Gaston Bachelard’s New Scientific Spirit

by Aasem Bakhshi

BachelardOf all the critiques of Descartes (d.1650), Bachelard’s stands out, as he has selected those principles of Cartesian method which were passed on in silence by other critics, presumably for their seeming innocence. With most of the detractors of the father of modern philosophy, it has either been the principle of universal doubt, the alienated and privileged ego, some step in the logic of the Meditations, some substantive philosophical or scientific doctrine, or the very quest for foundations. For Gaston Bachelard (d. 1962), on the other hand, it was the reductive nature of Cartesian method and resulting epistemology which rendered his philosophy “too narrow to accommodate the phenomena of physics.” (New Scientific Spirit, p. 138) In more particular terms, Bachelard attacks the following rule which according to Descartes summarized his whole method:

The whole method consists entirely in ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our eye if we are to discover some truth. We shall be following this method exactly if we first reduce complicated and obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones and then starting with the intuition of the simplest ones of all, try to ascend through the same steps to a knowledge of all the rest.” (Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind, Rule 5).

Bachelard objects to the reductive nature of Cartesian method and complains that it fails to regain the unified and synthetic reality once analyzed under the demands of method. It seems that Bachelard here has a point in view of the fact that it was this analytical tendency which lends Descartes the unbridgeable Dualism of Mind and Body. On the Cartesian advice to reduce the complicated to the simple, Bachelard accuses Descartes of having neglected the reality of complexity and neglecting that there are certain qualities which only emerge in the wholes and are not there in the parts.

Even some qualities of the parts or simple realities are not noticeable unless one first understand the complex ones. (Ibid. p. 142) This is illustrated with reference to the fact that the doubling of lines in Hydrogen atomic spectrum would not have been noticed if we had not understood the spectra of Alkaline metals first, while it had been presumed, on Cartesian lines, that the latter complex phenomena are to be understood after the pattern of hydrogen model. (Ibid. pp. 148) Taking a step even higher, Bachelard claims that “there are no simple phenomena; every phenomenon is a fabric of relations. There is no such thing as a simple nature, a simple substance; a substance is a web of attributes.” (Ibid. pp. 147-148) Thus, “no idea can be understood until it has been incorporated into a complex system of thoughts and experiences.” (Ibid.) This attack on even the existence of simple natures once again manifests Bachelard’s desire to criticize nothing less than what is essential to Cartesian method.

The concept of “Simple natures” was introduced by Descartes in his explanation for Rule 6 which according to Descartes, contained the whole secret of his method and the most valuable insight of his treaties (i.e. Regulae). Here Descartes says: “I call ‘absolute’ whatever has within it the pure and simple nature in question” and in Rule 12 further explains the nature of simplicity of simple natures by saying: we term ‘simple’ only those things which we know so clearly and distinctly that they cannot be divided by the mind into others which are more distinctly known.” Moreover, these simple natures are directly intuited by the intellect and are thus self-evident.

This Cartesian notion of intuition is subjected to critique by Bachelard which is comparable to that made by Charles S. Peirce (d. 1914) according to whom “ we have no power of intuition but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.” (“Some consequences of four incapacities” Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler p.230) Although Bachelard is not that loud in the denial of very possibility of intuition, the conditions he imposes upon it end up at the same destination: “ Intuitive ideas are made clear in a discursive manner, by progressive illumination, by illustration in a series of examples that bringone or another notion into clearer focus.” Thus according to Bachlardian philosophy of science, science does not develop by accumulation and this implication makes Bachelard one of the heralds of contemporary trend in history and philosophy of science started by Thomas Kuhn.[i] He has quoted Dupreel with approval that “ Once an axiom is posited, a second act is always necessary to establish its application.” (ibid. p. 144) Our initial intuition is completed by clarification through induction and synthesis. Furthermore immediacy, the basic ingredient of the concept of intuition is denied in a manner which brings Bachelard very close to Peirce: “Intuition is no longer direct and prior to understanding; rather it is preceded by extended study.” Two more points in connection with intuition are the following. 1) we are warned against ‘positivism in the first sight’ that is assuming that the most apparent features of something are its most characteristic features. 2) the counter intuitive nature of modern science: “nothing can be more anti-Cartesian then the slow change that has been brought in our thinking by the progress of empirical science, which has revealed a wealth of information never suspected in our first intuition.” (Ibid. p. 142)

