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The epistemology of biopolitics

Final Report Summary - BIOPOLITICS (The epistemology of biopolitics)

The objective of the project 'Biopolitics' (carried out at the Centre Canguilhem, Institut de la Pensee Contemporaine, University Paris-Diderot) is to cast new light on the work of the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) in order to achieve a new and deeper understanding of questions related to the concept of biopolitics.

During the last fifteen years, a new philosophical debate has taken place starting from the reflections on 'biopolitics' proposed in the mid of the 1970's by one of the most celebrated pupils of Canguilhem, Michel Foucault (1926-1984). According to him the contemporary problem of the ability of medicine and biology to intervene in all aspects of human life has to be approached as a main philosophical question concerned with our scientific age. Following and prolonging in an original way the philosophical researches of Canguilhem on biology and medicine, Foucault puts into question this new form of scientific power over human life in order to understand its own rationality and the historical conditions of its emergence.

Foucault's work is at the core of the contemporary debate on biopolitics, whereas the work of Canguilhem is neglected. To read Canguilhem should be acknowledged in this day as a crucial task for all of those who, starting from different points of view, are interested in biopolitics. This is the reason why the project Biopolitics in its entirety to a rediscovery of this author.

1. Since the beginning, the project was engaged in the editorial project of the 'complete works' of Canguilhem taking place at this time under the direction of Jacques Bouveresse at the Vrin Press. Between autumn 2008 and spring 2010 the researcher, Michele Cammelli, collaborated in the edition of the first volume that will bring together all the texts published by the philosopher between 1926 and 1939 (publication date: September 2010).

2. From the beginning the primary research of the project concentrated on the unpublished writings held in the Canguilhem funds (CAPHES, ENS Paris). The research on the funds has explored in detail the unpublished writings of the philosopher from the less known period of his reflection, the years 1929-1943 in order to understand why and how his philosophical reflection moved little by little towards the epistemology of medicine and biology. Thanks to this research an unpublished philosophical reflection on the question of the subject emerged. Little by little the Canguilhem's approach to the subject takes the form of a philosophy rethinking in a new way what we call 'error'.

According to him error has to be interpreted as an original and positive possibility of existence having its first concrete manifestation in the living experience itself. Placed between two poles of the subject and the error these hidden philosophical reflections will fundamentally inspire the Canguilhem's epistemological reflections on biology and medicine too. Under the title 'The subject and the error in Canguilhem' (Le sujet et l'erreur chez Canguilhem, Presses Universitaires de France) Michele Cammelli is now writing a book with the aim of throwing light on the relationship between philosophy and epistemology in the work of this author.

The main results of the project consist in rediscovering the philosophical background of Canguilhem's epistemology of biology and medicine. In terms of immediate impact this research could give the contemporary debate on biopolitics a theoretical framework allowing us to understand, in a new and deeper way, Foucault's analyses as well. In terms of long-term societal impact the work could inscribe itself in a larger field. The way this philosopher reflected on the concept of 'norm' - taking into account the differences and the potential conflicts between vital norms, social norms and scientific norms - could be very usefully picked up in all contemporary debates on the so called 'bioethics'.