Gaston Bachelard

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Western Philosophy
20th Century Philosophy
Name: Gaston Bachelard
Birth: 1884
Death: 1962
Main interests
Philosophy of science
Notable ideas
"epistemological break"

Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884 – October 16, 1962) was a French philosopher who rose to some of the most prestigious positions in the French academy. His most important work is on poetics and on the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break (obstacle épistémologique et rupture épistémologique).

Bachelard proposed that the history of science is replete with "epistemological obstacles"—or unthought/unconscious structures that were immanent within the realm of the sciences, such as principles of division (e.g. mind/body). The history of science, Bachelard asserted, consisted in the formation and establishment of these epistemological obstacles, and then the subsequent tearing down of the obstacles. This latter stage is an epistemological rupture–where an unconscious obstacle to scientific thought is thoroughly ruptured or broken away from.

He influenced many subsequent French philosophers, among them Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser, as well as prominent American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.

Bachelard argued against the notion that facts exists separate from the theory in which they have a meaning. His understanding of the scientific method of testable hypotheses was that a hypothesis does not arise from a fact, but from a theory which attempts to account for facts. When hypotheses fail to account for observable data, it creates the question that is the opening to what Bachelard considered real science.

Life and work

Bachelard was a postmaster in Bar-Sur-Aube, and then studied physics before finally becoming interested in philosophy. He was a professor at Dijon from 1930 to 1940 and then became the inaugural chair in history and philosophy of the sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Bachelard's studies of the history and philosophy of science in such works as Le nouvel esprit scientifique ("The New Scientific Mind") (1934) and La formation de l'esprit scientifique ("The Formation of the Scientific Mind") (1938) were based on his vision of historical epistemology as a kind of psychoanalysis of the scientific mind, or rather of the psychological factors in the development of sciences. For instance, he takes the example of Heisenberg's first chapters of the Physical principles of the quantum theory, where he alternatively defends a corpuscular theory and an undulatory theory, correcting each by the others (The New Scientific Mind, IV). This, claims Bachelard, is an excellent example of the importance of psychological training in sciences, as one should correct spontaneous defaults by taking the opposite stance.

In the English-speaking world, the connection Bachelard made between psychology and the history of science has been little understood. Bachelard demonstrated how the progress of science could be blocked by certain types of mental patterns, creating the concept of obstacle épistémologique ("epistemological obstacle"). One task of epistemology is to make clear the mental patterns at use in science, in order to help scientists overcome the obstacles to knowledge.

Bachelard took issue with Auguste Comte's positivism, which considered science as a continual progress, arguing that Comte's view had been superseded by such scientific developments as the theory of Relativity, which demonstrated the discontinuous nature of the history of sciences. Bachelard became associated with the concept of an "epistemological break," which underlined the discontinuity at work in the history of sciences — although the term itself is almost never used by Bachelard, but became famous through Louis Althusser. For this reason, he was a tough critic of Émile Meyerson, who supported a continuist view of the history of sciences.

He showed that new theories integrated old theories in new paradigms, changing the sense of concepts (for instance, the concept of mass, used by Newton and Einstein in two different senses). Thus, non-Euclidean geometry did not contradict Euclidean geometry, but integrated it into a larger framework.

A rationalist in the Cartesian sense (although he proned a "non-Cartesian epistemology" which was to succeed, as a new theory, to Cartesian epistemology - The New Scientific Mind, conclusion), he opposed "scientific knowledge" to ordinary knowledge, and held that error is only negativity or illusion:

Scientifically, we think the truth as the historical rectification of a long error, and we think experience as the rectification of the common and originary illusion (illusion première)[1]

The role of epistemology is to show the history of the (scientific) production of concepts; those concepts are not just theoretical propositions: they are simultaneously abstract and concrete, pervading technical and pedagogical activity. This explains why "The electric bulb is an object of scientifical thought… an example of an abstract-concrete object."[2] To understand the way it works, one has to pass by the detour of scientific knowledge. Epistemology is thus not a general philosophy that aims at justifying scientific reasoning. Instead it produces regional histories of science.

Bachelard opposed the duality between rationality and irrationality, claiming that, for instance, the theory of probabilities was just another way of complexifying reality through a deepening of rationality (while someone as Lord Kelvin found it somehow irrational[3]). One of his main thesis in The New Scientific Mind was that modern sciences had replaced the classical ontology of the substance with an "ontology of relations," which could be assimilated to something as a Process philosophy. For instance, the physical concepts of matter and rays correspond, according to him, to the metaphysical concepts of the thing and of movement; but whereas classical philosophy considered both as distinct, and the thing as ontologically real, modern science can not distinguish matter from rays: it is thus impossible to examine an immobile thing, which was precisely the conditions of knowledge according to classical theory of knowledge (Becoming being impossible to be known, in accordance with Aristotle and Plato's theories of knowledge).

