Bachelard, Gaston

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Bachelard, Gaston

(b. Bar-sur-Aube, France, 27 June 1884; d. Paris, France, 16 October 1962)

philosophy of science, epistemology.

Bachelard became a philosopher late in life. He had previously taught physics and chemistry in the collège of his native city. His knowledge of physics later enabled him to determine the epistemological change brought about by modern science and, particularly, to gauge the growing distance between it and classical physics, which had suddenly become only relative.

As early as 1928, in the Essai sur la connaissance approchée, Bachelard penetrated to the heart of hte new mathematical physics and began to simplify its methods of measuring (calculus of errors), experimenting, and generalizing. A complementary study, Étude sur I’évolution d’un problème de physique (1928), was designed to show how thermodynamics was both established by and liberated from its early, very poor intuitions (such as that a metal bar heated at one end will become longer). His study of conductibility in anisotropic media, and the mathematical theory of Poisson and Fourier, facilitated the integration of thermodynamics with mechanics, especially since heat was not linked to an isolated molecule but was determined within a rather large volume (the quantitative view).

As early as 1930 Bachelard’s work branched out in several directions. One was pedagogical, concerned with how to arouse the mind and modernize it so that it could participate in the formulation of scientific concepts. This led to La formation de I’esprit scientifique (1938), in which Bachelard examines mental resistances and prejudices anthropologically and methodologically, in order to expose them. His original objective was to apply Freud’s psychoanalytic method to epistemology and to science itself, and to draw up a highly systematic list of complexes that paralyze intelligence.

Bachelard’s work was also historical: he became the historian of scientific changes. He did not give a chronological description of the evolutionary stages of thought as it grappled with reality, but clarified its tensions and expressed its breakdowns. These tensions and breakdowns occurred because modern physics attacked what had previously been considered basic principles.

A vast prescientific or, as it were, prehistroic universe underlies the period of concentrated scientific discovery—the revolution that substituted the surrationalism of the twentieth century for the rationalism of the nineteenth. If this rationalism conditions our view of the science of the eighteen and, a fortiori, the preceding centuries, it by no means invalidates it. Bachelard used earlier, naive physics as a subject for a new study of elemental pstchology. Alchemy represented for him the projection of the soul’s desries the magic lantern that enlarged derams. From this belife came his celebrated analyses of the classical four elements and of derams, space, time, and imagination.

Bachelard was never satisfied merely to point out obstructive archaisms. He went further, introducting the reader to the most abstract categories of contemporary science. From generalities, he moved on to make specialized analyses on the point, the corpuscle, movement, space, and the simultaneous. Bachelard also simplified the dialectic contained in apparatus that embodied a theory and the Wilson could chamebr also simplified the dialectic contained in apparatus thatembodied a theory: the Wilson could chamber, the spectroscope and the particle accelerator, “Phenomenotechnology” replaced instruments based on calculating systems; probabilism replaced realism: the discursive replaces the intuitive.

Bachelard attempted to renew the traditional questions of philosophy and physical reality. He sought to base metaphysics upon the new physics and to resume the work of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz.

All these avenues of endeavor cut across each other. With Bachelard the past became the poetry of the world; classical science, a basis for exploration and enlargement; and modern science, a phenomenon that must constantly be reviewed.


1. Original Works. Bachelard’s writings are Essai sur la connaissance approchée (Paris, 1928); Étude sur l’évolution d’un probléme de physique: La propagation thermique dans les solides (Paris, 1928): La valeur inductive de la relativité (Paris, 1929); Le pluralisme cohérent de la chimiernoderne (Paris, 1932): Le nouvel esprit scientifique (Paris 1934); Les intuitions atomistiques (Paris. 1935): L’intuition de I’instant (Paris, 1935): La dialectique de la durèe (Paris, 1936); La dialectique de la durée (Paris, 1936); L’expérience de I’espace clans let physique contemporaine (Paris, 1937); La formation de l’esprit scientifique Contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective (Paris, 1938); La psychanalyse du feu (Paris, 1938); La philosophie du non (Paris, 1940); Lautréamont (Paris, 1940); L’eau et les réves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matiére (Paris, 1942); L’air et les songes. Eassai sur l’imagination de mouvement (Paris, 1943); La treer les réveries de la volonté. Essai sur l’imagination des forces (Paris, 1948); La terra et les rationalisme rationalime appliqué (Paris, 1949); L’activié réveries du repos. Essai sur l’imagimation de l’intimité (Paris, 1948); Le rationlisme des forces (Paris, 1949); L’avtivité materialisme rationnel (Paris, 1953); La poétique de l’espace (Paris, 1957); La flamme d’une chandelle (Paris, 1961); and La poétique de la ré verie (Paris, 1961).

