‘Pharmakon’: the cure or the poison?

The ancient Greek word “pharmakon” is paradoxical and can be translated as “drug,” which means both “remedy” and “poison”.

In “Plato’s Pharmacy”, Derrida traces the meanings assigned to “pharmakon” in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Derrida notes:

«This pharmakon, this “medicine”, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence».

Derrida points out that the problem of restricting the multiple meanings of a given word is clearly a problem of translation, for the translator must choose, as in the case of “pharmakon”, to either translate it as remedy or as a poison.

From the same root derives another word, “Pharmakos” (Greek: φαρμακος), which becomes later the term “pharmakeus”, meaning druggist, poisoner, by extension, wizard, magician or sorcerer.

In ancient Athens, “Pharmakos” refered to a sacrifice ritual, a kind of societal catharsis, used to expiate and shut out the evil, out of the body and out of the city. “Pharmakos” was the name given to a human scapegoat (a slave, a cripple or a criminal) who was chosen to become an “outsider”, being expelled from the community at times of disaster (famine, invasion or plague) or at times of calendrical crisis, when purification was needed. The evil that had infected the city from ‘outside’ is removed and returned to the ‘outside’, forever. On the first day of the Thargelia, a festival of Apollo at Athens, two men, the “Pharmakoi”, were led out to the outside of the city walls and killed in order to purify the city’s interior: they could be thrown off from a cliff or burned, or, according to the earliest source (the iambic satirist Hipponax), being beaten and stoned, but not executed. In the event of any calamity, they sacrificed one or more humans, after being well-fed, and their ashes were scattered to the ocean.

Plato plays with both ideas in “Phaedrus”. This platonic dialogue happens between Phaedrus and Socrates, who decide to journey OUT of the city to the countryside in order to discuss a written speech by the sophist Lysias, and consequently the virtues of the written word over speech. Socrates compares the written text to a “pharmakon”:

«You seem to have discovered a DRUG for getting me OUT», he says, «A hungry animal can be driven by dangling a carrot or a bit of greenstuff in front of it; similarly if you proffer me speeches bound in books I don’t doubt you can cart me all around Attica, and anywhere else you please» (230d-e).

Madness traverses all Plato’s “Phaedrus” and can be seen as “pharmakon”. Zizek points out:

«…throughout entire philosophy of subjectivity from Descartes through Kant, Schelling and Hegel, to Nietzsche and Husserl, Cogito is related to its shadowy double, “pharmakon”, which is madness».

This concept of “pharmakon” is involved in a famous debate between Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida about the relationship between “cogito” and madness.

Derrida was Foucault’s student during the 1950s. In 1963, Derrida wrote a critique of “Madness and Civilization”, where he described his teacher’s reading of Descartes as a case of «structuralist totalitarianism».

In 1967, Derrida published “Of Grammatology”, the foundational work of his «deconstruction», where he states:

“Reading (…) cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it. (…) There is nothing outside the text.” (Jacques Derrida, “Of Grammatology”).

Although Foucault’s essay about Maurice Blanchot, “Thought from the Outside” (1966), already defies the principles of the derridian system, Foucault waited till 1971 to respond to Derrida’s previous attacks, dismissing deconstruction as a «minor pedagogy», and reproaching his «most decisive modern representative» (Derrida) for

«…the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events which are produced in these practices, so that all that remains of them are marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind the texts, so that we do not have to analyze the modes of the implication of the subject in the discourses; the assignation of the originary as /what is/ said and not-said in the text, so that we do not have to locate discursive practices in the field of transformations in which they effectuate themselves» (Michel Foucault, “Mon corps, ce papier, ce feu”, “Histoire de la folie à l’age classique”).

What is at stake here? It’s the very definition of philosophy, comprising the distinction between textual traces and discursive practices, and, by extension, the relationship between legitimate thinkers and illigitimate thinkers; and, consequently, the choice between two divergent methods of contemporary analysis (genealogy versus deconstruction).

