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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem : A transatlantic view / L'pistmologie de Georges Canguilhem vue de l'tranger
In: Revue d'histoire des sciences. 2000, Tome 53 n1. pp. 47-64.

Rsum RSUM. A l'poque o Georges Canguilhem publiait ses uvres majeures, l'pistmologie anglo-amricaine tait domine par le positivisme logique, ou empirisme logique. Aprs une caractrisation des styles propres de ces deux dmarches, plusieurs des thses de l'empirisme logique sont compares avec la perspective de Canguilhem : 1. conception non historique ou faiblement historique de l'pistmologie ; 2. sparation entre justification et dcouverte ; 3. unit de la science ; 4. choix de la physique comme modle fondamental de l'pistmologie ; 5. rductionnisme ; 6. rles respectifs de la thorie et de l'observation. Abstract SUMMARY. In the period in which Georges Canguilhem published his chief works, Anglo-American philosophy of science was dominated by logical positivism or logical empiricism. After a comparison of the differing styles of the two enterprises, several logical empiricist theses are contrasted with the corresponding view of Canguilhem : 1. philosophy of science as non-historical or weakly historical ; 2. the separation of justification from discovery ; 3. the unity of science ; 4. physics as the primary model for philosophy of science ; 5. reductionism ; 6. the role of theory and observation.

Citer ce document / Cite this document : GRENE MARJORIE. The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem : A transatlantic view / L'pistmologie de Georges Canguilhem vue de l'tranger. In: Revue d'histoire des sciences. 2000, Tome 53 n1. pp. 47-64. doi : 10.3406/rhs.2000.2074 http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rhs_0151-4105_2000_num_53_1_2074

The philosophy of Georges

of science

Canguilhem :

A transatlantic view Marjorie Grene (*)

RSUM. A l'poque o Georges Canguilhem publiait ses uvres majeur es, l'pistmologie anglo-amricaine tait domine par le positivisme logique, ou empirisme logique. Aprs une caractrisation des styles propres de ces deux dmarches, plusieurs des thses de l'empirisme logique sont compares avec la perspective de Canguilhem : 1. conception non historique ou faiblement historique de l'pistmologie ; 2. sparation entre justification et dcouverte ; 3. unit de la science; 4. choix de la physique comme modle fondamental de l'pi stmologie ; 5. rductionnisme ; 6. rles respectifs de la thorie et de l'observation. MOTS-CLS. Epistemologie ; empirisme logique ; rductionnisme ; histor icit. SUMMARY. In the period in which Georges Canguilhem published his chief works, Anglo-American philosophy of science was dominated by logical positivism or logical empiricism. After a comparison of the differing styles of the two enterprises, several logical empiricist theses are contrasted with the corresponding view of Can guilhem : 1. philosophy of science as non-historical or weakly historical ; 2. the sepa ration of justification from discovery ; 3. the unity of science ; 4. physics as the primary model for philosophy of science ; 5. reductionism ; 6. the role of theory and observation. KEYWORDS. Philosophy of science ; logical empiricism ; reductionism ; historicity.

When Georges Canguilhem published what he counted as his first philosophical essay, Descartes et la technique , in 1937 (1), I was participating, two years after my doctorate, in Rudolf Carnap's research seminar at the University of Chicago. Although my (*) Marjorie Grene, Department of philosophy, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 240610126, tats-Unis. (1) Canguilhem, 1937. See bibliography for full details. Rev. Hist. Sci, 2000, 53/1, 47-63


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commitment to logical positivism was brief, I did witness the deve lopment of the philosophy of science in the United States and in Britain from its Viennese beginning. It seemed to me, therefore, that I might offer on this occasion a comparison of some of the leading doctrines of the then received view in philosophy of science with the philosophical position on which Canguilhem's bril liant and subtle work in the history of medicine and of biology appears to rest. From the nineteen-sixties on, of course, Thomas Kuhn's account of scientific revolutions also played a promi nent role in many discussions ; I will say a little about that, too. In fact, Canguilhem himself has said it very well himself ; more of that later. Meantime, before I attempt to compare Canguilhem's concepts, arguments or perspectives with those of English speaking philoso phers of science, I must take note of the striking difference in style between the two. By this I mean partly style in the obvious lin guistic sense. When I first submitted a manuscript to the British Journal for the philosophy of science, in 1957 or 1958, 1 was admon ished by the editor for fine writing . Everything had to be as spare and impersonal, I would even say as impoverished, as poss ible. But there is more than one form of discipline. Canguilhem had of course the command of his native tongue that characterized the normalien ; his prose is immensely complex and subtle, and dot ted with aperus that one wants to brood over endlessly. Take just one example of the latter : [...] tre sujet de la connaissance, si l'a priori est dans les choses, si le concept est dans la vie, c'est seulement tre insatisfait du sens trouv. La subjectivit, c'est alors uniquement l'insatisfaction. Mais c'est peut-tre l la vie elle-mme. La biologie contemporaine, lue d'une certaine manire, est, en quelque faon, une philosophie de la vie (2). What would the editor of British Journal for the philosophy of science have made of such a pronouncement? What is a poor, naive American academic to make of it ? (2) Canguilhem, 1968, 364. It must be admitted that concept as used here has a nar rower referent than in the study of the reflex (Canguilhem, 1955). In this essay, Le concept et la vie (Canguilhem, 1968, 335-364), Canguilhem is discussing the way in which, first in the development of the species concept, and, more recently, in the treatment of biological phenomena as based on information and therefore in a way on concepts , the very subject matter of biology turns out to be, not only the object of the scientist's concepts, but itself conceptual.

