Paul Feyerabend: Against Method

The Philosopher of Science Who Mocked Scientific Dogmatism and Challenged Science's Right to Teach Evolution...

Another look at an outstanding - even if occasionally hard to read - 1970s book




(This is a review of the 2010 edition of Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend. Originally published in 1975, this is the fourth edition. This is the paperback version of just under 300 pages, with an Introduction from Ian Hacking, and published by Verso of London and New York. ISBN: 13: 978-1-84467-442-8).


P aul Feyerabend (1924-1994), had a brilliant mind. The philosopher of science was obviously au fait not only with that discipline, and with all associated areas of science and philosophy, but also with the arts, theatre in particular, politics and even theology. He was an amazingly alert, flexible and, at times, quite dazzling thinker, so much so, that it could be difficult for us lesser mortals to keep up with him!

I have recently set myself the somewhat herculean task of again looking at his famous (though often difficult and uncompromising to read), 1975 book, Against Method. But first, a little more about Paul:


Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

A former German army World War II soldier, Feyerabend became a notable philosopher and one who felt a mission to tackle what he saw as the growing arrogance of modern science. He was appalled that the scientific establishment were starting to present their work as the only truth, or only path of meaningful discovery.

Paul Feyerabend lived at various times in Austria, the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and finally in Switzerland. His major works include Against Method (published in 1975), Science in a Free Society (published in 1978) and Farewell to Reason (published in 1987). He became famous for his so-called anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. Feyerabend believed that modern science should take a long, hard look at itself. What right does modern science have to be seen as the setter and final arbiter of the physical rules of life? What right does it have to reject well-established traditions in a most cavalier manner, or to present itself as 'the way of truth' which it then depicts as a purely scientific enterprise? For sure, Feyerabend made many scientists very uncomfortable with his challenge to their often imperialistic and dogmatic elitism.

Born an Austrian, during the Second World War he served as an officer in the German army on the Eastern Front, later being decorated with an Iron Cross. After the German army started its retreat from the advancing Russians, Feyerabend was hit by three bullets whilst 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.

Passionately interested in the theatre, he was influenced by the Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht and was invited by Brecht to be his assistant at the East Berlin State Opera but he turned down the offer. He later returned to Vienna to study history and sociology. He became dissatisfied, however, and soon transferred to physics. Around this time he met Felix Ehrenhaft, a physicist whose experiments would influence his later views on the nature of science. But his first full academic appointment was in Bristol, England, where he became a lecturer on the philosophy of science. Many other appointments followed and Karl Popper was a strong early influence.

For Paul Feyerabend, modern science could never be above challenge and, as an example, he saw evolutionism and creationism as just opposing cultural beliefs - neither of them being 'science' in any meaningful sense. He did not believe that scientists had the knowledge nor even the methodology to assume that it's evolutionary view was exclusively right and that creationists were just plain wrong. He 'threw the cat among the scientific pigeons' in many other ways too. Unfairly branded as "science's greatest enemy," the irony is that he loved the discipline of science but hated its numerous assumptions being presented as 'science.' For Feyerabend, a purer science was possible and preferable but much of its constructed elitist edifice needed to be dismantled first. This obviously led to him being seen as a threat to the 'scientific' establishment status quo, but how many such critics even properly read him or understood him?

His 1975 book, Against Method, challenged established modern science in many areas. I have recently read the revised, fourth edition 2010 paperback version from Verso publishers. This is a book of a little under 300 pages, substantially divided into twenty sections. The writer's opening words are, "Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise..." and this sets the tone for Feyerabend's critique. I read this book with keen interest but must confess that I frequently could not keep up with the fluent and obviously quite dazzling intellect of Feyerabend; this is indeed a 'hard read' quite a lot of the time, yet worth persevering with where one can.

Feyerabend believed that modern science had lived in its own unchallenged ivory tower for much too long and needed to look again at itself, its assumptions and methodologies. Many of us would agree with all of that. The writer states,

"My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits." (p. 16).

He also states (and this point serves as a preface to his section five),

"There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo." (p. 27).

Such adventurous and risky talk is what started to frighten the scientific establishment when faced with Feyerabend's challenges. But he was right. Modern science has tended to build an unassailable tower of 'superior knowledge' elitism. It does not easily submit itself to new theories which might challenge or underpin its main foundations. Even worse, just as Feyerabend predicted, it now increasingly presents its 'knowledge base' as a sort of ultimate truth. This is especially clear in the various claims of Richard Dawkins. In an interview on Dutch radio (source: noorderlicht.vpro.nl/wetenschap/smil/audioparts.sram?3626936+3300397+15336282+16649744+17626147), note the following quote:

"...When asked why it was so important for him to be convincing people about his evolutionary 'science' as 'the only truth,' Dawkins replied, 'Because it's so beautiful - it's such a magnificent thing to live in the universe and to understand the universe in which you live, to be a part of life and to understand the life of which you are a part, to understand why you were born before you have to die... And it's so sad that people go to their grave without understanding why they were born in the first place.'

