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foucault & origins Arrow vol 4 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 2, 2005


'Foucault and the Problematic of Origins':
Althusser's Reading of Folie et déraison

Warren Montag



1. On September 22, 1962, Althusser wrote with great excitement to Franca Madonia about a book he was at that moment reading: Foucault's Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique:

I am in the process of reading, what is called reading, quickly and deeply, reacting to every sign at each moment, taking notes so that no idea will escape me - the little devils sometime move more quickly than my pen! - a capital book. Capital because it has created a great stir, capital because it interests me to the greatest possible extent for theoretical reasons, capital because it was written by one of my former students (I'm not here for nothing, I have to say), capital because I am without doubt (for the aforementioned reason and also for other reasons connected to the themes that are currently running through my head) just about the only person capable of writing something meaningful and important about it. (Althusser 1998: 211)

2. Althusser, of course, never wrote the text on Foucault's first major work. The sole written record of his impassioned encounter with Folie et déraison are the notes from which he delivered his lecture 'Foucault et la problematique des origines' to his seminar on Structuralism on April 9, 1963. Interestingly, the notes suggest a very careful reading by means of which Althusser discovers, at the heart of Foucault's text, a constitutive contradiction: "Foucault's book is thus really as much a book about reason as about madness. . . . This border freely constituted is haunted by the temptation of being an original abyss, a verticality that is no longer a break (coupure) in history but the originary rupture of time." To make this contradiction intelligible, Althusser must show not only how and to what extent Folie et déraison "is haunted" by the temptation to think the history of madness in terms of an origin, in this case, an original abyss, but also the ways in which Foucault's work escapes that which haunts it, or at least provides the medium through which the haunting presence is other than it originally was, and in so doing calls into question the very concept of origin.

3. Althusser's critical reading focuses particularly on the Preface to the first edition, a preface Foucault, without explanation, removed from all subsequent editions both in France and abroad. As one commentator has remarked, the suppression of the preface changed the work in important ways, for it was only in this, its overture, that the "philosophical ambition" of Folie et déraison was clearly stated, according it the "dimension of a metaphysical drama" (Gros 1997: 29) that the 1961 edition clearly had. In order then to understand the effects of Foucault's first major theoretical intervention, effects which conditioned Althusser's own response to the work, it is necessary to take this document as a text itself, neither completely independent of the work which it introduced, nor a mere summary of the body of the work. It is precisely in the text of the preface that the theoretical conflict in which Althusser is so interested is exhibited in all its clarity, distilled, as it were, from the complexities of madness's own history.

4. In order to grasp the specificity of Althusser's analysis of Folie et déraison, it is instructive to contrast it with another more familiar analysis or, rather, critique, the concerns and themes of which were themselves central to Althusser's thought in the late fifties and early sixties: Derrida's 'Cogito et histoire de la folie', the first version of which was presented at the Collège philosophique on March 4, 1963, and therefore just over a month before Althusser's lecture to his seminar. What is striking in reading Althusser and Derrida together is that despite remarkably similar or at least compatible criticisms of structuralism both as a formalism and as a historicism and despite the sense for both philosophers that Foucault's text offered a kind of structuralist analysis, they arrived at absolutely opposing positions, with Derrida faulting Foucault for failing to develop what for Althusser haunted the work, preventing it from disclosing what was unprecedented within it.  

5. While Derrida's critique focused on Foucault's discussion of a single passage from the first of Descartes's Meditations, he argued that the discussion "engaged in its problematic the totality of this Histoire de la folie, in the sense of its intention and of its conditions of possibility" (Derrida 1967: 53) [for a comprehensive overview of the entire Foucault/Derrida debate, see Macherey 2002]. Not only will Derrida question the meaning that Foucault assigns to Descartes's utterance and its relation to Descartes's intention, but he will also ask whether it "has the historical signification that is assigned to it" (Derrida 1967: 54). For, even if Foucault's ascription of meaning to the statement in question were valid, there would remain the question of whether "this signification is exhausted in its historicity" (Derrida 1967: 54). Although Derrida will not develop this critique until the concluding pages of the essay, it is quite clear from the outset that Foucault's folly is to have lapsed into a surprisingly naive historicism which prevents him from seeing the sense in which the Cartesian Cogito "is neither the first nor the last form of the Cogito" (which, only after an interval of forty pages, Derrida tells us also existed in "Augustinian" and "Husserlian" forms) and thus is an expression of that which would persist beyond the historical confines of the totality to which it is said to pertain.  

6. Foucault's insistence that the exclusion of madness from the operation of the Cogito at the beginning of the Meditations is a gesture indissociable from, if not immanent in, the material practices of confinement directed against those determined to be insane, is, according to Derrida, typical of a certain structuralism that reduces and "confines" (enfermer) the most variegated practices to a single historical totality in which "everything is solidary and circular", in such a way that effectively prevents any inquiry into causes. Accordingly, the "structuralist totalitarianism" at work in Folie et dérasion itself  "carries out an act of confinement of the Cogito" that is not entirely different from the violence of the classical age described by Foucault who all too often attempts to turn that which exceeds the coherent structural totalities, the hyperbolic, back to a place, "its" place in the world thus constructed.

