A book review published in International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume 26, Number 1, 2012, pp. 118-121
Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) occupies a distinctive position in the philosophy of science and in the wider politics of science. Building on a series of long essays, his 1975 book Against Method challenged the conventional idea that a universal scientific method was the way scientists did, or should, carry out their work. The book's subtitle, Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, suggested an epistemology with political implications.
The impact of Feyerabend's work outside philosophy can be understood in relation to two approaches to science. The first is the traditional view, held by most scientists and members of the public, that science provides a uniquely valid road to truth based on the ideal of objectivity. Therefore, society should welcome scientific findings and associated technological developments because they derive their authority from nature, of which scientists are the authorised interpreters.
The second approach to science involves a political challenge to the scientific establishment that first became prominent in the late 1960s. Activist critics, many from the political left, questioned the way corporations and governments steered research to serve vested interests, and advocated a liberated science built on popular input into the direction of research, or even the doing of research. The magazines Science for the People in the US and Science for People in Britain, among other publications, presented this critique of science through treatments of current issues ranging from the sins of corporatised science to the benefits of community technology.
The political critique of science needed to confront claims that establishment science was uniquely objective; for this, new developments in the history, philosophy and sociology of science proved valuable. With his concept of paradigms, Thomas Kuhn had punctured the belief that scientists were on a one-directional road to the truth. Kuhn pulled back from the wider political implications of his analysis of the history of science, but others were less reluctant. Objectivity became a target for attack, seen as a cover for the illegitimate imposition of an otherwise arbitrary set of research directions and conclusions.
In this context, Feyerabend was the joker in the pack, an epistemological trump card against scientific traditionalists, who was welcomed by some political critics of science. At the same time, Feyerabend could be seen as a sort of clown who did not play the philosophical game in the traditional way: if every card was a joker, the game might fall apart.
In retrospect, the political critique of science never relied heavily on an epistemological challenge. Activists can readily confront the nuclear, chemical, pharmaceutical and other industries without questioning the basics of scientific method; they can and do point to biased agendas, censorship, distorted protocols and the like. Activists, in many cases, argue for research done more rigorously, in accordance with the highest precepts of science, taking into account the human interest, rather than undertaking a critique of scientific method. Meanwhile, sociologists have probed into the way scientists actually carry out research and negotiate the meaning of findings, showing how knowledge is socially constructed using a variety of context-specific, practical rules of thumb.
Feyerabend's critical comments about social arrangements, for example in his 1978 book Science in a Free Society, positioned him as a politically inclined philosopher, willing to speak to wider audiences, with a broader message. He criticised experts, supported a multiplicity of traditions of thought, and favoured popular participation as a counter to 'know-it-alls'.
Feyerabend did not live long enough to see how some techniques used in the radical critique of science are regularly turned to other purposes, for example by industries that selectively promote doubt in orthodox research as a means of continuing with dangerous but profitable products and practices. Climate change sceptics today delight in challenging climate scientist 'know-it-alls'.
In 1992, not long before his death, Feyerabend gave a series of five lectures to general audiences at the University of Trent, Italy. These were published in Italian in 1996, but only now have they appeared in English, under the title The Tyranny of Science. The lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, provide a window into Feyerabend's style and thinking. The editor, Eric Oberheim, has done an excellent job in providing an introduction and annotations concerning sources and points raised in the lectures.
Feyerabend lives up to his mystique by providing content that exemplifies his approach. Much of the lectures deal with ancient Greek philosophers, such as Thales and Parmenides, and the way they approached the world and foreshadowed the dominance of rationalism. Feyerabend also includes observations about contemporary society, weaving these elements together to comment on science and philosophy.
For example, in the opening lecture Feyerabend first notes a recent news story about the Big Bang theory of the universe, the recent (1992) riots in Los Angeles and the wars in former Yugoslavia. He then asks whether there is any connection between these things. Science - cosmology in the case of the Big Bang - can provide an over-arching view about the universe, but does not address human affairs. (Feyerabend's interest is in natural science, not human sciences.) Feyerabend canvasses religion and the artistic temperament as potential sources of a general picture, coming to the conclusion that there doesn't seem to be any all-encompassing framework and asking whether this matters. He then discusses some ancient Greek thinkers and the relevance of their ideas to these issues.
Some members of the audience expected Feyerabend to provide a framework for the critique of science, namely to spell out his approach. Feyerabend does not do this. Indeed, he states 'I shall not give you a "systematic" presentation' (12). He goes to some pains to explain why not. The absence of a clearly articulated framework can make it difficult for audience members to grasp Feyerabend's approach, because like most scholars they have been taught to think in terms of frameworks, systems, theories and the like. Feyerabend is not so much presenting a framework as demonstrating a way of dealing with frameworks.
Feyerabend ranges far and wide to make points, for example drawing on the poetry of Milosz and Xenophanes, as well as using examples from painting, drama, politics and engineering. If there is a common theme, it is against the privileging of theory. In most fields, theoreticians have more status. Feyerabend says that what theoreticians have to offer is really not all that useful unless combined with practical skills and insights. This view is not likely to endear him to philosophers, many of whom operate at the theoretical end of human experience.
Feyerabend's final lecture, with a long question-and-answer session, is especially illuminating about some of the issues that interest those who have followed Feyerabend's intellectual trajectory. In response to a questioner who asked what to do with a theory - decision theory under uncertainty, to be specific - that is interesting but clashes with observations, Feyerabend notes that he had once advocated using many points of view, in other words proliferating theory and method, as a means of making more discoveries. Now, he says he does not mean to interfere in the work of scientists, who 'have their own ways of doing things.' Instead, 'the only interference that counts is interference by the people on the spot' (126). This illustrates Feyerabend's opposition to privileging of theory.
In response to a question about his famous slogan 'anything goes,' Feyerabend explains that he really just means 'don't restrict your imagination' (130). This includes not being inhibited by logic, because many fruitful theories contain logical contradictions. With this clarification, Feyerabend is happy to adhere to his slogan.
Feyerabend is known for advocating an anarchist approach to knowledge. In response to a question about the subtitle of Against Method, Feyerabend says 'The whole thing is a joke. Look, it says "outline of an anarchist theory of knowledge". Now, what is anarchism? Disorder. What is theory? Order. Combining both is a Dadaist trick addressed to those anarchists who want to be anarchists and have a theory, too - an impossible understanding' (129-130).
Although anarchism is widely interpreted among the public and media as meaning disorder or chaos, among well-read anarchists it is understood as a political philosophy involving the collective, participatory organisation of society without rulers - a type of order, not disorder. Does Feyerabend not realise how anarchists understand anarchism, or is he playing an intricate game over the dual meanings of anarchism? Whatever the answer, one message is not to take Feyerabend too literally, and to loosen up and think for yourself.
University of Wollongong
NSW 2522, Australia
Thanks to Jerry Ravetz for valuable suggestions and to Paula Arvela and Kirsti Rawstron for helpful textual comments.
Brian Martin's book reviews
Brian Martin's publications on the critique of science
Brian Martin's publications
Brian Martin's website