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Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences

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« Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences Extrait automatique Georges Canguilhem translated by Arthur Goldhammer The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, .England --� 068182 English translation copyright© 1988 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Originally published under the title Ideologie et rationalite dans l'histoire des sciences de la vie: Nouvelles etudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences, copyright© 1977 Librairie Philosophique J.

Vrin, Paris, France. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher. This book was typeset by Graphic Composition Inc. and was printed and bound by Halliday Lithograph in the United States of America. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Canguilhem, Georges, l 904- Ideology and rationality in the history of the life sciences. Translation of: Ideologie et rationalite clans l'histoire des sciences de la vie. Bibliography: p. Includes index. I. Life sciences-History. QH305.C2613 1988 ISBN 0-262-03137-X 2.

Life sciences-Philosophy. 574'.09 88-610 I.

Title. Contents Translator's Preface vii Preface ix Introduction: The Role of Epistemology in Contemporary History of Science I l Scientific and Medical Ideologies in the Nineteenth Century l 2 3 II What Is a Scientific Ideology? John Brown's System: An Example of Medical Ideology Bacteriology and the End of Nineteenth-Century "Medical Theory" 27 41 SI Triumphs of Biological Rationality in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 4 The Development of the Concept of Biological Regulation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 81 Vl 5 6 On the History of the Life Sciences since Darwin The Question of Normality in the History of Biological Thought Sources Index CONTENTS 1 47 Translator's Preface Georges Canguilhem was born in I904.

He studied and began to teach philosophy but while teaching decided to work toward a medical degree.

His reasons are worth noting: It is not necessarily to learn more about men�al illness that a professor of philosophy will take an interest in medicine. Nor is it necessarily to practi�e a scientific discipline.

What I expected from medicine was nothing other than an intro­ duction to concrete human problems.

Medicine seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, a technique or an art at the crossroads of several sciences more than a science in the strict sense of the word.

Two problems-that of the relation between science and technology, and that of norms and normality-could, I thought, be more precisely for­ mulated and more fully elucidated by someone with med­ ical training .




The present work [his I943 thesis, The Normal and the Pathologican is therefore an effort to in­ tegrate some of the methods and results of medicine into philosophical speculation. Canguilhem with his life's work has admirably ful­ filled this statement of intention.

Along with Gaston Bach­ elard he has been one of the primary influences in the reorien�ation of French philosophy in recent years.

It was ·Bachelard who introduced.the concept of an "epistemolog­ ical break," a concept whose importance and usefulness Canguilhem has demonstrated in his own way.

But Can­ guilhem's work also shows how philosophy can span the vm coupure, so to speak, in order to reestablish continuity at another level.

For Canguilhem , error is the truth of the past transcended, and he is able to show in concrete detail why the history of science should be studied not as a steady march toward truth but as a process of formation and re­ formation of concepts and models.

His method is more easily grasped in action than through description, and there is perhaps no better introduction to his work than the essay (included here) entitled "Bacteriology and the End of Nineteenth-Century 'Medical Theory.' " In l 95 5 Canguilhem succeeded Bachelard as director of the Institut d'Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques, a position that he held until his retirement a few years ago. Perhaps the most noted of the younger philosophers influ­ enced by his thought was the late Michel Foucault, who wrote of his debt to Canguilhem's pioneering work.

Inter­ ested readers may wish to consult Le Normal et le patho­ logique (1966, containing the 1943 thesis and later essays and now available in English), La Formation du concept de re"flexe ( 1955, reissued 1977), La Connaissance de la vie (1952, 1965), Etudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sci­ ences ( 1968), and the volume from which the present translation was made, Ideologie et rationalite dans l'his­ toire des sciences de la vie (1977).

Canguilhem also pro­ vided a preface to a recent edition of Claude Bernard's Le�ons sur les phenomenes de la vie communs aux ani­ maux et aux vegetaux (1966). TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE Preface To err is human, to persist in error is diabolical.

It is not up to me to decide the degree of error embodied in the texts gathered here.

I am surely too old to make public confession of my mistakes, to proclaim my allegiance to newly instituted epistemological authorities at the cost of renouncing methodological axioms that I borrowed some forty years ago and subsequently exploited in my own way and at my own risk, not without emendation, revision, and reorientation. In 1967-68, under the influence of work of Michel Fouc�ult and Louis Althusser, I introduced the concept of scientific ideology into my lectures.

This was not simply a mark of my interest in and acceptance of the original con­ tributions of those two thinkers to the canons of scientific history.

It was also a way of refurbishing without rejecting the lessons of a teacher whose books I read but whose lec­ tures I was never able to attend.

