What is a problematic?

Gaston Bachelard’s 1949 book, Le Rationalisme appliqué (RA; best translated as Reason Applied), is essential to an understanding of his work, and Bachelard is essential to an understanding of twentieth-century French philosophy. That this book has never been translated into English shows how little the anglophone world is yet acquainted with some key aspects of this corpus. Bachelard, like Bergson, is one of those authors that we now need to rediscover. The extract translated below addresses a central concept in his work, one that came to play an important role not only in French thought, but also in general culture: the concept of problematic.*

Every school pupil in France today has to learn how to ‘construct her problematic’ when she works on her ‘dissertation’ in Literature, History, Philosophy, and so on. A ‘problematic’ in this pedagogical sense is not simply a set of questions; it is rather the matrix or the angle from which it will become possible and even necessary to formulate a certain number of precise problems. For instance, if you pick as your essay question ‘What is self-evident?’ (as is perfectly possible in France), your problematic will consist in discovering the philosophical topos that the term alludes to, perhaps opposing formalist and intuitionist approaches in the philosophy of mathematics. Similarly, if you are asked, ‘Does freedom mean doing whatever I like?’, you could oppose individual and social concepts of freedom, or contrast the notion of pleasure with that of law, or even combine the two in a dialectical order. But the point is always to go from a rough theme or question to a precise problem, which has the form of an alternative between already elaborated or structured options.

The word is so popular that everybody has forgotten that it was invented quite recently by Bachelard in Le Rationalisme appliqué. This is all the more surprising in that the concept has undergone very sophisticated elaborations in subsequent philosophical history: it inspired Althusser’s reading of Marx and more generally his attempt at constructing a materialist concept of scientific knowledge; it is implicitly behind Foucault’s concept of episteme and explicitly at work in his later notion of problematization; and it is at the heart of Deleuze’s meditations on the ‘Problem–Idea’ in Difference and Repetition.

In all these cases, it is meant to open up to a different ‘image’ of thought, a structuralist and a materialist one.


* This dossier is the result of discussion following Patrice Maniglier’s contribution to ‘The Concept of Problem’, the second day of the first Workshop in the AHRC-funded research project, ‘Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities: Problems, Methods, Histories, Concepts’, organized by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, at Dorich House, Kingston University London, 25–26 January 2012.


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