The Concept in Life and the Life of the Concept: Canguilhem’s Final Reckoning with Bergson


  • Alex Feldman Pennsylvania State University



Canguilhem, Bergson, philosophy of life, historical epistemology, biology


Foucault famously divided the history of twentieth-century French philosophy between a “philosophy of experience” and a “philosophy of the concept,” placing Bergson in the former camp and his teacher Canguilhem in the latter. This division has shaped the Anglophone reception of Canguilhem as primarily a historian and philosopher of biology. Canguilhem, however, was also a philosopher of life and a careful reader of Bergson. The recently-begun publication of Canguilhem’s Œuvres complètes has revealed the depth of this engagement, and a re-reading of Canguilhem’s final major statement on Bergson, the 1966 essay “The Concept and Life,” has thus become necessary. The basic problem of that essay is the relationship between knowledge and life in the history of biology and philosophy, with a special place for Bergson. Canguilhem’s strong criticism of him turns, however, on a misquotation. In claiming that Bergson fails to account for the struggle of the living being to maintain a species form, Canguilhem misconstrues the crucial Bergsonian distinction between vital order and geometrical identity; he thus misses the importance that Bergson accords to general biological tendencies, rather than to the generality of the species. Despite the differences on display in the 1966 essay, it will be argued that Canguilhem’s earlier remarks on Bergson show a surprising convergence in the underlying aim of each thinker’s biological philosophy: the call for a new ontology that grasps the ordered and intelligible character of life without relying on a principle of identity.