The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

What is Scientific Ideology?

Introduction to (ieorges Canguilhem

Mike Short/and

Take away Canguilhem and you will no longer
understand much about Althusser, Althusserianism
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, Passerson 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. 1
Many readers will find Foucault’s recent tribute to
Canguilhem a little disconcerting. And what of
Althusser’s own remark that ‘I feel bound to acknowledge the obvious or concealed debts which bind us to
our masters in reading learned works, once Gaston
Bachelard and Jean Cavailles and now Georges
Canguilhem,?2 Disconcerting … and perhaps even
obtrusive. For, ten years after Althusser, Bourdieu,
Lacan (and Foucault himself) first appeared in translation, we are all now in some senses party to the
industry of criticism they inaugurated; indeed, now
that we are moving into the calmer waters of ‘poststructuralism’, it is disturbing to be reminded of
an almost neglected part of our intellectual ancestry..

All we have of Canguilhem’s work in English is his
1943 doctoral thesis on pathological structures with
some ‘New Reflections’ dated 1963-66, an essay on
models and analogies in biology, a couple of brief
articles on the history of animal physiology, and his
short lectures on psychology. 3 This, and a small
harvest of criticism. 4 The major writings of his
predecessor at the Institut d’Histoire des Sciences
et des Techniques de l’Universit~ de Paris, Gaston
Bachelard, remain untranslated and will be known only
through Lecourt’s study and the articles by Gaukroger
and Bhaskar. 5 Cavaill~s’ pioneering work on axiomatic methodology, set theory and the logic of science
has been even more poorly served. 6 The article we
publish below remains the most general and accessible
statement of Canguilhem’s views on the nature of the
history of the sciences. Apart from the intrinsic
interest the article may have as a contribution to
the ‘deontology’ of that discipline, we hope that its
publication will prove to be the first step in
illuminating an area of work which has hitherto
escaped notice in this country.

Three questions are commonly asked about the
practice of the history of the sciences: Who? Why?

and How? As Canguilhem elsewhere suggests,7 the
answers to the questions Who? (which clearly implies
the question Where?) and Why? reveal an ominous
ambiguity in the siting of the discipline between
philosophy, history and science. The philosopher

appears to need it because any theory of knowledge
disassociated from epistemology would be splintered
into timeless (and spaceless) fragments, and because
without a history of the sciences epistemology would
simply involve repeating ad nauseam the statements
of the science it proposed to deal with. This should
not, however, be taken to suggest that the history
of the sciences can be a testing ground for epistemology; to do so would involve us in equating the
object of that history with the object of science
itself. That is: to advance the epistemological thesis
that there exists an eternal, unitary scientific
method. Far from assuming that science, so to speak,
comprehends its history within itself, Canguilhem
wants epistemological judgements to be made on the
basis of the past of knowledge and knowledge of the

Epistemology, then, serves to provide the history
of the sciences with judgements founded on the current
discourses of science, whereby the historian can
retrace the steps any particular science takes until
the point is reached at which that science becomes
epistemologically unintelligible. In other words,
epistemology can be deployed to discern two types of
history: the history of ‘lapsed’ knowledges and the
history of knowledges which are ‘sanctioned’ by the
current activities of scientific research. s Presentday sciences do not furnish us with ready-made
‘truths’ which can be used to form a teleology, but
can instead be the instruments to help us understand
and explain how, and in what ways, notions and attitudes which have been displaced by progress are truly
part of their own pasts, rather than simply being
labelled ‘non-scientific’ or ‘ideological’, or, as
Canguilhem suggests below, being characterised as
scientific ideologies.

Thus, the history of the sciences has a historical
object: the historicity of scientific discourse.

(Canguilhem’s position here links up firmly with
Bachelard’s historical epistemology.9) Though the
full import of this approach to the practice of the
history of the sciences can only be gauged from
Calguilhem’s case studies,lO it is possible to
indicate some of the consequences it will entail for
the theory of that history.

Since each science has its own properly constituted
object, its own norms, rhythms and temporalities, the
history of the sciences cannot be written in the
language of continuity or evolution – as the measure
of a uniform drift towards the better. Science
proceeds instead through a process of re-organisation
(in respect to its object and norms) and a process of
rupture and mutation (in relation to ideologies and

pre-scientific knowledges and so on). Each of these
steps, or breaks, or progressions has the effect of
recasting the history of a science and of reformulating its epistemological foundations.