For whatever liberties my young colleagues may have taken with the teachings of Gaston Bachelard, their work was inspired by and built on his. l do not believe, therefore, that the reader of my first Etudes ·d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences (Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Sciences) will in x these essays signs of change or evolution in my thinking.':­ As for the question whether my indifference to the devel­ opment of a history that would substitute for the distinc­ tion between science and philosophy (or, in other words, between science and literature) a notion of their mutual interpenetration should or should not earn me the distinc­ tion of being a "conceptualist fossil," I must admit I do not much care.

When one's own insignificant research has led one to recognize the existence of discontinuity in history, it would be inappropriate to refuse to recognize discontinui­ ties in the history of history.

To each his own discontinuity, his own revolutions in the world of scholarship. On the other hand I should like very much to answer a question that has been raised by no one but myself.

.Ihe_ author of The Archaeology of Knowledge, whose analysis of scientific ideology I have found quite useful, has aistin­ guished several "thresholds of transformation" in the his­ tory of knowledge: a threshold of positivity, a threshold of epistemologization, a threshold of scientificity, and a threshold of formalization.1 In my published work I am not sure that I have distinguished as carefully as Michel Foucault might wish among the various thresholds crossed by the disciplines I have studied.

It seems to me in any case that, the claims of certain geneticists notwithstanding, none of those disciplines has yet crossed the threshold of formalization.2 Un�ike Foucault, however, I do not believe that experimental medicine as practiced by Claude Bernard and microbiology as practiced by Louis Pasteur were equally inadequate in their contribution to making a sci­ ence of clinical medicine.

I readily admit that I failed to pay adequate attention to the question of thresholds of *[Etudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences was p�blished by Librairie Vrin in 1968.

The French edition of the present work bears the subtitle Nouvelles etudes d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences.-Trans.] PREFACE x1 transformation.

But nineteenth-century medicine and bi­ ology lend themselves less readily than, say, nineteenth­ century chemistry to dissection of the conditions that made "progress" possible.

One can still argue, I think, that Ber­ nard's physiological medicine exhibits a case in which "ep­ istemologization," at the hands of a Bernard himself in love with philosophizing, raced far in "advance" even of posi­ tive empirical results.

By contrast, Pasteur, a chemist rather than a physician, was primarily interested in making a pos­ itive contribution to research and not unduly concerned with developing a consistent epistemology.

3 It may be, finally, that my analyses are not sufficiently subtle or rigorous.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether this is a question of discretion, sloth, or incapacity. Notes l See Michel Foucault, L'Archeologie du savoir, pp.

243-247. 2 Cf.



Woodger, Axiomatic Method in Biology (Cambridge: 1937), and "Formalization in Biology," Logique et analyse, new series, l (August 1 9 5 8 ) ." 3 Cf.


Dagognet, Methodes et doctrine dans /'oeuvre de Pasteur (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), conclusion. G.C. June 1977 PREFACE Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences Introduction: The Role of Epistemology in Contemporary History of Science To anyone who would examine the relations between epis­ temology and the history of science, one fact stands out above all others: namely, that we possess at present more manifestoes and programs of research than we do hard facts.

Statements of intention are numerous, concrete re­ sults meager. Compared with the history of science, a discipline with a history of its own, epistemology at first sight seems to find itself in a false position.

Chronologically, the history of science owes nothing to the philosophical discipline that appears to have acquired the name epistemology in 1854.1 Montucla's Histoire des mathematiques ( 175S), Bailly's Histoire de l'astronomie (1775- 178 2), and Kurt Sprengel's Versuch einer pragmatischen .Geschichte der Arzneikunde ( 1792- 1803) were all written without reference to any sys­ tem of critical or normative concepts.

No doubt all these works were informed, whether their authors were aware of it or not, by a period consciousness, impersonally for­ mulated in the doctrine of infinite perfectibility of the hu­ man spirit and based on an almost unbroken series of revolutions in cosmology, mathematics, and physiology- · .

revolutions associated with the names Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Newton, Leibniz, and Lavoisier.

On 2 grounds of continuity it was therefore legitimate to believe in further scientific progress to come: Although Spr'engel (the date being 1792) explicitly alludes to critical philoso­ phy in the introduction to his history of medicine, he men­ tions it simply as a doctrine in which certain physicians happen to be well versed, just as certain of their predeces­ sors were well versed in dogmatic, empirical, or skeptical philosophy, rather than as a new and effective instrument for judging the validity of scientific methods.

ence there is no point in reproaching eighteenth- and ·nineteenth­ century historians of science for not having employed any of the epistemological concepts that today's philosophers are attempting to enforce as rules ·for writing scientific history. Among historians of science, those who dislike _the scrutiny of their discipline by epistemologists have not been remiss in pointing out that epistemology, itself.... »


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