The Synthetic Value of the “Philosophy of No”

Gaston Bachelard

This need for dialectized basic notions, this anxiety to keep on discussing acquired results, this incessant controversial action of the reason must not lead us to misunderstand the constructive activity of the philosophy of no. It does not wantonly pursue negation. It does not stem from a spirit of contradiction, refuting without proof and raising vague quibbles. It does not, systematically, run away from all rules. On the contrary, it is true to the rules within a system of rules. It accepts no internal contradictions. It does not deny just anything, any time, anyhow. Its characteristic inductive movement comes about at well-defined junctures and determines a reorganization of knowledge on a broader basis.

Nor does the philosophy of no have any relation whatever to an a priori dialectic. Above all it cannot really be mobilized around Hegelian dialectics. This is something that C. Bialobrzeski has clearly indicated. For him the dialectic of contemporary science “is clearly to be distinguished from philosophical dialectics because it is not an a priori construct and it translates the course followed by the mind in its knowledge of nature. The philosophical dialectic, that of Hegel for example, proceeds by an opposition of thesis and antithesis and their fusion in a concept of higher synthesis. In physics the notions which are conjoined are not contradictory, as with Hegel; thesis and antithesis are really complementary.” [1] And, slightly further on, he observes that “there is a certain resemblance between the construction of the notions of physics and the synthetic method of Octave Hamelin, with whom the antithesis is not a negation of the thesis: the two notions which combine in a synthesis (of the Hamelin type) are opposed, but they are not contradictory. The physicist is kept within severe limits by virtue of his very method and he cannot go as far or as fast as the philosopher.”

If it is true that the dialectic theses of Octave Hamelin are still very far removed from the constructive conditions of the philosophy of contemporary science, it is nonetheless true also that with them philosophical dialectic comes closer to scientific dialectic. In this sense we may quote the works of Stéphane Lupasco. In his important thesis on Le dualisme antagoniste et Ies exigences historiques de l’esprit, Stéphane Lupasco studied at great length all the dualities which impose themselves upon human knowledge, whether from the scientific or from the psychological point of view. Stéphane Lupasco has developed his dualistic philosophy, with particular reference to the results of contemporary physics, in a work of which he kindly sent us the manuscript. Out of microphysics this work successfully develops a sound metaphysics. It is to be hoped that it may be published.

We ourselves, however, do not go quite as far as S. Lupasco. He unhesitatingly integrates the principle of contradiction as it were into the very heart of knowledge. To his way of thinking, the dualizing activity of the mind is never-ending. We would restrict it to setting in motion a sort of logical kaleidoscope which suddenly upsets relationships, yet still preserves forms. Our surrationalism is therefore made up of rational systems which are simply juxtaposed. For us, dialectic merely adds a margin of very exact surrational organization to an existent rational organization. It simply helps us to veer from one system to another.

A philosophy of no aiming only at juxtaposed systems, systems which place themselves in a relationship of complementarity with respect to some precise point of fact—such a philosophy is, above all else, careful not to deny two things at a time. It has no confidence in the coherence of two negations. The philosophy of no thus does not subscribe to the basically naïve opinion of Novalis: “Just as all pieces of knowledge are interlinked, so all pieces of non-knowledge are interlinked also. Anyone who can create a science can also create a non-science. Anyone who can render something comprehensible must also be able to make it incomprehensible. The master must be able to produce knowledge and ignorance.” [2] The negative ontology of Jean Wahl also seems to us too confident; for him “negations speak to us of a plenitude of reality situated beyond all negations.” [3] It does seem like an exaggeration either to take one’s stand with Jean Wahl entirely within the area that is denied, or with Novalis entirely within the incomprehensible area. Negation must remain in touch with previous training. It must permit a dialectical generalization. Generalization by negation must include what it denies. Indeed the whole impetus of scientific thought for a century now stems from dialectical generalizations of this sort, which embrace what has been denied. Thus non-Euclidean geometry embraces Euclidean geometry; non-Newtonian mechanics embraces Newtonian mechanics; wave mechanics embraces relativist mechanics. In the domain of physics, Planck’s constant h seems like a very small discrepancy amid the rules of common-sense science. But, as has often been observed, the removal of h from the formulae of wave mechanics is all that is required to restore the formulae of classical mechanics. Microphysics (in other words non-physics) thus includes physics. Classical physics is a special case of non-physics corresponding to the value of zero attributed to h.

