Gaston Bachelard: Métaphysique des mathématiques, Hermann, 2021

Métaphysique des mathématiques Book Cover Métaphysique des mathématiques
Pensée des sciences
Gaston Bachelard
Paperback 22,00 €

Jean Cavaillès: On the Logic and Theory of Science

On Logic and the Theory of Science Book Cover On Logic and the Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Reviewed by: Massimiliano Simons (Ghent University)

Why read an obscure, enigmatic and technical treatise on philosophy of science by a half-forgotten philosopher of mathematics, let alone translate it? It seems that there are plenty of reasons to do so. The work of Jean Cavaillès (1930-1944), and especially his final work Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, is typically seen as the starting point of a ‘philosophy of the concept’. Together with Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault, Cavaillès is labeled as one of the main representatives of the French tradition of historical epistemology.

The project of a philosophy of the concept mainly gained fame due to Foucault, who popularized it in his foreword to the English translation of Canguilhem’s The Normal and The Pathological in 1978. Here he claims that to understand Canguilhem, one needs to fall back on the work of Cavaillès. Taking Husserl’s Paris 1929 lecture series as their starting point, phenomenology was developed in France in two radically different ways. On the one hand there is the well-known existential phenomenology, starting with Sartre’s ‘Transcendence de l’Ego’ (1935). But on the other hand there was Cavaillès, who put Husserl’s philosophy of science and mathematics at the center. According to Foucault, these two opposing phenomenological projects shaped 20th-century French philosophy:

It is the line that separates a philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept. On the one hand, one network is that of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty; and then another is that of Cavaillès, Bachelard and Canguilhem. In other words, we are dealing with two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France, when quite late – around 1930 – it finally began to be, if not known, at least recognized. Contemporary philosophy in France began in those years. (Foucault 1978, 8)

The source of this ‘philosophy of the concept’ lies in the last few, rather enigmatic pages of Cavaillès ultimate work, here delivered in a new translation by Robin Mackay and Knox Peden for Urbanomic Press. The notion itself is in fact only introduced in the penultimate line of the book: “It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science. The generative necessity is not that of an activity, but of a dialectic.” (p. 136) The book itself, which is both dense and short, is mainly a critique of the existing philosophies of science in early 20th-century philosophy with a focus on Kant, Carnap and Husserl. Only in the final pages Cavaillès makes some suggestions on what his alternative would be. For sure, Cavaillès intended to develop this alternative elsewhere, perhaps in the intended introduction he wanted to write. These plans did not materialize due to his early death.

Nevertheless, his promise of an alternative to the ‘philosophy of consciousness’ was taken up in French philosophy, in the form of a mythology around the figure of Cavaillès. When I say ‘myth’ I do not so much mean ‘wrong’ or ‘false’, but first of all that it functions as a myth. This means that the truth value of the myth is secondary to its effects – which have been plenty in the self-understanding of a number of French philosophers. The myth consists of three parts: (1) Cavaillès’ essay contains a set of devastating arguments against Husserlian phenomenology, making any phenomenological philosophy untenable; (2) Cavaillès replaced phenomenology with his own alternative, a philosophy of the concept; and (3) this alternative boils down to a form of Spinozism. Let us have a closer look at these three components of this mythology.

The first part is that Cavaillès’ work contains a number of knock-out arguments against Husserlian phenomenology. The final part of the book indeed deals with Husserl’s philosophy of science, as developed by the latter in Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929). Though Cavaillès formulates numerous criticisms, two main objections stand out: the issue of incompleteness and the dilemma of Cavaillès.

The incompleteness issue concerns Husserl believe that it is both possible and desirable to develop a fully-formalized mathematics in the line of David Hilbert’s formalism. That entails that it is capable to articulate and prove its own completeness: any true statement that can be articulated within the formal axiomatic system concerning its object of research can also be proven within that system. And though a common belief when Husserl’s book was published, a few years later it was radically shattered when in 1931 Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, showing that Hilbert’s program was impossible. Cavaillès was one of the first who saw the consequences of Gödel’s theorems for the Husserlian project, since it too relied on Hilbert’s program, endorsing its ideal of completeness as a central aspect of the phenomenological logic:

For we are familiar with Gödel’s result: any theory containing the arithmetic of whole numbers – which is to say basically any mathematical theory – is necessarily non-saturated. […] For the Husserlian conception of logic and mathematics this affair is particularly serious. In the first place, the very notion of a theory that can be fully dominated and isolated can no longer be maintained. (pp. 128-129)

A second issue consists in a fundamental dilemma that Cavaillès presents to Husserl. The latter aims not only for mathematical completeness, but also for a foundation of science that is both transcendental and absolute. Husserl had the ambition to ground all logical norms in the transcendental subject and its subjective acts. But simultaneously, Husserl hoped for an absoluteness of these norms: they cannot be questioned or relativized in any way. For Cavaillès the trouble arises if one combines both claims: if logical norms are constituted through subjective acts, these acts themselves call for a set of norms to ground them. But these underlying norms would in turn demand a foundation in subjective acts. To avoid an infinite regress, Husserl has to choose between the transcendental and the absolute character of his project. Hence the dilemma of Cavaillès: “If transcendental logic truly grounds logic then there is no absolute logic (i.e., a logic governing absolute subjective activity). If there is an absolute logic it can draw its authority only from itself; it is not transcendental.” (p. 120)

Similar to Husserl and Hilbert, and many other early 20th-century philosophers and scientists, Cavaillès was concerned with the new scientific developments, provoking a foundational crisis of mathematics: if radical historical transformations of mathematics were possible, what then was the foundation of rationality, mathematics, science? In a typical French manner, Cavaillès searched for the answer not in the atemporal, but in the historical: mathematics was rational not despite, but because of its history. The normative force, required to elevate mathematics above contingency, was to be found in its historical developments, where each new result bolstered the past results, but also provoked the next steps. In his primary thesis Méthode axiomatique et formalisme, Cavaillès would define understanding in a similarly dynamic way: “to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it” (Cavaillès 1994, 186). Mathematics, and science in general, is understood, not so much as a set of thoughts, but rather in terms of gestures, which Cavaillès often referred to, somewhat misleadingly, under the banner of ‘experience’ (see Cortois 1996).

While terms such as gesture and experience suggests a philosophy of consciousness, this is countered through the third part of the mythology: Spinozism. Cavaillès was the face of a revival of interest in Spinozism, again seen as the alternative to phenomenology. In the words of Gilles-Gaston Granger, another proponent of this myth, it came down to “Jean Cavaillès or the climb to Spinoza” (Granger 1947). Cavaillès, sive Spinoza. The Spinozist reading it provided must have indeed sounded as music in the ears of the anti-humanist turn in the 1960s. Cavaillès, according to this reading, “set out to develop a philosophy without a subject” (Canguilhem 1994, 686).

