The Return of Vitalism: Canguilhem and French Biophilosophy in the 1960s

Abstract

The eminent French biologist and historian of biology, François Jacob, once notoriously declared “On n’interroge plus la vie dans les laboratoires”: laboratory research no longer inquires into the notion of ‘Life’. Nowadays, as David Hull puts it, “both scientists and philosophers take ontological reduction for granted… Organisms are ‘nothing but’ atoms, and that is that.” In the mid-twentieth century, from the immediate post-war period to the late 1960s, French philosophers of science such as Georges Canguilhem, Raymond Ruyer and Gilbert Simondon returned to Jacob’s statement with an odd kind of pathos: they were determined to reverse course. Not by imposing a different kind of research program in laboratories, but by an unusual combination of historical and philosophical inquiry into the foundations of the life sciences (particularly medicine, physiology and the cluster of activities that were termed ‘biology’ in the early 1800s). Even in as straightforwardly scholarly a work as La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (1955), Canguilhem speaks oddly of “defending vitalist biology,” and declares that Life cannot be grasped by logic (or at least, “la vie déconcerte la logique”). Was all this historical and philosophical work merely a reassertion of ‘mysterian’, magical vitalism? In order to answer this question we need to achieve some perspective on Canguilhem’s ‘vitalism’, notably with respect to its philosophical influences such as Kurt Goldstein.

Author's Profile

Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès

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