New scientific spiritThis second point draws upon the nature of modern science which tends to augment the notion of mathematical intuition with empirical intuition, if not completely replace it. Pointing towards the works of Poncelet, Chasles, Laguerre and Poincare, Bachelard argues that modern scientific spirit, through 'mathematization' of the problem, emphasizes more on discovery rather than solution, Thus what we are experiencing is an end of Cartesian thought in mathematics: “the way to rationalize the world is to complete it”. Mathematics, as Bachelard notes, has moved beyond the order of measure (as in geometry, algebra and arithmetic in Cartesian age) to a tool for progressive scientific objectification. A metaphysician, therefore, brooding over the nature of reality through primarily subjective means is now transformed into a mathematician who is actively indulged in designing controlled experiments in his laboratory. Knowing well that he is confronted with a complex reality, he proceeds by mathematically modelling the phenomenon in the light of available empirical knowledge. He may choose to move from simple models — what might have been comparable to simple natures in order not to rebel from Cartesian spirit — which are only as simple as the choice of keeping some inherent parameters constants for designing more realistic experiments, or for some specific objectives to examine partial reality. Thus, it’s a spiral involving progressive experimentation, models fitting the data, more data arriving from experimentation, and mathematically intensive fresh models best fitting these new datasets. In this sense, modern scientific belief is in discovering the trends which best depict the reality, rather than the reality itself. This is a completely novel spirit, which Bachelard terms as 'progressive objectification'.

In order to illustrate “Cartesian partiality in favor of subjective experience” Bachelard discusses the famous wax example given by Descartes and shows what anti-Cartesian implication can be of using latest experimental techniques on wax. For Descartes the ball of wax was, says Bachelard, a symbol of the fleeting character of material properties.” After describing in detail how a modern physicist would conduct an experiment with the piece of wax using careful purification techniques, controlling the rate of melting and solidification by using an electric oven and even exposing the surface of the wax, he makes the following claim: “what is fleeting is not, as Descartes thought, the properties of the wax but the haphazard circumstances surrounding his observation of it.” (Ibid. 170) It is difficult to disagree with Bachelard’s conclusion from all this discussion that “scientific work is essentially complex,” (p. 171) and that science “rather than rely on whatever clear truths happen to lie ready at hand, actively seek its complex truths by artificial means.” What is unclear is the fact that Descartes would have been impressed with all these details of new technological development and we can imagine him retorting that what is new is not the nature of things but is only a matter of degrees: he himself has pointed out the fact that the extension of the piece of wax “increases if the wax melts, increases again if it boils and greater still if heat is increased” (Second Meditation, Philosophical Works, vo. II. p. 21). What difference does it make from the point of view of Descartes if nowadays one can “regulate the temperature by adjusting the supply of power” or “precisely controlling the shape and surface composition of a wax droplet”? The whole point of the wax example was to problematize shape, surface and other empirically knowable qualities in order to show that these cannot represent reality and to argue for the existence of substancewhich is grasped solely by the faculty of judgement which is in my mind.” (Descartes. Ibid.) Bachelard is right that modern scientific and experimental techniques do give some order to the conditions of observation which are confused as given by nature, but the question Descartes was raising through the wax example was not a scientific question but a philosophical one: can we identify the wax-in-itself with the observable qualities? This question might be rejected as absurd or answered in a different way than Descartes[ii] but we fail to see any important implication of the new technological developments for Cartesian question regarding the mutability of qualities and existence of an immutable substance knowable only by the mind. In fact Descartes has mentioned in passing another example for his purpose as well: “… if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square… I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons. I judge that they are men.” (Ibid.) Has experimental science shown that qualities do not change or it has simply gained more control over the process of their change? It could have been logically relevant to the Cartesian argument only if it had done the former, which it is not clear that it has.


[i] Kuhn himself says , “I did read some Bachelard. But it was so close to my own thought that I did not feel I had to read lots and lots more.” “Paradigms of Scientific Evolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn” in The American Philosopher: Conversations, ed. Giovanna Borradori, (Chicago, 1994), p. 160.
[ii] One example of this is Pierre Gassendi who took Descartes to task on this issue: “ I am amazed at how you can say that once forms have been stripped off like clothes, you perceive more perfectly and evidently what the wax is. (Meditations, Fifth Set of Objections, pp. 190-191)


  1. Gaston Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit (Beacon Press, 1984).
  2. Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind; Discourse on Method; Meditations on First Philosophy in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Volumes 1& 2, eds. Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch(Cambridge University Press, 1984).
  3. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover Publications, 1965), pp.228-251.

For Further Reading.

  1. Mary Tiles, Bachelard: Science and Objectivity (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  2. Mary Tiles, “Technology, Science and Inexact Knowledge,” in Continental Philosophy of Science ed. Gary Gutting (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 157-176.
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