(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.