The practical consequences of a theory of history
which accords relative autonomy to the space in which
theoretical problems generated by scientific practice
can be studied, is twofold: to purge what Canguilhem
terms the ‘virus of the precursor’, and to eliminate
the ‘epidemic of accidents,.ll The search for accidents and precursors – or even their ‘unexpected
discovery’ – requires the historian to isolate any
explanatory system from its cultural context and allow
theoretical problems and concepts free play in a
wholly disengaged, uncontaminated intellectual space.

Moreover, it denies the specificity and effect of the
social formation in which scientific practices are
inscribed and transforms historical relations into a
logic of scientific development. As the article
shows, Maupertuis can only be viewed as a precursor
to Mendel at the cost of reducing the theory of
heredity to a meditation on an eternal theme – a
theme derived of course and aZways from ‘common-sense’

observations, and held together by the ambiguity of
metaphors or linguistic terms. Much the same might
be said of the ‘accidental’ discovery of Mendel’s
paper on plant hybridization after it had gathered
dust for 34 years.

In summary, then, Canguilhem is saying that a
philosophy of history which inspires the narrative of
chronicles and contingencies simply degenerates into
the specifically epistemological annihilation of the
actual historicity of knowledge. His project is an
attempt to reinstate this historicity by reuniting
two disciplines: the history of the sciences – which



‘takes ideas as facts’ – and epistemology, which
‘takes facts as ideas by inserting them into a conceptual system,.l2 Until now we have had to gauge
the success of this venture by examining the work of
those influenced by Canguilhem’s method and approach.

The publication of what is a Scientific IdeoZogy?

will, we hope, stimulate a more informed discussion
of the nature and practice of epistemological history
and a more profound understanding of the work of
Foucault, Althusser, Serres, Dagognet and Lecourt.

We invite readers to contribute to that discussion
with comments, notes or articles.





Michel Foucault, ‘Introduction’ to G. Canguilhem, On the NOY’mal and the
Pathological, Dordrecht, Holland, 1978, p. ix. See al so Foucaul t’ s
‘Georges Calguilhem: Philosopher of Error’, Ideology & Consciousness, 7,
Autumn 1980, p.51.

Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, London, 1970, p.16n.

‘The Role of Analogies and Models in Biological Discovery’, in Scientific
Change, ed. A.C. Crombie, London, 1963; A General History of the Sciences,
ed. Ren~ Taton, London, 1963-6, Vol.II, pp.527-39 and Vol.III, pp.414-21,
‘What is Psychology?’, Ideology & Consciousness, 7, Autumn 1980.

See D. Lecourt, Marxism and Epistemology, London, 1975; Colin Gordon, ‘The
Normal and the Biological: a Note on Georges Canguil hem’, Ideo logy &
Consciousness, 7; Mike Shortland, ‘Disease as a Way of Life’, Ideology &
Consciousness, 9, Autumn 1981.

D. Lecourt, op.cit.; S.W. Gaukroger, ‘Bachelard and the Problem of
Epistemological Analysis’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science,
7, 1976; R. Bhaskar, ‘Feyerabend and Bachelard’, NeUJ Left RevieUJ, 94,
Nov-Dec 1975.

Jean Cavaill~s. Sur la logique et la theorie de la science, Paris, 1947 and
Philosophie matMmatique, Paris, 1962.

i.e. in ‘L’Obiet de l’histoire des sciences’, in Etudes d’histoire et de
philosophie d~s sciences
See’ L ‘Histoire des sc; ences dans l’ oeuvre ~pist~mo logique de Gaston
Bachelard’ and ‘Gaston Bachelard et 1es Philosophes! in Etudes.

See Canguilhem’ s ‘Sur une Epistemo10gie Concordataire’, in Hommage b: Gaston
Bachelard, ed. G. Bouligand et al., Paris, 1957.

e.g. La Formation du Concept de Reflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe Si~cZes, Paris,
1955 and La Connaissance de la Vie, Paris, 1965.

Etudes, p. 20.

Gaston Bache1ard quoted in Etudes, p.l77.

Scientific Ideology?

Georges Canguilhem
Translated by Mike Shortland
What is a scientific ideology? The question, which
seems to me to be posed by the practice of the history
of the sciences, is one whose solution would have an
important bearing on the theory of that history.

After all, is not the first thing we need to determine
of what the history of the sciences claims to be a
history? The easy answer seems to be that it is a
history of those forms of culture that are sciences.