7. In fact, one of the most serious consequences of Foucault's historicism is that it allows to him speak of the division between reason and madness as if he were external to it rather than, as Derrida maintains, complicitous not only with the terms of this division but also with the unequal relation between them. There is a sense in which Foucault feels authorized by his historical position "to write a history of madness itself. Itself. Of madness itself" (Foucault 1961: 56). The writing of such a history, though, necessarily begins with a refusal of the monologue of psychiatric reason, and more importantly, reason itself, on madness and the carrying out of "an archaeology" of the silence to which madness has been reduced. In response, Derrida asks whether "silence itself has a history" and whether Foucault's archaeology is not itself a subtle re-enactment of "the act perpetrated against madness and at the very moment this act is denounced?" (Derrida 1967: 57). This is the cost of Foucault's project not only of writing a history of madness, but its necessary corollary, a history of reason. Is it possible to write a history of reason from a position outside of reason? For Derrida, there is no language that "would not be that of reason in general" and consequently no possibility of meaning outside of reason. Foucault's failure to attend to the transcendental dimension that conditions his own work has led him to imagine that he can formulate a rational critique of reason itself, a critique that would somehow not be internal to and a moment in the economy of reason, which in fact has no outside. Reason cannot be overturned or rejected, only "agitated" from within (here it is difficult to refrain from asking whether Derrida's confinement of Foucault to an "ahistorical" and transcendental reason is not itself "totalitarian" in the very sense he ascribes to Folie et déraison). At the end of what is in fact the essay's peroration, Derrida addresses the question of his own "position," of the place from which he speaks or intervenes in so critical a manner, that is, external not only to the totality that Foucault has constructed but also to the conditions of possibility of his work. He wants it to be understood ("Entendons-nous biens: ") that in stating his critique of the totality in which Foucault by enclosing the Cogito thereby encloses himself, Derrida does not invoke or call upon "an other world, some alibi or evasive transcendance," which would be to engage in another kind of violence. From where then does Derrida speak? What is the position he occupies in order to read Foucault as he does? To a certain extent, although Derrida does not make this explicit, Foucault's work exhibits its own hyperbolic trajectory, producing an element that does not allow itself to be enclosed in the historicism that otherwise determines the work. Derrida hesitates at the very culmination of what appears to be less an analysis of Foucault's text than a denunciation of its deviation from certain norms undeniably derived from Husserl's project: "I do not say that Foucault's book is totalitarian, since it poses at least at the beginning the question of the origin of historicity in general, thus liberating itself from historicism: I say it runs the risk of being totalitarian in the working out of the project" (Derrida 1967: 88). But even Foucault's posing of the question of the origin of historicity in general in the originary division (partage) between reason and madness rests on a prior moment, an originary act or "Decision" which remains unthought and perhaps unthinkable for him insofar as for Derrida the project of a history of madness is merely one of its consequences. In this sense the history of madness that Foucault actually writes is rather the history of the forgetting of its origin and its meaning.

8. Thus, for Derrida the act of reading Foucault's text consisted primarily of, if not confining it in the tradition of historicism as understood and criticized by Husserl in Philosophy as Rigorous Science, at least demonstrating that it was so confined. He would go so far as to reproach Foucault for falling into a skepticism and relativism that prevented him from appreciating the extent to which his own analysis in the positive sense depended upon the very psychiatric knowledge (or at least certain developments within it) against which he sought to define his project. Derrida's defense of a kind of scientific knowledge, however, was obscured in this essay and elsewhere by his insistence on confronting particular historical studies with their putative failure to have first addressed general questions of historicity and scientificity before beginning their account of a given history, as if, for example, Foucault's failure to settle the question of "the origin of historicity in general" would somehow invalidate in advance his analysis of the particular history of madness, according to a very Cartesian notion of the linear order of reasons. It is significant that the specific form in which Derrida appropriated elements of the Husserlian defense of science against irrationalism paradoxically tended increasingly to furnish the principles for a new skepticism, this time based on a transcendental foundation posed simultaneously as necessary and impossible, the always absent guarantee that alone could confer upon a theory the title of scientificity.   It is in part for this reason that the "rationalist" Derrida, in this case defending psychiatry (and perhaps psychoanalysis) against a historicist and relativist critique, has been almost completely eclipsed by the image of Derrida the adversary of reason and this contradiction is exhibited as clearly in "The Cogito and the History of Madness" as anywhere in his corpus.

9. Despite an interest in the same themes and often the same passages, one could hardly imagine an approach more opposed to Derrida's than that sketched out in Althusser's lecture, "Foucault and the Problematic of Origins." Indeed, it begins not with the gesture of enclosure which, by denouncing Foucault's "reduction" of Descartes' first meditation to the material practices of exclusion and confinement with which they were contemporary, reduces Foucault to a historicism of structural totalities, but with a recognition that the inquiry must begin by establishing Foucault's difference: "What is specific about Foucault's problematic?" The simplest response to this question, but one which will, at the same time, allow for a differentiation of Foucault's approach from other, apparently similar approaches, begins with the following citation from Foucault's preface: "One could write a history of the limits -of those obscure gestures, necessarily forgotten as soon as they are carried out, by which a culture rejects something that will be for it the Exterior; and throughout its history, this void hollowed out, this blank space by which it isolates itself, designates it as much as its values"(Foucault 1994: 161). Althusser's summary of this complex passage is meant not to fix its meaning, but rather to establish the field of comparison in which it must be situated in order for the specificity of Foucault's analysis to become intelligible: "F[oucault] suggests that culture defines itself not only in the values that it recognizes, but especially in that which by the very act of recognition it refuses."  

10. For Althusser, the notion that a culture defines itself in part through acts of refusal and rejection is derived from two vital sources, even as he regards Foucault's concept as irreducible to these sources. In fact, its very irreducibility requires us to reconstruct in some detail the concepts to which Foucault's is related by difference. The most obvious is that found in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy to which Foucault refers explicitly, thereby granting it a certain privilege. Althusser, however, is at least as interested in another model that for him looms large in Foucault's text and is all the more important in that its presence, however problematized, is subject to a certain dissimulation. It is the model found in Part II of Husserl's Crisis of European Sciences: "The Clarification of the Origin of the Modern Opposition between Physicalistic Objectivism and Transcendental Subjectivism." It is here that Husserl describes the "emptying out" (entleerung ) of the meaning (Sinn) of mathematical natural science as a consequence of the "forgetting" of its foundation (fundament) in the Lebenswelt, the way in which mathematics conceals the origins of its meaning in the very movement of its development.

