Gaston Bachelard 1884-1962
French philosopher and literary critic.
The following entry provides criticism on Bachelard's career from 1961 through 1991.
Bachelard is widely regarded as a major figure in twentieth-century scientific thought and literary criticism. Although relatively obscure outside of his native France, his essays on science, imagination, space, and reverie are a significant contribution to the fields of philosophy and literature. Moreover, some scholars consider him to be one of the greatest psychoanalysts since Sigmund Freud.
Bachelard was born on June 27, 1884, in Bar-sur-Aube, France. After leaving school, he worked as a postal clerk for nine years. Studying part-time, he earned a degree in mathematics. He served in the French military during World War I then taught natural sciences in Bar-sur-Aube. In 1927 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Paris. Two years later he became a professor of philosophy at Dijon, then at the Sorbonne in 1941. He published his well-known philosophical study, La Psychanalyse du feu (The Psychoanalysis of Fire) in 1938, garnering serious critical attention. He won the Grand Prix for literature in 1961 for his contribution to literature and philosophy. On October 16, 1962, Bachelard died in Paris.
A professor of the natural sciences and philosophy, Bachelard focused on the history and philosophy of science early in his career. He was an important figure in the “criticism of science” school, which theorized that the pursuit of scientific knowledge is more than simply observing and analyzing reality because our concept of reality is constantly changing. From there, he began to focus on the creative force of imagination as the key to reality. In La Philosophe du non (1940; The Philosophy of No), he contended that the philosophy of science is polarized between the extremes of rationalism and empiricism. Rather than reject either of these, he attempted to formulate a scientific philosophy that takes both extremes into account. He began to incorporate his scientific philosophy into the study of literature. In La Poétique de l'espace (1957; The Poetics of Space), he offered a phenomenology of poetic image as inner and outer space. Moreover, he considered the image in terms of the “reverberations” it inspired within him. In such works as La Poétique de la rêverie (1960; The Poetics of Reverie) he theorized that since reality is fashioned by imagination, the state of day dreaming, or reverie, is the highest state of mind. He also differentiated between formal and material imagination. In his best known work, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard introduced his theory that the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—embody the creative temperament as well as the basic forms of life. He went on to explore the meanings of these symbols throughout time in world literature. In other works of literary criticism, he traced the use of imagery in the works of such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, and Lautréamont.
Bachelard is little known outside of his native France. Some scholars have asserted that his contribution to the philosophy of science and literary criticism are so diverse that it is almost impossible to fully evaluate them. The progression of his thought from the philosophy of science to literary criticism has been another area of interest for scholars; The Psychoanalysis of Fire is regarded as a transitional essay and is his best-known study. Commentators note that his theories were greatly influenced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and Bachelard's impact on French philosophy and literary criticism has been an area of critical discussion. He earned a reputation as a prolific, influential philosopher and psychoanalyst; his works have been called erudite, complex, and paradoxical. Commentators have also investigated affinities between his philosophies and English with German Romanticism, Symbolism, Surrealism, and Existentialism. Often viewed as one of the most significant philosophers of science and literary criticism of the twentieth century, Bachelard's work on reverie, imagination, and psychoanalysis is often contrasted with that of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Etude sur l'evolution d'un probleme de physique: La Propagation thermique dans les solides (essay) 1927
Essai sur la connaissance approchée (essay) 1928
L'Intuition de l'instant (essay) 1932
Le Pluralisme coherent de la chimie moderne (essay) 1932
Les Intuitions atomistiques (essay) 1933
Le Nouvel esprit scientifique (essay) 1934
La Dialectique de la durée [The Dialectic of Duration] (essay) 1936
L'Experience de l'espace dans la physique contemporaine (essay) 1937
La Formation de l'esprit scientifique: Contribution à une psychoanalyse de la connaissance objective (essay) 1938
La Psychanalyse du feu [The Psychoanalysis of Fire] (essay) 1938
Lautréamont (essay) 1940
La Philosophe du non: Essai d'une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique [The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind] (essay) 1940
L'Eau et les rêves: Essai sur l'imagination de la matière [Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter] (essay) 1942
L'Air et les songes: Essai sur l'imagination du mouvement [Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement] (essay) 1943
(The entire section is 245 words.)
SOURCE: Christofides, C. G. “Gaston Bachelard's Phenomenology of the Imagination.” Romanic Review 52, no. 1 (February 1961): 36-47.