But it still remains to specify by what criteria any
practice or discipline, in any historical period, can
be judged to merit its self-imposed title of science;
for it is a matter of title, that is, of a claim to
privileged status. And then we are bound to ask
whether the history of what is genuine science must
exclude or tolerate, or else claim and incorporate a

history of the evictions of the fraudulent by the
genuine. Eviction is used intentionally here, to
indicate the juridical dispossession of a title acquired in good faith. Unlike Voltaire, we have long
ceased to lay superstitions and false sciences to the
charge of frauds and intrigues cynically invented by
crafty dervishes and perpetuated by ignorant
nursemaids. l
What we are dealing with is clearly more than a
technical problem, or a problem of historical methodology concerned with the past of scientific knowledges
such as it can be reconstituted from documents and
archives. The problem is really an epistemological
one concerning the permanent mode in which scientific
knowledges are constituted in history.

In his Report to the First Session of the Xllth
International Congress of the History of the Sciences,
Les Facteurs du developpement de l’histoire des
sciences, Professor Suchodolski posed a similar question in these terms:

If the whole of the history of science to the
present day were instead the history of ‘antiscience’, this would no doubt prove things could”
not have been otherwise and would in all likelihood remain so in the future …. The history of
science as a history of truth is quite unreal isable. The conception itself is internally
contradictory. 2
We shall need to return to this notion of antiscience
a little later to examine the extent to which it can
be reconciled with our conception of ideology.

In fact, our question really arises in the practice
of the history of the sciences. For up to the present
day, few historians of science have applied themselves
to this question, and, amongst those who have, we
cannot help being struck by the astonishing absence
of criteria. Few historians of mathematics allow for
a study of the magical and mystical properties of
numbers in their work. If historians of astronomy
continue to devote some space to astrology – in spite
of the fact that Copernicus overturned the chimerical
foundations of the horoscope in 1543 3 – this is only
because positional astronomy is indebted to astrology
fOF several centuries of observations. But a good
number of historians of chemistry take account of the
history of alchemy and incorporate it into the succession of ‘stages’ in chemical thought. Historians of
the social sciences (of psychology for example) seem
more embarrassed about the problem. Two-thirds of
Brett’s history of psychol ogy4 is given over to a
critique of theories of the soul, mind and consciousness, most of which predate the appearance of the very
term ‘psychology’ and a fortiori the formulation of
the modern idea of psychology.

Is it relevant to speak of a scientific ideology?

Can the term adequately designate and delimit all the
discursive formations that claim to be theoretical,
the more or less coherent representations of relations
between phenomena, the relatively stable parameters of
lived experience? In short, can it delineate those
pseudo-knowledges whose unreality derives solely from
the fact that a science is essentially established
through a critique of them?

The present-day standing of the notion of ideology
has an ancestry beyond question. It derives from the
vulgarisation of the thought of Marx. Ideology is an
epistemological concept with a polemical function,
applied to those systems of representations which are
expressed in the language of politics, morality,
religion or metaphysics. These languages assume the
task of expressing the truth about things, whereas
they are in fact the means to protect and defend a
situation, that is, a system of relationships between
men and things. Marx denounces ideologies in the name
of the science he claims to inaugurate: the science of
men who make their own history (but not under conditions of their own choosing).

It has been asked how the term ideology, borrowed
from 18th-century French philosophy, was charged by
Marx with the significance it bears today. According
to Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy, ideology was the
science of the genesis of ideas. 5 Its aim was to
treat ideas as natural phenomena expressing the relation of man – conceived as a living, sensual organism
– to his natural environment. Despite their premature
positivism, the ideologists were anti-theological and

anti-metaphysical liberals. As such they were at
first deceived by Bonaparte’s political actions and
thought him the rightful executor of the French
Revolution. But once these Bonapartists turned antiNapoleonic, they were scorned and persecuted by
Napoleon 1,6 and it was he who reversed the image they
had wanted to project. Ideology was denounced as a
metaphysics and as a branch of sterile speculation in
the name of a political realism which formulates
legislation on the basis of a knowledge of human feelings and the lessons of history.

So we can see that, in the sense he gave to the
term ideology, Marx preserved the idea of an inversion
of the relation between knowledge and things. Ideology, which began by designating a natural science of
man’s acquisition of ideas modelled on reality, designated henceforth any system of ideas produced as the
effect of a situation condemned from the outset to
misunderstand its relation to the real. Ideology consists of the displacement of the focus of a study.

