China, 1958.

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Machine and Organism
Georges Canguilhem
The relationship between machine and organism has generally been studied
in only one way. Nearly always, the organism has been explained on the basis
of a preconceived idea of the structure and functioning of the machine; but
only rarely have the structure and function of the organism been used to make
the construction of the machine itself more understandable. Even though
mechanistic theory sparked some very impressive technical research, the fact
remained that the very notion of an "organology,;' as well as its basic premises
and methodology, remained undeveloped.
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Philosophers and mechanistic biologists approached the machine as a set
of data, or else made it into a problem that they could solve purely through
mental application. To do this, they called on the engineer, who was for them
a scientist in the truest sense. Misled by the ambiguities of their view of
mechanics, they saw machines only as theorems in concrete form. The opera-
tions necessary to construct machines were only secondary considerations
when compared with the all-important idea that the machine revealed their
theories in concreto. To see this, one needed only to acknowledge what science
could accomplish, and from there it was simply a matter of the confident
application of that knowledge. However, I do not believe that it is possible to
treat the biological problem of the "living machine" by separating it from the ..
technological problem it supposedly resolves - namely, the problem of the re-
lationship between technology and science. This problem is normally resolved
by starting with the idea that, logically and chronologically, knowledge pre-
cedes application. What I want to show is that the construction of machines
can indeed be understood by virtue of certain truly biological principles, with-
out having at the same time to examine how technology relates to science.
I shall address the following topics in successive order: what it means to
compare an organism to a machine; the relationship between mechanical
processes, and the results that might be achieved by using them; and the his-
torical reversal of the traditional relationship between the machine and the
organism and the philosophical consequences of this reversal.
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Machine and Organism
For those who have carefully studied living beings and the forms they take, it
is rare - and only in the case of the vertebrates - that one notices any truly
mechanical attributes, at least in the sense that the term is commonly under-
stood by scientists. In La Pensee technique, for example, Julien Pacotte notes
that movements of the joints and the eyeball can be paralleled with what math-
ematicians call a "mechanism."2 A machine can be defined as a man-made,
artificial construction, which essentially functions by virtue of mechanical
operations. A mechanism is made of a group of mobile solid parts that work
together in such a way that their movement does not threaten the integrity
of the unit as a whole. A mechanism therefore consists of movable parts that
work together and periodically return to a set relation with respect to each
other. It consists of interlinking parts, each of which has a determinable
degree of freedom of movement: for example, both a pendulum and a cam
valve have one degree of freedom of movement, whereas a threaded screw
has two. The fact that these varying degrees of freedom of movement can be
quantified means that they can serve as tangible guides for. measuring, for
setting limits on the amount of movement that can be expected between any
two interacting solid objects. In every machine, then, movement is a function,
first, of the way the parts interact and, second, of the mechanical operations
of the overall unit. 3
Mechanics is governed by the principle that every movement of a machi.ne
is geometric and measurable. What is more, every such movement regulates
and transforms the forces and energy imparted to it. Mechanics, though, does
not work in the same way that a motor does: in mechanics, movements are
simply propagated, not created. A rather simple example of how this trans-
formation of movement takes place can be seen in several devices - a wheel
crank or an eccentric crank, for example - that are set into motion by an ini-
tiallateral movement but eventually produce reciprocating, rotary movement.
Of course, mechanical operations can be combined, either by superimposing
them or adding them together. It is even possible to take a basic mechanical
device, modify it and make it capable of performing a variety of other mechan-
ical operations. This is exactly what happens when a bicycle freewheel clutch
is released or stopped.
4
What constitutes the rule in human industry is the exception in the struc-
ture of organisms and the exception in nature, and I must add here that in
the history of technology and the inventions of man assembled configurations
are not the most primitive. The oldest known tools are made of a single piece.
The construction of axes or of arrows made by assembling a flint and a han-
dle, or the construction of nets or fabrics, are so many signs that the primi-
tive stage has been passed.
This brief overview of some elementary principles of kinematics helps to
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give a fuller sense of the problem without losing sight of a central paradox:
Why was it necessary to turn to the theory of mechanism, as outlined above,
in order to explain the living organism? The answer can be found, it seems,
in the fact that this mechanical model of living organisms does not rely on
kinematics alone. A machine, as defined above, is not totally self-sufficient: it
must receive and then transform energy imparted to it from an outside source.
To be represented in movement it must be associated with an energy source.
5
For a long time, kinematic mechanisms were powered by humans or ani-
mals. During this stage, it was an obvious tautology to compare the movement
of bodies to the movement of a machine, when the machine itself depended
on humans or animals to run it. Consequently, it has been shown that mecha-
nistic theory has depended, historically, on the assumption that it is possible
to construct an automaton, meaning a mechanism that is miraculous in and
of itself and does not rely on human or animal muscle power.
This is the general idea put forth in the follOwing well-known text:
Examine carefully the physical economy of man: What do you find? The jaws are
armed with teeth, which are no more than pincers. This stomach is nothing but a
retort, or heat chamber; the veins, the arteries and indeed the entire vascular sys-
tem are simply hydraulic tubes; the heart, a pump; the viscera, nothing but filters
and sieves; the lungs, a pair of bellows; and what are muscles if not a system of
cables and ropes. What is the oculomotor nerve, if not a pulley? And so on. Try
as they will, chemists cannot explain nature and set up a separate philosophy sim-
ply by coining a new vocabulary around words like "fusion," "sublimation" and
. "precipitation"; for this does not at all address either the incontrovertible laws of
equilibrium or the laws governing the workings of the wedge, cables, pumps as
elements of mechanical theory.
This text is not where we might think to find it, but in fact comes from the
Praxis medica, written by Baglivi in 1696, an Italian doctor belonging to the
iatromechanical school. This school, founded by Borelli, had apparently been
influenced by Descartes, although for reasons of national prestige, the Italians -
prefer to attribute it to Galileo.
6
This text is interesting because it treats the
wedge, the rope, the cable and the pump as if they could be seen in the same
terms for formulating explanatory principles. It is clear, however, that from
the mechanistic point of view there is a difference between these devices: a
cable essentially transmits a given movement, whereas a pump transforms a
given movement and is also a motor - admittedly, a motor that returns what-
ever energy it receives; but, at certain intervals, it apparently has a degree of
independence of movement. In Baglivi's text, the heart is the primum movens
- the central pump that serves as the motor for the whole body.
Therefore, a crucial element behind the mechanical explanation of bodily
movement is that, in addition to machines that perform as kinematic devices,
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Machine and Organism
there are also machines that act as motors, deriving their energy, at the mo-
ment it is utilized, from a source other than animal muscle. And this is why,
although Baglivi's text seems linked to Descartes, the idea of the body-as-
machine actually goes back to Aristotle. When dealing with the Cartesian
theory of the animal-machine, it is often difficult to decide whether or not
Descartes had any precursors for this idea. Those who look for Descartes's
predecessors here usually cite Gomez Pereira, a Spanish doctor of the second
half of the sixteenth century: Pereira suggested, before Descartes, that he
could demonstrate that animals were wholly machines and that they do not
possess that sensitive soul so frequently attributed to them.
7
But in other
respects, it is unquestionably Aristotle who saw the congruity between animal
movements and automatic mechanical movements, like those observed in
instruments of war, especially catapults. This idea is treated rather extensively
by Alfred Espinas, who discusses the connection between the problems dealt
with by Aristotle in De Motu animalium and those in his compilation of
Quaestiones mechanicae.
8
Aristotle draws a clear parallel between the organs
of animal movement and "oTBana ," or parts of war machines, like the arm of
a catapult about to launch a projectile. Thus catapults, typical automatic
machines of the period, seemed to be articulated like a human limb, as they
were pOised and made to release their great stores of pent-up energy. In the
same work, Aristotle carries the analogy even further by comparing the move-
ment of our limbs to mechanisms; and he makes his case in much the same
way that Plato did when, in the Timaeus, he compared the movement of ver-
tebrates to hinges or pivots. " ,
It is true that in Aristotle the theory of movement is somewhat different
from what it would become in Descartes. According to Aristotle, the soul is
the principle of all movement. All movement first presupposes immobility
and then requires a prime mover or some motivating force. Desire moves
the body, and desire is explained by the soul, just as potentiality is explained
by an act. Despite their differing explanations of movement, for Aristotle as
for Descartes later, the comparison of the body with a machine presupposes
that man is composed of automated mechanical parts reliant on aQ energy
source that produces motor effects over time and continue to do so well after
the original (human or animal) energy has dissipated. It is this discrepancy
between the storage of energy to be released by the mechanism and the mo-
ment of release that allows us to forget the relation of dependence between
the effects of the mechanism and the actions of a body. When Descartes looks
to machines to explain how organisms work, he invokes spring-operated and
hydraulic automata. As a result, he owes a great intellectual debt to the ideas
behind the technical creations of his own time, including clocks"and watches,
water mills and church organs of the early seventeenth century. We can say,
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then, that as long as the concept of the human and animal body is inextricably
"tied" to the machine, it is not possible to offer an explanation of the body
in terms of the machine. Historically, it was not possible to conceive of such
an explanation until the day that human ingenuity created mechanical devices
that not only imitated organic movements - as in the launching of a projec-
tile or the back-and-forth movement of a saw - but also required no human
intervention except to construct them and set them going.
In two instances, I have asserted that an explanation cannot be formulated
without the existence of certain conditions. Is this tantamount to attributing
a historical necessity to scientific explanation? How do I explain'the abrupt
appearance in Descartes of a lucid mechanistic interpretation of biological
phenomena? This theory is clearly related to modifications that occurred in
the economic and political structure of Western society, but the nature of
this relation remains obscure.
This problem has been treated in depth by P.-M. Schuhl, who has shown
that in ancient philosophy the opposition of science and technique paralleled
the opposition of freedom and servitude and, at a deeper level, of art and na-
ture.
9
Schuhl supports this parallel with Aristotle's assertion that natural and
violent movement are opposed - a violent movement occurs when mecha-
nisms are used against nature, and its characteristics are that it exhausts itself
rapidly and never becomes habitual - which is to say, a permanent tendency
to reproduce itself never obtains.
Here I must turn to the difficult problem of the history of civilization
and the philosophy of history. With Aristotle, the hierarchy of freedom and
servility, of theory and practice, of nature and art, is paralleled by an eco-
nomic and political hierarchy in the cities, namely, the relations of freemen
and slaves. The slave, according to Aristotle in the Politics, is an animated
machine. 10 This is the crux of the problem to which Schuhl only alludes in
passing: Did the Greek conception of the dignity of science lead to their dis-
dain for technique and the resultant paucity of inventions? And did this in
turn lead to the difficulty of applying the results of technical activity to the
explanation of nature? Or, rather, did the Greeks' high regard for purely
speculative science and detached contemplation explain the absence of tech-
nical invention? Did their disregard for work cause slavery, or did the abun-
dance of slaves due to military supremacy explain their low regard for work?
Are we obliged to explain the ideology in terms of the socioeconomic struc-
ture or, rather, the socioeconomic structure in terms of the ideology? Did
the ease of exploiting human beings make it easier to disdain the techniques
that would allow them to exploit nature? Does the arduousness of exploiting
nature justify the explOitation of man by man? Is there a causal relationship
at work here? And if so, in which direction does it go? Or are we dealing with
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Machine and Organism
a global structure having reciprocal relations and influences?
A similar problem is presented by Father Lucien Laberthonniere, who
contrasts the physics of an artist or an aesthete to that of an engineer and an
artisan.ll Laberthonniere suggests that the determining factor here is ideas,
given that the Cartesian transformation in the philosophy of technique pre-
supposes Christianity. It was necessary to conceive of man as a being who
transcends nature and matter in order to then uphold his right and his duty
to exploit matter ruthlessly. In other words, man had to be valorized so that
nature could be devalorized. Next it was necessary to conceive of men as
being radically and originally equal so that, as the exploitation of humans by
each other was condemned on political grounds, there were increased tech-
nical means to exploit nature and a growing sense of duty to do so. This analy-
sis permits Laberthonniere to speak of a Christian origin for Cartesian physics.
However, he qualifies his own claim: the physics and technique supposedly
made possible by Christianity came, for Descartes, well after Christianity had
been founded as a religion. Moreover, humanist philosophy, which saw man
as master and proprietor of nature, was in direct opposition to Christianity
as humanists saw it: the religion of salvation, of escape into the hereafter, in-
spired by a contempt for the things of this life and unconcerned with whatever
fruits technology might win for mankind in this world below. Laberthonniere
asserts that "time -does not enter into the question," but this is by no means
certain. In any case, several classic texts have demonstrated that certain techni-
cal inventions that transformed the use of animal motor power - for example,
the horseshoe and the shoulder harness - accomplished more for the eman-
cipation of slaves than did the countless preachings of abolitionists.
In Del (jbeI8an8 vomftudalem zum biiI8eIlichen Weltbild, Franz Borkenau
argues that there is a causal relationship between mechanistic philosophy and
the totality of social and economic conditions in which it arises. 12 He claims
that at the start of the seventeenth century the qualitative philosophy of antiq-
uity and the Middle Ages was eclipsed by mechanistic ideas. The success of
these new ideas was, on the level of ideology, an effect of the economic fact
of the new organization and expansion of manufacturing. For Borkenau, the
division of artisanallabor into separate, simplified operations requiring little
skill produced the concept of abstract social labor. Once labor had been de-
composed into simple, identical and easily repeatable movements, price and
wages could be determined simply by comparing the hours worked - and the
result was a process that, preViously qualitative, had become quantifiable. 13
Calculating work in purely quantitative terms that can be treated mathemat-
ically is claimed to be the basis and the starting point for a mechanistic con-
ception of the life world. It is therefore by redUCing all value to economic
value, "to cold hard cash," as Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto, that
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the mechanistic view of the universe is supposed to be fundamentally a
Weltanschauung of the bourgeoisie. Finally, Borkenau claims that the animal-
machine gives rise to the norms of the nascent capitalist economy. Descartes,
Galileo and Hobbes are thus the unwitting heralds of this economic revolution.
Borkenau's theses have been analyzed and criticized more forcefully by
Henryk Grossmann. 14 According to him, Borkenau ignores five hundred years
of economic and ideological history by seeing mechanistic theory as coincid-
ing with the rise of manufacturing at the beginning of the seventeenth cen-
tury: Borkenau writes as if Leonardo da Vinci had never existed. Referring
to Pierre Duhem's Les Ori8ines de la statique (1905), and the publication of
Leonardo's manuscripts (Herzfeld, 1904; Gabriel Seailles, 1906; Peladan,
1907), Grossmann agrees with Seailles that with the publication of Leonardo's
manuscripts it became clear that the origins of modern science could be
pJlshed back by more than a century. The quantification of the notion of work
occurs first within mathematics, well before its economic rationalization.
The norms of the capitalist evaluation of production, moreover, had been
defined by the Italian bankers even in the thirteenth century. Relying on
Marx, Grossmann reminds us that although in general there was no division
of labor in manufacturing properly speaking, manufacturing at its inception
meant the gathering together in the same place of skilled artisans who had
previously worked independently. According to Grossmann, then, it is not
the calculation of cost per hour of work, but the evolution of mechanization
that is the real cause of the mechanical view of the universe. The development
of mechanization begins during the It is, therefore, more accu-
rate to say that Descartes had consciously rationalized a mechanistic technique
than that he had unconsciously expressed the imperatives of a capitalist econ-
omy. For Descartes, mechanics is a theory if machines that presupposes a spon-
taneous invention which science must then consciously promote and develop. -
Which machines did the most to modify the relationship between man
and nature before the time of Descartes, far beyond the wildest imaginations _
of the ancients - and did most to justify and rationalize the hopes men had
vested in machines? Above all there were firearms, which hardly interested
Descartes except in terms of the problem of the projectile. 16 the other
hand, Descartes was very interested in clocks and watches, in lifting machines,
in water-driven machines and other related devices. As a result, one should
say that Descartes made a human phenomenon - the construction of ma-
chines - into an integral part of his philosophy; and one should avoid saying
that he transposed the social phenomena of capitalist production into ideology.
The key question becomes: How does Cartesianism account for an internal
principle of goal-directed activity in mechanisms, as is implied in the compar-
ison of a machine with an organism?
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The theory of the animal-machine is inseparable from "I think therefore I
am." The radical distinction between the soul and the body, between thought
and extension, requires the affirmation that matter, whatever form it adopts,
and thought, whatever function it fulfills, are each an undivided substance. 17
Because the only function of the soul is judgment, it is impossible to admit
the existence of a soul in animals, since we have no proof that animals judge,
incapable as they are of language or invention. 18
For Descartes, though, the refusal to attribute a soul- that is, reason - to
animals, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that animals are not alive
(since not much more than a warm, beating heart is at issue); nor must ani-
mals be denied sensibility, to the extent that such sensibility is solely a func-
tion of their organs. 19
In the same discussion, a moral foundation for the animal-machine theory
comes to light. Descartes views the animal as Aristotle had viewed the slave,
devalorizing it in order to justify man's using it to serve his own purposes: "My
opinion is no more cruel to animals than it is overly pious toward men, freed
from the superstitions of the Pythagorians, because it absolves them of the hint
of crime whenever they eat or kill animals."2o And it comes as no small surprise
to find the same argument in reverse in a passage of Leibniz: "if we are com-
pelled to view the animal as being more than a machine, we would have to
become Pythagorians and renounce our domination of animals."21 And so we
confront an attitude typical of Western thought. On the theoretical level, the
mechanization oflife only considers animals to the extent that they serve man's
technological ends. Man can only make himself the master and proprietor of
nature if he denies any natural finality or purpose; and he must consider the
whole of nature, including all life forms other than himself, as solely a means
to serve his purposes.
This is how the mechanical model of the living organism, including the hu-
man body, was legitimized; for already in Descartes the human body, if not Animal testing, c. 1970.
man's entire self, is seen as a machine. As I have already noted, Descartes based
his mechanical model on automata, that is, 'on moving machines.
22
In order to see the full implications of Descartes's theory, I now intend to
look at the beginning of his "Treatise on Man:' which was published for the
first time in Leyden in 1662. He wrote there:
These men will be composed, as we are, of a soul and a body. First I must describe
the body on its own, then the soul, again on its own; and finally I must show how
these two natures would have to be joined and united in order to constitute men
who resemble us.
I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which
God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us.
Thus God not only gives it externally the colors and shapes of all the parts of our
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bodies, but also places inside it all the parts required to make it walk, eat, breathe,
enabling it to imitate all those functions which seem to proceed from matter and
to depend solely on the interacting movements of our organs.
We see clocks, artificial fountains, water mills and other such machines which,
although only man-made, seem to move of their own accord in various ways;
but I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God, and so I think
you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I
could possibly imagine in it, and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly
ascribe to it.
23
Were we to read this text as naively as possible, the theory of the animal-
machine would seem to make sense only if we put forward two important
and often-neglected postulates. The first is the existence of a God who builds
things, and the second that living bodies are given in essence before machines
are constructed. In other words, to understand the machine-animal, it is
necessary to see it as being preceded, logically and chronologically, by God,
who is an efficient cause, and by a preexisting living model after which it is
to be modeled or imitated, which is a formal and final cause. With all this in
mind, I propose to take the animal-machine theory, which is usually seen as
a departure from the Aristotelian concept of causality, and show how all of
Aristotle's types of causality are nonetheless found in it, but not always in the
same place or simultaneously.
If we read the text more closely, we see that in order to construct the liv-
ing machine
24
it is necessary to imitate a preexisting living model. The con-
struction of a mechanical model presupposes a living original (Descartes is
perhaps closer here to Plato than to Aristotle). The platoniC Demiurge copies
the ideas, and the Idea is the model of which the natural object is a copy. The
Cartesian God, the Art!fox maxim us, works to produce something equivalent
to the living body itself. The model for the living machine is that body itself.
Divine art imitates the Idea - but the Idea is the living body. What is more,
in the same way that a regular polygon is inscribed in a circle, and that one
must pass an infinite distance to deduce one from the other, there is some-
thing of the machine in every aspect of life; but to pass from one to the other
would require crossing over an infinite gap, one that only God can close. This
is the idea brought out at the end of the text: "but I am supposing this machine
to be made by the hands of God, and so I think you may reasonably think it
capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it,
and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it." The the-
ory of the animal-machine would, therefore, have the same relation to life
that a set of axioms has to geometry, that is, nothing more than a rational
reconstruction. Thus, the theory operates by deception: it pretends to ignore
the concrete existence of what it must represent, and it denies that what it
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actually produces comes only after it has been rationally legitimized.
This aspect of Cartesian theory, moreover, was accurately assessed by a
contemporary anatomist, the noted Nicolaus Steno, in the Dissertation on the
Anatomy if the Brain delivered in Paris in 1665, a year after the "Treatise on
Man" had appeared. While paying homage to Descartes (which was remark-
able, since anatomists had not always been very accepting of Cartesian anat-
omy), he notes that Descartes's man was man reconstituted by Descartes
with God as a foil, but that this was not man as the anatomist understands
him. One can therefore say that by substituting the body for the machine,
Descartes removed teleology from life, but in appearance only, because he
has concentrated it in its entirety at the point at which life begins. A dynamic
structure is replaced by an anatomical one; but since this form is produced by
technique, all possible sense of teleology has been confined to the technique
of production. In fact, it appears that mechanical theory and purposiveness
cannot be placed in opposition, nor can mechanism and anthropomorphism.
If the functioning of a machine can be explained by relations of pure causal-
ity, the construction of a machine cannot be understood without taking two
things into consideration: a specific goal-directed activity and man himself.
A machine is made by man and for man, to achieve specific ends, to produce
a given series of effects. 25
The positive element, then, in Descartes's attempt to explain life mechani-
cally is that he eliminates the need to tie mechanism to finality in its anthropo-
morphic aspect. it seems that in doing this, one anthropomorphism
has been substituted for another. A technological anthropomorphism has been
substituted for a political anthropomorphism.
In "Description of the Human Body and All 0'£ Its Functions:' a short trea-
tise written in 1648, Descartes addresses the question of voluntary movement
in man: he offers, in terms so lucid that they were to dominate the entire the-
ory of reflex and automatic movements up until the nineteenth century, the
explanation that the body obeys the soul only on condition that the body is
primed mechanically to do so. For the soul to decide to move is not a suffi-
cient condition to induce the body to move. "The soul," writes Descartes
"cannot produce any movement without the appropriate disposition of the
bodily organs which are required for making the movement. On the contrary,
when all the bodily organs are appropriately disposed for some movement,
the body has no need of the soul in order to produce that movement."26
Descartes means that when the soul moves the body it does not act like a king
or a general commanding his subjects or his troops as is popularly conceived.
Rather, by viewing the body as a clock mechanism he envisions each organ
driving the other like interlocking cogwheels. So Descartes substitutes for
the image of the political chain of command - where commands are passed
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by signals or spoken orders, through a type of magical causality - the techno-
logical image of "control," in which a desired series of operations is activated
by a controlling device or coordinated by a series of mechanical linkups.
Descartes takes the exact opposite position of Claude Bernard who, in his
critique of vitalism, in Le§ons sur les phenomenes de la vie communs aux animaux
et aux vesetaux, refuses to admit that a vital force could have a separate exis-
tence because it "cannot do anything" - but he does admit, surprisingly, that
it can "direct phenomena that it does not produce."z7 In other words, Bernard
replaces the notion of a vital-force-as-worker with the idea of vital-force-as-
legislator or guide. This is a way of admitting that one can direct events with-
out taking action - which borders on a kind of magical concept of direction,
implying that the overall operation transcends the execution of individual
operations. On the contrary, according to Descartes, a mechanical operation
replaces the power of direction and command, but God has fixed the direc-
tion once and for all: the constructor includes the guide-controls within the
mechanical process itself.
In short, with the Cartesian explanation, it might appear that we have not
moved beyond the idea of finality or inner purposiveness. The reason for this
is that if we limit ourselves to the workings of the machine, everything can be
explained by the theory of mechanism; but the theory cannot account for the
construction of the machine itself. Machines do not construct other machines,
and it could even be said that, in a sense, explaining organs or organisms
through mechanical models amounts to explaining the organ by means of it-
self. At bottom, then, we are dealing 'with a tautology; for it can be shown -
and I shall indeed try to justify this view - that machines can be considered as
orsans if the human species. 28 A tool or a machine is an organ, and organs are
tools ot machines. And so it is hard to see how mechanism can be distin-
guished from purposiveness. No one doubts that a mechanism is needed to
ensure that a given operation is carried out successfully; and, conversely,
every mechanism must 'follow a precisely determined sequence toward per-
forming some particular task, since a mechanism cannot depend on random-
ness or chance. Therefore, the opposition would be between those mechanisms
whose purpose is manifest and those whose purpose remains latent. In the
case of a lock or a watch, their function is apparent, while the pincers of the '
crab, often considered a marvel of adaptation, have a latent purpose. As a
result, it seems impossible to deny that certain biological mechanisms serve
a set purpose. Let us consider an oft-cited example, which mechanistic biol-
ogists use to argue their case; namely, that of the woman's pelvis, which en- '
larges just before she gives birth. To deny that this enlargement might not in
someway be the fulfillment of a fundamental, purposive activity, we need only
view the question in another way: given that the largest-sized fetus exceeds
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Mach i ne and Organism
the maximum size of the pelvis by 1 or 1.5 cm, it would be impossible to give
birth were it not for a loosening of the symphyses and a gradual rocking move-
ment toward the sacrococcygien bone which increases the diameter ever so
slightly beyond its maximum. It is understandable that one would not want to
believe that an act with such a specific biological purpose is allowed to occur
only by virtue of a mechanism with no real biological function. And "allow" is
indeed the word that applies here, since without this mechanism the act sim-
ply could not take place. It is well known that, when dealing with an unknown
mechanism, we have to make certain that it is in fact a mechanism - that is, we
have to know what ultimate purpose or function it is intended to serve. We
can come to no conclusions about how it is to be used, simply on the basis of
its form or its structure, unless we already know how the machine or similar
machines are used. As a result, it is necessary first to see the machine at work
before attempting to deduce the function from the structure.
We are now at the point where we can see the historical reversal of the Cartesian
relationship between the machine and the organism. It is a well-known fact
- and so need not be belabored - that in all organisms we observe the phe-
nomena of autoconstruction, automaintenance, autoregulation and autorepair.
In the case of the. machine, its construction is beyond its power and depends
on the skill of the mechanic. Its maintenance requires the constant attention
and watchfulness of the machinist; for we all know how the complex workings
of a machine can be irremediably damaged due to inattention and carelessness.
As for maintenance and repair, they demand the same periodic intervention
of human action. While there are machines that are self-regulating, these are
in fact machines that man has grafted onto another machine. The construc-
tion of servomechanisms or electronic automata merely displaces the question
of the man-machine relationship without changing it in any fundamental way.
Further, in the case of the machine there is a strict adherence to rational,