In non-Cartesian epistemology, there is no "simple substance" as in Cartesianism, but only complex objects built by theories and experiments, and continuously improved (VI, 4). Intuition is therefore not primitive, but built (VI, 2). These themes led Bachelard to support a sort of constructivist epistemology.

In addition to epistemology, Bachelard's work deals with many other topics, including poetry, dreams, psychoanalysis, and the imagination. The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and The Poetics of Space (1958) are among the most popular of his works.


Thomas S. Kuhn used Bachelard's notion of "epistemological rupture" (coupure or rupture épistémologique) as re-interpreted by Alexandre Koyré to develop his theory of paradigm shifts; Althusser, Georges Canguilhem (his successor at the Sorbonne) and Michel Foucault also drew upon Bachelard's epistemology. Foucault's notion of episteme was predicated upon Bachelard's ideas.

Bachelard's daughter, Suzanne, translated Husserl's Formale und transzendentale Logik in French.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

His works include:

  • 1932: L'intuition de l'instant
  • 1934: Le nouvel esprit scientifique Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), 1999. ISBN 2130443745 (translates as The New Scientific Mind)
  • 1938: La formation de l'esprit scientifique European Schoolbooks, 1999. ISBN 2711611507
  • 1938: La psychanalyse du feu (The Psychoanalysis of Fire)
  • 1940: La philosophie du non ISBN 2130525784
  • 1942: L'eau et les rêves (Water and Dreams) ISBN 2253060992
  • 1943: L'air et les songes (Air and Songs)
  • 1946: La terre et les rêveries du repos (Earth and Reveries of Repose) ISBN 2714302998
  • 1948: La terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Earth and Reveries of Will)
  • 1949: Le Rationalisme appliqué (Paris: PUF)
  • 1958: La poétique de l'espace (The Poetics of Space) English translation ISBN 0807064734
  • 1960: La poétique de la rêverie (extract (French))
  • 1961: La flamme d'une chandelle ISBN 2130539017

Bibliography on Bachelard

  • Chimisso, Cristina. Writing the History of the Mind. (Science, Technology and Culture, 1700-1945) Ashgate, 2008. ISBN 0754657051. (in English) (puts the French scientific intellectuals and their works in perspective)
  • Lecourt, Dominique. L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard. (1969). Paris: Vrin, 11e édition augmentée, 2002.
  • Lecourt, Dominique. Pour une critique de l’épistémologie: Bachelard, Canguilhem, Foucault. 1972, réed. Paris: Maspero, 5e éd. 1980.
  • Lecourt, Dominique. Marxism and Epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault. London: New Left Books, 1975. ISBN: 0902308459
  • Lecourt, Dominique. Bachelard, Epistémologie, textes choisis. (1971). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), 6e édition, 1996.
  • Lecourt, Dominique. Bachelard, le jour et la nuit. Paris: Grasset & Fasealle, 1974. ISBN 2246001471
  • Lecourt, Dominique. Le Rationalisme appliqué. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France - (PUF), 2004. ISBN 2130544428
  • Hommage à Gaston Bachelard. Etudes de philosophie et d'histoire des sciences. by C. Bouligand, G. Canguilhem, P. Costabel, F. Courtes, F. Dagognet, M. Daumas, G. Granger, J. Hyppolite, R. Martin, R. Poirier and R. Taton
  • Actes du Colloque sur Bachelard de 1970 (Colloque de Cerisy)
  • L'imaginaire du concept: Bachelard, une epistemologie de la pureté by Françoise Gaillard, MLN 101 (4) French Issue (Sep., 1986): 895-911.
  • Pouliquen, Jean-Luc. Gaston Bachelard ou le rêve des origines. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2007. ISBN 2296034780
  • Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. "Gaston Bachelard and the Notion of "Phenomenotechnique"." Max Planck Institute for the History of Science: Abstract. in Perspectives on Science 13 (3) (Fall 2005): 313-328.

See also

  • Georges Canguilhem
  • Constructivist epistemology
  • Epistemological psychology


  1. The New Scientific Mind, VI, 6
  2. Dominique Lecourt, in Le Rationalisme appliqué. (Paris: PUF, (original 1949), 2e ed. of 1962), 104ff).
  3. The New Scientific Mind, V . (French ed., PUF, 1934), 120

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bachelard, Gaston. The philosophy of no; a philosophy of the new scientific mind. New York: Orion Press/Viking Press, 1968. ISBN 0670551945
  • Bachelard, Gaston. Le rationalisme applique. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998 (original 1966). ISBN 2130395910
  • Chimisso, Cristina. Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0415269056
  • Dagognet, F., "Bachelard, Gaston" Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Volume 1, 365-366. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970. ISBN 0684101149.


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