Amidst ongoing shifts to our environments and biologies, the traditional anthropological and biological objects—human being and life, anthropos and bios—are today twined together in unprecedented ways. Witness the bourgeoning interest from bioscientists in cultural and human affairs, and the even longer standing interest from anthropologists in things biological, as former disciplinary norms are upended and new relations, forms, and understandings of life emerge.

But well before laboratories and clinics attracted the interest of ethnographers of science and medicine, Georges Canguilhem wrote in the introduction to his medical thesis, Le normal et le pathologique, that medical and philosophical pursuits could be purposefully reintegrated: “It is not necessarily to be better acquainted with mental illnesses that a professor of philosophy can become interested in medicine. Nor is it necessarily in order to exercise a scientific discipline. We expected medicine to provide an introduction to concrete human problems” (Canguilhem 1989, 34).[1] As he put it later, in his work “human biology and medicine are and always have been, necessary parts of an ‘anthropology’” (Canguilhem 2008, 133). Indeed, Canguilhem’s view of life was premised on the priority of anthropology for biological knowledge. And he was exceedingly forthright in his claim that science is not only a human activity, but a basic condition of human being. “Knowledge,” he wrote, “including (and perhaps above all) biology, is one of the ways by which humanity seeks to take control of its destiny and to transform its being into a duty. For this project, man’s knowledge about man is of fundamental importance. The primacy of anthropology is not a form of anthropomorphism, but a condition of anthropogenesis” (Canguilhem 2008, 19).

The surroundings, vital environs, or nutritive envelope of living beings—the milieu—would prove to be a foundational notion for Canguilhem’s philosophical anthropology. In a lecture published in 1952 as “The Living and Its Milieu,” Canguilhem contended that “the notion of milieu is becoming a universal and obligatory mode of apprehending the experience and existence of living beings.” To support that assertion, he surveyed the notion’s “simultaneous and successive components” and “the various reversals of the relationship between organism and milieu” through the course of the long-nineteenth century (Canguilhem 2008, 98-99). By tracing the concept of milieu and its uses from mechanics, geography, natural history, and political sociology to early-twentieth century biology, Canguilhem assessed its influence on various philosophical views of life and humanity. He was seeking a proper “biological point of view” on living phenomena: one always undergirded by a philosophical anthropology (Canguilhem 2008, 71).[2]

Canguilhem grasped life as relationally supported by an environment to which living beings bring distinctive needs and values—what he designates “vital norms” (Canguilhem 2008, 113). Life curates itself, in this vision; living beings compose their milieus.[3] Yet he accompanied his philosophy of life with an anthropological caution. Like the “catastrophic” circumstance he identifies for life forms subjected to manipulation and modification in experimental milieus such as modern laboratories (Canguilhem 2008, 113), scientific practice and knowledge can alienate human beings from their own worlds. In this sense, “The Living and Its Milieu challenges us to consider how specific yet plural relations between environment and life inform the ways in which human beings engage their surroundings and their own biologies today—particularly those within the sometimes “inhuman milieu” of positivist science.[4]

Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ([1965] 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[5] In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.

How do anthropologists notice and account for, let alone describe, contemporary milieus of dramatically varying scales? In the essays collected here, the organism-milieu relation is sought in “the singularity of [a] tiny encounter” (Stewart), through the intimacy and presence in “moments of things coming apart” (Meyers), amidst a universe set into motion by the odor of one molecule and the web of living relations its chemistry organizes (Landecker), in a relation considered as having “a life of its own” (Caduff), and through “displacements” to swaths of life wrought by “abrupt change” on a planetary scale (Petryna). Anthropologists have long approached relation as difference through encounter. A return to Canguilhem’s thought on the living and its milieu today occasions anthropological experiments in rendering “habitable and animate” (Stewart 2007, 4), “the generativity and volatility of life” and “the forces in what surrounds.”

