Obituary: Georges Canguilhem

Douglas Johnson
Tuesday 19 September 1995 23:02 BST

Georges Canguilhem, philosopher, writer: born Castelnaudary, France 4 June 1904; married; died Marly-le-Roi, Yvelines 11 September 1995.

In the late Fifties and early Sixties there was a new movement amongst French intellectuals.

It was then that the names of Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault aroused various allegiances in France and elsewhere (although a British critic peremptorily dismissed them as "five French frauds"). Various efforts were made to explain the simultaneous fame that had fallen upon a psychiatrist, an anthropologist, a critic and two philosophers from the Ecole Normale Superieure. It was said that they were all "structuralists'', but this was denied; it was claimed that they all represented a collective flight away from history and its deceptions, but this was rejected. It would have been more accurate to describe them as all having been influenced by Georges Canguilhem, the philosopher of science.

Foucault was the most explicit. He described Canguilhem as one of the greatest influences on his intellectual formation. Althusser discovered Canguilhem when he was striving to find a master amongst French philosophers and frequently turned to him for advice. Lacan was not indifferent to Canguilhem's attack on official psychiatry and frequently cited him.

Yet the name of Canguilhem was never as widely known as those of his disciples. It is typical of this great scholar that he should have died near to Paris, and that for a week the news of his death was overlooked.

He came from rural origins in the south of France, but went to the Paris Lycee Henri IV in order to prepare for the competitive entrance to the Ecole Normale Superieure. There he fell under the influence of Alain, the philosophy teacher, and moved towards radicalism and pacifism. He succeeded in entering the Ecole in the famous promotion of 1924, which included Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre. With the former he started a friendship that was to last until Aron's death in 1983.

After university, Canguilhem followed a traditional path, teaching in various lycees before being appointed to the University of Toulouse in 1936. His pacifism was already disappearing. He was a member of the anti- Fascist groups the intellectuals were organising at this time, and when in 1940 he was transferred to Clermont-Ferrand, it was there that he joined the Resistance movement.

In July 1941 he took part in the publication of the first number of the clandestine paper Liberation, along with some famous Resistance leaders. Using the name of "Lafont" he became the chief assistant to General de Gaulle's envoy in the Auvergne, Henry Ingrand, and was involved in the pitched battle between the Germans and the resistance at Mont-Mouchet in the Massif Central. This battle, which began four days before the Allied landings in Normandy, is usually spoken of as a victory for the Resistance because the Germans suffered very heavy losses.

After the war Canguilhem continued his academic work. He was a doctor of medicine, having written a thesis on the normal and the pathological. He was persuaded to write a philosophical thesis in order to be accepted by the Sorbonne. He wrote on reflexes and by 1955 he was an established Parisian figure. All his work was determinedly rational. He demonstrated, in many publications, that progress in science and the formation of scientific concepts had been achieved through a series of radical discontinuities or epistemological breaks.

These breaks indicated a point at which a body of theory throws off the distortions, often ideological, of its pre- history. There was the philosophy of experience, and there was the philosophy of knowledge and Canguilhem was its master.

Canguilhem was a difficult and rather frightening man to have as a teacher. Althusser said that he had ''un caractere impossible'' and compared him to his future wife. But ''le Cang'', as he was called, was in many ways the ideal intellectual. He accepted that there were moments when one had to take action, as during the war. He showed his sympathy for the ''revolutionaries'' of 1968 by allowing them to make announcements at the beginning of his rigorous lectures. But otherwise he shunned the media. He was content that his work should be celebrated in the Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale.

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