[In the following essay, Christofides attempts to define Bachelard's esthetic, calling it “a fruitful theoretical statement that has affinities with Symbolist, Surrealist and Existentialist work evoking insights which are partly contingent on the theories of contemporary psychology.”]
Gaston Bachelard's lifelong fecund and original investigations into the realm of the imaginary and the stuff of dreams reached a triumphal apogee in 1957 with the publication of a volume on the “poetics of space.”1 In a year that watched with exhilarating awe the penetration of space by a humanly-made satellite this was no science-fiction gimmick. It was the natural culmination of a work which for the last two decades had been leading the Sorbonne's philosopher of science not so much away from science as into the mystery of the creative act, the imagination which brings life to the material cause and the nature of oneiric experience.
None but the French academic and journalistic critics and a few literary linguists2 have paid any attention to this philosopher's main body of work, some of them dismissing it as revival of alchemy and magic. In the United States, references to his work can be found in four major articles, two of them by Professor...
(The entire section is 5689 words.)
SOURCE: Ehrmann, Jacques. “Introduction to Gaston Bachelard.” MLN 81, no. 5 (December 1966): 572-78.
[In the following essay, Ehrmann traces the different phases of Bachelard's career.]
Before dealing with Bachelard, the literary critic, it seems relevant to recall that he was formerly a philosopher of sciences. He had already spent an important part of his career writing books and essays on scientific topics when, in 1938, he undertook his first “literary” work. This change, which appears so radical and of which there are very few examples in our modern times of intense specialization, concerns only the object of his inquiry (literature instead of science), but not his method. It is only later—during what one might consider his third phase—that the method changed. Leaving aside his work on science, we shall limit ourselves to an exposition and analysis of the phases related to Bachelard's literary career.
How did this shift from science to literature occur? When he undertook the investigation of “the formation of scientific thought,” Bachelard's intention as indicated in the subtitle of his book, was to psychoanalyze objective knowledge. He wished to purify it of all possible remnants of the magical, the irrational, the “literary,” and the theological which were at the core of such pre-scientific disciplines as astrology, alchemy, and medecine and which...
(The entire section is 2874 words.)
SOURCE: Grimsley, Ronald. “Two Philosophical Views of the Literary Imagination: Sartre and Bachelard.” Comparative Literature Studies 8, no. 1 (March 1971): 42-57.
[In the following essay, Grimsley compares the role of the imagination in the philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre and Bachelard.]
Whereas any attempt to clarify the relationship between philosophy and literature has to reckon with the fundamental and obvious difference between literary creation and reflective analysis, the bearing of philosophy on literary criticism seems at first sight easier to understand and justify. On the one hand, the writer derives his initial inspiration from within his own consciousness and begins by identifying himself with the imaginative impulse to which he seeks to give formal objective embodiment through the use of language. The critic, on the other hand, like any other reader, has to start with what is for the author the end product of all his efforts—with the literary work itself. Approaching the work from the outside, the critic tries to consider it as a phenomenon, which has a certain form and meaning for him. Although his ultimate purpose is undoubtedly to enjoy and appreciate the work, he must first of all clarify its essential features by setting it at a certain distance from himself and treating it as an object of reflection and contemplation. In order to see the work as some kind of “object,” the...
(The entire section is 6476 words.)
SOURCE: Forsyth, Neil. “Gaston Bachelard's Theory of the Poetic Imagination: Psychoanalysis to Phenomenology.” In The Quest for Imagination: Essays in Twentieth-Century Aesthetic Criticism, edited by O. B. Hardison, Jr., pp. 225-53. Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971.
[In the following essay, Forsyth provides an overview of Bachelard's critical approach to the concept of imagination, asserting that his development progressed “from the objectivity of psychoanalysis to the subjectivity of phenomenology.”]
When Gaston Bachelard died in 1962, he was probably best known to students of the philosophy of science for his work in the French post-Cartesian tradition. But at present he is also becoming well known for his studies of the literary imagination and the theory of criticism. He continued to teach the philosophy of science at the Sorbonne until his retirement in 1955, always maintaining his early interest in the rational intellect. But gradually he became interested in the problem of the non-rational imagination, partly as a result of his studies of rationalism, but also through the influence of such writers as Bergson and Husserl. While insisting upon the radical separation of the intellect and the imagination, he ultimately became chiefly concerned with the imagination. As his interest in it grew, he first attempted to study it objectively in the same way he had...
(The entire section is 12175 words.)
SOURCE: Kaplan, Edward K. “Gaston Bachelard's Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33, no. 1 (September 1972): 1-24.
