Paul Karl Feyerabend (German: [ˈfaɪɐˌʔaːbm̩t]; January 13, 1924 – February 11, 1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades (1958–1989). At various points in his life, he lived in England, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and finally Switzerland. His major works include Against Method (1975), Science in a Free Society (1978) and Farewell to Reason (1987). Feyerabend became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He was an influential figure in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Asteroid (22356) Feyerabend is named in his honour.
|Died||February 11, 1994 (aged 70)|
|Education||University of Vienna (PhD, 1951)|
London School of Economics
|Institutions||University of California, Berkeley|
|Thesis||Zur Theorie der Basissätze (Towards a Theory of Observational Statements) (1951)|
|Doctoral advisor||Victor Kraft|
|Other academic advisors||Karl Popper|
|Philosophy of science, epistemology, political philosophy|
Criticism of falsificationism Incommensurability
Feyerabend was born in 1924 in Vienna, where he attended primary and high school. In this period he got into the habit of frequent reading, developed an interest in theatre, and started singing lessons. After graduating from high school in April 1942 he was drafted into the German Arbeitsdienst. After basic training in Pirmasens, Germany, he was assigned to a unit in Quelern en Bas, near Brest (France). Feyerabend described the work he did during that period as monotonous: "we moved around in the countryside, dug ditches, and filled them up again." After a short leave he volunteered for officer school. In his autobiography he writes that he hoped the war would be over by the time he had finished his education as an officer. This turned out not to be the case. From December 1943 on, he served as an officer on the northern part of the Eastern Front, was decorated with an Iron cross, and attained the rank of lieutenant. When the German army started its retreat from the advancing Red Army, Feyerabend was hit by three bullets while directing traffic. One hit him in the spine. As a consequence he needed to walk with a stick for the rest of his life and frequently experienced severe pain. He spent the rest of the war recovering from his wounds.
When the war was over, Feyerabend first got a temporary job in Apolda, where he wrote plays. He was influenced by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who invited him to be his assistant at the East Berlin State Opera, but Feyerabend turned down the offer. He took classes at the Weimar Academy, and returned to Vienna to study history and sociology at the University of Vienna. He became dissatisfied, however, and soon transferred to physics, where he met Felix Ehrenhaft, a physicist whose experiments influenced his later views on the nature of science. Feyerabend changed his course of studies to philosophy. In 1951 he earned his doctorate from the University of Vienna with a thesis on observational statements (Zur Theorie der Basissätze) under Victor Kraft's supervision.
In his autobiography, he described his philosophical views during this time as "staunchly empiricist". In 1948 he visited the first European Forum Alpbach. There Feyerabend first met Karl Popper, who had "positive" (early Popper) and "negative" (later Popper) effects on him. In 1949 he was a founding member of the Kraft Circle. In 1951, Feyerabend was granted a British Council scholarship to study under Wittgenstein, but Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend moved to England. Feyerabend then chose Popper as his supervisor instead, and went to study at the London School of Economics in 1952. In his autobiography, Feyerabend explains that during this time, he was influenced by Popper: "I had fallen for [Popper's ideas]". After that, Feyerabend returned to Vienna and was involved in various projects; a translation of Popper's Open Society and its Enemies, hunting down manuscripts Popper had left in Vienna, a report on the development of the humanities in Austria, and several articles for an encyclopedia.
In 1955, Feyerabend received his first academic appointment at the University of Bristol, where he lectured on the philosophy of science. Later in his life he worked as a professor (or equivalent) at Berkeley, Auckland, Kassel, Sussex, Yale, London, Berlin and ETH Zurich. During this time, he developed a critical view of science, which he later described as 'anarchistic' or 'dadaistic' to illustrate his rejection of the dogmatic use of rules, a position incompatible with the contemporary rationalistic culture in the philosophy of science. At the London School of Economics, Feyerabend met a colleague of Popper, Imre Lakatos, with whom he planned to write a dialogue volume in which Lakatos would defend a rationalist view of science and Feyerabend would attack it. This planned joint publication was put to an end by Lakatos's sudden death in 1974. Against Method became a famous criticism of current philosophical views of science and provoked many reactions. In his autobiography, he reveals that he suffered from depression:
The depression stayed with me for over a year; it was like an animal, a well-defined, spatially localizable thing. I would wake up, open my eyes, listen—Is it here or isn't? No sign of it. Perhaps it's asleep. Perhaps it will leave me alone today. Carefully, very carefully, I get out of bed. All is quiet. I go to the kitchen, start breakfast. Not a sound. TV—Good Morning America—, David What's-his-name, a guy I can't stand. I eat and watch the guests. Slowly the food fills my stomach and gives me strength. Now a quick excursion to the bathroom, and out for my morning walk—and here she is, my faithful depression: "Did you think you could leave without me?"— From his autobiography, Killing Time
Feyerabend moved to the University of California, Berkeley in California in 1958 and became a U.S. citizen. Following (visiting) professorships (or their equivalent) at University College London, Berlin, and Yale, he taught at the University of Auckland, New Zealand in 1972 and 1974, always returning to California. He later enjoyed alternating between posts at ETH Zurich and Berkeley through the 1980s but left Berkeley for good in October 1989, first to Italy, then finally to Zurich. After his retirement in 1991, Feyerabend continued to publish papers and worked on his autobiography. After a short period of suffering from a brain tumor, he died in 1994 at the Genolier Clinic, overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
In his books Against Method and Science in a Free Society Feyerabend defended the idea that there are no methodological rules which are always used by scientists. He objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. In his view, science would benefit most from a "dose" of theoretical anarchism. He also thought that theoretical anarchism was desirable because it was more humanitarian than other systems of organization, by not imposing rigid rules on scientists.
