Psychoanalysis emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud maintained that neuroses, or emotional problems, were the result of psychological conflicts, especially conflicts of a sexual nature, that people had pushed out of their conscious minds into their subconscious minds. Dealing with these neuroses involved analyzing the thoughts of patients in order to bring the conflicts to consciousness. One of Freud’s closest followers, Carl Gustav Jung, broke with Freud over the sexual nature of psychological conflicts. Jung maintained that the unconscious was more than the personal experiences of individuals. In Jung’s view, each individual’s unconscious mind contains clusters of ideas in the form of images, known as archetypes, that are common to all people. Resolving unconscious conflicts was, then, a matter of analyzing an individual’s particular arrangement of shared archetypes.
Bachelard shared with Jung the view that understanding thought meant analyzing the unconscious patterns of thinking that people held in common. Bachelard’s initial intention in writing The Psychoanalysis of Fire was to analyze the unconscious prescientific patterns of thought about fire in order to free scientific thought from these prescientific patterns. This was important because fire was one of the four basic elements of the prescientific worldview, along with earth, air, and water, which became subjects of later books by Bachelard. In the process of writing the book, though, Bachelard became interested in the psychological and literary importance of the image of fire. In this turn toward the “irrational,” Bachelard was influenced by the surrealists, artists and philosophers who believed that the mind had a reality of its own that should be explored. He was also affected by literary and anthropological writings on mythology, particularly by the works of Sir James G. Frazer.