Book Review: Canguilhem by Stuart Elden

Review by David Beer

Canguilhem by Stuart Elden was published by Polity Press in 2019.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of books on territory, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, and Henri Lefebvre. His most recent books are Shakespearean Territories (University of Chicago Press 2018) and Canguilhem (Polity 2019). He is currently working of a study of the very early Foucault, as well as editing a collection of Lefebvre’s writings on rural sociology with Adam David Morton. He tweets @stuartelden

In his new book, his ninth authored volume, Stuart Elden casts his laser vision on the frequently overlooked work of Georges Canguilhem. A keystone in French social theory, Canghuilhem was born in 1904 in Castelnaudary and studied at the École Normale Superérieure. He spent two years in military service between 1927 and 1929 before moving into medical training. The interdisciplinary thinking that would continue through this works, ranging across medicine, history and philosophy were established in these early biographical moments. Various incidents then led to him, a decade or so later, joining the philosophy department at the University of Strasbourg in 1941. The publication of his book The Normal and Pathological followed shortly afterwards in 1943. That particular volume opened up a style and approach that combined the philosophical and the biological (or medical) that he would go on to explore and develop in the years that followed. Indeed, Elden’s book, which captures both the thinkers key ideas and the means of their formation, is rich in its exploration of the distinctive ways that Canguilhem combines history with philosophy in this work. Mostly focusing on lectures and essays, his work probed at the conceptualisation of norms, pathologies, reflexes, medicine, disease, evolution, regulation and the knowledge of life. A far-reaching set of concerns that partly explains his wide but latent influence. Canguilhem explored the transformations, changing conditions and  shifting ideas in these different areas. Following a productive and, Elden notes, reflective period of retirement, Canguilhem continued to write and speak on these issues until his death in 1995. Beyond his own work, it is perhaps his support and written report on Foucault’s thesis on the history of madness that is his most widely known intervention.

With this new study, Stuart Elden continues with his series of meticulous tours into the history of ideas. Reading across languages and influences, he maintains a distinctive high-fidelity mode of analysis. Elden’s book gives us Canguilhem as both a figure and as a source of conceptual insight. It is not a biography, but biographical details are injected where they give a sense of the ideas and the character working on them. We discover Canguilhem was a fan of rugby, whereas many of his contemporaries had a preference for tennis. As the text unfolds, the reader can’t help feeling that this sporting preference is in some way indicative of his style of work. Elsewhere we hear of him dropping a gun tripod on an officer’s foot, changing the direction of his national service. In another passage we discover the extent of his involvement in the resistance movement during the war years. We even discover he was nicknamed ‘King Cang’ – both because his name rhymes with the film and because, it seems, he could be fearsome in his critique. Such nuggets litter the introductory chapter. It would have be entertaining if they had continued through the text, but that is not the sort of book that Elden sought to compose.

Elden’s Canguilhem is a standalone book but it is also part of a bigger project. It’s quite a few years since I stumbled upon Stuart Elden’s popular blog For his major works he posts regular updates on his projects. Together these posts give glimpses of research in action. It’s like seeing backstage, a glimpse behind the curtain. The result is that when I read one of his books I arrive with a bit of backstory to its production. I gather from these frequent research updates that this new book is a kind of spin-off from his ongoing multi-volume study of Michel Foucault. The first two volumes of which are already published. Foucault’s Last Decade appeared in 2016 and Foucault: The Birth of Power closely followed it in 2017 – both are excellent and revelationary books that draw from the archives to illuminate Foucault’s ideas. As I understand it, the third volume on Foucault’s early thinking is currently underway. This book on Canguilhem arrives from the background work for that third volume and from the contextual work Elden was doing on Foucault’s key influences. This study of Canguilhem may have emerged from Elden’s work on Foucault, yet it carries just as much care and precision. Indeed, in some ways this particular book, which I gather is the first book on this thinker in the English language, addresses an even bigger fissure in the history of ideas than the project its spins-off from. Where the Foucault books cut deeply to add nuance and shade to understandings of Foucault’s thinking, this new book spans across a wider gap and addresses some substantial areas of neglect.