In point of fact several dialectical generalizations which started out as independent have become coherent. In this manner the non-Newtonian mechanics of Einstein expresses itself very naturally in the non-Euclidean geometry of Riemann. But this coherence must be lived through in its proper place by the philosopher; it is not automatic, it is not done easily. The philosopher who wants to learn surrationalism cannot come to it all at once. He must experiment by opening up rationalism in successive stages. He must seek out the axioms to be dialectized one by one. Just one dialectized axiom brings all nature out in choral song. In my own experience, surrationalism, I have found, never has more than one sharp or one flat in its key-signature.


Let us try, however, to grasp some of the principles of coherence in the activity of the philosophy of no. We shall try to do it in two ways: first, by establishing with Eddington the cohesion of the successive criticisms of the notion of the atom; then by summarizing, with Jean-Louis Destouches, the means for a logical synthesis of the successive theories.

Nobody understood the value of the successive rectifications of the various atomic plans better than Eddington. After having recalled the diagram proposed by Bohr which likened the atomic system to a miniature planetary system, Eddington warns that one must not take this system too literally. [4] “The orbits can scarcely refer to an actual motion in space, for it is generally admitted that the ordinary conception of space breaks down in the interior of the atom; nor is there any desire nowadays to stress the suddenness or discontinuity conveyed by the word ‘jump’.” It is found also that the electron cannot be localized in the way implied by the picture. In short, the physicist draws up an elaborate plan of the atom and then proceeds critically to erase each detail in turn. What is left is the atom of modern physics! We would express the same thoughts differently. It does indeed seem to us quite impossible to understand the atom of modern physics without calling forth the history of its imagery, taking up once again the realist forms and the rationalist forms, and making explicit the epistemological profile. The history of the various plans becomes, at this point, an absolutely unavoidable pedagogical scheme. Anyway we look at it, what has been cut out of the image must be included in the rectified concept. We would almost be inclined to say, then, that the atom is exactly the sum of the criticisms to which its first representation has been subjected. Coherent knowledge is a product, not of architectonic reasoning, but of polemic reasoning. By means of dialectics and criticisms, surrationalism somehow determines a super-object. This super-object is the result of a critical objectification, of an objectivity which only retains that part of the object which it has criticized. As it appears in contemporary microphysics the atom is the absolute type of the super-object. In its relationships with images, the super-object is essentially the non-image. Intuitions are very useful: they serve to be destroyed. By destroying its original images, scientific thought discovers its organic laws. The noumenon is revealed by dialectizing one by one all the principles of the phenomenon. The diagram of the atom proposed by Bohr a quarter of a century ago has, in this sense, acted as a good image: there is nothing left of it. But it has suggested “no” often enough so that it keeps its indispensable role as initiatory pedagogy. These “no’s” are happily coordinated; they are the real constituents of contemporary microphysics.


We should now like to present a further type of thought which offers itself in a way as the converse of the philosophy of no and which brings valuable confirmation of this philosophy at the logical level. A good example is to be found in the works of Jean-Louis Destouches.

Destouches, in fact, studies the conditions for logical coherence of various theories. He shows that, given the modification of a postulate, one can always make two theories cohere if they have shown themselves rationally valid per se, even if they are opposed to one another. It is obvious that two theories may belong to two different bodies of rationality and may oppose one another in certain points while remaining valid individually within their own body of rationality. This is an aspect of rational pluralism which must remain obscure to those philosophers who insist upon believing in an absolute and invariable system of reason. The inversion of the philosophy of no is clearly apparent here: whereas in the constituent period theories developed as the result of the dialectic of a particular postulate, in the period of logical organization the logician considers theories which were more or less independently self-constituted and then tries to determine what postulate is right to dialectize, if there is to be a dialectical reconciliation of theories which seemed at first to be contradictory.

