Gaston Bachelard is for me one of the silent giants of contemporary philosophy. Unfortunately, his work still remains slightly aloof to the English world. He was one of the last of a breed of early 1900s French epistemologists for whom a non-positivist study of science was a window into the malleable human mind. [Plus, awesome beard.] The study of science was not to anchor a theory (I’m thinking of Dan Dennett whose theories are sometimes dangerously close to scientific derivatives), nor was it a social reductionism (a la Bloor). Bachelard understood the scientific mind as a “formation,” a transformation of the mind, that was never ending. This understanding of the human mind lead to an impressive, and still potent, pedagogy and a definition of the human as that which desires always to change. He was one of the first to tackle the implication of Einstein and quantum physics on epistemology, and published these accounts in real-time with the developments themselves.
His interest in the scientific mind drew together many of the theoretical prerequisites for his students, like Foucault, to take philosophy in unexpected directions. Bachelard’s importance becomes obvious when he is read, of course. He bring the element of history into the study of knowledge, he tempers atemporal Kantian rationality with a discontinuous dialectical movement, and he develops the notions of the “epistemological obstacle” and “epistemological break,” which Foucault, Bourdieu, and Althusser would later introduce into common discourse of theory and analysis.
Yet it is only in 2002 that his most famous text The Formation of the Scientific Mind was translated into English. The Philosophy of No has enjoyed translation for longer, but with little commentary. I hope that the English world will come to rediscover this great thinker, and see that many of our most cherished concepts bear his signature.