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However, the difference is not just linguistic. Circumstances permitting, English can be as subtle, or as oracular, as French. The difference, to borrow Fleck's term, is one of thought styles. With the signal exception of Ernest Nagel, who worked at Columbia in the shadow of John Dewey, the leading figures at the origin of our style of philosophy of science had come from a Central European movement in rebellion against German (or Germanic) tiefere Bedeutungen (3). They produced, and we approved, a singularly dry kind of literal-mindedness, detached from any broader, or deeper, intellectual tradition. I remember an adjuration by Carnap : we must not say, This book is about Africa, but This book contains the word Africa (4). To put it in a word - a word cent ral to Canguilhem's thinking, as the passage quoted above indica tes - they were doing away with sens (not just our sense, but the French sens). Of course I know that Carnap continued to modify and alter his position ; perhaps Carl Hempel did, too, in some ways ; but the direction was laid down in the beginning, as the direction of Canguilhem's thought was, too, in different circumst ances,within a different history. Admittedly, there does seem to be a paradox here. Within the French intellectual scene in the postwar decades, Canguilhem was an important figure in opposition to the extreme subjectivism of the existentialist vogue (which was indeed all we heard of overseas in French philosophy). His stress on the concept, as in the passage I have quoted, is said to be indicative of this opposition (5). That is (3) The case of Nagel I find puzzling. How does Dewey's thoroughly American prag matism produce a position so consonant with that of a group of European exiles ? I can only guess that a rather vague respect for Science as such, without much immersion in the details of any scientific practice, could happily accept the over-generalizing approach charact eristic of logical empiricism. But I have to leave this puzzle to specialists in Dewey and his followers. (4) This remark occurs in Carnap, 1935, 61-65. 1 had forgotten its source and I am gra teful to Professor Richard Creath of Arizona State University for finding it for me. Profes sor Creath also points out that by 1937 Carnap would not have said this, since by then he had become interested in semantics, while the Africa remark belongs to a purely syntact ic conception of language. (5) Referring to une autre ligne de partage which crosses all the conventional opposit ions,Michel Foucault writes : C'est celle qui spare une philosophie de l'exprience, du sens, du sujet, et une philosophie du savoir, de la rationalit et du concept. (Foucault, 1985, 4.) If the term sens figures here, it is in a different context from its place in Can guilhem's usage. In philosophies of the existentialist type, one is supposed to begin with meanings detached from any concrete, historical milieu. The same contrast holds for exp rience in the two enterprises.


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why, I assume, he is referred to by his English-language interpre ters as a rationalist . Yet to our philosophers of science of that period he would have appeared, if they had noticed him, to be just another of those wild continental irrationalists, who, as my collea guesliked (still like ?) to say, never produce a single argument. Note, this is not just a case of Kuhnian incommensurability. I think I can offer a diagnosis, which my present concern with comp arative philosophy of science forbids me to pursue at any length. But let me try to put it very briefly. Descartes left us all with a divi ded universe : there were, excepting God, only res cogitons and res extensa. By now (or by then, given that I am thinking of a time half a century ago), not only had God vanished for most of us, but substance, too, was no longer the evident support of an ontology that it still appeared to be in the first decades of the seventeenth century. What happens in this situation to the cogitating mind ? Either it turns in on itself and becomes pure isolated willing, or it plays mathematical games in the hope of controlling the bits of sensory data that are all that remain of extended substance in the wake of empiricist criticism. Both existentialism and its contempor ary, logical positivism or logical empiricism, were positions taken by last-ditch Cartesians. Against both of these, it seems to me, Canguilhem was motivated in part, from early on, by a deep-seated distrust of the cogito and all its consequences. What he offers us instead is an original, hence unfamiliar, sometimes almost impenet rable, concept of thought, knowledge and rationality. After those hasty generalizations, let me turn to some particular comparisons. 1 / First, and most obviously, our philosophy of science pro gram was antihistorical, while Canguilhem's philosophical insights were rooted in the history of science. (When I say our , I mean, of course Anglo-American. I had no belief in this project after 1937-1938, but it is what our community prescribed and its influence can still be found in many places.) The idea was that there must be something called the scientific method, a single tech nique that was in essence the same everywhere and forever and this was what philosophers of science had reverentially to examine and analyze. If there was a history of science, it consisted in a revolu tion that initiated science and then a linear progression toward what we now know , a process that would continue in the same linear way indefinitely. In any case, what mattered was not what