economical rules. The whole is rigorously the sum of its parts. The final effect
depends on the ordering of the causes. What is more, a machine functions
within narrowly defined limits, and these limits become all the more rigid with
the practice of standardization. Standardization leads to the Simplification of
basic models and spare parts, and to unified standards of measurement and
quality, which allows for the interchangeability of parts. Any individual part
can be exchanged for any other part meant for the same place - within, of
course, a margin of tolerance determined by manufacturing constraints.
Now that the properties of a machine have been defined in relation to those
of an organism, can one say that there is more or less purposiveness in a ma-
chine than in an organism?
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One would surely agree that there is more purposiveness in machines
than in organisms, since a machine seems to move uniformly, unidirectionally
toward completing a particular activity. A machine cannot replace another
machine. The more specific the end-result desired, the more the margin of
tolerance is reduced, and the more the machine's directiveness seems con-
centrated, focused on a particular end. It is well known that functions in the
organism are substitutable, organs are polyvalent. Although this substitutabil-
ity of functions and polyvalence of organs is not absolute, in comparison with
the same qualities in the machine, it is so considerable that any comparison
is quite obviously absurd.
29
As an example of the substitutability of
I can give a very simple and well-known case, that of aphasia in children. A
hemiplegia on the right side of the child's brain is almost never accompanied
by aphasia, because the other areas of the brain ensure the continuance of the
linguistic functions. In the case of the child who is less than nine months old,
any existing aphasia disappears very quickly. 30 As for the problem of the poly-
valent organs, I need simply note the fact that for a majority of organs, which
we have traditionally believed to serve some definite function, the truth is
that we have no idea what other functions they might indeed fulfill. This is
the reason that the stomach is said to be, in principle at least, an organ of
digestion. However, it is a fact that after a gastrectomy performed to treat an
ulcer, there are fewer problems with digestion than with those we observe
with hematopoiesis. It was finally discovered that the stomach behaves like
an internal secretive gland. And I might also cite yet another example - and
not,at all to be taken as some sort of miracle - which came to light during
a recent experiment performed by the biologist Courrier, at the College de
France. Courrier made an incision in the uterus of a pregnant rabbit, ex-
tracted a placenta from the uterus and placed it in the peritoneal cavity. This
placenta grafted itself onto the intestine and fed itself normally. When the
graft was performed, the rabbit's ovaries were ablated - meaning that the
function fulfilled by the corpus luteum during pregnancy was suppressed. At
that moment, all the placentas present in the uterus were aborted and only
the placenta situated in the peritoneal cavity came to term. Here is an exam-
ple of the intestine behaving like a uterus, and perhaps, one might even say,
more successfully.
In this case, then, it is tempting to reverse one of Aristotle's formulations
in his Politics: "For nature is not stingy, like the smith who fashions the Del-
phian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every
instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses."31
On the contrary, it seems that this definition of finality or purposiveness
would be more applicable to a machine than to an organism. One must be
willing to acknowledge, ultimately, that in an organism, a given organ can
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accommodate a diversity of functions. Clearly, an organism has a greater range
of activity than a machine. It is less bound by purposiveness and more open
to potentialities.32 Every aspect and every movement of the machine is calcu-
lated; and the working of the machine confirms how each calculation holds
up to certain norms, measures or estimates; whereas the living body functions
according to experience. Life is experience, meaning improvisation, acting as
circumstances permit; life is tentative in every respect. Hence the overwhelm-
ing but often misunderstood fact that life permits monstrosities. There are no
monstrous machines. There is no mechanical pathology, as Xavier Bichat noted
in 1801 in his General Anatomy, Applied to Physiology and Medicine. 33 Whereas
monsters are still living things, there is no way to distinguish between the nor-
mal and the pathological in physics and mechanics. Only among living beings
is there a distinction between the normal and the pathological.
Above all, it is work in experimental embryology that has led to the aban-
doning of such mechanistic representations when interpreting living phenom-
ena, primarily by demonstrating that once the embryo starts to develop, it
does not contain any kind of "specific mechanism" intended to produce auto-
matically one organ or another. There can be no doubt that this was Descartes's
conception as well. In his "Description of the Human Body:' he wrote: "If we
hc..d a good knowledge of what makes up the semen of some species of animal
in particular, for man, then we would be able to deduce from this
alone, using certain and mathematical reasoning, the complete shape and
conformation of each of its members, and likewise, reciprocally, if we knew
many particularities about conformation, it would be possible to deduce
from that what the semen is."34 However, as Paul Guillaume remarks, it seems
that the more we compare living beings to automatic machines, the more we
seem to understand their functions but the less we understand their genesis. 35
If the Cartesian conception were accurate, that is, if the living organism were
both preformed in the embryo and developed mechanistically, any modifica-
tion made in the earliest stages would tend to disrupt the development of the
egg or prevent development altogether.
However, this is hardly the case. According to a study in potential egg,devel-
opment, based on research by Driesch, Horstadius, Speman and Mangold, it
was shown that embryonic development cannot be' reduced to a mechanical
model without running into anomalies. Let us take the example of the exper-
iments conducted by Horstadius on the egg of a sea urchin. He cut an egg A
from a sea urchin at stage sixteen so that each part of the egg maintained a
horizontal symmetry, and then he cut egg B, with each part being vertically
symmetrical. He joined half of A with half of B and the egg developed nor-
mally. Driesch took the sea urchin egg at stage sixteen and pressed the egg
between two thin layers of cells, while modifying the reciprocal position of
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the cells at the two poles; still, the egg developed normally. The results of these
two studies allow us to conclude that the same effect is achieved regardless of
how conditions are varied.
There is an even more striking experiment, in which Driesch took blasto-
meres from the sea urchin egg at stage two. By removing the blastomeres, either
mechanically or chemically in sea water lacking calcium salts, the result was
that each of the blastomeres gave birth to a larva which was perfectly normal
down to the smallest detail. Here, then, the result is the same regardless of
how the characteristics of a factor are changed. The quantitative change in
a given factor does not lead to a qualitative change in the result. Conversely,
when two sea urchin eggs are joined they result in a single larva that is larger
than normal. This is yet another confirmation that the result is unaffected by
the quantitative change in one of the factors. Whether the factors are multi-
plied or divided, the experiment yields the same results.
I should add that the development of all eggs cannot be reduced to this
schema. For quite some time there was a problem in knowing whether there
were two different kinds of eggs at issue: regulated eggs, like the eggs of sea
urchins, and mosaic eggs, like those of frogs, whose first blastomeres develop
in exactly the same way, whether they are dissociated or remain together. Most
biologists have recently come around to admitting that what distinguishes the
two phenomena is simply that determination occurs earlier in the so-called
mosaic eggs. On the one hand, the regulated egg starts to act like a mosaic
egg at a certain stage; on the other hand, at stage two the blastomere of the
frog egg yields a complete embryo, as does a regulated egg, if it is reversed. 36
Thus, it is illusory to deny the idea of purposiveness in organisms and to
attribute it to automatic functions, however complex we might imagine these
to be. As long as a machine cannot construct itself, and as long as an organ-
ism is not equal to the sum of its parts, it might seem legitimate to think that -
biological organization is the basis and the necessary condition for the exis-
tence and purpose of a inachine. From the philosophical point of view, it is
less important to explain the operation of a machine than to understand it.
And to understand it means to inscribe it in human history by inscribing
human history in life - not overlooking the fact that with the advent of man
there appeared a culture that was no longer entirely reducible to natural causes.
And so we arrive at the point where the machine is seen as afact of culture,
expressed in mechanisms that are themselves nothing more than an explain-
able fact of nature. In a celebrated text in "Principles of Philosophy," Descartes
writes, "It is certain that all the rules of mechanics belong to phYSics, to the
extent that all artificial thin8s are thereby natural. Since, for example, when a
watch counts the hours, by using the cogs from which it is made, this is no
less natural for it than it is for a tree to produce fruit."37 But, from our point
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of view, we can and must reverse the relationship of the watch to the tree and
say that the cogs and generally all the components that make up a watch are
designed to produce a desired effect: all the parts of the mechanism are prod-
ucts of imagination, each piece fulfilling some final purpose or design that at
one time was only imagined or dreamed of; they are thus the direct or indirect
products of a technical activity that is as authentically organic as the flower-
ing of trees. And, on a more fundamental level, the process works with great
efficiency even though there is no more conscious observance of the rules
and laws of physics than there might be within vegetal life. Although the con-
struction of a machine might presuppose at some stage the understanding of
the logics of physics, it should not and cannot be forgotten that, as a matter
of chronology and biology, construction of machines took place well before
there was any understanding of physics.
However, another author has asserted, contrary to Descartes, that living
organisms cannot be reduced to a machine and, similarly, art cannot be re-
duced to science. The author in question is Kant, in his Critique ifJudBment.
While it is true that the French have not tended to look to Kant as a philoso'-
pher of technique, it is no less true that German authors greatly interested in
this question, especially after 1870, have done so .
In the "Critique of Teleological Judgment," Kant distinguishes between
the machine and the organism, while drawing on Descartes's favorite exam-
ple of the watch. In a machine, he states, each part exists for the other but
not because of the other: no part produces another part; no one part is pro-
duced by the entire unit; nor does one part produce another part of similar
kind. There is no watch that makes other watches. No part can replace itself.
And no machine can replace one of its own missing parts. And so, while a
machine possesses motor power, it has no transformational energy that might
propagate itself or be transmitted to an object outside the machine itself. Kant
draws a distinction between human skill and technology, which are marked
by intentionality, as opposed to involuntary life processes. But in an impor-
tant passage of the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment," Kant defines the origi-
nality of human skill as it relates to knowledge:
Art, regarded as human skill, differs from science (as ability differs from knowledge)
in the same way that a practical aptitude differs from a theoretical faculty, as tech-
nique differs from theory. What one is capable of doing, as soon as we merely know
what ought to be done and therefore are sufficiently cognizant of the desired effect,
is not called art. Only that which a man, even ifhe knows it completely, may not
therefore have the skill to accomplish belongs to art. Camper describes very exactly
how the best shoes must be made, but he certainly could not make one.
38
This text is cited by Paul Krannhals in Der Weltsinn der Technik, and, following
Kant, he acknowledges that all technique is essentially primordial, meaning that
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it cannot be reduced to a simple question of rationality. 39 Indeed, we tend to see
the skilled hand that adjusts a machine or the mind that carefully orchestrates
a production process as examples of "ingenuity," having their basis in instinct;
but these are in fact as difficult to explain as the production of mammalian eggs
outside the ovary, even in the event that the physiochemical composition of
protoplasm and of sexual hormones had been made entirely clear to us.
This is why the work of anthropologists (and not engineers) seems to shed
more light, however faint, on the question of the construction of machines. 40
Currently in France, ethnologists have come closest to creating a philosophy
of technique in which the philosophers themselves seem to have lost interest,
their main concern having been chiefly the philosophy of science. On the con-
trary, the ethnographers have generally focused their attention on the rela-
tionship between the production of the earliest tools, the first instruments
that were used to act upon and modify nature, and the ways these tools were
assembled or grouped together. The only philosopher in France I know to
have posed these questions is Alfred Espinas, in his classic text on Les OriBines
de la technoloBie.
41
This work includes an appendix, the outline for a course
taught at the Faculte des Lettres at Bordeaux around 1890, which dealt with
the will, and in which Espinas addressed, under the guise of will, the ques-
tion of practical human behavior and especially the invention of tools. By
borrowing the theory of organic extension from the German writer Ernst
Kapp, Espinas was able to explain the construction of the first tools. Kapp
first made his theories known in 1877.
42
According to the theory of exten-
sion, whose philosophical bases go back to Hartmann's The Philosophy if the
Unconscious and further back still to Schopenhauer, the earliest tools were
simply extensions of moving human organs. The flint, the club and the lever
extend and magnify the organic movement of the arm and its ability to strike.
This theory, like all theories, has its limits and runs into certain stumbling
blocks, especially when it is used to explain fundamental inventions, such
as fire and the wheel. In these cases, we would search in vain for the body
movements and the organs that fire and the wheel are supposed to prolong or
extend; but the explanation certainly works for instruments like the hammer
or the lever and all such related tools. In France, then, it was the ethnogra-
phers who sought out and compiled not only the facts but also the hypotheses
from which a biological philosophy of technique could be constituted. The
philosophical path was laid out by the Germans
43
- for example, the theory
of the development of inventions based on the Darwinian notion of variation
and natural selection, as advanced by Alard Du Bois-Reymond in his EifindunB
und Eifinder (1906), or again, by Oswald Spengler in Der Mensch und die Technik,
which presented the theory that machines are constructed as a "life tactic"44
- and is taken up again, independently it seems, by Andre Leroi-Gourhan
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Machi ne and Organi sm
in his book MiJieu et techniques. Leroi-Gourhan attempts to explain the phe-
nomenon of the construction of tools by comparing it to the movement of
the amoeba, which extends substances out beyond its mass so that it might
seize and capture an object it wishes to digest:
If we are drawn to view the act of percussion as the fundamental technical activ-
ity, it is because we witness an act of touch or contact in almost every technologi-
cal process; but even though the amoeba's expansion always leads its prey through
the same digestive process, there is no one way of explaining the working of that
process - whether we view the material being digested or whether we approach
the question from any given view of technology - since our view must change
according to the circumstances, just as the digestive process itself might be like
the various specialized grasping or striking organs. 45
In the last chapters of this work one finds a theory of machine that is alto-
gether different from the traditional theories that, for lack of a better term,
I shall classify as Cartesian - where technical invention amounted to the
application of a given system of knowledge.
Traditionally, the locomotive is presented as a classic example of a "mar-
vel of science." However, the construction of the steam engine is only under-
standable when placed in light of theoretical knowledge that preceded it, as
the culmination of an age-old problem, and a specifically technological one
at that - how to pump water out of mines. And so it would be necessary to
understand the natural history of the development of the pump, and to know
about the fire pump (which at first did not rely at all on vapor but produced a
vacuum via condensation under the pistons, thereby allowing the atmospheric
pressure acting as a motor to lower the piston) in order to see that the essen-
tial "organ" in a locomotive is a cylinder and a piston.
46
Tracing a similar progression of ideas, Leroi-Gourhan goes even further,
pointing back to the wheel as one of the locomotive's ancestors, in the biolog-
ical sense of the word. "It is machines like the wheel," he states, "that gave rise
to steam engines and modern-day motors. All of the highest technological
achievements of the most inventive minds of our time can be grouped around
the circular movements of the crank, the pedal, the drive belt."47 He then goes
on to add: "The way inventions influenced each other has not been studied
sufficiently and we don't seem to take note of the fact that, without the wheel,
we would not have the locomotive."48 Further on:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century no one had yet recognized how to make
use of the elemental forms that would later give birth to the locomotive, the auto-
mobile and the airplane. The underlying principles of mechanics were spread
throughout twenty applications which had been known for many centuries. It i ~
here we find the principle that explains invention, but the defining characteristic
is that it in someway manifests itself spontaneously. 49
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In light of these remarks, we see how science and technique must be consid-
ered as two separate areas; that is, they do not graft onto each other but, rather,
each takes from the other either its solutions or its problems. It is the rational-
izing and ordering imposed by technology that makes us forget that machines
have their origin in the irrational. In this area as in all others, it is necessary to
know how to accommodate the irrational, even when - and especially when
- we want to defend rationalism. 50
It must be added that the reversal of the relationship between the machine
and the organism, brought about by a systematic understanding of technical
inventions as if they were extensions of human behavior or life processes,
is in someway confirmed by the belief that the generalized use of machines
has slowly imposed contemporary industrialized society on man. George
Friedmann has shown very clearly the steps by which "body" gradually
became a first-order term in the human machine-body equation. 51 With
Frederick Taylor and the first technicians to make scientific studies of work-
task movements, the human body was measured as if it functioned like a
machine. If we see their aim as the elimination of all unnecessary movement
and their view of output as being expressed only in terms of a certain num-
ber of mathematically determined factors, then rationalization was, for all
intents and purposes, a mechanization of the body. But the realization that
technologically superfluous movements were biologically necessary move-
ments was the first stumbling block to be encountered by those who insisted
on viewing the problem of human-body-as-machine in exclUSively techno-
logical terms. From here on, the systematic examination of certain physio-
l o g i ~ a l , psychotechnological and even some psychological conditions (since
a consideration of values leads inevitably to questions at the very center of
the origin of human personality) finally culminated in a reversal, called an
inevitable revolution by Friedmann, in which technology would adapt ma-
chines to the human body. As Friedmann saw it, this industrial technology
appeared to take the form of a scientific rediscovery of the same entirely
empirical procedures through which primitive peoples had always sought
to have their tools meet the highest organic norms: that is, their tools had to
carry out a given action effectively while maintaining a biological economy;
. and this occurred at the optimum level, when it most closely approximated
the movement of the body at work, as when the body defends itself sponta-
neously from becoming exclusively subordinate to the mechanical. 52 In this
way, Friedmann could speak, without irony or paradox, of the legitimacy of
considering the industrial development of the West from an ethnographic
point of view. 53
In summary, by considering technology as a universal biological phenom-
enon
54
and no longer simply as an intellectual operation to be carried out by
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man, I am led to the following conclusions: on the one hand, the creative
autonomy of the arts and skilled crafts in relation to all forms of knowledge
that are capable of annexing them or expanding on them; and, on the other
hand, to inscribe the mechanical into the organic. It is no longer then, a ques-
tion of determining the extent to which an organism can be thought of as a
machine, whether by virtue of its structure or of its functions. But it is neces-
sary to find the reasons that gave rise to the opposite view, the CartesiaI) one.
I have attempted to shed light on this problem, suggesting that the mechanis-
tic conception of the body was no less anthropomorphic, despite appearances,
than a teleological conception of the physical world. The answer I am tempted
\
to offer would insist on showing that technology allows man to live in conti-
nuity with life, as opposed to a solution that would see humankind as living
in a state of rupture for which we ourselves are responsible because of sci-
ence. There is no doubt that this answer appears to lend credence to the list
of accusations that all too many writers have offered up nostalgically from
time to time, with no apparent regard to their lack of originality, as they point
out the faults of technology and progress. I have no intention of rushing to
support their cause. It is clear that ifhuman society has embraced the idea of
a technology based on a mechanistic model, the implications are enormous,
and the whole question cannot easily be treated lightly or recalled on demand.
But that model is altogether different from the one just examined.
NOTES
'.
1. After having been dogmatically accepted by biologists for many years, the mechanis-
tic theory of the organism is now considered narrow and inadequate by those scientists who
call themselves dialectical materialists. But the fact that they still concern themselves with
formulating a philosophical position could easily support the rather widespread idea that
philosophy does not possess its own domain, that it is a poor relation of speculation, and
must clothe itself in the hand-me-downs scientists have used and then discarded. It will be
my aim to show that the problem of machine and organism is much broader in scope and
more philosophically important than is commonly thought; ;md that it is far more than a
theoretical and methodological dispute among biologists.
2. Julien Pacotte, La Pensee technique (Paris: Alcan, 1931).
3. One example of the fundamental principles of a general theory of mechanisms un-
derstood in this way can be found in Franz Reuleaux's Theoretische Kinematik: Grundziiee
einer Theorie des Maschinwesen (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1875) .
4. For everything concerning machines and mechanisms, see Pacotte, La Pensee tech-
nique, ch. 3.
5. According to Marx, a tool is moved by human power while the machine is moved
by a natural force; see his Capital, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York:
International Publishers, 1967), vol. 1, pp. 374-79.
zone
6. For more on this, see Charles Victor Daremberg, Histoire des sciences medicales
(Paris: Bailliere, 1870), vol. 2, p. 879.
7. Gomez Pereira, Antoniana Maraarita: Opus physicis, medicis ac theoloais non minus
utile quam necessarium (Medina del Campo, 1555-58) .
8. Alfred Espinas, "L' Organisation ou la machine vivante en Grece au IVe siecle avant
J.-c.," Revue de metaphysique et de morale (1903), pp. 702-15.
9. P.-M. Schuhl, Machinisme et philosophie (Paris: Alcan, 1938).
10. Aristotle's Politics, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle and Lloyd P. Gerson (Grinnel,
Iowa: Peripatetic Press, 1986), bk. 1, ch. 2, secs. 4-7.
11. Lucien Laberthonniere, Les Etudes sur Descartes (Paris: Vrin, 1935), especially the
appendix to volume 2: "La Physique de Descartes et la physique d'Aristote."
12. Franz Borkenau, Der Uberaana yom jeudalem zum biiraerlichen WeltbiJd (Paris:
Alcan, 1934).
13. Jean de la Fontaine's fable, "The Cobbler and the Businessman" (in La Fontaine:
Selected Fables, trans. Jamie Michie [New York: Viking, 1979], pp. 188-91) is an excellent
illustration of the two different conceptions of work and its remuneration.
14. Henryk Grossmann, "Die gesellschaftlichen Grundlagen der mechanistischen
Philosophie und die Manufaktur," Zeitschriftfor Sozia!forschuna, 4th ser., vol. 2 (1935),
pp. 161-231.
15. "Mechanization" here means the generalized use of machines to replace human
labor. However, it was also used to describe Descartes's theory of animals as machines
before the nineteenth century when the above usage was in force - TRANS.
16. In Descartes's "Principles of Philosophy" (4.187 [AT 8A.314], Descartes: Selected
Philosophical Writinas, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch
[New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988] , pp. 199-200), there are a few passages
that reveal Descartes to be equally interested in gunpowder, but he did not look for an
analogous explanatory principle for the animal organism in the explosion of gunpowder
as a source of energy. It was an English doctor, Thomas Willis, who explicitly formulated
a theory of muscular movement based on the analogy with what occurs when the powder
explodes in a harquebus. In·the seventeenth century, Willis compared the nerves to pow-
der lines in a manner that remains valid today in some quarters - most notably, W M.
Bayliss comes to mind. Nerves are a sort of Bickford cord. They produce a spark that will
set off, in the muscle, an explosion that, in Willis's view, is the only thing capable of ac-
counting for the phenomena of spasm and prolonged contraction observed by the doctor.
17. "For there is within us but one soul, and this soul has within it no diversity of
parts: it is at once sensitive and rational too, and all its appetites are volitions" ("The
Passions of the Soul" 47, in Selected Philosophical Writinas, p. 236) .
18. "Discourse on Method" 5 (AT 6.56ff.), in ibid., p. 44ff. Letter to the Marquis of
Newcastle, Nov. 23, 1646.
19. Letter to Morus, Feb. 21, 1649, in Descartes, Correspondance, ed. Charles Adam
and Gerard Milhaud (Paris: P.U.F., 1963), vol. 8, pp. 121-39. In order to understand
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Machine and Organism
adequately the relationship of sensibility to the arrangement of the organs, we must be
familiar with the Cartesian theory of the degrees of sensej on this subject, see Descartes,
"Author's Replies to the Sixth Objections" 9 (AT 7.436-39), in The Philosophical Writinas
cfDescartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge,
Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1984), vol. 2, pp. 294-96.
20. Descartes, Letter to Morus, Feb. 21, 1649, in Correspondance, vol. 8, p. 138.
21. Letter to Conring, March 19, 1678, in Gotifried Wilhelm Leibniz: Siimtliche Schriften
und Briefe (Darmstadt: Reichl, 1926), 2d ser., vol. 1, pp. 397-401. Leibniz's outline of
criteria in particular, which would allow us to distinguish an animal from an automaton,
should be compared to the analogous arguments adduced by Descartes, and also the pro-
found reflections of Edgar Allan Poe on the same subject in his "Maelzel's Chessplayer."
On the Leibnizian distinction between the machine and the organism, see "A New System
of the Nature and the Communication of Substances" 10, in Leibniz: Philosophical Papers
and Letters, trans. and ed. Leroy Loemker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956),
vol. 2; and "Monadology" 63-66, in Monadolo8.J and Other Philosophical Essays, trans. Paul
Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (New York: Macmillan, 1985) .
22. It is important to point out that Leibniz was no less interested than Descartes in
the invention and construction of machines, as well as in the problem of automatons. See
especially his correspondence with Duke John of Hanover (1676-1679) in the Siimtliche
Schriften und Briefe (Darmstadt: Reichl, 1927), 1st ser., vol. 2. In a text of 1671, Bedenken
von Atifrichtuna einerAcademie oder Societiit in Deutschland zu Atifnehmen der Kunste und
Wissenschajten, Leibniz exalts the superiority of German art, which has always strived to
produce works that move (watches, clocks, hydraulic machines, and so on), over Italian
art, which has always attached itself exclusively to the fabrication of lifeless objects made
to be contemplated from without (ibid. [Darmstadt: Reichl, 1931], 4th ser., vol. 1, p. 544).
This passage is cited by Jacques Maritain in his Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers cf
Poetry, trans. Joseph W Evans (New York: Scribners, 1962), p. 156.
23. "Treatise on Man" (AT XI. 119-20), in The Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes, trans.
John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), vol. 1, p. 99.
24. This phrase is a traditional equivalent of "the human body," especially in the
eighteenth century - TRANS.
25. Moreover, Descartes can only express the meaning of God's construction of ani-
mal-machines in terms of finality: "considering the machine of the human body as having
been formed by God in order to have in itself all the movements usually manifested there"
("Sixth Meditation," in Philosophical Works cfDescartes [1913], trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane
and G. R. T. Ross [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967], vol. 1, p. 83). [Here the
wording of the older translation is more literal than is the translation of Cottingham et aI.,
Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes, vol. 2, pp. 50-62 - TRANS.]
26. "Description of the Human Body and All of Its Functions" 1 (AT II. 225), in
Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes, vol. 1, p. 315.
66
¥ ,.
?-
j
"
zone
27. Claude Bernard, Le§ons sur les phenomenes de la vie communes aux animaux et aux
veaetaux: 1878-1879 (Paris: Masson, 1936) .
28, For more on this idea, see Raymond Ruyer, Elements de psycho-bioloaie (Paris:
P.ll.F., 1946), pp. 46-47.
29. "Artificial means what is aimed at a definite goal . And is opposed therefore to
livina. Artificial or human or anthropomorphic are distinguished from whatever is only
living or vital . Anything that succeeds in appearing in the form of a clear and finite goal
becomes artificial and this is what tends to happen as consciousness grows. It is also true
of man's work when it is intended to imitate an object or a spontaneous phenomenon as
closely as possible. Thpught that is conscious of itself makes itself into an artificial sys-
tem .. .. If life had a goal, it would no longer be life" (Paul Valery, Cahier B [Paris: Gallimard,
1910]).
30. See Ed. Pichon, Le Developpement psychique de l'erifant et de l'adolescent (Paris:
Masson, 1936), p. 126; and Paul Cossa, Physiopatholoaie du systeme nerveux (Paris: Masson,
1936), p. 845.
31. Politics, bk. 1, ch. 1 (1252b), in The Basic Works oj Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon
(New York: Random House, 1941), p. 1128.
32. Max Scheler, in his Mans Place in Nature [1928] (trans. Hans Meyerhoff [Boston:
Beacon, 1961], pp. 75-81), has remarked that it is those living things that are the least
specialized that are the most difficult to explain by the mechanistic idea, pace the mecha-
nists, because in their case all functions are carried out by the whole organism. It is only
with the growing differentiation of functions and the increased complexity of the nervous
system that structures which resemble a machine in some fashion tend to appear.
_ 33. General Anatomy, Applied to PhysioloBY and Medicine, trans. George Hayward
(Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1822).
34. "Description du corps humain" 1 (AT II. 225), in Charles Adam and Paul
Tannery, eds., Ouevres de Descartes (Paris: Vrin, 1974), vol. 11, p. 225. [This pas age is omit-
ted from the English translation of "Description of the Human Body and of All of Its
Functions" - TRANS. ]
35. Paul Guillaume, La' Psycholoaie de la forme (Paris: Flammarion, 1937), p. 131.
36. Pierre Grasse and Max Aron, Precis de bioloaie animale (2d ed., Paris: Flammarion,
1947), p. 647ff.
37. 4.203, in Philosophical Writinas ojDescartes, p. 288. See also my study "Descartes
et la technique," Travaux du Conares International de Philosophie, vol. 2: Etudes cartesiennes
(Paris: Hermann, 1937), p. 77ff.
38. "An organized being is not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but
it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to
its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them, in fact, and this can-
not be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion" (Critique oj judament, trans.
J. H. Bernard [New York: Hafner, 1951], p. 22).
39. Krannhals, Der Weltsin der Technik (Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1932), p. 68.

