Despite his fitting name, Andrew Scull is not in neuro. He is, however, a professor in the Department of Sociology at UCSD with psychiatry on the brain. Now aside from tickling my allusion fancy, Professor Scull has written several books, of which I can say I’ve at least thumbed through one: Madhouses, Mad Doctors and Madmen: Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era. The thumbing was done for my History of Modern Medicine course which, in and of itself, was as inspiring as it was eye opening. That said, Professor Scull’s book is a favourite work of mine that comes to mind particularly as I near the end of my degree (along with Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious).
Narrowness of this kind is not confined to footnotes. Foucault’s isolation from the world of facts and scholarship is evident throughout History of Madness. It is as though nearly a century of scholarly work had produced nothing of interest or value for Foucault’s project. What interested him, or shielded him, was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong.
Scull concludes his article, stating that
The back cover of History of Madness contains a series of hyperbolic hymns of praise to its virtues. Paul Rabinow calls the book “one of the major works of the twentieth century”; Ronnie Laing hails it as “intellectually rigorous”; and Nikolas Rose rejoices that “Now, at last, English-speaking readers can have access to the depth of scholarship that underpins Foucault’s analysis”. Indeed they can, and one hopes that they will read the text attentively and intelligently, and will learn some salutary lessons. One of those lessons might be amusing, if it had no effect on people’s lives: the ease with which history can be distorted, facts ignored, the claims of human reason disparaged and dismissed, by someone sufficiently cynical and shameless, and willing to trust in the ignorance and the credulity of his customers.
Oh yes, Foucault is finally fully translated into English. Me thinks it’s about time.