Georges Canguilhem

From Academic Kids

Georges Canguilhem (Castelnaudary 1904-1995) was a French philosopher and member of the College de France who specialized in the philosophy of science. He entered the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1924 as part of a class that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron, and Paul Nizan. He agregated in 1927 and then taught in lycées throughout France, taking up the study of medicine while teaching in Toulouse. He took up a post at the University of Strasbourg in 1941, and received his medical doctorate in 1943, in the middle of WWII. Using the pseudonym "Lafont" Canguilhem became active in the French Resistance, serving as a doctor in Auvergne. By 1948 he was the French equivalent of department chair in philosophy at Strasbourg as well. Seven years later, he was named a professor at the Sorbonne and succeeded Gaston Bachelard as the director of the Institute for the History of Science, a post he occupied until 1971, at which time he undertook an active emeritus career. As Inspector General and then President of the Jury d'Agrégation in philosophy, Canguilhem had a tremendous and direct influence over philosophical instruction in France in the latter half twentieth century and was known to more than a generation of French academic philosophers as a demanding and exacting evaluator who, as Louis Althusser remarked, believed he could correct the philosophical understanding of teachers by bawling them out. The latter belief did not prevent him from being regarded with considerable affection by the generation of intellectuals that came to the fore in the the 1960s, including Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan. Students who were attracted to his demand for rigor and erudition -- Althusser once wrote to his English translator that "my debt to Canguilhem is incalculable" (italics in the original, from Economy and Society 27, page 171). Derrida (who failed his agrégation on first attempt) recalled that Canguilhem advised him early in his career that he would have to distinguish himself as a serious scholar before he could exhibit professionally the particular philosophical sense of humour for which he is at turns famous and notorious, advise which Derrida seemed to have taken in earnest.

More than just a great theoretician, Canguilhem was one of the few philosophers of the twentieth century to develop an approach that was shaped by a medical education. He helped define a method of studying the history of science which was practical and rigorous. His work focus on the one hand on the concepts of 'normal' and 'pathological' and, on the other, a critical history of the formation of concepts such as 'reflex' in the history of science. Canguilhem was also a mentor to several French scholars, most notably Michel Foucault.

After years of neglect, the past decade has seen a great deal of Canguilhem's writings translated into English. Among them are a collection of essays entitled A Vital Rationalist and his most celebrated work, The Normal and the Pathological.

Sources and further reading

  • Georges Canguilhem: Philosophie de la vie. François Dagonet. Paris: 1997.
  • Special issue of Economy and Society dedicated to Georges Canguilhem. Economy and Society 27:2-3. 1998.
  • Georges Canguilhem: philosopher of disease. R, Horton. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 88:316-319. 1995.
  • Georges Canguilhem: philosophe, historien des sciences. Balibar, Étienne et al. Paris: Albin Michel. 1993

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