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Armand Colin

The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem : A transatlantic view Author(s): Marjorie Grene Source: Revue d'histoire des sciences, Vol. 53, No. 1 (JANVIER-MARS 2000), pp. 47-63 Published by: Armand Colin Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23633645 Accessed: 14-10-2019 23:46 UTC

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem :

A transatlantic view

Marjorie Grene (*)

RÉSUMÉ. — A l'époque où Georges Canguilhem publiait ses œuvres majeu

res, l'épistémologie anglo-américaine était dominée par le positivisme logique, ou

empirisme logique. Après une caractérisai ion des styles propres de ces deux démarches, plusieurs des thèses de l'empirisme logique sont comparées avec la

perspective de Canguilhem : 1. conception non historique ou faiblement historique

de l'épistémologie ; 2. séparation entre « justification » et « découverte » ; 3. unité

de la science ; 4. choix de la physique comme modèle fondamental de l'épis

témologie ; 5. réductionnisme ; 6. rôles respectifs de la théorie et de l'observation.

MOTS-CLÉS. — Épistémologie ; empirisme logique ; réductionnisme ; histo


SU M MARY. — 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 sépa 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 ;


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 doctórate, in Rudolf Car

nap's research seminar at the University of Chicago. Although my

(*) Marjorie Grene, Department of philosophy, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061 0126, États-Unis. (1) Canguilhem, 1937. See bibliography for full détails.

Re ν. Hist. Sri., 2000, 53/1, 47-63

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48 Marjorie Grene

commitment to logical

lopment of the philosop

Britain from

that I might offer on t

leading doctrines of the science with the philoso liant and subtle work i

appears to rest. From

its Vienne


Kuhn's account of « sc

nent role in many discu

fact, Canguilhem



Meantime, before I att

arguments or perspecti

phers of science, I must t

between the two. By thi

guistic sense. When I fi

Journal for the philoso nished by the editor fo

spare and impersonal,

sible. But there is more

had of course the comm the normalien ; his pros ted with aperçus that o one example of the latte

«[■■■] être sujet de la con

concept est dans la vie, c'e

subjectivité, c'est alors uni

vie elle-même. La biologie co

quelque façon, une philoso

What would the editor

science have made of s

naive American académie 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


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The phïlosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 49

However, the différence is not just linguistic. Circumstances

permitting, English can be as subtle, or as oracular, as French. The différence, 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 rébellion against Germán (or Germanie) 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). Το put it in a word - a word cen tral 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 Cari 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 différent circums

tances, within a différent 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 ail 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

détails of any scientific practice, could happily accept the over-generalizing approach charac

teristic of logical empiricism. But I have to leave this puzzle to specialists in Dewey and his


(4) This remark occurs in Carnap, 1935, 61-65. I 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 syntac

tic conception of language.

(5) Referring to « une autre ligne de partage » which crosses ail the conventional opposi

tions, Michel Foucault writes : « C'est celle qui sépare une philosophie de l'expérience, du

sens, du sujet, et une philosophie du savoir, de la rationalité et du concept. » (Foucault,

1985, 4.) If the term « sens » figures here, it is in a différent 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 « expé rience » in the two enterprises.

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50 Marjorie Grene

why, I assume, he is ref ters as a « rationalist ».

period he would have app

another of those wild co gues liked (still like ?) t

Note, this is not just a

think I can offer a diagn parative philosophy of sc

But let me try


put it v

ded universe : there wer

extensa. By now (or by

half a century ago), not

substance, too, was no lo that it still appeared to century. What happens i

Either it turns in on itse

plays mathematical gam sensory data that are ail

wake of empiricist critic rary, logical positivism o

by last-ditch Cartesians


distrust of the cogito an

instead is an original, he

trable, concept of thoug

After those hasty gener


1 / First, and most ob

was motivat


were rooted in the histo

of course « Anglo-Ame

after 1937-1938, but it i

influence can still be f

there must be something

nique that was in essence

was what philosophers of analyze. If there was a hi

tion » that initiated scie « what we now know », linear way indefinitely.

