Unanchored Reason: Gaston Bachelard and Surrealist Philosophy.


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 Works Reviewed. Kotowicz, Zbigniew. Gaston Bachelard: A Philosophy of the Surreal. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. 212 pages.

It was with some sadness that I recently learned that Zbigniew Kotowicz had died, not long after I had begun reading his book on Gaston Bachelard. Sadness that he would never again put pen to with the warmth and wit  which I had come to appreciate in reading Gaston Bachelard: A Philosophy of the Surreal. Still, the book has within its pages enough to keep my mind occupied for some time, and Kotowicz has also written on Egas Moniz, R.D. Laing, and Fernando Pessoa. Kotowicz was a generalist in the age of specialization, and it is this tendency in his thought that first led him to the  work of Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher who would prove central to his own intellectual journey.

Fatigued by Hegel: The Poetics of Space 

At the door of the house who will come knocking?

An open door, we enter

A closed door, a den.

The world pulse beats beyond my door. ~ Pierre Albert Birot



The story begins, as Kotowicz tells it, in a classically Kierkegaardian fashion when, “fatigued  by Hegel’s text and needing a break he pulls a copy of La Poétique de l’espace off the shelf only to find himself mesmerized by the text. Well,  that isn’t quite the beginning, since the book had first to come upon the shelf. It was, he relates, introduced to him by an artist friend. In his deceptively spare prose, Kotowicz manages to conjure up the image of what Bachelard calls “protected intimacy.” (Poetics of Space,3) The shelf with its volumes holds the tome that beckons from the outside world with the  voice of the artist, the friend. “The house,” writes Bachelard, “quite obviously, is a privileged entity for the phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided that we take it in both its unity and its complexity.” (Poetics, 3) The intimate value of friendship may not be far off the mark of a philosophy that seeks, first of all, to be at home.

This introduction, at any rate,  was to prove fatal since, upon that first encounter with Bachelard, Kotowicz would abandon a doctoral thesis that was well underway in order to “explore the world that Bachelard seemed to open up.” It was, he acknowledges, a rash decision, but one that was provoked by that initial encounter, in what reads like a conversion story. He abandoned a project on psychic interiority from St. Augustine’s reflections on memory to the Freudian psyche on the basis of the sense that there was something to Bachelard despite La Poétique de l’espace appearing at first glance as a collection of pleasant but inconsequential meanderings. The joie de vivre of Bachelard’s philosophy, says Kotowicz, “did not agree with my intellectual habits.

I had been developing a sophisticated (or so I thought) undestanding of madnes, falenness, alienation, ‘bad faith’, the ‘human condition’, the ‘end of man’ etc. ect. (the list is loong) – basically, about all that is wrong and tragic about human existence – while in Bachelard one finds a quest for the knowledge of sanity, creativity, happiness, notions which were, I realised, hidden from me. (2)


Kotowicz’s reflections on  the lay of the philosophical land are, I suspect, familiar to many with even a passing interest in philosophical reflection. Serious thinking is somehow expected to be ponderous and tragic, where it is not altogether dry.  Bachelard’s simple phrase that “Being starts with well-being,” strikes the mind trained to pay supreme attention to the tragic theatre of history as odd, to say the least. To discern the philosophical consistency of the twenty-seven works that comprise Bachelard’s oeuvre, Kotowicz draws on a musical analogy. Bachelard’s philosophy was akin to music written in an unfamiliar scale. To understand it properly requires changing or adapting one’s thinking habits. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Bachelard was not overly concerned with a systematic presentation of his own thought and, perhaps consciously, avoided developing a philosophy with an obvious point of departure. (3) Kotowicz offers a series of notes that he has observed emerging from the Bachelardian scale, a  series which well-being, surrealism, naivety, and atomism, and which is by no means meant to be exhaustive. These notes, Kotowicz maintains, can be discerned with consistency across the great span of Bachelard’s works.

Epistemology, Poetic Imagination, and Temporality

Bachelard’s body of works, while wide-ranging, is not simply eclectic. Kotowicz divides it into three main groupings; a ‘philosophy of science,’ the poetic imagination, and those of Bachelard’s works with a more ‘metaphysical’ bent which might be categorized under the heading ‘philosophy of time.’ The first two categories are fairly standard divisions of Bachelard’s work which one finds, for example, in the Wikipedia article on Bachelard or in the entry for Bachelard in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no separate entry for Bachelard at this time, which confirms the hypothesis that Bachelard ‘remains little known in the Anglophone world.’ Kotowicz’s work on Bachelard draws attention to the breadth of this remarkable thinker, through the three categories aforementioned. Like the author of the biblical Proverbs, though, the three things is amended to four since Bachelard’s philosophy of time opens up, for Kotowicz, the rich vein of the atomist tradition of philosophical inquiry. It was in the pairing of Bachelard and atomism that Kotowicz found the most surprise and confusion among his colleagues, which he attributes mostly to the fact that we have been taught the atomist doctrine poorly. The appendix of the book is therefore dedicated to an exploration of the philosophy of atomism as it unfolds from Bachelard’s work. AtomiTsm is of a piece with the portrayal of Bachelard as a philosopher of the surreal, thinking along different and unexpected lines.

