- A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem
One of the questions that most preoccupied Georges Canguilhem was that of the nature of the history of science. What, he asked, is the history of science a history of? Given the current state of my discipline, I can scarcely imagine a question more urgently in need of asking, or one more difficult to answer. But to Canguilhem, it seemed clear: The object of the history of science, he argued, is “the historicity of scientific discourse” (p. 14)—that is, of the concepts and internal norms that were historically deployed in the building of any given science. By definition, the history of science is, for Canguilhem, intellectual history, for “without concepts, there is no science” (p. 30). By the same token, it is necessarily also a philosophical project, for only the analysis and criticism of these concepts “confers the dignity of history of science” on the historian’s efforts (p. 30). [End Page 740]
Clearly, this work is from another era—a time, for example, when it could be taken as a matter of course that it is not only possible but necessary to distinguish science from other aspects of culture; when it seemed radical to insist on the historicity of science’s relation to “fields of validity,” yet unthinkable to question the fact of that relation. The publication of Canguilhem’s selected writings (many appearing in English translation for the first time) provides a sharp reminder of just how far the history of science has come over the last few decades, and for many it will seem like a breath of fresh air. Certainly, not much in the current literature can rival it for erudition, imagination, or provocation.
Georges Canguilhem is concerned with large questions—many of them about the nature of life, of biology, and the relations between these two apparently different kinds of phenomena. While he is duly respectful of the enormous advances of molecular biology, it is thinkers like Aristotle and Claude Bernard who remain his heroes; indeed, he is persuaded of a thematic continuity to this very day—for example, in the notion of heredity as “the communication of a certain kind of information” (p. 316), or in “the concept of the organism as a regulative totality” (p. 302) (for Canguilhem, the most crucial concept of biology).
The distinctive capacity for self-regulation is, finally, what binds the science of living things to medical science, and forestalls its collapse into physics: “Even within the terms of a . . . materialist epistemology, physics remains radically different from biology. Physics was produced, sometimes at risk of life and limb, by living things subject to sickness and death, but sickness and death are not problems of physics. They are problems of biology” (p. 215). Canguilhem, like Aristotle, would go further yet: The science of life is to the science of inanimate things as life itself is to the inanimate. Both are the products of conservation and innovation, living histories of error and triumph over error. Like life itself, “knowledge is an anxious quest for the greatest possible quantity and variety of information” (p. 319).
Georges Canguilhem is not easy to read, but with only a few exceptions, François Delaporte’s skillful editing has succeeded in making his writings both accessible and intelligible to English-speaking readers.