11. I have noted elsewhere Husserl's significance for Althusser; few are those to whom it would have occurred as it did to Althusser to read Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and Husserl's Crisis of European Sciences as constituting an objectively united response to one and the same philosophical crisis. Both the practitioner and the theoretician sought to block the exploitation of certain developments in the sciences, particularly physics, in order to strengthen the cause of skepticism and relativism. In this way, Husserl's Crisis (together with "Philosophy as Rigorous Science") remained for Althusser the key text: it was here that Husserl faced the task of defining the philosophical present to which he belonged. In particular, he was forced by the growing domination in the German-speaking world especially of an irrationalism indissociable from the Nazification of German society to defend what he regarded as the meaning of European philosophy, namely the universalism of reason. Unable simply to ignore history (or to deride historical approaches to philosophy as "historicist"), Husserl had no choice but to carry out an analysis of the theoretical conjuncture. It is here that he acknowledges his own belonging to a historical present the nature of which has awakened him to the practical as well as theoretical implications of what he will now define as his "Calling" (beruf). Philosophers, he announces, are nothing less than "functionaries of humanity" whose responsibility is save the European sciences from the skepticism and mysticism engendered by their very progress: "does the victorious struggle against the ideal of classical physics, as well as the continuing conflict over the appropriate and genuine form of construction for pure mathematics, mean that the previous physics and mathematics were not yet scientific," although all were convinced they were? If so, will not the same be true of the science of today, which will be the discredited theory of tomorrow? If this is true, in turn, are our much-vaunted European sciences and the culture in which they develop, in any way more valid than any of the mythologies that govern the cultural life of non-European societies? Husserl leaves the argument here, although the implication is clear: what validity does the heritage of the European Enlightenment, and not just its philosophical heritage, retain in the face of such irrationalism? Why should it not be swept away with all the other relics of the past which, being perishable, deserve to perish?

12. But Husserl is not simply another exponent and defender of the Enlightenment tradition: in fact, this tradition insofar as it persists in the modern forms of positivism has contributed to its own demise. By "technicizing" philosophy, positivism itself has devalued all questions of foundation and meaning as "metaphysical" and inquiries into origins as antiquarianism or historicism. By a strange and strangely dialectical paradox, logicism and positivism have entered into an unholy alliance with the most Romantic irrationalism, depriving themselves of the historical and apodictic foundation that alone will restore to them the meaning they now lack. It is in this precise crisis that Husserl seeks to intervene by means of a new practice of philosophy. Althusser will define this practice as "hermeneutic," insofar as Husserl's stated aim is to "break through the crust of the externalized "historical facts" of philosophical history" (Husserl 1961: 18), the forms of sedimentation and traditionalization, to that which is hidden, its meaning and motivation.

13. In part, the hermeneutic operation is made necessary by the conditions of Galileo's discoveries. For in addition to what he thought and had to think, there necessarily existed that which he did not and did not think to think: the geometry, handed down from the ancients, that appeared in the form of an obviousness (Selbstverständlichkeit) that required no further inquiry, a simple pregiven (vorgegeben) material present to him. Thus, "in order to clarify the formation of Galileo's thought, we must accordingly reconstruct not only what consciously motivated him. It will also be instructive to bring to light what was implicitly included in his guiding model of mathematics, even though, because of the direction of his interest, it was kept from his view: as a hidden, presupposed meaning (als verborgene Sinnesvoraussetzung) it naturally had to enter into his physics along with everything else" (Husserl 1961: 24-25). What remained hidden from Galileo, in the sense that it never occurred to him to inquire into it, was precisely the foundation of meaning on which geometry, as well as the physics which took this geometry as its starting point, rested and which was the guarantee of its objectivity. He "did not feel the need to go into" (Husserl 1961: 29) the development of the ideal praxis of geometry out of the real praxis that was its "underlying basis (Untergrunde)," the "pregeometrical, sensible world and its practical arts" (Husserl 1961: 29). Husserl goes so far as to refer to Galileo's "naiveté" (Husserl 1961: 29), which is, of course, the naiveté of a certain science at a certain moment in its development, a time when the question of origin, now "urgent"(Husserl 1961: 29) did not even appear as a problem to be addressed. It is only at a time of crisis, a time when the very objectivity of the sciences can be called into question, that the problems of origin, ground and meaning are pushed to the forefront. In this sense, the operation that Althusser defines as hermeneutic is a recovery of a meaning present to but hidden from, or more precisely, to follow Husserl's actual discussion as closely as possible, ignored by Galileo. Such an explanation amounts to a weak theory of the way in which a science forgets its origins, not through an active forgetting, but by means of a passive failure to recall, more the result of disinterest than necessity.

14. But if, as Frédéric Gros has argued, echoing Althusser's 1963 presentation, Foucault's 1961 preface indisputably "employs a style of argumentation inspired by phenomenology" in that Foucault seeks to reduce the truth of madness of offered by the positive sciences to a primordial experience that such sciences necessarily repress, it is not this weak theory of forgetting that so inspires him. Husserl goes on to develop a theory according to which the act of forgetting is anything but passive, and is rather a necessary consequence of the very act of knowledge itself. Although it might be thought that passive forgetting historically precedes and makes possible active forgetting in Husserl's account of natural science, we would do well to ask whether the two accounts of forgetting are not themselves contradictory and whether Husserl's recourse to psychological explanations based on Galileo's inattention to origins is not an index of a failure to understand the way in which all such forgetting is active, a position that brings Husserl considerably closer to the Foucault of Folie et déraison.