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem


happened in the history of science, but its logical reconstruction : the formulation of its results or its possible results and thus the vindication of its methods. For Canguilhem, on the contrary, phi losophy of science was a support for the history of science, an indispensable support, but meaningless apart from history. And history of science, as he put it in the concluding chapter of his work on the formation of the reflex concept, doit tre crite comme une histoire et non comme une science, comme une aventure et non comme un droulement (6) . Our philosophy of science aimed at substituting a formalization of science for adventure ; Canguilhem's was intended to clarify that adventure. To put it another way, the ideal of logical empiricism was to approach science scientifically. Canguilhem's ideal was to unders tand science as a complex family of disciplined human efforts to approach the truth about something in the real world. Thus for him the object of the history of science was utterly different from the object of science itself. He put this very clearly in the introduc tion to the tudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences : L'objet en histoire des sciences n'a rien de commun avec l'objet de la science. L'objet scientifique, constitu par le discours mthodique, est second, bien que non driv, par rapport l'objet naturel, initial [...] L'histoire des sciences s'exerce sur ces objets seconds, non naturels, cultur els, mais n'en drive pas plus que ceux-ci ne drivent des premiers. L'objet du discours historique est, en effet, l'historicit du discours scientifique, en tant que cette historicit reprsente l'effectuation d'un projet intrieurement norme, mais traverse d'accidents, retarde ou dtourne par des obstacles, interrompue de crises, c'est--dire de moments de jugements et de vrit (7). Moreover, philosophy of science, which concerns this history, will be at a still further remove from the objects of science itself. L'histoire des sciences, Canguilhem writes in the introduction just quoted, concerne une activit axiologique, la recherche de la vrit (8). Thus the scientist is already exercising an axiological activity , which the historian in turn studies by his (her) norms, while the philosopher reflects, at yet another axiological level, on the activities that are the historian's objects, and presumably also on the norms in the light of which the historian studies his (her) (6) Canguilhem, 1955, 167. (7) Canguilhem, 1968, 17. (8) Ibid., 19.


Marjorie Grene

subject. This is a far cry from the pristine scientific method tou ted by supporters of the received view. It may be objected that Kuhn's revolutionary theory of scienti fic revolutions did after all introduce an historical dimension into the philosophy of science. But this is history without history, and certainly history inadequate as subject for, or as subject to, philo sophical reflection. Quite apart from the failure of Kuhn's simple schema to fit much in the history of science (9), there is the oddity pointed out by Canguilhem in the first chapter of his Idologie et rationalit dans l'histoire des sciences de la vie, that, while Kuhn uses terms like paradigm and normal science , which suggest philosophical criticism, his account remains on the level of social psychology. It's just one paradigm after another, with no adequate philosophical or historical account of the transition. Indeed, Kuhn himself acknowledged this in his preface, although his followers did not, I think, in general, notice this qualification (10). 2 /Allied to the non-historical approach of Anglo-American philosophy of science was its firm commitment to the separation of two contexts : the context of discovery and the context of justifica tion. Discovery had allegedly no bearing on the scientific import of its results. Clearly, Kekul daydreaming by the fire has no scient ific connection with the structure of the benzene ring. What we need to study is the logical relation between the observations on which generalizations, laws and theories (somehow) rest and the further observations that (somehow) flow from them. The famous tag that all observation is already theory-laden came to qualify a little the original positivist navet of the program, but did not, it seems to me, in any way alter its essentials. There were also from time to time defenders of discovery, and hence of research, as pro per material for philosophical reflection, but they were relatively outlying figures (11). To a historian of science as subtle and sensitive as Canguilhem, clearly, such a separation of contexts is nonsense. It is discovery that constitutes justification and justification solidifies discovery. As Canguilhem remarks of the reflex, what had been a concept (9) See Mayr, 1994. Mayr's critique of Kuhn seems to be excellent; however, his sketch of what he considers the only alternative ( Darwinian evolutionary epistemology ) is another question ! (10) Canguilhem, 1977, 23. Cf. Kuhn, 1962, XL (11) See below, note 34.

