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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2009

Department of History, Columbia University E-mail:


This essay reconstructs conceptually and situates historically contemporary French philosopher Marcel Gauchet's theory of the origins and development of modern selfhood. It argues that his history of the self as the interiorization of constitutive alienation, and of the history of self-consciousness as the progressive recognition of this alienation, originated out of a unique combination of historical factors—the radical politics of May 1968, the rise of the antipsychiatry movement, and (perhaps most surprisingly) the new psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. The essay considers Gauchet's study, together with his partner Gladys Swain, of the foundations of psychiatry, and investigates the connections of their narrative of origins to Michel Foucault's work. The essay concludes by turning to Gauchet's more recent contributions and considering the implications of his history of the self for Anglo-American scholarship.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 For some early contributions, see Izenberg, G. N., Impossible Individuality: Romanticism, Revolution, and the Origins of Modern Selfhood (Princeton, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Taylor, C., Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA, 1989)Google Scholar. For the current excitement see Goldstein, J., The Post-revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, MA, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Seigel, J. E., The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wahrman, D., The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2004)Google Scholar.

2 Lilla, M., ed., New French Thought: Political Philosophy (Princeton, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. S. Moyn, “Savage and Modern Liberty: Marcel Gauchet and the Origins of New French Thought”, European Journal of Political Theory 4/2 (April 2005), 164–87; and idem, A New Theory of Politics: Claude Lefort and Company in Contemporary France (New York, forthcoming), which focus on theories of collective politics; this essay provides an addendum given Gauchet's unique interest in his tradition in the history and theory of self and psyche.

3 Lacan, J., “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis”, in idem, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Fink, B. (New York: Norton, 1999), 29Google Scholar.

4 “Nous avons commencé par nous engueuler avant de tomber amoureux.” M. Gauchet, La condition historique: Entretiens avec François Azouvi et Sylvain Piron (Paris, 2003), 179. All translations, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

5 Ibid., 28.

6 M. Jaeger, “Gladys Swain: L'esprit de fronde (1945–1993)”, Le Journal de nervure, supplement to Nervure: Journal de psychiatrie 7 (May 1994), 1. A small passage of this necrology also appears as “L'esprit de fronde”, L'information psychiatrique 10 (Dec. 1993), 970. Jaeger went on to be a central figure in the Caen groupuscule L'Anti-mythes, whose mimeographed eponymous “journal” had a surprisingly large impact in the 1970s, notably because of its interviews with a number of figures increasingly important to the post-1968 left, like Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Pierre Clastres. Jaeger later became a psychiatric nurse and published an important text of antipsychiatric history, Le désordre psychiatrique: Des politiques de la santé mentale en France (Paris, 1981).

7 Gauchet, “Freud: Une psychanalyse ontologique (I) et (II) (Lecture du second des Trois Essais sur la théorie de la sexualité)”, Textures 72 (1972), 115–56, and 73 (1973), 69–112.

8 For an overview see Sedgwick, P., Psycho-politics: Laing, Foucault, Goffmann, Szasz, and the Future of Mass Psychiatry (New York, 1982)Google Scholar. For France see especially Turkle, S., “French Anti-psychiatry”, in Ingleby, D., ed., The Politics of Mental Health (New York, 1980)Google Scholar; see also Allen, D. F. and Postel, J., “History and Anti-psychiatry in France”, in Micale, M. S. and Porter, R., eds., Discovering the History of Psychiatry (New York, 1994)Google Scholar. On the American postwar fusion of psychoanalysis and psychiatry see, for example, Hale, N. G. Jr., The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in America: Freud and the Americans, 1917–1985 (New York, 1994)Google Scholar.

9 The best writer on this extraordinary—and, in his view, productive — development is now J. Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought (Montreal, 2007), Part II.

10 [Gauchet], “Folie”, Le Débat 50 (May–Aug. 1988), 207. This mini-essay on the subject appeared as an entry in a much remarked special issue of the important journal Gauchet edits entitled “Notre Histoire: Matériaux pour servir à l'histoire intellectuelle de la France, 1952–1987.”

