Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Ivan Moya-Diez, Matteo Vagelli, Georges Canguilhem on sex determination and the normativity of life. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 44, 60 (2022).

Our goal in this paper is to reassess the relationship between norms and life by drawing on the philosophy of Georges Canguilhem, particularly some of his unpublished lectures about teratology and sexual determination. First, we discuss the difficulties Canguilhem identified in the introduction of life and sexuality as objects of philosophical reflection. Second, we reassess Canguilhem’s understanding of normativity as rooted in life and the axiological activity of the living. Third, we analyze how Canguilhem drew from past and contemporary teratology to conceive of the notions of anomaly and abnormality. Finally, we reconstruct Canguilhem’s analysis of a case of hermaphroditism, highlighting how he presented it as evidence that sexual determination is the result of a normative choice. One of the key contributions of the paper to scholarly literature on Canguilhem is a better understanding of his notion of choice, which was considered not the conscious and intentional act of a subject but rather an axiological activity of the living. We conclude by positioning Canguilhem’s concept of normativity and his belief that norms are produced by the living in relation to the naturalist/normativist divide in medicine.

In June 1951, Canguilhem was the vice-president of the committee governing the eligibility exam (agrégation) for high school teachers in France. In 1948, he had been appointed the “Inspector General” of high school education and, in that role, had undertaken a modernization of the oral part of the exam. Through this initiative, he managed to introduce “sexuality” as a new exam subject – though not without resistance from the other members of the committee – by arguing that “they [the students] all read Freud. And they do not talk about anything else anyways” (Eribon, 1989, p. 70). Michel Foucault, who had failed this exam the year before, in 1951 was found to have the third-best performance on the oral exam. Upset at not being first, he angrily reproached Canguilhem for having chosen such an unusual topic (Eribon, 1989, pp. 70–71).

In addition to being an interesting episode in the path that would lead Foucault to develop a five-book project on the history of sexuality, this anecdote is meaningful for at least two reasons. First, because the subject of sexuality was not an arbitrary choice on the part of Canguilhem but rather reflected a long-held interest of his which this paper aims to explore. The general recognition that Foucault has received for introducing sexuality and its history as philosophical subjects has in part overshadowed this earlier interest exhibited by Canguilhem. Besides being developed in unpublished notes for his lectures, as we shall see, Canguilhem also included the topics of “sexuality”, “sexual life”, “sexual impulse,” and “sexual instinct” in the 1952 collection of readings Besoins et tendances (“Needs and tendencies”, Canguilhem, 1952) he prepared for secondary school students in his role as General Inspector of Public Education.

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