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Refuting the Role of Psychology in Modern Science

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*Note: this thread isn't meant to demean or belittle those who are studying psychology. Rather, I am attempting to articulate the role of psychology in medical science by describing its evolution from the Classical Age to the Modern Age. As a starting point, I will review the role of psychology as it pertains to the question of madness. However, I am very critical of psychology. I will not be apologetic over that.

Madness and Unreason

The Conditions of the Possibility of Psychology

One of the primary dimensions of the History of Madness is the tracing of "the origins of our conception of human beings as psychological subjects from the moment when a radical separation between madness and reason had taken place" (Foucault, 2006, xix). According to Foucault, this radical separation occurred during the Classical Age (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), where madness was unable to escape the abode of unreason and was hence subject to the diametrical opposition that divided reason and unreason (xix). Throughout History of Madness Foucault vehemently rejects the claim that modern psychology marks an advance over the treatment of madness during the Classical Age. This discussion will look at the role of psychology during the modern era, and will bring to light the social sensibility that produced its possibility as an object of science. By reflecting on the Classical Age, I will outline Foucault's objections to the claim that psychology has advanced. In doing so, I will explain Foucault's resentment of the idea that history is progressive.

Foucault describes the History of Madness as a "history of the conditions of the possibility of psychology" (xix). During the Classical Age, there was no sense in corralling the distinction between "physical therapeutics and psychological medication, for the simple reason that psychology did not exist" (pp. 338-339). However, when the "great experience of unreason" fell apart, madness became "nothing more than a sickness" (p. 339). The "great experience of unreason" was indeed a quality of the Classical Age, but when the great fear eroded the unity between madness and unreason, the distinction between physical therapeutics and psychological medication took form. When this occurred, madness was relegated to the domain of sickness and was thus tied to the "domain of the organic" (p. 339). To establish the separation between madness and unreason even further, "all that was associated with unreason and the transcendence of its discourse [was] relegated to the realm of the psychological" (p. 339). According to Foucault, this division gave birth to psychology, which had nothing to do with the "truth of madness" (p. 339). Rather, the birth of psychology was a sign that "madness was now detached from its truth, which was unreason (p. 339). Thus, it is utterly senseless to herald the science of psychology as an advancement over the treatment and understanding of madness in the Classical Age. The very foundations of psychology had nothing to do with madness as such; madness was not the object of analysis for which psychology could observe. Madness was never waiting to be treated or even discovered by psychology. Once again, Foucault cautions the reader not to view the history of the possibility of psychology as a progressive continuum that identifies and remedies madness. Even in the modern age, Foucault is vehement in his claim that psychoanalysis is not about psychology, but is about "an experience of unreason that psychology, in the modern world, was meant to disguise" (p. 339).

One of the birthplaces of the human sciences took place in the asylum, where the mad could be "systematically perceived and studied" (xix). However, Foucault does not hail the birth of the asylum as a move towards scientific truth; rather, he targets the scientific disciplines' claims of scientificity (xix). Foucault targets the disciplines that "take as natural an object that they have in fact shaped in ways and for reasons that are often largely exterior to the object itself" (xix). The sensibility towards psychology was not a sign of human achievement, nor was it a sign of historical progression. The self-congratulatory affectation of psychology reflected humanity's apparent grasp of madness; when Madness ceased to reflect the Night - when it became a "fleeting shadow" within the realm of consciousness - Man was able to "pretend to grasp its truth and untangle it in knowledge" (xxxiv).

According to Foucault, it is relatively easy to get the impression that the "positivist conception of madness is... nothing less than the psychology of cultures" that secretly links the pathology of history (p. 377). It is relatively easy to view madness as "physiological, naturalist and anti-historical" (p. 377). Perhaps if it were so, we would be able to speak of an advance in the treatment and understanding of madness since the Classical Age. However, this is not the case. For one, the experience of madness during the Classical Age differed greatly from the modern era. The exclusionary practices of the Classical Age denied madness the chance to speak; by relegating it to the ranks of unreason, madness was silenced. In order to link this experience of madness to some sort of modern advance would have to forgo the great fear and the subsequent separation of madness from unreason. Since the experience of madness differed drastically from the Classical Age to the modern age, we cannot speak of a historical continuum. Madness was not objectified during the Classical Age. The modern approach to the treatment and understanding of madness is not superior to that of the Classical Age; rather, it is different. Much can be said about the difference - much can be written about the quantitative and descriptive changes between the two sensibilities, but this difference does not succumb to the qualitative superiority of one over the other.

There were numerous attempts made throughout the eighteenth century to "adapt the ancient juridical notion of a 'subject of the law' to the contemporary experience of [the individual] in society" (p. 128). The mental illness that medicine and psychology took as an object was "slowly constituted as a mythical unity between a legally irresponsible subject and an [individual] who troubled the social order, all under the influence of the political and moral thought of the eighteenth century" (p. 128). However, towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the "irritability of the fibres was to have its own physiological and pathological destiny" (p. 295). When madness was handed over to the domains of "[guilt], moral sanction and just punishment," it detached itself from the classical experience (p. 296). Approaching the modern era, madness "weighed down unreason;" it described itself as the "psychological effect of a moral fault" (p. 296). The vertical hierarchy of classical madness was transformed; the structure of madness was "toppled over and spread on the surface of the domain first... occupied and soon disputed by psychology and morality" (p. 296). The transformation of the vertical hierarchy of classical madness made "scientific psychiatry" possible in the nineteenth century (p. 296).

