I am quoting pages 175 and 176 from Madness and Civilization Chapter VI: Doctors and Patients [Vintage Books Edition 1988 which I believe is the standard edition]. Foucault is writing about the classical period.

Its [i.e.madness] double nothingness is to be the visible form of that non-being which is evil, and to utter, in the void and in the sensation appearances of its delirium, the non-being of error. It is totally pure, since it is nothing if not the evanescent point of a subjectivity from which all presence of the truth has been removed; and totally impure, since this nothingness is the non-being of evil. The technique of cure, down to its physical symbols most highly charged with iconographic intensity - consolidation and return to movement on the one hand, purification and immersion on the other - is secretly organize around these two fundamental themes: the subject must be restored to his initial purity, and must be wrested from his pure subjectivity in order to be initiated into the world; the non-being that alienated from himself must be annihilated, and he must be restored to the plenitude of the exterior world, to the solid truth of being” (175, 176)

These passages are baffling to me. What does he mean by nothingness? non-being? the Non-being of error? The nothingness is the non-being of evil? And the idea that the the "non-being that alienated from himself must be annihilated?"

  • There's quite a bit that could be said on this question, but much depends on how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go... just to throw out some important names for this in reverse chronological order: Sartre, Hegel, Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle.
    – virmaior
    Mar 18, 2017 at 5:25
  • Nothingness is a key word in Existentialism a central philosophical movement in the post WW II in France; see Camus and Sartre. Mar 18, 2017 at 17:54
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA could you maybe pop that in an answer? It's great 👍🏽
    – Joseph Weissman
    Mar 18, 2017 at 18:43

1 Answer 1


Nothingness is a key word for Existentialism, a central philosophical movement in the post WW II in France; see at least Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

In Foucault's reading of the Enlightenment worldview, reason and truth are "being" and thus the key features of madness: unreason and hallucinations, "are nothingness, since they represent nothing".

See page 106:

Inextricable unity of order and disorder, of the reasonable being of things and this nothingness of madness! For madness, if it is nothing, can manifest itself only by departing from itself, by assuming an appearance in the order of reason and thus becoming the contrary of itself. Which illuminates the paradoxes of the classical experience: madness is always absent, in a perpetual retreat where it is inaccessible, without phenomenal or positive character; and yet it is present and perfectly visible in the singular evidence of the madman.

And page 115:

Confinement merely manifested what madness, in its essence, was: a manifestation of non-being; and by providing this manifestation, confinement thereby suppressed it, since it restored it to its truth as nothingness. Confinement is the practice which corresponds most exactly to madness experienced as unreason, that is, as the empty negativity of reason; by confinement, madness is acknowledged to be nothing.

Michel Foucault is also a post-structuralist and thus "he likes" oppositions: being-nothing, reason-unreason, pure-impure,..

  • Would be nice to link to Foucault's ideas on power, though I don't know how at all. Intuitively, something is being said about how madness bottoms out into nothing because its opposition cannot be made sense of
    – anon
    Mar 19, 2017 at 10:40

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