Canguilhem and "French Epistemology"

Arthur Goldhammer

Remarks prepared as comment on papers by Jean Gayon and Claude Debru

Boston University Colloquium: "Topics in French Philosophy of Science," May 6-7, 1996.

In Le Normal et le Pathologique, Canguilhem wrote: "When one knows that the word norma is Latin for ‘carpenter’s square’ and that normalis means ‘perpendicular,’ one knows almost all there is to know about the realm in which the meanings of the terms norm and normal originate, and from which those terms were imported into a wide variety of other realms." This recourse to the etymology of an ancient tongue in order to bring an abstract concept down from the Kantian or neo-Kantian empyrean to the cozy homeliness of a craftsman’s toolbox calls to mind the practice of another philosopher, Martin Heidegger. It is pleasant to think that when Dasein took up its famous hammer in Being and Time, written in 1927, it had first squared its work with Canguilhem’s norma, which made its appearance only in the second part of Le Normal et le Pathologique, written in 1963, by which time the name Heidegger was of course a philosophical force to be reckoned with in France.

But what, precisely, is the relation between Canguilhem and Heidegger? Michel Foucault, in his introduction to the English translation of Le Normal et le Pathologique, attempted to establish, if only by implication, a more substantial relation between the two thinkers. Let me briefly recall the steps of Foucault’s argument. He begins by drawing a distinction between two kinds of philosophy in postwar France: "a philosophy of experience, sense, and subject" on the one hand and "a philosophy of knowledge, rationality, and concept" on the other. The first type of philosophy he associates with the names Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, the second with the names Cavaillès, Bachelard, and Canguilhem. He then says: "In other words, we are dealing with two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France, when, quite late, around 1930, it finally began to be … recognized. Contemporary philosophy in France began in those years." Finally, Foucault links this belated advent of phenomenology in France to what he calls the "question of Enlightenment," which he characterizes as a "theme almost surreptitiously introduced into late-eighteenth-century philosophy," when "for the first time rational thought was put in question not only as to its nature, its foundation, its powers, and its rights, but also as to its history and geography; its immediate past and present reality; its time and place."

Foucault wrote this introduction in 1978, more than a decade after the publication of Les Mots et les Choses, the work that, among other things, contains his sharpest attack on "philosophy of experience, sense, and subject" and is his most ambitious attempt to historicize "the philosophy of knowledge, rationality, and concept" using the notion of epistemic succession. Les Mots et les Choses is of course the fruit of Foucault’s understanding of Heidegger and Nietzsche: it is Heideggerian in its characterization of epistemic systems as partial thematizations of occurrent entities picked out by some pragmatic stance toward the world and Nietzschean in its conviction that such rationalizations, as we may call them, conceal unavowed or unavowable motives and exact unanticipated or unintended tolls, not excluding blindness, madness, cruelty, and death.

By implication, then, Foucault’s introduction to Canguilhem’s most important work has the effect of making Canguilhem out to be Foucault’s precursor. For according to Foucault, Canguilhem’s philosophy of the concept was one of the two routes by which phenomenology entered France, and that entry permitted a reading of Heidegger which found its ultimate expression in the work of Foucault’s that preceded by a few years his introduction to Canguilhem.

Now, the irony here is that one of Canguilhem’s important lessons is precisely his critique of the idea of a precursor in the history of science. "A precursor," Canguilhem wrote, "is one about whom one can only know afterwards that he came before." In other words, mere priority in time and similarity of subject matter are no warrant for assuming that one thinker’s work figures in another’s. Thoughts interact not as diffuse Boltzmannian gases of molecules colliding with greater or lesser probability according to their energy and density but as structural members that can be pieced together to make models, or multiplied by analogy to populate theories, or stretched to make more capacious concepts. When Canguilhem applies this critical epistemological method to historical sources, he discovers affinities between thinkers who, by other criteria, one might have thought antithetical, like Broussais and Bernard, and cleavages between thinkers like Bernard and Pasteur, whom one might have thought conjoined in the Whiggish Pantheon of success.

But Foucault, who profitably employed methods similar to if not derived from Canguilhem’s in La Naissance de la clinique and L’Histoire de la folie, exhibits a most un-Canguilhemian way of doing the history of philosophy in the introduction I have been considering. His implicit designation of Canguilhem as a precursor of himself ignores Canguilhem’s critique of the concept of precursor. In drawing a line from Husserl and Heidegger to Canguilhem, Cavaillès, and Bachelard and finally to himself, he certainly did Canguilhem a favor, by drawing Canguilhem’s work into the orbit of his own, by then far more influential project of inflecting the "question of Enlightenment" in a Foucauldian sense. But if the phrase "French epistemology," the ostensible subject of this conference, has any meaning at all, it surely has something to do with acknowledging the distortion that superficial and misleading continuities introduce into the past. The recognition of discontinuity is crucial if we are to do the past the elementary justice of not confounding it with the present.