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem


becomes a percept - though before that, of course, it had to become a concept (12). Nor is there any one formula for this comp licated, often devious, chancy development. Neither justifica tion nor discovery is one unambiguous process : justification is not just logical, discovery is not just whimsical and irrational. And the two are intimately interwoven from start to finish - if there is a finish. Come to think of it, what was justification in this program ? Justification is a normative term, it suggests an evaluation. But our program was one that allegedly excluded values. Values are subjective, science is objective, or so it seemed. For Canguilhem, on the contrary, norms were essential, first, to the activity of scientists themselves, and then, reflectively, to the historian as well as the philosopher of science. Specifically, the scientist is engaged in value-bound activity insofar as (s)he (13) is seeking the truth. Not that, for Canguilhem, there is the truth to be found : this search is always subject to failure, to distraction, to error. Canguilhem has even been characterized as a philosopher of error (14). And it is true that he stresses the fallibility of scientists' beliefs, the strange delays and obstacles that characterize the history of concepts like the reflex arc or of doctrines like the cell theory (15). Nevertheless, it is the search for truth that is in question. And that is something neither the proponents of the received view nor Kuhn and Kuhnians could comfortably admit. Science was supposed to float happ ily above the phenomena ; truth was allowed, if at all, only in Tarski's austere formula (16). Sir Karl Popper is the paradigm case here : all we can ever know is that we are mistaken (17). Maybe so ; but we can sometimes hope we are right : that was the upshot of Michael Polanyi's program of personal knowledge , which was almost entirely ignored by the reigning party in philosophy of science (18). The same aversion to truth as a norm also haunted Kuhn's work. In the passage I quoted above, Canguilhem refers to I'em(12) Canguilhem, 1955, 161. (13) S(he) : he or she (N.D.L.R.). (14) Foucault, 1985, 14 : Une philosophie de l'erreur [...] (15) See Canguilhem, 1955 ; La thorie cellulaire, in Canguilhem, 1952, 43-80. (16) Tarski, 1944. (17) Popper, 1959. Carl Hempel's The theoretician's dilemma appears to me to sug gest a similar hesitancy about admitting the scientist's search for truth (Hempel, 1958). (18) See below, note 34.


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barras dont tmoigne la Postface de la deuxime dition de Structure des rvolutions scientifiques, quand il s'agit de savoir ce qu'il convient d'entendre par vrit de la thorie (19) . A recent, very detailed account of Kuhn's life-long reflections decidedly confirms this judgment : he was never able to assimilate either to normal or to revolutionary science the conception of active persons or active communities engaged in trying to answer the question how some thing in the real world really works : in other words, in the search for truth. His final position, like the original one, is at bottom relativistic : there can be truth only within the confinement of what is still in effect a particular paradigm, or conceptual world (20). 3 / For the logical empiricists, further, if there was one scienti fic method, their hope was that there would ultimately be, in obeisance to it, but one science. They proudly inscribed on their banner the theme of the unity of science, whether in terms of the reduction of concepts or of theories. I remember a long and heated debate at one of C. H. Waddington's theoretical biology conferenc es, about the sad fact that the Volterra-Lotka equations could not be stated in terms of quantum mechanics. Indeed, oddly enough, Kuhn's Structure, which challenged this ideal with its vision of incommensurability, was first published as a volume in the Interna tional Encyclopedia of unified science (21). To this vision of a scientific Utopia - literally a Utopia, since it would indeed be nowhere -, Canguilhem was of course radically opposed. In discussing the work of Claude Bernard, he twice quot esa statement of Bachelard : Les concepts et les mthodes, tout est fonction du domaine d'exprience ; toute la pense scientifique doit changer devant une exp rience nouvelle ; un discours sur la mthode scientifique sera toujours un dis cours de circonstance, il ne dcrira pas une constitution dfinitive de l'esprit scientifique (22). Now of course our philosophers of science would also have insisted they were founding everything ultimately on experience : one had to start with data. But this was experience in the abstract and (19) Canguilhem, 1977. (20) See Hoyningen-Heune, 1993. Canguilhem remarks that Kuhn was still too much under the influence of logical empiricism (Canguilhem, 1977). (21) Kuhn, 1962. The cover of this first edition reads : International Encyclopedia of uni fied sciences, vol. I-II : Foundations of the unity of science, vol. II, no. 2 : Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of scientific revolutions. (22) Canguilhem, 1968, 146, 171.

