Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard

region = Western Philosophy
era = 20th Century Philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption =

name = Gaston Bachelard
birth = 1884
death = 1962
school_tradition =
main_interests = Philosophy of science
influences =
influenced = Pierre Bourdieu, Alexandre Koyré, Thomas S. Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser
notable_ideas = "epistemological break"

Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884 – October 16, 1962) was a French philosopher who rose to some of the most prestigious positions in the French academy. His most important work is on poetics and on the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of "epistemological obstacle" and "epistemological break" ("obstacle épistémologique" et "rupture épistémologique"). He influenced many subsequent French philosophers, among them Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser.

Life and work

Bachelard was a postmaster in Bar-Sur-Aube, and then studied physics before finally becoming interested in philosophy. He was a professor at Dijon from 1930 to 1940 and then became the inaugural chair in history and philosophy of the sciences at the Sorbonne.

Bachelard's studies of the history and philosophy of science in such works as "Le nouvel esprit scientifique" ("The New Scientific Mind") (1934) and "La formation de l'esprit scientifique" ("The Formation of the Scientific Mind") (1938) were based on his vision of historical epistemology as a kind of psychoanalysis of the scientific mind, or rather of the psychological factors in the development of sciences. For instance, he takes the example of Heisenberg's first chapters of the "Physical principles of the quantum theory", where he alternatively defends a corpuscular theory and an undulatory theory, correcting each by the others ("The New Scientific Mind", IV). This, claims Bachelard, is an excellent example of the importance of psychological training in sciences, as one should correct spontaneous defaults by taking the opposite stance.

In the English-speaking world, the connection Bachelard made between psychology and the history of science has been little understood. Bachelard demonstrated how the progress of science could be blocked by certain types of mental patterns, creating the concept of "obstacle épistémologique" ("epistemological obstacle"). One task of epistemology is to make clear the mental patterns at use in science, in order to help scientists overcome the obstacles to knowledge.

Bachelard argued against Auguste Comte's positivism, which considered science as a continual progress, that it had been superseded by such scientific developments as the theory of Relativity, which demonstrated the discontinuous nature of history of sciences. Through his concept of "epistemological break", Bachelard underlined the discontinuity at work in the history of sciences — the term itself is almost never used by Bachelard, but became famous through Althusser. For this reason, he was a tough critic of Émile Meyerson, who supported a continuist view of the history of sciences.

He showed that new theories integrated old theories in new paradigms, changing the sense of concepts (for instance, the concept of mass, used by Newton and Einstein in two different senses). Thus, non-Euclidean geometry did not contradict Euclidean geometry, but integrated it into a larger framework.

A rationalist in the Cartesian sense (although he proned a "non-Cartesian epistemology" which was to succeed, as a new theory, to Cartesian epistemology - "The New Scientific Mind", conclusion), he opposed "scientific knowledge" to ordinary knowledge, and held that error is only negativity or illusion:

The role of epistemology is to show the history of the (scientific) production of concepts; those concepts are not just theoretical propositions: they are simultaneously abstract and concrete, pervading technical and pedagogical activity. This explains why "The electric bulb is an object of scientifical thought… an example of an abstract-concrete object." [in "Le Rationalisme appliqué" (PUF, Paris, 1949, 2e ed. of 1962, p.104ff).] To understand the way it works, one has to pass by the detour of scientific knowledge. Epistemology is thus not a general philosophy that aims at justifying scientific reasoning. Instead it produces regional histories of science.

Bachelard opposed the duality between rationality and irrationality, claiming that, for instance, the theory of probabilities was just another way of complexifying reality through a deepening of rationality (while someone as Lord Kelvin found it somehow irrational [ "The New Scientific Mind", V (p.120 French ed., PUF, 1934) ] ). One of his main thesis in "The New Scientific Mind" was that modern sciences had replaced the classical ontology of the substance with an "ontology of relations", which could be assimilated to something as a Process philosophy. For instance, the physical concepts of matter and rays correspond, according to him, to the metaphysical concepts of the thing and of movement; but whereas classical philosophy considered both as distinct, and the thing as ontologically real, modern science can not distinguish matter from rays: it is thus impossible to examine an immobile thing, which was precisely the conditions of knowledge according to classical theory of knowledge (Becoming being impossible to be known, in accordance with Aristotle and Plato's theories of knowledge).

In non-Cartesian epistemology, there is no "simple substance" as in Cartesianism, but only complex objects built by theories and experiments, and continuously improved (VI, 4). Intuition is therefore not primitive, but built (VI, 2). These themes led Bachelard to support a sort of constructivist epistemology.

In addition to epistemology, Bachelard's work deals with many other topics, including poetry, dreams, psychoanalysis, and the imagination. "The Psychoanalysis of Fire" (1938) and "The Poetics of Space" (1958) are among the most popular of his works.


Thomas S. Kuhn used Bachelard's notion of "epistemological rupture" ("coupure" or "rupture épistémologique") as re-interpreted by Alexandre Koyré to develop his theory of paradigm shifts; Althusser, Georges Canguilhem (his successor at the Sorbonne) and Michel Foucault also drew upon Bachelard's epistemology.

Bachelard's daughter, Suzanne, translated Husserl's "Formale und transzendentale Logik" in French.


