A Critical Examination of Certain Concepts: The Normal, Anomaly, and Disease; The Normal and the Experimental

  • Georges Canguilhem
Part of the Studies in the History of Modern Science book series (SHMS, volume 3)


Littré and Robin’s Dictionnaire de médecine defines the normal as follows: normal (normalis, from norma, rule): that which conforms to the rule, regular. The brevity of this entry in a medical dictionary does not surprise us given the observations we have just made. Lalande’s Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie is more explicit. Since norma, etymologically, means a T-square, normal is that which bends neither to the right nor left, hence that which remains in a happy medium; from which two meanings are derived: (1) normal is that which is such that it ought to be; (2) normal, in the most usual sense of the word, is that which is met with in the majority of cases of a determined kind, or that which constitutes either the average or standard of a measurable characteristic. In the discussion of these meanings it has been pointed out how ambiguous this term is since it designates at once a fact and “a value attributed to this fact by the person speaking, by virtue of an evaluative judgment for which he takes responsibility”. One should also stress how this ambiguity is deepened by the realist philosophical tradition which holds that, as every generality is the sign of an essence, and every perfection the realization of the essence, a generality observable in fact takes the value of realized perfection, and a common characteristic, the value of an ideal type Finally, an analogous confusion in medicine should be emphasized, where the normal state designates both the habitual state of the organs, and their ideal, since the reestablishment of this habitual ideal is the ordinary aim of therapeutics [67].


Critical Examination Evaluative Judgment Dynamic Polarity Descriptive Concept Functional Norm 
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© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1978

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  • Georges Canguilhem

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