We thus have a philosophy of science seen from the perspective of gestures. But these gestures are not grounded in a transcendental subject, but, following Spinoza, in the effective development of the successive theoretical concepts. The legitimacy of the concepts is found in these concepts themselves, in the normative force by which they call forth, by a form of necessity, one another. It is in this sense that another famous passage of the book is typically read:

Yet one of the essential problems for the doctrine of science is precisely that progress cannot be a mere increase in volume by juxtaposition, the prior subsisting with the new, but must be a perpetual revision of contents by way of deepening and erasure [rature]. What is after is more than what was before, not because it contains it or even because it extends it, but because it exists from it necessarily and bears within its content the singular mark, each time, of its superiority. There is more consciousness in it – and not the same consciousness as before. (pp. 135-136)

As a result, and especially from the 1960s onwards, Cavaillès’ work was used in French philosophy as an argument for the obsolescence of phenomenology. For instance, when Sartre attacked Foucault’s Les mots et les choses as a reactionary work, Canguilhem responded by invoking the authority of Cavaillès:

Cavaillès assigned the phenomenological enterprise its limits even before that enterprise had exhibited its unlimited ambitions – even in France itself, which is to say, with a certain lag – and he assigned, twenty years in advance, the task that philosophy is in the process of accepting today – the task of substituting for the primacy of experienced or reflexive consciousness the primacy of concepts, systems, or structures. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

This mythological authority similarly found its way in to the work of many prominent French scholars, ranging from Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Gilles-Gaston Granger, Étienne Balibar to Alain Badiou. Despite the lack of any substantial elaboration by Cavaillès’ of what this philosophy of the concept entailed, his work was nevertheless used as a shovel to bury the philosophies of the past, most notably phenomenology and existentialism. Cavaillès’ alternative was indeed often quite easily equated with the structuralism and anti-humanism of the 1960s. These ideas not only inspired Canguilhem or Foucault, but were central to the Marxism of Louis Althusser as well, who mobilized Spinoza to purge Marxism from any form of Humanism. When Althusser, in his later self-criticisms, turned his gaze to his previous work, he could proudly proclaim that he was no structuralist: “We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.” (Althusser 1976, 132)

But Cavaillès’ biography gave this Spinozism an additional, political dimension. Similar to his friend Albert Lautman and Canguilhem, Cavaillès joined the resistance. While Canguilhem survived, both Cavaillès and Lautman tragically died. In the case of Cavaillès, he was first arrested in Narbonne in 1942, by the French police and ended up in a prison camp in Montpellier. It was during this imprisonment that he wrote this book, which partly explains the dense character of the text and the often liberal quotations, since Cavaillès was restricted in time and resources (though Lautman brought him several books). But with the manuscript in hand, he soon escaped from the prison camp though, due to betrayal, he was arrested again in August 1943 and eventually shot. The book On Logic and the Theory of Science was thus only published posthumously in 1947, by Georges Canguilhem and the mathematician Charles Ehresmann, who also picked the generic title for the book. In a letter of 1941 to Brunschvicg, Cavaillès announced that he was writing a work called L’expérience mathématique, while to Canguilhem and Ehresmann he spoke of a Traité de la logique. The truth seemed to be somewhere in between.

This political dimension of Cavaillès’ biography has been mobilized extensively in this mythology. Raymond Aron, who was a good friend of Cavaillès, later reported how Cavaillès entrusted to him in 1943 that “I am a Spinozist. I believe that we are seizing the necessary everywhere. The necessary in the sequences of mathematics, the necessary even in the stages of mathematical science, the necessary also in this struggle that we lead.” (quoted in Canguilhem 1976, 31) Or, in a variation that Aron cites in his own preface to Cavaillès’ Philosophie mathématique: “I am a Spinozist, we must resist, fight, face death. This is what truth and reason demand.” (Aron 1962, 14) Philosophers such as Canguilhem or Foucault did not hesitate to use this political activism against their opponents. In the same reply of Canguilhem to Sartre, he immediately added:

Shot by the Nazis for his Resistance activity, Cavaillès, who called himself a Spinozist and did not believe in history in the existential sense, refuted in advance – by the action he felt himself impelled to undertake, by his participation in the history that he lived out tragically until his death – the argument of those who seek to discredit what they call structuralism by condemning it to generate, among other misdeeds, passivity in the face of reality. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

Foucault, in a similar vein, invokes this image in an interview in the 1980s, when he was focusing on Greek philosophy and techniques of the self:

The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his philosophical, life, his ethos. Among the French philosophers who participated in the Resistance during the war, one was Cavaillès, a historian of mathematics who was interested in the development of its internal structures. None of the philosophers of engagement – Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty – none of them did a thing. (Foucault 1984, 374)

It is thus this triple mythology – Cavaillès burying phenomenology, replacing it with a philosophy of the concept, inspired by Spinoza – that still motivates many philosophers to take up this otherwise challenging and technical treatise on the philosophy of science. The fact that this book is now translated in English (again) testifies to a similar growing interest in the Anglo-American world. There has indeed been a booming cottage industry of Anglophone papers dealing with Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept, and its criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology (e.g. Hyder 2003; Thompson 2008; Peña-Guzmán 2020). Most of this literature tends to take over this mythology, though often stressing more continuity with phenomenology – an element already found in Foucault. The most exemplary case, perhaps, is an earlier book by Knox Peden, who helped realize this novel translation of Cavaillès and provided it with a helpful introduction. In his Spinoza Contra Phenomenology (2014) Peden repeated this mythology of how Cavaillès is the source of an anti-phenomenological tendency in France, continued by Bachelard, Desanti, Althusser and Gilles Deleuze.

Ironically, while this productive mythology is spreading in the Anglophone world, it is more and more problematized in France. The last decades of scholarship on Cavaillès have further substantiated a number of doubts concerning this triple narrative. First of all, the central role of Spinoza have been questioned, or at least completed with an acknowledgment that Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept was inspired by other authors as well, such as Hegel (e.g. Sinaceur 2013).

The second main question is whether Cavaillès’ criticisms of Husserl are indeed as devastating as often portrayed. For instance, the young Jacques Derrida already tried to defend Husserl’s project against Cavaillès’ use of Gödel. In his master thesis on Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (only published in 1990), he suggested that completeness is merely a kind of regulative ideal for Husserl, one that does not need to be realizable. Another option is offered by the daughter of Gaston, Suzanne Bachelard (1957) who suggests that there are multiple notions of completeness at work in Husserl’s philosophy, and that only some of them were refuted by Gödel. Hence, Husserl’s project can remain meaningful, even if one acknowledges the incompleteness theorems.

As part of the secondary literature has noticed, Cavaillès is at many points not that far off from phenomenology itself. It could thus be read, not so much as the destruction, but as a transformation of phenomenology. This is also announced in the lines immediately following Cavaillès’ dilemma: “Perhaps subsequent phenomenological investigations will allow us at least to contest such a brutally posited dilemma.” (p. 120) And to his credit, Peden seems to follow this suggestion in his introduction, playing down his earlier claims in Spinoza contra Phenomenology, and acknowledges that “it is both anachronistic and an overstatement to suggest that there was anything anti-phenomenological about Cavaillès’s work in its original conception. Moreover, criticizing Husserl for his errant steps is par for the course in the phenomenological tradition and Cavaillès is no exception to this tendency.” (p. 11)

And indeed the work of Cavaillès is a reminder of an alternative way phenomenology could have been developed in France, one not focused so much on anthropology and daily experience, but one that continued the Husserlian ambition to explore science in a phenomenological manner. In fact, this tradition exist, but not so much associated with a philosophy of the concept, but rather with authors such as Suzanne Bachelard, Trần Đức Thảo and Jean-Toussaint Desanti. Each in their own way attempted to use phenomenological methods to analyze the methods and products of science.

