French, b: June 1884, Bar-sur-Aube, France, d: October 1962, Paris. Cat: Scientist; critic, Ints: Philosophy of science and of criticism. Educ: Studied for a Mathematics degree, 1912; degree in Philosophy, 1920; agrégation, 1922. Infls: Nietzsche, Einstein and Jung. Appts: Began adult life as a clerk; served with gallantry during the First World War; Professor of Philosophy, Dijon; Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, the Sorbonne, retiring 1954; Légion d'Honneur, 1951.
On the philosophy of science:
Theory of criticism:
The features of the world which most concerned Bachelard were change and discontinuity, especially in the working of the mind. Trained as a scientist and deeply impressed by relativity, he began his intellectual career with a sustained attack on the positivistic idea of scientific progress as a neat process of the accretion of truths. Discoveries, he argued, are more accurately regarded as discontinuities. Later in life, turning his attention to artistic creativity, he argued forcibly against the deterministic criticism of the school of Sainte-Beuve, in Bachelard's view false to the real workings of the imagination. Scientific discoveries and works of art are important discontinuities in the world.
The growth of scientific knowledge, Bachelard argues, is not a neat, sequential piling up of new truths, as the positivists have presented it. Discoveries are made not by those who accept current science but by those who say no to it, those who correct errors (cf. 1940), and discoveries frequently involve revisions of concepts at all levels, down to the most fundamental. The assumption, for example, that the notion of reason as enshrined in traditional rationalism is fixed for all time is untenable: 'Reason must obey science…which is evolving' (1940, p. 144; there is much in Bachelard which is Kuhnian avant la lettre). The outmoded assumptions of such rationalism Bachelard replaces by his preferred method, surrationalism: mutable, polymorphic and in principle révisable at all levels of conceptual generality. This method furthers rather than stifles the mental process at the heart of discovery, the sudden intuition which goes beyond currently received belief sets. Everything which presents itself as a final discovery or immutable principle is to be regarded with suspicion: stasis was not a property Bachelard saw around him either in the world or in our knowledge of it; what we call being at rest is merely 'a happy vibration' (La Dialectique de la durée, 1936, p. 6).
Partly for emotional reasons and partly as a result of his interest in the psychology of creativity, Bachelard was not content to remain solely a philosopher of science. From 1938 onwards he published a series of works which are centrally concerned with the processes of the artistic imagination, and his views have important consequences for the nature of criticism. The imagination is as valuable and as basic a mental faculty as reason. Its product is the image, irreducible to concepts, imprecise and suggestive. The process of the imagination cannot be predicted, and can be studied only a posteriori. The imagination works best in the state Bachelard