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  • Gaston Bachelard: Philosopher of Science and Imagination by Roch C. Smith
  • Ben Stoltzfus
Roch C. Smith, Gaston Bachelard: Philosopher of Science and Imagination Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2016, 192 pp.

Gaston Bachelard, says Roch Smith, is one of twentieth-century France's most original thinkers. French-language readers may know him as the author of La Psychanalyse du feu and L'Eau et les rêves, but English-language readers know him primarily as the author of The Poetics of Space. As Smith's subtitle indicates, in addition to his poetics, Bachelard also made significant contributions to the philosophy and history of science. Indeed, as Smith argues and demonstrates, Bachelard's writings on the literary imagination can be better understood in light of how knowledge works in a scientific context. Accordingly, he gives us a splendid overview of Bachelard's writings on the scientific mind as it was transformed by relativity, quantum physics, and modern chemistry. He also examines Bachelard's works on poetics, arguing that they derive from and are based on the intellectual values he derived from science. But that is not all. Smith also analyzes Bachelard's views on epistemology and ontology as they apply to both science and the imagination. Among other things, he explores the mythology of the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) in light of their materiality and the dynamic imagination associated with them, i.e., the phenomenology of the creative imagination as expressed in the later Poetics of Space, the Poetics of Reverie, and the fragments of Poetics of Fire (his posthumously published work). Smith also brings us up to date on the books published on Bachelard by scholars of different persuasions. He notes that in the last three decades eleven new translations have been published, so that the English-language reader now has access to all of Bachelard's work on the poetic imagination, to three of his twelve books on science, and to both of his books on time. To this "renaissance" of Bachelard studies in English, we now should add Smith's thoroughly revised and updated book: Gaston Bachelard: Philosopher of Science and Imagination.

In Chapter I, "The Man and His Times," Smith discusses the duality in Bachelard as a rationalist dreamer. He analyzes the perceived polarity between science and poetry, and he insists that an informed appraisal of Bachelard's contributions to literary criticism cannot be fully appreciated until his rationalistic and oneiric works have been discussed and evaluated. In the chapters that follow, Smith does exactly that, elegantly and persuasively.

Smith argues that Bachelard is a philosopher of science interested in the imagination. Bachelard liked to say that he had the feet of a philosopher of science but the wings of a poet. In the beginning he was an epistemologist who assumed the directorship of the Sorbonne's Institute of the History of Science and, after that, became a renowned guide to the mysteries of the literary imagination. In 1961, one [End Page 383] year before he died, he was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres. As Smith phrases it, Bachelard was "the author of an epistemological analysis of Einstein's theory of relativity and the writer of a poetic essay on candlelight."

In Chapter II, "Early Epistemology," Smith discusses four books: Essai sur la connaissance approchée, Étude sur l'évolution d'un problème de physique: La Propagation thermique dans les solides, La Valeur inductive de la relativité, and Le Pluralisme cohérent de la chimie moderne. These books deal with approximation, induction, and coherence—the distinctive traits of science at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bachelard wants to know how knowledge takes place in science because, as Smith points out, paraphrasing him, reality does not exist independently of the means of knowing. Bachelard places Einstein's theory of relativity in the context of the history of science, and in his "dialectical" break with Newtonian doctrines he assesses relativity's revolutionary role in physics and mathematics. Mathematical invention precedes reality in that theory predicts the possible and subsequent experimentation confirms it.

In Chapter III, "The New Scientific Mind," Smith discusses the contributions of science to philosophy. Two books, L...


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