What do we find when we look at Canguilhem’s work? First, that he was not in any meaningful sense a phenomenologist. Neither was Bachelard. Cavaillès is another matter. He, at least, had read Husserl early on, had looked into his sources, and had engaged with his way of looking at the world. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to develop his intuitions. Surely he and Canguilhem must have discussed Husserl frequently in the decade between Cavaillès’s trip to Germany in 1928 and the outbreak of World War II. They were close friends and, as everyone knows, comrades in the Resistance. But philosophically speaking, Canguilhem, who had read Aristotle with Alain, remained more of an Aristotelian than a Husserlian. Although the rise of fascism had persuaded him, correctly, to jettison Alain’s rational or humanistic pacifism in favor of active resistance, I see no evidence that Husserl had replaced the rest of the Alainian legacy.

Why, then, if Canguilhem, Bachelard, and Cavaillès were not phenomenologists, does Foucault contrast them with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty? Surely Foucault is right, as far as he goes, to say that the former represent the "philosophy of knowledge, rationality, and concept" as opposed to the "philosophy of the subject and experience" ostensibly represented by the latter. What he does not say, however, is that there is also a political point to this opposition, a point that Canguilhem himself once made in a radio speech in which he contrasted Sartre’s rather dubious record as a résistant with the exemplary death of his friend Cavaillès. At the time, of course, Sartre was in the ascendancy, and one can understand Canguilhem’s pique. But by the time Foucault wrote his introduction, Sartre, selling La Cause du Peuple in the streets, was but a shadow of the sacred monster he had been. Engagement was on the way to becoming politically incorrect, while "theoretical praxis" was now the order of the day. La coupure épistémologique, which Althusser had derived from Bachelard, had proved to be a useful tool for excising inconvenient portions of sacralized political philosophies. The "French epistemological tradition" was thus an extremely useful tradition to invent and place oneself within: it connoted integrity during the Occupation, a putatively rigorous reading of Marx (insofar as Marx remained relevant at all), and a familiarity with the "hard sciences" as impressive in its way as the algebraic legerdemain of the structuralists contending at the time for a hearing in the agora. Foucault’s typology was polemically astute, indeed downright ingenious.

It did Canguilhem a grave disservice, however. For Canguilhem, I think, did not set out to answer "the question of Enlightenment" when he wrote Le Normal et le Pathologique. His purpose was far humbler. He thought of himself as being much like the carpenter whose square I evoked at the beginning of my remarks: his aim was to restore a right relationship between two things that had gotten "out of line," namely, medical theory and medical practice. This was, after all, a thesis in medicine, and he was a medical student when he conceived it, a student dismayed by the dominance of a particular medical theory in the pedagogical practice of French medical schools at the time. That theory, or, rather, pedagogical codification of theory, was of course Claude Bernard’s, and Canguilhem sums up its core belief as follows (p. 62):

The theory in question reflects the humanist conviction that man’s action on his environment and on himself can and must become entirely transparent to knowledge of the environment and of man and must normally be nothing but the application of previously instituted science.

The whole argument of the first part, the original part, of Le Normal et le Pathologique is directed against this Bernardian conception of science and its method. That argument culminates in this lapidary formulation: "Medicine exists in the first place only because men feel sick. It is only secondarily that men, because there is a medicine, know what it is that makes them sick." (p. 156) Against Bernard and his laboratory, Canguilhem proposes sick human beings and the clinic. He is not against disciplined study of what makes them sick, but he is skeptical of the belief that, in the absence of pragmatic experience of sickness and the conditions in which it thrives, scientists working in laboratories can construct by pure hypothetico-deductive reasoning chains of concepts that respond to human needs. You Anglo-Saxons in the audience may understand how I am reading Canguilhem if I say that I see him as a precursor not of Foucault but of Paul Feyerabend in Against Method.

If one were to do a Canguilhemian history of how Canguilhem arrived at this Feyerabendlich position, one would have to look into the work of René Leriche, whose conception of medicine is explicitly invoked against Bernard’s. This is not the place for such an inquiry. I simply note that in his introduction to part 2 of Le Normal, Canguilhem made two revealing comments: first, that he had been too hard on Claude Bernard, and second, that he had been too generous to René Leriche. I take this rectification as evidence that the conceptual crux of part 1 is indeed as I have described it.

One final remark: Canguilhem differs from Feyerabend, however, in proposing a non-pragmatic concept of truth. At bottom Canguilhem remains an Aristotelian, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he invented a sort of structural Aristotelianism according to which the cosmos is built of great conceptual oppositions: continuity versus discontinuity, equilibrium versus disequilibrium, vitalism versus mechanism. Any theory is inevitably partial because it can work, at any given time, with at most a single term of these basic oppositions. The great rectifications that become landmarks in scientific history are those that swing from one pole to its opposite, but the oscillation is perpetual, hence truth, while not relative, can never be absolute. Unfortunately this conception of truth remains latent in Canguilhem’s texts, and it would take a patient exegesis to tease it out.

Having deconstructed the French epistemological tradition, and therefore the ground on which this conference rests, I shall now sink back into abyssal silence.