But even such a reappraisal of Cavaillès as a phenomenologist still risk to fall for another form of anachronism, as if phenomenology was the dominant and only philosophy around in France in the 1930s. This is indirectly suggested by Peden’s introduction (as well as most other Anglophone literature), ignoring Cavaillès’ interactions with other forms of philosophy of science. In the secondary literature, the motivation to focus on phenomenology seems to be one of relevance: given that Cavaillès is nowadays anachronistically classified as continental philosophy, the audience expects a focus on Husserl, not David Hilbert or Rudolf Carnap. This is somewhat surprising, since most of Cavaillès’ essay is focused on other theories, ranging from Kantianism to Logical Positivism. What is therefore perhaps missing in the introduction of Peden, is a sketch of these debates as well.

Moreover, in its current form, the book risks to fall prey not only to a form of anachronism, but also to a typical Anglophone tendency to canonize. The danger is not only to forget minor philosophers (a fate that Cavaillès shared for a long time), but also to immediately canonize newly discovered philosophers in an abstract, contextless hall of fame. This leads to abstract discussions where Cavaillès is compared to Spinoza, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger in a ahistorical fashion, as if they were all part of an eternal and continuous philosophical debate. This tends to forget that the history of philosophy is often more fragmentary.

First of all, it is necessary to ask how the work of the ‘great’ philosophers reached Cavaillès: who introduced him to Spinoza or Kant? The main interpreter of Kant and Spinoza in the early 20th-century was Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), supervisor of, among others, (Gaston) Bachelard, Cavaillès, Lautman and Aron. Brunschvicg was the most influential French philosopher at that time, with the possible exception of Henri Bergson (see Terzi 2022). But both Brunschvicg and Bergson were two very divergent products of the French tradition of spiritualism, the specific way how Kant was taken up in France, with a stress on the faculty of judgment and the notion of reflexivity. Though originally opposed to scientific philosophy, it transformed itself at the end of the 19th century, under the name of reflexive analysis (analyse réflexive), represented by authors such as Jules Lagneau and Jules Lachelier, in a Kantian philosophy that developed an interest in science as well, exemplified by the work of Émile Boutroux and Brunschvicg. It was this French Kantianism that fundamentally shaped the thought of Bachelard, Cavaillès and Canguilhem.

Being a clear form of subject-centered philosophy, it is most likely that Cavaillès’ attacks on a ‘philosophy of consciousness’ are not merely aimed at the new, and at that time in France still mostly ignored movement of phenomenology, but at French spiritualism as well. From this angle, the fact that he starts his book with Kantianism appears in a new light, and Cavaillès does extensively engage with the work of his supervisor, Brunschvicg (59-61). Therefore the claim that the philosophy of the concept came into being through a confrontation with phenomenology might be misleading. Quite telling, when Foucault later published a French version of his introduction, he left phenomenology out of the picture and broadened his claims: “Without doubt, this cleavage comes from a long way and we could trace it back through the 19th century: Bergson and Poincaré, Lachelier and Couturat, Maine de Biran and Comte.” (Foucault 1985, 4)

Such a broader history of the philosophy of the concept raises a number of additional questions, well-articulated by Cassou-Noguès and Pascale Gillot (2009): is the philosophy of concept a normative project, to be realized in a future philosophy, or a descriptive claim, referring to an eternal and recurrent constant in the history of philosophy? And against what is a philosophy of the concept precisely opposed? Too often terms such as consciousness, subjectivity, experience and meaning are simply used interchangeably in these often rash oppositions. It becomes especially difficult once one acknowledges that several of the early protagonists of the philosophy of the concept, such as Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré or the early Canguilhem, defended philosophies that had a clear place for the subject, exemplified perhaps best by Bachelard’s ‘new scientific spirit’ (Bachelard 1934). Only after the Second World War did the anti-humanism and anti-psychologism, that are typically associated with the philosophy of the concept, become dominant.

The originality of Cavaillès resides in the fact that his philosophy was indeed one of the first French philosophies who did – but never as radical as later generations would have it – take a distance from a philosophy of science centered around the subject. Cavaillès’s motivations to do so most likely were linked to the fact that he was one of the first in France to really engage with the new German developments in logic and philosophy of science. But again, it would be misleading to simply assume that this was bound to happen and that France was simply one of the last resisting strongholds doomed to fall for the new logic. The real history of philosophy of science is more contingent. That these developments would become so central for philosophy of science’s self-identity was never a necessity. Cavaillès’ fate could equally have been one of complete oblivion.

This leads us to our second correction of the mythology: there was also an atmosphere of complete ignorance and even dismissal of what was going on in philosophy outside of France. Though it was Brunschvicg who co-invited Husserl to Paris in 1929, he was not that interested. He did not even attend his lectures, but only met Husserl a few days later, when the latter went to the doctoral defense of Alexandre Koyré (who had studied with Husserl). Gaston Bachelard was similarly absent. It highlights how far apart philosophical worlds at that time were.

Cavaillès’ interest in and familiarity with German philosophy was rather exceptional at that time. In 1930-1931 he would stay in Germany on a Rockefeller scholarship to study German Protestantism, during which he met Husserl. He also attended the infamous Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger (see Cavaillès 1929) and the Wiener Kreis Vorkonferenz in Prague in 1934, where the Vienna Circle presented itself to the international philosophical scene for the first time (see Cavaillès 1935). Though Brunschvicg and Bachelard were invited, they declined. This highlights another perhaps underappreciated dimension of Cavaillès book, namely that the main perceived threat for Cavaillès was perhaps not so much phenomenology or French spiritualism, but the new movement of logical positivism. More than phenomenology, logical positivism challenged French philosophy, even at home. In 1935, logical positivism held its first international conference in Paris. And despite attempts by French representatives of logical positivism, such as Louis Rougier, to invite Brunschvicg, Bachelard and Cavaillès, most French philosophers responded with indifference and hostility (see Dewulf and Simons 2021). French philosophers of science, exemplified by Brunschvicg, had a distaste for logic, rejecting the idea that science and mathematics could be reduced to them.

Again Cavaillès was the exception in taking this movement seriously. But again this engagement should not be simply understood as the moment when the great lessons of German and British philosophy – Cavaillès discusses Russell and Wittgenstein as well – finally seeped into French philosophy. Cavaillès absorptions of these developments was one that immediately also digested them in order to produce something new. Cavaillès was not the only to do so. In fact, in 1938 Rougier reported to Hans Reichenbach how, in response to the 1935 conference, French philosophers were closing ranks and aimed for a counteroffensive. One first step towards this project was a gathering in September 1938 at Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Ferdinand Gonseth, the central organizer, would write about this conference: “We were quite a large group, from which I still recall Bachelard and his daughter Suzanne, Barzin, Bayer, Dupréel, Destouches, Paulette Février, Ebbinghaus, Tarski, Tatarkiewicz, and especially Jean Cavaillès.” (quoted in Emery 2000, 177-178)

Whether and in what form such a French counter-alliance would have taken shape could never be tested, since it was interrupted, literally during the conference, by incoming news: the first mobilization. Germany and France were at the brink of war. Cavaillès and some others, such Bachelard, decided to leave the conference and return to France. Bachelard returned to Paris and mainly start writing on poetics and imagination; Gonseth went back to Switzerland; both Cavaillès and Lautman joined the war effort and tragically died. No genuine French counter-alliance was formed, but for both Cavaillès and Lautman it was clear that the Vienna Circle was the adversary, and hence the reason why it plays a prominent part in the second part of this book. Especially Carnap was the opponent. While in captivity, Cavaillès would write to Lautman about Carnaps as “their old enemy of the Logische Syntax der Sprache” (quoted in Ferrières, 1950: 164).