The major entries into Bachelard’s thought, however, are almost certainly those of philosophy of science and the poetic imagination. These two aspects of Bachelard’s work had, in the mind of the philosopher himself, absolutely no relation to one another. “I only knew tranquil work after I had neatly cut my working life into two almost independent parts, one put under the sign of the concept, the other under the sign of the image.” (11) These two signs are inimical to one another, since, for Bachelard, the image presents an obstacle to scientific rationality. The first part of Kotowicz book is dedicated to exploring Bachelard’s quest for a ‘new scientific mind.’ This new scientific mind is marked by rupture and discontinuity, as his argument  is that the “scientific episteme does not develop through a continuos accretion of knowledge,” but through a series of ruptures and discontinuities. The most important of these ruptures is the passage from visual representation to the mathematical thinking, or between common knowledge and scientific thinking. The rationality that Bachelard espouses is a mathematical rationality, and its purpose is not simply to explore the world but to actively create it. “A scientific rationality, he never ceases to argue, is a mind at work.” It is through the concept of the ‘mind at work’ that Kotowicz will manage, to some extent, to reconcile the radical duality of concept and image that Bachelard himself proposes.

Kotowicz brings into the conversation some of Bachelard’s critics, particularly those who are uncomfortable with the strict divide that he draws between the interests of life and those of reason, and his apparent hostility towards naive thinking or common experience. He also touches on the different forms of rationality that one sees at work in the Vienna Circle, whose form of rationality was based on logic, and Bachelard’s mathematical rationality. This difference meant that Bachelardian rationality has very different aims, it is ‘not seeking knowledge that would be constant and universal.’ What is not directly touched upon is why, at a philosophical level, scientific rationality should be reduced to mathematical rationality. The fruitful exchange between the deductive and experimental sciences, while certainly effective, is not actually justified by science itself. The idea that “following the dictates of contemporary science we quit nature to enter a factory of phenomena,” is not a particularly reflective idea, nor is the axiom of rationality as progressive. There is something violent about this process, and something that seems to be more of an apologetics for technology than a philosophical critique.

The section ends with Kotowicz’s translation of Bachelard’s article on Surrationalism, which was published in the 1936 review Inquisitions. It reads, at times, like a more philosophically sophisticated version of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. Its most striking line, perhaps: Reason was a tradition. The spiritual voyage, un-anchoring human reason from sensory experience, does not come to pass. Instead, Bachelard turns to the realm of the poetic imagination, and in this way moves beyond the inhuman violence of futurism, although not without toying with the reverie of violence in his commentary on Les Chants de Maldoror. 

Out of his Pasteurized Universe

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Kotowicz locates the turn to the poetic in the pages of La Psychanalyse du Feu. There is a marked difference between the Introduction – which attempts to eradicate the images of fire from the scientific mind – and the conclusion in which fire is praised. La Psychanalyse du Feu begins as a treatise intendedn to ‘cure the mind from its happy illusions,” but ends as a discovery of the importance of admiration and wonder in thought. The discovery of wonder was also, apparently, motivated by a personal critique in which Bachelard overhead a student speak of his “pasteurized universe,” and was struck with the revelation that ‘a man cannot be happy in a sterilized world.” (84)

Bachelard rushes off to the poet, and in a telling phrase, Kotowicz has him injecting ‘values and aesthetics into his research. (85) The language, at this point, is still quite clinical, though it will become increasingly less so as Kotowicz traces Bachelard’s discovery of the poetic, the elemental, and of the body. Bachelard discovers the four elements, and the power of pain and of death.

Kotowicz argues that, despite the many changes accompanying the shift from a philosophy of science to ruminations on the poetic imagination, Bachelard remains consistent in his vehement opposition to the concept of substance. ‘The element is always complex and in this sense it satisfied Bachelard’s intellectual temperament.’ (83) There is something not altogether satisfying about this statement, and perhaps it is indicative of a problem that I have with Bachelard’s work overall. The axiomatic decision to cut the nerve between poetic imagination and scientific rationality, between the concept and the sign, while certainly productive, seems at times to be a strategy of avoidance. ‘Bachelardism,” Kotowicz is not alone in observing, “is not a philosophy of Being… but a philosophy of work…as absolute creation.’ (15) Bachelard regarded the concept of substance, and philosophies of Being in general, as intellectually lazy, but is the relentless drive toward perpetual (self)creation really the answer to this laziness? The intimation that “Being starts with well-being,” suggests that Bachelard was on the road to a philosophical understanding which, if not entirely at home with unitary concepts like substance, at least held some view of coherence other than that of violence and destruction.

