Foucault's Change of Attitude Toward Psychology in 1953

In this historical piece, in opposition to the received view, I suggest that rather than dismiss Foucault’s first book, Mental Illness and Personality, as an “apologetic exposition of Pavlov’s reflexology,” we ought see it as a valuable source documenting Foucault’s change of attitude towards psychology and the history of science in the early 1950s. I argue that there are two distinguishable strands that make up the text. The ‘frame’ of the book—the introduction, first chapter of the second part and conclusion of the book—is expressive of a critical attitude towards psychology, and indicative of rather sophisticated conception of the history of science as a critical history aimed at bringing into view the unscientific forces that shape scientific labor. The ‘main body’ of the text—the first part and the second chapter of the second part—by contrast, reads as the history of the steady dialectical progress of the psychological sciences towards an ever more accurate understading of mental illness. It is thus indicative to a naïve approach to psychology and to its history. The tension between the two strands of the book thus documents the starting point of Foucault’s then shifting attitudes toward the psychological sciences and the history of science, and the set of questions and sources that lead him to problematize his understanding of and approach to the latter.