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Gaston Bachelard - Biography

Gaston Bachelard, Ph.D., was a French Philosopher. He was born on June 27, 1884 and died on October 16, 1962. He would take as his objects of study science and poetry. Bachelard was born in the town of Bar-sur-Aube in the Champagne region in northeastern France on June 27th 1884, in a family of artisan shoemakers. On July 8th 1914 he would marry Jeanne Rossi a young teacher. Sadly on June 20th 1920 he would become a widow with a young little girl named Suzanne. After an innovative path, in 1951 he would receive the prestigious French Legion of Honor prize.

Gaston Bachelard would have a career quite out of the ordinary. He would first be a postal worker, but would eventually get a BA in Science and would subsequently become professor of physics at chemistry in his native town. By 1922 he had changed his focus and would get his agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies). On May 23rd 1927 he would get his doctorate with a dissertation under French philosopher and historian of science Abel Ray (1873 - 1940) and the idealist philosopher Léon Brunschvicg (1869 - 1944), which was entitled Essai sur la connaissance approchée (can be translated as: “Essay On Close knowledge”). After this he would teach philosophy at the University in Dijon before becoming a professor at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris in 1954. Even if Gaston Bachelard would become an epistemologist, which he would question the methods and foundations, he also would pay close attention to the field of poetry and the notion of the imaginary in particular, managing to link the two in productive ways.

As a renowned epistemologist, he would be the author of reflections on knowledge and scientific research. He would invent what he referred to as the “psychoanalysis of objective knowledge”, which would be inspired by the works of Carl Jung (1875 - 1961). As defined by Gaston Bachelard, the psychoanalysis of objective knowledge would study the emotional obstacles in the mental universe of both the scientist and the student. These obstacles would be described as barriers that impede progress in the study and knowledge of any given phenomena. In his book La philosophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique (“The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind”) he would analyze examples of this from logic, physics and chemistry.

Gaston Bachelard would renew the question of imagination in both the philosophical and literary fields, researching, for example, poets and writers such as Comte de Lautréamont (1846 - 1870), Edgar Poe (1809 - 1849), and Novalis (1772 - 1801), but also looking into such apparently disparate fields as symbolism and chemistry. It is in this way that Gaston Bachelard will interrogate the relationship between literature and science, or that is to say put another way, the relationship between imagination and rationality.

According to Gaston Bachelard, the two extremities can be both either in conflict or in fact complementary. For Gaston Bachelard, a strong symbolically or emotionally charged image could cause illusions in the mind of the scientist. The image of fire could clog the knowledge of electricity. This same image will produce unexpected effects in literature that will be poetically loaded. The power of fascination of the image of fire would be very important as he would point out in Novalis but also in Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 - 1843). Poetic dreams closely sympathize with the real, while the scientific approach on the other hand is unsympathetic: it distances itself from the emotional reality. Nevertheless imagination can help in the building of scientific models.

Gaston Bachelard would borrow Immanuel Kant’s (1724 - 1804) idea that theory is prior to experience. Indeed in this way objective knowledge is thus a process of rationalization of sensory experience. Gaston Bachelard would criticize the a priori and universally valid characteristic that Immanuel Kant assigns to categories. Instead, according to Gaston Bachelard theories are tentative in nature, in fact they are mostly wrong and science itself advances only by correcting itself all the time. Indeed, building on this insight Gaston Bachelard would also borrow from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) the idea that rationality is essentially dialectic. Scientific knowledge, therefore, is a constant back and forth between reason and experience, and reason itself corrects itself, it does not produce static theories but evolving ones.

Gaston Bachelard thus proposes a complex and subtle definition of rationality. He would, however, criticize the closed nature of Hegelian dialectic, which according to Gaston Bachelard closes on itself to form a completed system. By contrast, he will seek to create a kind of reason that is open and which thus reforms itself constantly, and thus making human knowledge advance without any predefined limits.

Additionally, he would initially be inspired by Auguste Comte’s (1798 - 1857) positivism but would eventually become critical of it and come up with a modernist, methodical, and historical approach to science, which showed epistemological breaks, or the discontinuous nature of scientific progress. For instance, he would replace Auguste Comte’s law of three stages, which took science as continual progress, with his own view of the scientific process, whose main stages are the “naive realism”, “rationalism”, and “dialectical rationalism”, which allowed for epistemological breaks.

Gaston Bachelard would come to oppose Henri Bergson’s conception of time and of the real in L’intuition de l’instant (1932 , “Moment of Intuition”) as well as in La Dialectique de la durée (1936, “Dialectic of Duration). He would very much be influenced by the Bergsonian philosophy of mobility, as is everywhere explicitly present in Bachelard’s L’Air et les songes (1943 - “Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement”). Amongst his contemporaries, Bachelard’s philosophy of science would be close to that of the Swiss philosopher Ferdinand Gonseth (1890 - 1975) and the Franco-Russian philosopher Alexandre Koyré (1892 - 1964).

Gaston Bachelard would also reinterpret Sigmund Freud’s (1856 - 1939) psychoanalytic concepts such as the unconscious, censorship, dreams and libido. He would use such new interpretations both in his epistemology, which he had conceived as we saw as a psychoanalysis of reason, and in his poetic analyses, which he had in turn intended as a psychoanalysis of the imagination. Carl Jung’s notion of archetype, which in Jungian symbol psychology is a primitive mental image inherited from early human ancestors and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious, would inspire Gaston Bachelard. This together with his reading of surrealists would lead him to understand the imaginary, not perception, as the origin of psychic life.

The philosopher Pierre Jacob interestingly assesses Gaston Bachelard’s legacy in terms of four epistemological theses. First, that scientific tools are in fact materialized theories, what Bachelard famously called “phenomenotechnique”, and that therefore any theory is a practice too. Second, that any epistemological study must be historical. Third, there is a double discontinuity between on the one hand common sense and scientific theories, and on the other hand amongst scientific theories themselves that dialectically evolve in the course of history. This is the important notion of “epistemological break”, which would later be developed and made even more famous by the French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918 - 1990). Finally fourth, no traditional philosophy taken on their own, not empiricism, neither rationalism nor materialism or idealism, can adequately describe the theories of modern physics. This is his “philosophy of no”.

In 1934 he would write arguably his most important work, Le nouvel esprit scientifique (“The New Scientific Spirit”). There Gaston Bachelard manages to transcend the traditional divide between empiricism and rationalism. He would do this by essentially bringing them together in situating rational materialism at the centre of his epistemological spectrum whose two ends would be described as constituted by idealism and materialism. Gaston Bachelard will show here as elsewhere the systemizing tendency of any rational thought. According to him, when confronted with the infinite wealth of experience and novelty, all systems are doomed to failure. He will thus propose to introduce relativity in scientific truth.

Gaston Bachelard’s philosophy would greatly influence French epistemological studies, influencing figures such as Koyré, Althusser, George Canguilhem (1904 - 1995), Gilbert Simondon (1924 - 1989), and Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984). Gaston Bachelard would die at the age of 78 in Paris on October 16th 1962.

Gaston Bachelard, was a French Philosopher. (June 27, 1884 - October 16, 1962)