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Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci.

35 (2004) 873–881

Essay review
Kuhn’s missed opportunity and the
multifaceted lives of Bachelard: mythical,
institutional, historical, philosophical, literary,
Teresa Castelão-Lawless
Department of Philosophy, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI 49401-9403, USA

Gaston Bachelard. Critic of science and the imagination.

Cristina Chimisso; Routledge, London & New York, 2001, pp. xii+285, Price
£68.00, hardback, ISBN 0-415-26905-9.

1. Encounters with Bachelard

At the end of the 1940s, Thomas Kuhn (1924–1994), carrying with him a letter
of recommendation from historian of physics and astronomy Alexandre Koyré,
visited Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) in his Paris apartment at the rue St. Gene-
viève. A couple of years prior to that meeting, Kuhn had read Bachelard’s La phi-
losophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique (1940) with
great interest suspecting that they might share important philosophical and histori-
cal insights on scientific progress. But the encounter with Bachelard was utterly
disappointing. As Kuhn recollects, ‘I delivered the note, was invited to come over,
climbed the stairs . . . I’d heard he did brilliant work on American literature, and
on Blake and other things of the sort. I assumed he would greet me and be willing
to talk in English. A large burly man in his undershirt, came to the door, invited
me in; I said, ‘‘My French is bad, may we talk in English?’’ No, he made me talk
French. Well, this all didn’t last very long. It is perhaps a pity, because although I
think I have read a bit more of the relevant material since, and have real reserva-
tions about it, nevertheless he was a figure who was seeing at least some of the

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874 T. Castelão-Lawless / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 35 (2004) 873–881

thing. He was trying to put it in too much of a constrain . . . He has categories,

and methodological categories, and moved the thing up an escalator too systemati-
cally for me. But there were things to be discovered there that I did not discover,
or not discover in that way’ (Kuhn, 1997, p. 169).
It is plausible Kuhn was not aware that, since 1942, the year of the publication
of L’eau et les rêves, Bachelard had become keenly interested in the elements of the
imagination (fire, water, air, earth), and had published three books on literary
creativity and the liberating function of its images. By the time he returned to epis-
temology of science with Le rationalisme appliqué (1949), L’activité rationaliste de
la physique contemporaine (1951), and Le matérialisme rationnel (1953), the purpose
and the methodologies he used had been transformed from a historical and
psychoanalytical interpretation into an intensely phenomenological and surrealistic
approach to scientific practices and objects. After this return to the studies of
science, he went back, this time permanently, to the side of reverie with works such
as La poétique de l’espace (1957), La poétique de la rêverie (1960) and La flamme
d’une chandelle (1961). Nevertheless, the epistemology ‘in-between’ that Bachelard
was producing at the time of Kuhn’s visit no longer contained the kind of ‘rigid’
categories towards which Kuhn had reservations. In fact, at this point Bachelard
was already drawn to the socialization of scientific claims, the importance of rhet-
oric in science, and the defence of scientific claims against charges of scientific rela-
tivism. These were insights that Kuhn should have been looking forward to
discussing with Bachelard.
In 1991, while still a graduate student in Science and Technology Studies at Vir-
ginia Tech, I too chanced to enter the same building. I had been recommended to
Bachelard’s daughter Suzanne by one of my Ph.D. mentors, philosopher and his-
torian of biology Jean Gayon. This was a unique opportunity to gain almost first-
hand knowledge about aspects of Bachelard’s work that had always intrigued me,
including the connections of his epistemology of quantum physics and quantum
chemistry—sciences that he had explored relentlessly after 1949—to the philosophi-
cal writings of Heisenberg and Bohr. Professor Suzanne Bachelard, herself an
accomplished philosopher of mathematics and phenomenologist, was generous
with her time. We spent a couple of hours at a café nearby, drinking hot chocolate
and discussing biographical and epistemological issues. After the interview, I clim-
bed with her the three flights of stairs that led to her apartment. Before we
departed, she made me wait outside of her door while she rushed to pick up a copy
of Bachelard’s Fragments d’une poétique du feu (1988) and wrote a short dedication
celebrating our encounter. More than a decade later, a French colleague told me
that climbing those stairs was a privilege given to few. Most interviewers were only
allowed to remain on the ground floor of the building. Just as Gaston Bachelard
had been with Kuhn, Professor Bachelard was protective of her father’s work and
still holding strongly to the mythical legacy of his public persona. Although she did
not answer my question about the relations between Bachelard’s conceptions and
German-language scientists, I was not disappointed by the outcome of the inter-
view. In fact, it increased my admiration for the work of Bachelard. It also made
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me realize that reading his literature on the imagination was pivotal for under-
standing the evolution of his historical epistemology of science.
But the reaction of Kuhn was understandable. He needed help. At the time of
his encounter with Bachelard, philosophers of science in the United States were not
particularly interested in a historically or sociologically-based philosophy of
science, as disciplinary boundaries between these fields of inquiry were then quite
rigid. In fact, Kuhn admitted in the preface to The structure of scientific revolutions
(1962) that most of his intellectual mentors were not American but Europeans such
as Emile Meyerson, Alexandre Koyré, Michael Polanyi, Ludwik Fleck, and Hélène
Metzger. He also recognized that parts of his research required delving into the
sociology of the scientific community (Kuhn, 1996, p. ix; first published 1962). It
was therefore only on the Continent that he could find support for his inter-
disciplinary research. The hope of being able to discuss some of these matters with
Bachelard was reasonable. Even if, as it seems to have been the case, Kuhn read
only La philosophie du non carefully, the book already illustrated chief character-
istics of Bachelardianism, including a special blend of history, philosophy, psy-
chology, and sociology of science.