To see the range of the works of Destouches rapidly, we may well compare his fundamental theorem to an analogous theorem of Poincaré which played a very great role in the epistemology  of classical science.

Destouches demonstrates the following theorem: [5] “If two physical theories have been constructed, it is possible to construct one theory which encompasses them or unifies them.” And Poincaré the following: [6] “If a phenomenon admits of one complete mechanical explanation, it will admit an infinity of others which will equally account for all the peculiarities revealed by the experiment.”

The various mechanical explanations whose possibility is demonstrated by Poincaré seem to be superimposed upon one and the same domain of phenomenology. They always presuppose the possibility of a mechanical explanation. For Poincaré explanations are expressions, and superimposed mechanical explanations are superimposed languages. The essence of the demonstration of Poincaré, at this juncture, is to establish a lexicon which makes it possible to pass from one expression to another. In this way everyone can choose the mechanical explanation which seems most convenient for him. This is one of the roots of the convenientism, or, one might better say, the scepticism with regard to theories, which had such a lively success among philosophers. This root is the stronger for not growing in mathematical soil, but in reality, the very soil of which we have the most immediate mechanical knowledge. The more or less sophisticated languages of the scientist really seem to be translations of common language.

With. the theorem of Destouches, a very different mental assurance is established. Here the theories are not superimposed they are juxtaposed. First they are opposed, then they are coordinated by the activity of the philosophy of no.

To mark the really essential difference between the philosophical theorems of Poincaré and Destouches in an elementary manner one can formulate them in two ways: for Poincaré it is a matter of saying the same thing in another way; for Destouches it is a matter of saying something else in the same way. In going from one to the other, one passes from the philosophy of as if to the philosophy of no, one passes from a deductive and analytical epistemology to an inductive and synthetic epistemology.

The truly logical synthesis of two originally irreconcilable theories which have nothing but their intrinsic coherence to guarantee their validity requires us to make deep modifications in our thinking. Destouches brings contemporary scientific thought face to face with a dilemma: either to preserve mental unity and regard divergent theories as contradictory (with confidence that the future will decide that at least one of the two theories was false) or else to unify the opposed theories, making appropriate modifications in those rules of elementary reasoning which seem to have become part and parcel of an invariant and fundamental structure of the mind.

Every philosopher will protest at such a dilemma; he will say that scientific thought is only a small aspect of the life of the mind, that psychological laws cannot be modified by a restricted, special, ephemeral usage of directed knowledge; he will not hesitate to sacrifice any physical theory if he can maintain intact the unequivocal, predicative, rational rules of reasoning. Yet Destouches resolves the dilemma in the opposite way and it really seems as if this were a reasonable choice.

In truth, organized theories which collide in microphysics are not empty concepts, they are all concepts which were verified in classical physics. For example, the concept of a particle permitted the development of a mechanics which was quite rightly called rational; similarly the concept of a continuous ether which transmitted light waves made it possible to treat the problem of interferences in a fundamental, mathematical way, and in every detail of the phenomenon. This double success was then used as a proof to show the pertinence of reason, to show that mental categories were efficacious in filling out experience. Conceived as a prolongation of common sense or of common reason, classical science clarified opinions, sharpened experiments and confirmed elementary knowledge. If one allows classical science or classical technology as a proof of the permanence of mental structure, one finds oneself in a strangely embarrassing position upon entering a new scientific domain in which such principles are absent. To say that there is a domain in which the concepts of a particle and of a wave are in conflict, is to ruin the double triumph which these concepts celebrated initially. The corollary to this is to admit that the methods of reasoning which left these concepts in untroubled cooperation must have been insufficient or bad.

