Bachelard, Gaston (1884–1962)

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Gaston Bachelard, the French epistemologist and philosopher of science, was born at Bar-sur-Aube. He was a postal employee until 1913, when he gained his licence in mathematics and science and became a teacher of physics and chemistry at the Collège of Bar-sur-Aube. In 1927 he received his doctorate of letters and in 1930 became professor of philosophy at the University of Dijon. From 1940 to 1954 he held the chair of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris.

Bachelard expounded a dialectical rationalism, or "dialogue" between reason and experience. His philosophy was a departure from the view of rational discovery as a process whereby new knowledge is assimilated into a system that changes only insofar as it grows. He rejected the Cartesian conception of scientific truths as immutable elements of a total truth that is in process of being put together like a jigsaw puzzle.

According to Bachelard, experiment and mathematical formulation are mutually complementary. Mathematics is not merely a means of expressing physical laws, nor is it a static realm of ideas; it is "committed." In this context Bachelard talked of "applied rationalism." Bachelard held that the empirical world is not utterly discontinuous and absurd; the confrontation of an isolated, rational human mind with an indifferent and meaningless world postulated by some existentialists is naive. Scientific hypotheses, and even scientific facts, do not present themselves passively to the patient investigator but are created by him. The investigator's reasoning and the natural world on which it operates together constitute a second nature over and above the crudely empirical one.

Bachelard described his conception of this two-way process in which rational organization and experiment are in constant cooperation as a "philosophy of saying no" (philosophie du non ). It involves negation because the scientific attitude is necessarily "open" or "available" (disponible ), and the scientist may be obliged at any time to recast his formulation of reality by facts which fail to fit into the old formulation. Since it is frequently mathematical, the reformulation may not necessarily involve the adoption of a new model, but it will often be analogous to a change of structure. At the same time, there will be no jettisoning of truths: The philosophie du non destroys nothing, Bachelard held; it consolidates what it supersedes. The framework may be recast and the picture of reality transformed, but only in such a way that the new phenomenon might have been foreseen.

Bachelard did not confine himself to an exclusively rationalist philosophy of science. He saw both technological and imaginative thinking as issuing from reverie and emotion into practical expression. His works on the psychological significance of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, illustrate this. He rejected, for example, the common account of the discovery of fire in the rubbing together of two sticks, seeing it rather as the outcome of a kind of symbolical representation of sexual intercourse. Thus passion is no more metaphorical fire than fire is metaphorical passion. Our science and our poetry have a common origin accessible only to psychoanalysis. There is a unity in Bachelard's studies on reason and imagination. In both cases he stressed the projective or creative role of the mind; in art "the subject projects his dream upon things," and in modern science, "above the subject, beyond the immediate object is the project. "

See also Epistemology; Philosophy of Science, History of; Rationalism.


works by bachelard

L'intuition de l'instant. Paris: Stock, Delamain and Boutelleau, 1932.

Le pluralisme cohérent de la chimie moderne. Paris: J. Vrin, 1932.

La dialectique de la durée. Paris, 1933.

Le nouvel Esprit scientifique. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1934.

La formation de l'esprit scientifique. Paris: J. Vrin, 1938.

La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard, 1938.

Lautréamont. Paris: J. Corti, 1939.

La philosophie du non. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1940.

L'eau et les rêves. Paris: J. Corti, 1942.

L'air et les songes. Paris: J. Corti, 1943.

La terre et les rêveries de la volonté. Paris, 1945.

La terre et les rêveries du repos. Paris, 1945.

Le rationalisme appliqué. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1949.

La poétique de l'espace. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1957.

La poétique de la rêverie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1960.

La flamme d'une chandelle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1961.

works on bachelard

For a complete bibliography of Bachelard's works and for articles on him, see the "Bachelard" issue of the Revue internationale de philosophie 19 (1964). See also Jean Hyppolite's article, "Gaston Bachelard ou le romantisme de l'intelligence," Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger 144 (1954): 8596.

Colin Smith (1967)