Anyone who has read any of the various biographies or commentaries on French social theory is likely to have encountered Canguilhem’s name. A linchpin in these stories, ‘bridging’ (13) different traditions and generations, the relatively limited attention Canguilhem has received is surprising. Spotting this important gap this new book deftly makes an important intervention. Canguilhem was a crucial node in the networks of social theory, here his influence becomes clear. This is not just his direct influence through teaching, mentoring and in his activities as interlocutor, it brings out the concepts and perspectives that Canguilhem developed and which can be seen echoing beyond their formation. As well as being a fundamental cog in an intellectual scene and an influential teacher, Canguilhem developed conceptual insights of some sway. He most frequently wrote on topics crossing the social and the biological (or scientific). Readers of Foucault can often see how his thinking was occasionally fed by Canguilhem’s ideas. The work Elden does in this text on the concept of ‘milieu’ is one instance where readers might see such a set of connections. In the way that Canguilhem was a thinker who afforded connections, his work also sought to try to understand the importance of connections and linkages within and between individuals.

Canguilhem’s examination of ‘milieu’ is one of a number of conceptual contributions that range across disciplinary limits. In his reading of Canguilhem’s work on the philosophy of biology Elden argues that it is:

‘here that the notion of a milieu becomes so important. A milieu is an environment, the surrounding context around a living being, but also the centre of that environment – the mi-lieu, the mid-place or location. For Canguilhem, this sense of milieu as the middle or centre can be found in the sense of an organism living in the middle of its environment or surroundings, but also relates to parts of an organism within the organism as a whole, taking the organism as the environment within which the tissue or organs are situated’ (40).

The attempt at situating individuals and components is obvious in the above. Canguilhem was thinking not just about using concepts but about how concepts are used. Milieu is a concept that is intended to situate the object of analysis at the centre of the movements, connections and forces in which it is located. It provides a biological interface with the social through which to understand interrelationships.

The closing section on the legacies of Canguilhem’s work picks up on some such threads. That closing chapter doesn’t just focus on the impact of his research, it also reiterates the traces of his pedagogy and teaching (in the introductory chapter Elden points out how Canguilhem’s teaching often led his research rather than the reverse). He edited a series of books for students, something which was much less common during that period than it is now, as well as being active in developing teaching programmes and the like. Elden’s closing section also picks up on and explores more directly Canguilhem’s influence on Foucault. It emphasises how Foucault’s work in turn then influenced Canghuilhem. From the outset Elden makes the point that ‘his importance to Foucault is certainly significant, though Canguilhem was also influenced by Foucault in turn’ (9). As a further illustration of his legacy, Elden also points to the influence of Canguilhem’s work on François Delaporte. As such, the closing chapter begins to flesh out Canguilhem’s place within certain lines of thought in social theory – the networks spread outwards. Elden closes that final chapter by alluding to the wide influence that Canguilhem had through his research, teaching and institutional roles.

So, can ideas be separated from those that cultivate them or from the network of thinkers and thoughts of which they are a product? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that they should be. Elden’s work shows how the dislocation of concepts has the potential to erode some of the nuance and context that can enrich the use of those concepts as they are reformulated, redeployed and re-engaged. What Elden does here and in his other recent books on Foucault is to show how subtlety and tone can be achieved through a close reading of texts combined with a feel for biographical, social and intellectual context. The situated nature of the discussions Elden provides can make it hard to disentangle the theories or concepts we might want to try to use, but its richness of insight counteracts such a drawback. This is no simple introduction to the work of Georges Canguilhem, it delves into the textures of his texts uncovering and examining with care and insight. This is a book that opens doors in Canguilhem’s thinking, leaving the reader to choose which they might seek to push open.

David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. He is also an editor at Theory, Culture & Society. His most recent book is The Data Gaze. His next book, Georg Simmel’s Concluding Thoughts, will be published in May. He tweets @davidgbeer

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