So wave concepts and particle concepts must be welded together in their subtlest applications. If the weld is properly made, if it is made by the methods of the philosophy of no, one will easily see why the two concepts did not conflict in their coarser applications. But this union of opposed theories can only be accomplished by a modification of elementary methods of reasoning which were thought of as natural because they had never been developed. In order that knowledge may have its full efficacy, mind must now be transformed. It must be transformed down to its very roots in order to reproduce the like result in its buds. The very conditions of the unity of the life of the mind demand a variation of the life of the mind, a profound mutation of the human being.

In short, science informs reason. Reason must obey science, the most highly evolved science, science in the process of evolution. Reason has no right to put a premium upon an immediate experience; on the contrary it must put itself in balance with the most richly structured experience. In all circumstances the immediate must yield to the constructed. Destouches says over and over again that if arithmetic in far distant developments were to reveal itself contradictory, reason would be reformed to efface the contradiction and arithmetic would be kept intact. Arithmetic has given such numerous proofs of efficiency, exactitude and coherence that there can be no idea of abandoning its organization. In the face of a sudden contradiction, or more exactly, faced with the sudden necessity of a usage contradictory to arithmetic the problem of a non-arithmetic would arise, of a pan-arithmetic, that is to say of a dialectical prolongation of those intuitions of number which would permit the wholesale amalgamation of classical doctrine into the new doctrine.

In the interests of clarity we must have no hesitation in pushing our thesis to this extreme. To be sure such an extension of arithmetic has not been made. In supposing it possible we simply want to affirm that arithmetic is not the natural outcome of an immutable reason any more than geometry is. Arithmetic is not founded upon reason. It is the doctrine of reason which is founded upon arithmetic. Before knowing how to count I could hardly know what reason was. In general the mind must adapt itself to the conditions of knowing. It must create in itself a structure which corresponds to the structure of knowing. It must mobilize itself around articulate expressions which correspond to the dialectics of knowledge. What good would a function be without occasions to function? What good would a reason be without occasions for reasoning? The pedagogy of reason must therefore seize every opportunity to reason. It must search out the variety of reasonings or rather the variations of reasoning. Moreover, the variations of reasoning are numerous now in the geometric and physical sciences; they are all of a piece with a dialectic of the principles of reason, with an activity of the philosophy of no. The lesson of this has to be accepted. Reason, once again be it said, must obey science. Geometry, physics and arithmetic are sciences; the traditional doctrine of an absolute, unchanging reason is only one philosophy, and it is an obsolete philosophy.


[1] Les nouvelles théories de la physique, 1939, p. 251-252.

[2] Fragments from the Maeterlinck translation, p. 235.

[3] Jean Wahl, note upon space and remark upon time in Revue de Métaphysique et de morale, July, 1939.

[4] Eddington, New Pathways in Science, p. 259.

[5] Jean-Louis Destouches, Essai sur l’unité de la physique théorique, p. 3.

[6] Poincaré, Electricité et Optique, 1901, p. viii.

SOURCE: Bachelard, Gaston. The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, translated from the French by G. C. Waterston (New York: Orion Press, 1968), Chapter 6, The Synthetic Value of the “Philosophy of No,” pp. 115-123. Original French publication, 1940.

Note: Footnotes have been converted to endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference in this format.


    Translator’s Preface  vii
PREFACE:   Philosophic Thought and the Scientific Mind 3
ONE   The Various Metaphysical Explanations of a Scientific Concept 15
TWO   The Notion of an Epistemological Profile 34
THREE   Non-substantialism, the Preliminaries of a Non-Lavoisian Chemistry 44
FOUR   The Elementary Spatial Connections of Non-analytics  80
F IVE   Non-Aristotelian Logic 90
SIX   The Synthetic Value of the “Philosophy of No” 115

The Philosophy of No: The Various Metaphysical Explanations of a Scientific Concept
by Gaston Bachelard

Surrationalism” (1936) by Gaston Bachelard

Excursus on Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No (Excerpt) by Maire Jaanus Kurrik

Gaston Bachelard on Surrationalism & a Revolution of Reason

Premières vues anciennes (Gaston Bachelard: Le Surrationalisme)
par Paul Eluard

Surrationally Yours” by R. Dumain

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