[In the following essay, Kaplan surveys the major points of Bachelard's writings on imagination.]
The academic career of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was devoted to epistemology and the history and philosophy of science.1 A militant rationalist and materialist concerning science, Bachelard also indulged his rich imagination in a series of studies on imagination, from The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) to The Poetics of Reverie (1960).2 These essays examine the images of various writers whose works provide the subject matter for Bachelard's own theorizing on imagination. His working method was one of empathy with the text, identification with the supposed inner impulses of the writer. Bachelard's style is correspondingly subjective and personal, with theoretical formulations interspersed with his own play. He often uses technical terminology from literature, phenomenology, metaphysics, esthetics, etc., in a novel way, reinterpreting their accepted meanings in terms of his present perspective. The multiplicity of perspectives, reinforced by an exceptional lexical luxuriousness, has made Bachelard's thought on imagination appear more obscure than necessary. However, underlying this protean aspect of his...
(The entire section is 10727 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Roch. “Gaston Bachelard and the Power of Poetic Being.” French Literature Series 4 (1977): 234-38.
[In the following essay, Smith examines the relationship between Bachelard's works on science and on the imagination.]
A major feature of Gaston Bachelard's epistemological work is his observation that modern science, in its search for knowledge, goes beyond immediate reality. In Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique, for instance, he points out that “L'observation scientifique … transcende l'immédiat; elle reconstruit le réel après avoir reconstruit ses schémas.”1 Through mathematics, science creates a world that shakes our faith in the reality of objects around us as it demonstrates “la fragilité des connaissances premières.”2 What we normally think of as “real”, that is the world of objects, becomes an epistemological obstacle when mathematical relation replaces substance as the basis of reality. The result is that reason isolates man from the familiar world of objects where imagination operates and which, from the scientist's point of view, must be regarded as a temptation to be avoided. In fact, it is common to point to La Psychanalyse du feu as the place where Bachelard himself succumbed to this temptation after having set out to warn others of its pitfalls.
Perhaps the anomaly of seeing such a shift within a single...
(The entire section is 1305 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Roch C. “Gaston Bachelard and Critical Discourse: The Philosopher of Science as Reader.” Stanford French Review 5, no. 2 (fall 1981): 217-28.
[In the following essay, Smith provides an assessment of Bachelard's contribution to critical discourse.]
Usually original, often provocative, Bachelard's quarter century of work on the literary imagination has itself caught the imagination of numerous critics and imitators who would apply his approach to other texts. This is particularly true of his works on the imagination of elements, or simply the “Elements,” as I shall call them here.1 Some of the early adaptations of Bachelard's Elements may seem somewhat rigid or naive to us now.2 But despite numerous attempts to determine Bachelard's influence on critical discourse, including Vincent Therrien's heroic endeavor to document Bachelard's “revolution in literary criticism,” by identifying eight critical methods in his work,3 the specific nature of Bachelard's contribution remains frustratingly elusive. For some, Bachelard is primarily a psychological critic.4 Others consider his so-called phenomenology of the literary image his most original legacy.5 Still others continue to see in his theory of the four elements the fundamental principle of his poetics and his main contribution to literary research.6 Even...
(The entire section is 5130 words.)
SOURCE: McAllester, Mary. “Bachelard Twenty Years On: An Assessment.” Revue de Litterature Comparee 58, no. 2 (April 1984): 165-76.
[In the following essay, McAllester evaluates Bachelard's legacy as critic and philosopher.]
Bachelard died in October 1962, leaving us a rich and singular legacy: some ninety publications in all, and twenty-three books—twelve on the philosophy of modern science, two on time and consciousness, nine on poetic imagination—published between 1928 and 1961, and a tenth book on poetry left unfinished when he died. What has become of this legacy in the last twenty years? Many have expressed their debt to Bachelard's books on poetic images, and he is generally held to have inspired “la nouvelle critique” of 1965 and after. His epistemology has been equally seminal; Georges Canguilhem, for instance, in Idéologie et rationalité, refers to “la leçon de Gaston Bachelard” which has inspired and fortified his “jeunes collègues”—this is in 1977. Two years later, Vincent Descombes in Le Même et l'autre: quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978) mentions Bachelard only three times. Descombes admits that his definition of “contemporary French philosophy” is limited to “celle dont on aura le plus parlé” (p. 13). Bachelard is left out because apparently in 1978 he is no longer talked about. Yet Canguilhem was talking about him in...
(The entire section is 5044 words.)