was antihistorical,

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 51

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 être écrite

comme une histoire et non comme une science, comme une aventure

et non comme un déroulement (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 différent from

the object of science itself. He put this very clearly in the introduc

tion to the Études 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, constitué par le discours méthodique, est

second, bien que non dérivé, par rapport à l'objet naturel, initial [ ]

L'histoire des sciences s'exerce sur ces objets seconds, non naturels, cultu

rels, mais η 'en dérive pas plus que ceux-ci ne dérivent des premiers. L'objet du discours historique est, en effet, l'historicité du discours scientifique, en tant que cette historicité représente l'effectuation d'un projet intérieurement

normé, mais traversée d'accidents, retardée ou détournée par des obstacles,

interrompue de crises, c'est-à-dire de moments de jugements et de

vérité (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 activité axiologique, la recherche de la

vérité (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.

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52 Marjorie Grene

subject. This is a far cry

ted by supporters of th

It may be objected tha

fic révolutions did after ail introduce an historical dimension into

the philosophy of science. But this is history without history, and

certainly history inadéquate as subject for, or as subject to, philo sophical reflection. Quite apart from the failure of Kuhn's simple

schéma to fit much in the history of science (9), there is the oddity

pointed out by Canguilhem in the first chapter of his Idéologie et rationalité 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 adéquate

philosophical or historical account of the transition. Indeed, Kuhn

himself acknowledged this in his préfacé, 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 séparation 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, Kekulé daydreaming by the fire has no « scien tific » 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 théories (somehow) rest and the

further observations that (somehow) flow from them. The famous

tag that ail observation is already theory-laden came to qualify a

little the original positivist naïveté 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 henee 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 « séparation 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, XI.

(11) See below, note 34.

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 53

becomes a percept - though before that, of course, it had to

become a concept (12). Nor is there any one formula for this com

plicated, 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 évaluation. 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 Kuh

nians could comfortably admit. Science was supposed to float hap

pily above the phenomena ; « truth » was allowed, if at ail, only in

Tarski's austere formula (16). Sir Karl Popper is the paradigm case

here : ail 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 « l'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 théorie cellulaire, in Canguilhem, 1952, 43-80.

(16) Tarski, 1944.

(17) Popper, 1959. Cari 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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54 Marjorie Grene

barras dont témoigne l

des révolutions scien

convient d'entendre pa

detailed account of Kuh this judgment : he was to revolutionary scienc

communities engaged i

thing in the real world for truth. His final pos

tivistic : there can be «

is still in effect a part

3 / For the logical emp

fic method », their ho obeisance to it, but on

banner the theme of t

réduction of concepts

debate at one of C. H. ces, about the sad fact be stated in terms of

Kuhn's Structure, wh

incommensurability, w tional Encyclopedia of

To this vision of a sci

would indeed be nowh

opposed. In discussing

tes a statement of Bachelard :

« Les concepts et les méthodes, tout est fonction du domaine

d'expérience ; toute la pensée scientifique doit changer devant une expé

rience nouvelle ; un discours sur la méthode scientifique sera toujours un dis cours de circonstance, il ne décrira pas une constitution définitive 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 édition 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 révolutions.

(22) Canguilhem, 1968, 146, 171.

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 55

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

théories and lowly data. The concept of experience entailed in Can guilhem's reflections is very différent. 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 là

même où elle trouve à la fois son siège et son sens, dans l'organisme (23). »

That is why, he continues, Claude Bernard's words, « je me

suis délivré des règles en me jetant à travers champs », «[■■■] doivent

nous apparaître [

de l'enseignement tiré d'une aventure intellectuelle intégralement

vécue » (24). So we are back with the practice of science as an intel

lectual adventure ; but there is no unifying formula for an adven

ture, 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. Ail 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


expressément comme la généralisation réfléchie

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 ail 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 cohérence ;

but that is not the same as the cohérence of ail knowledge in one

grand system. Granted, the cohérence a particular scientist or

(23) Canguilhem, 1977, 146.