But can the notion of a scientific ideology be
included within the general Marxist notions of ideology without distortion? Apparently not. In The
German Ideology, Marx categorically counterposes
political, economic, legal and religious ideologies
to the science of economics, that is, to the science
he intends to constitute. Science authenticates itself by tearing aside the veil that is ideology’s
whole and only reality. This seems to turn scientific
ideology into a logical monstrosity. By definition,
all ideology is a movement, in the double sense of
distance and decentering: distance from reality and
decentering relative to the point of investigation
from which it imagines itself to set off. Marx is
determined to show that, confronted by the Marxist
science of economics, all politico-economic ideologies
appear as products of a class situation which prevents
bourgeois intellectuals from seeing, in what they
believe to be a mirror, that is to say a science
indicating real things, anything other than the
inverted image of the relationship of man to man and
of man to nature. None of these ideologies state the
truth, even though some are less distant from it than
others. All are illusory. And by illusion, we must
no doubt understand a mistake, a misapprehension, but
also a reassuring fabrication: an unconscious willingness to accept judgements governed by ieterest. 8 In
short, Marx seems to me to have assigned a compensating function to ideology. Bourgeois ideologies are
reactions symptomatic of the existence of conflicting
social situations, that is, of class struggles, and at
the same time they deny in theory the concrete problem
whose existence brings these struggles about.

It might be thought strange that in The German
Ideology Marx does not number science amongst the
ideologies. This is indeed remarkable. Certainly, in
criticising Feuerbach, Marx accuses him of failing to
understand that the so-called ‘pure’ science of nature
receives its means and its objectives from industry
and commerce; that is, from man’s material activity.

But does this authorise no difference of epistemological status between that type of ideological
discourse Marx terms liberal economics and sanctioned
discourses such as electro-magnetism and celestial
mechanics? Certainly, it is true that the development
of astronomy during the 18th and 19th centuries was
dependant upon the manufacture of optical and chronometrical instruments. The determination of longitude
at sea during the 18th century was a theoretical problem which made an appeal to the technologies of clockmaking for commercial ends.

And yet, by virtue of the convergence of efforts
supported by technologies and economies quite unlike
it in terms of their associated ideologies, is not
Newtonian celestial mechanics today receiving immense


experimental verification in the technologies of
artificial satellite research and astronautics? To
say that the science of nature is not independent of
successive modes of the exploitation of nature and of
the production of wealth is not to deny the autonomy
of its problematic and the specificity of its method.

Nor is it to render that science relative, in the
sense that economics and politics are, to the ruling
ideology of the ruling class at any given moment in
social relations. In the Contribution to the
Critique of Political Economy, Marx met what he
called a ‘difficulty’, namely, the fact that art,
which is related by its productions to the social
world, could retain a permanent value outside its
historical conditions and after these had disappeared.

Can Marxists deny Greek geometry what Marx allowed
for Greek art?

But, for all that, are we forbidden to give any
meaning to the concept of scientific ideology because
we cannot number scientific knowledges amongst ideologies? We must distinguish form and content in the
realm of ideology. Marx explicitly declares that
ideologies will come to an end once the class that
assumes through necessity the task of ending all class
relations actually fulfills its dialectical obligations. Ideological, political, religious and moral
illusions will then, quite literally, have served
their turn. But history will nonetheless continue.

Or, to be more precise, it will begin. This is a
history concerned with certain relations to nature.

So we need to ask whether some new relations to
nature can be established in advance by virtue of the
clarity and foresight of science in its historical
development. On the other hand, for men to relate
confidently to nature in new ways, can we not maintain the view that the production of scientific
knowledges will demand, in the future as in the past,
a priority for intellectual adventureness over rationalisation, a certain presumptuousness in going beyond
what should already be known with prudence and cau-


tion? Were this the case, scientific ideology would
be both the obstacle to and sometimes also the condition of possibility for the formation of science. In
this event the history of the sciences should include
a history of scientific ideologies, recognised as
such. What would be the advantage of elaborating the
epistemological status of this concept? Let us see.

