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Public health and Georges Canguilhem’s philosophy of medicine

Born in Castelnaudary in France 4 June 1904, Georges Canguilhem was a highly influential 20th century French philosopher of medicine. He took particular interest in the evolution of medical philosophy, the philosophy of science, epistemology, and biological philosophy.

After serving in the military for a short period he taught in secondary schools, before becoming editor for Libres Propos, a radical journal. He was a pacifist and in 1927 deliberately dropped a rifle onto his examiner during officer training.

In 1936 he began studying medicine in Toulouse. He took up a post at the University of Strasbourg in 1941. In 1943 he received his medical doctorate after completing his doctoral dissertation, The Normal and the Pathological. In the same year the Gestapo invaded the University of Strasbourg, injuring and killing several students and professors. Canguilhem managed to escape. After this he joined the French Resistance. He was awarded the Military Cross and the Médaille de la Résistance. He also wrote pieces of writing that criticised the fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany.

His most well know piece of writing, On the Normal and the Pathological (1966), was an incredibly valuable contribution to the history of science in the 20th century. Contemplating the more significant change in perceptions of biology as an established, respectable subject in the late 19th century, Canguilhem explored the way that health and disease were considered and defined. It explored how epistemology, biology, and science combined with philosophy.

Canguilhem was also one of the earliest medical philosophers to use the term autopoietic in medical biology. Autopoiesis refers to the organised state of organic activity. Essentially, a living system continues to reshape itself, thereby distinguishing it from its environment. This helped in how health and disease were considered and even treated in both medical science and medical philosophy.

Canguilhem’s medical philosophy has contributed greatly to the advancement of public health and science. Canguilhem emphasised conceptual medicine, as he believed it opened the possibility to explaining facts and form theories with a practical value. The notion that a particular infectious pathogen causes a particular disease could lead to a particular scientific programme to treat the disease. That would prevent that specific pathogen transmitting to its host and making him ill. This demonstrated Canguilhem’s belief in the link between observing the history of medical knowledge and development of new medical concepts in order to progress medical science.

He lived a long life advancing medical philosophy and public health. He died in 1995, when he was 91.

Featured Image Credit: via qimono Pixabay

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