March 22, 2007

Foucault's Footnotes

Its not often I just link to an article, but Andrew Scull's work on undermining the factual basis of Michel Foucault's book, Madness and Civilisation, is very well done. Foucault's essential argument in the said book was that madness was a construction of our cultural environment. What Scull does is demolish the factual basis upon which Foucault's work rests- he goes after Foucault's footnotes- it is a fine example of the way a thesis can be destroyed by a historian just going through the empirical work of examining the citations. The overall thesis and historical image once detached from reality then become not meaningless but useless as an analytical tool to understand the past with- their empirical basis undermined they float off to join the suggestions that Arthur conquered Burgundy, that Alfred burnt the cakes and that Britain was founded by Brutus.

Of course the philosophical points that Foucault makes, so far as they are unrelated to the empirical evidence, are left untouched. That is also part of the nature of a true scholar- you undermine what you know about and you leave the business of analysing the things that you don't know about to others more learned than you. In that way this article exemplifies best technique- it is empirical, it is thorough and it deals only with those subjects within the author's competence.