Georges Canguilhem: A Short History of Milieu: 1800 to the 1960’s

The notion of milieu is becoming a universal and obligatory mode of apprehending the experience and existence of living beings…

– Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life

Reading these essays by Georges Canguilhem I can understand why he had such an impact on many of those like Michael Foucault, Gilbert Simondon to name only two French Intellectuals of that era. He brings not only an in depth understanding of the historical dimensions of concepts, but he conveys it in such a way that one makes the connections among its various mutations and uses with such gusto and even handed brilliance that one forgets that one is reading what might otherwise be a purely abstract theatre of concepts in their milieu. Even if I might disagree with his conclusions I think he had such a wide influence on those younger philosophers that it behooves us to study his works. In the The Living in its Milieu he gives a short history of this concept as it is used by scientists, artists and philosophers. The notion of milieu came into biology by way of mechanics as defined by Newton and explicated in the entry on milieu in the Encyclopédie Methodique of Diderot and d’Alembert attributed to Johann (Jean) Bernoulli. From here it was incorporated both in a plural and a singular form by other biologists and philosophers in the 19th Century. Among them Lamark, inspired by Buffon in its plural form, and established by Henri de Blainville; while in the singular form it was Auguste Comte and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who clarified its use. Yet, for most people of the 19th Century is through the work of Honoré de Balzac (in his preface to his La Comédie humaine), as well as in the work of Hippolyte Taine who used the term as one of three analytic explanatory concepts guiding his historical vision, the other two being race and moment. After 1870 the neo-Lamarckian biologists would inherit this term from Taine ( such biologists as Alfred Girard, Félix Le Dantec, Frédéric Houssay, Johann Costantin, Gaston Bonnier, and Louis Roule).

The eighteenth century mechanists used the term milieu to denote what Newton referred to as “fluid”. As Canguilhem relates the problem that Newton and others in his time faced was the central problem in mechanics of action of distinct physical bodies at a distance (99).1 For Descartes this was not an issue since for him there was only one mode of action – that of collision, as well as one possible physical situation – contact (99). Yet, when early experimental or empirical scientists tried to use Descartes theory they discovered a flaw: bodies blend together. While Newton solving this issue discovered that instead what was needed was a medium within which these operations could take place: so he developed the notion of ‘ether‘. The luminiferous ether in Newton’s theory became an intermediary between two bodies, it is their milieu; and insofar as the fluid penetrates all these bodies, they are situated in the middle of it [au milieu de lui]. In Newton’s theory of forces one could speak of the milieu as the environment (milieu) in which there was a center of force.

From the time of Newton onward the concept of milieu would take on the hues of an enclosing environment or field within which a body existed. Comte would speak of the dialectical interplay of forces in which the body and its milieu related. Canguilhem tells us that Comte’s conception and that of Lamark’s “circumstances” and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s “ambient milieu” or ambience would all point to a certain intuition of a formation around a center. But unlike circumstances and ambience the term milieu would take on a neutral tone: it would refer to a pure system of relations without support (103).

With publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species a battle between Darwinians and Lamarckians would take center stage in the scientific world of that era. Unlike Darwin’s mechanistic notions of variation and natural selection Lamarckism could be defined as Canguilhem does “a bare vitalism” (104). As Canguilhem explains it:

There is an originality in life for which the milieu does not account and which it ignores. Here the milieu if truly exterior, in the proper sense of the word: it is foreign, it does nothing for life. This is truly a vitalism because it is a dualism. Life, says Bichat, is the ensemble of functions that resist death. In Lamark’s conception, life resists solely by deforming itself so as to outlive itself. (104)

The best description of Lamarck’s vitalism was give by Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve in his partial autobiographical novel Volupté in 1834:

For Monsieur de Lamarck separated life from nature, Nature, in his eyes, was rocks and ashes, the granite of the tomb, death! Life only intervened as a singular and industrious accident, a prolonged struggle with more or less success and equilibrium here and there, but always vanquished in the end. Cold immobility would reign after as before. I loved these questions of origin and end, this framework of a dreary nature, these sketches of obscure vitality. (Volupté, 106)

