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Gaston Bachelard began his career as a philosopher with writings about the philosophy of science. In these early writings, he maintained that scientific thinking had entered a new phase following Albert Einstein’s work on relativity. The scientific understanding of things had moved beyond seeing the world as composed of concrete objects or as things perceived by the senses. Instead, the new scientific mind had become a matter of comprehending the world as mathematical measurements. Knowledge was no longer knowledge of things or of the perception of things by the senses. Knowledge was a relationship between the empirical results of experimentation and the rational formulation of experiments and interpretation of results.

Because the world is known by the way the mind formulates and tests questions, Bachelard maintained, understanding processes of thought is critical to engaging in scientific activity. Even though science had entered a new era in the early twentieth century, older ways of thinking still influenced people and shaped the types of questions that people asked. In order to move beyond these older ways of thinking, the philosopher of science must be continually analyzing the commonly accepted images of the world that shape the thinking of scientists. This meant that philosophy of science should be a form of psychoanalysis.

Fire Images and Ideas

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In the introduction to The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard asserts that fire, which had seemed for centuries to be one of the basic elements of nature, is no longer a reality for science. He points out that many chemistry books no longer mention fire or flame. Science sees fire only as an appearance produced by molecular events. Despite the scientific unreality of fire, though, it remains a basic experience of all people, including scientists. Therefore, the way that we perceive fire continues to be part of our unconscious experience, and images or metaphors based on this unconscious experience can influence the ways that we think about the world.

Bachelard refers to the ideas that cluster around the image of fire as “complexes,” a term taken from Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. In the first chapter, he examines what he terms the “Prometheus complex.” Prometheus was the character in Greek mythology who stole the secret of fire from the gods and brought it to humanity. Fire, in this myth, was a source of great and godlike power. It is also a forbidden source of power. As children, we experience the forbidden and awesome character of fire when our parents order us not to play with it. Thus, fire is an image of the will to intellectuality, of the will to know, and we achieve knowledge by seizing that which is forbidden to us and by trying to know more than our parents and more than our teachers. For these reasons, Bachelard claims that the Prometheus complex of fire is the intellectual equivalent of Freud’s Oedipus complex, the set of psychological drives that impel youngsters to take the positions of their parents.

Another cluster of ideas about fire is the “Empedocles complex,” the subject of Bachelard’s second chapter. Fire is a source of reverie, of day-dreaming. people who sit before a fireside identify with flames, the flickering inspires thoughts that have no practical aim, and through these thoughts, people lose themselves in the blaze. Fire, then, is an image of the blended instincts for self-assertion and living and for self-abandonment and dying. Bachelard refers to fire as an image of self-loss through reverie as the Empedocles complex because the Greek mythological figure Empedocles threw himself into a volcano, fusing himself with the power of fire.

The “Novalis complex” is a third fire complex. Bachelard argues that from prehistoric times, fire has had a connotation of sexuality and intimacy. Fire, before the time of matches, was made by rubbing until the rubbing produces warmth, sparks, and flame. Citing eighteenth century authors and mythological lore collected by Bachelard’s English contemporary, James Frazer, Bachelard points out that fire has continued to carry an implication of sexual pleasure. Applying this insight to the interpretation of literature, Bachelard suggests that the poetry of the German Romantic Novalis (pen name of Friedrich Leopold, Freiherr von Hardenberg) makes extensive use of erotic fire and that the poetry of Novalis could be seen as a return to the primitive inner heat.

The sexual nature of fire is one of its most important psychological characteristics, and Bachelard devotes his fourth chapter to sexualized fire. In the imagination, fire propagates and generates itself. In prescientific thinking, men differ from women because the former have a greater bodily heat that enables them to inseminate and propagate. Bachelard reminds his readers that fire had a sexual characteristic in alchemy.

Throughout his book, Bachelard shifts between using fire images for literary interpretation, as in his Novalis complex, and explaining away fire imagery as a primitive barrier to true scientific knowledge. In the fifth chapter, he seems to remind himself that his original purpose was to analyze old unconscious views that interfere with the progress of abstract and mathematical knowledge. He examines intuitions about fire as epistemological obstacles. Fire provides examples of two such obstacles. One of these he calls the “substantialistic obstacle.” The other he terms the “animistic obstacle.” People have a tendency to think about fire as a substance and a tendency to think about fire as a living thing. Both of these ways of thinking about fire and other phenomena impede scientific progress. He cites older scientific writings that portrayed fire as a substantial reality rather than as a process. He gives examples of writings and myths that presented fire as something that feeds itself. Bachelard maintains that in these examples, fire is personalized, and he asserts that the scientist must avoid personalizing knowledge.

After returning to his goal of purging scientific knowledge of the unconscious influence of prescientific imagery, Bachelard once again shifts back to a more appreciative approach to that imagery. In the sixth chapter, Bachelard stops attempting to psychoanalyze objective knowledge. In discussing what he terms the “Hoffman complex,” Bachelard suggests that alcohol is the creator of language. Alcohol is a rich subject for the imagination of the elements because it is “fire water.” It combines both of these primary images. The Hoffman complex is a reference to the works of the German Romantic writer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, who wrote dreamlike fantasies inspired by alcohol. Bachelard suggests that dreaming, like the fire-water of alcohol, is not to be avoided but used carefully.

Finally, Bachelard considers idealized fire. Fire is seen as something that purifies everything. He once again cites the poet Novalis, who spoke of love being transformed into a flame and of the transformed flame burning up everything earthly and impure. Fire consumes matter, and by consuming matter, it transforms it into light.

Bachelard concludes by suggesting that his book can serve as a basis for a chemistry or physics of reverie, or daydreaming. He no longer tries to explain away prescientific imagery and takes the position that analyzing this imagery can provide understanding of poetic activity and of thinking. He insists that fire is an intense and painful human experience and that the complexes attached to fire are painful. These complexes, such as the firelike sublimation of sexuality, can give rise to neurosis, but they can also lead to the writing of poetry.

A Turning Point

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The Psychoanalysis of Fire is an important book in Bachelard’s own philosophical development because it marks his turn from the rationalistic philosophy of science to the analysis of literature. In this work, he begins to argue that poetic images and daydreaming have their own value and are to be appreciated and understood in their own terms. It is also the first of his books on the four elements, in which he works out his view that the ways in which people see the physical world are representations of their psychological world. At the same time, the book demonstrates how scientific thinking and poetic thinking are related to one another because the two are ways in which the mind engages in a continual dialogue with the objects of the world.

As an extension of Jungian psychology, The Psychoanalysis of Fire demonstrates one of the ways in which human beings may project their own psyches on the world around them. Bachelard’s insights in this book have often been compared to those of Freud and Jung. His view that the primitive mind, the mind uninhibited by the rationalism of science, reverts to the traditional elements of fire, earth, air, and water has been seen as an intriguing argument by many practitioners of psychoanalysis. Bachelard’s complexes, or constellations of ideas and emotions associated with the element of fire, provided new ways of thinking about both psychology and mythology.

Although Bachelard began writing this book with the intention of making a contribution to the philosophy of science, it became best known to literary critics and achieved its greatest influence in literary criticism. The approach he began to develop in this, his first work on the psychoanalytic significance of the four elements, has been applied by literary analysts to the writings of such diverse authors as Albert Camus and Ray Bradbury.


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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.


Critical Essays