11 Gauchet, “A la recherche d'une autre histoire de la folie,” in G. Swain, Dialogue avec l'insensé: Essais d'histoire de la psychiatrie (Paris, 1994), xiii–xiv.

12 Swain's practical experience resonates with the perception of ethnographer Sherry Turkle's interviews in 1973–4 with a French psychiatrist who remarked, “I know how psychotics are; I worked, lived among them. . . for one Artaud, how many patients stay in the hospital all of their lives and never get up out of a chair?” Cited in Turkle, “French Anti-psychiatry,” 175. Gauchet, in retrospect, went further, commenting that having been instrumentally annexed to a cultural–political program, the insane were “liberated” only to be forgotten, with the worst defects of the program of deinstitutionalization (especially in Italy in the United States) remedied by the fortuitous breakthroughs in antipsychotic drug therapies.

13 Gauchet, “A la recherche”, xvi.

14 For later reflections on this retroactive canonization (one by Foucault's teacher, the other by the other major antipsychiatric historian of the era) see Canguilhem, G., “Sur l’Histoire de la folie en tant qu'évènement”, Le Débat, 41 (Sept.–Oct. 1986), 3740CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and R. Castel, “The Two Readings of Histoire de la folie in France,” History of the Human Sciences 3/1 (1990), 27–30, rpt. in Still, A. and Velody, I., eds., Rewriting the History of Madness (New York, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Foucault, M., Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Paris, 1961)Google Scholar. After a complex publishing history, in French and especially in English, a complete translation is finally available as Foucault, History of Madness, ed. J. Khalfa, trans. Khalfa and J. Murphy (New York, 2006). The later Collège de France lecture course has recently been published as Foucault, Le pouvoir psychiatrique: Cours au Collège de France (1973–1974), ed. J. Lagrange (Paris, 2003), in English as Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973–1974, trans. G. Burchell (New York, 2006). Foucault's own interest in these lectures in revising his account was quite simply overwhelmed by the popularity of his older theses in precisely this era.

16 Gauchet, “A la recherche”, xxvi.

17 Ibid., xv.

18 Ibid. (on the Lacan reading circles of the era); and Gauchet, La condition historique, 45 (“no more studious moment than after 68 [when] the most arid books sold like loaves of bread”), and 175–8 (Lacan).

19 See Whitebook, J., “Against Interiority: Foucault's Struggle with Psychoanalysis,” in Gutting, G., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2005), esp. 321–3Google Scholar.

20 In an obituary, this is in fact the main legacy for which Gauchet had praise for Lacan, going on to indict the sectarianism of his followers; but as I will try to show, Lacan's impact goes far deeper. See Gauchet, “Lacan le médiateur”, Express, 18 Sept. 1981. It can be argued that many of the arguments that Gauchet drew from an antireconciliationist Lacan are in fact rooted further back in Alexandre Kojève's idiosyncratic Hegelianism, but this connection must remain implicit in this essay.

21 For such insistence on the different points, see, for example, La condition historique, 176; “A la recherche”, xxi–xxii; and “De Pinel à Freud”, in Swain, Le sujet de la folie: Naissance de la psychiatrie, new edn (Paris, 1997), 24–5.

22 For excellent content analyses of the book see Gros, F., Foucault et la folie (Paris, 1997), chap. 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and LaCapra, D., History and Reading: Tocqueville, Foucault, French Studies (Toronto, 2000), chap. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The landmarks in the historiographical criticism here were H. C. Erik Midelfort on the “ships of fools” and Roy Porter on the geographical particularities of the great enclosure era. See Midelfort, “Madness and Civilization in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault,” in B. C. Malament, ed., After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter (Philadelphia, 1980); Porter, Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (London, 1987); and, on the wreckage and for what might still stand, Still and Velody, eds., Rewriting the History of Madness, as well as G. Gutting, “Foucault on the History of Madness,” in idem, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault.

