The Outsider by Albert Camus and Michael Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: Humanism versus Anti-humanism


Although Michael Foucault is highly respected as a philosopher, Camus is routinely eliminated from prominent discussions of last century’s philosophical developments. In William Barrett’s Irrational Man, for example, Camus is mentioned only once, in passing, on page eight; and in Vincent Descombes’ noted commentary Modern French Philosophy, Camus is not mentioned at all. Yet, Camus’ writings resonate with a profound philosophical humanism akin to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Yet, a comparison of the philosophers’ ideas yields several well-pronounced links between them: on a personal level, both are concerned with “dividing techniques” employed by French society to ostracize “outsiders,” as will be examined further.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to dig out textual anticipations of Foucault’s power/knowledge from the existential writings of Camus. Before attempting the excavation of textual anticipations of Foucault’s power/knowledge from Camus’ novels, however, it is essential at the outset to highlight a possible limitation: Camus’ profound humanism as antithetical to Foucault’s pronounced anti-humanism.

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Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, are known commonly as his “Archeology Project,” unwittingly earned him a reputation as a structuralist – a label that stuck for some time. “In France, certain half-witted ‘commentators’ persist in labeling me a ‘structuralist,'” insists Foucault. “I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structural analysis” (Order xiv). Despite his vehement denial of any such connections, it might be argued that Foucault’s writing, such as Madness and Civilization, does in fact share an anti-humanism intuited by structuralism.

Structuralists argue that speakers of a language, contrary to popular belief, are not the originators of ideas, but rather, merely act as social conduits of a highly normative and conditioned speech, which speaks through them. Ideas, in this sense, are not seen as generating language, but quite the contrary: language is seen as generating ideas, and beyond that, generating them according to strict discursive guidelines.

Thus, meaning is not so much produced by individuals as it is reproduced, according to the localized rules of discourse, or what is and is not considered appropriate language. Tim Woods defines “discourse” as “the variety of linguistic structures in which we engage in dynamic interchanges of beliefs, attitudes, sentiments, and other expressions of consciousness, underpinned as they are by specific configurations of historical, social, and political power” (14-15). For structuralists, even the meaning of a “Man” varies from generation to generation.

The Outsider

At the outset of The Outsider. Meursault arrives at a nondescript nursing home in the nondescript Algiers’ suburb Marengo, where he dutifully holds vigil before a nondescript coffin in a nondescript room – napping, smoking, and drinking coffee. “Gentlemen of the jury,” explains the prosecutor, as if his argument were deemed self-evident by the judge and jury, “on the day after the death of his mother, this man was swimming in the sea, entering into an irregular liaison, and laughing at a Fernandel movie. I have nothing more to say” (Outsider 91).

The prosecutor has “nothing more to say” precisely because the protagonist, Meursault, is being convicted more for not crying at his mother’s funeral than for the senseless murder of an innocent Arab; that is, for breaking the rules of propriety as established by the prevailing social norm. “[…] the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game,” writes Camus in his afterward to The Outsider, adding: To get a more accurate picture of his character, or rather one which conforms more closely to his author’s intentions, you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn’t play the game.

The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But, contrary to appearances, Meursault doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. (Outsider 118)

Perhaps it is not Meursault’s deceased mother in the coffin perched precariously between two chairs, but rather, his public face, or the social fabrication that conforms, or “lies,” in order to fit more comfortably into a community or group. For Meursault – and, indeed, Camus – “playing the game,” or donning false guises to fit comfortably into different roles according to the prevailing social norms, is intrinsically untruthful. A small but compelling example is the yellowing newspaper article, which Meursault finds between his mattress and bed-plank in his cell, about a Czech man who left his wife and daughter to go off and find his fortune.