For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a "search for the truth" in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? "Is it not possible," asks Kierkegaard, "that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?" I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard's sense) is urgently needed.
Feyerabend's position was seen as radical in the philosophy of science, because it implies that philosophy can neither succeed in providing a general description of science, nor in devising a method for differentiating products of science from non-scientific entities like myths. (Feyerabend's position also implies that philosophical guidelines should be ignored by scientists, if they are to aim for progress.)
To support his position that methodological rules generally do not contribute to scientific success, Feyerabend provides counterexamples to the claim that (good) science operates according to a certain fixed method. He took some examples of episodes in science that are generally regarded as indisputable instances of progress (e.g. the Copernican revolution), and argued that these episodes violated all common prescriptive rules of science. Moreover, he claimed that applying such rules in these historical situations would actually have prevented scientific revolution.
One of the criteria for evaluating scientific theories that Feyerabend attacks is the consistency criterion. He points out that to insist that new theories have to be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the latter. He makes the logical point that being compatible with a defunct older theory does not increase the validity or truth of a new theory over an alternative covering the same content. That is, if one had to choose between two theories of equal explanatory power, to choose the one that is compatible with an older, falsified theory is to make an aesthetic, rather than a rational choice. The familiarity of such a theory might also make it more appealing to scientists, since they will not have to disregard as many cherished prejudices. Hence, that theory can be said to have "an unfair advantage".
Feyerabend was also critical of falsificationism. He argued that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. This would rule out using a naïve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Among others, Feyerabend uses an intentionally provocative description of "renormalization" in quantum mechanics: "This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered" Against Method. p. 61. While quantum theorists were working on models that did not run into this problem, Feyerabend advocated that scientists should use ad hoc methods such as renormalization. Indeed that such methods are essential to the progress of science for example because "progress in science is uneven". For instance, in the time of Galileo, optical theory could not account for phenomena that were observed by means of telescopes. So, astronomers who used telescopic observation had to use ad hoc rules[example needed] until they could justify their assumptions[example needed] by means of "optical theory".
Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts. He thought that previous theory might influence natural interpretations of observed phenomena. Scientists necessarily make implicit assumptions when comparing scientific theories to facts that they observe. Such assumptions need to be changed in order to make the new theory compatible with observations. The main example of the influence of natural interpretations that Feyerabend provided was the tower argument. The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been "left behind". Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth. This observation required a new interpretation to make it compatible with Copernican theory. Galileo was able to make such a change about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated, Galileo had to make use of ad hoc methods and proceed counterinductively. So, "ad hoc" hypotheses actually have a positive function: they temporarily make a new theory compatible with facts until the theory to be defended can be supported by other theories.
Feyerabend commented on the Galileo affair as follows:
The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.
Together these remarks sanction the introduction of theories that are inconsistent with well-established facts. Furthermore, a pluralistic methodology that involves making comparisons between any theories at all forces defendants to improve the articulation of each theory. In this way, scientific pluralism improves the critical power of science. Pope Benedict XVI cited Feyerabend to this effect.
According to Feyerabend, new theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition one sees fit) is "anything goes": "anything goes" is not a 'principle' I hold... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history." (Feyerabend, 1975).
Feyerabend considered the possibility of incommensurability, but he was hesitant in his application of the concept. He wrote that "it is hardly ever possible to give an explicit definition of [incommensurability]" Against Method. p. 225., because it involves covert classifications and major conceptual changes. He also was critical of attempts to capture incommensurability in a logical framework, since he thought of incommensurability as a phenomenon outside the domain of logic. In the second appendix of Against Method (p. 114), Feyerabend states, "I never said... that any two rival theories are incommensurable... What I did say was that certain rival theories, so-called 'universal' theories, or 'non-instantial' theories, if interpreted in a certain way, could not be compared easily." Incommensurability did not concern Feyerabend greatly, because he believed that even when theories are commensurable (i.e. can be compared), the outcome of the comparison should not necessarily rule out either theory. To rephrase: when theories are incommensurable, they cannot rule each other out, and when theories are commensurable, they cannot rule each other out. Assessments of (in)commensurability, therefore, don't have much effect in Feyerabend's system, and can be more or less passed over in silence.
In Against Method Feyerabend claimed that Imre Lakatos's philosophy of research programmes is actually "anarchism in disguise", because it does not issue orders to scientists. Feyerabend playfully dedicated Against Method to "Imre Lakatos: Friend, and fellow-anarchist". One interpretation is that Lakatos's philosophy of mathematics and science was based on creative transformations of Hegelian historiographic ideas, many associated with Lakatos's teacher in Hungary Georg Lukács. Feyerabend's debate with Lakatos on scientific method recapitulates the debate of Lukács and (Feyerabend's would-be mentor) Brecht, over aesthetics several decades earlier.
