Final Fantasy VI, Pg. 23

[4] Wasserman. J, Instructions for Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck. Pg. 6

[5] Ibid

[6] Prymus. K, Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucault: Madness and Nihilism in Final Fantasy VI, pp 23-24

[7] Deuteronomy 18:10

[8] Further discussion of this position can be found in both of the mentioned texts by Foucault

[9] Foucault. M, Madness and Civilisation, Pg. 63

[10] Ibid, Pg. 37

[11] Ibid, Pg. 89

[12] Robichaud. C, The Joker’s Wild: Can we Hold the Clown prince Morally Repsonsible?, Pg.73

[13] Foucault. M, Madness and Civilisation, Pg. 151

[14] Ibid, Pg. 18

[15] Szasz. T, The Myth of Mental Illness, Pg. 191

[16] Ibid, Pg. 58

[17] Ibid, Pg. 46

[18] Laing. R, The Divided Self, Pg. 17

[19] Ibid, Pg. 35

[20] Szasz. T, The Myth of Mental Illness, Pg. 125

[21] Ibid, Pg.166

[22] Foucault. M, Madness and Civilisation, Pg. 174

[23] See Foucault’s  Discipline and Punish  for more detail on this

[24] Szasz. T, The Myth of Mental Illness, Pg.55

Posted on August 1, 2013, in ethical/political, philosophical, psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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