Ii

I
·]1
I
i
Machine and Organism
40. The starting point for these works must be sought in Darwin, The Descent if Man -
whose ideas Marx saw clearly as immensely significant.
41. Alfred Espinas, Les OriBines de la techn%Bie (Paris: Alcan, 1897).
42. Ernst Kapp, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (Braunschweig:
Westermann, 1877). This work, which was a classic in Germany, has remained so misun-
derstood in France that certain psychologists who took up the problem of how animals
utilize tools, and animal intelligence, and who took the research of Kohler and Guillaume
as their starting point, attributed this theory of projection to Espinas himself, without
noting that Espinas states explicitly, at numerous junctures, that he borrowed it from
Kapp. I am alluding here to the excellent little book by Gaston Viaud, Son
evolution et sesJormes (Paris: P.U.F., 1946).
43. See Eberhard Zschimmer's Deutsche Philosophen der Technik (Stuttgart: Enke, 1937).
44. Alard Du BOis-Reymond, EifindunB und Eifinder. (Berlin: Springer, 1906); and
Oswald Spengler, DeI Mensch und die Technik (Munich: Beck, 1931). Alain outlined a
Darwinian interpretation of technical constructions in a fine remark (Les Propos
[Paris: N.R.F., 1920], vol. 1, p. 60), preceded and followed by some others that are most
pertinent to our problem. The same idea is referred to many times in the Systeme des
Beaux-Arts, concerning the making of the violin (4.5), furniture (6.5), houses in the coun-
tryside (6.3, 6.8) .
45. Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Evolution et technique, vol. 2: Milieu et techniques (Paris:
Michel, 1945) .
46. The double-acting engine, in which the steam acted on the upper and lower sides
of the piston alternately, was perfected by Watt in 1784. Sadi Carnot's Rijlexions sur la
puissance motrice du feu dates from 1824, and we know that it was ignored until the middle
of the nineteenth century. On this subject, see Pierre Ducasse, Histoires des techniques
(Paris: P.U.F., 1945), which stresses that technique precedes theory.
On the subject of the empirical succession of the various organs and uses of the steam
engine, consult Arthur Vierendeel's Esquisse d'une histoire de la technique (Brussels and
Paris: Vromant, 1921), which summarizes Thurston's extensive work, History if the Steam
EnBine. For more about the history of Watt's work as an engineer read the chapter enti-
tled "James Watt ou Ariel ingenieur," in Pierre Devaux's Les Aventures de la science (Paris:
Gallimard, 1943).
47. Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et techniques, p. 100. The same view can be found in an
article by A. Hadricourt on "Les Moteurs animes en agriculture" (Revue de botanique
appliquee et d'aBriculture tropicale 20 [1940], p. 762) : "We must not forget that we owe our
inanimate motors to irrigation: the noria is at the origin of the hydraulic mill, just as the
pump is at the origin of the steam engine." This excellent study sets out the principles for
explaining tools from the perspective of their relationship to organic commodities and
the traditional ways they were used.
48. Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et techniques, p. 104.
49. Ibid., p. 406.
68
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50. In his The Two Sources of Morality and Reliaion (trans. R. Ashley Andra and
Cloudesley Brereton [New York: Holt, 1949]), Henri Bergson thinks very explicitly that
the spirit of mechanical invention, although it is fed by science, remains distinct from
it and can even, if necessary, be separated from it (pp. 329-30). The fact is that Bergson
is also one of the rare ·French philosophers, if not the only one, who has considered me-
chanical invention as a biological function, an aspect of the organization of matter by life:
Creative Evolution (trans. Arthur Mitchell [New York: Modern Library, 1944) is, in some
sense, a treatise of general organology.
On the subject of the relationship between explanation and action see also Paul Valery,
"L'Homme et la coquille" and "Discours aux chirurgiens;' in Varifi"te V (Paris: Gallimard,
1945), and his description of boat building in Eupalinos.
And, finally, read the admirable "In Praise of Hands" in Henri Focillon, The Life of
Forms in Art (New York: Zone Books, 1989), pp. 157-84.
51. George Friedmann, Problemes humains du machinisme industrielle (Paris: Gallimard,
1946) .
52. Ibid., p. 96, note.
53. Ibid., p. 369.
54. This attitude is one that has begun to be familiar among biologists. In particular,
see L. Cuenot, Invention etflnalite en bioloaie (Paris: Flammarion, 1941); and Andree Tetry,
Les Outils chez les etres vivants (Paris: Gallimard, 1948) - especially the latter's reflections
on "Adaptation and Invention" (p. 120ff.). It is impossible to mistake the impetus given to
these treatments by the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin.
A new discipline, Bionics, which emerged around ten years ago in the United States,
studies biological structures and systems able to be utilized as models or analogues by
technology, notably by builders of systems for detection, direction and equilibration
meant for equipping planes or missiles. Bionics is the extremely subtle art of information
that has taken a leaf from natural life. The frog, with its eye capable of selecting informa-
tion that is instantly usable, the rattlesnake, with its thermoceptor which traces the blood
of its prey at night, the common fly, balancing itself in flight by means of two vibratile
filaments, have all furnished models for this new breed of engineers. In many American
universities, special training in Bioengineering is available, for which the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology seems to have been the instigator. See the article by J. Dufrenoy,
"Systemes biologiques servant de modeles 11 la technologie," Cahiers des inaenieurs aaronomes
(June-July, 1962), p. 21.
Translated from the French by Mark Cohen and Randall Cherry
r
The Living and Its Milieu
GEORGES CANGU I LH EM
TRANSLATED BY JOHN SAVAGE
The notion of milieu is in the process of becoming a universal
and obligatory means of registering the experience and exis-
tence of living things, and one could almost speak of its consti-
tution as a basic category of contemporary thought.
1
But until
now, the historical stages of the formation of the concept, its
diverse uses, as well as the successive reconfigurations of the
relationships in which it takes part, whether in geography, biol-
ogy, psychology, technology, or social and economic history, all
make it rather difficult to make out a coherent whole. For this
reason philosophy must, here, initiate a synoptic study of the
meaning and value of the concept. By “initiate” I do not simply
mean the pretense of an initiative that would consist in taking a
series of scientific investigations for reality and then con-
fronting expectations with results. Rather, it is a question of
using several approaches and engaging them in a critical con-
frontation with each other to locate, if possible, their common
point of departure and to explore its potential richness for a
philosophy of nature that focuses on the problem of individu-
ality. It is therefore appropriate to examine the simultaneous
and successive elements of the notion of milieu each in turn, the
various usages of this notion from 1800 to the present, the many
inversions of the relationship between organism and milieu,
and finally the general philosophical impact of these inversions.
Historically considered, the notion and the term “milieu”
are imported from mechanics to biology in the second half of
the eighteenth century. The mechanical idea, but not the term,
appears with Newton, and the word “milieu” is present in
d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedia with its mechanical
meaning, in the article of the same name. It is introduced to
biology by Lamarck, who was himself inspired by Buffon,
though he never used the term other than in the plural. De
Blainville seals this usage. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in
1831 and Comte in 1838 use the term in the singular, in an
abstract sense. Balzac opens the gates to literature in 1842, in
the preface of the Comédie Humaine, and it is Taine who first
uses it as one of the three analytical principles used to explain
history, the two others being race and event, as is well known.
It is more due to Taine than Lamarck himself that neo-
Lamarckian biologists in post-1870 France, such as Giard, Le
Dantec, Houssay, Costantin, Gaston Bonnier, and Roule, use
this term. They get the idea, in a sense, from Lamarck, but the
Grey Room 03, Spring 2001, pp. 7–31. © 2001 Grey Room, I nc. and Massachusetts I nstitute of Technology 7
term as an abstract and universal one comes to them from Taine.
French mechanists of the eighteenth century called milieu
what Newton meant when he said “fluid.” The model for this,
if not the sole archetype in Newton’s physics, was ether. In
Newton’s day, the problem facing mechanics was that of the
action of distinct physical bodies at a distance. This was the
fundamental problem of the physics of central forces. It was a
problem that had not existed for Descartes. For him, there was
only one mode of physical action, impact, in only one possible
physical situation, that of contact. This is why we can say that
in Cartesian physics the notion of milieu has no place. Subtle
matter is not in any way a milieu. But it was difficult to extend
the Cartesian theory of impact and contact to the case of sepa-
rate point particles, since in this case they could not act with-
out being confounded by this action. As a result, we can see
that Newton was led to pose the problem of the means of the
action. Luminous ether was for him the fluid that served as the
vehicle of action at a distance. This explains the passage from
the notion of fluid as a vehicle to its designation as a medium
[milieu]. The fluid is the intermediary between two bodies; it is
their milieu; and to the extent that it penetrates these bodies,
they are situated within it. According to Newton and to the
physics of central forces, it is only because there are centers of
force that we can speak of environment, that we can speak of a
milieu. The notion of milieu is a fundamentally relative notion.
To the extent that we consider separately the body on which the
action, transmitted through the medium, is exercised, we may
forget that the milieu is a between two centers and remember
only its function of centripetal transmission, and one might say
its ambient situation. In this way the milieu tends to lose its rel-
ative meaning and takes on an absolute one. It becomes a real-
ity in itself.
It was perhaps Newton who was responsible for importing
the term from physics to biology. Ether helped him not only
resolve the problem of illumination, but also explain the phys-
iological phenomenon of vision and even explain the physio-
logical effects of luminous sensation, in other words, explain
muscular reactions. In his Optics, Newton considered ether to
be continuous with air, something found in the eye, in the
nerves, even in muscles. It was therefore the action of a milieu
that ensured the dependent connection between the spark of
the perceived luminous source and the movement of muscles
by which man reacts to this sensation. This, it would seem, was
the first example of an explanation of an organic reaction by the
action of a milieu, that is, of a fluid strictly defined by physical
properties.
2
Indeed, the article in the Encyclopedia cited above
confirmed this way of seeing things. All of the examples of
milieus given in the article were drawn from Newton’s physics.
8 Grey Room 03
And it is in a purely mechanical sense that one says that water
is a milieu for the fish who move around in it. It is also primar-
ily in this mechanical sense that Lamarck understood it.
Lamarck always speaks of milieus in the plural, and by this
he specifically means fluids like water, air, and light. When
Lamarck wants to designate the whole set of outside actions
that are exercised on a living thing, in other words what we call
today the “milieu,” he never says “milieu” but always “influ-
ential circumstances.” As a result, circumstance is a genus
within which climate, place, and milieu are species. And this
is why Léon Brunschvicg, in Les Etapes de la philosophie
mathématique, wrote that Lamarck borrowed from Newton the
physicomathematical model of explaining the living through a
system of connections with its environment.
3
The relationship
between Lamarck and Newton is intellectually direct and his-
torically indirect, as they are linked through Buffon. We can,
for example, recall that Lamarck was Buffon’s pupil and his
son’s tutor.
Buffon, in fact, combines two influences in his conception
of the relationship between organism and milieu. The first is
precisely Newton’s cosmology, of which Buffon was a lifelong
admirer.
4
The second influence is the tradition of anthropo-
geography, which had been kept alive in France by Montesquieu
before him,
5
following Bodin, Machiavelli, and Arbuthnot. The
Hippocratic treatise On Airs Waters and Places can be consid-
ered the first work that gave philosophical form to this idea.
These are the components that Buffon brought together in his
principles of animal ethology, to the extent that animal mores
are of a distinct and specific character and that these mores can
be explained by the same method that allows geographers to
explain the diversity of the earth’s men, races, and peoples.
6
Therefore, as Lamarck’s teacher and precursor in his theory
of milieu, Buffon is positioned at the convergence of the theory’s
two components, the mechanical component and the anthro-
pogeographic one. At this point, we are faced with a problem
of epistemology and historical psychology of knowledge that is
far more involved than the specific example that raised it.
Shouldn’t the fact that two or more guiding ideas come together
at a given time to form the same theory be interpreted as a
sign that, as different as they may seem when first used in
the analysis, they have a common origin whose meaning and
very existence is forgotten when one considers the different
pieces separately? This is the problem we will come back to
in the end.
The Newtonian origins of the notion of milieu are enough to
account for the initial mechanical meaning of this notion and
the use that was first made of it. The origin determines the
meaning, and the meaning determines the usage. This is so true
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 9
that in 1838, in proposing a general biological theory of the
milieu in the fortieth lesson of his Cours de Philosophie posi-
tive, Auguste Comte believed that he was using “milieu” as a
neologism and claimed the credit for introducing it as a uni-
versal and abstract explanatory concept in biology. And Comte
says that from this point on he would understand the term to
mean not only the “fluid in which a body is immersed” (which
clearly confirms the mechanical origins of the notion), but “the
sum total of outside circumstances necessary to the existence
of each organism.”
7
However, with Comte (who has a perfectly
clear idea of the origins of the notion, as well as the new mean-
ing he wishes to give it in biology) we also observe that its use
will remain dominated by the mechanical origins of the notion,
if not of the term.
In fact, it is quite interesting to note that Auguste Comte was
on the verge of creating a dialectical conception of the rela-
tionship between organism and milieu. I am referring to pas-
sages in which he defines the relationship between “the
adapted organism” and the “favorable milieu” as a “conflict of
forces” in which action is constituted by function. He posits
that “the ambient system cannot modify the organism without
the latter in turn exercising a corresponding influence.” But,
except in the case of the human species, Auguste Comte
believes this action of the organism on the milieu to be negligi-
ble. As for the case of the human species, true to his philo-
sophical conception of history, Comte allows that through the
intermediary of collective action humanity modifies its milieu.
However, for the living in general, Comte
refuses to consider this action of the organ-
ism on the milieu seriously, reckoning that it
is simply negligible. This is because he is
looking for a very explicit guarantee of a
dialectical connection, of a reciprocal rela-
tionship between milieu and organism, that
would follow the Newtonian principle of
action and reaction. It is in fact clear, from a
mechanical point of view, that the action of
the living on the milieu is practically negli-
gible. And Comte ends up posing the biolog-
ical problem of the relationship between
organism and milieu as a mathematical one:
“In a given milieu, given the organ, find the
function, and vice versa.” The connection of
organism and milieu is therefore that of a
function to a set of variables, an equal rela-
tionship that allows us to determine the
function using the variables, and the vari-
ables separately starting with the function,
10 Grey Room 03
“all other things being equal.”
8
The analysis of variables for which the milieu turns out to be
the function is conducted by Comte in lesson 43 of the Cours
de Philosophie positive. These variables are weight, air and
water pressure, movement, heat, electricity, and chemical ele-
ments, all factors capable of being studied experimentally and
measured quantitatively. The quality of an organism finds itself
reduced to a set of quantities, despite the skepticism Comte
professes elsewhere toward the practice of treating biological
problems mathematically, a skepticism that, as we know, comes
to him from Bichat.
In short, even a summary history of the importation of the
term “milieu” to biology in the first years of the nineteenth cen-
tury brings out the initial, strictly mechanistic use of the term.
If the hint of an authentically biological acceptation and a more
flexible usage appears with Comte, it immediately succumbs to
the prestige of mechanics, an exact science that bases predic-
tions on calculations. The theory of milieu appears clearly to
Comte as a variant of the fundamental project that the Cours de
Philosophie positive seeks to fulfill: the world first, then man;
to go from the world to man. If the idea of the subordination of
the mechanical to the vital is assumed, as Le Système de Politique
positive and La Synthèse subjective later suggest, it is never-
theless formally rejected.
But there is still another lesson to get out of the use of the
term “milieu” that is, beyond any question, definitively conse-
crated by Comte. The equivalent of what this term designates
would be “circumstances” in the work of Lamarck. Etienne
Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in his report to the Academy of Sciences
in 1831, spoke of “surroundings.” These terms of “circum-
stance” and “surroundings” come from a certain intuition of a
centered formation. In the success of the term “milieu,” the
metaphor of the line or the indefinitely extendable plane, being
both continuous and homogeneous, with no definite shape or
privileged position, wins out over the metaphor of the sphere
or circle, shapes that are still defined qualitatively and, we
might even say, attached to a fixed central reference point.
Circumstances and surroundings still retain a symbolic value,
but milieu abandons any evocation other than a position indef-
initely denied by exteriority. The now refers to the future, the
here refers to its beyond, and so forth always ad infinitum. The
milieu is really a pure system of relationships without supports.
From this point we may understand the prestige of the
notion of milieu for analytical scientific thought. The milieu
becomes a universal instrument of the dissolution of individu-
alized organic synthesis in the anonymity of elements and uni-
versal movements. When the French neo-Lamarckians borrow
from Lamarck—if not the term in the absolute sense and in the
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 11
Cyclidium.
singular, at least the idea—they keep only the formation by out-
side conditioning and, so to speak, the deformation of the mor-
phological character and functions of the living. It is enough to
recall Costantin’s experiments on the shapes of sagittate leaves
and Houssay’s experiments on the shape, fins, and metamerism
of fish. In a little book entitled La Vie des Rivières, Louis Roule
was capable of writing, “Fish don’t lead their lives themselves,
it is the river that makes them lead it, they are persons without
will.”
9
We have here an example of what a strictly mechanistic
use of the notion of milieu must lead to.
10
We have returned to
the idea of animal-machines. In the end, Descartes was saying
the same thing when he said of animals, “It is nature that acts
in them through the medium of their organs.”
| | | | |
Starting in 1859, in other words with the publication of Darwin’s
Origin of Species, the problem of the relationship between
organism and milieu is dominated by the polemical opposition
between Lamarckians and Darwinians. It seems necessary
to recall the originality of these respective starting points to
understand the meaning and importance of the polemic.
Lamarck wrote in his Philosophie zoologique (1809) that if,
by action of circumstance or action of milieus, we understand a
direct action of the external milieu on the living, we are impos-
ing a meaning that is unwarranted.
11
It is due to a need, a sub-
jective notion that implies a reference to a positive pole of life
values, that the milieu dominates and commands the evolution
of living things. Changes in circumstance bring about changes
in needs; changes in needs bring about changes in actions. As
long as these actions last, the use or nonuse of certain organs
causes them to strengthen or atrophy, and these morphological
losses and gains acquired by individual habit are preserved by
the mechanism of heredity whenever the new morphological
character is common to the two parents.
According to Lamarck, the situation of the living in the
milieu is a situation that we can call both distressful and dis-
tressed. The life and the milieu that is unaware of it are two
asynchronous series of events. The change of circumstances
comes first, but it is the living itself that, in the end, initiates the
effort to not be let go by its milieu. Adaptation is a repeated
effort on the part of life to continue to “stick” to an indifferent
milieu. Adaptation as the result of an effort is therefore neither
harmonious nor providential; it is earned and never guaran-
teed. Lamarckism is not mechanism, and it would be inexact to
call it finalism. In reality, it is a naked vitalism. There is an orig-
inality of life that the milieu cannot render, that it does not
know. The milieu is in this case really external in the proper
12 Grey Room 03
sense of the word. It is foreign; it does nothing for life. This is
truly vitalism because it depends on this dichotomy. Life, said
Bichat, is the collection of functions that resist death. In
Lamarck’s conception, life resists only by transforming in order
to outlive itself. To my knowledge, no portrait of Lamarck, no
summary of his doctrine, is better than the one given by Sainte-
Beuve in his novel Volupté.
12
Here we can see how much dis-
tance lies between Lamarckian vitalism and the mechanicism of
the French neo-Lamarckians. Cope, an American neo-Lamarckian,
was truer to the spirit of the doctrine.
Darwin has a totally different explanation of the environ-
ment of the living, as well as the appearance of new forms. In
the introduction to Origin of Species, he writes, “Naturalists
are always referring to external conditions like climate and
food as the only possible cause of variations; they are only right
in a very narrow sense.”
13
It seems that Darwin later regretted
having attributed only a minor role to the direct action of phys-
ical forces on the living. This is manifest in his correspon-
dence. On this point, in the introduction he wrote for selected
texts of Darwin, Marcel Prenant published a certain number of
particularly interesting passages.
14
Darwin was looking for the
appearance of new forms in the interplay of two mechanisms:
a mechanism of production of differences that is variation, and
a mechanism of reduction and criticism of the differences pro-
duced, that is, the struggle for existence [la concurrence vitale]
and natural selection. The fundamental biological relationship,
in Darwin’s eyes, is a relationship between living things and
other living things. It trumps the relationship between living
and milieu, conceived of as a collection of physical forces. The
primary milieu an organism lives in is the set of living things
around it that are enemies or allies, prey or predators. Among
the living, relationships of use, destruction, and defense are
established. In this test of strength, accidental variations of
morphology play out as advantages or disadvantages. In fact,
variation, that is to say the appearance of slight morphological
differences by which a descendant does not look exactly like
his ancestors, emerges from a complex process: the use or
nonuse of organs (the Lamarckian factor concerns only adults),
correlations or compensations of growth (for the young), or even
the direct action of the milieu (on the germ).
In this sense we can therefore say that according to Darwin,
unlike Lamarck, the initiative of variation sometimes, but only
sometimes, comes from the milieu. According to whether we
emphasize or play down this action, whether we limit our-
selves to his classic works or on the contrary to the whole of his
thought in the way it is revealed by his correspondence, we get a
slightly different idea of Darwin’s thought. At any rate, for Darwin,
to live is to submit individual difference to the judgment of all
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 13
of the living. This judgment has only two outcomes: either
death or one’s recruitment in turn, for a time, to the jury. But as
long as we live, we are always judged and judging. We can see,
as a result, that in the body of work Darwin left us, the thread
that ties the formation of living things to the physicochemical
milieu seems quite tenuous. And the day a new explanation of
the evolution of the species, mutationism, was combined with
an explanation that suddenly saw the appearance of specific
variations as hereditary (an explanation that Darwin was aware
of but that he underestimated) was the day that the milieu
was reduced to the role of eliminating the worst without
being involved in the production of new beings, normalized by
their nonpremeditated adaptation to new conditions of exis-
tence, with monstrosity becoming the rule and uniqueness a
fleeting banality.
In the polemic that pitted Lamarckians against Darwinians,
it is useful to note that the arguments and objections came under
two categories and had two sets of implications. Finalism was
denounced and mechanicism celebrated, first on one side, then
on the other. This is a clear sign that the issue was poorly framed.
Darwin, we can say, uses the language rather than the substance
of finalism (he has been sufficiently reproached for using the
term “selection”). With Lamarck, there is less finalism than
vitalism. Both of these men were true biologists, who take life
as a piece of data that they attempt to characterize without tak-
ing too much time to come to terms with it analytically. In fact,
these two genuine biologists complement one another. Lamarck
thinks of life in terms of duration, and Darwin more according
to interdependence. One life-form implies a plurality of other
forms with which it is in contact. The synoptic vision that
makes up the core of Darwin’s genius underscores Lamarck’s
weaknesses. Darwin is more closely related to geographers,
and we know what he drew from his voyages and explorations.
The milieu in which Darwin imagined the life of the living is a
biogeographical milieu.
| | | | |
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, two names sum up
the emergence of geography as a science newly cognizant of
both its status and its method: Ritter and Humboldt.
In 1817, Carl Ritter published his Geographie générale com-
parée ou Science de la Terre dans ses rapports avec la nature
et l’histoire de l’homme. Starting in 1845, over the course of ten
years Alexander von Humboldt published a book whose spirit
is precisely captured in the title Kosmos. These two authors
brought together the traditions of Greek geography, that is, of
Aristotle and Strabo’s science of the human ecumene, and the
14 Grey Room 03
Lacrymaria.
science of the coordination of human space in relation to celes-
tial configurations and movements, that is, the mathematical
geography whose founders we consider to be Eratosthenes,
Hipparchus, and Ptolemy.
According to Ritter, human history is unintelligible without
understanding the connection of humanity to the land and to the
whole earth. The terrestrial globe, considered as a whole, is the
stable support for the vicissitudes of history. As a result, terres-
trial space and its configuration are the object not only of geo-
metric or geological knowledge, but also sociology and biology.
Humboldt was a naturalist and voyager who traveled several
times over what one could travel of the world of his time and
who applied a whole system of barometric, thermometric, and
other measurements in his investigations. Humboldt was espe-
cially interested in the distribution of plants according to cli-
mate: he was the founder of botanical geography and zoological
geography. Kosmos is a synthesis of learning that focuses on life
on earth and the relations between life and physical milieu. This
synthesis is not an attempt to be encyclopedic, but is rather a
step toward an intuition of the universe. It begins with a his-
tory of Weltanschauung through a history of the cosmos whose
equivalent could not easily be found in a work of philosophy.
It is a critical commentary that is nothing short of remarkable.
It is essential to note that Ritter and Humboldt applied the
category of totality to their object: the relationship between his-
torical man and milieu. Their object is all of humanity over the
whole world. As a result of their work, the idea of a historical
relationship determined by environment
was consolidated in geography, leading first
to Ratzel and anthropogeography in Germany,
then to geopolitics, and spreading to history
through Michelet. One has only to recall Le
Tableau de la France.
15
And finally Taine,
as I have already mentioned, contributes to
the spread of the idea in all fields [milieux],
including the literary. One can summarize
the spirit of this theory of the relationship
between man and his geographic milieu by
saying that doing history consists of reading
a map, if we understand by map the configu-
ration of a set of metric, geodesic, geological,
climatological, and descriptive biogeograph-
ical data.
The approach to problems in anthropol-
ogy and human ethology (an approach that
is more and more deterministic, or more pre-
cisely mechanistic, as we get further from
the spirit of the founders) is coupled with a
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 15
parallel, if not exactly contemporaneous, methodology in the area
of animal ethology. A mechanistic explanation of the organism’s
movement within the milieu succeeds the mechanistic inter-
pretation of the development of organic forms. Let us simply
recall the work of Jacques Loeb and that of Watson. Generalizing
the conclusions of his studies of phototropism in animals, Loeb
considers all movement of the organism in the milieu as a
movement that is forced upon the organism by the milieu. The
reflex, considered the elementary response of a part of the body
to an elementary physical stimulus, is the simple mechanism
whose constitution allows us to explain all behavior of the
living. There is no question that such exorbitant Cartesianism
lies, along with Darwinism, at the origin of the postulates of
behaviorist psychology.
16
Watson assigned the analytical study of the conditions of
adaptation of the living to the milieu as a program for psychol-
ogy by experimenting with the production of relations of exci-
tation and response (the coupling of stimulus-response). The
determinism of the relationship between excitation and
response is physical. The biology of behavior is reduced to neu-
rology, and the latter is reduced to an energetics. Watson’s ideas
led him from a conception in which he simply neglected con-
sciousness because he saw it as unuseful, to a conception in
which he rejected it as outright illusory. The milieu finds itself
invested with all powers with respect to individuals; its power
dominates and even does away with the influence of heredity
and genetic makeup. Once given a milieu, the organism itself
gives nothing that, in reality, it doesn’t receive. The situation of
the living, its being in the world, is thus its condition, or more
precisely its conditioning.
Albert Weiss wished to construct biology as a deductive
physics, and he proposed an electronic theory of behavior. It
was left to psychotechnicians, who extended Taylorist tech-
niques of time and motion studies by means of the analysis of
human reactions, to perfect the work of behavioral psychology
and to ingeniously constitute man as a machine reacting to
other machines, an organism determined by the “new milieu”
(Friedmann).
In short, as a result of its origins, the notion of milieu first
developed and spread in a perfectly predictable manner; and
thus we may say, applying to it the methodological approach
that it implies, that its intellectual power was a function of the
intellectual milieu in which it was formed. The theory of
milieu was the positive and apparently verifiable translation
of Condillac’s fable of the statue: “To us it is a statue smelling a
rose, to itself it is smell of rose.”
17
Similarly, in the physical
milieu, the living simply is light and heat; it is carbon and oxygen,
calcium, and heaviness. It responds by muscular contractions to
16 Grey Room 03
sensory stimuli, from scratching to tickling, from leaking to burst-
ing. But we may, and we must, ask where the living is to be found?
We can clearly see individuals, but they are objects; we see ges-
tures, but they are displacements; centers, but they are environ-
ments; machine operators, but they are machines. The behavioral
milieu coincides with the geographic milieu, the geographic
milieu with the physical milieu.
| | | | |
It was normal, in the strong sense of that word, for this method-
ological norm to be both pushed to its limits and ultimately
overturned in geography. Geography deals with complexes,
complexes of elements whose actions limit each other recipro-
cally and for which the effects of causes in turn become causes,
modifying the causes that brought them into being. For this rea-
son, trade winds provide a prototypical example of a complex.
Trade winds displace surface seawater warmed through con-
tact with the air, deeper cold waters rise to the surface and cool
the atmosphere, the low temperatures lead to low pressures,
which give rise to winds, and the cycle is closed and begins
again. This is a type of complex that we might also observe in
plant geography. Vegetation is spread out in natural groups
within which different species limit each other reciprocally
and in which, as a result, each one contributes to creating an
equilibrium for the others. The whole set of these plant species
ends up constituting its own milieu. In this way exchanges
between plants and the atmosphere end up creating a sort of
screen of water vapor around the plant kingdom that ends up
limiting the effects of radiation, and the cause leads to the effect
that it in turn attenuates, etc.
18
The same approach should be applied to animals and to
man, although we find that human response to the stimulus of
the milieu is varied. Man can find several solutions to the same
problem posed by the milieu. The milieu proposes without
ever imposing a solution. Of course the possibilities are not
endless within a given state of civilization and culture. But the
fact of seeing something as an obstacle at one time that later can
become a tool is clearly tied to the idea, to the representation,
that man (I am speaking of humanity as a whole, of course)
makes of his own possibilities and needs. In short, it relies on
what he sees as desirable, and that is something that cannot be
separated from the whole of his value system.
19
In this way, we end up inverting the relationship between
milieu and living thing. At this point, to the extent that he
exists in history, man becomes a creator of the geographical
configuration; he is a geographical factor. We may here simply
recall that the work of Vidal-Lablache, Brunhes, Demangeon,
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 17
and Lucien Febvre and his school showed that man has no pure
physical milieu. In a human milieu, man is obviously subject
to a determinism, but it is the determinism of artificial con-
structions. The spirit of invention that brought them into exis-
tence has been alienated from him. In the same line of thinking,
the work of Friedmann shows how, in the new milieu that
machines create for man, the same reversal has already occurred.
Pushed to the extreme limits of its ambition, the psychotech-
nique of engineers that grew out of Taylorist philosophy has
succeeded in locating an irreducible center of resistance, the