15. Husserl approaches the topic of an active forgetting of origins by way of its effects: mathematical natural science has been subject to an "emptying" or "depletion" (Entleerung) of the meaning originally present not only to it, but more importantly, in it. It has become an empty system which produces formulae which describe the way in which the pure structures of a mathesis universalis function. Moreover, such science has dwindled into "a sort of technique; that is, it becomes a mere art" that achieves results through a calculating technique. It stops short of the questioning necessary to discover its original meaning in nature. But in order for this stopping short not to become another version of inattention or the "laziness (Faulheit)" (Husserl 1961: 16) that Husserl ascribes to the philosophies that "evade" their duty to seek the origins and ends of rationality, it is not enough to say that sciences have forgotten their foundations, but more importantly, how and why.  

16. Husserl begins the section, "The Lebenswelt as the Forgotten Foundation of Meaning of Natural Science," with the dramatic statement: "But now we must note something of the highest importance that occurred as early as Galileo" (Husserl 1961: 48-49). This something is no longer disinterest or inattention, but rather but rather the deliberate carrying out of a "substitution" (Unterschiebung - which implies a replacing of the authentic with the inauthentic). Something has been taken away and something else put in its place: "the only reality, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable - our everyday life-world" has been replaced by "the mathematically substructed world of idealities." The forgetting of the Lebenswelt as origin and foundation of sense is now reconceptualized as an illegitimate substitution, akin to the replacing of a genuine work by a forgery or even as a "burying" of reality. Such an active forgetting cannot possibly occur by default: on the contrary, Husserl will show that such forgetting is a necessary consequence of the activity of science itself, indeed, of its very success, a fact that gives philosophy its vocation.   Mathematics and mathematical science must be considered together as an Ideenkleid (a garb of ideas) or even a Kleid der Symbole (a garb of symbols) that represents (in the sense of substituting for) the Lebenswelt, precisely by dressing it or, rather, disguising it (Husserl uses the verb " verkleiden "). The garb of ideas is in fact a "method" disguised as "true being" (wahres Sein). The "disguise of ideas" (Ideenverkleidung) has thus rendered the true and sole meaning of this method and its formulae "unintelligible" (Husserl 1961: 52).

17. How does Husserl understand the movement by which Natural Science simultaneously discovers (or uncovers-perhaps a better rendering of entdecken) and conceals or covers up, the way in which science is an Ideenkleid, a dress made of ideas that covers the very thing it, as a method, allows us to know? Or is there an inescapably tendency for the method, or the ideal praxis itself to take the place of, to usurp the reality it is meant to represent? The genius of "Galileo, the discoverer" (Galilei, der entdecker) is simultaneously "a discovering and concealing genius" (entdeckender und verdeckender Genius), Husserl tells us, and the activity of mathematical physical science an activity of "discovery (or uncovering)-concealment" (Entdeckung-Verdeckung) that in order to know the real world produces an ideal order that comes to take its place in an act of ontological imposture, and which with its increasing precision, weaves a cloth that comes to cover and conceal that which was originally to be known.

18. This repression (for we can now call it that), however productive for a science of the ideal, finally deprives it of its own meaning and foundation.   It is at this point that the philosopher is called to duty: to inquire into, to look back, to recover from oblivion the original ground that science has necessarily concealed from itself in its very movement, but whose uncovering by philosophy will alone allow science to establish the truth and validity of its work.

19. To the phenomenological or hermeneutic mode of analyzing the enactment of repression by every culture, Althusser counterposes what would appear to be its opposite: Nietzsche's analysis of the birth and repression of tragedy. In a letter to Madonia on October 5, 1962, as he was preparing his seminar on structuralism, he writes: "I have a thousand things in mind concerning Foucault's book which I will develop in a gigantic course in which I will take up a number of themes that are (currently) essential to me: the theme of the origin of philosophy for Nietzsche (and, on this topic, the theme of all the "objects" rejected (repoussés) by a civilization in its own constitution" (Althusser 1998: 228). Moreover, not simply the reference to Nietzsche's text but to a specific interpretation of it is clear in Foucault's preface itself: "At the center of these limit experiences of the Occidental world explodes, of course, that of the tragic itself - Nietzsche having shown that the tragic structure on the basis of which the history of the Occidental world is made is nothing other than the refusal, forgetting and silent disappearance of tragedy. Other experiences orbit around this experience which is central because it ties the tragic to the dialectic of history in the very refusal of the tragic itself by history. Each of these, at the borders of our culture trace a limit which signifies at the same time an originary division (un partage originaire).   . . . The present study would only be the first and doubtless the simplest of that long inquiry which, under the sun of the great Nietzschean project, seeks to confront the dialectics of history with the immobile structures of the tragic" (Foucault 1994: 161).

20. The placing of "the refusal, forgetting and silent disappearance of tragedy" at the center and origin of the Occidental world, together with the opposition of "the immobile structures of the tragic" to a "dialectics of history, " suggests that Foucault's reading of The Birth of Tragedy, in its themes and concerns, not to mention the particulars of its interpretation of this notoriously obscure text, coincides with, even if it is not derived from, that of Deleuze. Although Nietzsche and Philosophy was published a year after Folie et déraison, a version of the chapter on tragedy appeared in 1959 (Deleuze 1959). For Deleuze, the "real opposition" in The Birth of Tragedy is not the "wholly dialectical opposition of Dionysos and Apollo, but the more profound opposition of Dionysos and Socrates" (Deleuze 1959: 15). Moreover, Deleuze's hostility to any notion of the dialectic compels him to argue that in fact Nietzsche has advanced a thoroughly non-dialectical account of the Dionysian-Apollonian relation, that is, the "original" (Deleuze places the term in quotation marks) contradiction between a "primitive" unity and individuation. We can already see the paradox at the heart of Deleuze's reading (which, further begins to suggests its relevance for Foucault): the contradiction between these terms is original and thus there can be no inquiring back before, even as one of the terms is said to be primitive or primary in relation to the other. Deleuze suspends the possibility of a unity that would precede its division into two parts; indeed the division precedes the "reconciliation" which is nothing more than a "precarious and admirable alliance" (Deleuze 1959: 13) between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. If indeed the Dionysian principle comes to dominate this relation and becomes the foundation (the primitive unity that precedes division into individuals), it does so only after and in response to the fact of a primary and irreducible division. Diversity and difference are original: unity is always secondary and derivative, a fact that confers upon it its fragility (although the latter term should not be understood in a pejorative sense, as a failed solidity). The Nietzschean tragic for Deleuze is "affirmative:" not only the affirmation of original difference, but even the affirmation of the difference between the same and the different, the multiple and the one. The tragic affirms the essential diversity of being and becoming.

