Derrida had a discussion on the status of Descarte’s cogito with respect to the status of madness in philosophic discourse. My aim in this paper[1] is to. that, in his work, Foucault intended to “write a history of madness itself Itself.” ( CHF Derrida does cite much of this paragraph in the frrst section of his “Cogito et. Jacques Derrida The History of Madness. January . to Derrida’s. “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” a lecture first given in and reprinted in in Der-.

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This post was originally published on the Zero Books blog. It is the second of two posts; the first post in the series is here. To review quickly, Foucault charged Descartes with excluding madness from consideration in his Meditations on First Philosophy. In the economy derriea doubt, there is a fundamental disequilibrium between on the one hand madness, and dreams and errors on the other […] Dreams and illusions are overcome by the very structure of truth, but madness is simply excluded by the doubting subject.

Foucault’s claim is that, for Descartes, the possibility of madness mxdness not lead us to doubt our faculties while dreams, bad eyesight, and other forms of misperception do. Because philosophers rule out the possibility that they are mad from the start. According to Foucault, Descartes’s process of doubt necessitates the exclusion of the mad. Derrida objected to this assertion from Foucault, and pointed out how the objection was based on a I hisgory rather willful misreading of Descartes.

The details of Derrida’s objection to Foucault are the subject of hlstory earlier essaybut to sum it up again quickly, Descartes makes no such cofito about the structure of madness, but rather suggests that all perception and cognition might be in error and therefore subject to doubt. It is only by taking Descartes’s comments about madness out of the context, only by reading Descartes’s objection to his own doubt as a final objection, defrida Foucault can maintain his reading.

This appendix was titled “Reply to Derrida. Foucault’s reply begins with a list of what he claims are Derrida’s postulates but which, upon closer examination, are actually his own objections to Derrida.

His first objection is that Derrida glossed over pages of historical facts and zeroed in on a philosophical issue. This is a tricky argument on its face, but it disappears fairly quickly if one considers what philosophy is and what its aim is: Rather than objecting to the use of philosophical reason itself, Foucault could coyito challenged Derrida’s claim that Foucault’s interpretation of Descartes had far-reaching implications for the rest of his text.

If it wasn’t the case that Foucault’s mistaken interpretation of Descartes reflected a philosophical mistake that influenced all levels of the page book, then Foucault needed only to have admitted his mistake.

If it were merely a single and isolated misinterpretation, then Foucault could have pointed to other instances in the text wherein his history of madness was based on a different epistemic or ontological supposition. However, Foucault did not choose to do this precisely because his misinterpretation of Descartes was indicative of a profound philosophical error. The second objection Foucault makes is that, by judging Foucault’s philosophical mistake, Derrida acted like a Christian on a mission to eradicate sin.


The sin Derrida hoped to eliminate was “philosophical naivete or naive realism. Derrida demonstrated that it was Foucault who made the the cleave between reason and madness much more so than Descartes did, and further that Foucault’s purpose for making this cleave was in part to establish madness as a epistemic position that need not be touched by reason, which need not subject itself to radical doubt, but which could be taken up by the mad subject in the place of reasoned knowledge precisely because it was untouched and excluded by reasonable subjects.

This move by Foucault was indeed philosophically naive and unjustified. Foucault’s third objection to Derrida is that Derrida sides with a tyrannical and totalitarian reason.

Foucault’s Madman and His Reply to Derrida

That is, by refusing to allow madness to lay on the outside of reason, by objecting ,adness Foucault’s conception of madness as a form of direct knowledge without the interpretive mediation or the doubt that comes with all other forms of knowledge, Derrida was universalizing reason.

What Foucault ignores is that Descartes’ project, while precisely this attempt at a total criticism of all knowledge, pointed out the dialectical form of knowledge. Descartes’ meditation, then, is nothing but an analysis of the form knowledge takes. That form is called the Cogito and it is vulnerable to madness and all manner of other errors. At this point, we should feel free to put aside these postulates and instead take a look at the substance of Foucault’s response.

After all, Foucault ultimately has to attempt an actual defense of his reading of Descartes. Again, Derrida objected to Foucault’s misreading of Descartes, specifically to Foucault’s interpretation of these lines from the Meditations:. How cogitl it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass.

Foucault suggested that Descartes was excluding madness from reasonable consideration. Derrida mafness that Foucault’s conclusion requires that we read this quote from Descartes out of context. Derrida claimed that rather than asserting that madmen are utterly different from the sane, Descartes is merely presenting the perspective of the naive reader.

enlightenmentrhetoric / Derrida-Cogito and the History of Madness

Descartes posited a fictional interlocutor in the place of the reader, and while Descartes placated this naive other in the text he did so only momentarily, as he did go cgito to argue that the beliefs of madmen do not appear unjustified or counterfactual when one considers the possibility that one is dreaming. Foucault responds first absurdly, suggesting that somehow this objection proves Foucault’s own point.

It does not, and Foucault makes no argument to suggest that it does. But the big point Foucault makes is that there is no other voice in the text but rather a single fluctuating voice in meditation. That is, the subject of the text doesn’t remain fixed but tries on positions, moves around, and questions his own assertions. The long and short of this argument from Foucault, and it has been touted as the most substantial refutation to Derrida’s objection at least by one commenter on the blog, is that as he writes his meditation Descartes is talking to himself.


Descartes tries out different assertions and positions, ones he thinks he can believe, until, in the next moment, he subjects his beliefs to doubt.

Derrida-Cogito and the History of Madness

In the case of madness, however, Descartes does not object. He may doubt his senses, he may doubt his body, but he never takes up madness as his own subjective position. For Foucault, everything hinged on proving that this distinction between the subject who finds himself in a perpetual dream and the subject who is mad was Descartes’s distinction. However, such a proof, based on tortured etymologies and arguments about translations, should have no significance for us.

After all, if it were true that Descartes considered mad hallucinations about having a pumpkin for a head as something separate, something fundamentally different, from the dreamer’s hallucinations that he is not asleep in his bed but sitting his drawing room, the question would remain as to whether Descartes is correct in this distinction.

That is, we could grant that Descartes held this absurd position about madness while simultaneously recognizing that the cogito applies equally well to the dreamer and the madman. The subtitle of the original book becomes the title of the abridgment: Inthe abridged version is translated and published in English as Madness and Civilization.

For 40 years, this is the only version available in English; it omits the discussion of the cogito. He deletes the first preface and writes a new one. It includes all the material that has appeared in either of the two French editions. Douglas Lain is the publisher of the philosophy and culture imprint Zero Booksa novelist Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landedand a sometimes pop philosopher for Thought Catalog.

He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast. After I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I get four emails with thee same comment. Is there a means you can remove me from that service? The Partially Examined Life, […]. Your email address will not be published. Notify me of follow-up comments by email.

Notify me of new posts by email. Again, Derrida objected to Foucault’s misreading of Descartes, specifically to Foucault’s interpretation of these lines from the Meditations: Leave a Reply Cancel reply Your email address will not be published. About The Partially Examined Life The Partially Examined Life is a philosophy podcast by some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.

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