07 May

Canguilhem

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By Stuart Elden

On Valentine’s day 1966, Louis Althusser wrote to his translator and lover Franca Madonia, mentioning that he had met up with Georges Canguilhem, his former teacher. Canguilhem was described by Althusser as “one of our old masters, a fierce man, angry, shy and violent, who convinced himself, after years of mistrust, that we really loved him”.

Canguilhem was certainly much admired by his students, who also included Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Pierre Macherey and Étienne Balibar. He himself was taught by Alain, and his doctoral thesis in philosophy was supervised by Gaston Bachelard. He presided over the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris for many years, and served as Inspector General of Philosophy between 1948 and 1955. But while he was certainly at the heart of French intellectual life for much of the twentieth century, his own writings show a thinker whose importance extends beyond his role in the Bachelard-Canguilhem-Foucault lineage.

Canguilhem was a philosopher and historian of science, whose thesis in medicine became his best-known book, The Normal and the Pathological. His doctoral thesis in philosophy, The Formation of the Concept of the Reflex in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, has to date only been partially translated into English. Almost everything else he wrote developed from his teaching or visiting lectures, collected in a number of books including Knowledge of Life, Ideology and Rationality and the posthumous Writings on Medicine. Canguilhem’s focus was on the sciences of life, including medicine and biology.

My study of Canguilhem was written to introduce the whole of his work. The book sketches his biography, and then treats a range of themes in his writings – on vitalism and mechanism, evolution, psychology, experimentation, monstrosity and disease. Canguilhem approached these topics with a deep knowledge of the source material, examining questions historically in order to understand how we arrived at a particular moment or transition, identifying paths not taken, detours or dead ends. The book discusses all of the well-known writings, but also recently rediscovered texts from the ongoing publication of his complete works, and the archive of his papers and library at the École Normale Supérieure. I hope that as well as providing a way into his work for readers in English it also encourages them to turn or return to his own works.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University. His new book Canguilhem is now available from Polity.