Atomistic Intuitions
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French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) is best known in the English-speaking world for his work on poetics and the literary imagination, but much of his oeuvre is devoted to epistemology and the philosophy of science. Like Thomas Kuhn, whose work he anticipates by three decades, Bachelard examines the revolution taking place in scientific thought, but with particular attention to the philosophical implications of scientific practice. Atomistic Intuitions, published in 1933, considers past atomistic doctrines as a context for proposing a metaphysics for the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century. As his subtitle indicates, in this book Bachelard proposes a classification of atomistic intuitions as they are transformed over the course of history. More than a mere taxonomy, this exploration of atomistic doctrines since antiquity proves to be keenly pedagogical, leading to an enriched philosophical appreciation of modern subatomic physics and chemistry as sciences of axioms. Though focused on philosophy of science, the perspectives and intuitions Bachelard garnered through this work provide a unique and even essential key to understanding his extensive writings on the imagination. Roch C. Smith's translation and explanatory notes will help to make this aspect of Bachelard's thought accessible to a wider readership, particularly in such fields as aesthetics, literature, and history.
Translator’s introduction
Preface to the French Edition

Introduction: The Fundamental Complexity of Atomistics

Part I.

1. The Metaphysics of Dust

2. Realist Atomism

3. Problems of the Composition of Phenomena

Part II.

4. Positivist Atomism

5. Critical Atomism

6. Axiomatic Atomism




Publié par
Date de parution 27 août 2018
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781438471297
Langue English

