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Georges Canguilhem - Biography

Georges Canguilhem, was a French philosopher and physician. He was born on June 4, 1904 and died on September 11, 1995. He was a French philosopher and physician who became particularly famous as a historian of science and epistemologist. He was especially interested in the history of medicine and in the “vivant” (living) in general. One of Georges Canguilhem’s most important theses would be that the living cannot be inferred from physico-chemical laws only. He believed that we must start our research with the living itself in order to be able to understand life. Biology’s objects of study are not reducible to analysis or to a logico-mathematical breakdown. Georges Canguilhem was born on June 4th 1904 in Castelnaudary in the south of France. He would do his high school studies at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris where one of his teachers would be the famous French philosopher and journalist Émile-Auguste Chartier (1868 - 1951), better known by the pseudonym “Alain”. The latter would permanently influence the young student. It is noteworthy that in turn Georges Canguilhem would have a significant influence on, amongst many other of his students, the famous historian of systems of thought Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984).

Georges Canguilhem would enter the École Normale Supérièure, which is the most prestigious French school for humanities studies, in 1924. His classmates included Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980) and Raymond Aron (1905 - 1983). In 1927 he would get his agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies). After this he would complete his medical studies while also being professor. He wrote his dissertation on the philosophy of medicine and titles it Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique (“An essay on some problems concerning the normal and the pathological”). This work would later be published and become a central work in philosophy.

Together with Gaston Bachelard (1884 - 1962) and his classmate Jean Cavailles (1903 - 1944), Georges Canguilhem would have considerable influence on the philosophy of sciences in France and beyond. As a specialist in epistemology and the history of science, he would produce significant publications on the constitution of biology as a science. He would also be instrumental in medicine, psychology, as well as with the concept of “scientific ideologies” by reinterpreting one of Karl Marx’s (1818 - 1883) major concepts in the latter’s book The German Ideology (written in 1846 but first published in 1932) and written with Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895).

Georges Canguilhem would join the resistance during the Second World War and would play the role of a doctor at first. In 1941 he would be appointed lecturer at the University of Strasbourg where he stayed until 1948. In 1943 the Gestapo would invade the University of Clermont-Ferrand where the University of Strasbourg had found refuge. At this point Georges Canguilhem would manage to escape and take significant responsibility in the unified leadership of the resistance in the region. In June 1944 he would participate in the battle of Mont-Mouchet, a high mountain south of Clermont-Ferrand where he succeedd in creating a field hospital of which he would end up organizing the evacuation under fire of the enemy.

Georges Canguilhem would be appointed directeur de l’inspection générale de philosophie (“Director of the General Inspection of Philosophy”) in 1948. In 1953 he took over from his master Gaston Bachelard and became Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris and became director of the Institut d’histoire des sciences (“Institute of History of Science”). Georges Canguilhem held the position until 1971 mentored an impreesive list of students such as Patrick Vauday (1959 - ), François Dagognet (1924 - ), Gilles Deleuze (1925 - 1995), Dominique Lecourt (1944 - ), Camille Limoges (1942 - ), José Cabanis (1922 - 2000), Donna Haraway (1944 - ). and Michel Foucault. Georges Canguilhem supervised Michel Foucault’s doctoral dissertation, the critically celebrated Folie et déraison, histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age).

Georges Canguilhem’s work would also be key for the field of ethics and in analyzing the so-called normal and pathological with a book titled Le normal et le pathologique in 1966 (“The Normal and the Pathological”) and La connaissance de la vie (“Knowledge of Life”) in 1952. Le normal et le pathologique is a book that was in fact initially his medical doctoral thesis which he had presented in 1943. The expanded book version would come over twenty years later and would thus be improved by for example the addition of philosophical reflections on the term “normal” in medicine.

The work begins with a historical study on the identity of both normal and pathological phenomena, uncovered as characteristic of a dogmatic thought in nineteenth century medicine. The second part of the book is a systematic study in the form of a critical analysis of concepts like normality and pathology. More broadly speaking, the text is about the production and institutionalization of scientific knowledge. Today Le normal et le pathologique remains a fundamental text in medical anthropology. The text has had a great impact through the deep and long term influence Georges Canguilhem would have on Michel Foucault. Michel Foucault would be asked to write an introduction for the book and would write:

“[...] 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, and 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.”

La connaissance de la vie is a study about the specificity of biology as a science together with the conceptual and historical significance of the old concept of “vitalism”. Vitalism is the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a principle distinct from purely physical forces. La connaissance de la vie suggests the possibility of not conceiving of the body as a independent machine, but rather to consider it in terms of its relationship with the environment in which it lives and its survival in such conditions. Georges Canguilhem would energetically argue against the mechanistic thesis and would support the vitalistic one of Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675). According to Georges Canguilhem a mechanical reduction would deprive biology, leaving us unable to account for the specificity and complexity of life. He would develop such critiques further in later studies Idéologie et rationalité dans l’histoire des sciences de la vie (“Ideology and Rationality in the History of Life Sciences”) in 1977.

Georges Canguilhem critiqued the concept of “precursor” which assigns a special status to the researcher who has stated an idea before its subsequent formal formulation. This notion rested on the illusion that we can project an idea into the future in isolation from the whole conceptual field in which it operates. He explained in his 1955 La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (“The formation of the concept of reflex in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”) that the French philosopher René Descartes (1596 - 1650) is not the father of the concept of reflex, and that the term “reflex” is present in his oeuvre. Georges Canguilhem’s points of interest are on the nature of research, the intentions of those who do it, and the conceptual systems into which it constitutes itself.

All throughout his own research Georges Canguilhem had insisted on the irreducible specificity of the living, making a partial rehabilitation of “vitalism”. Such specificity of the living is due according to him to its individuality. After his doctoral thesis he would be adamant that a purely statistical concept of reality is not the way to go, and that we must instead always somehow relate such concepts to the individuality of the living.

In 1987 Georges Canguilhem would be the recipient of the prestigious gold medal from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique or CNRS (“French National Centre for Scientific Research”). Georges Canguilhem would die on September 11th 1995 in Marly-le-Roy, France at the age of 91.

Georges Canguilhem was a French philosopher and physician. (June 4, 1904 - September 11, 1995)