From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"D’abord, il n’y a rien, ensuite un rien profond, puis une profondeur bleue" --Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884 – October 16, 1962) was a French philosopher and poet. His most important work is in poetics and the philosophy of science. He introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break (obstacle épistémologique et rupture épistémologique). He influenced Peter Sloterdijk whose Spheres (1998) opens with a citation by Gaston Bachelard from his best-known work The Poetics of Space:
- "The difficulty that had to be overcome (…) was to avoid all geometrical evidence. In other words, I had to start with a sort of intimacy of roundness."
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 psychology of science
Bachelard's studies of the history and philosophy of science in such works as Le nouvel esprit scientifique ("The New Scientific Spirit", 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 errors 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.
Epistemological breaks: the discontinuity of scientific progress
Bachelard was critical of Auguste Comte's positivism, which considered science as a continual progress. To Bachelard, scientific developments such as Einstein's theory of relativity demonstrated the discontinuous nature of the history of sciences. Thus models that framed scientific development as continuous, such as that of Comte and Émile Meyerson, seemed simplistic and erroneous to Bachelard.
Through his concept of "epistemological break", Bachelard underlined the discontinuity at work in the history of sciences. However the term "epistemological break" itself is almost never used by Bachelard, but became famous through Louis Althusser.
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.
The role of epistemology in science
Bachelard was a rationalist in the Cartesian sense, although he recommended his "non-Cartesian epistemology" as a replacement for the more standard Cartesian epistemology. He compared "scientific knowledge" to ordinary knowledge in the way we deal with it, and saw error as only illusion: "Scientifically, one thinks truth as the historical rectification of a persistent error, and experiments as correctives for an initial, common illusion (illusion première).
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 scientific thought… an example of an abstract-concrete object." To understand the way it works, one has to take 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.
Shifts in scientific perspective
Bachelard saw how seemingly irrational theories often simply represented a drastic shift in scientific perspective. For instance, he claimed that the theory of probabilities was just another way of complexifying reality through a deepening of rationality (even though critics like Lord Kelvin found this theory irrational).<
One of his main theses 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 like 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 condition for 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.
Other academic interests
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, and the latter had a wide reception in architectural theory circles. Jean-Paul Sartre cites the former and Bachelard's "Water and Dreams" in his Being and Nothingness.
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 changes; Althusser, Georges Canguilhem (his successor at the Sorbonne) and Michel Foucault also drew upon Bachelard's epistemology.
His works include:
- Essai sur la connaissance approchée (1928)
- Étude sur l'évolution d'un problème de physique: la propagation thermique dans les solides (1928)
- La valeur inductive de la relativité (1929)
- La pluralisme cohérent de la chimie moderne (1932)
- L'Intuition de l'instant (1932)
- Les intuitions atomistiques: essai de classification (1933)
- Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934)
- La dialectique de la durée (1936)
- L'expérience de l'espace dans la physique contemporaine (1937)
- La formation de l'esprit scientifique: contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective (1938)
- La psychanalyse du feu (The Psychoanalysis of Fire, 1938)
- La philosophie du non: essai d'une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique (1940), publisher, 1978
- L'eau et les rêves (Water and Dreams, 1942)
- L'air et les songes (Air and Dreams, 1943)
- La terre et les rêveries du repos (Earth and Reveries of Repose, 1946)
- La terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Earth and Reveries of Will, 1948)
- Le Rationalisme appliqué (1949)
- L'activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine (1951)
- Le matérialisme rationnel (1953)
- La poétique de l'espace (The Poetics of Space) English translation ISBN 0-8070-6473-4 (1958)
- La poétique de la rêverie (1960 )
- La flamme d'une chandelle (1961)
- L'engagement rationaliste [The Rationalist Engagement] (1972)
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)
- Intuition of the Instant. Northwestern University Press, 2013. Translation by Eileen Rizo-Patron (L'intuition de l'instant)
- 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.
- Didier Gil, Bachelard et la culture scientifique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.
- Didier Gil, Autour de Bachelard - esprit et matière, un siècle français de philosophie des sciences (1867-1962), Les Belles Lettres, Encre marine, 2010.
- 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 épistémologie de la pureté by Françoise 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.