II. Secondary Literature. Three essential studies on Bachelard’s epistemology are in Vrin, ed., Problemes d’histoire et c/c philosophic des sciences (Paris, 1968); Georges Canguilhem, “L’histoire des sciences clans l’oeuvre epistemologique de Gaston Bachelard,” originally in Annales de l’Université de Paris (1968); “Gaston Bachelard et les philosophes,” originally in Sciences (March 1963); and “Dialectique et apilosophie du non chez Gaston Bachelard,” originally in Revenue internationale de philosophie (1963).

See also François Dagoget, Gaston Bachelard (Paris, 1965); Hommage à Gaston Bachelard (Paris, 1957), consisting mainly of articles by Georges Canguilhem and Jean Hyppolite; Jean Hyppolite, “L’épisetémologie de Gaston Bachelard,” in Revue d’historie des sciences (January 1964); R. Martin, “dialectique et esprit scientifique chez Gaston Bachelard,” in Les études philosophiques (October 1963); and Pierre Quillet, Bachelard (Paris, 1964).

F. Dagognet

Bachelard, Gaston (1884-1962)

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Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, was born on June 27, 1884, in Bar-sur-Aube and died in Paris on October 16, 1962. He held a Ph.D. in philosophy and was a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. His career was far from ordinary. He was born into a family of modest means and began his professional life as a temporary employee in the postal service. In 1919 he became a teacher of physics and chemistry at the Bar-sur-Aube grammar school and prepared for his degree in philosophy, which he obtained in 1922. In 1927 he defended his doctoral dissertation and was appointed a professor of philosophy in 1930 at the University of Dijon and later at the Sorbonne (1940-1955). He received the Grand Prix National des Lettres in 1961.

His work is divided between considerations of the scientific mind, rationalism and the need for truth, and reflections on the imagination, daydreams, and poetry. Psychoanalysis, as Bachelard understood it, could serve as a link between these two approaches and, at times, there are echoes of a Jungian approach in his work.

In 1938 he produced La Formation de l 'esprit scientifique: Contributionà une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective and The Psychoanalysis of Fire. The word psychoanalysis was pivotal; the study of fire paved the way for a discussion of the epistemological problem of heat and thermodynamics. Bachelard introduced a powerful and disturbing poetics. For him the scientific mind's idea of the unconscious could be understood not on the basis of dreams but of reverie, that is, fantasies organized into complexes. By grasping the link between electrical fire and sexual fire, he develops the idea that dream-like values are an obstacle to true understanding and that it is necessary to engage in repression, a voluntary intellectual act of inhibition, which brings with it resistance, defense, and rupture. Psychoanalysis serves as a source of inspiration, it enables us to understand the formation of the scientific mind as an activity that is always subject to revision, not by a purely logical subject but by a superego animated by a rationalist tension that makes sublimation a positive and necessary factor and, in contrast to Freud, one that is also a joyful activity.

In working to frame Freudian concepts within a dialectic structure, Bachelard attempted to substitute a fecund surveillance of the mind for a repetitive and neurotic censorship. He was thus led to distinguish two types of knowledge: common knowledge and scientific knowledge, which consists in the repression of the former. For Bachelard, psychic conflict and resistance were ideas that could be used to conceive of truth as an error that has been rectified.

Bachelard's work found an echo in both the philosophy of the sciences and in literary criticism. But it is to Jacques Lacan that we must turn to fully assess what Bachelard attempted to introduce: the idea of a science whose subject is science.

Roger Bruyeron

See also: France.


Bachelard, Gaston. (1964). The psychoanalysis of fire (Alan C. M. Ross, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published in 1938)

. (1968). The philosophy of no; a philosophy of the new scientific mind (G. C. Waterston, Trans.). New York: Orion Press. (Original work published in 1940)

. (1969). The flame of a candle (Joni Caldwell, Trans.). Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute Publications, c1988.

. (1972). L'Engagement rationaliste. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bachelard, Gaston

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Bachelard, Gaston (1894–1962) A founding figure in the historically oriented French tradition in philosophy of science, Bachelard was also concerned with the characteristics of creative thought in the arts. Like Thomas Kuhn, Bachelard argued against a pervasive view of science as continuously cumulative knowledge. On the contrary, science passes through sharp ruptures or breaks in its history, each new practice of science requiring the abandonment of previous epistemologies. In general, the advance of science is a struggle against the ‘epistemological obstacles’ constituted by extra-scientific ideologies—which include philosophical (mis)representations of science themselves. Bachelard's work was important in shaping the ideas of many French intellectuals of a younger generation, most notably Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. See also PARADIGM.

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