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No. 3131:
Jean Cavaillès

by Andy Boyd

Today, in the line of duty. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1939, Jean Cavaillès was called to duty as the French army prepared for battle with Nazi Germany. Twice cited for acts of bravery, Cavaillès was captured by German soldiers during the six-week Battle of France and sent to a German POW camp.

Jean Cavaillès
Jean Cavaillès Photo Credit: Wikimedia

But Cavaillès's story doesn't end there. Shortly after his capture he managed to escape and return to France where he joined efforts to resist the German occupation. Cavaillès helped form a group of resistance fighters and in 1940 published the first incarnation of Libération, which became one of the most important resistance newspapers. Two years later, he was captured by the collaborationist French government. And here's where the story takes an interesting twist.

A group of French Resistance fighters
A group of French Resistance fighters Photo Credit: Wikipedia

While in prison, Cavaillès began to write. And not about his life or his determination to rid his country of its occupiers. He wrote about math and science.

Cavaillès had distinguished himself early on as a student. At age twenty, he placed first in the entrance examination of the École Normale Superiéure. His early training was in mathematics, but he turned to philosophy for graduate studies and became interested in the foundations of math and science -- a topic of intense philosophical development at the time. Cavaillès had interacted with many of the leading intellectuals throughout Europe prior to the war, traveling frequently to Germany. He was aware firsthand of the growing Nazi movement, and his thoughts were being shaped by the events taking place all around him.

École Normale Superiéure
École Normale Superiéure Photo Credit: Wikipedia

But sitting in a French prison in 1942, Cavaillès's thoughts turned to philosophy, writing what would become his signature work, On the Logic and the Theory of Science. He again escaped and made his way to London to regroup. Returning to France, Cavaillès engaged in extensive intelligence gathering and acts of sabotage until he was betrayed by a colleague and arrested along with his sister, brother-in-law, and four other members of the Resistance. This time, however, it was the Gestapo and not the French police that arrested him, leading to a brutal interrogation and likely torture. It seemed for a time he might be spared. But while none of the prisoners talked, the extent of Cavaillès's espionage was uncovered nonetheless. On February 17, 1944, at age forty, Jean Cavaillès was tried before a German military court and immediately shot.

So what are we to make of Cavaillès's legacy? As an ardent defender of France who showed both courage and leadership, he's easily held forth as a war hero; a man who unequivocally answered the call of duty at great risk to his own life. But what of his intellectual endeavors? Have they been swept aside by his heroism? With more time, could he have become one of twentieth century's most recognized philosophers? These are questions that, sadly, remain unanswered to this day.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Jean Cavaillès. Google translation of the French Wikipedia site:  Click here. Accessed June 6, 2016.

Jean-Baptiste Fournier. "Jean Cavaillès: Philosophy, Logic and Resistance." Opening remarks at the International Conference in Honor of Jean Cavaillès, Trinity College, Dublin, April 16, 2011. 

Lucia Turri. "History and Becoming of Science in Jean Cavaillès." Rivista Italiana Filosofia Analitica 2:2 (2011), 59-79.