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impoverished sense of the empiricist tradition : ideally, Lockean simple ideas or Humean simple impressions. Even theory-laden observation was combined from two abstractions : high-flown theories and lowly data. The concept of experience entailed in Canguilhem's reflections is very different. He introduces Bachelard's pronouncement in an account of Claude Bernard's approach to physiology. He writes : Qui veut expliquer une fonction doit d'abord en explorer l'allure l mme o elle trouve la fois son sige et son sens, dans l'organisme (23). That is why, he continues, Claude Bernard's words, je me suis dlivr des rgles en me jetant travers champs , [...] doivent nous apparatre [...] expressment comme la gnralisation rflchie de l'enseignement tir d'une aventure intellectuelle intgralement vcue (24). So we are back with the practice of science as an intel lectual adventure ; but there is no unifying formula for an advent ure, nor, except in the most global and superficial sense, is the his tory of science a single adventure. For each adventurer, or team of adventurers, it is rooted in circumstance : in the particular interests, concepts, hopes of the investigator and his contemporaries, in the culture of institutions and of nations. All of Canguilhem's work testifies to this truth - especially the work on the reflex or on the development of the cell theory, but also the essays on Auguste Comte, on Claude Bernard, or, for example the essay on the biolo gical sciences since Darwin (25). From this perspective, the unity of science program was tho roughly misguided from its very start. True, as an honest pluralist in philosophy of science, one should recognize that there have been some scientists who have worked explicitly toward a unified science : Einstein, for example, at least for part of his career, or David Bohm. But to pronounce, as I have heard a prominent phi losopher of science do, that all scientists are always seeking to con tribute to the unity of science is to utter pure nonsense. In a given research project, to be sure, the investigator is seeking coherence ; but that is not the same as the coherence of all knowledge in one grand system. Granted, the coherence a particular scientist or (23) Canguilhem, 1977, 146. (24) Ibid. (25) Canguilhem, 1955 ; Canguilhem, 1952, 43-80 ; Canguilhem, 1968, 61-98, 127-172 ; Canguilhem, 1977, 101-120.


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group of scientists is after does indeed go beyond their individual interests. There is, as Canguilhem stressed, an internal dialectic in the development of a concept - like that of the reflex or the cell as the unit of living tissues - that transcends the individual's interests or even the individual's lifetime (26). Again, however, this is not a global development, encompassing the objects of all sciences eve rywhere, but the expression, within a given historical and cultural setting, of the grasp of one special facet of an inexhaustible reality. Nor is there an ultimate goal for these histories. On the contrary, uw-satisfaction is inescapable. The dialectic of concepts, after all, is carried by the efforts, successes and failures of living human indivi duals, and perhaps, as Canguilhem seems to be suggesting in the enigmatic passage I quoted at the start, dissatisfaction is life itself. 4 / Life, or the living, was always Canguilhem's subject. Thus it is tempting, and, it seems to me, in a sense correct, to emphasize that the received view based its claims on physics, or on its conception of physics, while Canguilhem's ideas in the philosophy of science sprang from his study of questions in medicine and in biology. This can scarcely be a causal claim, however, since Bachel ard,whose work Canguilhem admired and often cited as canonic al, was himself interested primarily in the mathematical sciences. It isn't necessary, clearly, if one starts from physics, to philosophize in the spirit of logical empiricism. On the other hand, it does seem to be the case that if one begins from biology, let alone from a study of the normal and the pathological in medicine, there is little reason to adopt a view that is positivistic on the one hand and over-logicizing on the other. Canguilhem describes the effort to make pathology purely quantitative, and shows how it failed. Yet the alternative, for him, was no overarching idealistic axiology , but concern with the normative aspect of biological, and indeed, of this or that scientific endeavor, in whatever field. This concern rea ches from the original thesis on the normal and the pathological to the much later lecture, La question de la normalit dans l'histoire de la pense biologique , but, again, always in the context of par ticular investigations of particular episodes in the history of the dis ciplines in question (27). My own view is that it comes more natu(26) An account of this approach is given, for example, in the introductory paragraphs of La thorie cellulaire (Canguilhem, 1952, 43-47). (27) Canguilhem, 1966 ; La question de la normalit dans l'histoire de la pense biolo gique, in Canguilhem, 1977, 122-139.

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rally to think concretely and realistically if one starts from the study of living things. Long ago when I was visiting biology tea chers in British secondary schools, I came across a teacher who complained of the standardization of instructions for experiments in her classes. They tell us, she said, to put an earthworm in a jar, but the earthworm may not like it in the jar. Could a quark or a meson fail to like some physicist's experimental technique ? Who can tell ? Certainly, the grounding of Canguilhem's philosophy of science in his detailed and subtle investigations in the history of biology and medicine bears some relation to his conception of a scientist's pursuit of truth as an intellectual adventure integrally lived . Scientists are alive and their activities, though cultural and not only natural, are variants on the general theme(s) that charact erizelife itself. What Canguilhem says of attempts to explain, or better, to understand, machines, can be applied to the outcome, or the process, of any scientific or engineering activity : to understand the machine, he writes, c'est l'inscrire dans l'histoire humaine en inscrivant l'histoire humaine dans la vie, sans mconnatre toutefois l'apparition avec l'homme d'une culture irrductible la simple nature (28) . Yet there seems to be a contradiction here, or at least an uncomf ortable tension. As we noticed earlier, Canguilhem contrasts the objects of science with the object of the history of science ; only the latter, it appears, entails norms or values. But if the biological sciences have organisms, centers of behavior, as their objects, what is, after all, the difference between the objects of these sciences and those of the history of science ? Surely every life is an adventure ; norms or values are involved at every level in their study. At first sight the answer is simple, since the remark I quoted earlier about the difference in kind between the objects of science and those of the historian of science has to do with the physical, not the biological, sciences. It follows a discussion of such works as Dijksterhuis's Mechanisierung des Weltbildes, Koyr's tudes galilennes or Metzger's La Gense de la science des cristaux (29). Thus it is non-biological sciences that are concerned here ; and in the first case at least it is the transfer of the (non-biological) scientist's attitude to the history of science that Canguilhem is criticizing. (28) Canguilhem, 1952, 120. (29) Canguilhem, 1968, 12.


