22 de mayo de 2017

Georges Canguilhem: Epistemology and the Philosophy of science.

Georges Canguilhem 

Ocupación Filósofo, científico, médico y profesor universitario
Estudiantes doctorales Gilbert Simondon
Distinciones: Medalla de oro del CNRS (1987)

Georges Canguilhem (French: [kɑ̃ɡijɛm] or [kɑ̃ɡilɛm]; 4 June 1904 – 11 September 1995) was a French philosopher and physician who specialized in epistemology and the philosophy of science (in particular, biology).

Life and work

Canguilhem entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1924 as part of a class that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and Paul Nizan. He aggregated 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 Clermont-Ferrand based University of Strasbourg in 1941, and received his medical doctorate in 1943, in the middle of World War II. 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 Institut d'histoire des sciences, a post he occupied until 1971, at which time he undertook an active emeritus career.

In 1983 he was awarded the Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society. In 1987 he received the médaille d'or, awarded by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).
Philosophy of biology[edit]

Canguilhem's principal work in philosophy of science is presented in two books, Le Normal et le pathologique, first published in 1943 and then expanded in 1968, and La Connaissance de la vie (1952). Le Normal et la pathologique is an extended exploration into the nature and meaning of normality in medicine and biology, the production and institutionalization of medical knowledge. It is still a seminal work in medical anthropology and the history of ideas, and is widely influential in part thanks to Canguilhem's influence on Michel Foucault. 

La Connaissance de la vie is an extended study of the specificity of biology as a science, the historical and conceptual significance of vitalism, and the possibility of conceiving organisms not on the basis of mechanical and technical models that would reduce the organism to a machine, but rather on the basis of the organism's relation to the milieu in which it lives, its successful survival in this milieu, and its status as something greater than "the sum of its parts." 

Canguilhem argued strongly for these positions, criticising 18th and 19th century vitalism (and its politics) but also cautioning against the reduction of biology to a "physical science." He believed such a reduction deprived biology of a proper field of study, ideologically transforming living beings into mechanical structures serving a chemical/physical equilibrium that cannot account for the particularity of organisms or for the complexity of life. He furthered and altered these critiques in a later book, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences.

More than just a great theoretician, Canguilhem was one of the few philosophers of the 20th 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 focused 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 Foucault, for whom he served as a sponsor in the presentation of Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (History of Madness) for the Doctorat d'État and whose work he followed throughout the latter's life.

Institutional role

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 of the 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.

This belief did not prevent him from being regarded with considerable affection by the generation of intellectuals that came to the fore in the 1960s, including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan. 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). Likewise, Foucault, in his introduction to Canguilhem's The Normal and the Pathological, wrote:

Take away Canguilhem and you will no longer understand much about Althusser, Althusserism 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, Passeron 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. Further, in the entire discussion of ideas which preceded or followed the movement of '68, it is easy to find the place of those who, from near or from afar, had been trained by Canguilhem.

Derrida 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, advice which Derrida seemed to have taken in earnest.[citation needed]

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.


Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique (1943), re-published with the title Le normal et le pathologique, augmenté de Nouvelles réflexions concernant le normal et le pathologique (1966).
La connaissance de la vie (1952).
La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVII et XVIII siècles (1955).
Du développement à l’évolution au XIX siècle (1962).
Etudes d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences (1968).
Vie et Régulation, articles contributed to Encyclopaedia Universalis (1974).
Idéologie et rationalité dans l’histoire des sciences de la vie (1977).
La santé, concept vulgaire et question philosophique (1988).
Translations into English
Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988).
The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett & Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
Machine and Organism, trans. Mark Cohen & Randall Cherry, in "Incorporations" Ed. by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992).
A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Zone Books, 1994).
Knowledge of Life, trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham UP, 2008).


Francisco Vázquez García
Universidad de Cádiz
 Recibido: 26-12-2013; Aceptado: 07-01-2014.

Cómo citar este artículo/Citation: Vázquez García, Francisco (2014), Redescubriendo a un filósofo híbrido:
Georges Canguilhem, Asclepio, 66 (2): p065, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/asclepio.2014.29

Copyright: © 2014 CSIC.
Este es un artículo de acceso abierto distribuido bajo los términos de la licencia Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial (by-nc) Spain 3.0.

