Gaston Bachelard Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Bachelard was a major figure in the “criticism of science” school, which argues that scientific activity involves merely observing and analyzing reality. Bachelard pointed out that reality, or the “real world,” is constantly changing, and therefore attempts to approximate reality do not involve concrete knowledge of things.

Early Life

Gaston Bachelard was born in a small town about two hundred kilometers south of Paris. His father and his grandfather were shoemakers, and he grew up in modest circumstances. He finished secondary school in his hometown of Bar-sur-Aube, served briefly as a teaching assistant, and then became a clerk in the telegraph and post office in the town of Remiremont in 1903. Bachelard served in the military as a telegraphist and then returned to the postal service in 1907. He was assigned to the Gare de l’Est post office in Paris, where he began to pursue further education.

Intending to become an engineer, Bachelard took up the study of mathematics at Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris in 1909. He received his first diploma, a licence in mathematics, at the age of twenty-one. In the summer of 1914, Bachelard married a schoolteacher from his region. One month later, World War I broke out. He again entered the military and fought in the trenches for more than three years, receiving the Croix de Guerre medal.

At the end of the war, Bachelard returned to Bar-sur-Aube. In his mid-thirties, married, and with a daughter, Bachelard gave up his ambition to become an engineer and took a job teaching physics and chemistry in his old secondary school. He also began to study philosophy. In 1920, Bachelard’s wife died and he obtained his licence in philosophy. Two years later, he earned another degree, the agrégation. In 1927, after completing two dissertations, he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne. He continued to teach at the secondary school in Bar-sur-Aube for three more years, but he also taught classes at the University of Dijon. At the age of forty-four, Bachelard published his first book aside from his dissertations, La Valeur inductive de la relativité (the indicative value of relativity). The following year, he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the University of Dijon.

Life’s Work

Bachelard is an unusual figure in intellectual history because he was both a philosopher of science and a literary analyst. In his early work on the philosophy of science, Bachelard maintained that all scientific knowledge is approximation. When we know things, we attempt to approximate them by measuring them. He distinguished between the first approximation of our everyday senses and the second approximation of modern scientific knowledge. The second approximation does not involve seeing things but calculating them. The modern scientist has access only to the mathematical measurements of relations among things. Therefore, the objects of the scientist’s knowledge are mathematical relations, rational constructions of the human mind. These constructions do involve something that is measured, though, so the philosopher of science must see knowledge in the connection between empirical experimentation and the systems of rational interpretation that thinkers impose on the results of experiments.

In The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard looked closely at scientific epistemology, at how scientists know things, and at how thinking, particularly in images, influences scientific thought. This concern with images marked an important turn in Bachelard’s thought because it would lead to his later interest in literature. He maintained that the post-Einstein era was the time of “the new scientific mind.” The old scientific mind of the Newtonian era saw reality as something to be discovered through experiments. From the new scientific perspective, experimental investigations are directed by the questions that we ask, and experimental results make sense only because human reason imposes an order on them. One consequence of this back-and-forth movement between rationality and empiricism is that scientists must attempt to look critically at the human tendency to think in images and to interpret information in terms of the experiences of the senses. A second consequence is that scientific knowledge is dialectical; it moves back and forth between thought and empirical results and moves forward by the opposition between the two.

The dialectical nature of science led it forward. Bachelard saw science progressing through breaks with older ways of thinking. The three major periods of scientific thought were the prescientific period, which included classical antiquity and the sixteenth through part of the eighteenth century; the scientific period, which extended from the late eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century; and the era of the new scientific mind, which began with Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1905.

Because science progresses through breaks with older ways of thinking, Bachelard believed that the philosopher of science must be continually analyzing the commonly accepted images of the world that shape the thinking of scientists. The philosophy of science should, in other words, be a form of psychoanalysis. In La Dialectique de la durée (the dialectic of duration) and L’Expérience de l’espace dans la physique contemporaine (the experience of space in contemporary physics), Bachelard turned his attention to two of the fundamental frameworks for images of the world: time and space.

Toward the end of the 1930’s, Bachelard reached his fullest development as a philosopher of science and gradually began to turn his attention to literature. In 1937, he was named a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honor for his work. The following year, he published La Formation de l’esprit scientifique: Contribution àune psychanalyse de la connaissance objective (the formation of the scientific spirit: contribution...

(The entire section is 2480 words.)