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

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...

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A Turning Point

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.


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...

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