La obra del filósofo y médico francés Georges Canguilhem (Castelnadaury 1904- Marly le Roy 1995) conoce en la actualidad un extraordinario revival. Este se produce tanto a escala nacional francesa como internacional, y con un radio interdisciplinar, involucrando a especialistas de las más diversas materias (genetistas, ecólogos, neurocientíficos, biotecnólogos, médicos, sociólogos, psicólogos, historiadores de las ciencias, filósofos).

Este despegue del interés se inició poco antes de su fallecimiento, y queda testimoniado en la multiplicación de coloquios sobre su pensamiento, monografías en forma de libros o de números de revista, traducciones de sus escritos a diversas lenguas y centros de investigación y documentación que llevan su nombre (Le Blanc, 2003, p. 9; Debru, 2004, pp. 28-29).

Hasta mediados de la década de 1990, Canguilhem era considerado un filósofo relevante pero “menor” (Bouveresse, 2011, p. 8), destacando por el magisterio que ejerció sobre pensadores más conocidos, como Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu o Louis Althusser y su círculo. Más que un filósofo en el pleno sentido de la palabra, se le consideraba como un autor con una obra relativamente reducida, muy confinada en el terreno específico de la historia de la medicina y de las ciencias de la vida, encuadrado en la denominada “escuela de epistemología histórica francesa” (Cavaillés, Koyré, Bachelard, Foucault). 

Los estudios existentes, poco numerosos hasta los años noventa, lo presentaban como heredero del tipo de historia de las ciencias forjada por Gaston Bachelard (a quien sucedió en 1955 como director del Institut d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques de la Sorbonne) y como maestro de Michel Foucault, cuya tesis de Estado dirigió en 1961. Su propia contribución como epistemólogo e historiador de la medicina y la biología, quedaba así un tanto desdibujada entre el análisis bachelardiano de las ciencias físicas y químicas, y los estudios “arqueogenealógicos” de 

Foucault sobre las ciencias humanas.

Esta situación comenzó a cambiar radicalmente a partir de 1994. En esa fecha, la editorial neoyorkina Zone Books publicó una extensa antología de textos suyos (Delaporte, 1994), dando así a conocer su obra al público anglosajón, pues hasta entonces sólo se habían vertido al inglés dos textos de Canguilhem, On the normal and the pathological (1978) e Ideology and rationality in the history of life sciences (1998).

De hecho, el público norteamericano, cuya tradición en epistemología estaba dominada por la filosofía analítica, importada a través de Wittgenstein y de los exiliados del Círculo de Viena,[1] sólo se había interesado por Canguilhem a través del magisterio que este había ejercido sobre Michel Foucault, cuyos textos conocían un verdadero “boom” en Estados Unidos, desde la década de los ochenta. Pero lo novedoso de esa antología es que contenía una completísima bibliografía crítica sobre Canguilhem, realizada por su discípulo Camille Limoges.

Pues bien, en esa bibliografía se incluía a la referencia a más de 100 trabajos de Canguilhem, publicados entre 1926 y 1939, la mayoría artículos de revista y recensiones (en algunos casos firmados con seudónimo), pero también tres libros, uno de ellos un manual (Traité de logique et de morale, 1939, redactado junto a Camille Planet); en los otros casos se trata de escritos breves. El primero, redactado junto a Félicien Challaye, vio la luz en 1932, con el título La paix sans aucune réserve.

El segundo fue encargado en 1935 por el Comité de Vigilances des Intellectuels Antifascistes y se tituló Le fascisme et les paysans. La casi totalidad de ese corpus había pasado desapercibida para la crítica, que rutinariamente databa hasta entonces la primera obra de Canguilhem en 1943, su tesis de medicina, defendida en la Universidad de Strasbourg, replegada en Clermont Ferrand durante la ocupación. Se titulaba Essai sur quelques problémes concernant le normal et le pathologiqie. El propio Canguilhem, por otro lado, siempre había guardado silencio sobre esa primera etapa intelectual suya. Se ponía así al descubierto un “Canguilhem perdido” (Braunstein, 2011), un “Canguilhem antes de Canguilhem” (Braunstein, 2000), de modo que la que se estimaba como su opera prima era en realidad una investigación de madurez.


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