Front Page Titles (by Subject) Error: The History of Life & Knowledge - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1
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Error: The History of Life & Knowledge - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Error: The History of Life & Knowledge
“Georges Canguilhem: Philosopher of Error.” I & C (Ideology and Consciousness) No. 7 (Autumn 1980): 51–62.
Georges Canguilhem's impact on the French intellectual milieu has been profound, influencing a wide variety of scholars, notably Althusser, Castel, and Lacan. His importance is best appreciated when we realize that in France, it was Canguilhem's discipline of the history of science that transmitted (with Husserl's phenomenological contribution) the crucially relevant question of the Enlightenment: the problematic status, history, and role of knowledge and reason. At the close of our coercive and colonial era, the Enlightenment question of the validity of rationality may be reformulated: was not the history of “reason” the history of economic and political hegemony? “Reason as despotic enlightenment” must now “liberate itself from itself” if it hopes to transcend its historical dogmatism and despotism. Canguilhem's writings, from his Essai sur le Normal et le Pathologique (1943) through La Connaissance de la Vie (2nd ed., 1965) to Idéologie et Rationalité (1977), have reshaped the history of science, gone beyond Thomas Kuhn in clarifying the nature of progress in knowledge, and illuminated the significance of error in promoting biological life and epistemological truth.
How has Canguilhem reshaped the history of science? (1) First, he has shown how advances in knowledge have come about through discontinuities or successive recastings, reformulations, reconceptualizations. Error is not eliminated by the slow emergence of ‘truth’ but by a sudden new way of ‘saying the true’.
(2) Next, in his view, the history of discontinuities is not given once and for all, but is itself ‘impermanent’ and discontinuous. Science makes and remakes itself and its own history at each instant in a spontaneous manner. The “epistemological point of view” makes visible across diverse episodes of a scientific knowledge “a latent well-ordered advance” based on a shifting ‘norm.’ This norm “is not to be identified with a theoretical structure or contemporary ‘paradigm’, because the scientific truth of today is itself only an episode ... of this normative process. It is not on the basis of ‘normal science’, in T.S. Kuhn's sense, that we can return to the past and validly trace its history: it is by retracing a ‘normatised’ process in which contemporary knowledge is only a moment whose future cannot be predicted except by prophecy.
(3) Thirdly, Canguilhem has reinserted the sciences of life in this historico-epistemological perspective. A science of the living has to take as an essential part of itself the possibility of disease, death, anomaly, and “error” in general. This is because living entails procedures of self-regulation and self-correction. The problem of disease or ‘error’ is irreducible and essential for any science of life.
(4) Lastly, he has pointed out that the role of a properly biological concept is to single out within the phenomena of ‘life’ those which permit a non-reductive analysis of the processes proper to a living being. Chemical and physical mechanisms come into play only after such a non-reductive identification.
The sciences of life, thus, demand a certain way of doing their history. They also pose the philosophical question of knowledge and its relationship to error. What processes bring about living beings that can know, and know life itself? For man, knowing through concepts is a mobile, self-correcting way of gathering information in order to live. To form concepts is thus a natural way of living, provided we allow for and tolerate error. “Ultimately, life is that which is capable of error.” Through ‘mutation’ or hereditary ‘error’ human life was first created, which then sustains itself biologically and intellectually by a process of ‘erring.’ Within this perspective, truth is our ‘most recent error.’ If the history of science is a discontinuous series of ‘corrections,’ or “a new distribution of the true and the false which never finally and forever frees the truth,” it is because ‘error’ is an essential dimension of life for the human species and for human knowing.