Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com
French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination by Cristina Chimisso (Routledge Studies in Twentieth Century Philosophy: Routledge) In this new study, Cristina Chimisso explores the work of the French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard (1884­-1962) by situating it within French cultural life during the first half of the century. The book is introduced by a study ‑based on an analysis of portraits and literary representations ‑ of how Bachelard's admirers transformed him into the mythical image of the Philosopher, the Patriarch and the `Teacher of Happiness'. Such a projected image is contrasted with Bachelard's own conception of philosophy and his personal pedagogical and moral ideas.

This pedagogical orientation is a major feature of Bachelard's texts, and one that deepens our understanding of his main philosophical arguments. The primary thesis of the book is based on an examination of the French educational system of the time and of French philosophy taught in schools and conceived by contemporary philosophers. This approach also helps to explain Bachelard's reception of psychoanalysis and his mastery of modern literature. Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination thus allows for a new reading of Bachelard's body of work, whilst at the same time providing an insight into twentieth‑century French culture.

The premise of Bachelard's theories is that any philosophy concerned with knowledge must learn from science: specifically, it must take into account the unique features of twentieth‑century science. In particular, the disjuncture occasioned by the replacement of Newtonian physics by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics suggested a `discontinuity', a term later translated by Althusser as `epistemological rupture'.

Historically, discontinuity is in evidence in the shift from Euclidean to non-Euclidean geometry and in the veritable revolution in conceptions of time and space of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Heisenberg and Einstein advanced new definitions of mass as a function of velocity; previously it was regarded as the reverse, i.e. velocity as a function of mass ‑ so the greater the matter, the greater the force needed to oppose it. Old theories were not inadequate, but the new theories entirely transcended existing explanations. They were not comparable on the same level. No knowledge, for Bachelard, was immutable. To use one of his metaphors, the stability of the contents (of knowledge) is not due to the stability of the container: forms of rationality cannot be permanent. This issued a strong challenge to empiricist conceptions of science, a challenge that was further strengthened in 1962 with the publication of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Bachelard's observation that the subject‑matter of science is not matter, but relations, suggests a point later elaborated by structuralists. All science is involved in what Bachelard called `objectification': it is oriented to observing phenomena as things. But Bachelard ventured that the phenomena under investigation are not substantive but relational: in other words, the subject of science is the relations of properties, not properties themselves. Science, like thought itself, is always in the process of objectifying, but is never complete or whole.

In his most famous book, The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard wrote of two metaphysical bases. `Rationalism' is the area of interpretation and reason, while `realism' provides rationalism with the raw material to be interpreted. Any science that engages with the material world by collecting facts and making observations will remain at a naive, experimental level and will stagnate. Rationalism provides frameworks for interpretation by posing theories abstractions or an underlying philosophical system. One cannot be privileged over the other: `Experimentation must give way to argument, and argument must have recourse to experimentation', Bachelard insisted. While the inextricability of theory and empirical research is nowadays taken for granted, Bachelard was boldly fusing the concerns of pragmatic science with philosophy, arguing to scientists that they were reliant on philosophical frames of reference, even if they were not aware of it. He cited Einstein as an example of a rational theorist, who needed experimentation in order to develop his theories.

In this sense, Bachelard's work emphasizes the role of human imagination, especially the image related to matter, movement, forces and dreams linked to his theories of science. Imagination is not a reflection of the observable world, but a creative force that enables us to build interpretative frames of reference. Bachelard introduces the concept of surrationalisme: this describes the way in which we enrich rationalism by a combination of observation of the material world and creative, non‑rational imagination. Imagination has an autonomy that resists predictive science. But it is not an imagination that has its source in the unconscious, as in Freud; but emerges from semi­conscious states, such as daydreaming. It is this inviolable human quality that feeds into science and revivifies it. In this sense, Bachelard's conception of imagination is close to Jung's.

Effectively, the imagination so vital to science is a product of human will, but which is made possible by its relation with the material world. Hence we see the importance of relational properties: humans imagine in frameworks of knowledge made possible by science, which is itself subject to both rationalism and experimentation. It is this emphasis that resurfaced in structuralism and post‑structuralism.