23 Swain published some earlier versions as “Pinel et la naissance de la psychiatrie: Un Geste et un livre,” Information psychiatrique 52/10 (1976), 1217–28; and idem, “La nouveauté du Traité médico-philosophique et ses racines historiques,” Information psychiatrique 54 (1977), 463–78; the book version is Le sujet de la folie: Naissance de la psychiatrie (Toulouse, 1977) (the edition cited here). Swain noted that she “owed the inspiration for my analysis” to Claude Lefort, something I cannot pursue here. Swain, Le sujet, 32 n. On Gauchet's role in its genesis see Gauchet, La Condition historique, 178–84 (esp. 181), 187–90.

24 Swain herself actually credited the discovery of Foucault's miscitation to Jacques Postel, who also ran a seminar in the history of psychiatry in the era that was the epicenter for a generation's research. Swain, Le Sujet, 46 n; Gauchet, “A la recherche,” xxviii; idem, La condition historique, 187–9. For Swain's case about breaking the chains and further developments, see Swain, Le sujet, 43–6 n. and 119–71; Postel, Jacques, Genèse de la psychiatrie: Les premiers écrits psychiatriques de Philippe Pinel (Paris, 1981), chaps. 13Google Scholar; and D. B. Weiner, “Le Geste de Pinel: The History of a Psychiatric Myth,” in Micale and Porter, Discovering the History of Psychiatry. See also Weiner, Comprendre et soigner: Philippe Pinel (1745–1826), la médecine de l'esprit (Paris, 1999), 27 and passim; and also a number of essays in J. Garrabé, ed., Philippe Pinel (Paris, 1994) (both volumes dedicated to Swain's memory). One might argue that—while he clearly believed in the reality of the events—Foucault himself regarded the breaking of the chains as a disciplinary myth, and he could therefore easily have regarded its falsification as more not less evidence for his proposals.

25 Swain, Le sujet, 22. According to Henri Ey, leading psychiatrist of twentieth-century France, Swain's discovery, seemingly simple, was “fundamental.” H. Ey, “La notion de ‘maladie morale’ et de ‘traitement moral’ dans la psychiatrie française et allemande du XIXe siècle,” Perspectives psychiatriques 65 (1978), 12–36, 21. Ironically, a harsh historicist review appeared in the Lacanian journal of the era, P. Bercherie, “Le phénomène Pinel,” Ornicar? 15 (Summer 1978), 136–8; but cf. the far more laudatory D. Laporte, “Gladys Swain et la naissance de la psychiatrie,” Ornicar? 9 (April 1977), 108–9.

26 Swain, Le sujet, 81.

27 Ibid., 84, original emphasis.

28 Cited in ibid., 96.

29 Ibid., 51–2, original emphasis.

30 Gauchet, “Politique et société: La leçon des sauvages,” Cahiers de l'ISEA: Économies et sociétés, Series S, Études de Marxologie 17 (Oct. 1974), 1563–9, 1567, original emphasis. This piece also appeared as “Politique des sauvages,” L'Anti-Mythes 9 (1975), 27–30. In passing one may note a vague resemblance between this vision of a large-scale successive relationship between religion and psychodynamic theory and that introduced by Peter Homans in The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis (Chicago, 1989).

31 Swain, Le sujet, 85–6, original emphasis.

32 In a recent work, Mark Lilla, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, has argued that human beings are “theomorphic,” i.e. they naturally incline toward religion, even if some societies have dispensed with its authority in politics. For Gauchet, human beings are “heteromorphic,” constituted by self-division—and therefore able to transcend far more thoroughly the particular religious form of self-division. See Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York, 2007).

