Canguilhem: “Descartes and Technique”

Translator’s Preface

The following text is a partial translation of Georges Canguilhem’s “Descartes et la technique,” found in Oeuvres Còmplètes: Ècrits Philosophiques et Politiques (1926-1939), Volume 1 (Paris : Vrin, 2011), pp. 490-492. Why a partial translation, you may wonder? The fact is that this important essay, Canguilhem’s first of many engagements that take up Descartes as a philosopher of technique, has already appeared in part, but not in whole, in English.  Arthur Goldhammer’s translation of the rest of the essay (pp. 492-498 in the Oeuvres), can be found in A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem, edited by Francois Delaporte (New York: Zone Books, 2000), pp. 219-226. What is left out of Goldhammer’s translation is Canguilhem’s summary of the essay and his introductory comments on Descartes’ relation to Stoicism and the mechanistic underpinnings of Cartesianism. This translation rectifies a grievous error by offering the rest of “Descartes et la technique” in English.

A final remark is necessary on a difference between the two partial translations. I have not had a chance to compare Goldhammer’s translation to the original at length, but an obvious difference from my own is in the translation of the word la technique. Goldhammer renders it as “technology,” which is an appropriate decision that finds concurrence from other translators of French philosophy (see, e.g., the translator’s introduction to Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects). I have opted, instead, to translate it as “technique.” My reason is that la technique has a broader definition than that of “technology.” It can mean “technology” in the sense of an ensemble of tools or ways of doing things, but, as its cognate implies, it is more generally understood to mean “technique” in the sense of a method, style, or approach to doing something. La technique is the way of doing something or the know-how one applies when completing a task. For this reason, I believe that the concept of technology is implied in “technique” and it would be less confusing for an English reader to translate la technique as such. It is also a crucial aspect of Canguilhem’s argument that we understand la technique in this broader sense.

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