Author Summary:

There are many Bachelard's in this book. There is Bachelard as a mythical character, whose beard, hair, eyes and posture made him the Philosopher, the Patriarch and the Teacher of Happiness. The teacher of physics and chemistry at the secondary school of Bar‑sur‑Aube who lurks in his own writing, was behind the analysis of secondary school syllabi and textbooks, which showed the environment in which he spent eleven years, and the intellectual and moral ideals which informed it. He also appears as the author of philosophical books, tackling fundamental epistemological, historiographical and pedagogical problems. His criticism of Bergson's duree not only clarifies his own conception of time as discontinuous, but also confirms his belonging to a group of philosophers based at the Sorbonne, who were in antagonistic relationship with the College de France. In this book there is also Bachelard as a critic of contemporary ethnology and sociology, and as a promoter of his own version of psychoanalysis. His relationships with the surrealists and their positions were described through their respective interpretation of psychoanalysis. Their common interests were not the only reasons which made Bachelard acceptable to the surrealists and vice versa, even though he described himself as a rationalist whereas they sought approaches to reality which were alternative to scientific rationality. Bachelard's rationalism was much less rigid than traditional versions disliked by the Surrealists; it was open to change, and allowed for inconsistencies between its different applications in different domain of knowledge, as showed by his conception of `regional rationalism.' The mutual interest between him and these avant‑garde artists and writers did not however eliminate the profound differences of their projects. It was significant enough, though, that Bachelard decided to dedicate a whole monograph to the interpretation of the work of Lautreamont, the poet whom the Surrealists worshipped. Indeed the last Bachelard appearing in this book is a reader of Les chants de Maldoror.

These different milieux in which Bachelard found himself or was acquainted with‑secondary school, university, avant-garde movements‑were all crucial in order to understand the questions to which Bachelard's work was intended to be an answer, its style and its intended readers.

Rather than emphasizing his originality, or even attempting to sketch his personality, I have focused on the conditions of his philosophical perspective, style, choice of sources and his approach to texts. By studying the roles and mutual connections of the disciplines at the Faculty of Letters, the careers of academics, the institutional setting of secondary and higher education and the style of philosophical literature, it was possible to understand the questions which were relevant in his books, the reasons for the style of his writings, the connections between different topics and approaches. In other words, although of course Bachelard's philosophy cannot be deduced from those conditions, without them it could not have developed as it did. He could not have elaborated on the relationship between morality and the sciences, often taking the existence of such relationship for granted, if this were not a topic for philosophers, and if their careers had not followed a certain pattern. His use of ethnological and psychological sources could not have been the same if those disciplines had not been part of philosophy, and therefore normally discussed by philosophers. He could not have employed that style, seen as poetic or imprecise by some critics, if it had not been acceptable, indeed common in his milieu, and justified by a widespread conception of philosophy as an intervention on moral, pedagogical and social questions.

The most important philosophical questions which Bachelard attempted to answer with his work were questions about the mind which were fundamental not only for philosophers and historians of science, but also for ethnologists, psychologists and sociologists. Is the mind fixed or subject to change? Is it universal? What is the correct method to investigate it? These disciplines had similar concerns because institutionally they were still part of philosophy, or had strong links with it. Indeed, the answers given by different academics cannot be separated from their struggle to secure an institutional space for their discipline as independent of philosophy, and as one of the `positive sciences.' The `formation' of Bachelard's philosophy, and its receptions, depended on a number of institutional and professional circumstances. In turn my analysis of Bachelard's philosophy was aimed to show that the contents of any work depend on the social and institutional circumstances in which the work is written, published and read.

The examination of Parisian academia showed that the question: `what is philosophy?' has neither a simple nor a single answer. Philosophy is a different activity in different times and places. I chose to explain which type of inquiry philosophy was in Paris in the interwar period by showing its disciplinary space in academia. This is certainly a partial perspective, not only because it does not take into account philosophy as practiced outside academia, but also because it only focuses on one aspect of philosophy, namely its constraints and possibilities given by institutional organizations. Indeed I only considered some of the social realities in which Bachelard's books were written, and certainly other studies would be able to shed light on other aspects of them, thus making this picture richer and more complete. Nonetheless, this analysis has shown how differently philosophy could be conceived at that time in France from, for example, nowadays in Britain, and has provided a key to read Bachelard's work.

The disciplinary space of philosophy in French academia encouraged a broad range of interests in its practitioners. It explained why philosophers of science such as Brunschvicg and Bachelard considered important for their work the study of Melanesian customs made by their colleague Lucien Levy‑Bruhl, professor of history of modern philosophy. Similarly it is not surprising that philosophers and historians of science were informed about the findings of experimental psychology, given the institutional profile of their disciplines, and their own careers. It was not perceived as peculiar that the founder of the Institut d'Histoire des Science et Techniques of the University of Paris would have previously founded a laboratory of experimental psychology at the University of Dijon. Sociology had likewise strong links to philosophy; the students studying sociology at the University of Paris were pursuing a philosophy degree.

