Home > Uncategorized > Marina Brilman “Canguilhem’s Critique of Kant”

Marina Brilman “Canguilhem’s Critique of Kant”

Brilman, Marina 2017. Canguilhem’s Critique of Kant: Bringing Rationality Back to Life. Theory, Culture & Society 0(0). DOI: 10.1177/0263276417741674

It is argued that three ideas form the cornerstones of Canguilhem’s critique. First, his discussion of concepts as preserved problems, rather than as a unification or unity of a manifold (AA 5: 373, 1987: 252, 373; AA 5: 377, 1987: 256, 377), as Kant suggested regarding concepts of the living (AA 5: 396, 1987, 278: 396; AA 5: 385–6, 1987: 266, 385–6). Second, Canguilhem’s idea of vital normativity as the potential to institute new, always provisional, normative orders, as opposed to Kant’s idea of the normative as standard of evaluation or principle of judgment with regard to the living. Third, Canguilhem’s introduction of the environment as a ‘category of contemporary thought’ (2003: 165) engages the ‘problem of individuality’ in the life sciences (Canguilhem, 2003: 79) and introduces contingency, thereby challenging the centrality of Kant’s knowing subject. (2)

Canguilhem’s epistemological critique and political project is this: to oppose any rationality that relies on principles that judge, limit, or extinguish life, and to propose an alternative rationality that relies on life’s creative contingency, resistance, and resilience. (2)

[…] since it is always a particular problem that gives rise to a concept and that this concept – in turn – formulates, all concepts are necessarily normative (Duroux, 1993: 49). (6)

For Canguilhem, a concept is not productive because it ‘economize[s] thought’ (2002: 344) but because it ‘preserve[s] a problem’ that should be maintained ‘in the same state of freshness as its ever-changing factual data’. Philosophy’s task as the ‘science of solved problems’ is, then, to ‘reopen rather than close problems’ (Canguilhem, 1978: xxv, referring to Brunschvicg; Osborne, 2003; Schmidgen, 2014: 249, 234; Rheinberger, 2005: 193). (6)

Goldstein argued, based on the pathological data obtained while treating soldiers with brain damage incurred in the First World War (Goldstein, 1995: 15, 29–30; Canguilhem, 2006: 120), that there are two concepts of the norm, the ‘idealistic’ and the ‘statistical’, and that neither can be satisfactorily applied to the living: the former because it ‘is not oriented on any reality but, rather, would have to justify itself in reality’; the latter because it represents an average that cannot do justice to the individual. What was required was a normative concept that is: (i) generally valid, but (ii) able to account for the individual, while at the same time (iii) avoiding the subjective (Goldstein, 1995: 325). It is argued that Canguilhem’s vital normativity can be understood as an attempt to construe this almost logically impossible normative concept. It signifies that which (i) all living processes have in common, but (ii) is actualized in each individual, while (iii) the living cannot be judged as normal or pathological with regard to an ideal or average, but only objectively with regard to itself (Canguilhem, 2006: 87). (7-8)

Health and sickness, or the normal and pathological, are values of life that can only be re-evaluated by the particular life that leads it. No value can be attributed by reference to an existing norm, nor can value be derived from life itself. Vital normativity, therefore, regards nothing more or less than techniques of living; a potential for ‘switching . . . perspectives’ (Badiou, 1998: 232, referring to a ‘shift of meaning’). (8)

Vital normativity regards a capacity (Canguilhem, 2006: 120, 129) or a potential to confront the particular
problems that living implies (Osborne, 2003: 5–6). (9)

Contemporary biology seems to embrace life’s contingency, at least epistemologically (Rheinberger, 1997: S247; Jacob, 1976: 323). It has also been said that ‘the biological . . . has, in a sense, become a wholly contingent condition’ (Franklin, 2003: 100), implying that living processes have recently become contingent – not only been understood as such – supposedly because of technological developments. However, at least since Kant has life’s diversity been characterized as contingent. In this sense, Luhmann noted that, although contingency may seem a modern notion, it ‘is a part of any search for necessity, for validity a priori, for inviolate values’ (1998: 44), while Foucault said that what characterizes ‘modernity’ is only a certain ‘attitude’ towards contingency (1984: 39), not the idea of contingency itself. (10)

Whereas Luhmann referred to an almost Kantian ‘concept of contingency’ and wondered whether a ‘theory’ exists in which such a concept might be useful (1998: 46), Canguilhem recognizes that contingency cannot be understood through concepts, only through living. A consideration of life’s contingency is only productive when it is divorced from a theory that generalizes or rationalizes it. Vital normativity is, therefore, not a concept of contingency; it is itself contingent. Not because, following Kant, a norm is always applied to the living by a particular subject, but because all norms represent the possibility of their own replacement. (11)

The misunderstanding of vital normativity’s ‘immanence’ (Deleuze, 2001), as something that is in living processes, can be seized upon from the outside, and – in turn – applied to it, is similar to the misinterpretation of Foucault’s biopower as power wielded over or applied to the living. Such understanding regresses biopower back into sovereign power, rather than appreciating Foucault’s efforts to describe the transformation of power itself (1998: 139–40). (12)

Perhaps Canguilhem’s focus on the ‘existential priority’ of the abnormal (1978: 149) and the centrality of error – following Bachelard and Nietzsche (Wolfe, 2010: 203; Talcott, 2014: 259–61) – invites the idea of the norm as correction. However, Canguilhem regarded normalization as an inherently ‘anthropological’ or ‘cultural’ phenomenon, as opposed to normativity, which he associated with life rather than lived experience (Canguilhem, 1978: 147; but see Rabinow, 1994: 18). His idea of vital normativity refers to the confrontation of life’s predicaments through a potential to re-evaluate values, institute new normative orders, and liberate the living from understanding, judgment, and mediocre regularity. (12)

It is in fact the environment’s particular relativity that addresses the vital predicament whether direction of action should be attributed to organism or environment (Goldstein, 1995: 84; Nietzsche, 1968: 344). Canguilhem does not attribute action to either, but to the continuous process of differentiation or becoming, which Goldstein referred to as ‘Auseinandersetzung’ (Canguilhem, 2003: 187) and Simondon as ‘individuation’ (Simondon, 1964: 4: 281–2). (16)

The idea of the knowledge of life, or the living knowing itself as living through living, means that life ceases to be an exception to understanding or rationality’s blind spot. Rather, life lies at the heart of rationality and constitutes its condition of possibility. Canguilhem’s alternative to Kant’s rationality is a ‘reasonable’ or vital rationality that does not seek to introduce order to the world or impose norms on the living, but always takes the point of view of the living itself. (17-18)

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