Jean Cavaillès

"Cavaillès" redirects here. For the painter, see Jules Cavaillès. For the French wine grape, see Len de l'El.
Jean Cavaillès
Born (1903-05-15)May 15, 1903
Died February 17, 1944(1944-02-17) (aged 40)
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure
University of Paris
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
French historical epistemology[1]
Main interests
Philosophy of mathematics
Notable ideas
Philosophy of the concept,[2] dialectics of the concept (dialectique du concept)

Jean Cavaillès (French: [ʒɑ̃ kavajɛs]; May 15, 1903 – February 17, 1944) was a French philosopher and mathematician, specialized in philosophy of science. He took part in the French Resistance within the Libération movement and was shot by the Gestapo on February 17, 1944.

Early life and education

Cavaillès was born in Saint-Maixent, Deux-Sèvres. After a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1923, lecturing philosophy. In 1927 he successfully passed the agrégation competitive exam. He began graduate studies in Philosophy in 1928. Cavaillès won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship in 1929-1930. He was teaching assistant at the École Normale Supérieure between 1929 and 1935, then teacher at the Lycée d'Amiens (now Lycée Louis-Thuillier) in 1936. In 1937, he successfully defended his doctoral theses[6] at the University of Paris and became a Doctor of Letters in Philosophy. He then became a lecturer in General and Logical Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Strasbourg.

World War II

After the outbreaks of World War II, he was mobilized in 1939 as an infantry lieutenant with the 43rd Regiment, and was later attached to the Staff of the 4th Colonial Division. He was honoured for bravery twice, and was captured on June 11, 1940. At the end of July 1940 he escaped from Belgium and fled to Clermont-Ferrand, where the university of Strasbourg was re-organized.

At the end of December 1940, he met Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, with whom he created a small group of resistance fighters, known as "the Last Column". To reach a broader audience, it was decided to create a newspaper, which was to become Libération, the mouthpiece of both Libération-Sud and Libération-Nord. Cavaillès took an active part in editing the paper. The first edition appeared in July 1941.

He was appointed professor at the Sorbonne in 1941, and left Clermont-Ferrand for Paris, where he helped form the Libération-Nord resistance group, becoming part of its management committee.

In April 1942, at the instigation of Christian Pineau, the central Office of Information and Action (BCRA) of London charged him with the task of forming an intelligence network in the Northern Zone, known as "Cohors". He was ordered by Christian Pineau to pass into the Southern Zone, and Cavaillès headed the network and formed similar groups in Belgium and the north of France.

In Narbonne he was arrested with Pineau by the French police in September 1942. After a failed attempt at escaping to London, he was interned in Montpellier at the Saint-Paul d' Eyjeaux prison camp from where he escaped at the end of December 1942. The book Cavaillès wrote in prison in Montpellier in 1942 was published posthumously in 1946, edited by the epistemologist Georges Canguilhem and the mathematician Charles Ehresmann under the title Sur la logique et la theorie de la science.

Denounced as a public enemy by the Vichy regime, and sought by the police, he fled clandestinely to London in February 1943. There he met General Charles de Gaulle on several occasions.

Back in France on April 15 he resigned from the management Committee of the Libération movement in order to dedicate himself entirely to direct action. He was in charge of the sabotage of the stores of the Kriegsmarine in Brittany and German radio installations on the coast.

Betrayed by one of his liaison officers, he was arrested on August 28, 1943 in Paris with his sister and her brother-in-law. Tortured, imprisoned in Fresnes then in Compiègne, he was transferred to the Citadel from Arras and was shot on February 17, 1944. Buried in Arras under a wooden cross marked "unknown n°5", his body was exhumed in 1946 to be buried in the Crypt in the Sorbonne, in Paris.


The Centre Cavaillès de l'École Normale Supérieure was established in Paris in 1969, at 3e étage au 29 rue d'Ulm, as Centre for the Study of the History and Philosophy of Science. At the formal opening, philosopher Georges Canguilhem said, "A philosopher-mathematician loaded with explosives, lucid and reckless, resolute without optimism. If that's not a hero, what is a hero?" (Translated from the original French language: "Un philosophe mathématicien bourré d'explosifs, un lucide téméraire, un résolu sans optimisme. Si ce n'est pas un héros, qu'est-ce qu'un héros?)[7]

Cavaillès is honored in the Heroes of the Resistance postage stamp set.

In L'Armée des ombres, a 1969 film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, the character of Luc Jardie (the Chief) was inspired by Cavaillès.

Military honours



  1. E. Reck (ed.), The Historical Turn in Analytic Philosophy, Springer, 2016: ch. 2.1.
  2. Concept - Cahiers pour l'Analyse (An electronic edition)
  3. Joseph W. Dauben and Christoph J. Scriba (eds.), Writing the History of Mathematics – Its Historical Development, 2002, p. 33.
  4. Šebestik, Jan. "Bolzano's Logic". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. Alan D. Schrift (2006), Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes And Thinkers, Blackwell Publishing, p. 138.
  6. Méthode axiomatique et formalisme (thèse principale) and Remarques sur la formation de la théorie abstraite des ensembles (thèse complémentaire) under the direction of Léon Brunschvicg.
  7. Georges Canguihem, Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès, Paris: Éditions Allia, 2004, p. 35.

Further reading

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