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Georges Canguilhem: Wikis


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Georges Canguilhem (Castelnaudary, Aude, June 4, 1904 – September 11, 1995 in Marly-le-Roi) was a French philosopher and physician who specialized in epistemology and the philosophy of science (in particular, biology).


Life and work

Canguilhem entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1924 as part of a class that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and Paul Nizan. He aggregated in 1927 and then taught in lycées throughout France, taking up the study of medicine while teaching in Toulouse.

He took up a post at the University of Strasbourg in 1941, and received his medical doctorate in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Using the pseudonym "Lafont" Canguilhem became active in the French Resistance, serving as a doctor in Auvergne.

By 1948 he was the French equivalent of department chair in philosophy at Strasbourg as well. Seven years later, he was named a professor at the Sorbonne and succeeded Gaston Bachelard as the director of the Institut d'histoire des sciences, a post he occupied until 1971, at which time he undertook an active emeritus career.

In 1983 he was awarded the Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society. In 1987 he received the médaille d'or, awarded by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).


Philosophy of biology

Canguilhem's principal work in philosophy of science is presented in two books, Le Normal et le pathologique, first published in 1943 and then expanded in 1968 and La Connaissance de la vie (1952). The former is an extended exploration into the nature and meaning of normality in medicine and biology, the production and institutionalization of medical knowledge. It is still a seminal work, in medical anthropology and the history of ideas, and is widely influential in part thanks to Canguilhem's influence on Michel Foucault. The latter is an extended study of the specificity of biology as a science, the historical and conceptual significance of vitalism, and the possibility of conceiving organisms not on the basis of mechanical and technical models that would reduce the organism to a machine, but rather on the basis of the organism's relation to the milieu in which it lives, its successful survival in this milieu, and its status as something greater than "the sum of its parts." Canguilhem argued strongly for these positions, criticising 18th and 19th century vitalism (and its politics) but also cautioning against the reduction of biology to a "physical science." He believed such a reduction deprived biology of a proper field of study, ideologically transforming living beings into mechanical structures serving a chemical/physical equilibrium that cannot account for the particularity of organisms or for the complexity of life. He furthered and altered these critiques in a further book, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences.

More than just a great theoretician, Canguilhem was one of the few philosophers of the 20th century to develop an approach that was shaped by a medical education. He helped define a method of studying the history of science which was practical and rigorous. His work focused on the one hand on the concepts of "normal" and "pathological" and, on the other, a critical history of the formation of concepts such as "reflex" in the history of science. Canguilhem was also a mentor to several French scholars, most notably Foucault, for whom he served as a sponsor in the presentation of Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (History of Madness) for the Doctorat d'État and whose work he followed throughout the latter's life.

Institutional role

As Inspector General and then President of the Jury d'Agrégation in philosophy, Canguilhem had a tremendous and direct influence over philosophical instruction in France in the latter half twentieth century and was known to more than a generation of French academic philosophers as a demanding and exacting evaluator who, as Louis Althusser remarked, believed he could correct the philosophical understanding of teachers by bawling them out. This belief did not prevent him from being regarded with considerable affection by the generation of intellectuals that came to the fore in the 1960s, including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan. Althusser once wrote to his English translator that "my debt to Canguilhem is incalculable" (italics in the original, from Economy and Society 27, page 171). Likewise, Foucault, in his introduction to Canguilhem's The Normal and the Pathological, wrote:

"Take away Canguilhem and you will no longer understand much about Althusser, Althusserism and a whole series of discussions which have taken place among French Marxists; you will no longer grasp what is specific to sociologists such as Bourdieu, Castel, Passeron and what marks them so strongly within sociology; you will miss an entire aspect of the theoretical work done by psychoanalysts, particularly by the followers of Lacan. Further, in the entire discussion of ideas which preceded or followed the movement of '68, it is easy to find the place of those who, from near or from afar, had been trained by Canguilhem."

Jacques Derrida recalled that Canguilhem advised him early in his career that he would have to distinguish himself as a serious scholar before he could exhibit professionally the particular philosophical sense of humour for which he is at turns famous and notorious, advice which Derrida seemed to have taken in earnest.

After years of neglect, the past decade has seen a great deal of Canguilhem's writings translated into English. Among them are a collection of essays entitled A Vital Rationalist and his most celebrated work, The Normal and the Pathological.


Primary literature

  • Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique (1943), re-published with the title Le normal et le pathologique, augmentĂ© de Nouvelles rĂ©flexions concernant le normal et le pathologique (1966).
  • La connaissance de la vie (1952).
  • La formation du concept de rĂ©flexe aux XVII et XVIII siècles (1955).
  • Du dĂ©veloppement Ă  l’évolution au XIX siècle (1962).
  • Etudes d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences (1968).
  • Vie et RĂ©gulation, articles contributed to Encyclopaedia Universalis (1974).
  • IdĂ©ologie et rationalitĂ© dans l’histoire des sciences de la vie (1977).
  • La santĂ©, concept vulgaire et question philosophique (1988).

Translations into English

  • Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988).
  • The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett & Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
  • A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Zone Books, 1994).
  • "Knowledge of Life", trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham UP, 2008).

Secondary literature

  • Georges Canguilhem, philosophe, historien des sciences, Actes du colloque organisĂ© au Palais de la DĂ©couverte les 6, 7 et 8 dĂ©cembre 1990 par Etienne Balibar, M. Cardot, F. Duroux, M. Fichant, Dominique Lecourt et J. Roubaud, Bibliothèque du Collège International de Philosophie/Albin Michel, Paris, 1993, ISBN 2226062017.
  • François Dagognet, Georges Canguilhem: Philosophie de la vie (Paris: 1997).
  • Michel Foucault, "Introduction" to Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological.
  • R. Horton, "Georges Canguilhem: Philosopher of Disease," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 88 (1995): 316-319.
  • Paul Rabinow, "Introduction: A Vital Rationalist," in Canguilhem, A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings.
  • Economy and Society 27:2-3 (1998). Special issue dedicated to Canguilhem.
  • Dominique Lecourt, Georges Canguilhem, Paris, PUF/Que sais je ?, fĂ©vrier 2008.

External links


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