Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard is for me one of the silent giants of contemporary philosophy. Well, to use Mill’s term this is only “half-truth”. Bachelard’s work still remains 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.


One thought on “Gaston Bachelard

  1. I can’t second Jesse more heartily, or think of a better occasion to share this CFP, on behalf of Vincent Bontems:
    Rationale for a “surrationalist conference” in 2012 at École Normale Superièure (Paris).

    “The veritable function of the culture’s past is to prepare a future of the culture”

    Gaston Bachelard L’Activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine, 1951

    Fifty years after the death of Gaston Bachelard (1884 – 1962) his work continues to direct thought towards the future. The Centre International de Synthèse, of which Bachelard was for a long time an active member, and the Laboratory “Pensée des Sciences” of the École Normale Supérieure” are planning to pay homage to this invaluable incentive to open culture to its own overcoming. If to read Bachelard today is to necessarily re-read him in the light of the present, we can only be faithful to the spirit of his work by releasing this recurrence upon our own time through adopting a resolutely surrationalist posture.

    What are the perspectives of progress that can throw light on our rationalist activity of today? How does Bachelardian thought help us push back the horizon of our time? These are the questions, the ambitions, this aggressiveness of reason, which we would like to awake by inviting researchers in philosophy, natural and social sciences, so, by indicating how they make work his operators on objects of the present, they can share with us the way they make pertinent again concepts inherited from Bachelard and reactivate his method by opening it to contemporary discoveries.

    Proposals for papers with title and summary (400 words maximum in French or English) should reach us by summer 2011.


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