Canguilhem and the Greeks: Vitalism Between History and Philosophy

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In this essay, I examine the role of ancient Greek medicine and philosophy in Georges Canguilhem’s analysis of vitalism at the intersection of history and philosophy in his essay “Aspects of Vitalism” in light of larger questions about the historicity of “life” as a concept in the history and philosophy of science and contemporary biopolitical theory. Vitalism, for Canguilhem, is not a proper object of the history of science. But nor is it a philosophy that exists outside of historical time. I show how Canguilhem embeds vitalism both historically and trans-historically by threading each of its three “aspects” in the essay through ancient Greece. Canguilhem distinguishes his own understanding of both life and vitalism from that of the “classical” vitalists of the eighteenth century by refusing to read ancient Greece as romantically naïve or pre-technological and instead locating a dialectic between vitalism and mechanism already in antiquity. I argue for a critical re-reading of Canguilhem’s own conjunction of vitalism and Hellenism that resists its figuration of ancient Greece as the place where the human qua species first comes to take itself as an object of knowledge. I instead propose reading ancient Greek medical and philosophical texts that are read and reread in debates about the nature of human life and the life of Nature over millennia as part of a milieu that shapes how contemporary thinkers theorize life in the interest of human flourishing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHistory, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media B.V.
Number of pages23
StatePublished - 2023

Publication series

NameHistory, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences
ISSN (Print)2211-1948
ISSN (Electronic)2211-1956

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecological Modeling
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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