In contrast to political class ideologies, a scienti 7
fie ideology is not false consciousness. Neither is
it false science. The characteristic of a false
science is that it never has to face falsity; it does
not need to renounce anything and never has to change
its terminology. For a false science, pre-scientific
states do not exist. Its discourse cannot accept
contradiction. In short, false science has no history. Scientific ideology, as we shall come to see
when we examine the case of atomism, does have a
history. It comes to an end when the position it
occupied in the annals of learning is supplanted by
a discipline which can demonstrate operationally the
validity of its own norms of scientificity. When this
occurs, a certain domain of non-science is determined
by exclusion. We are using the term non-science here,
rather than M. Suchodolski’s ‘antiscience’, simply to
allow for the fact that within scientific ideology
there exists the explicit intention of being a
science, of imitating some model of an already
existing science. This seems to me essential. The
existence of scientific ideologies implies that parallel scientific discourses already exist and, in consequence, that the separation of science and religion
has already been enacted. In the case of atomism,
for example, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius all
claimed the status of science for their physics and
psychology. In opposition to antiscience, that is,
religion, they proposed antireligion; that is, their
science. Scientific ideology is obviously the misunderstanding of the methodological requirements and
of the operational possibilities of science in that
area of experience in which it seeks to lay its hold
– but it is not a scorning, ignorance or denial of
the function of science. Thus, ideology must certainly not be confused with superstition since it occupies a place – albeit by usurpation – in the realm of
knowledge and not in that of religious belief.

Besides which, we cannot call scientific ideology
superstitition if we adhere to the latter’s strict
etymological sense. Superstition is the maintenance
of a representation from ancient religion which has
not been eliminated by the interdicts of the new
religion. Scientific ideology is really over-positioned in relation to the site science will come to
occupy. But in addition scientific ideology is displaced. When a science comes to occupy the site that
ideology seemed to indicate for it, it does not do so
in the anticipated position. When 19th-century
chemistry and physics constituted scientific knowledge of the atom, the latter did not appear in the
space assigned to it by atomist ideology, that is to
say, in the space of the indivisible. What science
discovers is not what ideology led us to look for.

When the context of orientations and methods is so
different that the technique of crushing matter and
the theory of the convergence of measurements can be
distinguished, the persistence of words has no bearingon the issue. Indeed, what ideology announced as
simple finds a scientific reality in a coherent mass
of complications.

I hope to be able to find in the Mendelian theory
of heredity another example of the process whereby an
ideology is dethroned. Historians of biology seldom



fail to look to Maupertuis in their search for precursors of genetics. In his Venus physique
Maupertuis was concerned with the mechanism of the
transmission of normal and anomalous morphological
traits: he invoked the calculation of probabilities
to decide if the frequencies of similar anomalies
were, or were not, fortuitous, and he explained the
phenomena of hybridization by supposing the existence
of seminal atoms – that is, of hereditary elements
combined at the moment of conception. 9 Yet merely
putting the texts of Mende1 and Maupertuis side by
_ side is enough to establish clearly the difference
between a science and the ideology it expels. Mende1
does not study the facts caught by a phenomenology of
first impressions, but those determined by research.

And this research, in turn, is determined by a problem, a problem without precedent in pre-Mende1ian
literature. Mende1 invented the concept of character
to signify the element of what is transmitted hereditari1y and not the elementary agent of that transmission. This Mendelian character could combine with n
other characters, the frequency of its reappearance
in different generations being measurable. Mende1
had no interest in structure, fecundation, or development. As far as he was concerned, hybridization was
not a means to establish the constancy or inconstancy
of any global type, but the means to break it up – it
was an instrument of analysis, and, given access to
a ”large sample of cases, a tool to disassociate
characters. He is only interested in hybrids in
order to break with the hundred-year-01d tradition
of interest in hybridization. He has no interest in
sexuality, nor in the debate over the innate and the
acquired, nor even in that over preformation and epigenesis. Mendel’s sole interest is in verifying,
mainly through calculations of combinations, the consequences of his hypothesis. ID Whatever Mende1 neglects is, conversely, whatever interested those who
were not in reality his predecessors. The 18thcentury ideology of hereditary transmission was
desperate for observations, for accounts of the production of animal or vegetable hybrids, and for the
appearance of monstrosities. This avid curiosity
had several purposes: to decide between preformation
and epigenesis, between ovism and anima1cu1ism, and
thence to resolve juridical problems concerning the
subordination of the sexes, paternity, the purity of
genealogical 1jnes and the legitimacy of aristocracy.

These preoccupations overlap the problems of the
inheritance of psycho-physiological traits, that is,
the debate between innatism and sensual ism. The
technique of hybridization found as much support in
the agronomist’s intere~t in discovering improved
varieties as it did in the botanist’s interest in
determining relations between species. Maupertuis’s
Venus physique cannot be uprooted from its historical
context and superimposed on the Versuche Uber
PfZanzenhybriden to effect a partial correspondence.