presence of man’s true originality in the form of his sense of
values. Man, even when subordinated to machines, cannot
conceive of himself as a machine. His productive efficiency
increases the more he is aware of his centrality in relation to the
mechanisms that serve him.
Well before this, the same reversal of the relationship
between organism and milieu had occurred in matters of ani-
mal psychology and behavioral studies. Loeb led to Jennings,
and Watson led to Kantor and Tolmann.
At this point, the influence of pragmatism is clear and well
established. If, in one sense, pragmatism served as an interme-
diary between Darwinism and behaviorism by extending the
idea of adaptation to a general theory of knowledge and, in
another sense, by putting the accent on the role of values
in relation to the interests of action, Dewey was to lead behav-
iorists to regard the connection between organic movements
and the organism itself as essential. The organism was consid-
ered as a being on which not everything could be
imposed, because its existence as an organism con-
sists in presenting itself to things, according to certain
orientations that are specific to it. First explored by
Kantor, Tolmann’s teleological behaviorism consists of
researching and recognizing the meaning and inten-
tion of animal movement. It seems essential to the
movement of response to persist in a set of phases that
can be mistakes or unfulfilled acts, up until the moment
when the reaction puts an end to the stimulus and
reestablishes a state of rest or leads to a new series of
actions that is totally different from the ones that were
closed unto themselves.
Before him Jennings had shown, in his theory of
trial and error, contra Loeb, that the animal does not
react by the sum of molecular reactions to a stimulus
that can be broken down into units of stimulation, but
rather that it reacts as a whole to total objects and that
these reactions regulate the needs that command them.
Naturally, one must recognize here the considerable
contribution of Gestalttheorie, especially the distinction
18 Grey Room 03
between behavioral milieu and geographical milieu that we
owe to Koffka.
20
Finally, the organism-milieu relationship finds itself
reversed in von Uexküll’s studies of animal psychology and
Goldstein’s studies of human pathology. Each of these illustrate
the reversal with a clarity that comes from a completely philo-
sophical approach to the problem. Uexküll and Goldstein agree
on this fundamental point: that to study a living thing under
experimentally constructed conditions is to create a milieu for
it, to impose a milieu upon it. In fact, it is a fundamental char-
acteristic of the living thing that it makes its own milieu; it
builds one for itself. Of course, even from a materialist point of
view we can speak of the interaction between the living and
the milieu, between the physicochemical system interspersed
within a larger whole and its environment. But talk of interac-
tion is not enough to offset the difference that exists between a
relationship of a physical type and one of a biological type.
From the biological point of view, one must understand that
between organism and environment there is the same relation-
ship that exists between the parts and the whole within the
organism itself. The individuality of the living does not come
to an end at its ectodermal boundaries, no more than it begins
at the level of the cell. The biological relationship between the
being and its milieu is a functional one, and as a result it
changes as the variables successively exchange roles. The cell
is a milieu for intracellular elements; it lives in an interior
milieu that is either on the scale of the organ or the organism,
which organism itself lives in a milieu that is for it, in a sense,
what the organism is for its component parts. We can therefore
move toward using a biological reasoning to evaluate biological
problems. A reading of Uexküll and Goldstein can contribute
a great deal to mapping out this reasoning.
21
Let us take the terms Umwelt, Umgebung, and Welt. Uexküll
distinguishes between them with great care. Umwelt designates
the behavioral milieu that is proper to a given organism;
Umgebung is the simple geographical environment; and Welt
is the scientific universe. For the living, the specific behavioral
milieu (Umwelt) is a set of stimuli that have the value and sig-
nificance of signals. To act on a living thing, it is not enough
that physical stimuli be produced; they must also be noticed.
As a result, to the extent that a stimulus acts on the living, it
presupposes an orientation of its interest. The stimulus does
not proceed from the object, but from this interest. It is neces-
sary, in other words, for the stimulus to be effective, that it be
anticipated by the subject’s attitude. If the living does not go
looking for something, it gets nothing. A living thing is not a
machine that responds by movement to stimuli, it is a machin-
ist who responds to signals by operations. Naturally, this does
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 19
Neobursaridium.
not mean that one should call into question the fact that there
are reflexes whose mechanism is physicochemical. For the biol-
ogist, the problem is elsewhere. The question is rather to be
found in the fact that out of the exuberance of the physical
milieu, as a producer of stimuli whose number is theoretically
unlimited, the animal retains only a few signals (Merkmale). Its
biorhythm orders the temporality of this Umwelt, just as it
orders its space. Along with Buffon, Lamarck said: time and
favorable circumstances constitute the living little by little.
Uexküll reverses the relationship and says: time and favorable
circumstances exist only in relation to a specific living thing.
Umwelt is therefore a voluntary sample drawn from the
Umgebung, the geographical environment. But the environ-
ment is precisely nothing other than man’s Umwelt, that is, the
usual world of his practical perspective and experience. Like
this Umgebung, this geographical environment that is external
to the animal is, in a sense, centered, ordered, and oriented by
a human subject (that is to say a creator of techniques and val-
ues). Similarly, the animal’s Umwelt is nothing other than a
milieu centered around the subject of life values that makes up
the essential part of what constitutes the living. At the root of
this organization of the Umwelt we must conceive of a subjec-
tivity that is analogous to the one we are bound to think of as
being at the root of the human Umwelt. One of the most com-
pelling examples cited by Uexküll is the Umwelt of the tick.
Ticks grow by imbibing the warm blood of mammals. After
coupling, the adult female climbs to the end of a tree branch
and waits. It can wait eighteen years. At the Institute of Zoology
in Rostock, ticks have stayed alive, closed up, in a state of ina-
nition, for eighteen years. When a mammal passes under the
tree, under the tick’s hunting and trapping post, it lets itself fall.
What guides it is the odor of rancid butter that emanates from
the animal’s cutaneous glands. This is the only stimulus that
can set off the falling motion. This is the first step. Once the tick
has fallen on the animal, it attaches itself to it. If the odor of ran-
cid butter has been produced artificially, on a table, for exam-
ple, the tick does not attach itself, but climbs back up to its
observation post. The only reason it attaches to the animal is its
blood temperature. It attaches to the animal because of its sense
of heat; and guided by its sense of touch, it looks preferably for
areas of the skin that are hairless, it digs in just beyond the
head, and sucks the blood. It is only at the moment when the
mammal’s blood enters its stomach that the tick’s eggs (encap-
sulated since the moment of coupling and able to remain
encapsulated for eighteen years) open up, mature, and grow.
The tick can live eighteen years to complete its reproductive
function in a few hours. It should be noted that, for a consider-
able amount of time, the tick can remain totally indifferent,
20 Grey Room 03
insensitive to all stimuli coming from a milieu like the forest,
and that the only stimulus capable of setting off its movement,
to the exclusion of all others, is the odor of rancid butter.
22
A confrontation with the work of Goldstein was inevitable,
since his theory is based on a critique of the mechanical theory
of reflexes. The reflex is not an isolated or gratuitous reaction.
The reaction is always a function of the opening of the senses
to stimuli and its orientation relative to them. This orientation
depends on the meaning of a situation as it is perceived in its
entirety. Separate stimuli may have meaning in the social sci-
ences, but they mean nothing when it comes to the senses of a
living thing. An animal in an experimental setting is in an
abnormal situation that is imposed upon it; it is neither neces-
sary nor of its own choosing. An organism is therefore never
equal to the theoretical sum of its possibilities. We cannot
understand its action without thinking of it in terms of a privi-
leged form of behavior. “Privileged” does not mean objectively
simpler in this case; it is rather the opposite. The animal finds it
easier to do what it favors: it follows its own norms of living.
The relationship established between the living and the
milieu is like a debate (Auseinandersetzung) in which the liv-
ing brings its own norms of appreciating the situation, where it
is in command of the milieu and accommodates itself to it. This
relationship does not consist primarily, as one might think, of
a struggle or a confrontation. Those are things that characterize
the pathological state. A life that affirms itself in opposition is
already a life threatened. Movements involving strength, as for
example extensive muscular reactions, translate the domina-
tion of the exterior onto the organism.
23
A healthy life, a life
that is confident in its existence and in its values, is a life that
extends itself yet that is also almost gentle in its flexibility. The
situation of the living demanded by the milieu from the outside
is what Goldstein holds up as the prototype of a catastrophic
situation. This is the situation of the living in the laboratory.
The relations between the living and the milieu as they are
studied experimentally and objectively are of all possible rela-
tions those that have the least biological significance: they are
pathological relations. Goldstein says that “the meaning of an
organism is its being”; we may say that the being of the organ-
ism is its meaning. Of course, the physicochemical analysis of
the living can and should be undertaken. It has a theoretical
and practical interest. But this constitutes a chapter of physics.
Everything remains to be done in biology. Biology must there-
fore first consider the living as a meaningful being, and its indi-
viduality not as an object, but as a term within the order of
values. To live is to spread out; it is to organize a milieu starting
from a central reference point that cannot itself be referred to
without losing its original meaning.
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 21
While the reversal of the organism-milieu relationship was
being completed in animal ethology and in behavioral studies,
a revolution was occurring in the way that morphological char-
acteristics were being used to explain the autonomy of the liv-
ing relative to the milieu. I am alluding here to the now very
well known work of Bateson, Cuénot, Thomas Morgan, H.
Müller, and their collaborators, who took up and extended
Gregor Mendel’s research on hybridization and heredity. In the
process of creating the science of genetics, these thinkers ended
up claiming that in a given milieu the acquisition of the form,
and therefore the function, of the living depends on its partic-
ular hereditary potential and that the action of the milieu on
phenotype leaves genotype unchanged. The genetic explana-
tion of heredity and evolution (i.e., the theory of mutation) con-
verged with Weissman’s theory. The precocious isolation of a
germinating plasma in the course of ontogenesis would nullify
the influence of somatic modifications determined by the
milieu on the evolution of the species. In his book La Vie créa-
trice des Formes, Albert Brachet wrote that “the milieu is not,
properly speaking, an agent of formation, but in fact of realiza-
tion,” by invoking the multiformity of sea creatures within an
identical milieu in support of his argument.
24
And Caullery
concluded his study of The Present State of the Problem of
Evolution
25
by recognizing that evolution depends much more
on the intrinsic properties of organisms than on the surround-
ing milieu.
26
Yet we know that the idea of the total autonomy of hereditary
genetic assortment did not go without criticism. At first critics
emphasized the fact that nucleoplasmatic disharmony tends to
limit the hereditary omnipotence of genes. In sexual reproduc-
tion, if it is true that the two parents each provide half of the
genes, the mother provides cytoplasm for the egg. Given that
the mixed offspring of two different species are not the same,
depending on whether one or the other species is represented
by the father or the mother, we are led to suppose that the power
of genes differs as a function of the cytoplasmic milieu. In addi-
tion to this, H. Müller’s experiments (1927) provoking mutations
in Drosophila by the action of a milieu of penetrating radiation
(X rays) seemed to shed some light on the external conditioning
of an organic phenomenon, perhaps too easily underscoring the
distinction between organism and environment.
Finally, Lamarckism has become topical once again thanks
to the ideological, as much as scientific, polemics around the
indignant repudiation of genetic “pseudo-science” by the
Russian biologists that Lysenko had brought back to the
“healthy method” of Mitchourine (1855–1935). Experiments on
the vernalization of cultivated plants like wheat and rye led
Lysenko to claim that hereditary modifications can be obtained
22 Grey Room 03
Pennate diatoms.
and consolidated by variations in feeding, upkeep, and climatic
conditions, leading to the dislocation or rupture of the heredi-
tary constitution of the organism that geneticists had falsely
imagined to be stable. To the extent that we can summarize
complex experimental findings, it should be said that accord-
ing to Lysenko, heredity is dependent on metabolism, and the
latter is dependent on the conditions of existence. Heredity is
to be seen here as the assimilation of outside conditions by the
living over successive generations. Remarks of an ideological
nature concerning these facts and this theory actually help clar-
ify its meaning, regardless of their authors’ inability to accept,
let alone tolerate, the counterexperiments and criticisms that
are the norm in matters of scientific discussion; all of which
things lie, of course, outside of my realm of competence.
27
It
seems that the technical, that is to say agronomic, aspect of the
problem is crucial. In justifying the spontaneous character of
mutations, Mendelian theories of heredity tend to moderate
human, and specifically Soviet, ambitions to completely dom-
inate nature and the possibility of intentionally altering living
species. Finally and above all, the recognition of the determin-
ing influence of the milieu has a political and social impact in
that it authorizes man’s unlimited action upon himself through
the medium of the milieu. It justifies hope in an experimental
renewal of human nature. In this way, it appears, at first sight,
to be progressive. Theory and praxis are indissociable, as is
required by Marxist-Leninist dialectics. As a result, we can see
how genetics could be charged with all of the sins of racism and
slavery and how Mendel was presented as
the leading spokesman for a retrograde, cap-
italist, and even idealist biology.
It is clear that the return to legitimacy of
theories of the heredity of acquired charac-
teristics does not in itself authorize us to
unreservedly qualify the recent Soviet bio-
logical theories as Lamarckian. This is
because the essence of Lamarck’s ideas, as
we have seen, consists in attributing the
organism’s adaptation to the milieu to its
own initiative, needs, and continuous reac-
tions. The milieu provokes the organism
to orient its own development. Biological
response far outweighs physical stimulation.
By rooting adaptive phenomena in necessity,
which means both pain and impatience,
Lamarck was focusing on the point where
life coincides with its own meaning, where
through its sensory experience, the living sit-
uates itself absolutely, for better or worse, in
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 23
existence: the indivisible totality of organism and milieu.
With Lamarck, as is the case among the first theorists of
milieu, the notions of “circumstances” and “surroundings”
have an altogether different meaning than they have in normal
language. These words genuinely evoke a spherical, centered
disposition. The terms “influences” and “influential circum-
stances,” used by Lamarck, take their meaning from astrologi-
cal concepts. When Buffon, in La Dégénération des Animaux,
speaks of the “tint” of the sky that takes man so long to per-
ceive, he is using, no doubt unconsciously, a term borrowed
from Paracelsus. Even the notion of “climate” in the eigh-
teenth
28
and early nineteenth centuries is a unified notion com-
mon to geography, astronomy, and astrology. Climate is the
change in appearance of the sky, degree by degree, from equator
to pole; it is also the influence exercised by the sky on the earth.
I have already indicated that the biological notion of milieu
at first brought together an anthropogeographic component and
a mechanical one. The anthropogeographic component could
even be considered to make up the whole idea, since it
included in itself the astronomical component, the one Newton
had converted to a theory of celestial mechanics. For in the
beginning geography was for the Greeks the projection of the
sky onto the earth, the coming together of earth and sky, a cor-
respondence that went in two directions at the same time: a
topographical correspondence (geometry and cosmography)
and a hierarchical correspondence (physics and astrology). The
mapping of parts of the earth and the subordination of a
mapped area to the sky were understood in the astrobiological
intuition of the cosmos. Greek geography had its own philoso-
phy, that of the Stoics.
29
The intellectual relations between
Posidonius on one hand, and Hipparchus, Strabo, and Ptolemy
on the other, are undeniable. It is the theory of universal sym-
pathy, a vitalist intuition of universal determinism, that gives
its meaning to the geographical theory of the milieu. This theory
supposes the assimilation of the totality of things to an organism,
and the representation of this totality in the form of a sphere,
centered on the situation of a privileged living thing: man. This
biocentric conception of the cosmos carried over from the Middle
Ages to blossom in the Renaissance.
We know what happened to the notion of cosmos with the
appearance of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, as well as how
dramatic the conflict was between the organic conception of
the world and the conception of a universe that was decentered
relative to the center privileged in the classical world, the earth
of the living and of man. With Galileo and also Descartes it
became necessary to choose between two theories of milieu,
that is, in the final analysis, theories of space: a centered space,
defined as being where the mi-lieu is a center; a decentered
24 Grey Room 03
space, defined as being where the mi-lieu is an intermediary
field. Pascal’s famous text, Disproportion de l’Homme, shows
the ambiguity of the term well in a spirit that cannot or will not
choose between its existential security and the demands of sci-
entific knowledge.
30
Pascal knew that the cosmos had shattered
into pieces, but the eternal silence of infinite spaces frightened
him. Man was no longer at the center [au milieu] of the world,
but he is a milieu (a milieu between two infinites, a milieu
between nothing and everything, a milieu between two
extremes); the milieu is the state in which nature placed us; we
are floating on a vast milieu; man is in proportion with the
parts of the world; he relates to all that he knows: “He needs a
place to contain him, time in which to endure, movement to
live, elements to make him up, heat and food to nourish him,
air to breath . . . and in the end, everything is his ally.” We may
observe that three meanings of the word “milieu” come into
play here: a median situation, a fluid of suspension, a life envi-
ronment. It was in developing this last meaning that Pascal
revealed his organic conception of the world, a return to sto-
icism that went both beyond and against Descartes: “All things
being caused and causal, helped and helping, mediated and
immediate, and all intertwined by a natural and insentient con-
nection that links the most distant and different among them, I
hold that it is impossible to know the parts without knowing
the whole, any more than we can know the whole without par-
ticularly knowing the parts.” And when he defines the universe
as “an infinite sphere in which the center is everywhere, the
circumference nowhere,” Pascal is paradoxically using an
image borrowed from the theosophic tradition to try to recon-
cile the new scientific conception that sees the universe as an
infinite and undifferentiated milieu and the ancient cosmolog-
ical vision that sees the world as a finite whole connecting to
its center. It has been established that the image used here by
Pascal is a permanent myth of mystic thought of neo-Platonic
origin in which an intuition of the spherical world centered in
and by the living and the already heliocentric cosmology of the
Pythagoreans are reconciled.
31
Before Newton, the symbolic representation of the potential
ubiquitousness of a spreading action starting from a central
point described in the neo-Platonic cosmology of Jacob Boehme
and Henry More, “the Cambridge Platonist,” was universally
recognized. Newtonian space and ether, the first as a means for
the omnipresence of God, the second as a medium and vehicle
of forces, both retain, as we know, an absolute character that
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars failed to remark
upon. Newtonian science, which was to anchor so many
empiricist and relativist professions of faith, is itself founded
on metaphysics. Empiricism masks its theological foundations.
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 25
And in this way the natural philosophy or the positivist and
mechanistic conception of milieu has as its source, finds itself
anchored by in fact, the mystical intuition of a sphere of energy
in which the central action is uniformly present and efficient
at every point.
32
| | | | |
If today it seems normal to anyone trained in the mathematical
and physical disciplines that the objectivity of knowledge
requires a decentering of perspective, the moment also finally
seems to have arrived where, from the perspective of biology,
according to the formulation of J. S. Haldane in The Philosophy
of a Biologist, “it is physics that is not an exact science.” Indeed,
as Claparède wrote, “What distinguishes the animal is the fact
that he is a center relative to surrounding forces that are no
longer, relative to it, anything but signals or stimuli; a center,
in other words an internally regulated system in which reac-
tions are controlled by an internal cause: immediate neces-
sity.”
33
In this sense, the milieu on which the organism depends
is structured and organized by the organism itself. What the
milieu gives to the living is a function of its demand. This is
why within what appears to man to be a unique milieu, several
living things draw their own specific and singular milieu. For
that matter, as a living thing, man does not escape the general
law of the living. The milieu that is proper to man is the world
of his perception, that is to say the field of his practical experi-
ence in which his actions, oriented and
regulated by values that are immanent
to his tendencies, carve out certain
objects, situate them relative to each
other and all of them in relation to him-
self. This occurs in such a way that the
environment he is supposed to be react-
ing to finds itself originally centered in
and by him.
But man the scholar constructs a uni-
verse of phenomena and laws that he
holds up as absolute. The essential
function of science is to devalue the
qualities of objects that make up the
milieu proper, by offering itself as a
general theory of the real, that is to say
nonhuman, milieu. Sensory data are dis-
qualified, quantified, and identified. That
which is imperceptible is first placed
under suspicion, then exposed and
avowed. Measurements are substituted
26 Grey Room 03
for appreciations, laws for habits, causality for hierarchy, and
the objective for the subjective.
In fact, this universe of man the scholar, of which Einstein’s
physics is the ultimate representation (a universe in which fun-
damental equations of intelligibility are the same regardless of
the system of reference) because it maintains a direct, if negat-
ing and reductive, relationship with the living man’s proper
milieu, endows this milieu with a sort of privilege over the
milieus that are proper to other living things. Living man takes
from his relationship with man the scholar, in whose work
ordinary perceptive experience finds itself contradicted and
corrected, a sort of unconscious fatuousness that leads him to
prefer his own milieu to that of other living things as having not
only a different value, but a higher degree of reality. In fact, as a
proper milieu of behavior and life, the milieu of man’s sensory
and technical values does not in itself have more reality than
the milieu proper to a wood louse or a grey mouse. The qualifi-
cation of “real” can only be applied rigorously to an absolute
universe, to the universal milieu made up of elements and
movements authenticated by science, in which this recognition
is as such necessarily accompanied by the disqualification of
all subjective understandings of milieu as illusions or errors
of life, including those of man.
The pretension of science to dissolve these centers of orga-
nization, adaptation, and invention that are living things into
the anonymity of the mechanical, physical, and chemical envi-
ronment must be complete, that is to say that it must include
the living human himself. And as is well known, this project
has not seemed too audacious to many thinkers. But we must
then ask ourselves from a philosophical point of view if the ori-
gins of science do not better reveal its meaning than the pre-
tensions of a few scholars. For the birth, development, and
progress of science must be seen as a remarkably audacious
enterprise if we are rightfully to deny the innate genius of
humanity, from the point of view of scientism and even mate-
rialism. If we do not, it would be necessary to admit the absurd
proposition according to which reality contains the science of
reality within itself a priori. And we would then have to ask
what need that has its origins in reality is truly being served by
the ambition to scientifically determine that same reality.
But if science is the work of a humanity that is rooted in life
before being enlightened by knowledge, if it is a fact in the
world while also being a vision of the world, then it perpetu-
ates a permanent and necessary relationship with perception.
And therefore man’s proper milieu is not situated in the uni-
versal milieu like a thing contained within its container. A cen-
ter does not dissolve into its environment. A living thing does
not reduce itself to an intersection of influences. These ideas
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 27
Amoeba proteus.
point to the inadequacy of any biology that would eliminate
any consideration of meaning from its domain out of an utter
submissiveness to the spirit of the physicochemical sciences.
A meaning, from the biological and psychological point of
view, is an appreciation of values in relation to a need. And a
need is, for whoever feels it and lives it, an irreducible system
of reference, and for that reason it is absolute.
28 Grey Room 03
Notes
“Le Vivant et son milieu” was originally presented as a lecture at the Collège
philosophique in Paris in 1946–47 and was subsequently published in La
Conaissance de la vie in 1952. It is translated and published here with per-
mission from Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris.
1. I have chosen to translate the author’s le vivant as “the living,” despite
its apparent awkwardness. The French original is similar in this regard, and
other formulations such as “living thing,” “life-form,” and “organism” place
too much emphasis on the definite boundary between these entities and their
surrounding environment, a distinction that the author clearly wishes to
interrogate. I have also kept the term milieu, though its English usage is more
limited than in French. I have used brackets in the text to note those places
where the French use of milieu required a different translation. Along with
the editors, I would like to acknowledge the numerous invaluable suggestions
received from Warwick Anderson, in particular with regard to scientific ter-
minology. Trans.
2. On all these points, see Léon Bloch, Les Origines de la Théorie de l’ether
et la physique de Newton (1908).
3. Léon Brunschvicg, Les Etapes de la philosophie mathématique (Paris:
Alcan, 1912), 508.
4. See Georges Canguilhem, “La Théorie Cellulaire,” in La Connaissance
de la Vie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1992), 54.
5. See Esprit des Lois, books XIV–XIX, on the relationship between laws
and climate.
6. The chapter on “the degeneration of animals” in the Histoire naturelle
des animaux (Paris, 1786–1791) examines the effects of habitat and food on
the animal organism.
7. I have translated these and other quotations myself, unless otherwise
indicated. The translation of Comte by Harriet Martineau is extremely loose:
see The Positivist Philosophy of Auguste Comte, vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton,
2 vols., 1853), 364. Trans.
8. Tolman’s behavioral psychology also conceives of the relationship
between organism and milieu in the form of the relation of a function to a
variable. Compare André Tilquin, Le Behaviorisme (Paris: J. Vrin, 1944), 439.
9. Louis Roule, La Vie des Rivières (Paris: Stock, 1930), 61.
10. A striking summary of this thesis can be found in Houssay’s Force et
Cause (Paris: Flammarion, 1920), in which the author describes “certain types
of units that we call living things, that we set apart as if they had an inde-
pendent and separate existence, when in fact they have no isolated reality and
they cannot be, but for an absolute and permanent linkage with the surround-
ing milieu in which they are but a simple local and momentary concentration.”
11. These comments especially concern animals. Lamarck is more reserved
on the subject of plants.
12. “Several times each month [décade] I frequented M. de Lamarck’s
Natural History course at the Jardin des Plantes. . . . At that time, M. de
Lamarck was perhaps the last representative of that great school of physicists
and general observers who had reigned from Thales and Democritus to
Buffon. . . . He presented his ideas quite nakedly, with great simplicity and
much sadness. He constructed a world with the fewest possible elements, the
lowest number of crises and the greatest possible duration. A long, blind
patience, that was his idea of the genius of the Universe. . . . In the same way,
in the organic order of things, once he recognized this mysterious power of
life, as small and elementary as it is, Lamarck imagined it developing, building
itself up over time, little by little; deaf necessity, habit alone, gave birth to
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 29
organs within a diverse range of milieux, in opposition to the relentless
power of nature that set out to destroy them; for M. de Lamarck distinguished
between nature and life. In his eyes, nature was stone and ash, a granite tomb,
death. Life came into play only as a strange and singularly productive acci-
dent, a prolonged struggle with here or there more or less balance or success,
but always defeated in the end; cold motionlessness reigned afterwards as
before.” Sainte-Beuve, Volupté.
13. Here I have translated Canguilhem’s version of Darwin directly. The
original passage is as follows: “Naturalists continually refer to external con-
ditions, such as climate, food, &c., as the only possible cause of variation. In
one limited sense, as we shall hereafter see, this may be true.” Charles Darwin,
On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1964), 3. Trans.
14. Marcel Prenant, Darwin (Paris: Editions Sociales Internationales,
1938), 145–49.
15. See Lucien Febvre’s La Terre et l’Evolution humaine for a historical
description of the evolution of the idea and a critique of its exaggerations.
16. André Tilquin, Le Behaviorisme (Paris: J. Vrin, 1942), 34–35. It is of
course from this well-documented work that I have borrowed much of the
information that follows.
17. Condillac, Treatise on the Sensations, trans. Geraldine Carr (London:
Favil Press, 1930), 3.
18. Compare Henri Baulig, “La Géographie est-elle une science?” Annales
de Géographie 57 (January–March 1948); and “Causalité et Finalité en
Géomorphologie,” Geografiska Annaler (winter 1949): 1–2.
19. A fascinating consideration of this inversion of perspective in human
geography is found in an article by L. Poirier, “L’Evolution de la Géographie
humaine,” which appeared in Critique 8–9 (January–February 1947).
20. On this point, compare Paul Gillaume, Psychologie de la Forme (Paris:
Flammarion, 1937), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Structure du Comportement
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942), translated by Alden L. Fisher
as Structure of Behavior (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).
21. Jakob von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere, 2d ed. (Berlin,
1921); and Theoretische Biologie, 2d ed. (Berlin, 1928); von Uexküll and
Georg Kriszat, Streifz üge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen
(Berlin, 1934). Goldstein, however, accepts von Uexküll’s views only with
important reservations. By not differentiating the living from its environ-
ment, any research on their relationship becomes, in a sense, impossible. In
this perspective, determinism disappears in favor of reciprocal penetration,
and taking into consideration the whole effectively stifles knowledge. For
knowledge to remain possible, it is necessary that a nonconventional center
from which a range of relations can emerge appears within this organism-
environment totality. Compare La Structure de l’Organisme, 75–76, a critique
of any exclusively environmental theory.
22. According to von Uexküll, the example of the tick is taken up by
Louis Bounoure in his book L’Autonomie de l’Etre vivant (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1949), 143.
23. For a discussion of this argument of Goldstein’s, compare the conclusion
of François Dagognet’s Philosophie biologique (Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France, 1955).
24. Albert Brachet, La Vie créatrice des Formes (Paris: Alcan, 1927), 171.
25. Maurice Caullery, The Present State of the Problem of Evolut ion
(Washington, 1917).
26. One can find an anticipation of these ideas in Nietzsche’s Will to Power.
30 Grey Room 03
To be honest, the criticism that Nietzsche addresses to Darwin would be more
appropriately applied to the Neo-Lamarckians.
27. For an examination of the subject, see “Une Discussion scientifique en
U.R.S.S.,” Europe 33–34 (1948); and also Claude-Charles Mathon, “Quelques
Aspects du Mitchourinisme,” etc., in Revue générale des Sciences pures et
appliquées 3–4 (1951). On the ideological dimensions of the controversy,
compare Julian Huxley. Jean Rostand has written a good historical and
critical study on the question, “L’Offensive des Mitchouriniens contre la
Génétique mendelienne,” in Les Grands Courants de la Biologie (Paris:
Gallimard, 1951), which is followed by a bibliography. Finally, see the work
of Hovasse, Adaptation et Evolution (Hermann, 1951).
28. See the article on “climate” in the Encyclopédie.
29. See the excellent abridged history of Greek geography in Theodor
Breiter’s introduction to volume 2 (commentaries) of the Astronomica by
Manilus (Leipzig, 1908).
30. Pascal’s Pensées, trans. Martin Turnell (New York: Harper and Brothers,
1962), 215–20.
31. Dietrich Mahnke, Unendliche Sphäre und Allmittelpunkt (Niemeyer:
Halle, 1937); the author devotes several very interesting pages to the usage
and meaning of the expression in Leibniz and Pascal. According to Havet,
Pascal supposedly borrowed the expression from Mademoiselle de Gournay
(see the 1595 preface to Montaigne’s Essays) or from Rabelais (Tiers livre,
chapter 13).
32. Compare Alexandre Koyré, La Philosophie de Jacob Boehme, 378–379,
504; and “The Significance of the Newtonian Synthesis,” Archives interna-
tionales d’Histoire de Sciences 11 (1950).
33. Preface to F. J. J. Buytendijk’s Psychologie des Animaux (Paris: Payot,
1928).
Canguilhem | The Living and I ts Milieu 31

