Gaston Bachelard


The decisive action of reason is almost always confused with monotonous recourse to the certitudes of memory. That which is well known, which has often been experienced, that which one faithfully repeats, easily, vehemently, gives the impression of objective and rational coherence. Rationalism thus takes on a slightly academic tinge. It is elementary and troublesome, jolly as a prison gateway, and as inviting as a tradition. Only by living in the subterranean, as in a spiritual prison, not recognizing the true meaning of living reason, was Dostoiewski able to write: “Reason only knows that which it has succeeded in learning.” And yet, in order to think, one should first have so many things to unlearn!

To change, therefore, the rationalism of the mind’s past to the future of the mind, the memory to the endeavour, the elementary to the complex, logic to surlogic, that is the indispensible task of a spiritual revolution.

By subtle endeavour reason must be brought to the point of not only doubting its own works, but of systematically subdividing itself once more in all of its activities. Briefly, human reason must be restored to its function of turbulent aggression. One contributes in this way to the founding of a surrationalism which will multiply the occasions for thought. When this surrationalism will have established its doctrine, it can be allied with surrealism; both sensibility and reason will then mutually be restored to their fluidity. The physical world will be experienced in new ways. It will be understood differently and felt differently. An experimental reason will be established, capable of organizing reality as the experimental dream of Tristan Tzara organizes poetic liberty surrealistically. Two kinds of spiritual tasks may be anticipated,—they are already dimly discernible in the scientific development of our epoch: reason will subdivide spontaneously by an internal dialectic,—reason will subdivide upon the experiential obstacle, by an external dialectic. The interference of these two dialectics will determine, finally, the surempiricisms of a strange mobility, of a strange new force.

Let us rapidly trace the outlines of these surrational structures.

*      *      *

The internal dialectic of rational thought only really became apparent in the 19th century. It appeared at the same time in both philosophy and science without there being otherwise any relation between the two movements: Lobatchewsky, dialecticising geometrical thinking, ignored Hegel. Hegel, dialecticising metaphysical thinking, naturally ignored Lobatchewsky. He even ignored mathematics. Great as the temptation may be to fasten dialectic rationalism to Hegelian terms, that temptation must be avoided. Hegelian dialectic confronts us with a dialectic a priori, a dialectic wherein the liberty of the mind is too unconditioned, too treacherous. It can lead, perhaps, to a general ethic or politic. It can never lead to the daily exercise of free thinking, detailed and revived. It corresponds to one of those lifeless societies wherein one is free to do anything, but there is nothing to be done. Thus one is free to think, but there is nothing to be thought. Much superior is the dialectic instituted at the level of particular ideas, a posteriori, after chance or history has brought forward an idea that, for that very reason, remains contingent. The day that Lobatchewsky dialecticised the idea of the parallel, he invited the human mind to perfect, dialectically, all fundamental ideas. An essential mobility, a psychic effervescence, a spiritual joy, were found associated with the act of reason. Lobatchewsky created geometrical humour, in applying the spirit of finesse to the spirit of geometry; he advanced polemic reasoning to the rank of established reasoning; he established liberty of reason in its own esteem by loosening the application of the principle of contradiction.

This liberty could renovate all ideas in perfecting them dialectically. Unfortunately, no one has made positive, real, surrealist use of this liberty. The logicians and the formalists invaded the field. And instead of realizing, surrealizing, the rational liberty which the mind had experienced in such precise and fragmentary dialectics, the logicians and formalists, on the contrary, unrealized, unpsychologized, the new spiritual conquest. Alas! after that labor of obstinate subrealism, the mind has not become more alert and more alive, but more weary and disenchanted.

Where, then, lies the duty of surrationalism? It is to take over those formulas, well purged and economically ordered by the logicians, and recharge them psychologically, put them back into motion and into life. The shortest way to attain this would be to teach those numerous geometries left in darkness by official and pragmatic teachings. In teaching a revolution of reason, one would multiply the reasons for spiritual revolutions. One would thus contribute to the singularizing of the diverse rational philosophies, to the reindividualizing of reason. Behold, here is a hardened rational mind, that repeats the eternal pattern given in all books of academic philosophy by all the philosophers who block the rationalism of elementary scientific culture: “the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles.” Actually, that depends on the choice of axioms. With a smile you disconcert this entirely elementary reasoning that boasts the right of absolute ownership of elementals. You loosen up this dogmatic reasoning by making it play with axioms. You teach it to unlearn, the better to understand. What wealth of variety is possible in this disorganization of sclerotic rationalism! And conversely, what wealth of variations on surrational themes; what brusque mutations for minds suddenly dialecticised!

*      *      *

In regard to physical experience also, rationalism happily has just adopted a clearly ambiguous attitude. It has abandoned the rigidity of the a priori and welcomed the a posteriori. Thus one can admit, as a general principle of experimental rationalism, the necessity of reforming first experiences:—all surrational forms must be produced by intellectual reforms.