Mendelian science was not situated within the parameters of the ideology it supplanted for the simple
reason that this ideology had many different parameters, and none of these were ever set out by those
who worked within them. They were inherited from
traditions of various ages. Ovism and anima1cu1ism
do not arise from the same epoch as the empirical or
mythological arguments in favour of aristocracy. For
the science of heredity, the ideology of heredity
(here the term ascends from science to ideology; in
the case of atomism it descended from ideology to
science) is an exorbitant aim, a naive desire to
resolve a whole range of problems of theoretical and
practico-juridica1 importance without criticising
their foundations. Here ideology disappears either
by reduction, or by being cut down to size. But it
is in vanishing as a badly founded science that it


appears as ideology. A collection of observations
and deductions is qualified as ideology once it has
been disqualified as science by a discourse which
delimits its own area of validity and which proves
itself by the coherence and integration of its own


If, in assigning a status to scientific ideOlogies,
it is instructive to study how they disappear, it is,
I believe, even more instructive to examine how they
come into being. I propose to examine briefly the
genesis of a 19th-century scientific ideology: evolutionism. The work of Herbert Spencer offers us an
interesting case for analysis. Spencer believes that
he can formulate a mechanical law of universal progress via the evolution from simple to complex across
successive differentiations. The movement from more
to less homogeneity and from less to more individuality is the universal law of the formation of the solar
system, the animal organism, living species, man,
human societies, the products of man’s activity and
thought and, first and foremost, the universal law
of the formation of language. Spencer explicitly
declares that his law of evolution was obtained by
generalising the embryo1ogica1 principles of Kar1Ernst von Baer (Uber EntwickeZungsgeschichte der
Tiere, 1828).11 The publication of The Origin of
Species (1859) confirmed Spencer’s own conviction
that his system of general evolution was ranged at
the same level of scientific validity as Darwinian
biology. But to bring the guarantees of a more
apodeictic science than the new biology to his law of
evolution, Spencer flatters himself that he has
deduced the phenomenon of evolution from the law of
the conservation of energy by referring to the instability of the homogeneous. To anyone who follows
Spencer’s thought through the progressive elaboration
of his work, it appears that first von Baer’s biology,
and then Darwin’s, seem to furnish him with a scientific guarantee, something like an engineer’s project
in 19th-century English industrial society: to legitimize free enterprise, the corresponding political
individualism, and competition. The law of differentiation ends in the support given to the individual
pitted against the state. But, if this is where it
explicitly ends, perhaps this is because this is also
where it implicitly began.


The extension of mechanics, or epigenetist embryology, and of transformist biology beyond their authorised field, cannot be justified by any of those
sciences. When theoretical conclusions are detached
from their own premisses, freed from their context
and extended to the totality of human and, more
particularly, social experience, we need to ask what
the purpose of such a transfusion of scientificity
can be. The purpose is practical. Evolutionist
ideology functions as the self-justification of the
interests of a particular type of society – industrial
society – when it is in conflict with traditional
society on the one hand, and the demands of workers
on the other. It is both anti-theological and antisocialist. Here we return to the Marxist concept of
ideology as a representation of natural or social
reality whose truth lies not in what it says, but in
what it silences. Of course, 19th-century evolutionism cannot be reduced to Spencerian ideology. But
this ideology did have a more or less permanent effect
in colouring linguistic and ethnological researches,
in giving a lasting sense to the concept of the
primitive and in easing the conscience of colonising
races. We can still see active traces of it in the
behaviour of advanced societies towards societies
deemed to be ‘on the road to development’. And this
even after cultural ethnology has recognised the
plurality of cultures and has apparently proscribed
any society setting itself up as a norm of assessment
and a yardstick of the levels of attainment of others.

In disposing of their evolutionist origins, contemporary ethnology, linguistics and sociology have
brought a sort of proof of the fact that an ideology
disappears when the conditions that make it a historical possibility have also disappeared. The scientific theory of evolution has not remained exactly what
Darwinism was; for Darwinism is only a moment
integral to the history of the constitution of the
science of evolution. By contrast, evolutionist
ideology has remained a sterile residue within the
history of 19th-century social science.