China, 1958. Hen r i Ca r tier· Bressan/Magn u m P hatas

Machine and Organism
Georges Canguilhem

The relationship between machine and organism has generally been studied in only one way. Nearly always, the organism has been explained on the basis of a preconceived idea of the structure and functioning of the machine; but only rarely have the structure and function of the organism been used to make the construction of the machine itself more understandable. Even though mechanistic theory sparked some very impressive technical research, the fact remained that the very notion of an "organology,;' as well as its basic premises and methodology, remained undeveloped. l Philosophers and mechanistic biologists approached the machine as a set of data, or else made it into a problem that they could solve purely through mental application. To do this, they called on the engineer, who was for them a scientist in the truest sense. Misled by the ambiguities of their view of mechanics, they saw machines only as theorems in concrete form. The operations necessary to construct machines were only secondary considerations when compared with the all-important idea that the machine revealed their theories in concreto. To see this, one needed only to acknowledge what science could accomplish, and from there it was simply a matter of the confident application of that knowledge. However, I do not believe that it is possible to treat the biological problem of the "living machine" by separating it from the .. technological problem it supposedly resolves - namely, the problem of the relationship between technology and science. This problem is normally resolved by starting with the idea that, logically and chronologically, knowledge precedes application. What I want to show is that the construction of machines can indeed be understood by virtue of certain truly biological principles, without having at the same time to examine how technology relates to science. I shall address the following topics in successive order: what it means to compare an organism to a machine; the relationship between mechanical processes, and the results that might be achieved by using them; and the historical reversal of the traditional relationship between the machine and the organism and the philosophical consequences of this reversal.

zone

45

Machine and Organism

For those who have carefully studied living beings and the forms they take, it is rare - and only in the case of the vertebrates - that one notices any truly mechanical attributes, at least in the sense that the term is commonly understood by scientists. In La Pensee technique, for example, Julien Pacotte notes that movements of the joints and the eyeball can be paralleled with what mathematicians call a "mechanism."2 A machine can be defined as a man-made, artificial construction, which essentially functions by virtue of mechanical operations. A mechanism is made of a group of mobile solid parts that work together in such a way that their movement does not threaten the integrity of the unit as a whole. A mechanism therefore consists of movable parts that work together and periodically return to a set relation with respect to each other. It consists of interlinking parts, each of which has a determinable degree of freedom of movement: for example, both a pendulum and a cam valve have one degree of freedom of movement, whereas a threaded screw has two. The fact that these varying degrees of freedom of movement can be quantified means that they can serve as tangible guides for. measuring, for setting limits on the amount of movement that can be expected between any two interacting solid objects. In every machine, then, movement is a function, first, of the way the parts interact and, second, of the mechanical operations of the overall unit. 3 Mechanics is governed by the principle that every movement of a machi.ne is geometric and measurable. What is more, every such movement regulates and transforms the forces and energy imparted to it. Mechanics, though, does not work in the same way that a motor does: in mechanics, movements are simply propagated, not created. A rather simple example of how this transformation of movement takes place can be seen in several devices - a wheel crank or an eccentric crank, for example - that are set into motion by an initiallateral movement but eventually produce reciprocating, rotary movement. Of course, mechanical operations can be combined, either by superimposing them or adding them together. It is even possible to take a basic mechanical device, modify it and make it capable of performing a variety of other mechanical operations. This is exactly what happens when a bicycle freewheel clutch is released or stopped. 4 What constitutes the rule in human industry is the exception in the structure of organisms and the exception in nature, and I must add here that in the history of technology and the inventions of man assembled configurations are not the most primitive. The oldest known tools are made of a single piece. The construction of axes or of arrows made by assembling a flint and a handle, or the construction of nets or fabrics, are so many signs that the primitive stage has been passed. This brief overview of some elementary principles of kinematics helps to

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give a fuller sense of the problem without losing sight of a central paradox: Why was it necessary to turn to the theory of mechanism, as outlined above, in order to explain the living organism? The answer can be found, it seems, in the fact that this mechanical model of living organisms does not rely on kinematics alone. A machine, as defined above, is not totally self-sufficient: it must receive and then transform energy imparted to it from an outside source. To be represented in movement it must be associated with an energy source. 5 For a long time, kinematic mechanisms were powered by humans or animals. During this stage, it was an obvious tautology to compare the movement of bodies to the movement of a machine, when the machine itself depended on humans or animals to run it. Consequently, it has been shown that mechanistic theory has depended, historically, on the assumption that it is possible to construct an automaton, meaning a mechanism that is miraculous in and of itself and does not rely on human or animal muscle power. This is the general idea put forth in the follOwing well-known text:
Examine carefully the physical economy of man: What do you find? The jaws are armed with teeth, which are no more than pincers. This stomach is nothing but a retort, or heat chamber; the veins, the arteries and indeed the entire vascular system are simply hydraulic tubes; the heart, a pump; the viscera, nothing but filters and sieves; the lungs, a pair of bellows; and what are muscles if not a system of cables and ropes. What is the oculomotor nerve, if not a pulley? And so on. Try as they will, chemists cannot explain nature and set up a separate philosophy sim'.

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ply by coining a new vocabulary around words like "fusion," "sublimation" and . "precipitation"; for this does not at all address either the incontrovertible laws of equilibrium or the laws governing the workings of the wedge, cables, pumps as elements of mechanical theory.

This text is not where we might think to find it, but in fact comes from the Praxis medica, written by Baglivi in 1696, an Italian doctor belonging to the iatromechanical school. This school, founded by Borelli, had apparently been influenced by Descartes, although for reasons of national prestige, the Italians prefer to attribute it to Galileo. 6 This text is interesting because it treats the wedge, the rope, the cable and the pump as if they could be seen in the same terms for formulating explanatory principles. It is clear, however, that from the mechanistic point of view there is a difference between these devices: a cable essentially transmits a given movement, whereas a pump transforms a given movement and is also a motor - admittedly, a motor that returns whatever energy it receives; but, at certain intervals, it apparently has a degree of independence of movement. In Baglivi's text, the heart is the primum movens - the central pump that serves as the motor for the whole body. Therefore, a crucial element behind the mechanical explanation of bodily movement is that, in addition to machines that perform as kinematic devices,

zone

47

Thus catapults. including clocks " and watches. Those who look for Descartes's predecessors here usually cite Gomez Pereira. just as potentiality is explained by an act. at the moment it is utilized. As a result. In the same work. Desire moves the body. the idea of the body-asmachine actually goes back to Aristotle. the soul is the principle of all movement. a Spanish doctor of the second half of the sixteenth century: Pereira suggested. Despite their differing explanations of movement. who discusses the connection between the problems dealt with by Aristotle in De Motu animalium and those in his compilation of Quaestiones mechanicae. in the Timaeus. When Descartes looks to machines to explain how organisms work. water mills and church organs of the early seventeenth century. It is true that in Aristotle the theory of movement is somewhat different from what it would become in Descartes. When dealing with the Cartesian theory of the animal-machine. deriving their energy. that he could demonstrate that animals were wholly machines and that they do not possess that sensitive soul so frequently attributed to them. typical automatic machines of the period. before Descartes." or parts of war machines. and he makes his case in much the same way that Plato did when. Aristotle carries the analogy even further by comparing the movement of our limbs to mechanisms. and desire is explained by the soul. This idea is treated rather extensively by Alfred Espinas. it is unquestionably Aristotle who saw the congruity between animal movements and automatic mechanical movements. We can say. like the arm of a catapult about to launch a projectile. . especially catapults. It is this discrepancy between the storage of energy to be released by the mechanism and the moment of release that allows us to forget the relation of dependence between the effects of the mechanism and the actions of a body. 8 Aristotle draws a clear parallel between the organs of animal movement and "oTBana . According to Aristotle. seemed to be articulated like a human limb. he invokes spring-operated and hydraulic automata. he owes a great intellectual debt to the ideas behind the technical creations of his own time. for Aristotle as for Descartes later. although Baglivi's text seems linked to Descartes. " .Machine and Organism there are also machines that act as motors. from a source other than animal muscle. And this is why. he compared the movement of vertebrates to hinges or pivots. like those observed in instruments of war. All movement first presupposes immobility and then requires a prime mover or some motivating force. it is often difficult to decide whether or not Descartes had any precursors for this idea. the comparison of the body with a machine presupposes that man is composed of automated mechanical parts reliant on aQ energy source that produces motor effects over time and continue to do so well after the original (human or animal) energy has dissipated. as they were pOised and made to release their great stores of pent-up energy. 7 But in other respects.

is paralleled by an economic and political hierarchy in the cities. the hierarchy of freedom and servility. of art and nature. In two instances. of theory and practice.as in the launching of a projectile or the back-and-forth movement of a saw .a violent movement occurs when mechanisms are used against nature. at a deeper level. rather. it was not possible to conceive of such an explanation until the day that human ingenuity created mechanical devices that not only imitated organic movements . a permanent tendency to reproduce itself never obtains.which is to say. in which direction does it go? Or are we dealing with zone 49 . Here I must turn to the difficult problem of the history of civilization and the philosophy of history. Schuhl. of nature and art. The slave. or did the abundance of slaves due to military supremacy explain their low regard for work? Are we obliged to explain the ideology in terms of the socioeconomic structure or. who has shown that in ancient philosophy the opposition of science and technique paralleled the opposition of freedom and servitude and. but the nature of this relation remains obscure. I have asserted that an explanation cannot be formulated without the existence of certain conditions. the socioeconomic structure in terms of the ideology? Did the ease of exploiting human beings make it easier to disdain the techniques that would allow them to exploit nature? Does the arduousness of exploiting nature justify the explOitation of man by man? Is there a causal relationship at work here? And if so. namely. that as long as the concept of the human and animal body is inextricably "tied" to the machine. Is this tantamount to attributing a historical necessity to scientific explanation? How do I explain'the abrupt appearance in Descartes of a lucid mechanistic interpretation of biological phenomena? This theory is clearly related to modifications that occurred in the economic and political structure of Western society. the relations of freemen and slaves. With Aristotle. 10 This is the crux of the problem to which Schuhl only alludes in passing: Did the Greek conception of the dignity of science lead to their disdain for technique and the resultant paucity of inventions? And did this in turn lead to the difficulty of applying the results of technical activity to the explanation of nature? Or. it is not possible to offer an explanation of the body in terms of the machine. Historically. did the Greeks' high regard for purely speculative science and detached contemplation explain the absence of technical invention? Did their disregard for work cause slavery. This problem has been treated in depth by P. rather. 9 Schuhl supports this parallel with Aristotle's assertion that natural and violent movement are opposed .but also required no human intervention except to construct them and set them going..-M. according to Aristotle in the Politics. is an animated machine. i " then. and its characteristics are that it exhausts itself rapidly and never becomes habitual .

1 . In other words. for Descartes. well after Christianity had been founded as a religion. several classic texts have demonstrated that certain technical inventions that transformed the use of animal motor power . In any case. The success of these new ideas was. the horseshoe and the shoulder harness . which saw man as master and proprietor of nature. given that the Cartesian transformation in the philosophy of technique presupposes Christianity.ll Laberthonniere suggests that the determining factor here is ideas. humanist philosophy. man had to be valorized so that nature could be devalorized. price and wages could be determined simply by comparing the hours worked . as the exploitation of humans by each other was condemned on political grounds.accomplished more for the emancipation of slaves than did the countless preachings of abolitionists." but this is by no means certain. simplified operations requiring little skill produced the concept of abstract social labor. the division of artisanallabor into separate. Laberthonniere asserts that "time -does not enter into the question.. 12 He claims that at the start of the seventeenth century the qualitative philosophy of antiquity and the Middle Ages was eclipsed by mechanistic ideas.for example. preViously qualitative.. Next it was necessary to conceive of men as being radically and originally equal so that. However..Machine and Organism a global structure having reciprocal relations and influences? A similar problem is presented by Father Lucien Laberthonniere. there were increased technical means to exploit nature and a growing sense of duty to do so." as Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto. had become quantifiable. of escape into the hereafter. he qualifies his own claim: the physics and technique supposedly made possible by Christianity came. For Borkenau. on the level of ideology. . inspired by a contempt for the things of this life and unconcerned with whatever fruits technology might win for mankind in this world below. identical and easily repeatable movements. 13 Calculating work in purely quantitative terms that can be treated mathematically is claimed to be the basis and the starting point for a mechanistic conception of the life world.and the result was a process that. This analysis permits Laberthonniere to speak of a Christian origin for Cartesian physics. was in direct opposition to Christianity as humanists saw it: the religion of salvation. that 50 .. In Del (jbeI8an8 vomftudalem zum biiI8eIlichen Weltbild. who contrasts the physics of an artist or an aesthete to that of an engineer and an artisan. It is therefore by redUCing all value to economic value. Once labor had been decomposed into simple.. "to cold hard cash.. ~ . an effect of the economic fact of the new organization and expansion of manufacturing. Franz Borkenau argues that there is a causal relationship between mechanistic philosophy and the totality of social and economic conditions in which it arises. It was necessary to conceive of man as a being who transcends nature and matter in order to then uphold his right and his duty to exploit matter ruthlessly. Moreover..

"' I '. manufacturing at its inception meant the gathering together in the same place of skilled artisans who had previously worked independently. The key question becomes: How does Cartesianism account for an internal principle of goal-directed activity in mechanisms. Borkenau ignores five hundred years of economic and ideological history by seeing mechanistic theory as coinciding with the rise of manufacturing at the beginning of the seventeenth century: Borkenau writes as if Leonardo da Vinci had never existed. 1904. and one should avoid saying that he transposed the social phenomena of capitalist production into ideology. in water-driven machines and other related devices.' I . far beyond the wildest imaginations _ of the ancients . Borkenau's theses have been analyzed and criticized more forcefully by Henryk Grossmann. in lifting machines. Referring to Pierre Duhem's Les Ori8ines de la statique (1905). Galileo and Hobbes are thus the unwitting heralds of this economic revolution. one should say that Descartes made a human phenomenon . the mechanistic view of the universe is supposed to be fundamentally a Weltanschauung of the bourgeoisie. 16 O~ the other hand. As a result. . and the publication of Leonardo's manuscripts (Herzfeld. well before its economic rationalization. mechanics is a theory ifmachines that presupposes a spontaneous invention which science must then consciously promote and develop.-. therefore. Peladan. it is not the calculation of cost per hour of work. Descartes. The norms of the capitalist evaluation of production.into an integral part of his philosophy. Relying on Marx. The development of mechanization begins during the Renaiss~nce. For Descartes. then. had been defined by the Italian bankers even in the thirteenth century. 1907). Grossmann agrees with Seailles that with the publication of Leonardo's manuscripts it became clear that the origins of modern science could be pJlshed back by more than a century.15 It is.the construction of machines . Finally. 1906.and did most to justify and rationalize the hopes men had vested in machines? Above all there were firearms. which hardly interested Descartes except in terms of the problem of the projectile. but the evolution of mechanization that is the real cause of the mechanical view of the universe. Descartes was very interested in clocks and watches. The quantification of the notion of work occurs first within mathematics. as is implied in the comparison of a machine with an organism? zone 51 . Gabriel Seailles. moreover. Grossmann reminds us that although in general there was no division of labor in manufacturing properly speaking. 14 According to him. more accurate to say that Descartes had consciously rationalized a mechanistic technique than that he had unconsciously expressed the imperatives of a capitalist economy. Which machines did the most to modify the relationship between man and nature before the time of Descartes. Borkenau claims that the animalmachine gives rise to the norms of the nascent capitalist economy. According to Grossmann.

for already in Descartes the human body. and he must consider the whole of nature. if not man's entire self. I now intend to look at the beginning of his "Treatise on Man:' which was published for the first time in Leyden in 1662. whatever function it fulfills. Thus God not only gives it externally the colors and shapes of all the parts of our I Animal testing."21 And so we confront an attitude typical of Western thought.Machine and Organism I The theory of the animal-machine is inseparable from "I think therefore I am. On the theoretical level. 'on moving machines. devalorizing it in order to justify man's using it to serve his own purposes: "My opinion is no more cruel to animals than it is overly pious toward men. of a soul and a body. since we have no proof that animals judge. freed from the superstitions of the Pythagorians. 1970." The radical distinction between the soul and the body. 18 For Descartes. requires the affirmation that matter. 19 In the same discussion. 22 In order to see the full implications of Descartes's theory. He wrote there: These men will be composed. as solely a means to serve his purposes. nor must animals be denied sensibility."2o And it comes as no small surprise to find the same argument in reverse in a passage of Leibniz: "if we are compelled to view the animal as being more than a machine.that is. the refusal to attribute a soul.-- . a moral foundation for the animal-machine theory comes to light. I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth. ~ . and thought. Man can only make himself the master and proprietor of nature if he denies any natural finality or purpose. Descartes based his mechanical model on automata. was legitimized. because it absolves them of the hint of crime whenever they eat or kill animals. reason . to the extent that such sensibility is solely a function of their organs. Descartes views the animal as Aristotle had viewed the slave. though. is seen as a machine. and finally I must show how these two natures would have to be joined and united in order to constitute men who resemble us. does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that animals are not alive (since not much more than a warm. then the soul. whatever form it adopts. it is impossible to admit the existence of a soul in animals. 17 Because the only function of the soul is judgment. including the human body. are each an undivided substance. As I have already noted. beating heart is at issue). we would have to become Pythagorians and renounce our domination of animals. c.to animals. which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us. including all life forms other than himself. This is how the mechanical model of the living organism. that is. First I must describe the body on its own. the mechanization oflife only considers animals to the extent that they serve man's technological ends. between thought and extension. as we are. incapable as they are of language or invention. again on its own.

Thus. works to produce something equivalent to the living body itself. and the second that living bodies are given in essence before machines are constructed. but also places inside it all the parts required to make it walk. and the Idea is the model of which the natural object is a copy. The model for the living machine is that body itself. which is usually seen as a departure from the Aristotelian concept of causality. and so I think you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it. breathe. and so I think you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it. I propose to take the animal-machine theory. The first is the existence of a God who builds things. although only man-made. seem to move of their own accord in various ways. who is an efficient cause. What is more. but I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God. Divine art imitates the Idea . we see that in order to construct the living machine 24 it is necessary to imitate a preexisting living model. to understand the machine-animal. the theory operates by deception: it pretends to ignore the concrete existence of what it must represent. The platoniC Demiurge copies the ideas. one that only God can close. in the same way that a regular polygon is inscribed in a circle. and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it. The Cartesian God. enabling it to imitate all those functions which seem to proceed from matter and to depend solely on the interacting movements of our organs. and by a preexisting living model after which it is to be modeled or imitated. artificial fountains. it is necessary to see it as being preceded. by God. and it denies that what it zone 53 . that is." The theory of the animal-machine would. eat. The construction of a mechanical model presupposes a living original (Descartes is perhaps closer here to Plato than to Aristotle). This is the idea brought out at the end of the text: "but I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God. and that one must pass an infinite distance to deduce one from the other. If we read the text more closely. but not always in the same place or simultaneously. which is a formal and final cause. water mills and other such machines which. and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it.but the Idea is the living body. 23 Were we to read this text as naively as possible. logically and chronologically.i bodies. With all this in mind. but to pass from one to the other would require crossing over an infinite gap. and show how all of Aristotle's types of causality are nonetheless found in it. have the same relation to life that a set of axioms has to geometry. We see clocks. the theory of the animalmachine would seem to make sense only if we put forward two important and often-neglected postulates. the Art!fox maxim us. there is something of the machine in every aspect of life. In other words. nothing more than a rational reconstruction. therefore.

Descartes addresses the question of voluntary movement in man: he offers. but since this form is produced by technique. the body has no need of the soul in order to produce that movement. a year after the "Treatise on Man" had appeared. nor can mechanism and anthropomorphism. In "Description of the Human Body and All 0'£ Its Functions:' a short treatise written in 1648. the noted Nicolaus Steno. he notes that Descartes's man was man reconstituted by Descartes with God as a foil. "The soul. by viewing the body as a clock mechanism he envisions each organ driving the other like interlocking cogwheels. moreover. because he has concentrated it in its entirety at the point at which life begins. So Descartes substitutes for the image of the political chain of command . in the Dissertation on the Anatomy if the Brain delivered in Paris in 1665. On the contrary. For the soul to decide to move is not a sufficient condition to induce the body to move.:" 1\ ' " ."26 Descartes means that when the soul moves the body it does not act like a king or a general commanding his subjects or his troops as is popularly conceived. A technological anthropomorphism has been substituted for a political anthropomorphism. If the functioning of a machine can be explained by relations of pure causality. to achieve specific ends. since anatomists had not always been very accepting of Cartesian anatomy). the explanation that the body obeys the soul only on condition that the body is primed mechanically to do so. to produce a given series of effects. Rather. but that this was not man as the anatomist understands him. it seems that in doing this. This aspect of Cartesian theory. in terms so lucid that they were to dominate the entire theory of reflex and automatic movements up until the nineteenth century. A dynamic structure is replaced by an anatomical one. Howev~r. "' ~ ~ I ~ l ! J i 1 actually produces comes only after it has been rationally legitimized. was accurately assessed by a contemporary anatomist.j-' Machine and Organism I I ." writes Descartes "cannot produce any movement without the appropriate disposition of the bodily organs which are required for making the movement. in Descartes's attempt to explain life mechanically is that he eliminates the need to tie mechanism to finality in its anthropomorphic aspect. While paying homage to Descartes (which was remarkable. One can therefore say that by substituting the body for the machine. then. all possible sense of teleology has been confined to the technique of production. but in appearance only. one anthropomorphism has been substituted for another. A machine is made by man and for man. the construction of a machine cannot be understood without taking two things into consideration: a specific goal-directed activity and man himself. it appears that mechanical theory and purposiveness cannot be placed in opposition.where commands are passed S4 . 25 The positive element. Descartes removed teleology from life. In fact. when all the bodily organs are appropriately disposed for some movement.

This is a way of admitting that one can direct events without taking action . explaining organs or organisms through mechanical models amounts to explaining the organ by means of itself. that it can "direct phenomena that it does not produce.which borders on a kind of magical concept of direction. everything can be explained by the theory of mechanism. and it could even be said that. conversely. which mechanistic biologists use to argue their case. for it can be shown and I shall indeed try to justify this view . we need only view the question in another way: given that the largest-sized fetus exceeds zone 55 . Bernard replaces the notion of a vital-force-as-worker with the idea of vital-force-aslegislator or guide."z7 In other words. according to Descartes. every mechanism must'follow a precisely determined sequence toward performing some particular task. Machines do not construct other machines. and organs are tools ot machines. often considered a marvel of adaptation. surprisingly. through a type of magical causality . Therefore. purposive activity. in his critique of vitalism." in which a desired series of operations is activated by a controlling device or coordinated by a series of mechanical linkups. have a latent purpose. In short. 28 A tool or a machine is an organ. the opposition would be between those mechanisms whose purpose is manifest and those whose purpose remains latent. that of the woman's pelvis. while the pincers of the ' crab. since a mechanism cannot depend on randomness or chance. but the theory cannot account for the construction of the machine itself. namely. it seems impossible to deny that certain biological mechanisms serve a set purpose. it might appear that we have not moved beyond the idea of finality or inner purposiveness. On the contrary. which en.the technological image of "control. To deny that this enlargement might not in someway be the fulfillment of a fundamental. In the case of a lock or a watch. we are dealing 'w ith a tautology. in Le§ons sur les phenomenes de la vie communs aux animaux et aux vesetaux. No one doubts that a mechanism is needed to ensure that a given operation is carried out successfully. Descartes takes the exact opposite position of Claude Bernard who. a mechanical operation replaces the power of direction and command.' larges just before she gives birth.that machines can be considered as orsans if the human species. As a result. At bottom. and. The reason for this is that if we limit ourselves to the workings of the machine. Let us consider an oft-cited example. in a sense. with the Cartesian explanation. their function is apparent. then. but God has fixed the direction once and for all: the constructor includes the guide-controls within the mechanical process itself." by signals or spoken orders. implying that the overall operation transcends the execution of individual operations. And so it is hard to see how mechanism can be distinguished from purposiveness.but he does admit. refuses to admit that a vital force could have a separate existence because it "cannot do anything" .

simply on the basis of its form or its structure. since without this mechanism the act simply could not take place.within. Any individual part can be exchanged for any other part meant for the same place . The whole is rigorously the sum of its parts. they demand the same periodic intervention of human action. automaintenance. autoregulation and autorepair. It is a well-known fact . it would be impossible to give birth were it not for a loosening of the symphyses and a gradual rocking movement toward the sacrococcygien bone which increases the diameter ever so slightly beyond its maximum. economical rules. these are in fact machines that man has grafted onto another machine. The final effect depends on the ordering of the causes. and to unified standards of measurement and quality.machine. a margin of tolerance determined by manufacturing constraints. unless we already know how the machine or similar machines are used. And "allow" is indeed the word that applies here. The construction of servomechanisms or electronic automata merely displaces the question of the man-machine relationship without changing it in any fundamental way.and so need not be belabored . Standardization leads to the Simplification of basic models and spare parts. We are now at the point where we can see the historical reversal of the Cartesian relationship between the machine and the organism. As a result. While there are machines that are self-regulating. of course. It is understandable that one would not want to believe that an act with such a specific biological purpose is allowed to occur only by virtue of a mechanism with no real biological function. when dealing with an unknown mechanism. its construction is beyond its power and depends on the skill of the mechanic. which allows for the interchangeability of parts. Further. it is necessary first to see the machine at work before attempting to deduce the function from the structure. in the case of the machine there is a strict adherence to rational. As for maintenance and repair. It is well known that. Now that the properties of a machine have been defined in relation to those of an organism.that in all organisms we observe the phenomena of autoconstruction. We can come to no conclusions about how it is to be used. can one say that there is more or less purposiveness in a machine than in an organism? . What is more. In the case of the. Its maintenance requires the constant attention and watchfulness of the machinist. a machine functions within narrowly defined limits. and these limits become all the more rigid with the practice of standardization.that is. we have to make certain that it is in fact a mechanism . we have to know what ultimate purpose or function it is intended to serve.5 cm.Mach ine and Organism the maximum size of the pelvis by 1 or 1. for we all know how the complex workings of a machine can be irremediably damaged due to inattention and carelessness.