Cavaillès’ On Logic and the Theory of Science is thus misleadingly technical in its content, as if what is at stake is nothing but highly specialized arguments in philosophy of science and mathematics. In truth, the stakes were higher and the book is a witness to a genuine struggle for identity: what is the task of philosophy of science? What is the correct way to approach scientific practices and their history? This little book is the battleground of all the major candidates at the beginning of the 20th century: spiritualism, logicism, phenomenology, logical positivism, intuitionism, formalism, and so on. Cavaillès did not pick sides, but attempted to develop his own alternative. In that sense, he practiced what he preached: to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it. It is this aborted continuation that, though often shed of its contextual skin, has been the fertilizer for the philosophy of the concept in France and historical epistemology in general.


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Canguilhem, G.  1976. Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès. Les Carnets de Baudasser: Villefranche d’Albigeois.

Canguilhem, G. 1994. “The Death of Man, or Exhaustion of the Cogito?” In: Gutting, G. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Michel Foucault, 74-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cassou-Noguès, P., and Gillot, P. 2009. Le concept, le sujet et la science: Cavaillès, Canguilhem, Foucault. Paris: Vrin.

Cavaillès, J. 1929. “Les deuxièmes Cours Universitaire de Davos.”  In: Die II. Davoser Hochshulkurser. Les IImes Cours Universitaires de Davos du 17 mars au 6 avril 1929, 65-81. Davos: Kommissionsverlag, Heintz, Neu, & Zahn.

Cavaillès, J. 1935. “L’école de Vienne au Congrès de Prague.” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 42(1), 137-149.

Cavaillès, J. 1994. Œuvres complètes de Philosophie des sciences. Paris: Hermann.

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Dewulf, F., and Simons, M. 2021. “Positivism in Action: The Case of Louis Rougier.” HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, 11(2).

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Sinaceur, H. 2013. Cavaillès. Paris: Belles Lettres.

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Jean Cavaillès: On Logic and the Theory of Science, Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2021

On Logic and the Theory of Science Book Cover On Logic and the Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Bruce B. Janz (Ed.): Place, Space and Hermeneutics

Place, Space and Hermeneutics Book Cover Place, Space and Hermeneutics
Series: Contributions to Hermeneutics, Vol. 5
Bruce B. Janz (Ed.)
Hardback 139,09 €
XXIV, 531

Reviewed by: Sanna Lehtinen (University of Helsinki)

Place, Space and Hermeneutics is an extensive compilation of articles that cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical approaches to understanding place and space. It is the 5th volume in Contributions to Hermeneutics series and comprises 37 individual chapters. Hermeneutics is understood quite loosely through philosophical and non-philosophical definitions of it. This is explicitly done in order to avoid diminishing its possibilities: the emphasis is on making visible the richness of current hermeneutical thinking and show new directions and application possibilities for it. Hermeneutics is presented as an umbrella term for a set of methods and perspectives to interpretation that will, and already have proved, to be useful for understanding place and space. How exactly do the fundamental hermeneutic tasks of understanding and interpreting help in making sense of the human relation to space and place? Hermeneutics of place is approached through various very different cases: from imaginary places to embodied experience and from textuality to particular places on the Earth, the specific position of hermeneutics for understanding the human relation to place is shown to be undisputed. One obvious meta-question central to the collection of articles is, what kind of interpretations hermeneutics itself elicits from its authors.

One of the more fundamental themes for an anthology with this type of a theme is the spatial nature of the very situatedness of human beings (v). The interweaving of the ontological and epistemological approaches within hermeneutics is done to a convenient extent: as Jeff Malpas writes in his foreword, the emphasis of the book has been on depicting the hermeneutical engagement with the topics at hand, instead of making a dedication specifically to hermeneutical philosophy (vii). This proves that the approach stays open and close to the topics it is attempting to cover. Another more fundamental question deals with the mechanisms of how place and space contribute to the constitution of the human subjectivity and embodied experience of space. This is a topic that Shaun Gallagher, Sergio F. Martínez, and Melina Gastelum examine more closely in their joint article. The baseline, in a sense, for any hermeneutical relation to the world, comes from understanding how the lived body relates to the world it is by necessity bound to. Understanding the body as it is lived as opposed the ‘corporeal body’ (Körper) brings forth the bodily ramifications for any engagement with place. Kevin Aho takes up this distinction in his contribution and develops the theme of a hermeneutic understanding of the ‘lived-body’ (Leib).

While the application of hermeneutics to place is not new as such, attention has been paid in the book to developing hermeneutic philosophy also towards future needs and purposes. A lot of emphasis is put, quite understandably, on the notion of place. Space is not necessarily discussed to the same extent as place due to the rich, already existing phenomenological tradition concentrating on interpreting place. Space is most often treated in relation to either place or time: direct approaches and experiential perspectives to spatiality become exposed in glimpses. These reflections open up new paths and clarify old conceptions of hermeneutics. It seems clear, that future research will be able to build on the preconception that time and temporality are complemented with place and space within the hermeneutic tradition. The collection makes visible the myriad ways in which hermeneutic philosophy and phenomenology are intertwined and also where their ways part. In this, Ricoeur’s distinction between epistemological (Dilthey) and ontological approaches (Heidegger) to hermeneutics has traditionally worked as a useful compass (116). However, the multiplicity of voices is present throughout the book: in a compilation this vast, no one thinker manages to override others in balancing “the opposing pulls of space and place” (275).

The volume introduces the reader to the internal variation within contemporary hermeneutic thinking. The book is divided into three larger parts: “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”, “Figures and Thinkers” and “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. The importance of a comprehensive account of hermeneutical methodologies applied to place is also highlighted directly by many of the contributors, since, for example according to Christina M. Gschwandtner: “place is always interpreted. There is no objective, neutral, or “pure” place.” (170). Place as such calls for an interpretation as it demarcates an already existing, culturally and historically tinged engagement with space.

The first part, “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”., consists of nine individual articles examining basic questions of hermeneutics as an approach to place and space. Some do it on a more general level, but others have already a specifically chosen point of view to present. Textuality is presented as a central perspective in Bruce B. Janz’ account, the first of many dealing with this specifically central theme. Annike Schlitte takes up narrative, whereas dialogue is presented as the main topic in Kyoo Lee’s contribution. The choice of focus on textuality in the beginning is well justified by the history of hermeneutical tradition and ideas to which it is still associated with most strongly. The textual model for interpretation is a valid starting point for many of the subsequent ventures as well. The textuality-based themes discussed in the first part serve well also the interpretation of the rest of the book. While text interpretation continues to be central point of orientation for any hermeneutic approach, other interesting themes in the first part of the collection are covered by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s article on the notion of play (Gadamerian Spiel) and style and Dylan Trigg’s phenomenological take on the differences between place and non-place, that builds on the legacy of both Marc Augé and Edward Relph.