21. Thus, in order to understand the importance of this model of origin, or, more precisely, of "an original division" for Foucault's analysis, we must first understand Deleuze's emphatic rejection of the negative as the explanatory principle of historical transformation, in this case, the death of tragedy. The Dionysian-Apollonian relation understood as original, excludes any recourse to a principle of the negative, to an internal principle of dissolution which unmakes the unity of the present in order to posit a new superior unity in a progress towards the telos of humanity. No internal necessity doomed the tragic and supplanted it with the Socratic and finally Christian dialectic: indeed, Deleuze argues that the opposition between the tragic and the Christian "is not a dialectical opposition but rather an opposition to the dialectical itself" (Deleuze 1983: 9). This is important for understanding the Nietzschean conception of history: the tragic did not deserve to perish at the hands of the Socratic-Christian dialectic and cannot be valued according to the judgment of the historical victor. Its death cannot be understood either as deserved according to a teleology of history or as an outcome latent within it, as if it existed only to bring into being that which will succeed it as a superior moment in the becoming of history. In fact, we could conceive of the tragic in its internal plurality as persisting for eternity in the absence of any external force that would destroy it. The death of tragedy then comes from without, undeserved and, from the point of view of its internal composition, unnecessary. We must explain it not on the basis of any labor of the negative undoing it from within, but on the basis of a clash of positivities. It is only when tragedy dies at the hands of a victorious Christianity, that the latter will be able finally to define the former as an inferior worldview whose death was merited and inevitable. Only when we free ourselves from what Foucault, speaking of madness, calls the "terminal truths" proclaimed by the victor and refuse to view the past from the point of view of this victory which arrogates to the victor the right retrospectively to reorganize the past can we grasp that clash, that struggle as it was.   To oppose the "dialectics of history" with the "immobile structures of the tragic, " is thus to refuse to reduce the tragic to a moment in the becoming itself of Christianity or madness as the other through which reason could grasp itself. "Immobility" here suggests resistance to dissolution and irreducibility to that which triumphs in an act of force. Only perhaps in this way can we begin to see the dim outlines of madness substantialized, madness prior to its subjugation to what by the act of subjugation alone, becomes its dialectical contrary: reason.

22. Thus, the Nietzschean version of the way in which a culture defines itself by virtue of the form and content of its rejection, refusal, repression and forgetting of what is defined as its other would appear counterposed in important ways to the model (or models) derived from Husserl's texts. If for Husserl physical science has "forgotten" its origins, there is a certain innocence in its having done so, no matter how grave the consequences for European civilization. The forgetting or even covering up or disguising the origin and foundation of meaning leaves it in tact, waiting for philosophy to rediscover and reactivate it. For Nietzsche, as tragedy was born, so it will die, but it will do so without issue. Tragedy leaves no progeny behind: its death on the contrary produces a "deeply felt void" (tiefempfundene Leere) (Nietzsche 1969: 75, BT 69). If some natural cycle of generation has been broken, it is perhaps because the death of tragedy was both premature and unnatural. While "the other arts died serene and natural deaths at advanced ages," tragedy perished either by suicide (the consequence of the fundamental incompatibility of the Dionysian and Apollonian moments whose conflict remained insoluble) or by murder (although perhaps in the ambivalent form of an assisted suicide) at the hands of The Socratic-Euripidean alliance. For it was by means of the "Socratic tendency", that Euripides "fought and defeated" (bekämpfte und besiegte) tragedy (Nietzsche 1969:   83, BT 77) in what Nietzsche describes as a "struggle to the death" (Todeskampf) (Nietzsche 1969: 76, BT 70). Euripides was not content to eliminate tragedy, but saw the necessity of destroying its very foundations, in order that something genuinely without forbears or precedents be built.  

23. In one sense, no hermeneutic is possible from the Nietzschean perspective: the origin is nowhere present to be recovered or recalled. In fact, the forgetting of tragedy is merely the subjective expression of its objective disappearance, or rather destruction, at the hands of the Socratic tendency that usurped its place. From such a perspective, if philosophy would, as Husserl demanded, break through the crust of tradition not only would it fail to find a foundation or ground, it would not even be able to find the void where the foundation of tragedy once stood. The very traces of the struggle have disappeared into the void left by tragedy, a void itself immediately filled by victorious Socratism and its heir, Christianity.   Such an inquiry is not properly historical in the usual meaning of the term: not only does it refuse to render the tragic a primitive and therefore inferior moment in a teleology that culminates in Christianity, but also because it seeks that which coming before history, at least understood as dialectical progress, impeded its emergence, the "immobile structures" of an antagonism that would never be subject to a resolution, an antagonism without the slightest trace of a negativity that would allow it to give birth to something not only new but better and more deserving of existence. For the "great Nietzschean project" to which Foucault refers can set no more important task for itself than to recover not the presence of an origin, but precisely the silence and emptiness of a void so quickly filled.