While Feyerabend described himself as an "epistemological anarchist", he explicitly disavowed being a "political anarchist". Some anarchist-leaning critics of science have agreed with this distinction, while others have argued that political anarchism is tacitly embedded in Feyerabend's philosophy of science.
Feyerabend was critical of the lack of knowledge of philosophy shown by the generation of physicists that emerged after World War II:
The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth – and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.
On the other hand, Feyerabend was himself heavily criticized for his misrepresentation of the practices, methods and goals of some of the above-mentioned scientists, especially Mach and Einstein.
Feyerabend described science as being essentially anarchistic, obsessed with its own mythology, and as making claims to truth well beyond its actual capacity. He was especially indignant about the condescending attitudes of many scientists towards alternative traditions. For example, he thought that negative opinions about astrology and the effectivity of rain dances were not justified by scientific research, and dismissed the predominantly negative attitudes of scientists towards such phenomena as elitist or racist. In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology, even though it arguably started as a liberating movement. Feyerabend thought that a pluralistic society should be protected from being influenced too much by science, just as it is protected from other ideologies.
Starting from the argument that a historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argues that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions. Feyerabend also argued that scientific accomplishments such as the moon landings are no compelling reason to give science a special status. In his opinion, it is not fair to use scientific assumptions about which problems are worth solving in order to judge the merit of other ideologies. Additionally, success by scientists has traditionally involved non-scientific elements, such as inspiration from mythical or religious sources.
Based on these arguments, Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society (Against Method (3rd ed.). p. 160.). He envisioned a "free society" in which "all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power" (Science in a Free Society. p. 9.). For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children's education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. He rejected the view that science is especially "rational" on the grounds that there is no single common "rational" ingredient that unites all the sciences but excludes other modes of thought (Against Method (3rd ed.). p. 246.).
Along with a number of mid-20th century philosophers (most notably, Wilfrid Sellars, Willard Van Orman Quine, and Richard Rorty), Feyerabend was influential in the development of eliminative materialism, a radical position in the philosophy of mind that holds that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind (what materialist monists call "folk psychology") is false. It is succinctly described by a modern proponent, Paul Churchland, as follows:
In three short papers published in the early sixties, Feyerabend sought to defend materialism against the supposition that the mind cannot be a physical thing. Feyerabend suggested that our commonsense understanding of the mind was incommensurable with the (materialistic) scientific view, but that nevertheless we ought to prefer the materialistic one on general methodological grounds.
This view of the mind/body problem is widely considered one of Feyerabend's most important legacies. Even though Feyerabend himself seems to have given it up in the late 1970s, it was taken up by Richard Rorty and, more recently, by Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland. In fact, as Keeley observes, "PMC [Paul Churchland] has spent much of his career carrying the Feyerabend mantle forward" (p. 13).
Some of Feyerabend's work concerns the way in which people's perception of reality is influenced by various rules. In his last book, unfinished when he died, he talks of how our sense of reality is shaped and limited. Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being bemoans the propensity we have of institutionalizing these limitations.
The last philosophy book that Feyerabend finished is The Tyranny of Science (written 1993, published May 13, 2011). In it Feyerabend challenges what he sees in his view as some modern myths about science, e.g., he believes that the statement 'science is successful' is a myth. He argues that some very basic assumptions about science are simply false and that substantial parts of scientific ideology were created on the basis of superficial generalizations that led to absurd misconceptions about the nature of human life. He claims that far from solving the pressing problems of our age, scientific theorizing glorifies ephemeral generalities at the cost of confronting the real particulars that make life meaningful.
The book On the Warrior's Path quotes Feyerabend, highlighting the similarities between his epistemology and Bruce Lee's worldview. In a 2015 retrospective on Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts in social science, the philosopher Martin Cohen cites several of Feyerabend's skeptical positions on conventional claims at scientific knowledge and agrees with Feyerabend that Thomas Kuhn himself had only a very hazy idea of what this notion of paradigm shifts might mean, and that Kuhn essentially retreated from the more radical implications of his theory, which were that scientific facts are never really more than opinions, whose popularity is transitory and far from conclusive. Cohen says that although in their lifetimes, Kuhn and Feyerabend made up two viciously opposed sects, they agreed that science consists of long periods of settled agreement (so-called 'normal science') punctuated by radical, conceptual upheaval (so-called paradigm shifts).
Feyerabend's concept of incommensurability was influential in the radical critical approach of Donald Ault in his extensive critical assessment of William Blake's work, especially in Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake's The Four Zoas.
the Copernican Revolution [...] occurred only because some thinkers either decided not to be bound by certain 'obvious' methodological rules, or because they unwittingly broke them. [...] There are even circumstances - and they occur rather frequently when argument loses its forward-looking aspect and becomes a hindrance to progress.
The consistency condition which demands that new hypotheses agree with accepted theories is unreasonable because it preserves the older theory, and not the better theory.
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