SOURCE: Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “Imagining the Stuff of the World: Reflections on Gaston Bachelard and Ivan Illich.” New Orleans Review 12, no. 3 (fall 1985): 81-7.
[In the following essay, Slattery finds parallels between the philosophy of the imagination in Bachelard's Water and Dreams and Ivan Illich's H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness.]
Have we forgotten the elements of the world, those aspects of the world's body that connect us to things on a level more intimate and important than that of simple possession? And culturally, have we moderns become suspicious of, if not overtly distrusting of, the imagination and its place within the ecology of culture? This ecology is also related to culture's language which may have suffered a similar fate. Roberts Avens has recently written that “beginning with nominalism in the 14th century and culminating in Wittgenstein and Sartre, we have witnessed an eclipse of the magic function of the word and its replacement by the semantic function.”1 Clearly, what happens to the land happens as well to language.
To these questions and observations, two texts, written some forty-five years apart, attempt to interrogate the play and place of the imagination as well as the human body as points of contact with the world. The first book, written by the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is Water and Dreams: An Essay on...
(The entire section is 4899 words.)
SOURCE: Higonnet, Margaret R. “Bachelard and the Romantic Imagination.” Cahiers Roumains d'Etudes Litteraires 1 (1987): 92-109.
[In the following essay, Higonnet notes the contradictions in Bachelard's ideas about imagination and investigates the influence of Romantic theories on his work.]
The coherence of Gaston Bachelard's ideas about imagination, has long eluded students of his work. Because of his shifts in critical approach, a debate has arisen over what system, if any, governs his meditations on poetic imagery.
The problem requires a comparative approach, since Bachelard's work is rooted in the poetics and poetry of English and German Romanticism, a period for which he declared his affinity. The purpose of comparing Bachelard's thought to that of his Romantic predecessors is not, however, to demonstrate his intellectual dependence. Many students of Bachelard have noted in passing his interest in writers like Novalis.1 Since none explores this interest in detail, it has not been recognized that his thought is closer to Romantic theories than to later aesthetic systems. The key point is that Bachelard turned to Romantic precedents not only for isolated ideas but also for his most characteristic and problematic critical procedures: his reliance on metaphoric associations, disjunctive maxims, and apparently contradictory assertions. These methods are part of his...
(The entire section is 9206 words.)
SOURCE: Kaplan, Edward K. “The Writing Cure: Gaston Bachelard on Baudelaire's Ambivalent Harmonies.” Symposium 41, no. 4 (winter 1987-1988): 278-91.
[In the following essay, Kaplan maintains that “Bachelard's special focus on images of ambivalence in Charles Baudelaire's poetry, and their aesthetic resolution of existentially insurmountable contradictions, points to the energetic center of both philosopher and poet.”]
Gaston Bachelard's brief, incisive, suggestive, and sometimes incomplete analyses of Baudelaire illuminate the philosopher's preoccupation with writing as a cure for death anxiety and essential solitude. As both theoretician and literary interpreter, Bachelard promoted a philosophy of free imagination and reading pleasure which hardly evokes such grim thoughts. He is known primarily as a philosopher of dreamed plenitude. While it is generally true that, as a critic, he pulls quotations out of their context to illustrate his phenomenology or metaphysics, his choice usually takes implicit account of the work's integrity. The networks of imagery he describes can delimit a writer's vision as well as the macrostructure of a complex opus. Bachelard's special focus on images of ambivalence in Baudelaire's poetry, and their aesthetic resolution of existentially insurmountable contradictions, points to the energetic center of both philosopher and poet.
(The entire section is 6079 words.)
SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “‘A Dream’ as Key to a Reverie Pattern in Matthew Arnold: Interactions of Water and Fire.” Victorian Poetry 26, nos. 1-2 (summer 1988): 45-60.
[In the following essay, Bidney applies a Bachelardian “elemental” approach to fire and water images in Matthew Arnold's poetry.]
Gaston Bachelard, in his work on the phenomenology of reverie, focuses attention on the power of the primal elements—earth, water, air and fire—to shape and animate recurrent patterns of epiphanic experience in the visions of major poetic seers.1 Patterns of Arnoldian reverie have of course attracted the interest of many critics, and have been rewardingly studied from various points of view. A. Dwight Culler based a book on a three-part analysis of Arnold's archetypic River of Life, as it flows from the upper “forest glade” (youthful innocence and maternal security) through the traumatic “Gorge” of threatening transition to the “burning plain” (the antithesis of the forest glade, conflict with the father instead of unity with the mother), to issue at last in the “wide-glimmering” sea of “reconciliation.”2 This correlation of topographical levels with levels of being or experience is helpful, especially when qualified by Alan Roper's caveats concerning the wide variety of conceptual meanings that can attach to specific features of Arnoldian poetic scenery...
