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A Modern Scholasticism: Reflections on Derrida's "Cogito and the History of Madness

A Modern Scholasticism: Reflections on Derrida's "Cogito and the History of Madness

9 Mins
February 28, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."


My primary assignment in this post is to comment on Jacques Derrida’s lecture “Cogito and the History of Madness.” So, I will begin with an overview of the substance of that essay. I will then reflect on Derrida’s method more generally in light of “Structure, Sign and Discourse in the Human Sciences” and a lecture “The Unconditional University” which I had the opportunity to hear recently when Derrida visited Albany, NY.


Sorting through the murky, elliptical terms in which it is expressed, “Cogito and the History of Madness” has two basic purposes, both of which relate to Michel Foucault’s Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la Folie à l'Age Classique. First, Derrida wants to criticize a passage in that work which interprets Descartes’ treatment of madness in the cogito argument, as addressed in the doubts of the first Meditation. Second, and more generally, Derrida wishes to “interrogate certain presuppositions of this history of madness” (33), that is, he will comment on foundational questions as they relate to Foucault’s book.

Recall from our recent discussions of Foucault that he has a conception of the period from the Age of Reason to the 20th Century as the “classical age.” Thus Descartes stands at the threshold of this “classical age” and I think it plain that for both Foucault and Derrida, Descartes’ rationalism is the model for the modern era. By contrast, Francis Bacon’s empiricism is not the model. Foucault’s thesis is that during the age of reason, madness was defined and separated from reason by an “act of force” (54) in which madness was “crushed beneath psychiatry, dominated, beaten into the ground, interned, that is to say, madness (was) made into an object and exiled as the other of a language and a historical meaning which have been confused with logos itself” (34). Rationality by its very nature, Derrida sympathetically affirms, is “restrained and restraining.”

The “act of force” or “great internment” (43) is, more or less, the creation of the madhouse, “in the middle of the seventeenth century,” which initiated a cultural and political trend to medicalize and legalize insanity, making it commonplace for a person to be denied his rights and subjected to treatment against his will due to his mental state. Stephen Hicks in his “Postmodernism” lectures at the 1998 TAS Summer Seminar argued that postmodernism owes its popularity largely to its inherent leftism, rather than any purported methodological advances. Certainly, we can see that what makes Foucault’s history exciting to Derrida is its demonization of modern, capitalist, Enlightenment culture. In a sense, what we have here in the final analysis are grand, overblown condemnations of the more obviously condemnable aspects of modern medicine and politics. But part of the method here is to render the critic heroic by moralizing everything and by exaggerating the significance of the offense in question.

Descartes fits into this story as the one early modern philosopher upon whom Foucault concentrates attention. The issue on which Derrida focuses is the impact on the cogito of the possibility that the subject is mad. In Foucault’s reading (as Derrida interprets it), “Descartes is not interested in madness, he does not welcome it, he does not consider it” (47). This means that Descartes does not, in the course of finding certainty of his existence in the fact that he thinks, refute the doubt that he might be mad. At some length, Derrida offers an alternative reading of Descartes, one that is ”banal,” by his own admission (33). Derrida argues that “the cogito escapes madness only because at its own moment, it is valid even if I am mad” (55). That is to say, even if one were mad, one would still indubitably be aware of one’s own thoughts. This is the sum of Derrida’s “re-reading” of Descartes. The only trouble is, this still gives one no confidence in one’s reason. Derrida notes that Descartes appears aware of this problem, since he appeals to God to ensure his sanity.

Derrida is not much interested in the facts of the matter.

Derrida is actually interested in a larger project, the idea that there is a kind of “wellspring of reason more profound than the reason of the classical age” (36). Apparently he agrees with Foucault’s characterization of madness as “silence.” He writes: “Madness is what by existence cannot be said” (43) and adds: “through his own language (the philosopher) reassures himself against any actual madness--which may sometimes appear quite talkative, another problem” (54). This “other problem” gets no more attention, so the fact that punctures the entire metaphor, the fact that mad people talk, too, casts a heavy shadow over the entire discussion.

