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Jean Cavaillès (1903–1944)

Along with Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, Jean Cavaillès was a foundational figure for twentieth-century French epistemology and philosophy of science. Born in Saint-Maixent to a Protestant family descendent from the Huguenots, Cavaillès matriculated first in his class at the École Normale Supérieure in 1923. Léon Brunschvicg would be his primary mentor and responsible for Cavaillès’s engagements with mathematics and logic at a time when many of his classmates were looking for resources in German existentialism to move beyond Third Republic idealism. Cavaillès’s doctoral works on the historical advent of set theory method more generally laid the groundwork for his critical essay, Sur la logique et la théorie de la science (1946). This essay took the form of a progressive assessment of neo-Kantianism, logical positivism, and Husserlian phenomenology, ultimately finding all three inadequate to a modern theory of science as a result of their reliance either on a solipsistic account of consciousness (as in the first and third cases) or a tautological version of logic (as in the second) that lacked traction on scientific objects themselves. Cavaillès’s clarion call at the end of this essay - ‘It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science’ - was a source of inspiration for the editors of the Cahiers. The inspirational character of Cavaillès’s theoretical intransigence was compounded by his political heroism. One of the founding members of the Resistance movement Libération-Sud, Cavaillès participated in various clandestine missions throughout France and helped to coordinate Resistance efforts from London in 1943. He escaped from prison twice, first after his initial capture following the German invasion in 1940, and again after being captured by Vichy authorities in 1942. It was during this second period of imprisonment that Sur la logique... was written. In September 1943, he was arrested in Paris for the last time and executed by a Wehrmacht firing squad on February 17, 1944.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘La Suture (Éléments de la logique du signifiant)’, CpA 1.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
François Regnault, ‘Dialectique d’épistémologies’, CpA 9.4 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Méthode axiomatique et formalisme. Paris: Hermann, 1938.
  • Remarques sur la formation de la théorie abstraite des ensembles. Paris: Hermann, 1938.
  • Sur la logique et la théorie de la science. eds. Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Paris: PUF, 1946 (1960, Vrin, 1976, 1997, 2008). ‘On Logic and the Theory of Science’, trans. Theodore Kisiel. In Phenomenology and the Natural Sciences: Essays and Translations, ed. Joseph J. Kockelmans and Theodore J. Kisiel. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
  • Philosophie mathématique, ed. Roger Martin. Paris: Hermann, 1962.
  • Oeuvres complètes de philosophie des sciences, ed. Bruno Huisman. Paris: Hermann, 1994.