(The entire section is 7034 words.)
SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Bachelard's Images.” In Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions, pp. 96-106. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Culler judges Bachelard's overall contribution to science and literary criticism, contending that “the diversity of his accomplishments makes Bachelard difficult to assess and contributes to the neglect of his ideas.”]
At the time of his death in 1962, Gaston Bachelard was France's leading historian and philosopher of science as well as one of its most original and influential literary critics; but to pupils and colleagues he was a moral and philosophic example, a patriarch, majestically bearded, who had mastered the art of happiness and practiced it among books and friends. Rejecting Existentialism and its cognates with the simple credo, ‘L'angoisse est factice’ [anguish is factitious] he taught the delights of poetic reverie and the difficult beauties of mathematical physics as the two principal strains of ‘une pensée heureuse’. He was, one colleague wrote, ‘L'être le plus humain que j'ai jamais connu’ [the most human being I have ever known].
The diversity of his accomplishments makes Bachelard difficult to assess and contributes to the neglect of his ideas. Such a range of competence and originality is almost unprecedented, and whenever one tries to engage with some part of...
(The entire section is 4399 words.)
SOURCE: Nakell, Martin. “The Last Image.” New Orleans Review 15, no. 3 (fall 1988): 49-59.
[In the following essay, Nakell uses Bachelard's psychoanalytic criticism to interpret the image and its origins, and investigates his concept of reverie.]
Well they'd made up their minds to be everywhere because why not. Everywhere was theirs because they thought so. They with two leaves they whom the birds despise. In the middle of stones they made up their minds. They started to cut.
Well they cut everything because why not. Everything was theirs because they thought so. It fell into its shadows and they took both away. Some to have some for burning.
Well in the morning they cut the last one. Like the others the last one fell into its shadow. It fell into its shadow on the water. They took it away its shadow stayed on the water.
—The Lice, W. S. Merwin
Although in our common culture we store and have access to a host of associations and connotative relationships to the images of a shadow, or a race of people with “two leaves,” and although Merwin draws on these associations, nonetheless the poem is original, and not derivative, i.e., it cannot be explained on any other basis, in any terms other than itself. The image must be apprehended and swallowed whole.
Certainly poetry contains content which is open...
(The entire section is 7158 words.)
SOURCE: Johnson, Don. “The Appalachian Homeplace as Oneiric House.” In The Poetics of Appalachian Space, edited by Parks Lanier, Jr., pp. 40-9. Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Johnson applies Bachelard's theories of “felicitous” space to the Appalachian experience, focusing on the work of Jim Wayne Miller's The Mountains Have Come Closer.]
The exploration of “felicitous space” undertaken by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space becomes especially poignant when applied to the Appalachian experience. In Appalachia the oneiric house is frequently a rotting cabin in a remote “holler” that loggers or coal miners have abandoned. More often than not only a foundation or decaying chimney remains to mark a homeplace, or, lacking these easily recognizable artifacts, only a bed of daffodils or a hardy apple tree that the careful observer can identify as evidence of earlier habitation. “Abandonment” is a luxury peculiar to rural America, owing quite simply to our culture's emphasis on mobility and to the vast amount of land available for habitation. A deserted cabin in the mountains of Tennessee is different in its essence, however, from the abandoned farm on the Great Plains or the hunter's shack up the canyon from the ghost town in Colorado. Because little productive, arable land as accessible as most old prairie homesteads tended to...
(The entire section is 2973 words.)
Basalla, George. Review of The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, by Gaston Bachelard. Library Journal 93, no. 9 (1 May 1968): 1905.
Favorable review of The Philosophy of No.
Review of The Poetics of Reverie, by Gaston Bachelard. Kirkus Review 37, no. 18 (15 September 1969): 1035.
Calls The Poetics of Reverie “erudite, richly suggestive, but vaporous in meaning.”
Knapp, Bettina L. Review of On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, by Gaston Bachelard. Library Journal 97, no. 8 (15 April 1972): 1436.
Positive assessment of On Poetic Imagination and Reverie.
Tiles, Mary. Bachelard: Science and Objectivity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 242 p.
Full-length critical study of Bachelard's scientific philosophy.
Additional coverage of Bachelard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100, 89-92; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; and Literature Resource Center.
(The entire section is 133 words.)