In her essay here, Kathleen Stewart tunes us in and turns us on to a way of paying attention, a way of focusing and observing ourselves in relation to others, of taking notice. She registers resonances between Canguilhem’s “deep engagement” with relationality, beings, and worlds and the orientation of a range of contemporary scholars who, in a variety of idioms, offer ways into “the prismatic singularities of an actual scene of composition and decomposition forged in fractious points of contact.” She offers a personal story of “atmospheric attunement” (Stewart 2011), or “coming together” (Stewart 2007, 4) in connection with Canguilhem’s thinking, an example of relating “in a strong sense” through “thought compositionally attuned to milieu.” Her experience reading Canguilhem’s “Living and Its Milieu” activates in her intensities and affects that had lain in wait, suspended like Jakob von Uexküll’s tick.[6] “The singularity of this tiny encounter” with Canguilhem’s text—his tick, and then her tick—positions the anthropologist “as a point of impact, curiosity, and encounter” (Stewart 2007, 5), and potentiates a movement in her from suspension to activation: a becoming open again to “just how weird relationality actually is.”

In “A Living Room,” Todd Meyers invokes the language of “worlding” for the mode of engagement Canguilhem’s thought compels in an anthropologist concerned with everyday spaces where a life has struggled to be lived. Anthropological attunement at this register, intimate and attentive, makes new room, nudges open, loosens, and disturbs the sense of either a stable or a proper relationship between living being, thinking being, “psyche”, and surrounds. Meyers reflects on “how one has seen” and “how scenes comment on each other” when the ethnographer remains caught in the grip of a former encounter, lingering long after the living subject whose milieu this site constituted has died. What mode of relating or “form of anthropological engagement” is demanded of an ethnographer concerned with ways to “acknowledge the significance of presence” of a life that has now “come apart”? Even, or perhaps particularly, through a milieu as minor or modest as a single room in the home of a suffering interlocutor.

In addition to offering milieu as an object that orients ethnographic engagement and affective encounter, “The Living and Its Milieu” inspires examinations of anthropological approaches to contemporary problems posed by the ecological and biological sciences together with their traditional objects. Both environment and life are reconfiguring today. Engaging with social medicine, anthropogenic climate change and ecological science, and new life sciences including epigenetics and microbial metabolics, Carlo Caduff, Adriana Petryna, and Hannah Landecker follow Canguilhem in “yielding to a demand of philosophical thought to reopen rather than to close problems” (Canguilhem 1989, 35). Their essays update Canguilhem’s project to philosophically remediate the concepts and practices that the sciences fashion to know their objects; they carefully attend to shifting relations between science and technology, nature and artifice, experiment and experience, and norms and pathologies, relations of undeniable anthropological import. The contributions can be read as elaborations of “the milieu of man as technician and scientist” for our day (Canguilhem 2008, 71).

Canguilhem’s posing of the relation of living beings with their surroundings as both a scientific and a human problem with existential stakes compels Caduff to call for scholars of social medicine to “move beyond a naturalized understanding of the social as milieu of the human.” Caduff writes that scholars and medical practitioners, however well-meaning, who depart from so-called social categories—gender, race, class—to which people “belong like contents to a container,” commit a “stunning” form of “analytic violence” to their subjects. Instead, Caduff’s “Vital Social Medicine” “takes the social seriously” by refusing to consider either entity—living being or environment—as distinct, but rather only as a relation. Caduff seizes on Canguilhem’s milieu as a sociological concept, in the process bristling against the limits of Canguilhem’s notion of individuality. He arrives at a sense of milieu as a vital relation, “a movement, a passage, a transition” with “a life of its own.” The challenge Caduff poses to scholars and practitioners of social medicine is thus: “What would it mean to start from the relation rather than from one or the other center?”

