Michel Foucault – critical consciousness/tragic experience – History of Madness

“For madness unleashes its fury in the space of pure vision. Fantasies and threats, the fleeting fragments of dreams and the secret destiny of the world, where madness has a primitive, prophetic force, revealing that the dream-like is real and that a thin surface of illusion opens onto bottomless depths, and that the glittering surface of images opens the way to worrying figures that shine forever in darkness. The inverse relation, no less painful, is that the reality of the world will one day be absorbed into the fantastic Image, at the delirious moment between being and nothingness which is pure destruction. When at last the world will be no more, but night and silence have not yet closed over, and all will flame up in a blinding flash, in the extremity of disorder that will precede the ordered monotony of the end of all things. The truth of the world resides in that last fleeting image. This weave of experience and secrecy, of immediate images and hidden enigmas, is unfurled in fifteenth-century painting as the tragic madness of the world.” (26 Foucault History of Madness)

In the early sections of Foucault’s History of Madness, there is an interesting distinction drawn between what Foucault calls critical consciousness and tragic experience. The awareness and experience of madness underwent a transition sometime around the 15th century, when madness became a thing to be observed – there was a spectacle of madness that was coming in to being around this time, that had not existed in the same way previously. The outcome of madness becoming spectacle, and therefore becoming something to be observed, is that in becoming spectacle there is an exteriorization of madness, madness is no longer something that is felt within one’s self in a tragic awareness of the depth of interiority, but instead madness is something that is confronted and perceived critically from without, as something to be separated from the public, studied, and invested with guilt and fear.  To think on madness from a critical perspective is the first step in creating the distinction between reason and unreason, the inability of order to contain the mad. To think critically of madness is to create madness as a sort of illness, no longer “the monstrous contents of the human heart”, madness is something that needs to be confined, exteriorized from the self and also from the grounds of culture, order, and civilization.

For Foucault, it was the artists and painters of the fifteenth century that met the rising critical consciousness with the tragic experience of madness.  Albrecht Durer, Thierry Bouts, later in Francisco Jose de Goya – the images of madness haunted the imaginations of the visual thinkers. Although these artists were also consumed with the visual aspect of madness, they approached it from a different mindset; they were expressing the tragic in the mad, viewed with compassion and an internal relation. Haunting images of the bottom of the ship where the mad where thrown like beasts and set sail out into the black ocean, exiled from society. In Foucault’s view, it was the painters and artists of the fifteenth century that were able to perceive and create, and in a sense preserve and continue the tragic view of the mad individual. By internalizing the mad as tragic, madness is slowly disarmed, it changes scale, it is once again born in the hearts of men. But from this point on, once the distinction has been created between the critical and the tragic, the gap only widens. Where on one side we have the critical consciousness that attempts to exteriorize madness and study it scientifically and morally by placing it in confinement, and on the other side we have the artist who understands madness because it originates in the part of human heart that mirrors nature.

“Even if madness was wiser than science, it would still find itself obliged to bow down before wisdom itself, the condition of its being. Now and then is might have the last word, but it never was the last word about the truth of the world, for its self-justificatory discourse is bound up with a critical consciousness of man(27).

Once the critical consciousness comes into being it can only be elaborated on as time passes. By the sixteenth century, the critical consciousness of madness had been reserved a prideful place in cultural reflection and the organization of society. “The linearity that led rationalist thought to consider madness as a form of mental illness must be reinterpreted in a vertical dimension”(28). Foucault’s usage of lines to describe the force of madness being dealt with by a critical culture attempting to mask the tragic seems to work well as a formal imagining of the two polar forces interacting. Masking the tragic becomes oppressive until there is an explosion, and a reaffirmation of madness that Foucault likens to something like Nietzsche or Van Gogh, the explosive creators. So, Foucault asks the question, “how did this pride of place awarded to critical reflection come in to being in the sixteenth century?” (28).

Foucault tracks the evolution:

“Madness becomes a form related to reason, or more precisely madness and reason enter into a perpetually reversible relationship which implies that all madness has its own reason by which it is judged and mastered, and all reason has its madness in which it finds its own derisory truth. Each is a measure of the other, and in this movement of reciprocal reference, each rejects the other but it logically dependent upon it” (29)

The bound attachment of madness to reason gives way to a dialectic that continually envelops one concept into the other. Reason seeks to understand madness, and madness negates understanding. Civilization is created upon rational organization of laws and orders, and must be met by rational beings that are capable of reason. There is no place for the irrational being who cannot mask himself in reason – madness alters the form of order. Civilization is also an active collection of knowledge about our situation as living beings. Madness introduces a new problem to Knowledge.

The dialectic of reason and madness creates new tension with Christian ideas of the time which thought of “the world being madness in the eyes of God”. In Christian belief, the individual sees clearly, as a portion of the vision of God. Nicholas of Cusa wrote about how God’s vision is contracted[1] into the individual, so that He sees through each individual, as each individual perceives the world, such that His vision is absolute and incapable of being diminished, because it is always seeing through all. His absolute vision is both within each individual, but also exterior to each individual. The understanding of the absolute as being both interior and exterior simultaneously paves the way for new ideas to emerge, and contradiction to occur in the concepts of absolute wisdom. Man’s knowledge is in a state of infinite folly in relation to the absolute wisdom of God. The contradictions in man’s relation to God begin to multiply, gaps emerge and begin to widen. Man’s vision is the vision of god, but is his knowledge perpetual folly. The whole world is madness to God. Foucault writes so beautifully;

“In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself – he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth in appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction: “Everything has two faces,” says Sebastien Frank…The movement was not to be from an appearance toward truth, but towards another one, which negates it, and then towards all that denied or contested that negation, so that the process could never come to an end” (29-30).

Once man exists in rational order, his every action is always already in relation to it. There is no way to bring oneself closer to God when to renounce society is an act of madness but to live within limits is to exclude irrationality in subjective understanding in relation to the absolute and eternal. Man is in a state of infinite folly and the Reason of God contains essential movements of Madness. From a close perspective, the whole appears mad, and from a great wide perspective, all things are madness.  “The wisdom of God, when man is blinded by it, is not a reason that has long been concealed by a veil, but depth without measure.”(31). Nicholas of Cusa had explored these concepts all along, placing the weak man of folly in the abysmal madness of the wisdom of God:

“It is unutterable in any language, unintelligible to every intellect, and immeasurable by every measure. It cannot be limited by any limit, nor bounded by any boundary. No proportion is proportionate to it. No comparison can be compared to it, nor can it be conformed to any confirmation. It cannot be formed by any formation, and it cannot be moved by any motion…because it cannot be expressed in any speech, no limit to such modes of expression can be grasped. This is because that Wisdom by which, in which and from which all things exist is unthinkable in any thought” (31 excerpt from Nicholas of Cusa chosen by Foucault).

Madness is robbed of an absolute existence by only ever being in relation to Reason, they deny and affirm each other, and create and infinite tension that can never be fully resolved.  But in art, and in thought, there is and will be a constant reconfirmation of “the tragic experience of madness inside a critical consciousness” (35 Foucault).


Foucault, Michel, and Jean Khalfa. History of Madness. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

[1] See my post on Peter Sloterdijk addressing the concept of “contraction” : viewfromaburrow.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/peter-sloterdijk-the-concept-of-contraction/

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com


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