The institutional setting had a strong influence in the life histories of those philosophers. Bachelard's experience as a schoolteacher was far from being an exception. The majority of French university professors had a similar career, and consequently had knowledge of teaching young people, and of school literature. The philosopher's biographies, their training that discouraged specialization and the institutional ideology of culture generale could not fail to shape their work and their lectures.

Moreover, my reading of Bachelard's work brings to light an approach to the history of science and a set of questions which can enrich present philosophical debates, by showing the variety of possible questions to be addressed. For instance, it becomes clear that for Bachelard the mind‑independent existence of objects was not a central philosophical question. Even when attacking realism, he actually targeted either the continuity between common sense and science, or the irrational attachment to `things' as an example of psychological complexes. In other words, although he was interested in showing that the objects of common sense‑or of reverie‑and those of science are different, he did not consider a philosophical problem the status of those objects independently of the human mind. A much more pressing question for the academic environment to which Bachelard belonged was the character and history of the scientific mind, and whether it exhibited a different logic and a different way of regarding nature from the `natural' mind. His conception of the scientific object as constructed‑or `rectified,' in his own words‑is a consequence of his answer to questions which were about the mind and its different ways of organising the contents of knowledge. In his philosophy, scientific objects are no less real because they are cultural and technical products.

The other important question of the historical development of science was also connected with the study of the mind. The study of the history of science as a means of answering epistemological questions was already practiced at that time. Indeed the Sorbonne philosophers to whom Bachelard was close regarded historical studies as able to make data available for the study of the mind. Bachelard developed this approach in a direction which led him to a complex compromise between two traditions, one being that of philological accuracy and the other that of a historical philosophy. On the one hand, Bachelard justified his thesis of the discontinuity of historical development on the ground of historical analysis. For him, a careful and extensive reading

of documents belonging to the so‑called history of science makes one realize that, over time, sharp discontinuities occur in the conceptions and practices concerning the study of nature, as in any other intellectual enterprise. A historian who knows the details of past documents would not fall into the trap of easy generalizations. He or she sees that continuity in history and the stability of concepts over time is a philosophical construction, made at the expense of the real complexity of intellectual history. Bachelard attacked Bergson's duree precisely on this ground: by renouncing history Bergson reached wrong philosophical conclusions. Bachelard used the work of a historian, Roupnel, in order to undermine Bergson's approach.

On the other hand Bachelard's use of history was aimed to provide philosophical answers to questions about the nature of knowledge, and to elaborate his theory of historical development. His own philological and historical precision was not as great as that of other French scholars, not only of historians and philologists, but even of such philosophers as his own teacher Brunschvicg. The most strident contrast, however, is to be found between Bachelard's philosophical use of history and the philological awareness of historians of science of his own generation. Metzger and Koyre are the most prominent among these.

Bachelard's historiography is by no means separated from his epistemology, for the problems which he wanted to solve did not allow for a clear distinction between the two. The same indeed applies to the distinction between philosophy of science and morality. There was nothing surprising in the fact that Bachelard posed himself the question of how to improve the mind, and that in his writing he aimed to show the way in which to succeed in this endeavor. His conception of history of science as a rational and anachronistic reconstruction of past events was indeed also a solution to the problem of how science progresses and how to make this progress even more smooth and valuable for the moral improvement of the individual and of society. This is why he presented recurrent history as pedagogically crucial: for him, science made its own history rational, and in turn, learning this rationalized history would enhance and develop that rationality.

The encounter with other questions and other perspectives from which to look at science and its history, as presented in this book, can only broaden current philosophy and historiography of the sciences. Moreover, several of Bachelard's conceptions are able to stimulate a reflection outside their own specific context. These conceptions are those with which this book has been concerned; among them, that of the scientific object as the outcome of social relationships and technical processes; of science as a dialectical activity; and of linear and progressive history of science as a `rationalised' and anachronistic reconstruction of events. Perhaps the most important conception of Bachelard and of the philosophy of science of his time at the Sorbonne is that philosophy cannot do without history, and that philosophical ideas are historical.

Headline 3

insert content here