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Notes on Bachelard's Inhabited Geometry

David E. Denton


When Gaston Bachelard's Psychoanalysis of Fire was published in 1938, philosophers of science were shocked (Bachelard, 1968).  Why would France's foremost historian and philosopher of science give his signature to that sort of exotic title?

Actually, his point was straight forward:  modern science doesn't speak of the phenomena we live, fire being his example.  With his The Poetics of Space, published in 1958, Bachelard was making the same point regarding modern architecture's organization of space on the basis of abstract Cartesian coordinates, an organization which leads to the loss of the "tonalization of being" (Bachelard, 1969, p. 231), yielding much of our contemporary art and architecture with its large-scale coldness, while meeting all the criteria of function, utility and efficiency.

Bachelardian architects, working from the images of their souls, would create only those spaces that invite caresses. A non-Cartesian architecture would lead to "inhabited geometry" (ibid., p. 146).

Can Bachelard's dense prose be clarified in a series of notes?  After twenty years of working with Bachelard's writings, along side of students here at the University of Kentucky, I think so.  These notes are not exhaustive but serve to clarify his notion of inhabited geometry.

I.  Bachelard's critique of Cartesianism and the subjectivity/objectivity dichotomy

More technically, this dichotomy involves the distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.  Quite simply, our experience of space does not consist of a subjective response to some objective set of coordinates; rather, that experience is prior to such analytic categories.  Such categories are products of mind rather than images emerging from soul.

In my view, Bachelard's use of the word "mind" is almost identical with Freud's secondary process (Denton, 1986), though I doubt that Bachelard would approve.  Res extensa, in the form of the measurable structures of our lived-spaces, are necessary but are never sufficient for the interpretations of the spaces we live.  Rotation of these spaces, including our lived-bodies, in imaginative space provides the flesh, the sufficiency of our understanding.  "Multiplying its variations" (Bachelard, 1958, p. 234) is his cryptic way of putting it.

II.  Bachelard's notion of the "image"

The "image" dominated Bachelard's attention in his later works, yet it is not an easy notion to grasp.  We can refer to the image as his language of space (Denton, 1974), and we can note that he gave the image priority over the Kantian categories of space and time, but he consistently refused to freeze the term conceptually.  (Perhaps it should be noted that his image is not that mental-fluff that is the stuff of much advertising, weight-loss therapy, self-esteem workshops, and the like.  The materiality of his image counters such reduction.)

Although he refuses definition, certain characteristics, necessary for an inhabited geometry, can be identified.  These are materiality, valorization, and, what I call playfulness.

a.  Materiality

Among Bachelard's favorite images are houses, cellars, huts, drawers, nests, corners, and human bodies.  Why?  Being non-Cartesian, he wished to avoid any mechanistic understanding, on one hand, and any resort to the priority of consciousness, on the other.

Although identified as a phenomenologist, he rejected, for this reason, much of Husserl, the early Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre. Merleau-Ponty's later work, however, is another matter, for Bachelard's materiality is very close to Merleau-Ponty's corporeality or "the carnal." Bachelard's emphasis on the material image is fully realized in The Poetics of Reverie (1960), which, to make the point, is written in the feminine gender. With that, his non-modernity is made obvious.

David Seamon's essay on Thiis-Evensen's Archetypes in Architecture (Seamon, 1990) suggests to me that Thiis-Evensen's three existential expressions of architecture‑-motion, weight, and substance‑-is another way of describing what Bachelard calls materiality.

These expressions of architecture, as explicated by Thiis-Evensen, cannot be reduced to their subjective aspects in opposition to certain assumed objective components.  Those walls that seem to cave in on us do have mass, and it is their weight that presses against us.  And we know this fact at a pre-reflective level, for our "carnal awareness" (McCleary, 1986) is integral to the phenomenon of the caving-walls.

b.  Valorization

A second characteristic of Bachelard's image is that of tonalization or valorization--terms that Bachelard uses interchangeably throughout his work and, again, without definition.  But Bachelard's purpose is clear.  The image always breathes the vibrations, the rhythms of intimacy, warmth, and attractiveness, and always functions on the "human plane," never at the level of theoretical abstraction (Bachelard, 1958, p. 48):

The grace of a curve is an invitation to remain.  We cannot break away from it without hoping to return.  For the beloved curve has nest-like powers; it incites us to possession, it is a curved corner, inhabited geometry (ibid., p. 146).

 c. Playfulness

This term describes a third characteristic of Bachelard's images.  I do not choose this term capriciously, for with his rejection of Cartesianism, with his insistence on the feminine, and with his elevation of the role of imagination, Bachelard takes his stand with that ancient tradition in which play is a sacred activity.

 More technically put, the image is playful because no casual explanation is appropriate.  First, since the image is immediately given and complete in itself at the moment of origin, it is not a probabilistic event; therefore, psychological explanations do not apply (ibid., p. xxv).  Second, since the image has no history, there are no antecedents for those explanatory schemata which require such (ibid., p. xxv).

 Third, since explanation, on the order of modern science, intellectualizes‑-that is, brackets the phenomenon with mind‑-it destroys the image, by subsumption and reduction, in the attempt (ibid., p. xx). Last, since the image is to be grasped in its first-time appearance, it is not amenable to the methods of observation and systematization that require "several-times" events (ibid., p. 156).

If one has difficulty in connecting these points with my earlier comment on playfulness, then simply recall a moment from your own experience, say, of a sandlot baseball game or of a day at the dance studio when an episode of improvisation disrupted the plan.  Not all images are mental pictures, but, in the face of Cartesian science, they are all playful.

 III. Bachelard's geometry of the future

When in Bachelard's space, I can imagine a community of architects and other designers who have put aside "the prudent attitude" (ibid., p. xiv), for whom "the image animates the nerves of the future" (ibid., p. 160), and for whom lived-space is the originating site of their dreams and plans for the future.  No longer "lost in the cosmos," to use Walker Percy's description of Cartesian thinkers, we would think imagistically, creating spaces appropriate to those given us by nature.

Bachelard's material images of the spaces we are and the spaces we live lead us in what he calls ontological ways (ibid., p. 239) to a fresh appreciation for, and understanding of, our worlds and our bodies.  The bird in its nest, the snail in its shell, the fox with its den‑-these, too, are encompassed in Bachelard's images of valorized space.

With these, he anchors the image in our psychic, sensory, and genetic depths. And, with these, he reminds us of the dimensions of inhabited geometry.


Bachelard, Gaston, 1968.  Psychoanalysis of Fire, Boston:  Beacon [originally 1938].

Bachelard, Gaston, 1969.  The Poetics of Space, Boston:  Beacon [originally 1958].

Bachelard, Gaston, 1971.  The Poetics of Reverie, Boston:  Beacon [originally 1960].

Denton, David E., 1986.  "Entre les concepts et 1'experience:  Bachelard et Freud," Cahiers internationaux de symbolisme, 55, 125-139.

Denton, David E., 1974.  "The Image--Gaston Bachelard's Language of   Space,"      International Journal of Symbology, 5 (July), 14-21.

McCleary, Richard C., 1986.  Imagination's Body.  Washington, DC:  Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press of America.

Seamon, David, 1990.  "Toward a Phenomenology of Architectural Form:  Thomas Thiis-Evensen's Archetypes in Architecture,"  Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, Spring, pp. 6-9; Fall, 9-11.