In Derrida’s version of history, there is a “logos” or form of higher reason that precedes “classical reason.” This logos incorporates madness as a mode alongside reason. Thus he remarks that the Middle Ages was an era of “free trade” between reason and madness (39). Before that, “the Greeks were in greatest proximity to the unitary, primordial Logos” (39-40). Derrida seems to think this necessary to reason, as he takes a quasi-Existentialist position that reason requires non-reason or madness in order to exist. Where Heidegger has us in fear over the possibility of our own non-being, Derrida has us in fear of madness. “to-attempt-to-say-the-demonic-hyperbole from whose heights thought is announced to itself, frightens itself, and reassures itself against being annihilated or wrecked in madness or in death” (61). “The relationship between reason, madness, and death is an economy, a structure of deferral...” (62).

What Derrida does not criticize in Foucault’s thesis, and how he does not criticize it, is as interesting as what and how he does criticize. He partakes enthusiastically in the loaded, metaphorical language of Foucault. One might suppose a history would deserve reflection on empirical grounds, but Derrida is not much interested in the facts of the matter. He has no objection to seeing rationality as a rigid, tyrannical cultural structure that must be overthrown. Similarly, the importance of the cogito argument as a foundation for rational inquiry is not in doubt.

Derrida celebrates Foucault, for example by holding it to be his “greatest merit” that he claims to attempt the absurd: “to write a history of madness itself. Itself” (33). He sees Foucault as a daring adventurer of the intellect, when in fact his project amounts to seeking to speak incoherently. Like Foucault, Derrida seems blind to the ability of reason to describe things in an open-ended fashion. Just as one can conceive of the non-conceptual (rocks, for example), one can identify the irrational. When one reads accounts of madness, one is not imposing rationality on the mad, but using objectivity to convey as much as one can of their inner experience. But because Derrida has a blinkered grasp of what rationality is, he rejects this possibility from the outset.


I would like to remark on several aspects of Derrida’s method as they jump out at me from this lecture, and from “Structure, Sign and Play.”

1. The importance of sounding interesting. Derrida is at pains to use metaphoric language, to speak categorically or elliptically, or to parenthetically identify an ambiguity, so as to spice up his writing. The effect is that one often, as with Heidegger, can have no clear idea what Derrida means. Madness is, for example, “the obstinate murmur of a language that speaks by itself, without speaker or interlocutor” (34). An idea must be “interrogated” (33). Reason is “nocturnal.”

One extended example of this occurs on pages 32 and 33 as Derrida indicates his plan for the lecture. With much unclear, complex language, with parenthetical remarks, and even with an aside about hermeneutics, he obscures the fact that his first item amounts to little more than an alternative interpretation of a passage in Descartes. But this apparatus is necessary, in part to give the impression of profundity, and in part to square this traditional type of analysis with his analytical doctrines as they elsewhere appear. Hence the queer sentence: “When one attempts, in a general way, to pass from an obvious to a latent language, one must first be rigorously sure of the obvious meaning” (32). An "obvious meaning" should be obvious, one would think, and therefore require no rigor to be grasped.

2. Contradiction as insight. Derrida promotes a view that reason is limited, that logic must be transcended. For example, he writes, “whether he wants to or not... the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment he denounces them. This necessity is irreducible” (“Structure, Sign and Play” 282). This is part of a broader policy, repeated often in his recent lecture in Albany, that knowledge proceeds at once by preserving “traditional” categories and at the same time “deconstructing” or “denouncing” them.

3. Language as self-sufficient. I was struck, listening to Derrida speak, that over the course of a long lecture on the purpose of the Humanities in society, never once did he make the direct assertion of a non-linguistic fact. For example, people were not said to have human rights, rather he referred us to the U.N. declaration of human rights or the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man (typical of his own French ethnocentrism, he did not refer to John Locke or the American Bill of Rights). He did not describe the effects of new technologies on literary studies, rather he meditated on an epigram: “The End of Work is the Origin of the World,” which was to lead us to envision a connection, never clarified, between information technology (pace Jeremy Rifkin “The End of Work”) and globalization (which is said to bring about the beginning of a world culture).