2. What about Bachelard’s epistemology of science?

Bachelard had been writing on the discontinuous structure of knowledge since

1927, the year of his Essai sur la connaissance approchée (one of his two doctoral
theses). From his study of the historical record he concluded that scientific knowl-
edge is approximate, and that modern science, which according to him started in
1905 with Einstein’s theory of relativity, demanded an ‘epistemological break’ with
immediate experience, with Newtonian science, and with ‘chosisme’. Metaphysics
of science such as rationalism, realism, positivism, all of which had derived their
images of science from textbooks and biased science pedagogy, gave an incomplete
picture of how the scientific mind develops through constant ruptures with out-
moded (‘perimée’) ways of thinking. Actually, the expectation that science is about
the given and that truth is correspondence between theories, fixed categorical men-
tal structures à la Kant, and physical reality, constituted to him obstacles to the
progress of science. In La philosophie du non, he charted the epistemological profile
of the development of his own conceptions of physicalist terms such as ‘energy’
and ‘mass’ to demonstrate their hold on one’s mind and the resistance that even
the scientifically educated tend to offer towards innovations that require radical
breaks with previous systems of thought (including metaphysics).
Furthermore, to Bachelard science constructs its objects and each object stays
glued to a stage in the historical development of a scientific discipline. Instruments
in modern sciences like quantum mechanics are materialized theories, extensions of
the mind rather than extensions of the body (Bachelard, 1978, p.133; first pub-
lished 1934). This technical construction was not possible in pre-modern science
because of the trust scientists had in immediate knowledge up until the end of the
nineteenth century. To Bachelard, this was not so much ‘direct’ or empirical
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knowledge as it was a reflection of the tendency, illustrated in alchemy, natural

philosophy, and even in Lavoisier’s chemistry, to project pre-scientific desires and
attitudes into the interpretation of data. It is a tendency that needs, in addition, to
be counteracted at all times because of its being permanently attached to the com-
plexes of the unconscious and thus to the act of knowing itself.
Bachelard’s notion of objectivity, therefore, diverged radically from the logical
positivist tradition in philosophy of science. Scientific objects are constructed
‘against’ nature. But the more one constructs scientific entities and the more scien-
tists subject them to rigorous rational and technical scrutiny, the more objective
knowledge becomes truly intersubjective, that is, free from the reveries of the soli-
tary mind and bounded by collective agreements. Unfortunately, Bachelard’s
‘applied rationalism’, together with the rejection of the dichotomy between object
and subject in favour of the historical nature of scientific entities and the under-
determination of theories by data came to America only after Kuhn and Popper,
and then later in the 1970s when it became attached to the social constructivist
movement in science and technology studies (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).