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Here we do have a sharp distinction between the objects of the scientist and those of the historian, hence also of the philosopher of science. In the biological case, which is closer to Canguilhem's own practice, the distinction is subtler and more complicated. Let us consider this situation a little more closely. If we include the sciences of life, how do the objects of these sciences differ from those of the historian of science ? It was with medicine that Canguilhem began his historical researches, and medicine itself, he insisted, begins with the patient, the individual sufferer. Here if anywhere we surely have a normative content. On the other hand, it can be argued that medicine is only partly science, partly the rapy, and it is its therapeutic aspect that concerns the patient. True, history in its usual sense aims at understanding rather than curing, but both history and medicine in one way or another entail norms, while the science medicine relies on may be well be, and sometimes is, purely physico-chemical. So far so good. But then what of the biological sciences, which are as theoretical as any other scientific disciplines ? If, as Canguilhem insists, all living things are to be understood only in relation to norms of existence and of action, isn't the biologist already stu dying axiological activities (30) ? How does the history of these sciences differ from the sciences themselves ? How is Canguilhem writing the history of the concept of the reflex different from Will is,in a different milieu, first forming the concept of the reflex ? Or rather, how do their objects differ ? Canguilhem is reporting, and analyzing, the activities of a number of agents and eliciting from this story the history of a concept. Willis is seeking to understand a particular phenomenon in the nervous system. In ordinary parlance - thanks to the currency of Pavlovian discourse - we speak of reflex action as automatic, not, it would appear, in any signif icant way axiological . And Willis did coin the term, according to Canguilhem's account, in analogy to the reflection of light. Yet it seems clear by now that every biological activity entails some kind of order, that is, some norm and the possibility of error. Can guilhem is dealing, again, with cultural phenomena, which express a more complex and many-leveled cluster of norms ; but some normativity is involved at every level, in the objects of the biologist's research as well as in those of the historian. (30) Canguilhem, 1968, 19.

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem


5 / The unity of science program, together with the priority of physics as their model science, supported in our philosophers of science the hope of achieving a total vision of the material world, from which human hopes and desires - including human science ? would be as good as excluded. In contrast, Canguilhem's concern with the sciences of life shows him the unattainability, and even fatuity of this enterprise. Living things, including scientists, rely on their environments for their existence, but always as centers of those environments : it is precisely the relation between center and milieu that makes a life. Such a relation would be levelled to nothingness in the reductionist's global vision. Indeed, in his world there would be no vision. Canguilhem puts this point strikingly in the last several paragraphs of his essay on Le vivant et son milieu . Let me quote just the final two : La prtention de la science dissoudre dans l'anonymat de l'enviro nnement mcanique, physique et chimique ces centres d'organisation, d'adaptation et d'invention que sont les tres vivants doit tre intgrale, c'est--dire qu'elle doit englober le vivant humain lui-mme. Et l'on sait bien que ce projet n'a pas paru trop audacieux quelques savants. Mais il faut alors se demander, d'un point de vue philosophique, si l'origine de la science ne rvle pas mieux son sens que les prtentions de quelques savants. Car la naissance, le devenir et les progrs de la science dans une humanit laquelle on refuse ajuste titre, d'un point de vue scientiste et mme matrial iste, la science infuse doivent tre compris comme une sorte d'entreprise assez aventureuse de la vie. Sinon il faudrait admettre cette absurdit que la ralit contient d'avance la science de la ralit comme une partie d'ellemme. Et l'on devrait se demander quel besoin de la ralit pourrait bien correspondre l'ambition d'une dtermination scientifique de cette mme ralit. Mais si la science est l'uvre d'une humanit enracine dans la vie avant d'tre claire par la connaissance, si elle est un fait dans le monde en mme temps qu'une vision du monde, elle soutient avec la perception une relation permanente et oblige. Et donc le milieu propre des hommes n'est pas situ dans le milieu universel comme un contenu dans son contenant. Un centre ne se rsout pas dans son environnement. Un vivant ne se rduit pas un carrefour d'influences. D'o l'insuffisance de toute biologie qui, par sou mission complte l'esprit des sciences phyico-chimiques, voudrait liminer de son domaine toute considration de sens. Un sens, du point de vue biolo gique et psychologique, c'est une apprciation de valeurs en rapport avec un besoin. Et un besoin c'est, pour qui l'prouve et le vit, un systme de rf rence irrductible et par l absolu (31). (31) Canguilhem, 1952, 153-154.