At that moment. In the case of the child who is less than nine months old. that in an organism. organs are polyvalent. One would surely agree that there is more purposiveness in machines than in organisms. In this case. any existing aphasia disappears very quickly. which we have traditionally believed to serve some definite function. Here is an example of the intestine behaving like a uterus. a given organ can zone 57 . because the other areas of the brain ensure the continuance of the linguistic functions. A hemiplegia on the right side of the child's brain is almost never accompanied by aphasia. Courrier made an incision in the uterus of a pregnant rabbit. all the placentas present in the uterus were aborted and only the placenta situated in the peritoneal cavity came to term.meaning that the function fulfilled by the corpus luteum during pregnancy was suppressed.at all to be taken as some sort of miracle . like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses. in comparison with the same qualities in the machine. Although this substitutability of functions and polyvalence of organs is not absolute.J i . in principle at least.. ultimately. I can give a very simple and well-known case. extracted a placenta from the uterus and placed it in the peritoneal cavity. it is a fact that after a gastrectomy performed to treat an ulcer. more successfully. one might even say. it seems that this definition of finality or purposiveness would be more applicable to a machine than to an organism. When the graft was performed. I need simply note the fact that for a majority of organs. then. One must be willing to acknowledge. the truth is that we have no idea what other functions they might indeed fulfill. A machine cannot replace another machine. and the more the machine's directiveness seems concentrated.and not. it is tempting to reverse one of Aristotle's formulations in his Politics: "For nature is not stingy. However. an organ of digestion.which came to light during a recent experiment performed by the biologist Courrier. the more the margin of tolerance is reduced. focused on a particular end. It is well known that functions in the organism are substitutable. at the College de France. that of aphasia in children. The more specific the end-result desired. she makes each thing for a single use. unidirectionally toward completing a particular activity. 30 As for the problem of the polyvalent organs. and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses. And I might also cite yet another example . This is the reason that the stomach is said to be. it is so considerable that any comparison is quite obviously absurd."31 On the contrary. This placenta grafted itself onto the intestine and fed itself normally. and perhaps. It was finally discovered that the stomach behaves like an internal secretive gland. since a machine seems to move uniformly. there are fewer problems with digestion than with those we observe with hematopoiesis. the rabbit's ovaries were ablated . 29 As an example of the substitutability of fu~ctions.

r. Life is experience.. I ~ : . Driesch took the sea urchin egg at stage sixteen and pressed the egg between two thin layers of cells. Hence the overwhelming but often misunderstood fact that life permits monstrosities. the more we seem to understand their functions but the less we understand their genesis. " . 33 Whereas monsters are still living things. Let us take the example of the experiments conducted by Horstadius on the egg of a sea urchin. any modification made in the earliest stages would tend to disrupt the development of the egg or prevent development altogether. Clearly.development. Ii . it is work in experimental embryology that has led to the abandoning of such mechanistic representations when interpreting living phenomena. while modifying the reciprocal position of 58 . whereas the living body functions according to experience. There is no mechanical pathology. However. it seems that the more we compare living beings to automatic machines. using certain and mathematical reasoning. Applied to Physiology and Medicine. then we would be able to deduce from this alone.32 Every aspect and every movement of the machine is calculated./". It is less bound by purposiveness and more open to potentialities. it does not contain any kind of "specific mechanism" intended to produce automatically one organ or another. According to a study in potential egg. and then he cut egg B. There are no monstrous machines."34 However. the complete shape and conformation of each of its members. life is tentative in every respect. and likewise. Speman and Mangold. acting as circumstances permit.. as Paul Guillaume remarks. as Xavier Bichat noted in 1801 in his General Anatomy. and the working of the machine confirms how each calculation holds up to certain norms. if the living organism were both preformed in the embryo and developed mechanistically. Horstadius. There can be no doubt that this was Descartes's conception as well. it would be possible to deduce from that what the semen is. there is no way to distinguish between the normal and the pathological in physics and mechanics. primarily by demonstrating that once the embryo starts to develop. with each part being vertically symmetrical. an organism has a greater range of activity than a machine. based on research by Driesch.d a good knowledge of what makes up the semen of some species of animal in particular. He joined half of A with half of B and the egg developed normally. meaning improvisation. reciprocally. 35 If the Cartesian conception were accurate. if we knew many particularities about th~s conformation. for ~xample man. this is hardly the case. it was shown that embryonic development cannot be' reduced to a mechanical model without running into anomalies. Above all. Only among living beings is there a distinction between the normal and the pathological. that is. measures or estimates. In his "Description of the Human Body:' he wrote: "If we hc.I Ma c hi ne and Organism I I j ~ ! i I I' I i accommodate a diversity of functions. He cut an egg A from a sea urchin at stage sixteen so that each part of the egg maintained a horizontal symmetry.

when two sea urchin eggs are joined they result in a single larva that is larger than normal. the result is the same regardless of how the characteristics of a factor are changed. on the other hand. As long as a machine cannot construct itself. whether they are dissociated or remain together. Whether the factors are multiplied or divided. whose first blastomeres develop in exactly the same way." Descartes writes. from our point zone S9 . and as long as an organism is not equal to the sum of its parts. it is illusory to deny the idea of purposiveness in organisms and to attribute it to automatic functions. I should add that the development of all eggs cannot be reduced to this schema. By removing the blastomeres. like those of frogs. In a celebrated text in "Principles of Philosophy. it is less important to explain the operation of a machine than to understand it. the egg developed normally. From the philosophical point of view. by using the cogs from which it is made. when a watch counts the hours. in which Driesch took blastomeres from the sea urchin egg at stage two. as does a regulated egg. "It is certain that all the rules of mechanics belong to phYSics. however complex we might imagine these to be. And to understand it means to inscribe it in human history by inscribing human history in life . if it is reversed. expressed in mechanisms that are themselves nothing more than an explainable fact of nature. still. And so we arrive at the point where the machine is seen as afact of culture. The quantitative change in a given factor does not lead to a qualitative change in the result. and mosaic eggs. 36 Thus. There is an even more striking experiment. either mechanically or chemically in sea water lacking calcium salts. to the extent that all artificial thin8s are thereby natural. This is yet another confirmation that the result is unaffected by the quantitative change in one of the factors. like the eggs of sea urchins. Conversely."37 But. Here. For quite some time there was a problem in knowing whether there were two different kinds of eggs at issue: regulated eggs. for example. The results of these two studies allow us to conclude that the same effect is achieved regardless of how conditions are varied.the cells at the two poles. Most biologists have recently come around to admitting that what distinguishes the two phenomena is simply that determination occurs earlier in the so-called mosaic eggs. the result was that each of the blastomeres gave birth to a larva which was perfectly normal down to the smallest detail. the regulated egg starts to act like a mosaic egg at a certain stage. On the one hand. Since. at stage two the blastomere of the frog egg yields a complete embryo. the experiment yields the same results. this is no less natural for it than it is for a tree to produce fruit. it might seem legitimate to think that biological organization is the basis and the necessary condition for the existence and purpose of a inachine. then.not overlooking the fact that with the advent of man there appeared a culture that was no longer entirely reducible to natural causes.

While it is true that the French have not tended to look to Kant as a philoso'pher of technique. The author in question is Kant. in his Critique ifJudBment. while a machine possesses motor power. they are thus the direct or indirect products of a technical activity that is as authentically organic as the flowering of trees. he acknowledges that all technique is essentially primordial. However. 38 J 1 I j 1 1 i j ~ . especially after 1870. Kant draws a distinction between human skill and technology." Kant distinguishes between the machine and the organism. But in an important passage of the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. as a matter of chronology and biology. This text is cited by Paul Krannhals in Der Weltsinn der Technik. that living organisms cannot be reduced to a machine and. but he certainly could not make one. it is no less true that German authors greatly interested in this question. And. There is no watch that makes other watches. it has no transformational energy that might propagate itself or be transmitted to an object outside the machine itself. as soon as we merely know what ought to be done and therefore are sufficiently cognizant of the desired effect. construction of machines took place well before there was any understanding of physics. What one is capable of doing. the process works with great efficiency even though there is no more conscious observance of the rules and laws of physics than there might be within vegetal life. even ifhe knows it completely." Kant defines the originality of human skill as it relates to knowledge: Art. regarded as human skill. each piece fulfilling some final purpose or design that at one time was only imagined or dreamed of. differs from science (as ability differs from knowledge) in the same way that a practical aptitude differs from a theoretical faculty. similarly. No part can replace itself. art cannot be reduced to science. Although the construction of a machine might presuppose at some stage the understanding of the logics of physics. may not therefore have the skill to accomplish belongs to art. Only that which a man. is not called art. have done so. each part exists for the other but not because of the other: no part produces another part. contrary to Descartes. another author has asserted. In the "Critique of Teleological Judgment. following Kant. we can and must reverse the relationship of the watch to the tree and say that the cogs and generally all the components that make up a watch are designed to produce a desired effect: all the parts of the mechanism are products of imagination. as technique differs from theory. while drawing on Descartes's favorite example of the watch. In a machine. as opposed to involuntary life processes. on a more fundamental level. nor does one part produce another part of similar kind. Camper describes very exactly how the best shoes must be made. it should not and cannot be forgotten that. and. And so.1 1 Machine and Organism "j i • ! J of view. which are marked by intentionality. And no machine can replace one of its own missing parts. no one part is produced by the entire unit. meaning that 60 . he states.

the question of practical human behavior and especially the invention of tools. The only philosopher in France I know to have posed these questions is Alfred Espinas. on the question of the construction of machines. as advanced by Alard Du Bois-Reymond in his EifindunB und Eifinder (1906). the earliest tools were simply extensions of moving human organs. the club and the lever extend and magnify the organic movement of the arm and its ability to strike. especially when it is used to explain fundamental inventions. the theory of the development of inventions based on the Darwinian notion of variation and natural selection. by Oswald Spengler in Der Mensch und die Technik. which dealt with the will. but the explanation certainly works for instruments like the hammer or the lever and all such related tools. whose philosophical bases go back to Hartmann's The Philosophy if the Unconscious and further back still to Schopenhauer. Espinas was able to explain the construction of the first tools. This is why the work of anthropologists (and not engineers) seems to shed more light. Kapp first made his theories known in 1877. and the ways these tools were assembled or grouped together. By borrowing the theory of organic extension from the German writer Ernst Kapp. the ethnographers have generally focused their attention on the relationship between the production of the earliest tools. then. their main concern having been chiefly the philosophy of science. independently it seems. On the contrary. This theory. but these are in fact as difficult to explain as the production of mammalian eggs outside the ovary. or again. under the guise of will. In France. In these cases.for example. however faint. has its limits and runs into certain stumbling blocks. we would search in vain for the body movements and the organs that fire and the wheel are supposed to prolong or extend. such as fire and the wheel. The philosophical path was laid out by the Germans 43 .it cannot be reduced to a simple question of rationality. by Andre Leroi-Gourhan zone 61 .and is taken up again. 41 This work includes an appendix. 42 According to the theory of extension. The flint. which presented the theory that machines are constructed as a "life tactic"44 . in his classic text on Les OriBines de la technoloBie. and in which Espinas addressed. 39 Indeed. ethnologists have come closest to creating a philosophy of technique in which the philosophers themselves seem to have lost interest. it was the ethnographers who sought out and compiled not only the facts but also the hypotheses from which a biological philosophy of technique could be constituted. the outline for a course taught at the Faculte des Lettres at Bordeaux around 1890. the first instruments that were used to act upon and modify nature. like all theories. 40 Currently in France. even in the event that the physiochemical composition of protoplasm and of sexual hormones had been made entirely clear to us." having their basis in instinct. we tend to see the skilled hand that adjusts a machine or the mind that carefully orchestrates a production process as examples of "ingenuity.

"It is machines like the wheel. there is no one way of explaining the working of that process . for lack of a better term. we would not have the locomotive. And so it would be necessary to understand the natural history of the development of the pump.how to pump water out of mines.where technical invention amounted to the application of a given system of knowledge. thereby allowing the atmospheric pressure acting as a motor to lower the piston) in order to see that the essential "organ" in a locomotive is a cylinder and a piston. the automobile and the airplane. I shall classify as Cartesian . the locomotive is presented as a classic example of a "marvel of science. just as the digestive process itself might be like the various specialized grasping or striking organs. the pedal. "that gave rise to steam engines and modern-day motors.since our view must change according to the circumstances. Leroi-Gourhan goes even further. but the defining characteristic is that it in someway manifests itself spontaneously. The underlying principles of mechanics were spread throughout twenty applications which had been known for many centuries.whether we view the material being digested or whether we approach the question from any given view of technology . the drive belt. as the culmination of an age-old problem. which extends substances out beyond its mass so that it might seize and capture an object it wishes to digest: If we are drawn to view the act of percussion as the fundamental technical activity. Traditionally. it is because we witness an act of touch or contact in almost every technological process." However. Leroi-Gourhan attempts to explain the phenomenon of the construction of tools by comparing it to the movement of the amoeba. pointing back to the wheel as one of the locomotive's ancestors. 49 62 . but even though the amoeba's expansion always leads its prey through the same digestive process."47 He then goes on to add: "The way inventions influenced each other has not been studied sufficiently and we don't seem to take note of the fact that. It i~ here we find the principle that explains invention.Ma c hi ne and Organi sm 1: in his book MiJieu et techniques. 46 Tracing a similar progression of ideas. without the wheel."48 Further on: At the beginning of the nineteenth century no one had yet recognized how to make use of the elemental forms that would later give birth to the locomotive." he states.45 In the last chapters of this work one finds a theory of machine that is altogether different from the traditional theories that. and a specifically technological one at that . in the biological sense of the word. All of the highest technological achievements of the most inventive minds of our time can be grouped around the circular movements of the crank. and to know about the fire pump (which at first did not rely at all on vapor but produced a vacuum via condensation under the pistons. the construction of the steam engine is only understandable when placed in light of theoretical knowledge that preceded it.

51 With Frederick Taylor and the first technicians to make scientific studies of worktask movements. From here on. each takes from the other either its solutions or its problems. But the realization that technologically superfluous movements were biologically necessary movements was the first stumbling block to be encountered by those who insisted on viewing the problem of human-body-as-machine in exclUSively technological terms. of the legitimacy of considering the industrial development of the West from an ethnographic point of view. brought about by a systematic understanding of technical inventions as if they were extensions of human behavior or life processes. this industrial technology appeared to take the form of a scientific rediscovery of the same entirely empirical procedures through which primitive peoples had always sought to have their tools meet the highest organic norms: that is. called an inevitable revolution by Friedmann. when it most closely approximated the movement of the body at work. is in someway confirmed by the belief that the generalized use of machines has slowly imposed contemporary industrialized society on man. then rationalization was. George Friedmann has shown very clearly the steps by which "body" gradually became a first-order term in the human machine-body equation. a mechanization of the body. 52 In this way. in which technology would adapt machines to the human body.we want to defend rationalism.and especially when . rather. . for all intents and purposes. we see how science and technique must be considered as two separate areas. they do not graft onto each other but. without irony or paradox. It is the rationalizing and ordering imposed by technology that makes us forget that machines have their origin in the irrational. 50 It must be added that the reversal of the relationship between the machine and the organism. As Friedmann saw it. In this area as in all others. that is. the systematic examination of certain physiologi~al. their tools had to carry out a given action effectively while maintaining a biological economy. 53 In summary. even when . psychotechnological and even some psychological conditions (since a consideration of values leads inevitably to questions at the very center of the origin of human personality) finally culminated in a reversal. If we see their aim as the elimination of all unnecessary movement and their view of output as being expressed only in terms of a certain number of mathematically determined factors. and this occurred at the optimum level. the human body was measured as if it functioned like a machine. by considering technology as a universal biological phenomenon 54 and no longer simply as an intellectual operation to be carried out by zone . Friedmann could speak. as when the body defends itself spontaneously from becoming exclusively subordinate to the mechanical. it is necessary to know how to accommodate the irrational.r In light of these remarks.

see his Capital. and the whole question cannot easily be treated lightly or recalled on demand. whether by virtue of its structure or of its functions. to inscribe the mechanical into the organic. One example of the fundamental principles of a general theory of mechanisms understood in this way can be found in Franz Reuleaux's Theoretische Kinematik: Grundziiee einer Theorie des Maschinwesen (Braunschweig: Vieweg. a tool is moved by human power while the machine is moved by a natural force.md that it is far more than a theoretical and methodological dispute among biologists. pp. It is no longer then. the mechanis- tic theory of the organism is now considered narrow and inadequate by those scientists who call themselves dialectical materialists. the CartesiaI) one. It is clear that ifhuman society has embraced the idea of a technology based on a mechanistic model. It will be my aim to show that the problem of machine and organism is much broader in scope and more philosophically important than is commonly thought. For everything concerning machines and mechanisms. than a teleological conception of the physical world. 3. La Pensee technique (Paris: Alcan. La Pensee technique. . see Pacotte. with no apparent regard to their lack of originality. on the other hand. trans. According to Marx. the implications are enormous. and. ch. as opposed to a solution that would see humankind as living in a state of rupture for which we ourselves are responsible because of science. a question of determining the extent to which an organism can be thought of as a machine. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers. the creative autonomy of the arts and skilled crafts in relation to all forms of knowledge that are capable of annexing them or expanding on them. But the fact that they still concern themselves with formulating a philosophical position could easily support the rather widespread idea that philosophy does not possess its own domain. that it is a poor relation of speculation. and must clothe itself in the hand-me-downs scientists have used and then discarded. . vol. 5. There is no doubt that this answer appears to lend credence to the list of accusations that all too many writers have offered up nostalgically from time to time. 1967). 1875) . I have attempted to shed light on this problem. After having been dogmatically accepted by biologists for many years. I have no intention of rushing to support their cause. NOTES '. 1. I am led to the following conclusions: on the one hand. 1. 1931). 3.I r I I Machine and Organism man. But that model is altogether different from the one just examined. Julien Pacotte. 374-79. suggesting that the mechanistic conception of the body was no less anthropomorphic. 4. 2. But it is necessary to find the reasons that gave rise to the opposite view. The answer I am tempted \ to offer would insist on showing that technology allows man to live in continuity with life. as they point out the faults of technology and progress. despite appearances.

Thomas Willis. trans. 1. 44ff.-c. Letter to Morus. However. 1555-58) . 702-15.U. and this soul has within it no diversity of parts: it is at once sensitive and rational too. In Descartes's "Principles of Philosophy" (4. Willis compared the nerves to powder lines in a manner that remains valid today in some quarters . in ibid. 23. 1986). vol. "The Cobbler and the Businessman" (in La Fontaine: Selected Fables. Henryk Grossmann. in Selected Philosophical Writinas.. Iowa: Peripatetic Press. 188-91) is an excellent illustration of the two different conceptions of work and its remuneration. Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writinas. It was an English doctor. 1938). 15. in Willis's view. ed. 879. in the muscle. 8. Jean de la Fontaine's fable. medicis ac theoloais non minus utile quam necessarium (Medina del Campo. vol. Correspondance. 1934). Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch [New York: Cambridge University Press. p. Der Uberaana yom jeudalem zum biiraerlichen WeltbiJd (Paris: Alcan. Les Etudes sur Descartes (Paris: Vrin. pp. 1649. In order to understand zone 6S . pp. but he did not look for an analogous explanatory principle for the animal organism in the explosion of gunpowder as a source of energy. Antoniana Maraarita: Opus physicis.. 1988] . Charles Adam and Gerard Milhaud (Paris: P.314]. bk." Zeitschriftfor Sozia!forschuna. Gerson (Grinnel. Apostle and Lloyd P. "L'Organisation ou la machine vivante en Grece au IVe siecle avant J. W M. Hippocrates G. who explicitly formulated a theory of muscular movement based on the analogy with what occurs when the powder explodes in a harquebus. "For there is within us but one soul. Jamie Michie [New York: Viking. trans." Revue de metaphysique et de morale (1903). John Cottingham. is the only thing capable of accounting for the phenomena of spasm and prolonged contraction observed by the doctor. 14. 18. Franz Borkenau.most notably. In·the seventeenth century. Lucien Laberthonniere. secs. Bayliss comes to mind. especially the appendix to volume 2: "La Physique de Descartes et la physique d'Aristote. 16. "Discourse on Method" 5 (AT 6. pp. there are a few passages that reveal Descartes to be equally interested in gunpowder. 21. For more on this. see Charles Victor Daremberg. 161-231.F. ch.). Gomez Pereira. 10. They produce a spark that will set off. 9. 4th ser. and all its appetites are volitions" ("The Passions of the Soul" 47. Nov. 7. 199-200). Schuhl. 8. Aristotle's Politics.6. 1935).56ff. 1870). it was also used to describe Descartes's theory of animals as machines before the nineteenth century when the above usage was in force TRANS. 236) . p. an explosion that. pp. 2.187 [AT 8A. 13. pp. Histoire des sciences medicales (Paris: Bailliere. 1963). 121-39. "Die gesellschaftlichen Grundlagen der mechanistischen Philosophie und die Manufaktur. 4-7.. Machinisme et philosophie (Paris: Alcan.-M. "Mechanization" here means the generalized use of machines to replace human labor. Feb. in Descartes." 12. 11. Letter to the Marquis of Newcastle. 19. 17. 1646. Alfred Espinas. p.. 2. P. trans. Nerves are a sort of Bickford cord. 2 (1935). 1979]. vol.

clocks. Letter to Morus. 1. p. 119-20). This phrase is a traditional equivalent of "the human body. 1931]. in Correspondance." especially in the eighteenth century TRANS . 22." in Philosophical Works cfDescartes [1913]. Leibniz exalts the superiority of German art. R. 83). vol. 50-62 Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes.. 2. 1927). 21. p. see "A New System of the Nature and the Communication of Substances" 10. Moreover. vol. in 66 . This passage is cited by Jacques Maritain in his Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers cf 'II l! Poetry. Eng. Ross [New York: Cambridge University Press. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (New York: Macmillan. trans. vol. 8. 397-401. It is important to point out that Leibniz was no less interested than Descartes in the invention and construction of machines. vol. 23. in Monadolo8. Leibniz's outline of criteria in particular. 1967]. Descartes. vol. and ed. 1649. 1678. Feb.: Cambridge University Press. 4th ser. 1984). vol. "Treatise on Man" (AT XI. T. 1985) .Machine and Organism adequately the relationship of sensibility to the arrangement of the organs. 1956). vol. Descartes can only express the meaning of God's construction of animal-machines in terms of finality: "considering the machine of the human body as having been formed by God in order to have in itself all the movements usually manifested there" ("Sixth Meditation. pp. Haldane and G. See especially his correspondence with Duke John of Hanover (1676-1679) in the Siimtliche Schriften und Briefe (Darmstadt: Reichl. 25. "Author's Replies to the Sixth Objections" 9 (AT 7. vol.: Cambridge University Press. pp. 2. 544). 156. in Gotifried Wilhelm Leibniz: Siimtliche Schriften und Briefe (Darmstadt: Reichl. trans. p. trans. 315. 2d ser. John Cottingham. which has always attached itself exclusively to the fabrication of lifeless objects made to be contemplated from without (ibid. Eng. Leroy Loemker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. which would allow us to distinguish an animal from an automaton. "Description of the Human Body and All of Its Functions" 1 (AT II. and also the profound reflections of Edgar Allan Poe on the same subject in his "Maelzel's Chessplayer. Joseph W Evans (New York: Scribners. should be compared to the analogous arguments adduced by Descartes.. March 19. Elizabeth S. Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes. trans. Bedenken von Atifrichtuna einerAcademie oder Societiit in Deutschland zu Atifnehmen der Kunste und Wissenschajten. trans. John Cottingham. 1985). Letter to Conring.. p. in The Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes. 24. [Darmstadt: Reichl. hydraulic machines. we must be familiar with the Cartesian theory of the degrees of sensej on this subject. trans. p. which has always strived to produce works that move (watches. 20. vol. 1.] 26.." On the Leibnizian distinction between the machine and the organism. see Descartes. over Italian art. 21. 1. 1. in Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters. 138. [Here the wording of the older translation is more literal than is the translation of Cottingham et aI. in The Philosophical Writinas cfDescartes. 294-96. and "Monadology" 63-66. 1926). 2. TRANS. 1.J and Other Philosophical Essays. vol. 225). as well as in the problem of automatons. p. 2. and so on). 1st ser.436-39). pp. 99. Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge. 1962). In a text of 1671. Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge.

39.. it would no longer be life" (Paul Valery. Cahier B [Paris: Gallimard.ll. Pichon. 2: Etudes cartesiennes (Paris: Hermann. 75-81). 36. in fact. 30. 1936) . Pierre Grasse and Max Aron. in his Mans Place in Nature [1928] (trans. _ 33." Travaux du Conares International de Philosophie. in Philosophical Writinas ojDescartes. p. George Hayward (Boston: Richardson and Lord. "Artificial means what is aimed at a definite goal.. 34. 28.F. p. 46-47. Politics. 1974). "Description du corps humain" 1 (AT II. [This pas age is omitted from the English translation of "Description of the Human Body and of All of Its Functions" TRANS . but it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves. For more on this idea. has remarked that it is those living things that are the least specialized that are the most difficult to explain by the mechanistic idea. bk. 288. Hans Meyerhoff [Boston: Beacon. Paris: Flammarion. Bernard [New York: Hafner. 1961]. 77ff. p. Le Developpement psychique de l'erifant et de l'adolescent (Paris: Masson. 1946). Krannhals. 225.¥ . Anything that succeeds in appearing in the form of a clear and finite goal becomes artificial and this is what tends to happen as consciousness grows. pace the mechanists. 29. Artificial or human or anthropomorphic are distinguished from whatever is only living or vital. p.. 4. Paul Guillaume. p. 22).203. see Raymond Ruyer. J. ch. La' Psycholoaie de la forme (Paris: Flammarion. in The Basic Works ojAristotle. trans. It is only with the growing differentiation of functions and the increased complexity of the nervous " system that structures which resemble a machine in some fashion tend to appear.. It is also true of man's work when it is intended to imitate an object or a spontaneous phenomenon as closely as possible. p. 1936). 845. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House. Le§ons sur les phenomenes de la vie communes aux animaux et aux veaetaux: 1878-1879 (Paris: Masson. Precis de bioloaie animale (2d ed. "An organized being is not a mere machine. p. eds. p. 1941). See also my study "Descartes et la technique. p. Physiopatholoaie du systeme nerveux (Paris: Masson. 1 (1252b). 32. 1936). 1951]. 1910]). And is opposed therefore to livina. 31. 1. If life had a goal. 225). Claude Bernard. 1937). pp. 11. 131. zone . it organizes them. for that has merely moving power. ?j 27. ] 35. 38. in Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. 37. 1932). Elements de psycho-bioloaie (Paris: P. pp.. General Anatomy. Ouevres de Descartes (Paris: Vrin. 1947). Der Weltsin der Technik (Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg. 1937). 68. p. ed. and Paul Cossa. Thpught that is conscious of itself makes itself into an artificial system . Max Scheler. 1128. See Ed. vol. H. 647ff. 1822).. . because in their case all functions are carried out by the whole organism. trans. and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion" (Critique ojjudament. 126. vol. Applied to PhysioloBY and Medicine.