Canguilhem’s conception of le vivant—life, the organism, or the living, as Petryna notes, depending on translation—may have been adequate for twentieth century problems raised by “the milieu of man as a technician and scientist.” In “The Living and Its Milieu” for example, Canguilhem follows Kurt Goldstein’s holistic conception of the organism to diagnose the “catastrophic” situation for living beings in experimental biology—upon whom man-made conditions are imposed “from the outside” and whose milieu is the laboratory.[7] But for the “overwhelming milieu” emerging in current situations of anthropogenic climate change to which Petryna directs attention, Canguilhem’s conception of life “becomes unmoored.” She asks how we might begin to calibrate ourselves for becoming sensitive to emerging registers of “runaway” ecological change. How might we begin to get a “foothold” in something—a situation or milieu—that not only presses in but is “out of hand?” Canguilhem characterized health as “a capacity to tolerate variations in norms on which only the stability of situations and milieus—seemingly guaranteed yet in fact always necessarily precarious—confers a deceptive value of definitive normalcy”; for this reason, he said, “Man is truly healthy only when he is capable of several norms, when he is more than normal” (Canguilhem 1989, 132). But Petryna shows us that the variability of milieus of which Canguilhem speaks “is only as good as the tangential arousals into open air pockets these milieus afford,” and that “the living’s attempt to survive in an uncalibrated or abruptly changing milieu” reimposes “the milieu as a vital question” (cf. Petryna 2018). With the norms and limits of planetary life subject to unprecedented and chaotic stressors, Canguilhem’s milieu appears at once historically circumscribed and crucially relevant.

Likewise, Hannah Landecker characterizes as “almost quaint” the “vaguely naturalistic framework” Canguilhem shared with early-twentieth century biologist-philosophers who thought ticks observed “in sterile chambers” offered generalizable insights into nature. Rather than the tick or the human, Landecker takes “the odor of rancid butter” as her protagonist, which allows her to adopt “a perspective on the world that sees relationality as primary and constitutive of life.” In doing so, she demonstrates one way in which anthropologists and historians can engage reconfigurations of the sciences through the meaningful entanglements their emerging objects hold for human relations. Elsewhere she has asked: “what does it mean to be biological today?” (see Landecker 2007). Here, she wonders: “what would Canguilhem do with the odor of rancid butter today?” By the time she has carried us through Short Chain Fatty Acids in bacteria, insects, and mammals, to the human digestive tract and microbiome, a whole world of sense, meaning, and need emerges as mediations and inversions multiply. In doing so, both terms “within the order of values” (Canguilhem 2008, 113)—“life” and “surrounds”[8]—are transformed, such that animal-microbe or individual-multiplicity relations destabilize “the apparent boundedness of what we call individuals or organisms.” When at last she asks, “does this genome smell?”, the question reads as both warranted assertion and playful query: and everything falls, like the tick, into place.


The traditional objects and concepts in the human and interpretive sciences are not always adequate for apprehending the variety of forms of life, the kinds of relations they establish with their environments, and the problems they pose. Sometimes “human”, “life”, “society”, “culture” or “ethnos” fail to help us grasp the living at multiple levels and scales. The contributors to this Focus Section offer instead lesser milieus like Beverly’s living room; affects, rhythms, atmospheres, and everyday life; relations that are exterior to both terms; the odor of rancid butter, microbial metabolites, leaky colons, fatty acids, and smelly genomes; tangential arousals, abrupt change, and droughts, storms, and wildfires. Thinking with Canguilhem is an invitation to experiment, to invent, to attempt approaches that acknowledge the precarity of both living beings and milieus, the contingency of present and emerging relations, and the fragility of the knowledge and techniques we are forging to cope with these changes.

In the end these essays, like Canguilhem’s, return us however obliquely to the human, to anthropology, to knowledge deeply invested in science as a human practice. The vibrant and varied attempts here to know ourselves, others, and the world through creation and invention—two of Canguilhem’s favorite terms—do justice to Canguilhem’s notion of science and its relation to life. “Life,” writes Canguilhem, “is experience, that is to say, improvisation, the utilization of occurrences; it is an attempt in all directions” (Canguilhem 2008, 90). Life in both senses: as a life form (le vivant) and as the unfolding experience and knowledge of it (la vie). Our failures or errors in both science and life offer avenues for rectification, correction, restitution, and return to those “concrete human problems” that both change and recur (Canguilhem 1989, 33). And sometimes, as these pieces show, they radiate.

Read another piece in this series here.

[1] Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett (New York, Zone Books, 1989), 34. Our italics. First published as Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique in 1943. For an authorized list of Canguilhem’s published works, see the critical bibliography by Camille Limoges in Georges Canguilhem, A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, ed. François Delaporte, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York, Zone Books, 1994), 385-454.