3. Bachelard’s multifaceted lives

Bachelard’s work is extremely complex. In fact, one is puzzled at every step not
only by the rhetoric, the constant coinage of concepts, the borrowing of terms
from philosophies he vehemently rejected, his strong convictions on the role of
education for citizenship, but also by his refusal to take a stand on the political
turmoil of inter-war France and his apparent blindness toward the destructive
powers of science. In addition, many questions remain regarding the philosophical
and historical underpinnings of his work. Why did he choose discontinuity over
continuity to explain scientific change? Why did his contemporaries criticize him
for arguing that the categories of the mind are fluid rather than static? Why did he
spend so much effort studying alchemy when he believed it was a serious obstacle
to science? Why did he consider Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Priestley, Lavoisier,
and Boerhaave as pre-scientific? Why did he turn midway in his work from psycho-
analysis to phenomenology? Why did his criticism of science teaching bear more on
secondary school than on university education? What was psychoanalysis doing in
a territory that should belong to philosophy?
Chimisso’s Gaston Bachelard. Critic of science and the imagination (2001) answers
many of these questions. Furthermore, the book puts Bachelard’s epistemology
into perspective without, in turn, destroying the respect one owes to his revolution-
ary and powerful thinking. I agree with her that the challenge of deconstructing
Bachelardianism bears on the legitimation, through ‘the manipulation of his physi-
cal appearance’, of the myth of Bachelard the Philosopher. She shows convincingly
how he gradually became not only the proudly provincial ‘teacher of happiness’
(p. 13), but part of a long line of white-bearded figures in the Western canon, all
supposedly following the via contemplativa and carrying with them the wisdom
and the ‘moral authority’ given only to truth seekers (p. 8). This is the ‘icon’ whose
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traces Kuhn and I found at Bachelard’s apartment in Paris. But other parts of
Bachelard are equally real.
The alternative offered by Chimisso is an account, not of his personality, which
remains ever elusive, but of Bachelard’s ‘philosophical perspective, style, choice of
sources and his approach to texts’(p. 248). She does so by peering carefully into the
institutional history and the cultural setting in which this work took place and then
weaving them with claims made by Bachelard about the cognitive structure of
science and the human psyche. She shows that the chaotic choices in bibliography
made by Bachelard were not unusual for the time. An examination of the official
timetables of lycées and collèges in France in the mid-1920s demonstrates that psy-
chology (sensation, perception, abstraction, and the relations of thought and lan-
guage), logic (processes of thought and the methods of the sciences), morals
(personal, family, social, economic and political life), and general philosophy (epis-
temology and metaphysics) all belonged to the territory of philosophy (p. 58).
Another purpose of Chimisso’s book, connected to the blending of fields in second-
ary schools, is to prove that Bachelard’s philosophy is a rich and coherent body of
sustained pedagogical and moral concerns about the limitless possibilities of the
human mind. It is my belief that these two perspectives fill important gaps in
French and English Bachelardian scholarship.
I agree wholeheartedly with Chimisso’s thesis in her magnificently crafted work
that ‘there are many Bachelards in this book’ (p. 247). She demonstrates that the
plurality of Bachelard’s activities, his devotion to the arts and to the sciences, his
interest in ethnography, sociology, history, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, sur-
realism, alchemy, and natural philosophy, are inextricably intertwined with the
debates in French academia over the role of culture générale for citizenship and the
controversies over disciplinary boundaries during the second half of the twentieth
century. Also included in her book are those Bachelards that have been recon-
structed over time by both critics and admirers. They cover an ideological spec-
trum stretching from Louis Althusser’s Marxist interpretation to Michel Vadée’s
idealistic approach, and from the search by materialist Dominique Lecourt for a
night-and-day Bachelardian dualism to Georges Canguilhem’s attempt at making
Bachelard’s discourse dialectic in the Socratic (but not the Hegelian) sense. To
these I would add social constructivism. Bruno Latour’s appropriation of Bache-
lardian concepts such as ‘phénoménotechnique’ contributed to the assumption
made by some intellectuals on this side of the Atlantic that Bachelard was a relati-
vist avant la lettre (Castelão-Lawless, 1995). I concur that all of these authors ‘fail
to recognize the crucial epistemological consequences of Bachelard’s pedagogical
stance’ and to ‘pinpoint the historical reasons for his defence of rationalism’(Chi-
misso, 2001, p. 80).