Still, it is death and flames that bookend Bachelard’s work on poetics, from La Psychanalyse du Feu to the unfinished Fragments d’une poétique du feu. This last work is was to be his meditations on the (impossible) poetics of the animus, the masculine principle. The death invoked in this last meditation is “death with a masculine prestige,” and we are returned here to the very Hegelian dialectic, which had brought on the earlier fatigue. Bachelard, who had identified the feminine principle with the poetic imagination, and the principle of scientific rationality with the masculine principle, seems almost desperately to be trying to convert the image to the masculine side. The reverie is one brought on by fire, but also, it should be noted, by the desire for immortality.

“The feminine death is the going out of the flame while falling asleep. Life is this flame, precarious and valiant. The flame is playful and mobile, it is liberated from its own substance. It dies well without knowing that it has to die.” (118)

The sentiment here, I think, is quite clear. It has to do with freedom, conceived rather broadly as the freedom for self-definition and mobility. It is a heroic, and a violent sentiment. It is akin, but only somewhat,  to Marinetti’s glorification of war in the Futurist Manifesto: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” It is true that the concept, as presented by Bachelard and Kotowicz, is softer and more respectful. They lack Marinetti’s violence and his arrogance, for Bachelard is able to see value in a feminine death – likened to a candle going out – as well as the masculine death. “The candle dies more gently than the star in the sky. The wick bends, the wick grows black. Embraced by shadow, the flame has taken its opium. And the flame dies well: it dies while falling asleep. (116) And yet, it is not clear in either case what it means to die well, and so the celebration ends up simply being a celebration of death, just as Marinetti’s apparent lust for violence was really a simple alliance with death. The flame without substance, which was Bachelard’s original fear, becomes the death that he accepts.

The Duel with Duration

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The first two sections of the book stand on their own. Kotowicz weaves together the story of Bachelard’s thought and its development, and there is a kind of narrative coherence to the piece. Yet, as he had intimated from the beginning, he is not simply providing a narrative, but also a set of notes or themes through which we might conceptualize Bachelard’s entire philosophical output. The philosophy of time is a much neglected, but still substantial, area of Bachelard’s work.

Central to this part of his philosophy is the concept of the instant. Kotowicz offers a brief history of the philosopy of the instant, before coming to the question of duration. For Bachelard the instant is the only reality of time, and duration is achieved only through the will and through the creation of habits which, quite intriguingly, Bachelard defines as ‘the will to begin oneself.’ (125) However, there seems to be something more to the will than mere force, since the question of rhythm and vibration is central to Bachelard’s view. “Matter is vibration that materializes itself.” The musical analogy with which Kotowicz began his treatise finds a resonance here, and they offer a way to consider thought and action in embodied ways, presumably while avoiding the spectre of substantial entities. Significantly it allows Bachelard to continue his theme of rupture and discontinuity into his understanding of time. Duration, which is achieved through the holding pattern of willed instances, requires a certain kind of rhythm in order to be viable.

“The most stable patterns owe their stability to rhythmic discord. They are statistical patterns of a temporal disorder, and nothing more than this. Our houses are built with an anarchy of vibrations.” (129)

Bachelard’s work on time, unlike his other philosophical endeavours, had a named and clearly identified opponent in the person of Henri Bergson. Kotowicz traces this disagreement rather briefly. Bachelard’s objections, succintly, are that Bergson’s concept of duration and élan vital promotes a philosophy of inactivity and laziness and does not allow for the experience of novelty and change.

Finally, Kotowicz takes us on an exploration of the affinities of Bachelard’s thought on discontinuous time with that of Buddihst philosophers from the schools of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, as read through Lilian Silburn’s Instant et cause: Le discontinu dans la pensée philosophique de l’Inde. This section is also brief, but sees some important ideas developed, including a rejection of the idea that memory constitutes time as lived duration because, according to Bachelard and the Buddhists, this introduces the anxiety of death into the experience of time. (140) This has been Bachelard’s problem with memory all along, that it incites dread and makes possible only reaction, rather than a true action. “The first clear though is the thought of nothingness”, Bachelard will affirm, with the understanding that it is with this thought that the image will finally be undone.

Concluding Remarks

After reading Kotowicz’s book, I find that I have become intrigued by Bachelard; as much by the discontinuities and apparent contradictions as by the overall coherence. Kotowicz’s discussion of Bachelard and Atomism I will leave to another time, as this review is already quite full. Gaston Bachelard: A Philosophy of the Surreal is a fascinating book, a pleasure to read, and a work that will provoke thought and, quite likely, disagreement. By the end it does not seem that Bachelard is any easier to pin down, but there are quite a number of moments of compelling clarity.