During the nineteenth century there was a new psychology coming into existence, one which "changed the essential meaning of madness, and proposed a new description of the relations between man and the hidden forms of unreason" (p. 449). According to Foucault, "psychological interiority was constituted on the basis of the exteriority of scandalized science" (p. 449). The contents of the sensibility that made up classical unreason could now be taken up through these "new forms of psychological knowledge" (p. 449). With the advent of the great fear and the separation between madness and unreason, the world which had been kept at an "inviolable distance suddenly became familiar to everyday conscience" (p. 449). The great fear penetrated the seams of psychology, claiming the title of new science, which was "entirely the product of the least examined and most immediate forms of morality" (p. 449). But before we can exclaim the advances and methodological rigor of the new science, we must understand that there is no truth in psychology "that is not also a form of alienation from [humanity]" (p. 439). The advent of psychology and the birth of the asylum did not signal humanity's inevitable drive towards truth. Rather, the truth of psychology is evident in the alienation that it produces. Psychology is the language of alienation. Alienation is the only language that psychology is able to speak (p. 529).

Throughout the nineteenth century, moral insanity had an exemplary status (p. 525). More than any other "mental illness," moral insanity brought to life the "curious ambiguity that made madness an element of interiority in the form of an exteriority" (p. 525). In this sense, moral insanity became the "model for all possible psychology" (p. 525). Moral insanity demonstrated the "modes of behaviour" and the "inaccessible moment of subjectivity" (p. 525). In doing so, it legitimated the knowledge of objectivity, "which could only be acceptable and have meaning through what it expressed of the subject" (p. 525). As Foucault illustrates, the truth of the nineteenth century was based on the "essential moment of objectification;" truth was nothing less than the "passage into madness" (p. 525).

According to Foucault, it is perhaps our naivety that has allowed us to view 150 years of history as an advancement in our treatment of madness (p. 529). The History of Madness does not trace or even attempt to quantify our "advanced" treatment and understanding of the mad. Instead, the archaeology of madness is more or less a "history of the things that made possible the very appearance of a psychology" (p. 529). In the modern era, psychology is part of the dialectics of the modern individual - it is part of his struggle with truth (p. 530). However, this struggle is living proof that psychology can "never exhaust its being on the level of true knowledge" (p. 530).

The science of moral insanity - or mental illness in general - that developed in the asylums "was only ever of the order of observation and classification [and] never about dialogue" (p. 487). This had begun once the psychoanalysts "exorcised the phenomenon of the gaze... substituting its silent magic with the powers of language" (p. 488). The fact that psychiatrists in the modern age have a level of "therapeutic efficacy" has nothing to do with their expertise as scientists (Whitebook, 1999, p. 36). Rather, this "therapeutic efficacy" comes from their "wise, moral and paternal figure," which is thought to possess "esoteric knowledge and magical powers" (p. 36). It is this persona of the modern-day psychiatrist that developed in the asylums. And although the therapeutic achievements of the modern age are rooted in the "application of scientifically validated technique," they are nevertheless the product of the "manipulation of the paternal transference to the figure by the omnipotent doctor" (p. 36). Here, it is not difficult to identify the level of authority conferred upon doctors in the modern era; it is the same authority conferred upon the physicians in the houses of confinement during the Classical Age. However, the perceived difference between the classical physician and the modern equivalent is the level of advancement made throughout medical history. But as Foucault repeats tirelessly throughout History of Madness, we should not view history as a progressive continuum.

The division that set madness apart from unreason altered the experience of madness in the eighteenth century. The great fear unleashed the contents of the social sensibility that defined classical unreason. These contents were now taken up as the "new forms of psychological knowledge" that were eventually codified with the birth of the asylum (Foucault, 2006, p. 449). Perhaps due to our naivety, we have taken the evolution of psychology and its new forms of treatment to be indicative of our advancement over the treatment of madness during the Classical Age. However, as Foucault repeats throughout History of Madness, the "history of the conditions of the possibility of psychology" cannot (and should not) be taken as a sign of historical progression or advancement (xix). This discussion has looked at the role of psychology during the modern era by tracing the conditions of its possibility from the Classical Age to the modern period.


Foucault, M. (2006). History of Madness. London: Routledge.

Whitebook, J. (1999). Freud, Foucault and 'The Dialogue with Unreason'. Philosophy Social Criticism, 25(6), 29.

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^ It's not a homework assignment. It's based on a book I studied in class. I expanded on a portion of the book that wasn't considered central because I found Foucault's claims to be fascinating. Since I've always been critical of psychology, I decided to expand on his points and ask people what they think. I've never attempted to refute psychology before, but I thought this would be a good place to begin some sort of discussion on the matter (if anyone is interested).

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