The Carnival of the Mad: Foucault’s Window into the Origin of Psychology

Foucault Studies 30 (30):54-79 (2021)


Foucault’s participation in the 1954 carnival of the mad at an asylum in Switzerland marked the beginning of his critical reflections on the origins of psychology. The event revealed a paradox at the heart of psychology to Foucault, for here was an asylum known for its progressive method and groundbreaking scientific research that was somehow still exhibiting traces of a medieval conception of madness. Using the cultural expression of this carnival as a starting place, this paper goes beyond carnival costumes to uncover the historical structures underneath the discipline of modern psychology. Drawing on Foucault’s earliest works in psychology, his 1954 Mental Illness and Personality, his 1954 “Dream, Existence and Imagination,” his 1957 “Scientific Research and Psychology” and briefly his 1961 History of Madness, I will describe the discrepancy between the theory of modern psychology, which finds its heritage in the methods of modern science, and the practice of modern psychology, which finds its heritage in the classical age. I will argue that this division helps make sense of unexplained psychological phenomena, as seen in general practices related to artistic expression, and individual experiences, as seen in the presence of guilt and the resistance to medical diagnosis in patients.

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Hannah Lyn Venable
University of Mary

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