4. Science pedagogy and morality

Bachelard was first and foremost a teacher. From 1919 to 1930, he taught phys-
ics and chemistry at a secondary school in his native town of Bar-sur-Aube. He got
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his philosophy licence (equivalent to an American Masters’ degree) in 1920, his

agrégation (equivalent to tenure in an American high school) in 1922, and the Doc-
torate in 1927. Until 1940, the year he was called to the Sorbonne to replace Abel
Rey as professor of history and philosophy of science, he taught philosophy of
science at the University of Bourgogne, in Dijon. Although he was already forty-
six years old when he got to the Sorbonne, his academic career was not unusual. In
fact, from 1909 to 1939, seventy five percent of all Sorbonne professors started as
secondary school teachers and then obtained university posts through degrees and
academic affiliations (Chimisso, 2001, p. 51). It is therefore not surprising that
much of Bachelard’s epistemological work is interspersed with subjects included in
the philosophy syllabus and also with criticisms of the scientific curriculum in sec-
ondary schools (where the status of chemistry and physics was not well defined).
To this he added compelling remarks about how mistakes in scientific education at
this level percolate into positivistic conceptions of science at the university.
Two main reasons were at the core Bachelard’s critique of science education.
First, there was his stance on the academic commitment of the French government
vis-à-vis the culture générale. Bachelard agreed with most educators that national
education at secondary school was ‘a moral and political problem,’ because it was
about the formation of the individual and the citizen (ibid., pp. 52–53). Second,
there was his attack on how science was being taught. To him, modern science is
anti-intuitive. To teach science as if it were continuous either with common sense
or intuitive imagination was therefore immensely problematic. A responsible
science teacher must constantly fight against, rather than stimulate, these natural
propensities of the mind. By fostering an acritical acceptance of authority and
encouraging easy associations between abstract thought and childish imagery, these
tendencies quickly become epistemological obstacles to science. Bachelard’s antag-
onism toward French pedagogy comes out as late as 1953 when, in the introduc-
tion to Le matérialisme rationnel, he accuses Maria Montessori’s teaching
methodologies of arresting the development of the scientific mind in the adolescent.
Scientific education was for Bachelard also bound up with morality because
morality ‘belonged to the very cognitive structure of the sciences’ (ibid., p. 80). In
my view, the link that he found between the increasingly rational force of science
and the moral improvement of scientists as practitioners is similar to Robert Mer-
ton’s conception of the self-correcting mechanisms of science. In fact, in ‘The ethos
of science’, Merton claimed that institutionalized values and norms such as uni-
versalism, ‘communism’, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism are ‘trans-
mitted by precept and example, and reinforced by sanctions . . . [and] are in
varying degrees internalized by scientists, thus fashioning their scientific conscience
. . . inferred from the moral consensus of scientists as expressed in use and wont
. . .’ (Merton, 1996, pp. 267–268; first published 1942). But Bachelard went even
further than Merton in his optimism regarding the evolution of science when
he argued that the ‘mind’ has to change because it has to improve itself morally
(Chimisso 2001, p. 92). The dialectic between the teacher and the student fosters a
morally improved mind in both, which in turn leads to a morally improved citi-
zenry (ibid., p. 97). In fact, Bachelard’s philosophy of pedagogy ‘promoted a
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movement of liberation based on rationality and criticism, and believed that

human beings can and should free themselves from prejudices and false beliefs’
(ibid., p. 99). This is why to him ‘Society will be made for School’ and not the
other way around (Bachelard, 1986, p. 252).

5. Scientific controversies

Although Chimisso is exceptionally thorough in her detailing of the institutional