33 Thanks to Julian Bourg and Jerrold Seigel for encouraging me to focus on these points.

34 Swain, “De Kant à Hegel: Deux epoques de la folie,” Libre 1 (1977), 174–201, rpt. in Dialogue, 20.

35 Swain, Le sujet, 23.

36 Swain, “De Kant,” 20.

37 Gauchet and Swain, La pratique de l'esprit humain: L'institution asilaire et la révolution démocratique (Paris, 1980, 2007); their edition of J.-E. Esquirol is Des Passions considérées comme causes, symptômes, et moyens curatifs de l'aliénation mentale (Paris, 1980), with an introduction and appended historical documents. Their book appears in English as Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe, trans. Catherine Porter (Princeton, 1999), which omits not only whole chapters but also, unannounced, sections of included chapters.

38 Foucault accepted the assignment in several senses but then “sat” on the book so that in the end it received no attention. Pierre Nora (Foucault's editor at Gallimard and Gauchet's sponsor at the publishing house) went so far as to claim that Foucault “was afraid” of Gauchet's conclusions. See P. Nora, “Il avait un besoin formidable d'être aimé,” L'Evènement du jeudi, 18–24 Sept. 1986; and the discussion in Macey, D., The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York, 1993), 424Google Scholar; see also B. Granger, “Entretien avec Marcel Gauchet: Une autre histoire de la folie,” PSN 5/2 (June 2007), 66.

39 “Simplement, il n'a pas fait débat.” Gauchet, “La folie à l'âge démocratique” (a preface newly written for the book's 2007 paperback reprint), i. Only the journal Esprit, which had done the highest-profile review of Swain's provincially printed first book, gave Madness and Democracy much coverage, and Furet wrote a glowing review in Le Nouvel observateur. See Pierre Mayol's review of Swain in Esprit (July–Aug. 1978); then Esprit (1983), with articles by Philippe Raynaud, “La folie à l'âge démocratique”; François Azouvi, “Les ruses de la raison”; as well as an interview with the authors, “Un nouveau Regard sur l'histoire de la folie.” Furet, “Quand l'Etat perd la raison,” Le Nouvel observateur, 19 May 1980.

40 Swain, Le Sujet, 23, cf. 94–106.

41 Cited in ibid., 96.

42 For an excellent content analysis of the book see Wim Weymans, “Revising Foucault's Model of Exclusion: Gauchet and Swain on Madness and Modernity,” Thesis Eleven (forthcoming).

43 See Gauchet, “Tocqueville, l'Amérique, et nous,” Libre 7 (1980), 42–120.

44 Gauchet and Swain, Pratique, 485, 508.

45 I am grateful to Michael Behrent for this formulation. For more on the terms of Gauchet's liberalism of this era, see Moyn, “Savage and Modern Liberty.”

46 In a long 1980 review, Swain could welcome the destructive part of Frank Sulloway's controversial Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (New York, 1979) for this reason. See Swain, “Freud revisité, ou la face cachée de l'inconscient,” Le Débat 4 (Sept. 1980), 144–68, rpt. in Dialogue. For a discussion of their seminar, its shift in focus from 1800 to 1900, and the results, see Gauchet, “A la recherche,” xlix–lvi.

47 Swain, Le Sujet, 106–10; Gauchet, L'inconscient cérébral (Paris, 1993); see also idem, “Du réflexe à l'inconscient,” PSN 5 (June 2007), 89–96.

48 Gauchet's contribution is entitled “Les chemins imprévus de l'inconscient.” For the quotation see Gauchet, La Condition historique, 174. On hysteria see also Swain, “L'âme, la femme, le sexe, et le corps: Les métamorphoses de l'hystérie à la fin du XIXe siècle,” Le Débat 24 (March 1983), 107–27, rpt. in Dialogue. See also Gauchet, “Médecine, politique et société en France, fin XIXe–début XXe siècles,” in J. Poirier and J.-L. Signoret, eds., De Bourneville à la sclérose tubéreuse (Paris, 1991).

49 On this theme see Swain, “D'une rupture dans l'abord de la folie,” Libre 2 (1977), 195–229, rpt. in Dialogue, esp. 39–40, and then Gauchet, “De Pinel,” passim. On the specific transition from Pinel to Esquirol, see Swain, “D'une rupture,” 44–63; and Gauchet, “De Pinel,” 32–9.

