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4 Facts About Feyerabend’s Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge

feyerabend anarchistic theory knowledge facts

 

Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend is sometimes referred to as the “enemy of science.” His oeuvre is forever associated with an Anarchist theory of knowledge and science—even though he favored the term dadaism to that of anarchism. Beyond labels, one finds a complicated individual deeply concerned with the unquestioned influence of science as a mode of knowledge. Here, we touch upon four facts and ideas that will hopefully invite some readers to further explore his writings.

 

1. Feyerabend’s Against Method Is a Letter to a Friend

feyerabend photograph sink
Paul Feyerabend, 2006, taken from Wikimedia Commons

 

Paul Feyerabend’s best-known book is Against Method, published in 1975. The initial pages contain a dedication: for Imre. Imre Lakatos was a Hungarian philosopher of science and mathematics whom he met when teaching at the London School of Economics (LSE). In his autobiography, Killing Time, Feyerabend says of Lakatos: “We differed in outlook, character, and ambition; yet we became really good friends.”

 

Lakatos used to attend Feyerabend’s lectures and vehemently discuss his ideas. Lakatos was a “rationalist of sorts (…) a crusader for reason, law, and order.” Feyerabend was the opposite. One time, having dodged a scholarly debate at a social event, Lakatos explained to those who noticed: “Don’t worry (…) Paul’s an anarchist.”

 

The idea of writing Against Method came from Lakatos. He approached Feyerabend during a party: “Why don’t you write up the stuff you are telling your poor students?” (…) I shall reply, and we’ll have lots of fun.” Beyond this being a simple and fun anecdote, the relationship between these two thinkers is at the center of Against Method.

 

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More than a book, Feyerabend regarded Against Method as “a letter to a friend” reflecting a long-lasting correspondence between 1967 and 1974. Yet, the reply never came due to Lakatos’s sudden death from a heart attack in February 1974. Feyerabend recalls: “I was devastated and quite angry when I heard that Imre had died. ‘How can you do that to me?’ I shouted at his shade.”

 

2. His Theory of Knowledge and Science was Inspired by J.S. Mill

feyerabend colour photograph
Feyerabend, Photograph by Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Feyerabend’s position about the philosophy of science goes against the idea of establishing epistemological prescriptions. These prescriptions would take the form of rules that tell scientists and researchers how science should be done, the steps and procedures that need to be accounted for, and the things that should be avoided. Instead, according to Feyerabend, the history of science is complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining. This is not an orderly deployment of logical ideas and discoveries.

 

This means that the nature of science cannot be accounted for by the “simple-minded rules of methodologists.” Beyond a factual claim about the history of science, Feyerabend also wants to defend the position that epistemological prescriptions are a straitjacket for science and creativity. He argues for a more “humanistic” attitude. This approach is supposed to account for the cultivation of the individual and allows for creativity. He is inspired by Stuart Mill’s political reflection in On Liberty.

 

js mill photography
John Stuart Mill by Sophus Williams, 1885, via Library of Congress.

 

In the second chapter of his book On Liberty, Mill writes about the liberty of thought and discussion. Mill advocates for intellectual freedom and the rejection of dogmatism. For him, any idea is worth considering and debating, and no proposition is on a pedestal. Ideas should never be immune to criticism.

 

Even those that turn out to be false are necessary for the growth of knowledge and, more importantly, for human formation. Refusing to consider several ways of understanding reality hinders progress and leaves us with “dead dogma,” not “living truth.” He writes: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

 

For the British philosopher, this entails that progress is related to a perpetual questioning of the things we take for granted. Although he mainly refers to the political realm, he also mentions some consequences of science: “If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” Feyerabend uses Mill’s arguments in favor of a pluralism of ideas to develop a more radical understanding of science.”

 

3. Feyerabend Believes There is No Universal Method or a Unified Science

allegory of science
Allegory of Science, François Rémond, late 18th century, via The Met

 

Having clarified the inspiration that Feyerabend takes from Mill, it is easier to grasp why he regards epistemological prescriptions as a straitjacket for science and creativity. In contrast, when the history of science is examined, it is clear that the only principle that does not inhibit progress is “anything goes.”