For Darwin unlike Lamarck the milieu or environment would only play a partial part in the evolution of species. Because Darwin did not rely on the external impingement of milieu it was considered problematic, and with the mutationism a new theory of evolution would come to the fore in which genetics would become the explanatory concept for the role of species variation.(105) In the battles between Lamarkians and Darwinians attack and counter-attack would center on the notions of finalism and mechanism. Darwin would be attacked for the use of his term “selection”, while Lamarck would come under fire less for his finalism than for his vitalism. Yet, in the end Darwin would win out less to his general conceptual framework than to his milieu. As Canguilhem states it the milieu in which Darwin depicts the life of the living is a bio-geographical milieu (106).

With the rise of geography as a science spawned by the works of Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humbolt we have a milieu which provides a theory of relations in the convergence of human and land took stage on a map, where this “map is the figuration of an ensemble of metrical, geodesic, geological, and climatological data, as well as descriptive bio-geographical data (107). With this mapping of the various datasets into a visual grid the mechanistic sciences became more and more powerful and enabled by the visual markers of a new mathematical and exact science of knowledge and experiment that could be charted and graphed. One could almost say, controlled.

With this new geographical framework all of the visual notions on representationalism that we see in such philosophers as Schopenhauer and others would suddenly take on a new light. Instead of man becoming the creator of geography everything is reversed: he becomes a geographical factor, another piece of data to be analyzed, processed, and measured in this new mathematically pure science of geometric precision and mechanisms. Within this bio-geographical milieu humans were subjected to a kind of determinism, but as Canguilhem iterates, it is the “determinism of artificial creations, from which the spirit of invention that brought them into existence has been alienated” (109). What we discover in this new conception of milieu is that technics and machines construct humanity not the other way round, the Taylorism of engineers and psycho-technics, humans instead of incorporating themselves as machines in a bio-geographical milieu are alienated from their own nature as machines or mechanisms (components) in a milieu. Instead they represent their alienation by regarding the very machines and mechanisms of their own invention as impersonal and alien artifacts to be mistrusted and monstrous, when in fact it is the machinic that is our true nature.

We see this aesthetic portrayed in Gothicism and other forms of artistic expression throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley to such works as R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, on up to  Isaak Asimov’s Robots and beyond to our own time. The alienation of humanity was represented no longer in herself but in the very inventions of our own lives: the machines and mechanisms that would serve our needs.

In example after example Canguilhem will show this interplay between a reductionary science that alienates the human from itself, and of an irreductionist science that reincorporates the mechanisms into humanity itself. In one example he mentions the work of Jakob von Uexküll whose concepts of Umwelt, Ubgebung, and Welt as central to a new vision of mechanism. Umwelt designates the milieu of behavior proper to a certain organism; Umgebung is the banal geographical environment; Welt is the universe of science. Uexküll was the first to explore a form of what we might now call information theory. As Canguilhem relates it Uexküll considered the milieu of behavior proper to the living (Umwelt) is an ensemble of excitations, which have the value and signification of signals (111). What Canguilhem supports in Uexküll is what he perceives as a directed intentionality of the living toward its milieu: “if the living is not looking it will not receive anything… A living being is not a machine, which responds to excitations with movements, it is a machinist, who responds to signals with operations” (111). Yet, he recognizes that the underlying processes are in themselves very much mechanistic, the actual physic-chemical process of the body itself. As he says: that is not where the question relies for the biologist. The biologist excepts the mechanist mechanisms of the body itself, yet the question lies in the “fact that out of the abundance of the physical milieu, which produces a theoretically unlimited number of excitations, the animal retains only some signals. Against Lamarck who believed that time and circumstance constituted the production of the living, Uexküll reversed this relation saying that time and favorable circumstance are relative to certain living beings (112).

