The Early Foucault update 11: Working in the Canguilhem archive at the École normale supérieure and at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

I’ve been in Paris again for a few days, this time mainly to work at the Canguilhem archive at the Centre d’Archives de Philosophie, d’Histoire et d’Édition des Sciences (CAPHÉS) at the École normale supérieure. The collection comprises multiple boxes of material, and it’s somewhat daunting to see all of this material catalogued. The material comprises drafts of published pieces, lots of things relating to his various administrative roles, and the notes from his teaching. There is a wealth of material here. One initial thing I did was to examine pieces mentioned by others, in order to verify any quotes, to contextualize them and to read more widely. But I also began to do some work on other interesting looking materials in this collection. I know I will need to come back at least once, as I didn’t complete all this work.


The archive has draft versions of many of his essays, which often originated as talks. He writes out the text longhand, sometimes with amendments or additions in a different ink, and sometimes with old-fashioned cut and paste. But the versions preserved are, generally, fairly clean, fair copies. I imagine there were earlier versions which did not survive. There is usually then a typed copy of each text. It doesn’t seem he was his own typist. For his teaching, the notes he took into the classroom are generally handwritten, often fairly neat. He seems to have written things out in a fuller way than, for example, Foucault did for his lectures. His handwriting is neater too, and in the early years is miniscule. It grows in size over the decades, and in his last years becomes a little shakier. But he was active in events and correspondence until late in life, and he died at the age of 91. There are also lots of pages, scraps, recycled bits of letters or flyers, with notes and bibliographical references.

I haven’t worked through all the interesting materials by any means, but I did find some important things. For example there is an extensive draft of a book that was commissioned, contracted but never published. There is the correspondence preceding its writing with the publisher, and then quite a lot of material for its chapters – many of which also exist in typed versions. But there is no correspondence from the publisher asking where it is, and no explanation of why it was unfinished and unpublished. It’s worth noting that this is a little unusual for him. Canguilhem published books, of course, but he didn’t really write them as books. Three of his books are his theses – he had a doctorate in medicine and in philosophy, for which there were two theses – and the others are collections of essays or talks. While not wishing to diminish the work in these, or their value, I think there is a difference between these and things conceived of as books from the start.

I also knew that the archive had the contents of Canguilhem’s personal library. What I didn’t imagine was that it would be on open shelving in the archive reading room (in the image above, all the books on the lower level are from this collection). Instead of having to order up things that might be useful, I was able to browse through it and discover a whole host of interesting books. Canguilhem has copies of all of Foucault’s major works, along with some less common ones, and many of these have handwritten dedications from Foucault. The collection is also helpful for providing access to some of obscure editions of texts which Canguilhem referenced, so I was able to resolve a number of issues there. I chanced across a copy of Henri Lefebvre’s Logique formelle, logique dialectique, which is also signed and dedicated to Canguilhem. There is a little correspondence between Canguilhem and Lefebvre, concerned with Canguilhem’s role as ‘Inspector General’ of philosophy teaching, and the difficulties that Lefebvre had with getting his post at the CNRS renewed. There are also letters from a large number of other figures including Louis Althusser, Jean Beaufret, Pierre Fougeyrollas, Albert Memmi, Michel Serres and so on.

The Canguilhem archive itself was the main reason I was here, and the work was primarily intended to be for the Canguilhem book, though some of the things in the archive connect directly to the Foucault work as well. The archive includes a copy of Foucault’s secondary thesis on Kant, and various things relating to Canguilhem’s role as rapporteur for Foucault’s thesis. Unfortunately a copy of the 943 page manuscript version of the History of Madness thesis which Foucault sent Canguilhem is not here – and it is not in the Foucault archive either. I anticipated this already, but I had hoped there might be a copy of the version of the History of Madness printed for the thesis defense, but that’s not here either. Canguilhem did have copies of the first Plon edition and the 1972 Gallimard edition, but I have those already. There is however Canguilhem’s report on the thesis. This is published in the second and third edition of Eribon’s biography of Foucault, and translated in Arnold Davidson’s Foucault and his Interlocutors collection.

I’m glad I told the archivist that I was working both on Canguilhem and the early Foucault, because she suggested a different archive held at CAPHÉS was worth a look too. I’ve largely found things by trial and error, methodological plod and searching online in the past, but this is the single most useful suggestion I’ve had from someone else in doing archival work on Foucault. I am sure I would never have thought to consult it otherwise.

This week the Bibliothèque Nationale was closed, so in the evenings I made use of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève which is in this same part of Paris, next to the Panthéon. It’s a library for many of the Parisian universities, but also allows public readers. Like the old Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque Nationale, the main reading room is designed by Henri Labrouste, with wonderful  high arched ceilings and exposed ironwork. It gets very busy, and quite noisy, but the collection is extensive. While a lot of material is on open shelves, all the obscure items I wanted had to be ordered up from the store. So I was able to resolve a lot of reference issues and consult some hard-to-find things here too.


One quotation gives the sort of work that reference checking might entail. In the introduction to one of Canguilhem’s books in English translation the translators quote his self-assessment of his relation to Nietzsche. Their reference is to a German article on Canguilhem. That article says it is cited from a chapter in a French book. That chapter says it is cited from a conference proceedings. There, the speaker says it’s something Canguilhem once told him. That’s as good as it is going to get, but it took looking at three additional sources beyond the first to find that out.

Next week I’m off on a kind of writing/cycling retreat – an attempt to take a bit of a break before term starts and also to try to write a bit more of this book. The weather forecast looks grim, so it seems I may be getting a bit more writing than cycling done.


The previous updates on this project are here; and Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power are now both available from Polity. Several Foucault research resources such as bibliographies, short translations, textual comparisons and so on are available here. On the related Canguilhem project, see this page.

This entry was posted in Canguilhem, Georges Canguilhem, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, The Early Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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