Paul Karl Feyerabend (January 13, 1924 - February 11, 1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science, who later lived in England, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, and finally Switzerland. His major works include Against Method (published in 1975), Science in a Free Society (published in 1978) and Farewell to Reason (a collection of papers published in 1987). Feyerabend became famous for his anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He is an influential figure in the philosophy of science, and also in the sociology of scientific knowledge.
Paul Feyerabend was born in 1924 in Vienna where he attended primary school and high school. In this period he got into the habit of reading a lot, developed an interest in theatre, and started singing lessons. When he graduated 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 Quelerne en Bas , (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 joined the army and volunteered for officer school. In his autobiography, he wrote 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. After the German army started its retreat from the advancing Red army, Feyerabend was hit by three bullets while directing traffic. It turned out that one of the bullets had hit him in the spine. As a consequence of this, he needed to walk with a stick for the rest of his life and frequently experienced severe pains. He spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries.
When the war was over, Feyerabend first got a temporary job in Apolda in which he wrote pieces for the theatre. After that, he took various classes at the Weimar Academy , and returned to Vienna to study History and Sociology. He got dissatisfied however, and soon transferred to Physics, where he met Felix Ehrenhaft, a physicist whose experiments would influence his later views on the nature of science. Feyerabend changed the subject of his study to philosophy and submitted his final thesis on observation sentences. In his autobiography, he described his philosophical views during this time as "staunchly empiricist". In 1948 he visited the first meeting of the international summer seminar of the Austrian College Society in Alpbach. This was the place where Feyerabend first met Karl Popper, who had a large influence on his later works, first in a positive, but later in a negative way. In 1951, Feyerabend was granted a British Council scholarship to study under Wittgenstein. However, 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 much by Popper: "I had fallen for [Popper's ideas]". After that, Feyerabend returned to Vienna and was involved in various projects. He wrote a German translation of Karl Popper's Open Society and its Enemies, 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, England, where he gave lectures about the Philosophy of science. Later in his life he worked as a lecturer in Berkeley, Auckland, Sussex, Yale, London and Berlin. 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. This position was incompatible with the contemporary rationalistic culture in the philosophy of science. At the London School of Economics, Feyerabend met another student of Popper, Imre Lakatos. They planned to write a dialogue volume, to be titled For and Against Method, in which Lakatos would defend a rationalist view of science and Feyerabend would attack it. Lakatos' sudden death in 1974 put an end to this planned joint publication. Despite this, Feyerabend wrote the critique, which is a mainly a collage of articles that he wrote earlier. Against Method became a famous criticism of current philosophical views of science and provoked many reactions. One reason for this may be that Feyerabend enjoyed using inflammatory and direct language. There is passion and energy in his writings unequaled by other philosophers of science. In his autobiography, he reveals that this came at great cost to himself. Following the initial reviews of Against Method in 1975, which were overwhelmingly negative, he fell into a deep 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?"
Despite this, Feyerabend continued to defend his controversial philosophical position, and travelled incessantly. He had moved to UC Berkeley in California in 1958 and become a US citizen. Following temporary assignments at London, Berlin, and Yale, he lectured at the University of Auckland, New Zealand in 1972 and 1974, always returning to California. Feyerabend later enjoyed alternating between posts in Zurich and Berkeley through the 1980s but left Berkeley for good in October of 1989, first to Italy, then finally to Zurich. After his retirement in 1991, Feyerabend continued to publish frequent papers and worked on his autobiography. He died in 1994 at home in Zurich from a brain tumor.
Work regarding the nature of scientific method
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 an attitude 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.
Feyerabend's position is generally seen as extreme 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. It 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 showed that all common prescriptive rules of science are violated in such circumstances. 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 be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the older theory. 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 na´ve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Feyerabend uses several examples, but 'renormalization' in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style: "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" (AM p. 61). Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that scientists not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods. Instead, he is arguing that such methods are essential to the progress of science for several reasons. One of these reasons is that 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 until they could justify their assumptions 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 changing ideas about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated Galileo had to make use of 'ad hoc' methods and proceed counter-inductively. 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.
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. Thus Feyerabend proposes that science might proceed best not by induction, but by counterinduction.
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 also thought that the possibility of incommensurability, a situation where scientific theories cannot be compared directly because they are based on incompatible assumptions, could also prevent the use of general standards for establishing the quality of scientific theories. He wrote that "it is hardly ever possible to give an explicit definition of [incommensurability]" (AM, 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 Against Method Feyerabend claimed that Imre Lakatos' 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".
Work regarding the role of science in society
Feyerabend described science as being essentially anarchistic, being obsessed with its own mythology, and 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. In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology, even though it started as a liberating movement. Feyerabend thought that society should be protected from being influenced too much by science, just as it is protected from other ideologies.
Starting from the assumption that an ahistorical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argued 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. He envisioned a 'free society' in which 'all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power'. 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 completely 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. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be 'rationalistic' is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.
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.
Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)
- Science in a Free Society (1978)
- Farewell to Reason (1987)
- Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991)
- Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend (1995)
- Conquest of Abundance : A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being (1999)
- Realism, Rationalism and Scientific Method: Philosophical papers, Volume 1 (1981)
- Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (1981)
- Knowledge, Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3 (1999)