50 As Swain put it (though without explicitly citing Lacan anywhere in her thesis), Pinel's discovery “opened an epoch: that in which at least implicitly madness has come to be recognized as the putting into question of the subject as a subject [and] one in which, at the end of an itinerary that remains to be reconstructed, it could be possible to expressly formulate the vacillation or eclipse of the subjective function in psychosis.” Le Sujet, 81.

51 See Gauchet, “A la recherche,” xxi–xxiii; and idem, “De Pinel,” 55–6.

52 Gauchet, “De Pinel,” 23–4.

53 Swain, Le sujet, 93, original emphasis.

54 Gauchet, “De Pinel,” 56.

56 Gauchet, “Essai de psychologie contemporaine: 1, Un nouvel âge de la personnalité,” Le Débat 99 (March–April 1998); and idem, “Essai de psychologie contemporaine: 2, L'inconscient en rédéfinition,” Le Débat 100 (May–Aug. 1998), both rpt. in Gauchet, La Démocratie contre elle-même (Paris, 2002), available in English as “A New Age of Personality: An Essay on the Psychology of the Times,” Thesis Eleven 60 (Feb. 2000), 23–41; and “Redefining the Unconscious,” Thesis Eleven 71 (Nov. 2002), 4–23.

57 See, for example, the sections in his works on collective subjectivity, Le Désenchantement du monde: Une histoire politique de la religion (Paris, 1985, repro. 2005), on the correlation of “être-soi” and “être-ensemble” or, in La Religion dans la démocratie (Paris, 1998), “L'intérieur et l'extérieur.” Once again, the Hegelian reference is pertinent, though Gauchet has joked that seeking this correlation also makes him “an heir, in my rather particular fashion (a very critical heir), of the marriage of Marx and Freud of the 1960s, accepting its ambition while rejecting its expressions.” Granger, “Entretien,” 68.

58 Gauchet, “A New Age,” 37.

59 See Gauchet, “Redefining,” 6–7, for yet another discussion of Lacan's insight and error.

60 Ibid., 23.

61 Ibid., 19, 22.

62 And in any event, as a historian then treating theory as a function of a profession in social context, Goldstein assigned Pinel and his Traité the role of making psychiatry a discipline and emphasized Pinel's critique of charlatanism (not, like Swain, any shift in the interpretation of insanity) as part of a gambit for the professional exclusivity of medical doctors. See Goldstein, J., Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1986), chap. 3Google Scholar.

63 For Goldstein's Freudian terminus, see Goldstein, The Post-Revolutionary Self, epilogue, as well as J. Goldstein, “The Advent of Psychological Modernism in France: An Alternate Narrative,” in Dorothy Ross, ed., Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, 1870–1930 (Baltimore, 1994), in both of which Goldstein works with a dichotomy between horizontal (empiricist) and vertical (psychodynamic) fragmentation, leaving the puzzle of how the more contemporary form of self-fragmentation arose to subvert “bourgeois” selfhood. For Seigel's terminus, see Seigel, The Idea of the Self, epilogue.

64 For these reasons, Gerald Izenberg's major work—from his early study of the existentialist refounding of psychoanalytic insight to his current writing on the post-Freudian invention of the idea of identity, in both of which the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis (e.g. Ludwig Binswanger, Erik Erikson, and Heinz Kohut) retains central importance though Lacan does not—is crucial to the current historiography of the self. See Izenberg, The Existentialist Critique of Freud: The Crisis of Autonomy (Princeton, 1976), and forthcoming. Gerald Izenberg provided my first introduction to the field of the history of the self, and I would like to dedicate this essay to him, with admiration, on the occasion of his retirement from teaching.

65 Gauchet, “Redefining,” 18, translation altered. “L’autre, toujours, au cœur de ces nécessités constituantes,” is perhaps Gauchet's motto. Gauchet, Le Désenchantement, 325.

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