24. Husserl or Nietzsche: Foucault's inquiry would appear to be suspended between these two poles, the search for madness conceived as an origin present but concealed by the very operation of reason that seeks to know it and the search to recover and comprehend the origin as absence or rather the originary void that made a conception of history possible. To situate Foucault in relation to these two models of thinking the way in which a culture defines itself through the repression of that which, by the act of repression itself, as designated as outside, is not to imagine that these models are external to Foucault's text. On the contrary, not only are these models work put to work within it, they are transformed by this activity into something other than the form they take in the texts of Husserl or Nietzsche. It is hardly surprising that the progress of Foucault's inquiry blurs the distinction between two so apparently opposed philosophers. Thus, the casual or at least innocent covering or concealing of origins as theorized in the Crisis is quietly transformed in Folie et dérasion into their concealment behind the walls of the asylum, i.e., their confinement, while a purely epistemological act assumes a social dimension whose precise nature is violent and coercive, a means of struggle. Such a transformation of the notion of the concealing of origins, would in turn require a rethinking of the "vocation" of the philosopher who now in order to serve humanity, would have to address not only the material existence and historical and social determination of concealment, but the practical and political existence of philosophy itself.   The notion of philosophy as a hermeneutic operation is radicalized in such a way that the act of uncovering that which has been hidden can no longer remain purely philosophical; philosophy itself can succeed only to the extent that it is "armed," to cite Machiavelli's phrase, only to the extent that it exercises the force necessary to move walls or break them down. Further, we may even ask whether Foucault, in his use of Husserl, does not, exactly like Derrida himself (not in "Cogito et histoire de la folie," but in the Introduction to Husserl's Origins of Geometry), problematize the very notion of origin as understood in the Crisis by showing that the logic of Husserl's argument leads to a recognition that there always exists a before the origin, and therefore a certain theoretical void at the very point we require presence.  

25. The transformation of Nietzsche, particularly the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy, is, if anything, even more radical and it is in the Nietzschean passages that the true stakes of Foucault's theoretical wager become clear. Althusser suggests that Foucault's Nietzscheanism leads him to argue that, in the case of madness as in the case of tragedy, "the cultural act consists in reactivating that which we have forgotten we have forgotten (un oubli sans memoire) = that which no one ever knew." Thus, to follow Foucault's analysis to the letter, it is not simply that the Socratic tendency was the victor over tragedy is a struggle to the death and, in its victory, obliterated every trace of the tragic so completely that even the texts by Aeschylus that have come down to us have been emptied of their original meaning and both filled with and enveloped by a different and opposing sense. It is not simply the void created by the destruction of tragedy, the void Nietzsche so earnestly desires us to experience as perhaps the sole legacy of a tragic lost forever, which lies at the origin waiting to be "reactivated" (to use Althusser's very Husserlian phrase), the void that alone permitted the rise of history and of historicity (to cite Derrida), once the immobile structures of the tragic have been cleared away. Foucault's use of Nietzsche forces us to confront as an unavoidable problem when thinking to opposition of reason and madness or tragedy and the dialectic: what is the origin of the origin?

26. In his critique of Foucault, Derrida emphasized the programmatic statement from the preface that Folie et déraison was not intended as "a history of knowledge (connaissance), but of the rudimentary movements of an experience. A history not of psychiatry but of madness itself in its vivacité prior to any capture by knowledge" (Foucault 1994: 164). At this point, Foucault appears committed to a phenomenological reduction of precisely the type that Derrida would problematize in his discussion of the Origin of Geometry. Derrida, however, by abstracting this statement from its context and suppressing the qualifying statements that followed it in Foucault's argument, overlooked (and, if it must be made explicit, in an entirely symptomatic way) precisely the point at which Foucault is closest to the Derrida of the sixties, simultaneously preserving and calling into question the concept of origin, evoking, without the names, the concepts of the trace and erasure. For just two sentences after Foucault has announced the project of writing a history of the experience of madness, he declares such a task "doubly impossible:" such an experience "does not exist" apart from or prior to the "gesture of division that denounced and mastered it" (Foucault 1994: 164). To say that the experience of madness does not exist now, of course, is not to say that it never existed and thus, to use a Derridean phrase, could not be present-in-having- once-been, a past present. It is here that a contradiction appears at the heart of Foucault's argument. In the next paragraph of the preface, Foucault reformulates his argument, almost as if the two paragraphs were drafts or versions of a single statement, the first written in the idiom of phenomenology and the second in that of structuralism: "To write the history of madness therefore means: to carry out a structural study of a historical ensemble-notions, institutions, juridical and police measures, scientific concepts-which hold captive a madness whose savage state can never be restored to itself; but in the absence of this inaccessible primitive purity, the structural study must turn towards the decision that simultaneously connects and separates reason and madness, the obscure common source (racine), the originary confrontation that accords meaning to the unity as well as the opposition of meaning and that which has no meaning (l'opposition du sens et de l'insensé - the latter term denoting both that which has lost its meaning and a person who has taken leave of his senses)" (Foucault 1994: 164).

27. It now appears that the inaccessibility of madness is not simply historical, as if it once existed as an experience that could hypothetically then have been studied and grasped in its presence, but no longer exists, leaving behind only a void and a silence which themselves become objects of an archeological study. This inaccessibility is also, and perhaps more importantly, structural: madness is structurally inseparable from the very reason that represses and silences it. Or at least is posed as such by Foucault until he quickly adds that behind what would appear to be an originary antagonism (or perhaps even an antagonism without origin-these two formulations are perhaps not synonymous), is a "common language"(Foucault 1994: 160) and a state in which the two sides of the opposition are not only "mutually implicated" (Foucault 1994: 160) but confused together in such a way that they cannot be distinguished. Foucault will add that of this original confusion situated before the "originary" caesura that parts reason and madness, "there is nothing, or rather, there is no longer anything" (Foucault 1994: 160). It is at this point that Derrida asks whether Foucault's project would not now require him "to exhume the virgin and unitary ground (sol) in which the act of decision that connects and separates reason and madness obscurely took root" (Foucault 1994: 62) and to account for the origin of the originary decision itself. Thus, while Althusser in his lecture notes commends Foucault for "rejecting the model of the subject," Derrida seems to be pointing to the existence in Foucault's preface of precisely a subject, however disavowed, of the act of decision itself whose existence, in the absence of explanation, appears unconditioned, a weak rather than a strong version of the transcendentality that Derrida thought necessary to any historical inquiry that would avoid the trap of historicism.