(24) ¡bld.

(25) Canguilhem, 1955 ; Canguilhem, 1952, 43-80; Canguilhem, 1968, 61-98, 127-172; Canguilhem, 1977, 101-120.

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56 Marjorie Grene

group of scientists is af

interests. There is, as Ca

the development of a co the unit of living tissue

or even the individual's

global development, en

rywhere, but the expre

setting, of the grasp of

Nor is there an ultímate

cfo-satisfaction is inesca

carried by the efforts, s

duáis, and perhaps, as C

enigmatic passage I quote

4 / Life, or the living,

is tempting, and, it see

that the « received vie

conception of physics, of science sprang from biology. This can scarce lard, whose work Cangu

cal, was himself interes

It isn't necessary, clearly,

in the spirit of logical e

to be the case that if o

study of the normal and

reason to adopt a view

over-logicizing on the o make pathology purely

the alternative, for him but concern with the no

this or that scientific en

ches from the original t the much later lecture,

de la pensée biologique »

ticular investigations of

ciplines in question (27).

(26) An account of this approac

of « La théorie cellulaire » (Cang (27) Canguilhem, 1966 ; « La qu gique », in Canguilhem, 1977, 12

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 57

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

mesón 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 charac

terize life 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 méconnaître toutefois

l'apparition avec l'homme d'une culture irréductible à la simple

nature (28) ».

Yet there seems to be a contradiction here, or at least an uncom

fortable 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 ail, the différence 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 différence 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 Mechanïsierung des Weltbildes, Koyré's Etudes gali

léennes or Metzger's La Genèse 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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58 Marjorie Grene

Here we do have a shar

scientist and those of t of science. In the biolog own practice, the distin

Let us consider this sit

the sciences of life, how

those of the historian of science ? It was with medicine that Can

guilhem 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 Canguil hem insists, ail 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 différent from Wil lis, in a différent 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 signifi cant 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 nor mativity 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.

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 59

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 wo there would be no vision. Canguilhem puts this point strikingly

the last several paragraphe of his essay on « Le vivant et s

milieu ». Let me quote just the final two :

« La prétention de la science à dissoudre dans l'anonymat de l'envir

nement mécanique, physique et chimique ces centres d'organisati

d'adaptation et d'invention que sont les êtres vivants doit être intégra

c'est-à-dire qu'elle doit englober le vivant humain lui-même. Et l'on sait bie

que ce projet n'a pas paru trop audacieux à quelques savants. Mais il f

alors se demander, d'un point de vue philosophique, si l'origine de la science

ne révèle pas mieux son sens que les prétentions de quelques savants. Ca

naissance, le devenir et les progrès de la science dans une humani

laquelle on refuse à juste titre, d'un point de vue scientiste et même matér

liste, la science infuse doivent être compris comme une sorte d'entrepr

assez aventureuse de la vie. Sinon il faudrait admettre cette absurdité que l

réalité contient d'avance la science de la réalité comme une partie d'e

même. Et l'on devrait se demander à quel besoin de la réalité pourrait b

correspondre l'ambition d'une détermination scientifique de cette m


« Mais si la science est l'œuvre d'une humanité enracinée dans la vie

avant d'être éclairée par la connaissance, si elle est un fait dans le monde en

même temps qu'une vision du monde, elle soutient avec la perception une

relation permanente et obligée. Et donc le milieu propre des hommes n'est

pas situé dans le milieu universel comme un contenu dans son contenant. Un centre ne se résout pas dans son environnement. Un vivant ne se réduit pas à

un carrefour d'influences. D'où l'insuffisance de toute biologie qui, par sou

mission complète à l'esprit des sciences phyico-chimiques, voudrait éliminer

de son domaine toute considération de sens. Un sens, du point de vue biolo

gique et psychologique, c'est une appréciation de valeurs en rapport avec un

besoin. Et un besoin c'est, pour qui l'éprouve et le vit, un système de réfé

rence irréductible et par là absolu (31). »

(31) Canguilhem, 1952, 153-154.