Upon returning 20 years later, unrecognized by members of his community, the man decides to play a small trick on his unsuspecting family, taking a room in their boarding house. Subsequently, his wife and daughter kill and rob him, only to commit double suicide when they realize his true identity. “… I decided the traveler had deserved it really,” Meursault muses, “and that you should never play around” (Outsider 78). Indeed, Meursault refuses to “play around.” So when Marie asks him to marry her, Meursault simply shrugs and says he really does not mind one way or the other, and that he would marry her if that is what she really wants. Again, he is unable to lie; that is, unconditionally adopting social platitudes that have, for him, no inherent meaning. As Meursault confides:

I explained to her that it really didn’t matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, ‘No.’ She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I’d accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, ‘Naturally.’ (Outsider 45)

Similarly, Meursault is offered a promotion by his boss, a promotion that entails a transfer to Paris – a possibility that, for most Algerian-born French, would be cause for celebration. Meursault’s apathetic response, though, irks his boss. “He looked upset,” Meursault explains nonchalantly to Marie, “and told me that I always evaded the question and that I had no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world” (Outsider 44).

Immersed in the sun and sea, Meursault figures why move to Paris merely to improve his social status? “It’s dirty,” he tells Marie. “Full of pigeons and dark courtyards. The people all have white skin” (Outsider 45). In one full existential swoop, Meursault has taken the wind out of Western civilization’s self-promoting sails: he values Nature – stone, sun, desert, sea, and brown skin – over urbane sensibility. Indeed, Meursault is happy with who he is and where he is, so he does not place value on social status or upward mobility.

Nor does Meursault judge others harshly. When cafe proprietor Celeste insists that Salamano’s ill treatment of his dog is “dreadful,” Meursault simply muses to himself, “in fact you never can tell” (Outsider 31). The old man and the dog, he reasons, have been together so long that they begin to resemble an aged couple; they even begin to take on each other’s peculiar traits, simultaneously loathing and depending on each other and finding solace in this shared banal malcontent.

Meursault, then, refuses to lie, unwilling even to falsify his emotions to appease his defense attorney, who insists that Meursault need only alter his testimony ever so slightly to help his case tremendously. Yet, he admits that he did not feel any pangs of grief when his mother died. “I probably loved mother quite a lot,” replies Meursault calmly, “but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead” (Outsider 65). Obviously, this is not the answer his flustered lawyer wants to hear, and the attorney dutifully interrupts, pleading with Meursault to “promise not to say that at the hearing” (Outsider 65).

At his trial, Meursault feels removed from the proceedings. “I noticed at one point that everyone was meeting and welcoming everyone else and chatting away, as if this were some sort of club where people are happy to find themselves in a familiar world,” thinks Meursault at the beginning of his trial. “That was how I explained the peculiar impression I had of being out of place, a bit like an intruder” (Outsider 82). Indeed, an outsider at his own trial.

Camus and Foucault

As if anticipating Foucault’s “dividing techniques,” or ways in which a community includes or excludes members, Camus seeks to articulate the muted voice of dissension within society. Here, Sartre’s “dualistic ontology” is intriguing, featuring the antithetical concepts of “identity,” or being-in-itself, which is the state of being in nature, as contrasted with “difference,” or being-for-itself, which is the state of being in history (Goss 119). “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world,” Camus agrees. “I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what set me in opposition to all creation” (Myth 51).

Sartre’s “dualist ontology” suggests that Man is based on being in history, or literally, what differs from this moment, while a stone or tree is based on being in nature, or what it simply is. Furthermore, any Cartesian “I” (which Sartre refers to as the “Same”) that thinks, and therefore exists, only serves to bifurcate from, and thereby validate itself against, any perceived “you” or “it” (or what Sartre referred to as the “Other”).

This “Same-Other” ontology logically infers, and thereby validates, the existence of its opposite. A foreigner in Japan, for example, is not unlike Meursault in that s/he is continually confronted (and labeled) with the epithet “outside person,” or more literally, as “a non-Japanese.” The foreigner indeed exists, a presence that externally validates the very essence of being Japanese. “All consciousness is, basically, the desire to be recognized and proclaimed as such by other consciousnesses,” writes Camus. “It is others who beget us. Only in association do we receive a human value, as distinct from animal value” (Rebel 138).

