Gaston Bachelard

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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,...

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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 to a psychoanalysis of objective knowledge) which drew loosely from the concepts and terminology of Freudian psychoanalysis. This work argued that scientific thinking and the teaching of science required an analytic examination of patterns of thought from the past that could block the quest for knowledge. In The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, Bachelard argued that the scientific mind of the post-Einstein era required a new logic that would go beyond traditional Aristotelian logic. The dialectical logic that Bachelard suggested required continually breaking down received notions in science in order to go beyond those notions.

Bachelard’s movement toward literature first became evident in 1938 with the publication of The Psychoanalysis of Fire. The author’s scientific interests provided the starting point for this book. He wanted to analyze the subconscious processes leading scientists to form images of fire that would affect scientific thought. Over the course of the book, though, he began to concern himself with literary images of fire. He identified “complexes,” clusters of emotions and ideas that were expressed in fire images.

With Lautréamont, Bachelard produced his first book explicitly and exclusively concerned with literature. The subject of the book was the nineteenth century French poet Isidore Ducasse, better known by the pen name Le comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont was an author much admired by the Surrealists for the violent, irrational, dreamlike images that ran through his principal work, Le Chants de Maldoror (1874; The Lay of Maldoror, 1922). Bachelard saw Lautréamont’s writing as an example of a new literary mind, analogous to the new scientific mind in the effort to go beyond naïve realism in exploring ways of looking at the world.

Bachelard left the University of Dijon in 1940 when he was named to the chair of history and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. He also became director of the Institute of the History of Science. Although he had achieved recognition for his work on science, he began to concentrate on the analysis of literary images. Over the next decade, he followed a path he had begun with The Psychoanalysis of Fire, examining the literary and psychological significance of water, air, and earth, the rest of the classic four elements of the prescientific worldview.

In 1942, he published Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, in which he looked at images of water. By the time he had written this book, his interest had definitively moved from how the imagination affects knowledge of the external world to the role of the external world in the reality of the human imagination. He followed his study of water images with a study of images of air in L’Air et les songes: Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement). The French words songes and rêves can both be translated in English as “dreams,” but rêves carries a sense of drifting as in “daydreaming” and songes implies intent and will in the act of dreaming. This is an important distinction because Bachelard saw the aerial imagination as having a dynamic, upward-moving quality. He treated the fourth element, earth, in his books La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté: Essai sur l’imagination des forces (earth and reveries of will: an essay on the imagination of forces) and La Terreet les rêveries du repos: Essai sur les images de l’intimité (earth and reveries of repose: an essay on images of intimacy). The dynamic and material images that Bachelard discussed in his books on the elements were clusters of ideas shared among humans, similar to psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s archetypes, which were expressed in works of literature.

Bachelard returned to epistemology, the study of the nature and process of knowledge, with La Rationalisme appliqué (applied rationalism), L’Activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine (the rationalist activity of contemporary physics), and Le Matérialisme rationnel (rational materialism). In these books, Bachelard looked once again at the issue that had concerned him before his turn to literature, the dialectic of rationalism and empiricism. After his retirement from the Sorbonne in 1954, though, he went back to literary phenomenology.

The Poetics of Space considered space as a psychological and literary phenomenon. For Bachelard, lived-in space differs from the objective space of geometry. The importance of the former lies in its qualities for the imagination. The Poetics of Reverie looked at how reverie, or daydreaming, takes shape through poetry. In this book, Bachelard drew once again on the work of Jung. The Swiss psychoanalyst’s distinction between animus and anima, the masculine and feminine principles in the psychology of each individual, was particularly important for Bachelard’s analysis of reverie. Poetry is produced from a human tendency to organize and form projects (the animus, or “masculine” tendency) and the simultaneous tendency to dream (the anima, or “feminine” tendency).

The last book published in Bachelard’s lifetime was The Flame of a Candle, a meditation on the psychological nature of flame and light. In 1961, he was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres. The following year, Bachelard died. His death did not end publication of his works, however. Three books, The Right to Dream, Études (studies), and L’Engagement rationaliste (the rationalist engagement), were published posthumously. The Right to Dream was particularly notable because it expressed Bachelard’s view that daydreaming is one of the highest functions of human life.


Bachelard’s reputation has been limited chiefly to his native France, where he exercised a great influence on a number of key French thinkers. As one of the founders of the “criticism of science” school, he helped to develop the idea of science as a human activity, dependent on human perspectives, rather than as knowledge of a nonhuman world. This aspect of his work showed up in the late twentieth century in the writings of thinkers such as Michel Foucault.

Bachelard’s psychological insights have sometimes been compared to those of Jung and Sigmund Freud. His claim that daydreaming is not a private matter but part of a collective experience was especially intriguing to many interested in human psychology. Bachelard’s suggestion that the imagination in its free state reverts to images of the four traditional elements of earth, air, water, and fire was a stimulating contribution to psychoanalysis.

The defense of the free imagination in his works after the 1930’s contributed to the appreciation for nonrational functions of the human mind. Dreaming and imagining, in his writing, were portrayed as essential activities with as much value as scientific enterprise.

Additional Reading

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1966. This book compares Gaston Bachelard’s theories with those of the founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. It is useful for those interested in Bachelard’s later work and for those attempting to understand Bachelard in the context of twentieth century French intellectual history.

Champigny, Robert. “Gaston Bachelard.” In Modern French Criticism: From Proust and Valéry to Structuralism, edited by John K. Simon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. A discussion of Bachelard’s contribution to modern literary criticism.

Kushner, Eva M. “The Critical Method of Gaston Bachelard.” In Myth and Symbol: Critical Approaches and Applications, edited by Bernice Slote. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963. Kushner looks at the role of images in Bachelard’s method of literary criticism.

Lecourt, Dominique. Marxism and Epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Foucault. London: NLB, 1975. A Marxist treatment of Bachelard’s scientific theories. This book is primarily helpful for the view it gives of Bachelard’s connections with the celebrated French philosopher Michel Foucault. Lecourt argues that Bachelard and other philosophers rejected positivism and accepted an evolutionary view of the history of science.

McAllester, Mary, editor. The Philosophy and Poetics of Gaston Bachelard. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1989. A collection of writings on Bachelard’s literary and philosophical work.

Privitera, Walter. Problems of Style: Michel Foucault’s Epistemology. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995. An examination of the philosophy of Michel Foucault that deals with Foucault’s intellectual connections with Bachelard.

Smith, Roch C. Gaston Bachelard. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This is the best overall view of Bachelard’s life and work available in English. It is intended as an introduction, but it may be difficult for general readers to follow at some points. To some extent, this difficulty may be a matter of Bachelard’s philosophy rather than of Smith’s exposition of that philosophy. Because much of the work published on Bachelard in English deals with Bachelard the literary analyst rather than Bachelard the philosopher of science, Smith’s work is a valuable contribution to the English-speaking reader’s understanding of Bachelard’s early scientific work.

Tiles, Mary. Bachelard: Science and Objectivity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Tiles looks at Bachelard’s critique of scientific knowledge. She maintains that his emphasis on breaks in the continuity of scientific thinking is in agreement with contemporary philosophy of science.

Toupance, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Gaston Bachelard, Wolfgang Iser, and the Reader’s Response to Fantastic Literature. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1997. An imaginative application of the ideas of Bachelard and others to the work of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury.


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