Foucault puts aside the formulation that “there is nothing outside the text”, by which we are caught in endless textual analysis, searching for deeper and deeper interpretations.

Perhaps, bearing in mind the theme of the ‘outsider’ linked to the “Pharmakos”, Foucault accuses Derrida of inability to think the Outside of philosophy, of inability to think how philosophy itself is determined by something that escapes it:

«could there be something prior or external to the philosophical discourse? Can the condition of this discourse be an exclusion, a refusal, an avoided risk, and, why not, a fear? A suspicion rejected passionately by Derrida. “Pudenda origo”, said Nietzsche with regard to religious people and their religion».

Foucault’s method, on the contrary, is not textual analysis, but discursive practice. He analyses “dispositifs”, formations in which texts and statements are interconnected with extra-textual mechanisms of power and control.

After Foucault’s death, Derrida reactivates this controversy, in “To Do Justice to Freud: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis“, saying that the problem had to do with Freud, not with Descartes.

But changing the scapegoat, does it mean any real change at all? – we ask.

Isn’t Freud cartesian? Isn’t Lacan cartesian?

Deleuze, who dedicated a book to Foucault, seems to have understood his differences in relation to Derrida:

«…psychoanalysis, which is the inheritor of a type of thinking which we could call ‘Western thought’, and which says that there are individual statements. And finally, the form or logic of individual statements has been fixed by the “cogito”. It has been fixed by the “cogito” which comprehends the production of statements from the subject, from a subject. “Cogito”: this means that every statement is the production of a subject. It means that firstly; and secondly, it means that every statement splits the subject that produces it. Lacan is the last Cartesian. (…) From Descartes to Lacan, this repugnant thought of the “cogito” is not only a metaphysical thought. (…) This way of linking desire to a beyond, whether it’s that of lack, or pleasure, or “jouissance” [Barthes’ concept], and of posing the dualism between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement. And it isn’t by chance that it’s the same people who are doing it today, ie., the Lacanians. (…) Here one always recovers Descartes, because today we are talking about Descartes, ie., Lacan. (…) Western philosophy has always consisted in saying: if desire exists, it is the very sign, or the very fact, that you are lacking something. Everything starts from that. A first welding of desire-lack is brought about; from there, it goes without saying that desire is defined as a function of a field of transcendence; desire is desire for what one does not have; that begins with Plato, it continues with Lacan» (Seminar of 26 March, 1973).


Some relevant sources, by chronological order:

– Plato’s “Phaedrus“;
– Descartes’ “Meditationes de prima philosophia” (1641);
– Foucault’s “Folie et deraison: Histoire de la folie a l’age classique” (1961);
– Derrida’s “Cogito and the History of Madness” (1963);
– Foucault’s “La folie, l’absence d’oeuvre” (1964);
– Foucault’s “Thought from the Outside” (1966);
– Derrida’s “De La Grammatologie” (1967);
– Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”, in “Tel Quel” (1968);
– Foucault’s “My Body, This Paper, This Fire“, in “Paideia” (1971);
– Foucault’s “Madness & Sorcery”, in “Foucault Live: Interviews” (1966-84);
– Edward Said’s “The Problem of  Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions” (1978);
– Deleuze’s “Foucault” (1986);
– Derrida’s “To Do Justice to Freud: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis“, in “Critical Inquiry” (1994);
– Peter Pál Pebart, “The Thought of the Outside, the Outside of Thought (2000);
– Slavoj Zizek’s “Cogito, Madness and Religion: Derrida, Foucault and then Lacan” (2007).

One thought on “‘Pharmakon’: the cure or the poison?

  1. Pharmakon, as the name should indicate, is not ‘madness’ but ‘habit’. We habituate reason itself as rational consciousness, just as we habituate any other behaviour by practice. In this sense we create our own instincts.

    The use of the word as “drug” is merely analogical. Pharmakon is the basis of reason and as such non-rational, not irrational, which implies that rationality is already normative.

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