42. Hadricourt on "Les Moteurs animes en agriculture" (Revue de botanique appliquee et d'aBriculture tropicale 20 [1940]. The starting point for these works must be sought in Darwin. at numerous junctures. and animal intelligence. I am alluding here to the excellent little book by Gaston Viaud.. See Eberhard Zschimmer's Deutsche Philosophen der Technik (Stuttgart: Enke. 46. p. 48. DeI Mensch und die Technik (Munich: Beck. The same view can be found in an article by A. in which the steam acted on the upper and lower sides of the piston alternately. 1877). Alard Du BOis-Reymond..U. vol. p. 41.R. Alfred Espinas. On the subject of the empirical succession of the various organs and uses of the steam engine. 68 i . The same idea is referred to many times in the Systeme des Beaux-Arts. 60). 104. 406. 1943). p. p.F.U. Milieu et techniques. consult Arthur Vierendeel's Esquisse d'une histoire de la technique (Brussels and Paris: Vromant.8) . Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (Braunschweig: Westermann. 1921). The Descent ifMan whose ideas Marx saw clearly as immensely significant. Ernst Kapp. houses in the coun- Ii• I tryside (6. 1. 47. 45.3.Machine and Organism 40.F. 100. vol. without noting that Espinas states explicitly. 1937). L'Int~lJiBence: Son evolution et sesJormes (Paris: P. that he borrowed it from Kapp.5). p. 1897). which summarizes Thurston's extensive work. which stresses that technique precedes theory. (Berlin: Springer. which was a classic in Germany. Leroi-Gourhan. attributed this theory of projection to Espinas himself. The double-acting engine. and we know that it was ignored until the middle ·]1 I of the nineteenth century. 1946). Evolution et technique. Histoires des techniques (Paris: P. 1906)." in Pierre Devaux's Les Aventures de la science (Paris: Gallimard. 1945).. preceded and followed by some others that are most pertinent to our problem. 6. Andre Leroi-Gourhan. Sadi Carnot's Rijlexions sur la puissance motrice du feu dates from 1824. 43." This excellent study sets out the principles for explaining tools from the perspective of their relationship to organic commodities and the traditional ways they were used. and Oswald Spengler. On this subject.5). just as the pump is at the origin of the steam engine. Alain outlined a Darwinian interpretation of technical constructions in a fine remark (Les Propos ~j d~ain [Paris: N. concerning the making of the violin (4. see Pierre Ducasse. EifindunB und Eifinder. For more about the history of Watt's work as an engineer read the chapter enti- tled "James Watt ou Ariel ingenieur. Milieu et techniques. Ibid. 2: Milieu et techniques (Paris: Michel. 762) : "We must not forget that we owe our inanimate motors to irrigation: the noria is at the origin of the hydraulic mill. 1945) . has remained so misunderstood in France that certain psychologists who took up the problem of how animals utilize tools. furniture (6. 49. and who took the research of Kohler and Guillaume as their starting point.F. 1920]. 44. was perfected by Watt in 1784. 1931). History if the Steam EnBine. Leroi-Gourhan. Les OriBines de la techn%Bie (Paris: Alcan.. This work.

The Life of Forms in Art (New York: Zone Books. notably by builders of systems for detection. a treatise of general organology. In particular. an aspect of the organization of matter by life: Creative Evolution (trans. Bionics. direction and equilibration meant for equipping planes or missiles.. The frog. 21. Translated from the French by Mark Cohen and Randall Cherry zone r . see L. And. although it is fed by science. be separated from it (pp. 369. 157-84. Invention etflnalite en bioloaie (Paris: Flammarion. A new discipline. This attitude is one that has begun to be familiar among biologists. balancing itself in flight by means of two vibratile filaments. who has considered mechanical invention as a biological function. 54. in some sense. See the article by J. if not the only one. 1989). 1946) . R. Ashley Andra and Cloudesley Brereton [New York: Holt. "Systemes biologiques servant de modeles 11 la technologie.. In his The Two Sources ofMorality and Reliaion (trans. Dufrenoy. It is impossible to mistake the impetus given to " these treatments by the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin. and Andree Tetry. 96. with its eye capable of selecting information that is instantly usable. pp. 329-30). p. Arthur Mitchell [New York: Modern Library. In many American universities. 53. 1941). Ibid. 1962). Bionics is the extremely subtle art of information that has taken a leaf from natural life. have all furnished models for this new breed of engineers. the common fly. 51. 1944) is. 1948) . 1945). The fact is that Bergson is also one of the rare ·French philosophers. 120ff. for which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seems to have been the instigator. On the subject of the relationship between explanation and action see also Paul Valery. with its thermoceptor which traces the blood of its prey at night. which emerged around ten years ago in the United States.' in Varifi"te V (Paris: Gallimard. Cuenot. Ibid. and his description of boat building in Eupalinos. Henri Bergson thinks very explicitly that the spirit of mechanical invention. special training in Bioengineering is available. studies biological structures and systems able to be utilized as models or analogues by technology. the rattlesnake. George Friedmann. Les Outils chez les etres vivants (Paris: Gallimard." Cahiers des inaenieurs aaronomes (June-July. read the admirable "In Praise of Hands" in Henri Focillon. p. if necessary.). p.50. finally. "L'Homme et la coquille" and "Discours aux chirurgiens.especially the latter's reflections on "Adaptation and Invention" (p. remains distinct from it and can even. Problemes humains du machinisme industrielle (Paris: Gallimard. 52. note. 1949]).

It is therefore appropriate to examine the simultaneous and successive elements of the notion of milieu each in turn. or social and economic history. psychology. as well as the successive reconfigurations of the relationships in which it takes part. though he never used the term other than in the plural. Inc. Houssay. whether in geography. in a sense. the notion and the term “milieu” are imported from mechanics to biology in the second half of the eighteenth century. from Lamarck. the many inversions of the relationship between organism and milieu. here. and finally the general philosophical impact of these inversions. It is more due to Taine than Lamarck himself that neoLamarckian biologists in post-1870 France. Costantin. such as Giard. De Blainville seals this usage. Historically considered. © 2001 Grey Room. 7–31. technology. Gaston Bonnier. initiate a synoptic study of the meaning and value of the concept. and one could almost speak of its constitution as a basic category of contemporary thought. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7 . Balzac opens the gates to literature in 1842. it is a question of using several approaches and engaging them in a critical confrontation with each other to locate. It is introduced to biology by Lamarck. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1831 and Comte in 1838 use the term in the singular. Rather. the two others being race and event. By “initiate” I do not simply mean the pretense of an initiative that would consist in taking a series of scientific investigations for reality and then confronting expectations with results. pp. and the word “milieu” is present in d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedia with its mechanical meaning. in the preface of the Comédie Humaine. all make it rather difficult to make out a coherent whole. and it is Taine who first uses it as one of the three analytical principles used to explain history.The Living and Its Milieu GEORGES CANGUILHEM TRANSLATED BY JOHN SAVAGE The notion of milieu is in the process of becoming a universal and obligatory means of registering the experience and existence of living things. Spring 2001. appears with Newton. For this reason philosophy must. but not the term. in the article of the same name. but the Grey Room 03. as is well known. Le Dantec. the historical stages of the formation of the concept. its diverse uses. the various usages of this notion from 1800 to the present. in an abstract sense.1 But until now. if possible. use this term. biology. The mechanical idea. their common point of departure and to explore its potential richness for a philosophy of nature that focuses on the problem of individuality. and Roule. who was himself inspired by Buffon. They get the idea.

was the first example of an explanation of an organic reaction by the action of a milieu. even in muscles. French mechanists of the eighteenth century called milieu what Newton meant when he said “fluid. in other words. in only one possible physical situation. impact. we can see that Newton was led to pose the problem of the means of the action. Newton considered ether to be continuous with air. that of contact. To the extent that we consider separately the body on which the action. Ether helped him not only resolve the problem of illumination. This. it would seem. 8 Grey Room 03 . According to Newton and to the physics of central forces. This is why we can say that in Cartesian physics the notion of milieu has no place. As a result. The notion of milieu is a fundamentally relative notion. It was therefore the action of a milieu that ensured the dependent connection between the spark of the perceived luminous source and the movement of muscles by which man reacts to this sensation. it is only because there are centers of force that we can speak of environment. is exercised. The fluid is the intermediary between two bodies. if not the sole archetype in Newton’s physics. Luminous ether was for him the fluid that served as the vehicle of action at a distance. In his Optics. was ether. It was perhaps Newton who was responsible for importing the term from physics to biology. since in this case they could not act without being confounded by this action. the article in the Encyclopedia cited above confirmed this way of seeing things. This explains the passage from the notion of fluid as a vehicle to its designation as a medium [milieu]. and to the extent that it penetrates these bodies. that is. but also explain the physiological phenomenon of vision and even explain the physiological effects of luminous sensation. in the nerves. In this way the milieu tends to lose its relative meaning and takes on an absolute one. that we can speak of a milieu. and one might say its ambient situation. it is their milieu. But it was difficult to extend the Cartesian theory of impact and contact to the case of separate point particles. something found in the eye. It was a problem that had not existed for Descartes. of a fluid strictly defined by physical properties. Subtle matter is not in any way a milieu. All of the examples of milieus given in the article were drawn from Newton’s physics.term as an abstract and universal one comes to them from Taine. the problem facing mechanics was that of the action of distinct physical bodies at a distance. they are situated within it. there was only one mode of physical action. This was the fundamental problem of the physics of central forces.” The model for this. In Newton’s day.2 Indeed. we may forget that the milieu is a between two centers and remember only its function of centripetal transmission. explain muscular reactions. transmitted through the medium. For him. It becomes a reality in itself.

” he never says “milieu” but always “influential circumstances. Lamarck always speaks of milieus in the plural. place. recall that Lamarck was Buffon’s pupil and his son’s tutor.6 Therefore.5 following Bodin. Shouldn’t the fact that two or more guiding ideas come together at a given time to form the same theory be interpreted as a sign that.3 The relationship between Lamarck and Newton is intellectually direct and historically indirect. At this point. and light. Machiavelli. When Lamarck wants to designate the whole set of outside actions that are exercised on a living thing. as Lamarck’s teacher and precursor in his theory of milieu. It is also primarily in this mechanical sense that Lamarck understood it. which had been kept alive in France by Montesquieu before him. of which Buffon was a lifelong admirer. The first is precisely Newton’s cosmology. as they are linked through Buffon. Buffon is positioned at the convergence of the theory’s two components. These are the components that Buffon brought together in his principles of animal ethology. combines two influences in his conception of the relationship between organism and milieu. The Hippocratic treatise On Airs Waters and Places can be considered the first work that gave philosophical form to this idea. and Arbuthnot. in other words what we call today the “milieu. air. in Les Etapes de la philosophie mathématique. We can. and the meaning determines the usage. and milieu are species. circumstance is a genus within which climate. to the extent that animal mores are of a distinct and specific character and that these mores can be explained by the same method that allows geographers to explain the diversity of the earth’s men. And this is why Léon Brunschvicg.And it is in a purely mechanical sense that one says that water is a milieu for the fish who move around in it. races. The origin determines the meaning.4 The second influence is the tradition of anthropogeography. the mechanical component and the anthropogeographic one. as different as they may seem when first used in the analysis. The Newtonian origins of the notion of milieu are enough to account for the initial mechanical meaning of this notion and the use that was first made of it. we are faced with a problem of epistemology and historical psychology of knowledge that is far more involved than the specific example that raised it. and peoples. they have a common origin whose meaning and very existence is forgotten when one considers the different pieces separately? This is the problem we will come back to in the end. in fact. for example. Buffon. wrote that Lamarck borrowed from Newton the physicomathematical model of explaining the living through a system of connections with its environment. This is so true Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 9 . and by this he specifically means fluids like water.” As a result.

given the organ. an equal relationship that allows us to determine the function using the variables. As for the case of the human species. find the function. that the action of the living on the milieu is practically negligible. if not of the term. and vice versa. with Comte (who has a perfectly clear idea of the origins of the notion. reckoning that it is simply negligible. 10 Grey Room 03 . And Comte ends up posing the biological problem of the relationship between organism and milieu as a mathematical one: “In a given milieu. as well as the new meaning he wishes to give it in biology) we also observe that its use will remain dominated by the mechanical origins of the notion.”7 However.that in 1838. for the living in general. it is quite interesting to note that Auguste Comte was on the verge of creating a dialectical conception of the relationship between organism and milieu. Auguste Comte believed that he was using “milieu” as a neologism and claimed the credit for introducing it as a universal and abstract explanatory concept in biology. true to his philosophical conception of history. of a reciprocal relationship between milieu and organism. He posits that “the ambient system cannot modify the organism without the latter in turn exercising a corresponding influence. except in the case of the human species. that would follow the Newtonian principle of action and reaction. It is in fact clear. And Comte says that from this point on he would understand the term to mean not only the “fluid in which a body is immersed” (which clearly confirms the mechanical origins of the notion). However.” But. Comte allows that through the intermediary of collective action humanity modifies its milieu. and the variables separately starting with the function. Comte refuses to consider this action of the organism on the milieu seriously. from a mechanical point of view. This is because he is looking for a very explicit guarantee of a dialectical connection. in proposing a general biological theory of the milieu in the fortieth lesson of his Cours de Philosophie positive. In fact. but “the sum total of outside circumstances necessary to the existence of each organism. Auguste Comte believes this action of the organism on the milieu to be negligible. I am referring to passages in which he defines the relationship between “the adapted organism” and the “favorable milieu” as a “conflict of forces” in which action is constituted by function.” The connection of organism and milieu is therefore that of a function to a set of variables.

being both continuous and homogeneous. heat. The milieu is really a pure system of relationships without supports. as we know. definitively consecrated by Comte. The now refers to the future.” These terms of “circumstance” and “surroundings” come from a certain intuition of a centered formation. and chemical elements.“all other things being equal. even a summary history of the importation of the term “milieu” to biology in the first years of the nineteenth century brings out the initial. From this point we may understand the prestige of the notion of milieu for analytical scientific thought. in his report to the Academy of Sciences in 1831.”8 The analysis of variables for which the milieu turns out to be the function is conducted by Comte in lesson 43 of the Cours de Philosophie positive. The quality of an organism finds itself reduced to a set of quantities. comes to him from Bichat. it is nevertheless formally rejected. then man. In short. it immediately succumbs to the prestige of mechanics. If the hint of an authentically biological acceptation and a more flexible usage appears with Comte. and so forth always ad infinitum. The theory of milieu appears clearly to Comte as a variant of the fundamental project that the Cours de Philosophie positive seeks to fulfill: the world first. but milieu abandons any evocation other than a position indefinitely denied by exteriority. a skepticism that. Circumstances and surroundings still retain a symbolic value. all factors capable of being studied experimentally and measured quantitatively. The equivalent of what this term designates would be “circumstances” in the work of Lamarck. These variables are weight. attached to a fixed central reference point. electricity. But there is still another lesson to get out of the use of the term “milieu” that is. spoke of “surroundings. as Le Système de Politique positive and La Synthèse subjective later suggest. we might even say. movement. with no definite shape or privileged position. despite the skepticism Comte professes elsewhere toward the practice of treating biological problems mathematically. an exact science that bases predictions on calculations.” the metaphor of the line or the indefinitely extendable plane. The milieu becomes a universal instrument of the dissolution of individualized organic synthesis in the anonymity of elements and universal movements. shapes that are still defined qualitatively and. beyond any question. wins out over the metaphor of the sphere or circle. strictly mechanistic use of the term. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 11 . Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. air and water pressure. to go from the world to man. the here refers to its beyond. If the idea of the subordination of the mechanical to the vital is assumed. When the French neo-Lamarckians borrow from Lamarck—if not the term in the absolute sense and in the Cyclidium. In the success of the term “milieu.

According to Lamarck. it is the river that makes them lead it. that the milieu dominates and commands the evolution of living things.” 9 We have here an example of what a strictly mechanistic use of the notion of milieu must lead to. the problem of the relationship between organism and milieu is dominated by the polemical opposition between Lamarckians and Darwinians. so to speak. initiates the effort to not be let go by its milieu. and it would be inexact to call it finalism. As long as these actions last. “Fish don’t lead their lives themselves.11 It is due to a need.” ||||| Starting in 1859. at least the idea—they keep only the formation by outside conditioning and. by action of circumstance or action of milieus. they are persons without will. but it is the living itself that. it is a naked vitalism. in other words with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The milieu is in this case really external in the proper 12 Grey Room 03 . the use or nonuse of certain organs causes them to strengthen or atrophy. we are imposing a meaning that is unwarranted. Descartes was saying the same thing when he said of animals. In reality. Lamarckism is not mechanism. in the end. Louis Roule was capable of writing. The life and the milieu that is unaware of it are two asynchronous series of events. a subjective notion that implies a reference to a positive pole of life values. “It is nature that acts in them through the medium of their organs. The change of circumstances comes first. It is enough to recall Costantin’s experiments on the shapes of sagittate leaves and Houssay’s experiments on the shape. changes in needs bring about changes in actions. In the end. that it does not know. In a little book entitled La Vie des Rivières.10 We have returned to the idea of animal-machines. the situation of the living in the milieu is a situation that we can call both distressful and distressed. Changes in circumstance bring about changes in needs. and metamerism of fish.singular. fins. the deformation of the morphological character and functions of the living. It seems necessary to recall the originality of these respective starting points to understand the meaning and importance of the polemic. we understand a direct action of the external milieu on the living. and these morphological losses and gains acquired by individual habit are preserved by the mechanism of heredity whenever the new morphological character is common to the two parents. Adaptation as the result of an effort is therefore neither harmonious nor providential. Adaptation is a repeated effort on the part of life to continue to “stick” to an indifferent milieu. Lamarck wrote in his Philosophie zoologique (1809) that if. it is earned and never guaranteed. There is an originality of life that the milieu cannot render.

as well as the appearance of new forms. It is foreign. in Darwin’s eyes. and a mechanism of reduction and criticism of the differences produced. “Naturalists are always referring to external conditions like climate and food as the only possible cause of variations. that is to say the appearance of slight morphological differences by which a descendant does not look exactly like his ancestors. Darwin has a totally different explanation of the environment of the living. According to whether we emphasize or play down this action. for Darwin. the struggle for existence [la concurrence vitale] and natural selection. no summary of his doctrine. conceived of as a collection of physical forces. the initiative of variation sometimes. to live is to submit individual difference to the judgment of all Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 13 . or even the direct action of the milieu (on the germ). an American neo-Lamarckian. variation. The fundamental biological relationship. he writes. The primary milieu an organism lives in is the set of living things around it that are enemies or allies. destruction. In this test of strength. no portrait of Lamarck. was truer to the spirit of the doctrine. This is truly vitalism because it depends on this dichotomy. In this sense we can therefore say that according to Darwin. they are only right in a very narrow sense. correlations or compensations of growth (for the young). accidental variations of morphology play out as advantages or disadvantages. Marcel Prenant published a certain number of particularly interesting passages. in the introduction he wrote for selected texts of Darwin. Cope. life resists only by transforming in order to outlive itself. In the introduction to Origin of Species. emerges from a complex process: the use or nonuse of organs (the Lamarckian factor concerns only adults). Life. This is manifest in his correspondence. it does nothing for life.12 Here we can see how much distance lies between Lamarckian vitalism and the mechanicism of the French neo-Lamarckians. Among the living. It trumps the relationship between living and milieu. At any rate. is the collection of functions that resist death. whether we limit ourselves to his classic works or on the contrary to the whole of his thought in the way it is revealed by his correspondence. To my knowledge.sense of the word. In fact.”13 It seems that Darwin later regretted having attributed only a minor role to the direct action of physical forces on the living.14 Darwin was looking for the appearance of new forms in the interplay of two mechanisms: a mechanism of production of differences that is variation. and defense are established. we get a slightly different idea of Darwin’s thought. relationships of use. On this point. said Bichat. is better than the one given by SainteBeuve in his novel Volupté. comes from the milieu. that is. prey or predators. unlike Lamarck. In Lamarck’s conception. but only sometimes. is a relationship between living things and other living things.

||||| At the beginning of the nineteenth century. as a result. first on one side. With Lamarck. In the polemic that pitted Lamarckians against Darwinians. that is. we are always judged and judging. 14 Grey Room 03 . This is a clear sign that the issue was poorly framed. and we know what he drew from his voyages and explorations. it is useful to note that the arguments and objections came under two categories and had two sets of implications. that in the body of work Darwin left us. who take life as a piece of data that they attempt to characterize without taking too much time to come to terms with it analytically. the thread that ties the formation of living things to the physicochemical milieu seems quite tenuous. there is less finalism than vitalism. mutationism. The synoptic vision that makes up the core of Darwin’s genius underscores Lamarck’s weaknesses. In fact.of the living. over the course of ten years Alexander von Humboldt published a book whose spirit is precisely captured in the title Kosmos. Darwin. these two genuine biologists complement one another. Both of these men were true biologists. and Darwin more according to interdependence. And the day a new explanation of the evolution of the species. then on the other. normalized by their nonpremeditated adaptation to new conditions of existence. These two authors brought together the traditions of Greek geography. was combined with an explanation that suddenly saw the appearance of specific variations as hereditary (an explanation that Darwin was aware of but that he underestimated) was the day that the milieu was reduced to the role of eliminating the worst without being involved in the production of new beings. two names sum up the emergence of geography as a science newly cognizant of both its status and its method: Ritter and Humboldt. and the Lacrymaria. This judgment has only two outcomes: either death or one’s recruitment in turn. Starting in 1845. Carl Ritter published his Geographie générale comparée ou Science de la Terre dans ses rapports avec la nature et l’histoire de l’homme. Darwin is more closely related to geographers. One life-form implies a plurality of other forms with which it is in contact. In 1817. uses the language rather than the substance of finalism (he has been sufficiently reproached for using the term “selection”). Lamarck thinks of life in terms of duration. for a time. The milieu in which Darwin imagined the life of the living is a biogeographical milieu. of Aristotle and Strabo’s science of the human ecumene. to the jury. with monstrosity becoming the rule and uniqueness a fleeting banality. we can say. But as long as we live. We can see. Finalism was denounced and mechanicism celebrated.

As a result. and descriptive biogeographical data.15 And finally Taine.science of the coordination of human space in relation to celestial configurations and movements. Humboldt was a naturalist and voyager who traveled several times over what one could travel of the world of his time and who applied a whole system of barometric. the idea of a historical relationship determined by environment was consolidated in geography. It begins with a history of Weltanschauung through a history of the cosmos whose equivalent could not easily be found in a work of philosophy. considered as a whole. Their object is all of humanity over the whole world. including the literary. leading first to Ratzel and anthropogeography in Germany. and other measurements in his investigations. geodesic. It is a critical commentary that is nothing short of remarkable. One has only to recall Le Tableau de la France. but also sociology and biology. climatological. contributes to the spread of the idea in all fields [milieux]. as we get further from the spirit of the founders) is coupled with a Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 15 . Kosmos is a synthesis of learning that focuses on life on earth and the relations between life and physical milieu. but is rather a step toward an intuition of the universe. human history is unintelligible without understanding the connection of humanity to the land and to the whole earth. as I have already mentioned. The approach to problems in anthropology and human ethology (an approach that is more and more deterministic. or more precisely mechanistic. and spreading to history through Michelet. One can summarize the spirit of this theory of the relationship between man and his geographic milieu by saying that doing history consists of reading a map. then to geopolitics. the mathematical geography whose founders we consider to be Eratosthenes. According to Ritter. Humboldt was especially interested in the distribution of plants according to climate: he was the founder of botanical geography and zoological geography. thermometric. Hipparchus. that is. and Ptolemy. geological. It is essential to note that Ritter and Humboldt applied the category of totality to their object: the relationship between historical man and milieu. The terrestrial globe. if we understand by map the configuration of a set of metric. As a result of their work. terrestrial space and its configuration are the object not only of geometric or geological knowledge. is the stable support for the vicissitudes of history. This synthesis is not an attempt to be encyclopedic.

in reality.”17 Similarly. it doesn’t receive. the notion of milieu first developed and spread in a perfectly predictable manner. It responds by muscular contractions to 16 Grey Room 03 . the organism itself gives nothing that. Albert Weiss wished to construct biology as a deductive physics.16 Watson assigned the analytical study of the conditions of adaptation of the living to the milieu as a program for psychology by experimenting with the production of relations of excitation and response (the coupling of stimulus-response). Once given a milieu. and he proposed an electronic theory of behavior. if not exactly contemporaneous. The biology of behavior is reduced to neurology. Watson’s ideas led him from a conception in which he simply neglected consciousness because he saw it as unuseful. There is no question that such exorbitant Cartesianism lies. and heaviness. who extended Taylorist techniques of time and motion studies by means of the analysis of human reactions. the living simply is light and heat. an organism determined by the “new milieu” (Friedmann). The reflex. to itself it is smell of rose. and thus we may say. Let us simply recall the work of Jacques Loeb and that of Watson. its power dominates and even does away with the influence of heredity and genetic makeup. it is carbon and oxygen. at the origin of the postulates of behaviorist psychology. in the physical milieu. along with Darwinism. The theory of milieu was the positive and apparently verifiable translation of Condillac’s fable of the statue: “To us it is a statue smelling a rose. The milieu finds itself invested with all powers with respect to individuals. is the simple mechanism whose constitution allows us to explain all behavior of the living. calcium. Generalizing the conclusions of his studies of phototropism in animals. In short. that its intellectual power was a function of the intellectual milieu in which it was formed. The determinism of the relationship between excitation and response is physical. A mechanistic explanation of the organism’s movement within the milieu succeeds the mechanistic interpretation of the development of organic forms. or more precisely its conditioning. to perfect the work of behavioral psychology and to ingeniously constitute man as a machine reacting to other machines. methodology in the area of animal ethology.parallel. is thus its condition. It was left to psychotechnicians. as a result of its origins. Loeb considers all movement of the organism in the milieu as a movement that is forced upon the organism by the milieu. and the latter is reduced to an energetics. its being in the world. to a conception in which he rejected it as outright illusory. considered the elementary response of a part of the body to an elementary physical stimulus. applying to it the methodological approach that it implies. The situation of the living.

from scratching to tickling. At this point. Vegetation is spread out in natural groups within which different species limit each other reciprocally and in which. we end up inverting the relationship between milieu and living thing. that man (I am speaking of humanity as a whole. We may here simply recall that the work of Vidal-Lablache. and we must. we see gestures. although we find that human response to the stimulus of the milieu is varied. to the extent that he exists in history. but they are objects. For this reason. which give rise to winds. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 17 . deeper cold waters rise to the surface and cool the atmosphere. But we may. complexes of elements whose actions limit each other reciprocally and for which the effects of causes in turn become causes. the geographic milieu with the physical milieu. etc.18 The same approach should be applied to animals and to man. he is a geographical factor. but they are displacements. for this methodological norm to be both pushed to its limits and ultimately overturned in geography. and that is something that cannot be separated from the whole of his value system. from leaking to bursting. centers. But the fact of seeing something as an obstacle at one time that later can become a tool is clearly tied to the idea. ask where the living is to be found? We can clearly see individuals. Brunhes. Demangeon. it relies on what he sees as desirable. and the cycle is closed and begins again. and the cause leads to the effect that it in turn attenuates. Geography deals with complexes. Trade winds displace surface seawater warmed through contact with the air. but they are machines. but they are environments. In short. in the strong sense of that word.19 In this way. This is a type of complex that we might also observe in plant geography. trade winds provide a prototypical example of a complex. as a result. The behavioral milieu coincides with the geographic milieu. The whole set of these plant species ends up constituting its own milieu. Man can find several solutions to the same problem posed by the milieu. ||||| It was normal. Of course the possibilities are not endless within a given state of civilization and culture. modifying the causes that brought them into being.sensory stimuli. man becomes a creator of the geographical configuration. each one contributes to creating an equilibrium for the others. The milieu proposes without ever imposing a solution. to the representation. In this way exchanges between plants and the atmosphere end up creating a sort of screen of water vapor around the plant kingdom that ends up limiting the effects of radiation. of course) makes of his own possibilities and needs. the low temperatures lead to low pressures. machine operators.

the same reversal has already occurred. and Watson led to Kantor and Tolmann. the presence of man’s true originality in the form of his sense of values. It seems essential to the movement of response to persist in a set of phases that can be mistakes or unfulfilled acts. according to certain orientations that are specific to it. Tolmann’s teleological behaviorism consists of researching and recognizing the meaning and intention of animal movement. Well before this. At this point. the psychotechnique of engineers that grew out of Taylorist philosophy has succeeded in locating an irreducible center of resistance. in his theory of trial and error. in one sense. because its existence as an organism consists in presenting itself to things. First explored by Kantor. the influence of pragmatism is clear and well established. The organism was considered as a being on which not everything could be imposed. Naturally. even when subordinated to machines. Pushed to the extreme limits of its ambition. The spirit of invention that brought them into existence has been alienated from him. Before him Jennings had shown. Dewey was to lead behaviorists to regard the connection between organic movements and the organism itself as essential. pragmatism served as an intermediary between Darwinism and behaviorism by extending the idea of adaptation to a general theory of knowledge and. contra Loeb. In the same line of thinking. by putting the accent on the role of values in relation to the interests of action. man is obviously subject to a determinism. In a human milieu. His productive efficiency increases the more he is aware of his centrality in relation to the mechanisms that serve him. that the animal does not react by the sum of molecular reactions to a stimulus that can be broken down into units of stimulation. the work of Friedmann shows how. cannot conceive of himself as a machine. the same reversal of the relationship between organism and milieu had occurred in matters of animal psychology and behavioral studies. Loeb led to Jennings. but it is the determinism of artificial constructions. but rather that it reacts as a whole to total objects and that these reactions regulate the needs that command them. in the new milieu that machines create for man. especially the distinction 18 Grey Room 03 . If. up until the moment when the reaction puts an end to the stimulus and reestablishes a state of rest or leads to a new series of actions that is totally different from the ones that were closed unto themselves. Man. one must recognize here the considerable contribution of Gestalttheorie.and Lucien Febvre and his school showed that man has no pure physical milieu. in another sense.

