As part of my research on the very early Foucault, I’ve been looking at the work of some of his teachers and other inspirations. One of those figures was Georges Canguilhem, who ended up being the rapporteur for Foucault’s doctoral thesis on the history of madness. Canguilhem is a major figure in the history and philosophy of science, best known for The Normal and the Pathological, but author of several other important studies. Many, but by no means all, of his works are translated into English. The links between Canguilhem and Foucault are not quite as straight-forward as are sometimes claimed, with Foucault having written the entire thesis before showing it to Canguilhem, and it’s not clear that Foucault actually attended any classes by him in the early 1950s. Nonetheless Foucault certainly knew his work well, and wrote a preface to the English translation of The Normal and the Pathological. In turn, Canguilhem commissioned Birth of the Clinic for a series he edited, reviewed some of Foucault’s books and was instrumental in getting Foucault at least two of his academic positions. Canguilhem’s influential role in French philosophy generally, not least because of the administrative roles he occupied, is also crucial.
But for many of these thinkers, I am also interested in their own work, beyond whatever influence they had on Foucault. With some of them, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, there is an extensive secondary literature which I can use to supplement my reading of the primary texts. For others, there is less literature, but they are more minor figures, and so this is perhaps not surprising. But with Canguilhem it struck me as unusual that there was no biography in any language, and that while there was a decent literature in French, there was no single book devoted to his work in English.
Of course, there is some literature on Canguilhem in English, but it tends to be chapters within wider studies, a couple of journal theme issues devoted to his work, or standalone articles. Gary Gutting discusses Canguilhem, alongside Gaston Bachelard, in the opening chapter of Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason, and Dominique Lecourt’s Marxism and Epistemology pairs a translation of a book on Bachelard with a study of Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault. Some of the best literature in English is in the introductions to translations of his work. Aside from Lecourt’s work, the best work in French is by Guillaume Le Blanc and Xavier Roth. But there isn’t a comprehensive study in English, and his influence and importance seems to deserve one. I therefore spoke to my editor at Polity and said that it seemed to me to be a real absence from their Key Contemporary Thinkers series. He said they’d think about it, and later came back to me to say, ‘yes, we think this is a good idea. Will you write it?’
This genuinely wasn’t my intention, and I even had a couple of names in mind as suggestions for such a book. But I did give it a lot of thought, and kept returning to the idea. I do think that in order to write The Early Foucault well I will need to understand the intellectual milieu Foucault was brought up in, and Canguilhem is certainly a central figure there. Foucault’s early interests in psychology, medicine, biology and his work translating Binswanger and von Weizsäcker have several connections to Canguilhem’s interests. In other words, the research I am doing for The Early Foucault would put me in a good position to write a book on Canguilhem. As I did more reading around Canguilhem’s work I became interested in the ongoing project of the Oeuvres complètes, and the rediscovery of some of his earliest works, which are more political and more broadly philosophical. There is also an archive of his papers in Paris, and little of the literature, certainly not in English, makes use of either of these sources. So, for me it would be intellectually worthwhile: it wouldn’t just be an English language book which does the work that has already been done in French; and to understand Canguilhem I would have to read widely in literature I don’t currently know.
So, about a month ago, after quite a bit of initial work, I said that I was potentially interested in doing this and sent Polity a proposal for the project. It went out to review and received three positive reports from readers. I received the news that the book would be contracted for the series, along with the reports, just after I arrived in Amsterdam. I knew the editorial board was meeting on the same day I flew out here.
I took a calculated gamble, given Polity’s initial enthusiasm for the idea, and came here with a pile of books by Canguilhem. I have some of the other English translations as pdfs with me, and the two volumes of the Oeuvres complètes are on their way here. I’ve said before that the Foucault work is not very portable, and that the best place for me to work on it is my home study. I will doubtless do something toward it on this trip. But the Canguilhem work does travel, and so I hope to make a good start on this book while here. The plan is that I write both this book on Canguilhem and The Early Foucault in parallel over the next couple of years.