* [ List of quotes] fr icon
* "Et, quoi qu’on en dise, dans la vie scientifique, les problèmes ne se posent pas d’eux-mêmes. C’est précisément ce sens du problème qui donne la marque du véritable esprit scientifique. Pour un esprit scientifique, toute connaissance est une réponse à une question. S’il n’y a pas eu de question, il ne peut y avoir de connaissance scientifique. Rien ne va de soi. Rien n’est donné. Tout est construit", Gaston Bachelard ("La formation de l'esprit scientifique", 1934)Fact|date=November 2007 :: "And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed." Fact|date=November 2007
* "It is the pen which dreams." ("The Poetics of Reverie", 1960) Fact|date=November 2007
* "It is not a question of observation which propels mankind forward as if toward a looking glass of great magnitude; it is an instance of aggrandized reflection that insinuates the human psyche to the inhuman."Fact|date=November 2007
*Michel Foucault: Bachelard "plays against his own culture with his own culture" [ Michel Foucault, [ Interview of Foucault on Bachelard] , INA (video) ] .


His works include:
* 1928: "Essai sur la connaissance approchée"
* 1928: "Étude sur l'évolution d'un problème de physique: la propagation thermique dans les solides"
* 1929: "La valeur inductive de la relativitée"
* 1932: "La pluralisme cohérent de la chimie moderne"
* 1933: "Les intuitions atomistiques: essai de classification"
* 1934: "Le nouvel esprit scientifique" ISBN 2-13-044374-5
* 1936: "La dialectique de la durée"
* 1937: "L'experience de l'espace dans la physique contemporaine"
* 1938: "La formation de l'esprit scientifique: contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective" ISBN 2-7116-1150-7
* 1938: "La psychanalyse du feu (The Psychoanalysis of Fire)"
* 1940: "La philosophie du non: essai d'une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique" ISBN 2-13-052578-4
* 1942: "L'eau et les rêves (Water and Dreams)" ISBN 2-253-06099-2
* 1943: "L'air et les songes (Air and Songs)"
* 1946: "La terre et les rêveries du repos (Earth and Reveries of Repose)" ISBN 2-7143-0299-8
* 1948: "La terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Earth and Reveries of Will)"
* 1949: "Le Rationalisme appliqué" (PUF, Paris)
* 1951: "L'activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine"
* 1953: "Le matérialisme rationnel"
* 1958: "La poétique de l'espace (The Poetics of Space)" English translation ISBN 0-8070-6473-4
* 1960: "La poétique de la rêverie" ( [ extract] fr icon)
* 1961: "La flamme d'une chandelle" ISBN 2-13-053901-7

English translations

Though most of Bachelard's major works on poetics have been translated into English, only a few of his works on the philosophy of science have been translated.
*"The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind." Orion Press, New York, 1968. Translation by G.C. Waterston. ("La philosophie du non")
*"The New Scientific Spirit." Beacon Press, Boston, 1985. Translation by A. Goldhammer. ("Le nouvel esprit scientifique")
*"Dialectic of Duration." Clinamen, Bolton, 2000. Translation by M. McAllester Jones. ("La dialectique de la durée.")
*"The Formation of the Scientific Mind." Clinamen, Bolton, 2002. Translation by M. McAllester Jones. ("La formation de l'esprit scientifique")

Bibliography on Bachelard

* Dominique Lecourt, "L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard" (1969). Vrin, Paris, 11e édition augmentée, 2002.
* Dominique Lecourt, "Pour une critique de l’épistémologie : Bachelard, Canguilhem, Foucault" (1972, réed. Maspero, Paris, 5e éd. 1980).
* D. Lecourt, "Marxism and Epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault", New Left Books, London (1975),
* Dominique Lecourt, "Bachelard, Epistémologie, textes choisis" (1971). PUF, Paris, 6e édition, 1996.
* Dominique Lecourt, "Bachelard, le jour et la nuit", Grasset, Paris, 1974.
*"Hommage à Gaston Bachelard. Etudes de philosophie et d'histoire des sciences", by C. Bouligand, G. Canguilhem, P. Costabel, F. Courtes, François Dagognet, M. Daumas, Gilles Granger, J. Hyppolite, R. Martin, R. Poirier and R. Taton
*" [ Actes du Colloque sur Bachelard de 1970] " (Colloque de Cerisy)
*" [ L'imaginaire du concept: Bachelard, une epistemologie de la pureté] " by Francoise Gaillard, MLN, Vol. 101, No. 4, French Issue (Sep., 1986), pp. 895-911
*"Gaston Bachelard ou le rêve des origines", by Jean-Luc Pouliquen, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2007.


Further reading

*Cristina Chimisso. (2001). "Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination", Routledge.
* cite encyclopedia
last = Dagognet
first = F.
title = Bachelard, Gaston
encyclopedia = Dictionary of Scientific Biography
volume = 1
pages = 365-366
publisher = Charles Scribner's Sons
location = New York
isbn = 0684101149

See also

*Georges Canguilhem
*Constructivist epistemology
*Epistemological psychology

External links

* [ Website of the Association of Friends of Gaston Bachelard] fr icon
* [ Centre Gaston Bachelard de Recherche sur l'Imaginaire et la Rationalité] , Université de Bourgogne
* [ Works of Bachelard on-line (in French)]

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