In fact. the specific behavioral milieu (Umwelt) is a set of stimuli that have the value and significance of signals. the organism-milieu relationship finds itself reversed in von Uexküll’s studies of animal psychology and Goldstein’s studies of human pathology. A living thing is not a machine that responds by movement to stimuli. Uexküll distinguishes between them with great care. and as a result it changes as the variables successively exchange roles. it is a machinist who responds to signals by operations. Umwelt designates the behavioral milieu that is proper to a given organism. From the biological point of view. If the living does not go looking for something. what the organism is for its component parts. between the physicochemical system interspersed within a larger whole and its environment. it lives in an interior milieu that is either on the scale of the organ or the organism. Umgebung. It is necessary. it is not enough that physical stimuli be produced. in other words. The individuality of the living does not come to an end at its ectodermal boundaries. A reading of Uexküll and Goldstein can contribute a great deal to mapping out this reasoning. The stimulus does not proceed from the object. which organism itself lives in a milieu that is for it. and Welt is the scientific universe. Umgebung is the simple geographical environment. Each of these illustrate the reversal with a clarity that comes from a completely philosophical approach to the problem. To act on a living thing. this does Neobursaridium.20 Finally. even from a materialist point of view we can speak of the interaction between the living and the milieu. to impose a milieu upon it. it gets nothing.21 Let us take the terms Umwelt. but from this interest. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 19 . for the stimulus to be effective. one must understand that between organism and environment there is the same relationship that exists between the parts and the whole within the organism itself. We can therefore move toward using a biological reasoning to evaluate biological problems. As a result. to the extent that a stimulus acts on the living. Uexküll and Goldstein agree on this fundamental point: that to study a living thing under experimentally constructed conditions is to create a milieu for it. The cell is a milieu for intracellular elements. The biological relationship between the being and its milieu is a functional one. Of course. they must also be noticed. it is a fundamental characteristic of the living thing that it makes its own milieu. Naturally. that it be anticipated by the subject’s attitude.between behavioral milieu and geographical milieu that we owe to Koffka. it presupposes an orientation of its interest. For the living. But talk of interaction is not enough to offset the difference that exists between a relationship of a physical type and one of a biological type. in a sense. and Welt. no more than it begins at the level of the cell. it builds one for itself.

and guided by its sense of touch. but climbs back up to its observation post. Like this Umgebung. mature. The question is rather to be found in the fact that out of the exuberance of the physical milieu. and sucks the blood. Ticks grow by imbibing the warm blood of mammals. Uexküll reverses the relationship and says: time and favorable circumstances exist only in relation to a specific living thing. the adult female climbs to the end of a tree branch and waits. ticks have stayed alive. as a producer of stimuli whose number is theoretically unlimited. it lets itself fall. It is only at the moment when the mammal’s blood enters its stomach that the tick’s eggs (encapsulated since the moment of coupling and able to remain encapsulated for eighteen years) open up. Along with Buffon. It should be noted that. for a considerable amount of time. and grow. in a sense. At the Institute of Zoology in Rostock. Once the tick has fallen on the animal. At the root of this organization of the Umwelt we must conceive of a subjectivity that is analogous to the one we are bound to think of as being at the root of the human Umwelt. it attaches itself to it. the problem is elsewhere. If the odor of rancid butter has been produced artificially. that is. What guides it is the odor of rancid butter that emanates from the animal’s cutaneous glands. The tick can live eighteen years to complete its reproductive function in a few hours. it looks preferably for areas of the skin that are hairless. ordered. the geographical environment. in a state of inanition. One of the most compelling examples cited by Uexküll is the Umwelt of the tick. this geographical environment that is external to the animal is. Its biorhythm orders the temporality of this Umwelt. Umwelt is therefore a voluntary sample drawn from the Umgebung. When a mammal passes under the tree. for example. It attaches to the animal because of its sense of heat. the animal retains only a few signals (Merkmale).not mean that one should call into question the fact that there are reflexes whose mechanism is physicochemical. This is the only stimulus that can set off the falling motion. Lamarck said: time and favorable circumstances constitute the living little by little. Similarly. the animal’s Umwelt is nothing other than a milieu centered around the subject of life values that makes up the essential part of what constitutes the living. closed up. 20 Grey Room 03 . centered. It can wait eighteen years. The only reason it attaches to the animal is its blood temperature. the usual world of his practical perspective and experience. it digs in just beyond the head. just as it orders its space. This is the first step. under the tick’s hunting and trapping post. the tick can remain totally indifferent. and oriented by a human subject (that is to say a creator of techniques and values). the tick does not attach itself. For the biologist. for eighteen years. But the environment is precisely nothing other than man’s Umwelt. on a table. After coupling.

The relations between the living and the milieu as they are studied experimentally and objectively are of all possible relations those that have the least biological significance: they are pathological relations. An organism is therefore never equal to the theoretical sum of its possibilities. it is to organize a milieu starting from a central reference point that cannot itself be referred to without losing its original meaning. The animal finds it easier to do what it favors: it follows its own norms of living. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 21 . the physicochemical analysis of the living can and should be undertaken. It has a theoretical and practical interest. Goldstein says that “the meaning of an organism is its being”. The relationship established between the living and the milieu is like a debate (Auseinandersetzung) in which the living brings its own norms of appreciating the situation. We cannot understand its action without thinking of it in terms of a privileged form of behavior. Those are things that characterize the pathological state. This relationship does not consist primarily.23 A healthy life. as one might think. and its individuality not as an object.22 A confrontation with the work of Goldstein was inevitable. translate the domination of the exterior onto the organism. “Privileged” does not mean objectively simpler in this case. but as a term within the order of values. of a struggle or a confrontation. we may say that the being of the organism is its meaning. The situation of the living demanded by the milieu from the outside is what Goldstein holds up as the prototype of a catastrophic situation. A life that affirms itself in opposition is already a life threatened.insensitive to all stimuli coming from a milieu like the forest. where it is in command of the milieu and accommodates itself to it. But this constitutes a chapter of physics. This orientation depends on the meaning of a situation as it is perceived in its entirety. a life that is confident in its existence and in its values. Everything remains to be done in biology. to the exclusion of all others. The reaction is always a function of the opening of the senses to stimuli and its orientation relative to them. is the odor of rancid butter. To live is to spread out. it is neither necessary nor of its own choosing. This is the situation of the living in the laboratory. Movements involving strength. as for example extensive muscular reactions. An animal in an experimental setting is in an abnormal situation that is imposed upon it. The reflex is not an isolated or gratuitous reaction. Separate stimuli may have meaning in the social sciences. and that the only stimulus capable of setting off its movement. but they mean nothing when it comes to the senses of a living thing. it is rather the opposite. since his theory is based on a critique of the mechanical theory of reflexes. Biology must therefore first consider the living as a meaningful being. Of course. is a life that extends itself yet that is also almost gentle in its flexibility.

e. In the process of creating the science of genetics. polemics around the indignant repudiation of genetic “pseudo-science” by the Russian biologists that Lysenko had brought back to the “healthy method” of Mitchourine (1855–1935). as much as scientific. perhaps too easily underscoring the distinction between organism and environment. At first critics emphasized the fact that nucleoplasmatic disharmony tends to limit the hereditary omnipotence of genes.While the reversal of the organism-milieu relationship was being completed in animal ethology and in behavioral studies. In sexual reproduction. The precocious isolation of a germinating plasma in the course of ontogenesis would nullify the influence of somatic modifications determined by the milieu on the evolution of the species. if it is true that the two parents each provide half of the genes. but in fact of realization. Finally. the mother provides cytoplasm for the egg. a revolution was occurring in the way that morphological characteristics were being used to explain the autonomy of the living relative to the milieu. Given that the mixed offspring of two different species are not the same. H.. I am alluding here to the now very well known work of Bateson. properly speaking. depending on whether one or the other species is represented by the father or the mother. of the living depends on its particular hereditary potential and that the action of the milieu on phenotype leaves genotype unchanged. an agent of formation. Experiments on the vernalization of cultivated plants like wheat and rye led Lysenko to claim that hereditary modifications can be obtained Pennate diatoms.24 And Caullery concluded his study of The Present State of the Problem of Evolution25 by recognizing that evolution depends much more on the intrinsic properties of organisms than on the surrounding milieu. and their collaborators. these thinkers ended up claiming that in a given milieu the acquisition of the form. Thomas Morgan.26 Yet we know that the idea of the total autonomy of hereditary genetic assortment did not go without criticism. Lamarckism has become topical once again thanks to the ideological. Müller.” by invoking the multiformity of sea creatures within an identical milieu in support of his argument. The genetic explanation of heredity and evolution (i. Müller’s experiments (1927) provoking mutations in Drosophila by the action of a milieu of penetrating radiation (X rays) seemed to shed some light on the external conditioning of an organic phenomenon. In addition to this. the theory of mutation) converged with Weissman’s theory. Cuénot. and therefore the function. H. who took up and extended Gregor Mendel’s research on hybridization and heredity. 22 Grey Room 03 . we are led to suppose that the power of genes differs as a function of the cytoplasmic milieu. In his book La Vie créatrice des Formes. Albert Brachet wrote that “the milieu is not.

for better or worse. which means both pain and impatience. Biological response far outweighs physical stimulation. the living situates itself absolutely. It justifies hope in an experimental renewal of human nature. as we have seen. By rooting adaptive phenomena in necessity. at first sight. it appears. As a result. it should be said that according to Lysenko. Theory and praxis are indissociable. and the latter is dependent on the conditions of existence. needs. as is required by Marxist-Leninist dialectics. To the extent that we can summarize complex experimental findings. heredity is dependent on metabolism. ambitions to completely dominate nature and the possibility of intentionally altering living species. we can see how genetics could be charged with all of the sins of racism and slavery and how Mendel was presented as the leading spokesman for a retrograde. aspect of the problem is crucial. Lamarck was focusing on the point where life coincides with its own meaning. the counterexperiments and criticisms that are the norm in matters of scientific discussion. and continuous reactions. This is because the essence of Lamarck’s ideas. regardless of their authors’ inability to accept. that is to say agronomic. to be progressive. In this way. the recognition of the determining influence of the milieu has a political and social impact in that it authorizes man’s unlimited action upon himself through the medium of the milieu. It is clear that the return to legitimacy of theories of the heredity of acquired characteristics does not in itself authorize us to unreservedly qualify the recent Soviet biological theories as Lamarckian. of course. capitalist. let alone tolerate. leading to the dislocation or rupture of the hereditary constitution of the organism that geneticists had falsely imagined to be stable. in Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 23 . all of which things lie. Heredity is to be seen here as the assimilation of outside conditions by the living over successive generations. and climatic conditions. where through its sensory experience. Finally and above all. upkeep. Mendelian theories of heredity tend to moderate human.and consolidated by variations in feeding. and even idealist biology.27 It seems that the technical. and specifically Soviet. Remarks of an ideological nature concerning these facts and this theory actually help clarify its meaning. The milieu provokes the organism to orient its own development. outside of my realm of competence. consists in attributing the organism’s adaptation to the milieu to its own initiative. In justifying the spontaneous character of mutations.

a decentered 24 Grey Room 03 . centered on the situation of a privileged living thing: man. as well as how dramatic the conflict was between the organic conception of the world and the conception of a universe that was decentered relative to the center privileged in the classical world. degree by degree. in the final analysis. Greek geography had its own philosophy. in La Dégénération des Animaux. that is. It is the theory of universal sympathy. and Hipparchus. since it included in itself the astronomical component. and the representation of this totality in the form of a sphere.” used by Lamarck. the one Newton had converted to a theory of celestial mechanics. astronomy. The terms “influences” and “influential circumstances. speaks of the “tint” of the sky that takes man so long to perceive. We know what happened to the notion of cosmos with the appearance of Copernicus. This biocentric conception of the cosmos carried over from the Middle Ages to blossom in the Renaissance. are undeniable. The mapping of parts of the earth and the subordination of a mapped area to the sky were understood in the astrobiological intuition of the cosmos.existence: the indivisible totality of organism and milieu. With Lamarck. This theory supposes the assimilation of the totality of things to an organism. take their meaning from astrological concepts. Even the notion of “climate” in the eighteenth28 and early nineteenth centuries is a unified notion common to geography. For in the beginning geography was for the Greeks the projection of the sky onto the earth. from equator to pole. the notions of “circumstances” and “surroundings” have an altogether different meaning than they have in normal language. as is the case among the first theorists of milieu. he is using. the coming together of earth and sky.29 The intellectual relations between Posidonius on one hand. it is also the influence exercised by the sky on the earth. With Galileo and also Descartes it became necessary to choose between two theories of milieu. and astrology. theories of space: a centered space. and Ptolemy on the other. that of the Stoics. The anthropogeographic component could even be considered to make up the whole idea. Climate is the change in appearance of the sky. I have already indicated that the biological notion of milieu at first brought together an anthropogeographic component and a mechanical one. centered disposition. These words genuinely evoke a spherical. no doubt unconsciously. a term borrowed from Paracelsus. a vitalist intuition of universal determinism. the earth of the living and of man. a correspondence that went in two directions at the same time: a topographical correspondence (geometry and cosmography) and a hierarchical correspondence (physics and astrology). and Galileo. Strabo. When Buffon. that gives its meaning to the geographical theory of the milieu. defined as being where the mi-lieu is a center. Kepler.

both retain. Newtonian space and ether. the milieu is the state in which nature placed us. any more than we can know the whole without particularly knowing the parts.” Pascal is paradoxically using an image borrowed from the theosophic tradition to try to reconcile the new scientific conception that sees the universe as an infinite and undifferentiated milieu and the ancient cosmological vision that sees the world as a finite whole connecting to its center. Newtonian science. a milieu between nothing and everything. but the eternal silence of infinite spaces frightened him.” We may observe that three meanings of the word “milieu” come into play here: a median situation. shows the ambiguity of the term well in a spirit that cannot or will not choose between its existential security and the demands of scientific knowledge.” was universally recognized. It was in developing this last meaning that Pascal revealed his organic conception of the world. Pascal’s famous text.30 Pascal knew that the cosmos had shattered into pieces. Man was no longer at the center [au milieu] of the world. man is in proportion with the parts of the world. the first as a means for the omnipresence of God. heat and food to nourish him. Empiricism masks its theological foundations.31 Before Newton. a fluid of suspension. an absolute character that eighteenth. as we know. movement to live. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 25 . Disproportion de l’Homme. defined as being where the mi-lieu is an intermediary field. . the circumference nowhere. the symbolic representation of the potential ubiquitousness of a spreading action starting from a central point described in the neo-Platonic cosmology of Jacob Boehme and Henry More. It has been established that the image used here by Pascal is a permanent myth of mystic thought of neo-Platonic origin in which an intuition of the spherical world centered in and by the living and the already heliocentric cosmology of the Pythagoreans are reconciled. he relates to all that he knows: “He needs a place to contain him. I hold that it is impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole. time in which to endure. we are floating on a vast milieu. a life environment.” And when he defines the universe as “an infinite sphere in which the center is everywhere. a milieu between two extremes). everything is his ally. and in the end. is itself founded on metaphysics. elements to make him up. which was to anchor so many empiricist and relativist professions of faith. helped and helping. the second as a medium and vehicle of forces.space. and all intertwined by a natural and insentient connection that links the most distant and different among them. “the Cambridge Platonist. but he is a milieu (a milieu between two infinites. a return to stoicism that went both beyond and against Descartes: “All things being caused and causal.and nineteenth-century scholars failed to remark upon. air to breath . . mediated and immediate.

Sensory data are disqualified. a center. anything but signals or stimuli. This occurs in such a way that the environment he is supposed to be reacting to finds itself originally centered in and by him. quantified. in other words an internally regulated system in which reactions are controlled by an internal cause: immediate necessity. finds itself anchored by in fact. “it is physics that is not an exact science. several living things draw their own specific and singular milieu. carve out certain objects. as Claparède wrote. man does not escape the general law of the living. relative to it. the mystical intuition of a sphere of energy in which the central action is uniformly present and efficient at every point.32 ||||| If today it seems normal to anyone trained in the mathematical and physical disciplines that the objectivity of knowledge requires a decentering of perspective. situate them relative to each other and all of them in relation to himself. Haldane in The Philosophy of a Biologist.And in this way the natural philosophy or the positivist and mechanistic conception of milieu has as its source. The essential function of science is to devalue the qualities of objects that make up the milieu proper. The milieu that is proper to man is the world of his perception.” Indeed. But man the scholar constructs a universe of phenomena and laws that he holds up as absolute. That which is imperceptible is first placed under suspicion. milieu. What the milieu gives to the living is a function of its demand. S. as a living thing.”33 In this sense. and identified. the moment also finally seems to have arrived where. “What distinguishes the animal is the fact that he is a center relative to surrounding forces that are no longer. For that matter. that is to say nonhuman. according to the formulation of J. from the perspective of biology. then exposed and avowed. that is to say the field of his practical experience in which his actions. This is why within what appears to man to be a unique milieu. the milieu on which the organism depends is structured and organized by the organism itself. oriented and regulated by values that are immanent to his tendencies. by offering itself as a general theory of the real. Measurements are substituted 26 Grey Room 03 .

it would be necessary to admit the absurd proposition according to which reality contains the science of reality within itself a priori. adaptation. if it is a fact in the world while also being a vision of the world. And as is well known. in which this recognition is as such necessarily accompanied by the disqualification of all subjective understandings of milieu as illusions or errors of life. A center does not dissolve into its environment. that is to say that it must include the living human himself. including those of man. this universe of man the scholar. to the universal milieu made up of elements and movements authenticated by science. laws for habits. of which Einstein’s physics is the ultimate representation (a universe in which fundamental equations of intelligibility are the same regardless of the system of reference) because it maintains a direct. In fact. and the objective for the subjective.for appreciations. endows this milieu with a sort of privilege over the milieus that are proper to other living things. Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 27 . But if science is the work of a humanity that is rooted in life before being enlightened by knowledge. For the birth. And we would then have to ask what need that has its origins in reality is truly being served by the ambition to scientifically determine that same reality. The qualification of “real” can only be applied rigorously to an absolute universe. These ideas Amoeba proteus. development. A living thing does not reduce itself to an intersection of influences. physical. and progress of science must be seen as a remarkably audacious enterprise if we are rightfully to deny the innate genius of humanity. if negating and reductive. from the point of view of scientism and even materialism. But we must then ask ourselves from a philosophical point of view if the origins of science do not better reveal its meaning than the pretensions of a few scholars. Living man takes from his relationship with man the scholar. and chemical environment must be complete. And therefore man’s proper milieu is not situated in the universal milieu like a thing contained within its container. and invention that are living things into the anonymity of the mechanical. causality for hierarchy. a sort of unconscious fatuousness that leads him to prefer his own milieu to that of other living things as having not only a different value. The pretension of science to dissolve these centers of organization. this project has not seemed too audacious to many thinkers. then it perpetuates a permanent and necessary relationship with perception. If we do not. the milieu of man’s sensory and technical values does not in itself have more reality than the milieu proper to a wood louse or a grey mouse. but a higher degree of reality. in whose work ordinary perceptive experience finds itself contradicted and corrected. relationship with the living man’s proper milieu. as a proper milieu of behavior and life. In fact.

from the biological and psychological point of view. an irreducible system of reference. 28 Grey Room 03 . for whoever feels it and lives it. A meaning. And a need is.point to the inadequacy of any biology that would eliminate any consideration of meaning from its domain out of an utter submissiveness to the spirit of the physicochemical sciences. is an appreciation of values in relation to a need. and for that reason it is absolute.

I have chosen to translate the author’s le vivant as “the living. 2. 1992). Vrin. A striking summary of this thesis can be found in Houssay’s Force et Cause (Paris: Flammarion. unless otherwise indicated. . on the relationship between laws and climate. I have also kept the term milieu. and other formulations such as “living thing. building itself up over time. Compare André Tilquin. when in fact they have no isolated reality and they cannot be. 1912). 364. Léon Brunschvicg. He constructed a world with the fewest possible elements. that was his idea of the genius of the Universe. see Léon Bloch. books XIV–XIX. 1920). Tolman’s behavioral psychology also conceives of the relationship between organism and milieu in the form of the relation of a function to a variable.” in La Connaissance de la Vie (Paris: J. Lamarck imagined it developing. 1. once he recognized this mysterious power of life. deaf necessity. though its English usage is more limited than in French. Along with the editors. 439. The French original is similar in this regard. . See Esprit des Lois. that we set apart as if they had an independent and separate existence.” despite its apparent awkwardness. La Vie des Rivières (Paris: Stock. . Vrin. in the organic order of things. Appleton. . 5. . On all these points. . “Several times each month [décade] I frequented M. 8. Les Etapes de la philosophie mathématique (Paris: Alcan. 1786–1791) examines the effects of habitat and food on the animal organism. Paris. with great simplicity and much sadness. 54. vol. 1853). little by little. Le Behaviorisme (Paris: J. Trans. Les Origines de la Théorie de l’ether et la physique de Newton (1908). 61. 6. The translation of Comte by Harriet Martineau is extremely loose: see The Positivist Philosophy of Auguste Comte. 9.Notes “Le Vivant et son milieu” was originally presented as a lecture at the Collège philosophique in Paris in 1946–47 and was subsequently published in La Conaissance de la vie in 1952. in particular with regard to scientific terminology. I would like to acknowledge the numerous invaluable suggestions received from Warwick Anderson. 1930). 12.” “life-form. 2 (New York: D. “La Théorie Cellulaire. A long. Lamarck is more reserved on the subject of plants. 508. a distinction that the author clearly wishes to interrogate. He presented his ideas quite nakedly. 2 vols. 7. In the same way. 1944). but for an absolute and permanent linkage with the surrounding milieu in which they are but a simple local and momentary concentration. habit alone. It is translated and published here with permission from Librairie Philosophique J.. The chapter on “the degeneration of animals” in the Histoire naturelle des animaux (Paris. I have used brackets in the text to note those places where the French use of milieu required a different translation. gave birth to Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 29 . Trans. 3. . .” and “organism” place too much emphasis on the definite boundary between these entities and their surrounding environment. in which the author describes “certain types of units that we call living things. See Georges Canguilhem. 10. At that time. as small and elementary as it is. the lowest number of crises and the greatest possible duration.” 11. I have translated these and other quotations myself. de Lamarck was perhaps the last representative of that great school of physicists and general observers who had reigned from Thales and Democritus to Buffon. Louis Roule. These comments especially concern animals. 4. de Lamarck’s Natural History course at the Jardin des Plantes. Vrin. blind patience. . M.

1949). food. and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. a prolonged struggle with here or there more or less balance or success.” which appeared in Critique 8–9 (January–February 1947). Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen (Berlin. 1937). 34–35. nature was stone and ash. such as climate.” Charles Darwin. For knowledge to remain possible. Compare La Structure de l’Organisme. 21. this may be true. (Berlin. however. Here I have translated Canguilhem’s version of Darwin directly. 20. 22. 17. for M. Le Behaviorisme (Paris: J. 1942). Darwin (Paris: Editions Sociales Internationales. von Uexküll and Georg Kriszat. 1963). in opposition to the relentless power of nature that set out to destroy them. it is necessary that a nonconventional center from which a range of relations can emerge appears within this organismenvironment totality. In one limited sense. in a sense. Psychologie de la Forme (Paris: Flammarion. 145–49. 14. 1917). 30 Grey Room 03 . Structure du Comportement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. accepts von Uexküll’s views only with important reservations. 1942). and Theoretische Biologie. 26. 13. Albert Brachet. A fascinating consideration of this inversion of perspective in human geography is found in an article by L.organs within a diverse range of milieux. Marcel Prenant. Life came into play only as a strange and singularly productive accident. See Lucien Febvre’s La Terre et l’Evolution humaine for a historical description of the evolution of the idea and a critique of its exaggerations. Fisher as Structure of Behavior (Boston: Beacon Press. Poirier. 24. 1934). The original passage is as follows: “Naturalists continually refer to external conditions. any research on their relationship becomes. 1955). Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. death. 171. Volupté. 25. the example of the tick is taken up by Louis Bounoure in his book L’Autonomie de l’Etre vivant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. a granite tomb. 16. trans. 3. Goldstein. According to von Uexküll. In his eyes. 1938).” Sainte-Beuve. In this perspective. translated by Alden L. “La Géographie est-elle une science?” Annales de Géographie 57 (January–March 1948). and taking into consideration the whole effectively stifles knowledge. &c. One can find an anticipation of these ideas in Nietzsche’s Will to Power. Geraldine Carr (London: Favil Press. 23. Jakob von Uexküll. determinism disappears in favor of reciprocal penetration. On this point. (Berlin. 75–76. It is of course from this well-documented work that I have borrowed much of the information that follows. compare the conclusion of François Dagognet’s Philosophie biologique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. compare Paul Gillaume. Trans. 15. de Lamarck distinguished between nature and life. La Vie créatrice des Formes (Paris: Alcan. On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press.. 1928).” Geografiska Annaler (winter 1949): 1–2. 1927). impossible. 143. By not differentiating the living from its environment. and “Causalité et Finalité en Géomorphologie. Maurice Caullery. André Tilquin. as the only possible cause of variation. Vrin. but always defeated in the end. 18. 2d ed. 1964). cold motionlessness reigned afterwards as before. a critique of any exclusively environmental theory. The Present State of the Problem of Evolution (Washington. 1930). 2d ed. Compare Henri Baulig. 1921). For a discussion of this argument of Goldstein’s. “L’Evolution de la Géographie humaine. Condillac. 3. 19. Treatise on the Sensations. as we shall hereafter see.

compare Julian Huxley. J.” Europe 33–34 (1948)..” Archives internationales d’Histoire de Sciences 11 (1950). Finally.” in Les Grands Courants de la Biologie (Paris: Gallimard. 1928). see the work of Hovasse. 215–20. and “The Significance of the Newtonian Synthesis. which is followed by a bibliography. trans. see “Une Discussion scientifique en U. 30. 28.S. Preface to F. chapter 13). Pascal supposedly borrowed the expression from Mademoiselle de Gournay (see the 1595 preface to Montaigne’s Essays) or from Rabelais (Tiers livre. 1908). Buytendijk’s Psychologie des Animaux (Paris: Payot. 378–379. the author devotes several very interesting pages to the usage and meaning of the expression in Leibniz and Pascal. For an examination of the subject. “L’Offensive des Mitchouriniens contre la Génétique mendelienne. La Philosophie de Jacob Boehme. Pascal’s Pensées. Jean Rostand has written a good historical and critical study on the question. Unendliche Sphäre und Allmittelpunkt (Niemeyer: Halle. Dietrich Mahnke..S. According to Havet. 1937).” etc. in Revue générale des Sciences pures et appliquées 3–4 (1951). 1951). J. 29. and also Claude-Charles Mathon. See the article on “climate” in the Encyclopédie. 31. 1951). 1962). Canguilhem | The Living and Its Milieu 31 . See the excellent abridged history of Greek geography in Theodor Breiter’s introduction to volume 2 (commentaries) of the Astronomica by Manilus (Leipzig. “Quelques Aspects du Mitchourinisme. Martin Turnell (New York: Harper and Brothers. On the ideological dimensions of the controversy. 504. 32.To be honest. Adaptation et Evolution (Hermann. Compare Alexandre Koyré. the criticism that Nietzsche addresses to Darwin would be more appropriately applied to the Neo-Lamarckians. 33.R. 27.