Another biologist of the period Goldstein(?) mentioned by Canguilhem offered another critique of the mechanical theory of reflexes. For him the relation between the living and the milieu establishes itself as a debate, to which the living brings its own proper norms of appreciating situations, both dominating the milieu and accommodating itself to it (113). All of these theories seem to have one thing in common: intentionality. This notion of a directedness of a active agent against the milieu, while mechanical and mechanist conceptions elided the intentional perspective altogether. It’s at this point that Canguilhem himself waxes on:

Certainly, the living can and must be analyzed in physic-chemical terms. This has its theoretical and practical interest. But this analysis is a chapter in physics. In biology, everything is still to be done. Biology must first hold the living to be a significant being, and it must treat individuality not as an object but as an attribute within the order of values. To live is to radiate; it is to organize the milieu from and around a center of reference, which cannot itself be referred to without losing its original meaning (113-114).

This separation of physics and biology into two domains with their separate analytical and theoretical machinery, as well as his use of the term “radiate” seems more an more to belie those that see Canguilhem not as a vitalist. The more I read him the more I see his investment in a study of these traditions betraying him as a defender of a form of vitalism rather than its critic. He even traces down the use of sphere and circles in history as connected to milieu as well as the notions of Lamarck. He defends Lamarck over and over in this essay. And in one instance relates that what is “essential in Lamarck’s ideas … is that the organism’s adaptation to its milieu is attributed to the initiative of the organism’s needs, efforts, and continual reactions (115). Instead of the merciless determinism of the early mechanists in which the milieu itself was sole arbiter in the process and formation of the living through determinate mechanisms, Lamarck offered an escape valve in which the living being is himself responsible and intent, directing through processes of self-organization his own formation.

Canguilhem even brings in Pascal against Descartes telling us that he offered an organic against a mechanistic vision of the world. With Pascal’s statement that the universe was an “infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere” we have a cosmological vision which aligns with the new scientific image (117). Canguilhem tells us that such cosmological thought has its origins in Neo-platonic myths that were passed down through such moderns as Jacob Boehme, Henry More, and others (118). In fact Newtonian mechanistic science was a secularization of all these old Neo-platonic myths: “the natural philosophy at the origin of the positivist and mechanist conception of the milieu is in fact itself supported by the mystical intuition of a sphere of energy whose central action is identically present and effective at all points” (118).

Canguilhem’s investment in intentional directedness comes out directly in the closing pages where he relates:

In this sense, the milieu on which the organism depends is structured, organized, by the organism itself. … The milieu proper to man is the world of his perceptions – in other words, the field of his pragmatic experience, the field in which his actions , oriented and regulated by the values immanent to his tendencies, pick out quality-bearing objects and situate them in relation to each other and to him. Thus the environment to which he is supposed to react is originally centered on him and by him (118).

In the final paragraph we see his devotion to Intentional Man – to perception and human directedness (I quote at length):

But if science is the work of a humanity rooted in life before being enlightened by knowledge, if science is a fact in the world at the same time as it is a vision of the world, then it maintains a permanent and obligatory relation with perception. And thus the milieu proper to men is not situated within the universal milieu  as contents in a container. A center does not resolve into its environment. A living being is not reducible to a crossroads of influences. From this stems the insufficiency of any biology that, in complete submission to the spirit of the physic-chemical [mechanist materialist] sciences, would seek to eliminate all consideration of sense from its domain. From the biological and psychological point of view, a sense is appreciation of valuesin relation to a need. And for the one who experiences and lives it, a need is an irreducible, and thereby absolute, system of reference (120).

Out of this insight would flow such works as Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, along with many of Focault’s turns toward bio-power and life. Even such authors as Bruno Latour, Stiegler, and others seem to work in the shadow of Georges Canguilhem.

1. Georges Canguilhem. Knowledge of Life. (Fordham University Press, 2008)

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