Chapter 5: “Cogito and the History of Madness” by Jacques Derrida
Have you ever wondered what it would look like if Zeus and Odin had a smack down? I bet you have, at least if you are a guy, or someone who nerds out over mythology. In any case, though that specific battle royale is only available in your imagination (or a crappy B-rated action film), the postmodern intellectual equivalent is available to all ye mortals. You may not have noticed it since the names of the fighters are Derrida and Foucault, instead of ancient deities.
Well, the battle, as said before, is an intellectual one. And in this specific instance you are treated to Derrida’s opening salvo. His target? Well Foucault of course! More to the point it is Foucault’s conception of madness in relation to Descartes and the Cartesian Cogito. See, Derrida believes that Foucault misreads Descartes and his book Meditations and so his masterwork, Madness and Civilization, is thereby an incorrect inquiry into how to allow madness speak for itself. The crux of the argument seems to lie, to me anyway, in Foucault’s supposed misapplication of illusory bodily afflictions to the same status of physical-real-cognitions and actions. Derrida seizes upon this mistake and, after offering his own reading of the disputed text, asserts that to construct a history of history the author must take into account the various contradictions present when engaging in lingual origin and the point of departure (which for Foucault would be the violence of the Classical Age in Greek society). The expression of this hyperbole being the contested arena.
This is the gross summary of Derrida’s lengthy piece. I have decided not to infuse it with a variety of quotations from the text because of my desire to not write a huge entry. Yet I can say that this piece in question was a highly controversial piece; Derrida not only was attacking what had been Foucault’s dissertation but was also assuming his own philosophical cogito as the dominant discourse. To this Foucault shot back with a scathing counterassault which in turn subverted Derrida’s own reading therefore re-asserting the limits of deconstruction itself. In terms of literary-philosophy this was an apex of two titans decking it out with each other. So though the ending was in dispute and ultimately showed the futility of each method assuming superiority, it saves its place in the canon of high theory for not only its demonstration of how to read texts but also of the potential for the future.