Marjorie Grene

Here again is that mysterious little word sens . In fact, these two paragraphs, with the three that precede them, sum up magnificent ly much of what I have been trying to say about the contrast bet ween Canguilhem's philosophy of science and the major AngloAmerican practice of the same era. 6 / Finally, let me add a little detail to that very sweeping cont rast. Logical empiricism dealt in the coinage of theory , laws and observation . Ideally, laws were supposed to be generalizations from observed data, generalizations which were in turn explained by theories. You did a lot of readings of temperat ure, pressure and volume, thus you got to the gas laws, and these you explained by the kinetic theory of gases. It seems to me that when the slogan All observation is theory laden came into fas hion, laws rather receded from view. But in any case it was a mani pulation of two or three constant ingredients that was supposed to constitute the core of science. It was difficult to specify precisely what an observation was ; laws as contrary-to-fact conditionals were puzzling ; but what was crucial to this whole enterprise, I believe, was the stress on theory. If it is logical reconstruction one is after, I suppose this is reasonable. But if one looks at scientific practice, it is not grand theories that are the concern at most times of most working scientists. Every working biologist, one would hope, accepts evolutionary theory as background, more or less remote, for his or her current projects, but it's something much more down to earth, like the structure or function of this particular gene, that he or she is trying to unfathom. Thus Canguilhem, staying much closer to the practice of science, is concerned less with theories than with concepts. He makes this point explicitly in the introduction to his one booklength study in the history of biology, to which I have already referred a number of times, that is, La Formation du concept du rflexe aux xvif et xvnf sicles, first published in 1955 (32). The history of the reflex as previously understood, he tells us, has been distorted by two prejudices. The second is the mistaken notion that only the mechanistic tradition has produced advances in biological knowledge. In fact, as Canguilhem clearly shows in the course of his narrative, it is positions closer to vitalism that should have much of the credit for the major steps in this development. The (32) Canguilhem, 1955, 3-7.

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem


first prejudice, the one that concerns us here, consiste penser qu'un concept ne peut d'abord apparatre que dans le contexte d'une thorie ou du moins dans une inspiration heuristique homognes ceux dans lesquels les faits d'observation correspondants seront plus tard interprts (33) . What Canguilhem is concerned with here is the common error of interpreting past science as the past of present science - an historical point. But this warning has, it seems to me, also a clear philosophical implication : there is no necessary unifor mity between theory and observation, then or now, such as would permit the constant and unequivocal interplay between them envi saged by thinkers in the logical empiricist tradition. A scientific concept, like that of the reflex, exhibits in its history a subtle and unformalizable interplay of many factors : different basic beliefs, like faith in mechanism or vitalism, different techniques of observat ion and analysis, and so on. In the history Canguilhem is recount ing even national prejudice (in the neglect of Prokoschka's work) or personal self-aggrandizement (in the case of Marshall Hall) come into play. So it is, presumably, in the history of any concept, and that is a complexity that an adequate philosophy of science also needs to acknowledge. That takes me back in a way to my first point : the anhistoricity, or impoverished historicity, of the main Anglo-American thought style(s) in the philosophy of science, at least in the period in which Canguilhem was a leader in French epistemology , was responsible at least in part for its failure to make contact with, or to understand, the richness and complexity of scientific practice. In conclusion I must confess that the comparison I have been presenting is, from a Canguilhemian perspective, much too simple. As I remarked earlier, there were always some exceptions to the regnant received view . There was N. R. Hanson's Pat terns of discovery, which was published in 1958. Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge appeared in the same year ; his Science, faith and society had been published in 1946 (34), and the Gifford lec tures on which the former book was based were delivered in the early fifties, at about the same time as Canguilhem's history of the reflex concept or his Connaissance de la vie. However, as I also noted earlier, such thinkers had no major effect on the stan(33) Canguilhem, 1955, 3. (34) Hanson, 1988 ; Polanyi, 1946 and 1958.