and cultural settings in which Bachelard’s work was produced, she does not cover
the scientific context of early twentieth-century France. Here, the controversies
were not so much over disciplinary boundaries as they were about the epistemo-
logical consequences of non-Euclidean geometries, relativity and quantum theory.
I did find, however, that Chimisso’s treatment of the academic conflict over bound-
aries in the fields of psychology, sociology, ethnography, and so on, could be
applied here. The same can be said of her suggestion that the way Bachelard used
his sources reflected the closure he brought to whatever intellectual conflict he wit-
nessed. One of the examples she offered was the impact of Lévy-Bruhl’s La menta-
lité primitive (1923) on the study of the mind, and how the book originated a
divide between philosophers, sociologists, and ethnologists. Those following in the
steps of Auguste Comte, Lévy-Bruhl, and Emile Durkheim, believed that the devel-
opment of the mind toward rationality could be illustrated by the evolution from
primitive (religious) to scientific thinking. Then there were those who, like Meyer-
son, Marcel Mauss, and Metzger, thought that ethnographical data proved that
reason works in the same way everywhere. Interestingly, this was also an insti-
tutional divide between the Collège de France and the Sorbonne. Bachelard
resolved it when he ‘found a compromise between the fixidity and the historicity of
the mind by breaking the unity of the mind: on the one hand he emphasized the
historical character of the scientific mind, on the other regarded the mind as rela-
tively fixed and stable’(Chimisso, 2001, p. 176). His compromise was the result of
his using physics and chemistry as his philosophical laboratory. He tested both
sides of the divide against his observations of the scientific mind at work and con-
cluded that fixidity and mobility were complementary rather than opposite. Let us
apply Chimisso’s method to Bachelard’s reaction to the scientific context of the
Bachelard was very much aware of the epistemological consequences of revol-
utionary developments such as Einstein’s relativity, Louis de Broglie’s wave mech-
anics, and Heisenberg’s quantum physics. They ‘came to deform primordial
concepts. From then on, reason multiplies its objections, it dissociates and relates
fundamental notions, it rehearses the most fundamental abstractions’ (Bachelard,
1986, p. 7; first published 1938). Later in his work he added Bohr’s quantum phys-
ics to the list. I always found this categorization problematic, because it made
invisible two historical episodes that would have provided perfect case studies for
his claim that tension and consensus are part of the normal dialectical movement
of science. First, there was the skepticism with which relativity had been received
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by French philosophers and scientists alike, especially before 1916. Bachelard never
attempted to explain the controversy that quickly originated between those who
sided with Emile Meyerson and Paul Langevin, and who saw relativity as continu-
ous with Newtonianism, and those who, like Pierre Duhem and Léon Brunschvicg,
believed that they were discontinuous with each other (Duhem, of course, was to
find this discontinuity unacceptable). He just explained the controversy away.
Second, there was the conflict over quantum mechanics between scientists such as
Einstein and De Broglie (after 1951), who saw it as an incomplete picture of
reality, and Heisenberg and Bohr, who believed otherwise (Castelão, 1997). Again,
there are no traces in Bachelard’s writings of this extraordinarily important scien-
tific and epistemological controversy.
There is more. Bachelard attended scientific conferences with De Broglie, Ein-
stein wrote the introduction to Meyerson’s Identité et réalité (1908), De Broglie
expressed his amazement at the intuitions of Bergson over quantum mechanics,
Bergson wrote Durée et simultanéité (1922) to disagree with Einstein’s conception
of time, and Bachelard wrote La dialectique de la durée (1936) to disagree with
Bergson. The connections between scientists and philosophers were definitely there.
But a history of the scientific and institutional setting of this period in France is
still to be written. Until this happens, Chimisso’s methodology comes in handy.
For just as Bachelard did in the case of the humanities debates—he read the scien-
tific sources, observed the conflicts, listened to the scientists and the philosophers,
and then made up his mind. His works present us not with his thinking processes,
but with his final decisions on the matter. In the first case, it is clear that he
decided on a compromise similar to the one he found over the interpretation of
ethnographical data (and even perhaps because of it). The mind tends to stabilize
itself confidently when working inside a system of knowledge such as New-
tonianism, but it needs intellectual supervision by itself and by those minds of
other scientists (‘la surveillance intellectuelle de soi’) to be constantly prompted
into becoming ever dialectical (the ‘philosophy of no’). In the second, and without
ever mentioning it directly, he opted for the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quan-
tum Mechanics, which was, not surprisingly, the official view among professional
physicists. Objectivity is not lost, but correspondence has to be substituted by com-
plementarity. This time he used the humanities, that is, phenomenology, as a lab-
oratory for testing the epistemological viability of the hard sciences.

6. More research is needed

I agree with Chimisso that, independently of the institutional and disciplinary

motives that underlie it, much in the epistemology of science of Bachelard can con-
tribute to contemporary debates in philosophy and historiography of the sciences.
Her list includes conceptions that she analyzed and explained throughout her
book: ‘scientific objects as the outcome of social relationships and technical out-
comes; of science as a dialectical activity; and of linear and progressive history of
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science as ‘‘rationalized’’ and anachronistic reconstruction of events’ (p. 252). Let

us not be like Kuhn and miss the opportunity.

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published 1934).
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naissance scientifique (13th ed). Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin. (First published 1938)
Bachelard, G. (1994). La philosophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique (4th ed).
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (First published 1940)
Bachelard, G. (1988). Fragments d’une poétique du feu. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (First
published 1942)
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Merton, R. (1996). On social structure and science. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
(First published 1942)