 

What he means is that there are no universal methodological rules that govern the growth of science. Every rule, he claims, has been disregarded at some point. Moreover, theories should not be kept as the ultimate truth. Alternative theories and hypotheses that go against established theories need to be considered, no matter how absurd they may appear at first.

 

When alternatives are not entertained, “the suspicion arises that this alleged success is due to the fact that the theory, when extended beyond its starting point, was turned into rigid ideology.” Feyerabend is following a similar argument to that of Mill. People stubbornly hold to ideas, often not because they have considered alternatives but because they are familiar with them. They are unable to recognize that their standpoint could be simply accidental.

 

For those who embrace dead dogma, it never troubles them that mere accident has decided the set of their beliefs and that under other circumstances, the same causes that make them “A churchman in London” would have made them “a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin.” Science has become ideology. Ideology here means the partisan unwillingness to dispute known theories.

 

thomas kuhn photograph
Thomas Kuhn in his house, photo taken by Buchwald in 1991, via Max Planck Research Library.

 

We can explain his epistemological anarchism by recalling Thomas Kuhn’s conception of the pre-paradigmatic and paradigmatic stages of science. The key difference is that in the paradigmatic stage (also referred to as normal science), the main methods, axioms, and valid questions of research have been accepted by the scientific community. In the pre-paradigmatic stage, in contrast, no consensus exists, only a set of competing theories.

 

Feyerabend believes that science should always consist of competing theories (in the pre-paradigmatic stage). For him, the proliferation of theories is beneficial to science, while uniformity impairs development. If theories are raised above doubt, then they become myths, and Nobel prize winners become priests. Once again, the so-called principle “anything goes” tries to highlight that there is not an idea or method, no matter how ancient or absurd, that should not be considered to improve our knowledge.

 

One can compare Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism with Kuhn’s pre-paradigmatic stage, only with a significant twist: the nature of those theories does not need to be scientific in the traditional sense; instead, he was immensely controversial by pointing out that the claims of science are on the same level as those of, for example, astrology or voodoo.

 

This is why Feyerabend defends the disunity of science, the pre-paradigmatic stage (to use Kuhn’s terminology). The disunity of science is a call for heterogeneity. He argues that any method that encourages uniformity is “a method of deception.”

 

4. Feyerabend’s Epistemological Anarchism Has Some Political Implications

nobel prize medallion
Nobel Prize medal, via Encyclopædia Britannica

 

Feyerabend’s epistemological theory extends to his political and social thought. For him, if science is no longer presented as a unified worldview with inner rationality, then its supremacy above other forms of knowledge is unwarranted.

 

In his book Science in a Free Society, he asserts that “the assumption of the inherent superiority of science has moved beyond science and has become an article of faith for almost everyone.”

 

He controversially observed that scientific theories are not submitted to a vote. The ideas of Copernicus are accepted “not because Copernicus was put up for a vote, discussed democratically, and voted in with a simple majority” but rather because “the scientists are Copernicans and because one accepts their cosmology as uncritically as one once accepted the cosmology of bishops and of cardinals.”

 

This is a sign of alarm for Feyerabend because if science is left unchallenged, it can become dead dogma. In any case, it is equally tricky to imagine science as a matter of democracy. In which sense should ideas or theories be voted for? Maybe it is for suggestions like this that he was labeled by some as the “enemy of science” or an “anti-science philosopher.”

 

Such labels only simplify the reality of an insightful body of work. In a great interview with the American science journalist John Horgan, when he asked Feyerabend about his position, he replied, “I have no position!”. As Horgan believes, what was really behind Feyerabend’s ideas was a healthy suspicion toward the unquestioned superiority of science compared to other modes of knowledge. In any case, this is something each reader of his work would have to decide for herself. What does seem to be true is that, despite the backlash from the scientific community, as promised by Imre Lakatos, he had plenty of fun writing about it.

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