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Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962)

Arguably the central figure in twentieth-century French epistemology, Gaston Bachelard pursued a rich career composed of inquiries into poetics as well as philosophy of science. Born in Dijon, Bachelard worked as a postmaster and studied physics before becoming interested in philosophy and influenced by the anti-positivism and rationalism of Léon Brunschvicg. He was a professor in Dijon from 1930 to 1940 before becoming the inaugural chair in the history and philosophy of sciences at the Sorbonne. Through a series of works in the 1930s and 40s, Bachelard developed his unique assessment of the history of science as comprised of a series of epistemological obstacles and epistemological breaks, or ruptures. Mobilizing a dialectical rationalism against positivism and realism, Bachelard argued that scientific progress proceeds along historically constructivist lines, wherein the scientist’s rational confrontation with the ‘raw material’ of scientific objects, itself imbued with the conceptual constructions of previous scientists, advances through a dialectical negation of an inadequate concept that results in the constitution of a new scientific object. (One of Bachelard’s classic examples of this phenomenon is Lavoisier’s ‘rupture’ with the concept of phlogiston in his discovery of oxygenated air in the production of fire). In addition to the historical nature of scientific ruptures, Bachelard also insisted on the ruptural nature of scientific thought in local instances. Breaking with a phenomenological tendency to ground scientific rationality in a pre-predicative experience, intuition, or ‘common sense’, Bachelard argued that, in all instances, scientific thought breaks with the given. ‘In all circumstances, the immediate must cede way to the constructed’.

Bachelard was a major influence on Louis Althusser’ and along with the transmission of Koyré’s theses by way of Lacan, exercised a major on influence on the authors of the Cahiers as well. The epigraph that opens each volume of the Cahiers comes from a review of Canguilhem’s that endorses Bachelard’s concept of negation of in scientific rationality. Volume nine includes a brief excerpt from one of Bachelard’s books wherein Dmitry Mendeleev’s production of the periodical table is hailed as evidence of the primacy of rational and quantitative form in the proliferation of science’s predictive capacities. The primacy of formal determination in Bachelard’s example dovetailed with that found in structuralism more generally, which, when coupled with Bachelard’s investments in decoupling science from the immediacy of something akin ideology, accounts for his crucial influence on the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Gaston Bachelard, ‘La classification des éléments d’après Mendéléeff’ CpA 9.15 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique. Paris: Alcan, 1934. The New Scientific Spirit, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon, 1985.
  • La Dialectique de la durée. Paris: PUF, 1936.
  • La Formation de l’esprit scientifique: Contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective. Paris: Vrin, 1938. The Formation of the Scientific Mind: A Contribution to a Psychoanalysis of Objective Knowledge, trans. Mary McAllester Jones. Manchester: Clinamen, 2002.
  • La Psychanalyse du feu. Paris : Gallimard, 1938. The Psychoanalysis of Fire, trans. A.C. Ross. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.
  • La Philosophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Corti, 1940. The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, trans. G.C. Waterston. New York: Orion, 1968.
  • Le Rationalisme appliqué. Paris: PUF, 1949.
  • L’Activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine. Paris: PUF, 1951. Chapter: ‘Epistemology and History of the Sciences’, trans. Joseph J. Kockelmans. In Joseph J. Kockelmans and Theodore J. Kisiel, eds. Phenomenology and the Natural Sciences: Essays and Translations. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970, 317-346.
  • Le Matérialisme rationnel. Paris: PUF, 1952.
  • La Poétique de l’espace. Paris: PUF, 1957. The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964.