Text as a metaphor for place together with other metaphors is examined since both textuality and place are core concepts in hermeneutics (26). The relation of places to memory is also evoked (171). Different narratives turn spaces into shared places, even fictitious or dreamed spaces (Cristina Chimisso on Gaston Bachelard). The theory and practice of art is also present to some extent (Babette Babich on Merleau-Ponty and Keith Harder on place-specific artistic practices). It goes without saying, that architecture is also present in this context. Interestingly enough, stairwells and stairs prove to be important architectural elements discussed as examples in both articles that are directly focusing on architecture: Jean-Claude Gens writing about Gadamer and David Seamon focusing on the architectural language of Thomas Thiis-Evensen.

The second part is titled concisely “Figures and Thinkers” and it delves deeper into the general theme by presenting central figures for contemporary hermeneutic approach to place and space in its 12 chapters. Diverse and indispensable philosophers from Heidegger to Ricoeur or Gadamer to Malpas receive direct attention, the whole list of figures being too extensive to go through here in detail. Space is also dedicated to thinkers less directly associated with hermeneutical tradition: these include Arendt and Foucault. Some names come altogether outside the philosophical canon, such are for example Yi-Fu Tuan and J. J. Gibson, to name a few. All of these thinkers have a slightly different type of relation to hermeneutics and specifically to examining place and space. Some are closer to what could be characterized as the core of the approach and others have had a less direct influence on the unfolding the interpretational themes related to place and space. The thinkers in this part represent many traditions from ontological hermeneutics to human geography. Despite the seemingly wide variety between figures and approaches, there is unforeseeable value in bringing them together under the same title in this context.

The legacy of some prominent thinkers who have been previously considered to be at the margins of hermeneutical tradition, is rewritten from the perspective of inclusive, multidisciplinary hermeneutics. An example of this, Yi-Fu Tuan, is noted in Paul C. Adams’ chapter to explicitly avoid any methodology. However, in his approach closely following some of the central parameters of hermeneutic thinking: empathy and interest towards a vast variety of human experiences and advancing thought through contrasts in circular motion. Other thinkers would seem to resist the stamp of hermeneutics more but are still depicted in this account as bearing some connection to the current forms of hermeneutics of place and space. Henri Lefebvre, for example, is traditionally seen to be very far from any version of hermeneutics but according to Peter Gratton’s reading of his work, Lefebvre’s projects on spatiality are affect also any subsequent hermeneutical account of the themes of place or space. This selection of articles show also, how hermeneutic approach to place can get significant depth and reinforcement from Arendtian multi-perspectivism, Foucauldian discourse analysis or Gibsonian ecological psychology. Also, the more sceptical attitudes towards methodologies in general are given a place, as the articles on Bachelard, Arendt and Tuan pay attention to show.

Hermeneutics is often used to refer to the conscious development of a specific methodology, but the term also denotes a general, even a more intuitive attempt to understand the constituents of particular human actions. The volume at hand makes explicit the inevitable distinction between hermeneutics as a philosophical program (Malpas & Gander 2014) and hermeneutics as a set of interpretation tools applicable to varying topics. An overview of hermeneutics to place and space is created thus by showing the strengths of these approaches in relation to the main topics of interest here: what types of interpretations do human actions and their spatial dispersions elicit and enable? Understanding human actions and practices, their meanings and intentionality behind them, is at the centre throughout the collection, even though interpretative efforts are directed towards more particular aims in each individual contribution. The human relation to place and space and the forms it gets, opens up the discussion to many directions. This serves as a reminder of the vast terrain of possible subthemes in any variety of hermeneutics of place and space. Besides direct engagement, hermeneutics is used also to interpret the many traces left by human activity. It is easy to see great value in this type of an approach, and hermeneutics in this form could profit even more the ongoing discussions about such complex and large-scale issues as climate change and urbanization. This has already been shown by a growing interest towards environmental hermeneutics that precedes this publication (see e.g. Treanor & al. 2013). This is also precisely where the anthology proceeds towards its end.

The third, last and understandably the largest part of the book is dedicated to “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. As one strand of the final part, the topical planetary level problems that are increasingly seeping into our everyday consciousness are taken into closer consideration. The broad concepts discussed in the chapter include the Anthropocene (Janz) and climate crisis (Edward Casey). Environmental and ecological thinking is present more broadly also already in Gschwandtner’s application of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics to place. Janet Donohoe gives environmental hermeneutics a more detailed account as she focuses on the concept of the environment and what this environment in peril is in relation to the human culture and the significant places in our lives. This type of an approach is a welcome reminder, of how environmental philosophy can profit from taking hermeneutics into account in comprehending the current complex environmental threats and the relation to the human lifeworlds.

From environmental perspective, it is also relevant to think about how to draw interpretation about the events that take place on a planetary scale. How does the need for space of the human population affect the living conditions of other species on Earth? What type of knowledge and engagement do these types of questions entail? These questions raised by the currently prevailing ecological concerns show, that the need to reflect, understand and interpret these tendencies and the human responsibilities is more crucial than ever. The human capacity for collectively organizing its living conditions according to the afforded space is not unique, by any means. What we are capable though, is the conceptual thinking and long-term planning in relation to how human spaces are created, developed and used. This type of long-term, temporally evolving engagement is what hermeneutics is also well-equipped to illustrate.

The final part of the book consisting of 15 chapters in total, gives an overview of the interdisciplinary relations in which hermeneutics has proven to be particularly fruitful. The clear intention of this part is also to widen the possibilities of use and show new directions for developing hermeutics of place and space. Among various newer or less-studied interdisciplinary constellations presented here are for example topopoetics, which according to Tim Cresswell is “a project that sees poems as places and spaces” (319). This part of the book, intended to be “exploratory and creative”, stretches further ground for new hermeneutical approaches (4). Paths point towards the possible multidisciplinary futures of hermeneutics of place and space: hermeneutics as inherently directed towards exploration of inner meanings encourages these interdisciplinary approaches. This becomes apparent by some chapters of the final part: they rely strongly on the tradition of their specific field but show how hermeneutics has successfully been implemented into their approach to place or space. Thomas Dörfler and Eberhard Rothfuß, for example, have human geography as their starting point. In the same vein, Pauline McKenzie Aucoin has anthropological and Eva-Maria Simms psychological focuses in their contributions. Making visible these intersections with fields of study that grew in importance during 20th century, point towards the scale of possible uses for hermeneutical concepts and methods.

One pivotal strand in the book focuses on how hermeneutics could help in understanding urban life in its current forms and settings. Urbanization is a complex phenomenon that a collection with a focus such as this cannot omit. Yet it can be approached from many different directions even in this context and it follows that there are various more or less direct references to urban hermeneutics: Alan Blum and Andy Zieleniec, for example, take each in their own article into focus the urban social sphere in order to show how hermeneutics has already been applied and could be developed further within the sphere of social sciences. Zieleniec, for example, brings together Simmel, Benjamin and Lefebvre in order to draw a specifically sociological approach to space and spatiality within the urban sphere. The meanings and values that space and spatiality get through everyday urban activities is in the focus when going through the influence these thinkers have had on sociological study of urban environments. Hermeneutic approach definitely has a lot to offer to the philosophical understanding of different facets of urban life. In this context, the subtheme of mobility could have easily been added in a separate article: moving in any given space necessarily alters the starting point for interpretive engagement. Mobility is present in some parts though, as in Cresswell’s account of poetry (327) or when Zieleniec writes about Simmel and Benjamin (384–385; 387).

