History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 254–279 | Cite as

Errant life, molecular biology, and biopower: Canguilhem, Jacob, and Foucault

  • Samuel Talcott
Original Paper


This paper considers the theoretical circumstances that urged Michel Foucault to analyse modern societies in terms of biopower. Georges Canguilhem’s account of the relations between science and the living forms an essential starting point for Foucault’s own later explorations, though the challenges posed by the molecular revolution in biology and François Jacob’s history of it allowed Foucault to extend and transform Canguilhem’s philosophy of error. Using archival research into his 1955–1956 course on “Science and Error,” I show that, for Canguilhem, it is inauthentic to treat a living being as an error, even if living things are capable of making errors in the domain of knowledge. The emergent molecular biology in the 1960s posed a grave challenge, however, since it suggested that individuals could indeed be errors of genetic reproduction. The paper discusses how Canguilhem and Foucault each responded to this by examining, among other texts, their respective reviews of Jacob’s The Logic of the Living. For Canguilhem this was an opportunity to reaffirm the creativity of life in the living individual, which is not a thing to be evaluated, but the source of values. For Foucault, drawing on Jacob’s work, this was the opportunity to develop a transformed account of valuation by posing biopower as the DNA of society. Despite their disagreements, the paper examines these three authors as different iterations of a historical epistemology attuned to errancy, error, and experimentation.


Canguilhem Jacob Foucault Error Life Biopower Molecular biology 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HumanitiesUniversity of the SciencesPhiladelphiaUSA

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