Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995); Biography and famous works

Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) is a French philosopher and historian of science. He was 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 offense 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, and that the difference between the two is not to be found in their essence, but rather in 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.

In critical theory, Canguilhem is also notable for his early recognition of the significance of scholars like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault and his support of their careers. He famously stated that psychology was equivalent to philosophy without rigor, ethics without the demands, and medicine without verification in a lecture that he gave in 1956 at the Collège Philosophique. In the lecture, he criticized his school friend Daniel Lagache, a prominent psychologist. 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 behavioral 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.

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