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The Philosophy of Madness

Lecturer: Cynthia Cruz

Originally Taught: Summer School 2024

Taking as our point of departure Derrida and Foucault’s tangled discourse on Descartes’ concept of madness, we will move to Hegel who tells us in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences that madness, rather than being a state in which only some find themselves, is a latent possibility for all. As Hegel writes, each of us must enter into madness every time we acquire knowledge. This space between, this moment of disorientation, is a state subjects can also fall into when one’s world comes undone. Indeed, in both the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Spirit, Hegel provides the French Revolution as an example of such a state of madness, connecting political and social events to the madness of individuals. This is not far from Freud’s argument in Civilisation and its Discontents that neurosis is a symptom of what he calls civilisation, or what we might call capitalism. We will also examine the concept of the fetish, turning to Freud and Marx’s writing on the topic. Next, we turn to madness as figured by Eric Santner’s work on Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, the subject of Freud’s famous Schreber case. In our final week we will look at the fetish and fetishistic disavowal and the ways this type of ‘not-knowing-what-one-knows’ allows one to both simultaneously know, yet not know, the reality of the precarious situation we find ourselves in.

Week One – Introduction to course  

In this week’s discussion we will examine the dispute between Foucault and Derrida, from which the following questions arise: How ought we speak of madness? Can we speak of madness without marginalisation? Where does madness originate? What is the distinction between the I and the Subject? We will also touch on Hegel’s notion of pure being, the I and the subject, and Lacan’s concept of subjective destitution. 


  • Descartes, Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can be Called into Doubt
  • Foucault, excerpt: The History of Madness
  • Derrida, Cogito and the History of Madness
  • Hegel, excepts: Encyclopaedia and Philosophy of Mind

Week Two – Hegel: Madness and Habit

According to Hegel, each time a subject acquires a new habit, they must necessarily move through a moment of madness. Madness is, as such, latent within us all. But because habit also has the ability to sublate madness, Hegel posits habit as a means to treat madness. And yet, habit, though it liberates, also has death within it, and it therefore also has the potential to bring about a death-like existence; while madness, in its radical disorientation, presents a moment where spirit is without a nature, and thus is absolutely free. 


  • Hegel, excerpt: Philosophy of Spirit
  • Slavoj Žižek, Discipline Between Two Freedoms—Madness and Habit in German Idealism

Week Three – The French Revolution and Madness 

Foucault suggests that the French Revolution marks the beginning of modern madness. For Hegel, madness can occur as the result of “a stroke of great misfortune, by a derangement of someone’s individual world, or by the violent upheaval and coming-out-of-joint of the universal state of the world.” Hegel provides the French Revolution as an example, of which he writes, “many people became insane by the collapse of almost all civil relationships”. Thus, Hegel connects madness with the social, an analysis akin to Freud’s concept of neurosis as symptom of civilisation, or capitalism, from his text Civilisation and its Discontents


  • Hegel, excerpt: Phenomenology of Spirit: Absolute Freedom and Terror 
  • Rebecca Comay, excerpt: Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution 

Week Four – Judge Daniel Paul Schreber & the Charge  

The case of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber has been studied and remarked upon by numerous thinkers including Freud and Lacan. This is due to the case’s standing as a paradigm for modern madness. Schreber had a psychotic break after being appointed as a judge, an event Eric Santner suggests is connected to what Santner calls a “crisis of investiture,” an act of symbolic investiture that proves to be too much. What is this “too-muchness”? How does this libidinal quality enter into society and alter subjectivity? How does this, in turn, alter madness (perversion, hysteria, and psychosis)?


  • Eric Santner, The Rebranding of Sovereignty in the Age of Trump: Toward a Critique of Manatheism 

Week Five – The Fetish

Marx and Freud’s concepts of the fetish present a form of fiction that allows for a covering over, rather than a repression of, reality. With fetishistic disavowal, rather than the truths that exist within our unconscious that we do not have conscious access to– where what we know but do not know exists, what we have is a truth we know but do not know due to fetishistic disavowal, a disavowing that allows us to immediately forget what we know. This form of not-knowing allows us to, therefore, function in what would otherwise be intolerable situations.


  • Marx, excerpt: Capital Vol. I 
  • Freud, excerpt: Three Essays on Sexuality
  • Alenka Zupančič, Perverse Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the End