The social aspects of hermeneutic philosophy include the shared nature of place, intersubjectivity of spatial experiences and spatial or platial interpretations of social situations. Also presented are the themes of globalisation (Gratton) and inequality (Abraham Olivier on townships in the opening article of the collection), to which philosophically solid accounts are urgently needed. Towards its end, the book presents in separate articles some currently important but also exceedingly wide themes. The questions pertaining to the digital realm, for example, are opened up by Golfo Maggini’s article on digital virtual places. He presents the digital places stemming from ubiquitous computing as heterotopic places of radical alterity. This reading … It would certainly be interesting to read more about this type of an approach to digital and virtual environments, where hermeneutics can significantly widen the interpretational context.

Crucial contributions in the last part of the book are the openings towards feminist and racial approaches to hermeneutics of place and space. Janet C. Wesselius charts feminist philosophy through its already existing approaches to situatedness. She takes into examination the notion of “a woman’s place”, in particular. The perspective of philosophy of race comes through Robert Bernasconi’s article where he dissects institutional racism as a historico-spatial construct. In the final article of the volume, the reader is also given a glimpse of the non-western perspectives to hermeneutics of space and place. This is done by On-cho Ng’s critical treatment of the limits and tensions following from applying local knowledge to interpreting phenomena elsewhere: in this case from how Western hermeneutics collides with Chinese traditions of interpretation. This part of the book scratches the surface of a fascinating discussion that will hopefully continue to flourish. Due to the fact that racial, feminist, queer, non-western or multicultural approaches are by no means marginal anymore, they definitely could intersect already earlier with the main themes of the book in order to be better taken into consideration as parts of the multitude of interpretational horizons.

Throughout the entire collection, the list of actual places used as examples opens up a vast spectrum of different place typologies. They include traditionally valued culturally and historically significant places, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Meteora in Greece (in Bahar Aktuna & Charlie Hailey’s article) or more generic forms of human spatial traits such as urban hiking trails (in Simms’ example). Walmart chain store (in Trigg’s account) comes to represent a quintessential non-place of the contemporary Western society. Importantly, also places of human despair that should be an exception in the story of any civilisation, such as German refugee camps (in Dörfler and Rothfuß’s article), are included in order to critically examine their non-place qualities. These and other concrete and sometimes even surprising examples fix reader’s attention effectively and punctuate the varied theoretical accounts on place.

The book opens up to two directions that are by no means antithetical but support each other: what are the implications of hermeneutics of place and space on studying different types of phenomena and, on the other hand, what are the direct consequences on the philosophical discourse of more explicitly emphasizing this connection and approach. All in all, there is surprisingly little redundant repetition (or wasted space, one is tempted to say in this context), even when different authors discuss the same thinkers or concepts. It is also a notable feat that the collection is accessible to readers who do not have an extensive knowledge of the hermeneutical tradition. The strengths of this volume are in its wide-ranging scope, the way it presents on-going discussions and includes less heard voices to the canon of hermeneutical approaches. By emphasizing hermeneutics as an inherently open and engaged approach, it encourages any subsequent exploration on human spatiality through this lens. This strong engagement at the core is thus also the legacy of hermeneutics outside the immediate sphere of philosophy.

Care has been put on selecting the themes and writers, at the same time giving them the freedom to approach the topic from an individually selected point of view: “This book is more curated than edited.” (2) This has resulted in a coherent and intellectually rewarding piece of philosophical literature. Janz as the editor clarifies in the introduction, that the idea has not been to cover every aspect of the wide topic but to offer enough for the discussion to continue with renewed energy (2–3). As a result, the collection will inevitably have influence in shaping and directing the contemporary understanding of what hermeneutics is and what it could be. It is also stated explicitly in the introduction that the collection is not intended to be a handbook on hermeneutics and place and space (4). However, this does not mean that it will not, or should not, be used as such. On the contrary, it is easy to see that this selection of texts can open the tradition of hermeneutics to students, scholars and other curious minds, even if they do not have philosophy as their main interest. The collection is an indispensable reference to researchers working on a variety of different topics and approaches within philosophy of space and place as well as more applied approaches circling these themes. It is a valuable contribution to hermeneutic literature as well as to place/space research and the many imaginable intersections between these.


Malpas, Jeff & Ganders, Hans-Helmut (Eds.) 2014. The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. London & New York: Routledge.

Treanor, Brian, Drenthen, Martin, Utsler, David & Clingerman, Forrest (Eds.) 2013. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press.

Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.): Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard

Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard Book Cover Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardcover $90.00

Reviewed by: Dylan Trigg (University of Vienna)

In Anglo-American philosophy, Gaston Bachelard has never assumed the influence of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, or Levinas, much less Heidegger. Where his work has been addressed, it has tended to be outside of philosophy, especially in literary studies, human geography, and branches of psychology. Monographs devoted to his work from a philosophical perspective tend to be rare while research on his philosophy together with the proliferation of this thought tend also to emerge from a handful of scholars and institutes, not least the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which has championed the translation of Bachelard for several decades. There was also a brief surge of interest in Bachelard in the UK via Clinamen Press who published several key texts before they went out of business.

Beyond these contingent circumstances, quite why Bachelard has been neglected in this fashion is a contentious matter. In part, it may be because of the idiosyncrasy not only of his work, but also of the course of his thought. Although he is more commonly known for his work on the philosophy of imagination, Bachelard started out as a philosopher of science, working extensively on the epistemology of science. This disparity in the course of his philosophical research tends to generate the impression of a thinker on the margins, neither fitting entirely into the traditional context of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and so forth, but nor fully belonging to the philosophy of science, at least in a traditional sense. In part, this is true. Although he lived through the era, Bachelard was never part of the ethos of existentialism, much less a political philosopher in the manner that Sartre would eventually become. Yet the notion that there are two distinct trajectories in Bachelard’s thought may be one-sided. Much like Merleau-Ponty, there are strands of thought in the early Bachelard, which, far from being left behind, are returned to in his late work, only now from an enriched perspective (one thinks of his striking discussion of Baudelaire’s notion of “smiling regret” in the 1932 text Intuition of Instant and its subsequent reappearance in his 1960 book The Poetics of Reverie).

The neglect of Bachelard is regrettable, not least because the gap between the sciences and humanities is one such area where he can assume a pivotal role. Furthermore, where philosophers have engaged with Bachelard, it has tended to be in a dismissive if polite fashion (to think here of Foucault’s comments on Bachelard’s in the former’s essay “Of Other Spaces). Because of this dismissal, an entire area of research on Bachelard remains underdeveloped (not least his relation to other thinkers within the tradition, especially Merleau-Ponty).