By analysing a few examples, I hope that I have
delimited the area in which scientific ideologies
appear as well as the manner in which they are constituted. In characterising them, I have to insist
again that they must not be confused with the
ideologies of scientists, that is, the ideologies
scientists themselves generate in the discourses they
use to situate science within culture and in relation
to other cultural forms. The ideologies of scientists
are philosophical ideologies. Scientific ideologies
would more properly be the ideologies of philosophers
– discourses aiming to be scientific which are upheld
by those that are still, in the given field, only
presumptive, or presumptuous scientists. During the
18th century, the concepts of Nature and Experience
were part of the ideology of scientists, whereas the
concepts of ‘organic molecule’ (Buffon) and ‘chain of
being’ (Bonnet) were concepts of a scientific
ideology within natural history. 12
I would, therefore, propose the following

Ca) Scientific ideologies are explanatory systems
whose object is exaggerated in comparison to the
borrowed scientific norm that is applied to it.

(b) A scientific ideology always pre-exists a
science, and does so in the area that the science
will come to occupy. There is always a science prior
to an ideology, but in an area to one side which the
ideology cross-cuts at an angle.

(c) Scientific ideology must not be confused with

false sciences, with magic, or religion. Like them,
scientific ideology is indeed driven by an unconscious need for access to totality, but it differs in
being a belief which languishes alongside (louche)
an already instituted science whose prestige it
recognises and whose style it attempts to emulate.

This being so, I must finish where I began, and
propose a theory of the history of the sciences which
would throw light on its practice.

A history of the sciences which treats a science
in its historical development as an articulated
succession of factual truths has no need to occupy
itself with ideologies. So, it is appropriate that
historians of this school leave ideology to historians of ideas or, what is worse, to philosophers.

A history of the sciences which treats a science
in its historical development as an elaborated purification of norms of verification cannot concern
itself with scientific ideOlogies. What Bachelard
distinguished as the history of lapsed sciences and
the history of ratified sciences needs to be separated and, at the same time, interwoven. 13 The ratification of truth or objectivity also entails a condemnation of the lapsed. But if what will at a later
stage come to lapse does not first of all present
itself for ratification, then verification has no
grounds for making truth appear.

So the separation of science and ideology should
prevent us placing some elements of an apparently
preserved ideology and the scientific construction
which unseated it in a continuous sequence within a
history of the sciences. It should prevent us lookin the R~ve d’Alembert for a foretaste of The Origin
of Species.14
But the interweaving of science and ideology
should also prevent us from reducing the history of
the sciences to the platitudes of a chronology, that
is, to a kind of featureless painting with neither
shadow nor relief.

The historian of the sciences needs to work, and
present his work, on two levels. If this is not done,
if the specificity of scientific ideology is neither
recognised nor given a place – a place on a level
distinct from the various levels of scientificity then the history of the sciences risks being no more
than an ideology. An ideology in the sense, this
time, of a false consciousness of its object: a knowledge as far from its given object as it thinks itself bound to it. Here ideology would be the misunderstanding of the fact that any knowledge with a
critical grasp of its project and its problem knows
from the start that it is at some distance away from
its operationally constituted object.

In attempting to write only a history of truth, we
make an illusory history. M. Suchodolski is quite
right on this score: the history of the truth alone
is a contradictory notion.

Translator’s Note
This is a translation of ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une id~ologie
scientifique?’ which appears in Georges Canguilhem’s
Id~ologie et rationalit~ dans l’histoire des sciences
de la vie, Paris, 1977, pp.33-45. Though
Canguilhem’s prose is for the most part clear and
consistent, I have broken up some of the longer
sentences and amalgamated others to render it into
unambiguous English. I should like to thank Clare
Fischer for her help.







Cf. the article ‘Prc’)jugc’)s’ in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire phiZosophique.

XIIe Congr~s International d’Histoire des Sciences, Colloques, Textes des
Rapports, Actes, Tome lA, Paris, 1970, p.34.

T.S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Cambridge, Mass., 1957; Angus
Armi tage, The World of Copernicus, Wakefield, 1972; Alexandre Koyrc’) , From
the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, 1957, and The
Astronomical Revolution, London, 1964 (trans.).

George Sidney Brett, A History of Psychology (3 vols.), London, 1912

The word ideology was first used by the French philosopher Destutt de Tracy
(1755-1836) in his Elements d’ideologie (4 vols.), Paris, 1801-15. See
Raymond Williams, Keywords, London, 1976, under’ Ideology’ (trans.).

‘His [Napoleon’s 1 scorn of industrial hommes d’affaires was the complement
to his scorn of ideologists.” K. Marx, ‘The Holy Family’, in Karl Marx
and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vo1.4, London, 1975, p.123.

According to Marx, the political ideologies of the F:-ench and English during
the 18th century were hss far from their real found~tions than the
religious ideology of the Germans.

