Editor's note: This post in the fourth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post is here, and the following post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook. In republishing them here on the blog, we have omitted posts on three philosophers who have been the subjects of PEL podcasts: W.V.O. Quine, Karl Popper, and Thomas Kuhn. Readers who want the whole story are encouraged to listen to those podcasts and read the discussions they engendered.
“Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.”
Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) was an Austrian philosopher of science who advocated an anarchic and utilitarian approach to methodology. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht out of high school (1942), and spent most of the war as part of a (non-combat) pioneer battalion. However, as the fighting intensified toward the end he saw more combat, and was rapidly promoted through the ranks. He earned the Iron Cross for valor and finished the war a major, but he also took a bullet in the spine (1945) that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. After the war he entered university, studying theater, singing, astronomy, and philosophy (under Karl Popper.) This unusually eclectic background left him in a unique position to argue for the unique brand of cross-disciplinary anarchism that made his reputation. He accepted an appointment to UC-Berkeley in the late 50’s, where he spent the rest of his career.
In the early 70’s Feyerabend and his friend Imre Lakatos agreed to write two halves of a book, titled “For and Against Method.” Feyerabend wrote his half, Against Method (1975), but Lakatos died unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage in 74, and the other half never appeared. Expanding on Kuhn, Feyerabend argued that the standard account of science – as an orderly, rational, methodical process – is a “fairy tale.” In practice, science is a messy business. Galileo, for instance, would be disqualified as a scientist on any rational model. He did not test hypotheses or perform experiments in order to decide between the geocentric and heliocentric theories – he looked at the data, decided which theory was right, and afterwards refrained from nothing in order to make his case. He ignored, misinterpreted, and mishandled the evidence when it suited him, and didn’t think a low ad hominem or two was beneath his dignity. Nonetheless, his achievement was undoubtedly real. Far from being an extrinsic element to an otherwise orderly process, Feyerabend argued that this messiness is essential to creativity. The appearance of orderliness is imposed after the fact, by a selective interpretation of history, for essentially ideological reasons.
According to Feyerabend, the lesson we should draw from this is that messiness is good, because it is conducive to creativity. Instead of trying to impose a method from the top down, or dividing up the academy into artificially separated disciplines – scientists, scholars, musicians, artists, poets, priests, witch doctors – everyone should be encouraged to select the method that seems best to them. There are no correct methods – only useful insights. Similarly, there is no answer to the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science, for it is no problem at all, and there is nothing unique to demarcate from anything else. “The events, procedures, and results that constitute the sciences,” he said, “have no common structure.” The myth of science as an epistemically privileged activity is just that – a myth. The technological marvels and universe-spanning theories that surround us are not the products of a uniquely privileged mode of inquiry, but of a joint creative effort in which all creative people can and have participated in.
<em>This post previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life Facebook page.</em>
Daniel David says
Thanks for the post. I’ve been reading The Tyranny of Science lately (posthumously titled, I believe), and it’s fascinating stuff. His playful approach and conspicuous lack of dogma are really refreshing. Hopefully the PEL guys will pick him out for an episode at some point.
Feyerabend… Yes, please.
TJ Downing says
He sounds like a really interesting guy. I need to read more about his philosophy.
Daniel, I noticed you linked to a Marxist site on Feyerabend. Do you see a connection between Marxism and Postmodernist types?