Derrida seems indifferent to the distinction between a word’s denotation and its etymological connotation. In his lecture, Derrida insisted on referring to work and the world in French, as travail and le monde. This was crucial to his method, as he wanted an etymological connection between mondalisation and monde. With the English words “globalization” and “world,” he would have ended up musing about globes, spheres, circles, rather than the world. This would apparently have destroyed his project. We see a similar move in “Cogito and the History and Madness” as Derrida asserts that “there is no praise (éloge), by essence, except of reason” because reason, after all is logos. Etymology is “essence,” to Derrida, it appears.

“Cogito and the History of Madness” is typical of Derrida’s pattern of not writing distinct philosophical treatises, but inserting philosophical comments in the course of analyzing literature, often literature that is inappropriate to the broader issues he is thought to have raised. In Against Deconstruction, his lucid critique of Derrida, John Ellis remarks of Derrida’s On Grammatology that “Derrida’s choosing to develop his own ideas on language through an extensive critique of those of Rousseau must remain something of a puzzle; among linguistic theorists, Rousseau’s ideas scarcely count as a serious contribution to the field, and much of what Rousseau has to say would have to count as dismissably crack pot taken in the context of modern linguistic theory.” Yet On Grammatalogy is widely regarded by postmodernists as a seminal work of literary theory and epistemology (Ellis 25).

4. Unreflective analysis. Derrida’s positive theory is meant to be implied by his denunciation of false theories. As Ellis points out, “What we need is...thought about the possible positive steps and the choice between them. To pronounce something ‘problematical’ is not a conclusion nor is it an intellectual achievement; when we do so, all we have done is point the way to a need for much more thought and analysis of the issues involved” (Ellis 41). In other words, a mere denunciation does not clearly entail a positive program.

For example, in “Structure, Sign and Play” Derrida celebrates Lévi-Strauss for identifying the (intellectual) “scandal” of incest prohibition, which  “is universal, and in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense once could call it cultural” (283). As an economist by training, I was especially struck by this issue. Universality and naturalness are not synonyms, but rather have been thought by some to be necessarily correlated. Obviously, if incest prohibition is in fact universal (a question Derrida does not think to ask, as he has no interest in the facts of the matter), then this points up a need to come up with a richer set of criteria for identifying what is “natural” as opposed to “cultural.” One might begin, as Rand does, at the root, with the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made. But Derrida is content to relish the contradiction, problematizing “the nature/culture opposition.” Such an analysis is insidious, in that it not only stands in the place of a positive contribution, but it casts a shadow of mistrust over a traditional method, and suggests that one embrace that mistrust as the cure for the problem in question, rather than looking for a clear solution.

Ellis argues that this pattern applies to what is purported to be Derrida’s greatest achievement, the transcendence of “logocentrism.” “Logocentrism” is Derrida neologism that Ellis convincingly defines as “the illusion that the meaning of a word has its origin in the structure of reality itself and hence makes truth about that structure seem directly present to the mind.” “Logocentrism” is thus the doctrine of diaphanous consciousness.

Ellis notes that Derrida is far from alone, and far from the first, to attack the idea that “takes the concepts expressed in a language to be real essences existing independently of language” (Ellis 37). Indeed, as Ayn Rand noted, it is not that moderate realist view of concepts that dominates philosophy today. Writing in the 1960s, even Rand saw that a critic of the current situation needed to offer an alternative, positive account. Derrida, writing at the same time, never sees this, and his critique is ultimately sterile, precisely because it amounts to only the slightest first step toward an improved epistemology (and indeed, that step turns retrograde as Derrida elaborates his view, embracing illogic and subjectivism).

5. Lack of contact with the scholarly literature. Finally, I will remark that Derrida seems to write in a peculiar isolation. For instance, Ellis notes that in “Structure, Sign and Play” Derrida lists “Heidegger, Freud, Nietzche, and Lévi-Strauss” as influential contributors to the epistemological issues he wishes to address, despite the fact that these “are nowhere near being central figures in the debate” (40). Similarly, we see in “Cogito and the History of Madness” Derrida take up Foucault’s isolation of Descartes without the least reflection on Descartes’ impact on the theory of madness, nor on other interpreters of Descartes, nor indeed in contact with any literature that might enrich our understanding of the issues.