In James Miller’s biography of Foucault, Miller elaborates on how AIDS, too, was judged the disease of inappropriate “Other” – in this case, homosexuals – by the mainstream media in the 1980s. “The disease,” writes Miller, “was felt to be not only ‘strange,’ because of its singular clinical and epidemiologic characteristics, but also ‘foreign,’ coming from ‘strangers.’ It seemed to have burst into one’s orderly world from another world entirely, a world that was underdeveloped and peopled by marginal and morally reprehensible classes” (21).

Miller’s choice of words is intriguing: “stranger,” “another world,” “marginal,” “morally reprehensible,” and “foreign.” Arguably, it is primarily through discourse that homosexuals are marginalized (or divided from) mainstream society, and it is on the fringe of social propriety, in the gray area of human existence populated by “outsiders” that attracts both Camus and Foucault.

Foucault, like Camus, imbues society’s “outsiders,” or the forgotten “Others” (madmen, deviants, vagrants, homosexuals, etc.), with certain enviable qualities. “I have not tried to write the history of (the language of madness),” writes Foucault in Madness and Civilization. “… but rather, the archeology of that silence” (Madness xii).

Consequently, Foucault attempts to repatriate voices marginalized in traditional historical overviews. Through a highly detailed examination of discourse, now known as his “Archeology Project,” Foucault seeks to create a more-inclusive social narrative, one arguably based more on tolerance than social taboos.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault exposes how the discourse of the Middle Ages accommodated madness as the teleological handiwork of God. By the Renaissance, however, the concept of madness bifurcates: first, into the chilling insanity detected in the paintings of Bosch; and second, the more judgmental “folly” presented by Erasmus.

The former is akin to mental illness; the latter to madness as judged by societal standards, whereby deviants are seen as “mad” in the sense of performing acts that deviate from the norm. “Whereas Bosch, Brueghel, and Durer were terribly earth-bound spectators, implicated in the madness they saw surging around them,” writes Foucault, “Erasmus observes it from far enough away to be out of danger; he observes it from the heights of his Olympus, and if he sings its praises, it is because he can laugh at it with the inextinguishable laughter of the Gods” (Madness 24).

Erasmus’ observations are an attempt at objectivity, aloof from the fray, signaling a gradual objectification of madness, a term subsequently ossified through discourse. Madness, then, becomes an object, something out there, easily definable, and judged. “For a moment,” says Meursault midway through the all night vigil at the nursing home, “I had the ridiculous impression that they were there to judge me” (Outsider 15). Perhaps that is exactly what the other mourners were there to do, consciously or not: to divide the “Other” from the “Same.”

Foucault notes that, the Enlightenment accompanied a rapidly nascent rationality accompanied by social taboos regarding madness, codified by means of discursive mechanisms. Suddenly, madness is singled out, and those who are deemed “mad” (literally unproductive) by either the judicial or medical process, are quarantined from the more reasonable (and hence more productive) population. Foucault writes:

For the Catholic Church, as in the Protestant countries, confinement represents, in the form of an authoritari an model, the myth of social happiness: a police whose order will be entirely transparent to the principles of religion, and a religion whose requirements will be satisfied, without restrictions, by the regulations of the police and the constraints with which it can be armed. There is, in these institutions, an attempt of a kind to demonstrate that order may be adequate to virtue. In this sense, “confinement” conceals both a metaphysics of government and politics of religion; it is situated, as an effort of tyrannical synthesis, in the vast space separating the garden of God and the cities which men, driven from paradise, have built with their own hands. (Madness 59)

Ironically, Meursault eludes the insipid mechanisms of this “metaphysics of government and politics of religion,” in two specific ways. First, although confinement is designed to punish as a means of segregating those who do not conform, Meursault is unflinchingly happy even when interred. “I often thought in those days that even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look up at the bit of sky overhead, I’d gradually have to get used to it,” Meursault muses. “… there were those unhappier than I was. Anyway it was an idea of mother’s and she often used to repeat it, that you ended up getting used to everything” (Outsider 75).