We have, in short, too speedily mistaken our first experiences for fundamental experiences. We have organized the scientific mind on simple foundations, historical foundations, forgetting that scientific history, like all history, is a recital of the misfortunes of reason, illusory struggles against illusions. To advance it is necessary to abandon acquired experiences, and to go against prevailing ideas. As part and parcel of the old conception of a continuous historical development, individual scientific learning was held to be essentially capitalizing: when young we received the generous and indestructible framework, an intellectual patrimony to be enriched. The rest of our studies were passed in filling out collections and herbariums, from time to time deducing appendant theorems. Experimental pluralism respected the unity of the principles of reason. Reason was a tradition.

The time of such monotonous embellishment seems finished. At present there is less need to discover things, and more need to discover ideas. Experience subdivides. Simplicity changes sides. That which is simple is the mass, the unformed. That which is complicated is the component. The elemental form is revealed as polymorphous and glistening at the very moment when the mass tends to be amorphous. All at once, unity sparkles.

Which should be sacrificed? Our coarse pragmatic securities, or the new aleatory and useless knowledge? There should be no hesitation: one should choose the side where one thinks the most artificially, where ideas are the least viscous where reason loves to be in danger. If, in any experience, one does not risk one’s reason, that experience is not worth while attempting.

The risk of reason must, moreover, be total. It is its specific character to be total. All or nothing. If the experiment succeeds, I know that it will change my mind from top to bottom. I make a physical experiment to transform my mind. What use, indeed, would I have for a new experiment which would serve merely to confirm that which I already know, and consequently confirm that which I already am? Any real discovery leads to a new system, it must ruin a previous system. In other words, in the domain of thought imprudence is a method. Only imprudence can have success. One must go on as quickly as possible into the regions of intellectual imprudence. Nietzsche recognized at once the backward and methodical nature of sane transmutations. “The most valuable standpoints are always the last to be found: but the most valuable standpoints are the methods.”*

Facts long amassed, patiently juxtaposed, avariciously preserved, are suspect. They bear the stigma of prudence, of conformism, of constancy, of slowness.

We now face a redoubled ambiguity. The initial dialectics of a priori ideas are confronted by the final dialectics of experimental ideas. Reality, freed, echoes our freedom of mind. Nothing can oppress us any longer. Reality, especially, is no longer obliged to put us in the wrong. Its irrationalism only remains ponderous if we approach it with reason out of tune.

Nevertheless, we must not exult too soon. Rational pluralism touches domains metaphysically so different that one cannot hope to give them coherence by the simple syntheses of opposites. Yet is it really necessary to search for that static coherence which would correspond with a closed metaphysical system? Is there no place, in evolving reason, for a coherence in some way dynamic, which would determine the mobility even of the psychical? A psychic revolution has surely just occurred in this century; human reason has just weighed anchor; the spiritual voyage has begun and consciousness has left the shores of immediate reality. Would it not be, therefore, an anachronism, to cultivate the taste for harbors, for certitudes, for system? Should we continue to judge everything by its origin, its source, its foundation, its cause, its reason, in short, by its antecedents? It is sufficient to assemble these questions to perceive that in spite of their diverse applications they are issue of a will towards spiritual monotony. Conversely, it is sufficient to discard that ideal of identification for the movement immediately to take possession of rational dialectics. Then closed rationalism yields to open rationalism. Reason, fortunately incomplete, no longer is able to slumber in a tradition; it no longer is able to count on memory to recite its tautologies. Ceaselessly it must prove, and put itself to the proof. It is engaged in a struggle with other things, but first of all with itself. This time it possesses some assurance of being incisive and young.

*Antichrist, P 13

Gaston BACHELARD: Inquisitions No. 1 Periodical edited by Louis Aragon,
R. Caillois, J. M. Monnerot, Tristan Tzara

Translated by J. L.

SOURCE: Bachelard, Gaston. “Surrationalism” (1936), in Surrealism, edited by Julien Levy, new introduction by Mark Polizzotti (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), pp. 186-189[as Appendix]. (Original publication: New York: Black Sun Press, 1936.)

See also:

Bachelard, Gaston. “Surrationalism,” written circa 1935, translated by Julien Levy, in: Arsenal / Surrealist Subversion 4, ed. Franklin Rosemont (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1989), pp. 112-114. Quote on p. 113:

Gaston Bachelard on Surrationalism & a Revolution of Reason

Caws, Peter. Truth and Presence: Poetic Imagination and Mathematical Physics in Gaston Bachelard, in Yorick’s World: Science and the Knowing Subject (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), Chapter 22.

Ristić, Marko. “Bachelard en vacances: The Subject of Surrationalism and Its Functional Value,” Philosophy and Society, vol. 33, no. 3 (2022), pp. 621-631.

Siegel, Alisa. Room with a view: 60 years on, Gaston Bachelard’s ideas still ignite our imagination (March 07, 2022), CBC: “Ideas”: quotes, photos, & radio broadcast sound file (53:58) (on The Poetics of Space).

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