Abstract for “The Need for Merleau-Ponty in Foucault’s Account of the Abnormal”

I presented a paper at the 2018 International Merleau-Ponty Circle on November 10, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee entitled “The Need for Merleau-Ponty in Foucault’s Account of the Abnormal.” I am happy to announce that a version of this paper has been submitted as a chapter in an edited book entitled, Normality, Abnormality and Pathology in Merleau-Ponty. Here is the abstract for my chapter.

Due to both his historical contributions as well as the simple persuasive power of his writing, many of us are drawn to the work of Michel Foucault on the history of the abnormal. And yet, while we acknowledge the insights offered by his account of the abnormal, we may feel that something is missing from his historical narrative and wonder if it can be fully trusted. In this chapter, I will argue that we can only successfully draw on Foucault’s work on the abnormal once we recognize that it is Merleau-Ponty’s work in psychology that serves as its hidden foundation.

To do so, I begin by giving a brief summary of Foucault’s account of the abnormal according to his 1961 History of Madness and his 1974-1975 lectures entitled Abnormal. Foucault describes how the abnormal of the modern age comes out of an understanding of madness that can be traced in the previous ages. He then reveals some common historical structures present in each age; in particular, how the notion of madness is dependent on the societal constructions of the rational and the nonrational. But we are left asking: Where are these constructions coming from? And why is madness inextricably linked to our understanding of the rational and nonrational in every age? Foucault’s account of the abnormal seems to tell us how the notions of madness play out in society, but offers no explanation for why the historical structures are shaped in this way.

I turn to Merleau-Ponty for aid and find that the very historical structures recounted by Foucault are actually rooted in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological patterns of the abnormal. Drawing on the Phenomenology of Perception, I describe the phenomenological foundation of the abnormal as a way to make madness both accessible and meaningful. We find that this foundation is precisely what is needed for the arbitrary historical constructions of Foucault. To close, I look at the presence of these patterns in the disorder of schizophrenia, demonstrating how the unity of a historical-phenomenological account of the abnormal can provide deeper insights into the experience of a mental disorder.

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