Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) is an unfairly neglected thinker who succeeded in carving himself a niche in the rich tradition of French philosophy of science. Trained as a physics and chemistry high school teacher, Bachelard took an early interest in epistemology at a time when Einstein was publicising both his theories of relativity and propounding a radically new conception of the interaction between space and time.

Bachelard’s project was not to get rid of a philosophical approach of science but, on the contrary, to put philosophical reflection at the very heart of the scientific activity. Yet, this supporting role of philosophy can soon become ambiguous and unclear. After all, either fundamental concepts like matter, space or time are used as genuine framework of scientific thought or they simply assume a psychological function, detached from the translation of physical events into mathematical equations. Bachelard certainly saw in mathematics the only true rival to philosophy when ‘talking’ about science: ‘Studying must precede thinking. Only philosophers think before they study.’

Philosophy, in the guise of the imagination, constitutes a key element, not to say an essential tool, at the scientist’s disposal. If scientific reality is first perceived as a chaotic system to be organised logically and mathematically, intuitions, for their part, always provide the initial impulse leading to a new rationalisation of physical phenomena. A scientist worthy of the name must be prepared to discard his prejudices and look at the world with new eyes. Great scientific discoveries are often the result of unforeseen breaks from the past, ‘epistemological ruptures’ opening yet unexplored fields of investigations: ‘We must force nature to go as far as our mind’. 

Bachelard found fault with what he called ‘the ancient scientific spirit’ founded on hypotheses only meant to reinforce and confirm unproved assumptions. Short of a viable theory or mathematical model, any experience is condemned to repeat the same errors. In his famous study ‘The New Scientific Spirit’ (1934), Bachelard considered the basic concepts of science as provisional and subject to constant reappraisal. Modern science is not limited to first-hand observations but also relies on mathematical descriptions tested in repeated theoretical experiments. An electron is not directly observable but it is, nonetheless, the logical support of a set of equations. What we know of reality is therefore an open scientific construction. 

Bachelard’s true originality is to be found in the second part of his long professional career when he concentrated on the unsung importance of imagination and poetry in our shaping and structuring of the world. The ‘imaginary’ or the power of the faculty of imagination was carefully delineated by Jean-Paul Sartre in two separate studies, published in 1936 and 1940. Bachelard took his distance from the latter’s phenomenological analysis and emphasised, instead, the revelatory dimension of a true poetic experience. In four highly original essays dedicated to the poetics of earth, water, air and fire, he mixed personal recollections and scientific connections with the timeless spirits of mythological characters and insights of inspired poets. 

By letting his mind float between reverie and reflection, Bachelard invites his reader to do the same and undertake his private voyage of discovery into the deepest foundations of his everyday reality. Beyond the four classical elements, the poetic philosopher also investigated the poetic experience of space, from the infinite universe down to the intimate geography of our very own home. First of his generation to venture into the uncharted territory of scientific psychoanalysis and poetics, Bachelard had a significant influence on French philosophers like Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida.

‘The Poetic of Space’ (Penguin; 2014), ‘The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, ‘The Psychology of Fire’:

Gaston Bachelard ‘The Formation of the Scientific Mind’: