|Born||27 June 1884|
|Died||16 October 1962 (aged 78)|
|Education||University of Paris|
(B.A., 1920; D.-ès-Lettres, 1927)
French historical epistemology
|Institutions||University of Dijon|
University of Paris
|Doctoral advisor||Abel Rey|
constructivist epistemology, history and philosophy of science, philosophy of art, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, education
|Epistemological break, rational materialism, technoscience|
Gaston Bachelard (//; French: [baʃlaʁ]; 27 June 1884 – 16 October 1962) was a French philosopher. He made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break (obstacle épistémologique and rupture épistémologique). He influenced many subsequent French philosophers, among them Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Dominique Lecourt and Jacques Derrida, as well as the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour.
For Bachelard the scientific object should be constructed and therefore, different from the positivist sciences, information is in continuous construction. Empiricism and rationalism are not regarded as dualism or opposition but complementary, therefore studies of a priori and a posteriori, or in other words reason and dialectic, are part of scientific research.
Bachelard was a postal clerk in Bar-sur-Aube, and then studied physics and chemistry before finally becoming interested in philosophy. To obtain his doctorate (doctorat ès lettres) in 1927, he wrote two theses: the main one, Essai sur la connaissance approchée, under the direction of Abel Rey, and the complementary one, Étude sur l'évolution d'un problème de physique : la propagation thermique dans les solides, supervised by Léon Brunschvicg.
He was a professor at the University of Dijon from 1930 to 1940 and then was appointed chair in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. In 1958 he became a member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.
Bachelard's studies of the history and philosophy of science in such works as Le nouvel esprit scientifique ("The New Scientific Spirit", 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.
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. Another goal is to “give back to human reason its function of agitation and aggressiveness” as Bachelard put it in ‘L'engagement rationaliste’ (1972).
Bachelard was critical of Auguste Comte's positivism, which considered science as a continual progress. To Bachelard, scientific developments such as Einstein's theory of relativity demonstrated the discontinuous nature of the history of sciences. Thus models that framed scientific development as continuous, such as that of Comte and Émile Meyerson, seemed simplistic and erroneous to Bachelard.
Through his concept of "epistemological break", Bachelard underlined the discontinuity at work in the history of sciences. However the term "epistemological break" itself is almost never used by Bachelard, but became famous through Louis Althusser.
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.
Bachelard was a rationalist in the Cartesian sense, although he recommended his "non-Cartesian epistemology" as a replacement for the more standard Cartesian epistemology. He compared "scientific knowledge" to ordinary knowledge in the way we deal with it, and saw error as only illusion: "Scientifically, one thinks truth as the historical rectification of a persistent error, and experiments as correctives for an initial, common illusion (illusion première)."
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 scientific thought… an example of an abstract-concrete object." To understand the way it works, one has to take 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 saw how seemingly irrational theories often simply represented a drastic shift in scientific perspective. For instance, he claimed that the theory of probabilities was just another way of complexifying reality through a deepening of rationality (even though critics like Lord Kelvin found this theory irrational).
One of his main theses 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 like 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 condition for 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: Jean-Paul Sartre cites the former and Bachelard's Water and Dreams in his Being and Nothingness (1943), and the latter had a wide reception in architectural theory circles. In philosophy, this nocturnal side of his work is developed by his student Gilbert Durand.
His works include:
Though most of Bachelard's major works on poetics have been translated into English, only about half of his works on the philosophy of science have been translated.
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