28. Althusser's critique took a different path: if Foucault succeeded in refusing the model of the subject, he did not entirely succeed in escaping the model of origin. Behind the division of madness and reason, there existed not a subject, transcendental or otherwise, but a prior division which Foucault poses only obliquely, signaling its existence in a phrase that would haunt Althusser to the end of his life, for reasons undoubtedly irreducible to philosophy alone: L'absence d'oeuvre.   This phrase doesn't translate easily into English: the absence of work.   Oeuvre is not merely the product of labor, but a product of the activity by which a human being (or, significantly, a God) imparts meaning to that which is worked. The absence of oeuvre is thus the absence of meaning in that which is produced through human activity, the gestures, sounds, and written marks that are no more than meaningless movements, nonsensical sounds ("the murmur of somber insects"), or unintelligible traces left on some surface. This is not only the opposition of sense and nonsense that Foucault will declare "the first caesura on the basis of which the division of madness is possible" (Foucault 1994: 159), but even more fundamentally the opposition of presence and absence. If, then, reason can be defined as Pascal defines it in the passage cited by Foucault in the first line of the preface, as the quality of not being mad, and the most general form of madness is l'absence d'oeuvre, we are no longer speaking of an originary division but of an ontological hierarchy. "History," which becomes, a few lines later, "the great work (oeuvre) of history is only possible on the foundation of the absence of history" (Foucault 1994: 163). Not only does "an absence d'oeuvre" inescapably accompany the work (oeuvre) of history, this "void" ("vide") is already there before history (dès avant l'histoire) (Foucault 1994: 163).

29. Thus, for Althusser, Foucault has indeed offered a theory of the origin of historicity, the very transcendental ground necessary, in Derrida's view, in order to avoid the errors of historicism. Althusser, however, regards precisely such a notion as an obstacle to the development of an adequate conception of historical time: he will call the particular form that the origin takes in Foucault's preface, the original or transcendental abyss (abime). This "verticality," as Althusser called it, following Foucault himself, grounds history and explains the "originary rupture" that marks its genesis. How is it possible for the work of history to be born from an original void, and thus meaning from nonsense? The notion of the transcendental abyss would be the limit case of a theology: to be precise, an atheology that would preserve the place of God in the order of creation, even as it left that place empty. The problem for an atheology would not be that of creation ex nihilo, given that the solution to that problem consisted in the mediation of the Creator who pre-existed the void itself. Rather, the problem is closer to that of explaining the genesis of matter out of spirit: how does the former "produce" the latter, which is precisely foreign to its very essence?    Foucault himself furnishes the outlines of such a theory: just as reason is one of the ruses of madness now understood as a general condition and original ground, so meaning is one of the ruses of nonsense, nonsense turned back upon itself in an act of signification that confers a sense upon it, the sense of denoting itself. This originary rupture is the moment of genesis, although in this case, paradise has always already been lost and meaning will have to be sustained at great cost: history will exist by the sweat of its brow, its "great work" (grande oeuvre) to fill the void with being and the silence with sound, to bury nonsense under the foundation that meaning erects for itself, as it if were possible to build a foundation on an abyss.

30. Although Althusser in a few deft strokes furnished the means necessary critically to analyse the transcendentalism that so "haunts" Foucault's preface, he himself never ceased to be haunted by the particular figures in which this transcendentalism was expressed. Indeed, it is tempting to understand the torrent of words that poured out of him, the manuscripts, the letters, the notes, typed, written and scrawled, almost without stopping, punctuated, indeed, by relatively brief periods of silence and, later, of delirium, as precisely the struggle against silence, the silence of brute nonsense, transcended only in its recognition of itself when, speaking about itself, it discovers the ability to speak about the world. It was not for nothing that Reading Capital would begin with an acknowledgment of "those gestures that put men in relation to their works (oeuvres) and those works thrown in their faces" (or literally, "sent back down their own throats" (retourner en leur propre gorge), which are their ' absences d'oeuvres ' " (Althusser et. al. 1965: 6), suggesting a flight from an originary void, a notion otherwise foreign to this one of Althusser's greatest texts. Even more importantly, though, is the question of the deferred effect of this encounter, its themes and contradictions in his post-1980 philosophical writing, particularly in his conception of aleatory materialism, where is sometimes appears as if Althusser has returned to the very notion of a transcendental abyss that he so effectively criticized in Foucault.

