Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard by Roch C. Smith, Twayne Publishers: Boston. 1982

One reason I keep my hand in with university teaching is library access, working at a University of London college, means I can borrow books from Senate House Library.  Its an impressive building rather brutalist and soviet but in a kind of good way!  While my academic experience is around political economy I have long had an interest in the methodology of science.  A key figure in this area is the great and provocative French thinker Gaston Bachelard. I don't read French and his texts on scientific method are often untranslated.  I have found Roch Smith's book entitled, quite simply, Gaston Bachelard useful and since borrowing it from Senate House have read it quickly.

It is not a recent title and is short but I feel I understand more about Bachelard than I did last week before reading it.  Bachelard, he of the splendid beard, combined a resolute rationalism in examining science methodology with an expansive and subjective view of literature.  It as if there were two Bachelard's.  Number one is a French rationalist and part of the ensemble with Jean Cavaillès and Georges Canguilhem.

All three were in turn influenced, I think, by Léon Brunschvicg.  Bachelard number two is a mystical figure who embraced a vivid impressionistic approach to literature.  Smith, I guess, like everyone else struggles to explain the relationship between the resolutely rational Bachelard and the mystical Bachelard.  He does note that those of us who simply read Bachelard's work on science, only take a part of what he did.

My interest, rightly or wrongly, is in the rationalist Bachelard.  Bachelard argued that in science our investigations are conditioned by everyday life understanding which is not enough to gain an understanding of phenomena which we do not experience directly.  Chemistry and physics often involved the investigation of aspects of reality that we cannot directly observe.  Thus positivism based on what we can measure and empiricism based on evidence can be misleading.  The pursuit of rationalism, understanding based on logical relations, puts us on firmer foundations

For when science, particularly physics and chemistry, explores the world of the atom, it deals with a different order of experience, one that is outside the realm of everyday observation. As Bachelard repeatedly indicates throughout his epistemological works, this microphenomenal world may require systems of thought that, in some ways, contradict the logic of everyday experience [...] Bachelard reminds us, a discrepancy between the exactness of mathematics, which can be viewed as absolute, and the necessary imperfections of any attempt at exactness when dealing with concrete reality. Our knowledge of reality can be made relatively precise, but never absolutely exact. (Smith 1982: 10)

French continental theory, starting with Althusser, takes Bachelard's rationalism to criticise empiricism, noting that evidence is limited and logical analysis is the true scientific method.  Smith suggests this is a partial misreading, Bachelard has some time for empiricism and notes that a purely rationalist approach may need to be supplemented with observation.  While I don't fully understand Bachelard's approach, I get the superficial impression, that he does not construct an entirely rationalist view of science.  Such an approach provides a fully logical investigation but risks remaining separate from 'reality'.

However clearly as science moves further way from what we directly observe in everyday life, rationalism (in the sense of a mathematical approach based on logic relationships) becomes more significant.

In dealing with the newness of Einsteinian theories, Bachelard's central preocccupation is with the revolutionary role of mathematics, which he had previously identified as the hallmark of contemporary science.  He points out that in Einsteinian physics the mathematics of discovery does not proceed deductively from certain quantified laws based on prior observation and experiment.  Rather, the calculus of relativity initially generalizes in order to account for all variables.  It is synthetic, or inductive, rather than analytic, or deductive, in its initial approach.  Mathematics is not used merely to describe reality in quantitative terms, through its constructive processes, it has become a means of discovering reality.  'We are thus led to oppose to the simplifying role of mathematical information, the constructive role of mathematical induction' (VIR, 84-85) (Smith 1982: 17)
Observation Bachelard noted was conditioned by theory and theory by metaphor.  The notion of an epistemological break, that science proceeds not by gradual accumulation of knowledge but the sharp reject of a particular way of looking at reality, can be derived from this view.  However important as this is, it does not exhaust the imagination of Bachelard, the rest of the Smith's book describes how his thought took flight into many varied and exciting areas.


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