Georges Canguilhem, 1904-1995
Georges Canguilhem, who died on 11 September 1995
at the age of ninety-one, was France’s pre-eminent
historian and philosopher of the sciences. A figure of
immense authority and prestige, he was regarded with
great affection by his many disciples.
Born into a very modest family living in the southwest, Canguilhem was a product of the secular
educational system established by the Third Republic. A
scholarship took the son of a tailor to the Lycee Henri
IV; most of his childhood friends remained on the land.
In 1924, Canguilhem entered the Ecole Normale
Superieure, one of a glittering cohort that also included
Sartre, Nizan, Daniel Lagache and Raymond Aron.
Successfully taking the agregation de philosophie, he
then taught in schools, quickly acquiring a reputation as
a ferocious examiner and as a teacher who did not suffer
fools gladly. Unusually, he subsequently studied
medicine and qualified as a doctor in 1943.
Canguilhem’s postwar career was one of great
distinction. In 1948 he became an education inspector
with responsibility for philosophy and instilled a reign of
terror in the belief that, as Althusser put it, he could
correct the philosophical understanding of teachers by
bawling them out. In 1955 he succeeded Gaston
Bachelard as Professor of the History and Philosophy of
the Sciences at the Sorbonne and as Director of the
Institut d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques. He
held both positions until he began a very active
retirement in 1971.
Canguilhem’s history of the sciences is, like that of
Bachelard, largely a history of discontinuities and
epistemological breaks, but it is also a critical history in
Nietzsche’s sense of the term, calling concepts to account
for themselves before the court of scientific
epistemology. Above all, it is an anti-empiricist history
of concepts, dedicated to exploring the shifts that
structure or remake fields of knowledge as concepts of
normality and pathology emerge, or as fever is defined
as a scientific object. Drawing on both his philosophical
and medical training, Canguilhem wrote mainly on the
life sciences and medicine, producing significant studies
of figures such as Darwin, Comte and Claude Bernard.
As Foucault once remarked, it is almost impossible
to understand the philosophical developments of the
1960s without making reference to Canguilhem’ s history
of concepts. Canguilhem himself was no Marxist, but
was somewhat amused to see the notion of
Radical Philosophy 75 (JanlFeb
epistemological breaks being applied to Marxism. His
work on ideology and rationality inspired much of the·
work on scientific ideologies elaborated by the younger
members of Althusser’ s circle, whilst his violent attacks
on psychology were exploited by the so-called LacanoMaoists of Cahiers pour l’ analyse as they promoted the
supposed scientificity of psychoanalysis.
Canguilhem has left no ‘complete works’; the six
books and innumerable articles he wrote were, in his own
view, simply the traces he left as he pursued his ‘trade’
of teaching philosophy. His work is marked by a certain
philosophical style, combining modesty and patience
with a deep conviction of the moral seriousness of
philosophical work. Although Canguilhem was one of
the major inspirations behind the theoretical antihumanism, his own work is marked by a profound
humanism. Knowledge, he argued, was the daughter of
fear, but it was a tool that could dominate and organize
human existence. Knowledge was a vital element in the
freedom of life.
The same seriousness appears in Canguilhem’ s
politics. A staunch pacifist in his youth, Canguilhem w~s
an exemplary representative of a certain republicanism
and was greatly influenced by Alain, his teacher at Henri
IV. After the fall of France, he resigned his teaching post,
remarking with proud contempt that he had not taken the
agregation de philosophie in order to teach the Vichy
regime’s insipid morality of ‘Labour, Family,
Fatherland’. Like his friend Jean Cavailles, the logician
and mathematician who was shot by the Gestapo in 1944,
Canguilhem became an active member of the Resistance,
working under the nom de guerre ‘Lafont’. In 1944, he
organized a field hospital for resistance fighters in the
mountains of the Auvergne and then evacuated it under
fire. For this, he was awarded both the Croix de Guerre
and the Medaille de la Resistance.
Canguilhem was famed for his sardonic humour and
his violent temper, though his rages were usually directed
against his colleagues rather than his students. Yet the
brusqueness and ill temper went hand in hand with great
intellectual generosity and a genuine kindness. The
simple hospitality and courtesy he showed an English
biographer of Foucault is not easily forgotten.
David Macey’s review of Canguilhem’s Selected Writings
appears on p. 52, above.