Georges Canguilhem


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Frenchphilosopher and historian of science. Born in Castelnaudary in the Languedoc region, Canguilhem studied at the École Normale Supérieure in the same year as Raymond Aron, Paul Nizan, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Graduating in 1927, he held a series of jobs in lycées in regional France, the last of which was in Toulouse. From 1940–1944 he was active in the Resistance, though in a humanitarian rather than combat capacity (he provided clandestine medical treatment, an offence punishable by death nevertheless), for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He began his study of medicine in Toulouse and finished it in Strasbourg, submitting a thesis entitled: Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathological (1943), translated as The Normal and the Pathological (1978). He argued that the normal and pathological differ quantitatively, not qualitatively, that the difference between the two is not to be found in their essence, but rather the distribution of their elements (putting it crudely, a single pimple is normal, but hundreds of pimples is pathological). As a historian of science, Canguilhem was centrally concerned with what Gaston Bachelard called the epistemological break, that is, the radical shift from one conception of science to another. Canguilhem is also notable in critical theory for his early recognition of the importance of scholars such as Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault and the assistance he gave to their careers. In 1956 he gave a lecture at the Collège Philosophique criticizing his school friend Daniel Lagache, a pre-eminent psychologist, famously saying psychology was equivalent to philosophy minus its rigour, ethics minus its demands, and medicine without verification. He objected to the way the latter's project of unifying psychology and psychoanalysis seemed to lend itself to a kind of instrumentalism that would enable governmental interference in the very psychic lives of individuals. This attack on behavioural psychology created an opening for Lacan's more individualistic psychoanalysis. Similarly, he directed Foucault's thesis and then later advocated his candidature to the Collège de France.

Further Reading:

E. Roudinesco, Philosophy in Turbulent Times (2008).D. Lecourt Marxism and Epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault (1975).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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