Marjorie Grene

dard position. More recently there have been other efforts within the Anglo-American philosophical community to reflect on the nature of science in closer relation to scientific practice, but that would be another story (35). What I wanted to do here was to highlight some of the theses of Canguilhem's philosophy of science, chiefly as one gleans it from his historical work, by com paring them with the dominant views of Anglo-American philoso phers of science in the same period.

Bibliography Canguilhem Georges 1937 Descartes et la technique, in Travaux du IXe congrs nal de philosophie, I, 2 (Paris : Hermann, 1937), 77-85 ; reprin ted in Cahiers philosophiques, LXIX (Dec. 1996), 93-100. 1952 La Connaissance de la vie, 2nd d. (Paris : Vrin, 1965) ; 1st d. (Paris : Hachette, 1952). 1955 La Formation du concept du rflexe aux xvir et xviif sicles, 2nd d. (Paris : Vrin, 1977) ; 1st d. (Paris : Vrin, 1955). 1966 Le Normal et le pathologique (Paris : PUF) ; this is an expanded edition of Essai sur quelques problmes concernant le normal et le pathologique (Clermont-Ferrand : Impr. La Montagne, 1943), Publications de la facult des lettres de l'universit de Stra sbourg , fasc. 100. 1968 tudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences concernant le vivant et la vie, 7th d. (Paris : Vrin, 1994) ; 1st d., 1968. 1977 Idologie et rationalit dans l'histoire des sciences de la vie, 3rd d. (Paris : Vrin, 1993) ; 1st d. (Paris : Vrin, 1977). Carnap Rudolf 1935 Philosophy and logical syntax (London : . Paul, Trubner and Trench, 1935) ; reprint (Bristol : Thoemmes Press, 1996). Foucault Michel 1985 La vie : L'exprience et la science, Revue de mtaphysique et de morale, XC/1, 3-14. Galison Peter 1987 How experiments end (Chicago : Univ. of Chicago Press).

Hanson Norman R. 1958 Patterns of discovery (Cambridge : Cambridge Univ. Press). (35) See for example the collection edited by Nickles, 1980 ; or some of the recent work on experiment, e. g. Galison, 1987. A recent work in English but in a more continental mode is Rheinberger, 1997.

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem


Hempel Carl G. 1958 The theoretician's dilemna : A study in the logic of theory truction, in Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of scientific explanation (New York : MacMillan, 1964) ; 1st published in Minnesota Studies in philosophy of science, II (1958), 37-98. Hoyningen-Heune Paul 1993 Reconstructing scientific revolutions (Chicago : Univ. of Chicago Press). Kuhn Thomas S. 1962 The Structure of scientific revolutions (Chicago : Univ. of cago Press). Mayr Ernst 1994 The advance of science and scientific revolutions, Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences, XXX (Oct.), 328-334.

Nickles Thomas 1980 Scientific discovery : Case studies (Dordrecht : Reidel). Polanyi Michael 1946 Science, faith and society (London : Oxford Univ. Press). 1958 Personal Knowledge (London : Routledge-Kegan Paul and Chi cago : Univ. of Chicago Press). Popper Karl 1959 The Logic of scientific discovery (London : Hutchinson).

Rheinberger Hans-Jrg 1997 Toward a history of epistemic things : Synthesizing proteins in the test tube (Stanford, California : Stanford Univ. Press). Tarski Alfred 1944 The semantic conception of truth, Philosophy and phenomenological research, IV, 341-375.

THEORIA Revista REVISTA asociada DEa TEORIA, la FUNDADOR: FUNDADA y Sociedad a la Sociedad HISTORIA de Logica, EN Migud Espafiola 1952 Metodologa Y SANCHEZ-MAZAS - FUNDAMENTOS SEGUNDA de Filosofia y Filosofia Analitica EPOCA de (t) DE la Ciencia LA CIENCIA en Espaa

Vol. 14



407-41 1 Two Extensions ofLewis'S3 with Peines Law 413-429 Un andlisis del concepto de cognoscibilidad desde la semdntica de mundos posibles (An Analysis of the Notion of Knowability in the Field of Possible Worlds Semantics) Manuel A. SELLES (Madrid) 431-460 Isaac Newton y el infinitesimal (Isaac Newton's Infinitesimals) Jesus P. ZMORA BONILLA (Madrid) 461-488 The Elementary Economics ofScientific Consensus Olimpia LOMBARDI (Buenos Aires) 489-5 1 0 Elfin de la omnisciencia: la respuesta de Prigogine al problema de la irreversibilidad (The End of Omniscience: Prigogine's Answer to the Problem of I ireversibility) Agustin VICENTE (San Sebastin) 511-524 Sobredeterminacincausalmente-cuerpoiMmd-Body Causal Overdetermination) NOTAS /NOTES Maria Jos GUERRA (La Laguna) 527-549 Bioticay gnero: problemasy controversias (Bioethics and Gender Problems and Controversies)

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