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60 Marjorie Grene

Here again is that myst

paragraphe, with the t

tly much of what I ha

ween Canguilhem's p

American practice of t

6 / Finally, let me ad

trast. Logical empiri

« laws » and « observa

generalizations from o turn explained by thé

ture, pressure and volu

you explained by the k

when the slogan « Ail

hion, laws rather reced pulation of two or thr constitute the core of what an « observation

were puzzling ; but w

believe, was the stress

is after, I suppose this

practice, it is not gran

of most working scien

hope, accepts evolutio

remóte, for his or her

more down to earth, lik

gene, that he or she is

Thus Canguilhem, s

science, is concerned

makes this point expl

length study in the h

referred a number of réflexe aux χ vif et xv

history of the reflex a distorted by two préju

only the mechanistic t knowledge. In fact, as

his narrative, it is po

much of the crédit fo

(32) Canguilhem, 1955, 3-7.

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 61

first préjudice, the one that concerne us here, « consiste à penser

qu'un concept ne peut d'abord apparaître que dans le contexte d'une

théorie ou du moins dans une inspiration heuristique homogènes à

ceux dans lesquels les faits d'observation correspondants seront plus tard interprétés (33) ». What Canguilhem is concerned with here is

the common error of interpreting past science as the past of présent

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 : différent basic beliefs,

like faith in mechanism or vitalism, différent techniques of observa

tion and analysis, and so on. In the history Canguilhem is recoun ting even national préjudice (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 adéquate 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 régnant « 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.

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62 Marjorie Grene

dard position. More rece

the Anglo-American p

nature of science in clo

would be another stor

highlight some of the

science, chiefly as one

paring them

with the d

phers of science in the

Canguilhem Georges


1937 Descartes et la technique, in Travaux du IX' congrès internatio

nal de philosophie, I, 2 (Paris : Hermann, 1937), 77-85 ; reprin

ted in Cahiers philosophiques, LXIX (Déc. 1996), 93-100. 1952 La Connaissance de la vie, 2nd ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1965) ; lst ed.


(Paris : Hachette, 1952).

La Formation du concept du réflexe aux xvif et xvuf siècles,

2nd ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1977) ; lst ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1955).


Le Normal et le pathologique (Paris : PUF) ; this is an expanded

édition of Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et

le pathologique (Clermont-Ferrand : Impr. La Montagne, 1943),

« Publications de la faculté des lettres de l'université de Stras

bourg», fasc. 100.

1968 Études d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences concernant le

vivant et la vie, 7th ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1994) ; lst éd., 1968.

1977 Idéologie et rationalité dans l'histoire des sciences de la vie,

3rd ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1993) ; lst ed. (Paris : Vrin, 1977).

Carnap Rudolf

1935 Philosophy and logical syntax (London : K. Paul, Trubner and

Trench, 1935) ; reprint (Bristol : Thoemmes Press, 1996).

Foucault Michel

1985 La vie : L'expérience et la science, Revue de métaphysique et de

Galison Peter

morale, XC/1, 3-14.

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.

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The philosophy of science of Georges Canguilhem 63

Hempel Cari G.

1958 The theoretician's dilemna : A study in the logic of theory cons

truction, in Cari G. Hempel, Aspects of scientific explanation

(New York : MacMillan, 1964) ; lst published in Minnesota

Studies in philosophy of science, II (1958), 37-98.

Hoyningen-Heune Paul

1993 Reconstructing scientific révolutions (Chicago : Univ. of Chicago


Kuhn Thomas S.

1962 The Structure of scientifîc révolutions (Chicago : Univ. of Chi

Mayr Ernst

cago Press).

1994 The ad vanee of science and scien tifie révolutions, 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 socieíy (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-Jôrg

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 phenomenolo gical research, IV, 341-375.

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