In spite—or because—of the peculiarities of his thought, over the last ten years or so, we are beginning to witness something like a slow revival in the thought of Gaston Bachelard. Beginning with author such as Roch C. Smith, Mary McAllester, and Mary Tiles in the 1980s, after a latency period, a new generation of thinkers resumed scholarly work on Bachelard either by tackling specific thematic and conceptual strands of his thought (as in Miles Kennedy’s book on the role of home in Bachelard) or through employing Bachelard in a dialogical fashion to develop an applied analysis of a certain phenomenon (as in Ed Casey’s work on place or Richard Kearney’s work on imagination). Eileen Rizo-Patron is another key figure in the contemporary revival of Bachelard, translating his important early book Intuition of the Instant (2013) as well as being the lead editor on the present volume under review, Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard.

This is an impressive, wide-reaching, and important volume in several respects. Over the course of sixteen chapters, the collection covers topics as varied as Bachelard’s philosophy of time, his place within the phenomenological tradition, his analysis of language, and the usage of his philosophy in issues such as environmental politics and theories of space and place. These issues are tackled by many if not all of the key players in Bachelard studies, including notable figures such as Ed Casey, Richard Kearney, and Mary McAllester Jones. It would be impossible to review the book as a whole given its complexity and range, but in what follows I will critically survey some of the book’s salient themes, addressing to what extent the volume as a whole develops Bachelard studies for contemporary research in phenomenology.

Eileen Rizo-Patron’s introduction to the volume establishes the aims and context of the collection clearly and coherently. From the outset, the aim is established of positioning Bachelard in dialogue with contemporary continental thought (1). In the first instance, this requires a historical context, which Rizo-Patron provides. The “cavalier attitude toward Bachelard” by his contemporaries is conceived in both institutional and conceptual terms (4). Bachelard’s appointment as chair of History and Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne was contentious when set against his wide-ranging—and autodidactic—interests, not only in the philosophy of science but also of his then burgeoning interest in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and the philosophy of imagination. Yet this methodological stance, far from a weakness, emerges as a strength insofar as Bachelard can be read as a “subversive” figure both within the history of philosophy but also in terms of his broader thought. Bachelardian concepts such as reverie and oneirism anticipate the ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s late thought sought to undermine binary divisions and address the ways in which experience and thought appear for us long before those same thoughts have been culturally and intellectually sedimented into habitual patterns.

Such is the theme of the first chapter of the volume, a provocative exploration of Bachelard’s account of temporal duration by Ed Casey. At the heart of this chapter is a question that is central to both Bachelard and contemporary continental philosophy; namely, is time continuous or disruptive? (19). Indeed, the question forms a leitmotif in Bachelard, evident from the outset to the end of his life, either appearing explicitly in temporal terms or through a series of different guises (be it spatiality in The Poetics of Space or animality in Lautréamont). From the outset the question is posed against a critical reading of Bergson. What Bachelard finds problematic in Bergson is the assumption that duration can involve continuous change. For Bachelard, this paradox can only be resolved through the introduction of a dialectical model of time that recognises how discontinuous and disorders of time are consolidated into the appearance of continuity. As Bachelard writes in the 1936 book Dialectics of Duration, there is a “time which is ineffective, scattered in a cloud of disparate instants and on other [hand] time which is cohered, organised, and consolidated into duration.”[1] In a word, time is that which is to be worked on, formed, reformed, consolidated, reconsolidated, renewed, and returned to. Duration is never given to experience as a unitary field, but instead becomes in Bachelard an achievement of sorts.

It is in the 1932 book Intuition of the Instant—thus written during Bachelard’s “scientific” phase—where these issues are first explored at length, and it is this formative text that Casey attends to in his contribution. As Casey makes clear, Bachelard’s motivation for introducing the notion of the instant is to undercut the dichotomy between thinking of time as either continuous or discontinuous. Casey contextualizes this claim through applying Bachelard’s notion of the instant to an analysis of the distinction between the sudden and the surprising, with the two terms being “coeval if not precisely coextensive” (22-23). Both occur instantaneously, and, moreover, “all of a sudden,” even if the result of a sustained process of rumination. Both moreover, are taken up in the overarching theme of newness, which Casey offers a threefold taxonomy, from the new as “utterly unprecedented” to that which is already but renewed in its newness upon each contact (as in engaging with a great work of art that generates new perspectives), and then finally to the cases of what is new in relation to what is familiar (as when we are presented with something novel that is situated with an already established context).

What is important about these reflections is that they enrich Bachelard’s idea of the instant and what he will enigmatically call “verticality,” a key concept that several of the chapters explore, and one that I will return to. Bachelard’s own remarks on this concept consist of several sketches and some incisive though underdeveloped passages. An appendix in the English translation of Intuition of the Instant includes Bachelard’s short essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant,” written in 1939, which unpacks his notion of vertical or poetical time. But much remains to be said on what implications Bachelard’s philosophy of the instant and his analysis of time more generally have for contemporary research. In extending Bachelard beyond his own remit, Casey’s elaboration of these ideas positions us in a much better place to grasp the “unthought thoughts” within Bachelard.

Alongside Casey, Richard Kearney also tackles Bachelard’s concept of the instant, giving more specific attention to the enigmatic essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant” and its adjoining notion of vertical time. Some words on Bachelard’s usage of poetics and poesies is needed here. By “poetic,” Bachelard refers not only to sensuous experience and that alone, but rather insofar as it involves poesies, the act of creation that is as much concerned with the composition of time in the present as it is that of the past. Such is the task of poesies, to shatter “the simple continuity of shackled time,” revealing therein an “element of suspended time, meterless time—a time we shall call vertical in order to distinguish it from everyday time.”[2] With his idea of vertical time, Bachelard offers a rejoinder to Bergsonian durée, which he finds unconvincing on both a conceptual and phenomenological level, not least because it fails to account for how paradoxes and contradictions are central to the creative act of time. It is, Bachelard writes, “astonishing and familiar…a harmonic relationship between opposites [which] compels us to value or devalue” (59). More than a detached aesthetic pleasure, the poetic instant confers upon the reader an imperative to assess our understanding of time itself and to recognise that within that understanding there lies an enduring ambivalence that is fundamentally “androgynous” in nature (59).

Bachelard explores these rich concepts through literary illustrations, Baudelaire’s motif of “smiling regret” being one such articulation of the androgyny of the poetic instant. As mentioned above, Bachelard was so taken with this image that he would return to it at the final stages of his life, in The Poetics of Reverie, a book that expands and to some extent fulfils the promise of the earlier sketch of vertical time. In speaking of a smile that regrets, the question is not of trying to resolve this contradictory image, but of preserving it. Through this preservation of two apparently disjoined states entering the same affective orb, time, Bachelard insists, comes to a standstill.

Both Bachelard and Kearney distance this temporal structure from that of nostalgia, even though Bachelard will speak of the poetic instant as allowing us to “experience, belatedly, those instances which should have been lived” (60). I would question to what extent this distancing from nostalgia is tenable, given the direction Bachelard’s philosophy will proceed, with its eventual veneration of childhood as a model of the cosmos. But for Kearney the movement toward polarised time is less a question of nostalgia and more of a fascination with the “poetic conjunction of opposites,” which derives from Bachelard’s broader intellectual landscape, especially that of depth psychology and alchemy, where the conjunction of opposites assumes a vital role. Such influences are traceable in Bachelard’s notion of vertical time, where we find a plurality of timescales inhabiting the same sphere.

