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Georges Canguilhem (1904–1995)

Along with Gaston Bachelard and Jean Cavaillès, Georges Canguilhem was one of the central figures in twentieth-century French epistemology and philosophy of science. He entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1924, and passed the agrégation in philosophy in 1927. He began the study of medicine shortly after beginning his first teaching appointment in Toulouse. During the Second World War, Canguilhem was recruited by his friend and colleague Cavaillès into the Resistance, where he would serve as a medical doctor. In 1948, Canguilhem replaced Bachelard as the director of the Institut d’histoire des sciences at the Sorbonne. Canguilhem also served from 1964 to 1968 as the President of the ‘Jury d’Agrégation’ in philosophy, which provided him an institutional influence over the teaching of philosophy and which helped consolidate the future influence of students of allies like Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault

Where Bachelard and Cavaillès specialized in chemistry and mathematics, respectively, biology was the main field of Canguilhem’s scientific concern. In his works The Normal and the Pathological (1943, expanded 1968) and Knowledge of Life (1952), Canguilhem elaborated a concept of life as a phenomenon irreducible to mechanistic or physicalist interpretation, emphasizing its inextricability from the concept of milieu. He also produced investigations into the historical development of certain concepts, e.g., reflex, and maintained a recurrent inquiry into the question of ideology within the field of science itself. This latter concern is paramount in Canguilhem’s contribution to the Cahiers, a reproduction of his 1958 essay, ‘What is Psychology?’ Here, Canguilhem critically assesses the complicity of this ‘social science’ with instrumentalist and mechanist accounts of subjectivity. The essay is notable for developing a conceptual critique that is presented as a history of the concept under fire - psychology - and its historical inability to ‘say what it is doing’ in a manner that is philosophically satisfactory. Canguilhem’s insight into the nature of conceptual extension and restriction was a model influence for the Cercle d’Épistémologie, as evidenced in the epigraph to each issue of the Cahiers: a citation from Canguilhem defining what it means to ‘work a concept [...] conferring progressively upon it the function of a form’.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Georges Canguilhem, ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’, CpA 2.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Robert Pagès, ‘Quelques remarques sur “Qu’est-ce que la psychologie”’, CpA 2.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique. Paris: PUF, 1943. Re-published in an augmented edition with the title Le normal et le pathologique. Paris: PUF, 1966. The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett and Robert F. Cohen. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
  • La Connaissance de la vie. Paris: Hachette, 1952. Re-published in an augmented edition. Paris: Vrin, 1975. Knowledge of Life, trans. Stephanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsberg. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
  • La Formation du concept de réflexe aux XVII et XVIII siècles. Paris: PUF,1955.
  • ‘Mort de l’homme ou épuisement de la cogito?’ Critique, 242, 1967, 599-618. ‘The Death of Man, or Exhaustion of the Cogito?’, trans. Catherine Porter. In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 74-94.
  • Etudes d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. Paris: Vrin, 1968.
  • Idéologie et rationalité dans l’histoire des sciences de la vie. Paris: Vrin, 1977.
  • ‘Le Cerveau et la pensée’ (1980). In Georges Canguilhem, philosophe, historien des sciences. Paris: Alban Michel, 1990. ‘The Brain and Thought’, trans. Steven Corcoran and Peter Hallward. In Radical Philosophy, 148, March/April 2008, 7-18.
  • Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès (1984), Paris: Allia, 1996.
  • La Santé, concept vulgaire et question philosophique. Pin-Balma: Sable, 1990.
  • A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, ed. François Delaporte, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Zone Books, 1990.