Second, Meursault obstinately refuses to accept the notion of a Christian God, despite heavy pressure from his interrogators, who insist he must repent to save his soul, as evidenced in Meursault’s encounter with the chaplain in his cell. “Why do you refuse to see me?” asks the priest. Meursault replies simply that he does not believe in God. The priest continues to plead with him, refusing to accept that someone could not believe in God or the Last Judgment. “According to him, human justice was nothing and divine justice was everything,” Meursault recounts. “I pointed out that it was the former which had condemned me” (Outsider 113). Thus, Meursault rejects history for the present moment; that is, in refusing to acknowledge Christian “truth,” he openly contradicts social values.

Further, in examining judicial discourse with a detailed appraisal of the proceedings at the start of Meursault’s trial in Part Two of The Outsider, Camus interrogates what is and is not considered acceptable language in a court of law and, vicariously, society. When finally asked to speak on his own behalf at his trial, Meursault simply mentions the sun as source for his actions (Outsider 99). This, of course, incites hearty laughter from those in the courtroom, as well as a conspicuous shrug from his befuddled attorney. Subsequently, his peers judge Meursault’s insistence that the sun is at the root of his actions to be a kind of folly; that is, the defendant appears to be guilty more for being unreasonable than for being literally insane.

Thus, Meursault’s comment about the sun is not only inadmissible in a court of law, but it is deemed inappropriate by the community as well. “Madness only exists in society,” states Foucault in a 1961 article for Le Monde. “It does not exist outside of the forms of sensibility that isolate it, and the forms of repulsion that expel or capture it … from this positive expropriation derive both the misguided philanthropy that all psychiatry exhibits towards the mad, and the lyrical protest … which is an effort to restore to the experience of madness the profundity and power of revelation that was extinguished by confinement” (Power/Knowledge 98).

For Sorbonne professor of science Georges Canguilhem, the implications of Madness and Civilization are of profound importance. “[…] every previous history of the origins of modern psychiatry,” explains Canguilhem, “was vitiated by the anachronistic illusion that madness was already given – however unnoticed – in human nature” (Miller 103). Hence, madness is not a genetic disposition, but rather, something defined and imposed on individuals through normative discourse.


Both Camus and Foucault are concerned with repatriating voices traditionally muted or marginalized through discourse. However, it must be acknowledged that Meursault does in fact kill. This raises an important moral question: when, if ever, is it morally acceptable to kill? Interestingly, this question reveals yet another link between Foucault and Camus: both Frenchmen shared a passionate opposition to the death penalty. Yet another, and perhaps more pressing, question remains: does the fact that Meursault’s victim in The Outsider is Arab suggest a latent French colonial impulse in Camus’ writings?

In conclusion, Camus may not have called himself an existentialist, but his writings resonate with its spirit, including a profound humanism shared by Sartre. Structuralism, however, countered Sartre’s claim that existentialism is a humanism, especially his notion of cogito, asserting instead that individuals do not possess any given biological nature outside of social conditioning. This structuralist perspective is often referred to as anti-humanism, a philosophical viewpoint shared by Foucault. Ultimately, Camus’ humanism remains antithetical to Foucault’s anti-humanism. Yet, this limitation in no way diminishes the value of a comparison between Camus and Foucault.

Works Cited

  1. Barrett, William. Irrational Man. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.
  2. Camus, Albert. The Outsider. Trans. Joseph Laredo. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
  3. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1983.
  4. Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International, 1984.
  5. Descombes, Vincent. Modern French Philosophy. Trans. L. Scott-Fox and J.M. Harding. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  6. Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other. Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
  7. Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Rutledge Classics, 1989.
  8. Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  9. Goss, James. “Camus, God, and Process Thought.” Process Studies 4. 2 (Summer 1974): 114-128.
  10. Judt, Tony. The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  11. Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

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The Outsider by Albert Camus and Michael Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: Humanism versus Anti-humanism. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from