In the Communist Manif,?sto the illusion which consists, for the bourgeoisie,
in believing those social relations in which it is dominant to be eternal
is qualified by the notion of an ‘interest-governed conception’.

See, for eicample, Bentley Glass, ‘Maupertuis, Pioneer of Genetics and
Evolution’, in Forerunners of Darwin 1745-1859, B. Glass, O. Temkin, W.L.





Straus (eds.), Baltimore, 1959. A discussion of Maupertuis’ Venus
physique more in line with Canguilhem’s can be foun~ in Jacques Roger,
Les Sciences de la vie dans la pensee fran’1:,aise du XVIIIe si?!cle, Paris,
1971 (2nd edition), pp.468-487 and passim ‘(trans.).

Cf. Jacques Piquemal, Aspects de la pensee de Mendel, Paris, 1965.

Von Baer (1792-1876) was the greatest of the early 19th-century comparative
embryologists and the most able proponent of epigenetic thinking. The best
survey of his work remains untranslated: Boris Raikov, Karl Ernst von Baer
1792-1876. Sein Leben und sein Werk, Leipzig, 1968, but Jane M. Oppenheimer,
Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
1967, is reliable. J. Arthur Thomson still offers the fullest account of
Spencer’s biological views: Herbert Spenc<:r, London, 1906. Also useful is
J.W. Burrow, Evolution and Society. A Study in Victorian Social Theory,
Cambridge, 1966 (trans.).

On Buffon (1707-88) see Jacques Roger, op.cit., pp.527-84; R. Wohl, ‘Buffon
and his Project for a New Science’, ISIS, 51, 1960, and P.L. Farber, ‘Buffon
and the Concept of Species’, Journal for the History of Biology, 5, 1972.

For Bonnet (1720-93) see B. Glass, op.cit., p.164ff, and Arthur o.

Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1936, pp.283-7
and passim (trans.).

See G. Bachelard, L ‘Activite rationaZiste de la physique contemporaine,
Paris, 1951, pp. 35-40 and ‘L’ Actual i tc’) de l’ histoire des sciences’ in
L’Engagement rationaZiste, Paris, 1972, pp.137-52 (trans.).

For an example of this approach, see Lester G. Crocker, ‘Diderot and
Eighteenth Century French Transformism’, in B. Glass, op.cit.,
pp.114-44 (trans.).


Women and Political Thought
Susan akin, Women in Western PoZiticaZ Thought,
Virago, 1980, £4.50
One of the central tasks of classical political
theory-has been to consider what kinds of social
organization are necessary, or possible, in the light
of human nature. A particular conception of human
nature (e.g. that humans are naturally aggressive)
carries with it a host of implications about the
kinds of institutions which are required to regulate
social life. This book explores the way in which
four political philosophers – Plato, Aristotle,
Rousseau and Mill – have characterised the nature of
both men and women. It also shows how some of their
ideas live on in the works of modern thinkers
(Talcott Parsons and Erikson) and in sexually discriminatory US court decisions.

akin’s central thesis is that, to arrive at a
conception of human nature, two quite different kinds
of questions have been asked, depending on whether
men or women are at issue. To establish the nature
of the male, the question ‘What are men like?’ has
been posed. Typically, men are seen as having a more
or less limitless potential, as individualistic,
assertive~ rational and creative.

To establish the
nature of the female, however, the question asked has

been ‘What are women for?’. Women’s nature has been
defined (by men) in terms of her perceived function,
in particular, her function as child-bearer and childrearer. The social institution in which these functions are to be enacted is the family. It is as
mother and wife that woman fulfils her essence, caring for her children and her husband, to whose
authority she is subject.

Both of these conceptions are prescriptive, though
in somewhat contradictory ways. Rousseau, for
example, condemned slavery as degrading to man’s
essence. It was, he said, both offensive to nature
and to reason ‘for a man to give up his life, freedom,
and right to himself, to another’ (quoted p.143).

Here a conception of man’s essence is used to condemn
an oppressive social institution. When it comes to
women, however, the situation is reversed. The
married woman is expected to renounce her freedom.

She is subject to her husband’s will, even to the
extent that ‘if he blames her, she is blameworthy;
and if she has acted innocently, she is guilty as
soon as she is suspected; for even preserving appearances is part of her duty’ (quoted p.165). Rousseau
is not (generally speaking) critical of this situation. He is critical of women who refuse to accept
their ‘natural’ role and to act in accordance with it.

Loosely, it is wrong for a man, but right for a woman,

Download the PDFBuy the latest issue