Deconstruction appears to be a strangely closed system of opaque references to opaque texts, where the appearance of intellectual daring obscures a profound lack of insight, and where an imaginative use of etymology and metaphor stands in for learning. In this sense, I feel in hearing or reading Derrida that I am encountering a modern scholasticism, one in which a closed set of texts and categories endlessly circulates, and where truth is determined by what is academically acceptable or appealing according to the rhetorical or moral standards of the day, and not by any correspondence to reality.

I will remark that seeing him in person helped me to better understand his popularity. I will write another post about his canonization at this event, but it was clear that he had a witty manner, a pleasant voice, a stylish look, and overall a certain charm.

Derrida, Jacques “Cogito and the History of Madness” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 31-63.
Derrida, Jacques “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-293.
Descartes, Renée, Meditations. Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Hicks, Stephen. “Postmodernism” taped lecture (Poughkeepsie: Principal Source, 1999).


What follows is a personal reflection.

Derrida’s speech at SUNY Albany last month was presented with great fanfare. Heralded as “the world's most famous living philosopher,” he spoke to a packed theater seating about 1,000. He was there to kick off a round of talks leading to conference called “Book/Ends” on the impact of information technology on the Humanities. As an overture to the introduction, the new chairman of the English department dilated on the prominence of “Derrida” (unlike mere mortals, no other name is required) and detailed the progress of the English department’s new hiring program, meant to shore up a department that has collapsed in theory vs. writing infighting, and whose loudest voice is a resident “Red Theory Collective” of graduate students.

Then the chairman of the “Languages, Literatures and Cultures” department stood up to revere the saint. This department is an amalgam of French, Spanish, German, Russian, etc. languages, but is not known as the “European Languages Department” because, let us never forget, French is a World Language!

Derrida, we were told, is a Philosopher. A man who meets his students, without fail, every Wednesday for his seminar, during which he imparts Knowledge to them. As this was said on a Monday, far from Paris, one worried for Derrida’s record of consistency in the coming days, but the audience was reassured to be reminded that Derrida was a revered teacher and respected colleague.

But he is more than a mere ivory-tower academician, he is a Rebel. As a young man, he was expelled from school in World War II Algeria for being a Jew. As a young scholar, he was leading figure in the “greatest time of intellectual ferment in living memory,” the student rebellion of 1968. His novel Glas has been declared “subversive.” When he was named to a chair in philosophy, a professor from Yale University wrote recommending Derrida not be given the post, even though He Had Been Elected By His Colleagues! (The fact that even Hitler was elected, must not be relevant here, one imagines.)

But all-in-all, Derrida is a Saint. He is the moral teacher who has shaken us out of complacency, reminding us that: 1. A gift is not a gift unless it is unexpected, and 2. Forgiveness is not forgiveness if it does not forgive the unforgivable.

And out on the stage comes a dapper man, stylish but not stuffy in an argyle sweater vest, cheerful looking with color in his cheeks and a halo of styled white hair about his head, and when he speaks, a gentle, friendly voice with a hint of a French accent reaches out to us as he says:

How does one ask a question, when no claim has been made?

“I want to begin...with a profession of faith, faith in the University as Unconditional.” (We learned over the course of the lecture that perhaps this meant free from the mercenary marketplace, free to find (?) or to be the Truth or source of Truth about What is Proper to Man, free from the state, free from material being, free from necessity, no particular place, a place of professions...professions of faith in professing).

It seemed to me that if one met The Fountainhead 's Ellsworth Toohey, one would see such a mix of quiet charm, learning, wit, and hidden exploitation of the audience’s altruist, mystical premises. Only hatred for capitalism, love of egalitarianism, and “democracy” were NOT “deconstructed,” never “problematized.” When he looked for a philosophical authority on art and meaning, and found (who else?) Immanuel Kant, I smiled. By the time he was looking for an emblematic text on the world economy and quoted Jeremy Rifkin, I laughed out loud.

He concluded by wondering aloud: Had we just heard an argument, making claims? Had we just observed a performance? He could not say. We would judge. Questions?

How does one ask a question, when no claim has been made?  

Response by Shawn Klein

Response by Roger Donway and others

David Potts on Derrida's "Of Grammatology"

Back to Jacques Derrida, "Cogito and the History of Madness" and "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"


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