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The Changing Meaning of Concepts Throughout History Essay

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In this essay I will summarize how the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault have recorded how the meanings of certain concepts have changed through history, paying close attention to the texts of Nietzsche’s “Good and Evil, Good and Bad” and Foucault’s “The Insane”. I will also suggest what I believe are the philosophical lessons that they think we can draw from recognizing these changes. In the chapter from his book Madness & Civilization,”The Insane”, Michel Foucault charts the changing conceptions of madness from the Renaissance through to the Neo-Classical Age.

He notes how during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, though madness was sometimes treated as a personification of evil, it was something that was openly dealt with, the public outrage giving the perceived evil “the powers of example and redemption. ” (Foucault, P. 66) The mad were neither a source of shame or taboo, ” madness was present everywhere and mingled with every experience by its images or its dangers. ” (Foucault, P. 66) However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Enlightenment, and the emergence of the ‘man of reason’ drastically changed people’s attitudes towards the insane: ‘… adness was shown, but on the other side of bars; if present, it was at a distance, under the eyes of a reason that no longer felt any relation to it and that would not compromise itself by too close a resemblance.

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After the Enlightenment a new set of values became prevalent, where reason was now considered the defining characteristic of being human, and therefore it followed that to be unreasonable was to be essentially inhuman. Foucault notes that to the ‘enlightened’ men of the time: ‘… the) animality that rages in madness disposesses man of what is specifically human in him; not in order to deliver him over to other powers, but simply to establish him at the zero degree of his own nature.

With their new perspective on the world, the people of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe now “felt a shame in the presence of the inhuman that the Renaissance had never experienced” (Foucault, P. 68), the mentally ill were not seen as possessed or evil or ill but as a shameful sideshow, barely more than animals, provoking the “mocking laughter and the insulting pity” (Foucault, P. 9) of the regular spectators who at the time would regularly pay a small fee into the asylums to gawk at them. (Foucault, P. 68) Foucault draws further attention to the inhumane treatment of the institutionalized mad during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Considered by their unreasonable behaviour to have fallen into bestiality, and that their “animality, in fact, protected the lunatic from whatever might be fragile, precarious, or sickly in man” (Foucault, P. 4), they were treated as such and he records: It was common knowledge until the end of the eighteenth century that the insane could support the miseries of existence indefinitely. There was no need to protect them; they had no need to be covered or warmed. (Foucault, P. 74) Not simply did men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seen madness as a fall into bestiality, the frenzied behaviour and irrationality of the madman was to them a shameful lapse into man’s basest level. It was important for their self image to disassociate themselves from the mad.

Foucault notes that: Madness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself, but an animal with strange mechanisms, a bestiality from which man had long since been suppressed. (Foucault, P. 70) He contrast this to the view of the Church, who slow to take on the burgeoning attitudes of the Enlightenment, still seen madness with a humanity absent from from the attitudes of the ‘men of reason’. He suggests the Church found in madness “a difficult but essential lesson: the guilty innocence of the animal in man.

Foucault seems to be trying to show in his essay, through the descriptions of the treatement of the mentally ill, that we can learn a lesson from the irony that these “enlightened” attitudes towards madness, held with such firm belief at the time, now, in a modern context would be seen as extremely inhumane and cruel. A lesson that we must be careful in believing the prevalent conceptions of our time are free from our own inherent biases. In his essay “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”, Nietzsche calls attention to the fact that our conceptions of good and bad have changed drastically over the centuries.

He traces the genealogy of the word good back to its origin in the Classical Age and records how it was was originally conceived as something wholly different to how it is today: The origin of the opposites good and bad is to be found in the pathos of nobility and distance, representing the dominant temper of a higher, ruling class in relation to a lower dependent one. (Nietzsche, P. 160) Nietzsche states that the morality of the nobility of the Classical Age was more immediate, where the notions of good, and pure were synonymous simply with their own being noble as opposed to plebeian, with their own natural dominance and impulsivity.

The word pure, for example, was devoid of it’s current religious connotations: The pure man was originally one who washed himself, who refused to eat certain foods entailing skin diseases, who did not sleep with the unwashed plebeian women, who held blood in abomination – hardly more than that.

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