[2] Canguilhem wrote that “a biological point of view on the totality of experience appears perfectly honest, both as regards man the scientist [l’homme savant]—specifically, the physician—and as regards living man [l’homme vivant]” (“Aspects of Vitalism,” 71). With regards to what he considered a properly biological apprehension of human life in particular, he wrote that “as a living being, man does not escape from the general laws of living beings. The milieu proper to man is the world of his perception—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” (2008, 118).

[3] Inspired by Kurt Goldstein and Jakob von Uexküll conceptions of the organism and the animal subject, respectively, Canguilhem wrote that a defining feature of the living is “that it makes its milieu for itself, that it composes its milieu” (2008, 111).

[4] Amplifying his diagnosis of an anthropological problem at the heart of modern science, a diagnosis that recurs throughout much of his work, Canguilhem writes in “The Living and Its Milieu” that: “Man as a scientist and bearer of knowledge constructs a universe of phenomena and laws that he holds to be an absolute universe. The essential function of science is to devalorize the qualities and objects that comprise the milieu proper to man; science presents itself as the general theory of a real, that is to say, inhuman milieu” (2008, 119). Canguilhem, in this essay in particular, leaves open the degree to which there even exists “a proper milieu” for human beings as such. One might read him as implying here that if there were, the milieu proper to man would be experimental/technological. Nevertheless, an anthropological paradox remains for Canguilhem, in that “man sometimes marvels at the living and sometimes, scandalized at being himself a living being, forges for his own use the idea of a separate kingdom” (“Thought and the Living,” in Knowledge of Life, xix).

[5] Knowledge of Life, eds. Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers and trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham, 2008). It was the first complete translation into English of Canguilhem’s collection of lectures and essays, La connaissance de la vie (2nd ed., Paris: Vrin, 1965).

[6] See Canguilhem, “The Living and Its Milieu,” 111-113. Canguilhem makes much ado about the Estonian-born German biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s (1864-1944) heuristic view to organismal environments as Umwelten: or subjectively-centered and meaningful environs “electively extracted” from the geographical surroundings (Umgebungen), out of which human perceptual milieus on the other hand are constituted. As the founder of an institute for Umweltforschung in Rostock, von Uexküll was unique in his day in foregrounding of an ecological point of view to his biological rendering of life. The tick to which Canguilhem refers in the essay—and to which both Stewart and Landecker refer in their contributions—is the creaturely protagonist who opens von Uexküll’s 1934 Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren, translated by Joseph D. O’Neil as A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[7] Three primary and interrelated lines of critique arise in Canguilhem’s essay: of mechanistically oriented views to life, of scientific rationalities that invest in an ideal and universal representation of nature “in physico-chemical terms” (particularly living nature), and of the problems that arise from the subjection of life forms to experimental milieus like biology labs. On this latter point, Canguilhem continues: “The relations between the living and the milieu as they are studied experimentally, objectively, are, among all possible relations, those that make the least sense biologically; they are pathologically relations. […] 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” (2008, 113). For more on this latter problem for Canguilhem, see Carlo Caduff’s contribution in this series.

[8] Landecker writes, citing Canguilhem: “A history of surrounds could be termed an epigenetic history, attentive to the material and theoretical implications flowing from contemporary theories concerning the biologically constitutive role of life’s conditions. At stake is understanding the role of dish and cage environments in constituting the experimental life forms through which scientific knowledge is pursued, and a broader historical and philosophical perspective in which the milieu is a central object of inquiry” (2016, 149).

Works Cited

Canguilhem, Georges. 1989. The Normal and the Pathological. Translated by Carolyn R. Fawcett. Introduction by Michel Foucault. New York: Zone Books. First published in 1943.

Canguilhem, Georges. 2008. “The Living and Its Milieu.” In Knowledge of Life, edited by Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg, 98-120. New York: Fordham University Press. First published in 1952.

Landecker, Hannah. 2007. Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Landecker, Hannah. 2016. “It is What It Eats: Chemically Defined Media and the History of Surrounds.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (57): 148-60.

Petryna, Adriana. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edge of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change.” Cultural Anthropology 33 (4): 570-595.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2011. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (29): 445-453.

Von Uexküll, Jakob. (1934[2010]). A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Translated by Joseph D. O’Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gabriel Coren: contributions / website / / Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
Cameron Brinitzer: contributions / website / / University of Pennsylvania, History & Sociology of Science