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An Essay on Classification
Translated and with an introduction by R OCH C. S MITH
Preface to the French edition by D ANIEL P ARROCHIA
Originally published, in the French, as Les intuitions atomistiques (essai de classification)
Deuxième édition revue et corrigée. Préface de Daniel Parrochia.
© Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1975; 2015.
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany
© 2018 State University of New York
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. No part of this book may be stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means including electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
For information, contact State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Bachelard, Gaston, 1884-1962, author.
Title: Atomistic intuitions : an essay on classification / by Gaston Bachelard ; translated by Roch C. Smith ; preface by Daniel Parrochia.
Other titles: Intuitions atomistiques. English
Description: Albany : State University of New York, 2018. | Series: SUNY series in contemporary French thought | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017053072| ISBN 9781438471273 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781438471297 (e-book)
Subjects: LCSH: Atomism.
Classification: LCC BD646 .B313 2018 | DDC 146/.5—dc23 LC record available at
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The Fundamental Complexity of Atomistics
Chapter I. The Metaphysics of Dust
Chapter II. Realist Atomism
Chapter III. Problems of the Composition of Phenomena
Chapter IV. Positivist Atomism
Chapter V. Critical Atomism
Chapter VI. Axiomatic Atomism
ATOMISTIC INTUITIONS IS THE SIXTH OF TWENTY-THREE BOOKS PUBLISHED by Gaston Bachelard during his lifetime. Of these, fully one-half deal with the epistemology of science, while the remainder engage with broader philosophical issues from a variety of perspectives, with special emphasis on the literary imagination. 1 With the publication of this translation, sixteen of Bachelard’s books, including an unfinished posthumous work, are now available in English. Yet only a quarter of these are translations of works on science. Clearly, more needs to be done, and it is my hope that the present volume will encourage more translations and will further scholarly efforts to make Bachelard’s significant explorations of modern scientific thought more widely recognized in the English-speaking world.
Bachelard, who died in 1962—the same year Thomas Kuhn published his Structure of Scientific Revolutions —had been investigating and explaining what he would call The New Scientific Spirit for some thirty years. 2 It is not my purpose here to examine in detail the remarkable parallels between Kuhn’s notion of the “paradigm shift” particularly evident in modern science and Bachelard’s own observations on the revolution in contemporary scientific thought. Suffice it to point out that there are significant similarities in outlook and conclusions, despite differences in presentation and level of detail between the two. Briefly put, among the differences, Kuhn focuses especially on the scientific process as it is revealed in the applied practice of science, both over time and in the present. While not neglecting such practice, Bachelard is more likely to call attention to the history of science for the lessons it teaches on past errors, and to the philosophical implications of contemporary scientific practice. Examples of congruity between these kindred spirits include what Kuhn calls “anomaly” and Bachelard identifies as “epistemological obstacles” at work in the revolutionary process of scientific discovery. 3 Similarly, both are led to consider the pedagogical implications of such a method for students who are too often introduced to science as accumulated knowledge rather than as a process of perpetual discovery. Kuhn points out that “the textbook tendency to make the development of science linear hides a process that lies at the heart of the most significant episodes of scientific development.” 4 Bachelard decries the secondary school practices in the France of his day, where, in abandoning problem-solving in favor of teaching summary knowledge, physics and chemistry serve to “misunderstand the real meaning of the scientific mind.” 5 Such pedagogical considerations are perceptively explored by Cristina Chimisso, who sees pedagogy as an underlying and distinctive concern in Bachelard, going well beyond instances of instructional shortcomings. In a recent book Chimisso’s well-researched historical context supports the argument that Bachelard’s “epistemology and his pedagogy were not separate: rather, his epistemology shaped his pedagogy, and his pedagogy inspired his conception of science.” 6 Space does not permit a fuller exploration of correspondences between Kuhn and Bachelard on this and other questions, but it certainly would not be the first time that two thinkers, writing on issues of their time, came separately to similar conclusions. Yet the fact that Bachelard’s work precedes that of Kuhn by three decades would suggest, at the very least, the need for more attention to continental philosophy by English-speaking readers. Kuhn himself, of course, in his transition from theoretical physics to the history and philosophy of science, spanned that partition and came to know the world of European philosophy well, including figures such as Alexandre Koyré, Émile Meyerson, and Hélène Metzger, who serve as points of reference for Bachelard’s own discussions. 7
Recent years have seen efforts to bridge this philosophical divide by offering several analyses of Bachelard to readers of English. 8 Among these recent considerations of Bachelard’s work, one, in particular, calls attention to the role of atomism in Bachelard. In a chapter-length appendix to a book that examines Bachelard’s view of mathematical rationalism as a creator of realities in science, Zbigniew Kotowicz suggests that “Bachelard’s conception of time is atomist, and he thinks like an atomist.” 9 Especially intriguing is the second part of this proposition, since it extends Bachelard’s recognizable temporal atomism in Intuition of the Instant (1932) to the rest of his thought. Atomistic Intuitions , published the year after Bachelard’s book on the instant emerges as an obvious instance of his atomistic thinking. But Kotowicz reaches well beyond this early essay to include works from what I have called Bachelard’s “epistemological trilogy.” 10 Arguing that, for Bachelard, “the ontologising power of mathematics comes into full view and is put into effect in an atomist universe, [and that] … science is discontinuous as a consequence of the atomist nature of our rationality,” 11 Kotowicz points the way to a fuller consideration of atomism in Bachelard. Although Kotowicz considers Atomistic Intuitions to be largely dismissive of traditional atomism—what he calls “the concept of the atom as a bit of material substance”—he does suggest that “it was atomism that gave [Bachelard] an ontology of discontinuity, of perfect mobility, in which he could articulate his project.” 12 But the question remains as to whether it was atomistic thinking—“the atomist nature of our rationality”—that led Bachelard to a perception and ultimate understanding of the new science, as Kotowicz proposes, or whether Bachelard’s open-minded investigation and understanding of that very science led, in turn, to his notions and appreciation of atomism, both in science and elsewhere. This question, and undoubtedly others surrounding the notion of atomism in Bachelard, warrant further inquiry. Atomistic Intuitions , a work that, under the broad umbrella of atomism, explores the encounter between realism and idealism, between the empirical and the axiomatic, and, in so doing, uncovers the “eclecticism” (98) of philosophical atomism, provides an indispensable starting point for just such a survey.
Even prior to the most recent twenty-first-century studies, a few English-speaking voices had already been addressing Bachelard’s epistemology over the last two decades of the twentieth century. In addition to my own overview of Bachelard’s writings on science, as part of an introduction in 1982 to the full spectrum of his thought, 13 there were notable contributions by Mary Tiles, whose thorough analysis of Bachelard’s philosophy of science appeared in 1984, 14 and by Mary McAllester, whose 1989 edited collection of essays and 1991 book of translations and commentary include several considerations of Bachelard’s epistemology. 15 Indeed, McAllester, who, along with Eileen Rizo-Patron, has translated Bachelard’s philosophical musings on time, 16 has also provided a

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