31. The fact remains, however, that no matter what the resonances of Foucault's originary void for Althusser personally, he was able in 1963 not only to identify this notion as a theoretical obstacle, but was able to separate this "transcendental conception" from the "historical," but not historicist, conception that accompanied it. If the abyss was the conceptual foundation of the transcendentalist tendency in Foucault's preface, Althusser identifies a set of concepts that are not only irreducible to any notion of the transcendental, but which provide the means to think history, particularly, the history of culture and, even more perhaps, the history of philosophy in a new way. His lecture notes contain the following underscored phrase: "De l'abime à la limite" (From the abyss to the limit"). With these words, he signals the oblique path, in no way identifiable with the linear development of arguments in the preface, by which Foucault "passes from a transcendental conception to historical conception." To the search for the genesis of the opposition of reason and madness in that original negativity that is itself negated even as it remains present in its negation and thus to the "verticality" of an ever present origin, Althusser counterposes, by citing Foucault against himself, the notion of "a history of limits," (Foucault 1994:161). To undertake such a history would be to pose limits (significantly, in the plural in the text of the preface), defined by Foucault as "those obscure gestures, necessarily forgotten as soon as they are accomplished, by which a culture rejects something that will be for it the Exterior" as irreducible. To do so, however, would appear to involve us in insoluble difficulties. Limits, according to the passage just cited, are not simply the lines or the borders which separate a culture from what it will (note the future tense) define as its Exterior; on the contrary the limit is a gesture or an action, the drawing of a line, the act of separating the interior from the exterior, the rejection of what will only henceforth be foreign to that which carries out the rejection. Indeed, Foucault will go so far as to speak of a culture "exercising its essential choices, making the division that will give it the face of its positivity" (Foucault 1994: 161). All of this suggests a linear causal sequence requiring an original actor or subject who pre-exists and then accomplishes its end. Althusser, however, seeks to precisely to develop (although he will do so only later in his own texts) the concepts that Foucault produces but from which he will ultimately retreat. In particular, can we not think, indeed, must we not think, if we are to avoid the twin dangers of functionalism and voluntarism, the notion of a gesture without a subject? If we take this a step further, we can even speak of the gesture itself, the act, not as preceding the division it carries out, but as having its whole existence in that division itself. Only in this way can we speak of a truly constitutive division, a division before which there is nothing because the division and the act of division are one and the same thing. In this way, there is no origin, no priority: not only is there no subject (even the collective subject of culture), neither term of the division precedes, logically or chronologically, the other. Madness is not the origin (however mediated) or truth of reason or vice versa; rather, their existence is simultaneous, their antagonism defines the singularity of the culture that is theirs. Every culture in a manner of speaking "divides into itself" (Beckett), into that antagonistic relation that makes it what it is through the distance that it takes from that which it cannot be.

32. Further, the existence of this antagonism is no more ideal than its genesis: it takes the form of a struggle or a war for mastery, capture, control: the victor must defend his (always temporary) victory against the resurgence of the vanquished whose revolt appears always so imminent that they must be confined behind walls, the material form of reason's hegemony. Thus, the antagonism never resolves into an order; whatever fragile equilibrium of forces permits the domination of reason remains perpetually threatened. At the extreme, reason cannot escape the fear that it may itself become at some future point or already have become without its knowing it precisely that against which it measures itself, that which it is reason's very duty and destiny to study, to know and to master, in a word, to confine.

33. Foucault's preface in fact served as a mirror and a medium for Althusser: through it, he confronted some of the most important problems posed by the singularity of his philosophical practice, including above all the status of that practice itself, its conditions and its stakes. This was the period when Althusser would define philosophy as the Theory of theoretical practice, which however could in no way escape the effects of that of which is was the theory, namely the very practice, theoretical and otherwise of which it was said to be the Theory, but in which alone it could possess any existence.   Althusser had just begun to confront philosophy with the material practices from which it could never be entirely dissociated (even if he could not fully account for the forms of this association and further rejected explanations based on notions of expressive causality). In a few years, he would posit this complicity, and even more the attempts to deny this complicity as essential to the very existence of philosophy. All philosophy was simultaneously a taking of political positions and a denial that such positions have been taken; in fact, the greater the political stakes, the more gigantic "the theoretical efforts to register this denial in a coherent discourse'. From this perspective, not only must Descartes's confinement of madness in the order of his arguments be seen as complicitous in the practical forms of exclusion and confinement of the insane in the seventeenth-century, but perhaps even more importantly, Althusser was compelled openly to theorize the practical and political dimension of his own philosophical project, to theorize what other philosophers only practiced.

34. But beyond the recognition of the stakes and commitments of every philosophy, the figures in which Foucault expressed the originary division of reason and madness would resurface, changed in subtle ways, to be sure, in Althusser's later attempts not only to think the field philosophy as the site of conflict without origin (or genesis) or end, but to conceptualize in a very precise way his own "manner of intervention."   Foucault described "that gesture of the break (coupure), of that distance taken (cette distance prise), of that void (vide) placed between reason and that which it is not" and Althusser read these phrases as a description in the most concrete sense of the activity of philosophy, which is not a speaking about or on something, but an acting within it. And while philosophy works with words, its effects are more than verbal or discursive. It opens a space, the space of a break or cut: in fact, Althusser will go so far as to say that the activity of philosophy is nothing more than the drawing of a line of demarcation, which means that philosophy strictly speaking doesn't exist or rather that its existence is that of a "philosophical nothing" (le rien philsophique) in that "a line of demarcation is nothing, not even a line, not even a drawing (un tracé) but the simple fact of demarcation (le simple fait de se démarquer), therefore, the void of a distance taken (le vide d'un distance prise)". 

35. Out of this extraordinary encounter not so much between individuals, Foucault and Althusser, even understood in their vocation as philosophers, as between concepts, texts and practices, new conjunctions take shape, producing new problems to be addressed: how does one confront the historical and material existence of philosophy and, above all, of one's own philosophical practice? How does one conceive of this historical and material existence without reducing philosophy to something other than itself? And once we grant an irreducibility to philosophy, the irreducibility of a practice, how do we understand the way in which it acts and intervenes, especially in the absence of any origin, including, above all, an originary subject?

36. As Althusser would write at the very moment he was reading Folie et dérasion, history often moves too slowly for "the consciousness impatient for truth" (Althusser 1965: 143). A way to begin to answer these questions would open before him, but not before other encounters, political as well as theoretical, breached the wall of the present.


Warren Montag is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College, Los Angeles, U.S.A.   Warren in the author of numerous essays and books, including Louis Althusser (2003), Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (1999), and The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man (1994).   Warren has also co-edited, introduced, or translated a number of other important books, including the edited volumes Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere (with Mike Hill) and The New Spinoza (with Ted Stolze). He is currently working with Mike Hill on a book-length study of Adam Smith's philosophy.


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