Naming this movement of time standing still an “epiphanic instant,” Kearney broadens Bachelard’s privileging of poetry over fiction, locating the movement of vertical time within Proust and Joyce, as Kearny puts it, “these novels are narratives constructed around certain vertical moments of ‘epiphany’ which cut through the linear plot line and liberate the story into a series of circular reprises … chronological time is upended and reversed, as past and future are reinscribed in a timeless moment” (52). Kearny notes in a footnote that there is a striking rapport here between Bachelard’s notion of vertical time and that of Benjamin’s concept of the “Messianic instant,” with Benjamin employ a metaphorical figure of flashing lightning and Bachelard invoking the figure of a “phoenix poetic flash” (56). While there is no evidence of a mutual influence between Benjamin and Bachelard (indeed, Benjamin would write a critical letter on Bachelard’s book, Lautréamont, toward the end of his life), untapped connections of this sort (not least between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard) litter the work of Bachelard and remain to be developed. There is much more to be said on Kearney’s paper, which is exemplary in not only unpacking but also situating Bachelard’s critical (and overlooked) account of the poetic instant within his work as a whole.

Moving on from time, the middle parts of Adventures in Phenomenology deal with Bachelard’s methodology and his concept of language. Of these parts, Anton Vydra’s chapter is especially notable for critically assessing Bachelard’s place within the phenomenological landscape. Despite his avowed passion for phenomenology, especially in the later works, Bachelard’s relationship to the method is ambiguous. Vydra’s chapter explores these points of ambiguity, situating Bachelard’s methodology in relation to the concepts of phenomenon and noumena, his evolving concept of a “non-phenomenology,” his perspective on the phenomenological attitude, and how these dimensions contribute to an authentic formulation of phenomenology. Of note here is the phenomenological pathway Bachelard was developing and its potential relation to Merleau-Ponty. As with Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard calls into a question a phenomenology that centralises explicit modes of act intentionality. What this prioritizing omits is the way in which intentional relations are structured in the first place. In a word, it confines itself to things rather than what Bachelard terms “elemental matter” that has yet to assume a static quality. The rapport here not only with Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh, but also of his own development of “non-phenomenology” (of course, long before its formulation in Laruelle) is a rich area of research that is currently under-investigated. Vydra is exemplary in negotiating with the trajectory of Bachelard’s thought, but it would have been enriching to read a more sustained analysis of the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard, especially in their joint understanding of the term “element.” In addition, while Vydra ends his rich chapter with an inclusion of Bachelard’s “turn” toward poetics, there remains much here to say on the ontological and conceptual significance of concepts such as reverie, ontological amplification, and oneirism, which are touched upon but only in passing.

Both of Eileen Rizo-Patron’s contributions to this volume are noteworthy by dint of their incisiveness and lucidity. In her first chapter, Rizo-Patron picks up where Vydra left through tackling Bachelard’s relation to psychoanalysis. This relation is situated within Bachelard’s “psychotherapeutic period” in the 1940s, and the beginning of his concern the value of repose in response to what he will term in The Dialectic of Duration “ill-made durations” (108). By this, Bachelard seems to have in mind something like a Freudian complex, a dysfunctional “affective knot” that binds humans to impoverished ways of being, dwelling, and thinking. Rizo-Patron’s first chapter is especially helpful in teasing out these complex strands through identifying the central role alchemy plays in Bachelard’s intellectual background. Rizo-Patron maintains that Bachelard’s hermeneutics frames poetic texts as “proverbial ‘philosopher’s stones’ capable of drawing out the latent energies in other ‘stones’ (readers’ souls) while assisting in their distillation and transmutation” (114). This language may appear ornate, but I think it is more than a whimsy on behalf of Bachelard and Rizo-Patron. Bachelard’s hermeneutics is alchemical insofar as it revolves around themes of change and transformation, both within the texts and within the reader. Alchemy forms the allegorical counterpart to Bachelard’s insistence on the value of opposites, the significance of elemental images, and the centrality of reverie, and marks the way of attending to phenomena that implicates the reader as an active constituent in the formation of the world.

The volume’s middle section on language offers more detailed studies of the role language plays in the formation of Bachelard’s thought. Essays here concern the relation between Bachelard and Henry Corbin; and Bachelard’s relation to Nancy as well as his relation to Gadamer. Roch C. Smith’s chapter on Bachelard and the logosphere, although published in another form in 1985, is a welcome inclusion here for its astute analysis of a lesser known essay, “Reverie and Radio” in which Bachelard makes a plea to nothing less than a global logos (157).

The final part of the volume considers various applications of Bachelardian phenomenology as understood through the theme of alterity. The theme is pertinent, given that much of Bachelard’s thought prima facie invokes a solitary world sealed off from otherness and others. It is true that in The Poetics of Space, he devotes a chapter to the dialectical relationship between inside and outside, and suggests that this relation can always be reversed. It is also true that he emphasizes temporal discontinuity over a pregiven durée. But in all this, the overarching sentiment seems to be establishing a quiet space far from the hum of urban life, in which individual memories and dreams are protected by drawn curtains (to think of Bachelard’s discussion of the house in the snow in The Poetics of Space). While this part of the volume intends to confront whether Bachelard’s philosophy is receptive to the other, I think it only partly succeeds in this task.

Both Edward Kaplan’s chapter on Buber and Bachelard and Madeleine Preclaire’s contribution on solitude deal in some part with the question of alterity in Bachelard, both of whom argue passionately for Bachelard’s commitment to the other. Preclaire’s chapter is especially notable for its insistence on this point. Despite the impression of Bachelard as a philosopher of solitude, Preclaire claims that solitude is but a first step toward a shared world, a “call” of sorts that leads us out of ourselves and toward the other. The theme is taken up here through Bachelard’s discussion of the flame, love, and reading. In each case, a gesture is made toward drawing the other into contact with the self through a paradoxical deepening of solitude. “[Solitude] alone,” Preclaire writes, “enables the discovery of deep being, that which in the midst of the din and stress of the world reserves its secret, but which is therefore the source and springboard of dialogue and sympathy” (261). We are certainly rather removed from the ethical demands Levinas places upon the reader to recognise the primacy placed on the alterity of the Other. Bachelard’s intersubjective world, in sharp contrast, is described as “solitudes filled with company” (267).

While there is no doubt that Bachelard as a human being was receptive to other people, a fuller defense of whether Bachelard’s philosophy is welcoming to the other would require a more sustained look at his writings on dwelling. Yet for a philosopher most commonly associated with his work on spatiality, the theme itself in Bachelard is surprisingly underplayed in this volume. Ed Casey’s contribution on the topic of “missing land” is the exception; though alterity is not a central theme despite being placed in this section (a section on spatiality may have been more judicious). In short, while the section on alterity is welcome, to my mind, a critical assessment of Bachelard’s account of intersubjectivity, his openness on the other, to say nothing of his account of gender, remains to be undertaken.

Despite this shortcoming, this is an excellent volume, which will be of immense benefit not only to Bachelard scholars but also to the contemporary continental philosophy community more generally. As a whole, the volume is edited with care, though several unfortunate typos were found, including blank empty page citations (“000”) that were presumably pending actual page numbers. This is a minor point in what is otherwise a necessary and welcome collection.

[1] Bachelard 2016, 81.

[2] Bachelard 2013, 58.

Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.): Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard, SUNY Press, 2017

Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard Book Cover Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardcover $90.00