Here Dawkins indeed presents evolutionary theory as a sort of ultimate truth and the meaning of life. Such arrogance coming from the scientific establishment was exactly what aroused the anger of Feyerabend. That is for science to go beyond its scope. Indeed, that is not science, it is plainly philosophy.

Feyerabend also takes time out in this book to question the modern science 'take' on Galileo versus the Church. The usual 'take' is wide of the mark, presenting Galileo in a most favourable light and as being unjustly persecuted by the Roman Church. The truth is slightly different:

"The trial of Galileo was one of many trials. It had no special features except perhaps that Galileo was treated rather mildly, despite his lies and attempts at deception. But a small clique of intellectuals aided by scandal-hungry writers succeeded in blowing it up to enormous dimensions so that what was basically an altercation between an expert and an institution defending a wider view of things now looks almost like a battle between heaven and hell." (p. 127).

For a fuller view of the truth about the Church's supposed persecution of Galileo, go here: Was Galileo Really Persecuted by the Church?

By the time we reach section 17 of this book, Feyerabend is prepared to boldly state certain clear facts:

"Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding." (p. 223).

Rationality, naturalism, flawed methodology, these are all the targets of the writer, yet the criticism that he teaches an 'anything goes in science' gospel is not justified.

Towards the end of this generally absorbing, though frequently difficult, book Paul Feyerabend becomes more pointed in his attacks:

"...all we can say is that scientists proceed in many different ways, that rules of method, if mentioned explicitly, are either not obeyed at all, or function at most like rules of thumb...the idea that 'scientific knowledge' is in some way peculiarly positive and free from differences of opinion is nothing but a chimaera." [chimaera: A fanciful mental illusion or a fabrication]. (p. 253).

"...What's so great about science?....For what the general public seems to assume is that the achievements they read about in the educational pages of their newspapers and the threats they seem to perceive come from a single source and are produced by a uniform procedure. They know that biology is different from physics which is different from geology. But these disciplines, it is assumed, arise when 'the scientific way' is applied to different topics; the scientific way itself, however, remains the same...[but] scientific practice is much more diverse..." (p. 258).

So, as Feyerabend explains, science has not progressed by applying a so-called 'scientific way' across a broad front at all, and while 'modern science' invariably presents a unified 'only what is proven' front, this really is no more than a facade for the masses. The reality is that modern science is perfectly happy to contravene all known and established laws of science in the pursuance of a theoretical approach. Moreover, it is a myriad of often overly politically-motivated interests which jostle for the best position. The public has the image of countless 'white coat' experiments being endlessly conducted until evidence on any issue becomes too strong to ignore, this always being conducted in an utterly neutral and non-political manner. This, however, is simply not the way that science works. It also proceeds in a narrow tunnel of naturalism in which no outside influences are allowed entry. For Feyerabend - and others who have carefully looked at the behaviour of modern science, or scientism, such a narrow approach is not only unhealthy but positively dangerous. He was especially angry at the arrogant way in which 'science' quickly rejects any insights or attitudes of compassion from the humanities and from a nation's culture, insisting that it should stand alone as being considered the leading light into knowledge, further insight and discovery; the implication here is that there can only be one methodology for human progress, that being a narrow, naturalistic one. Pilate famously asked, 'What is truth?' - science now insists that the way into further truth for the human race can only be a scientific enterprise. Moreover, governments across the world are acquiescing in this.

Paul Feyerabend did not teach that 'anything goes' in science but he did reject that certain single-minded arrogance in which certain leading scientists insist that latest theories were/are beyond any outside challenge. He insisted - and surely we should all agree - that science has no merits above culture, religion or the arts and that it is folly to place it upon a grandiose pedestal of elitism. In this, Paul Feyerabend was surely correct.

If modern science had proceeded in the way that Feyerabend suggests, it would not have slammed the door on any non-naturalistic perceptions and insights and would have been open to the teaching of Genesis 1-3. Its naturalistic methodology should not have been seen as an end in itself. As things stand, the world of science (by and large) has not only closed the door on any possibility of divine creation, but is often prepared to ridicule and pour scorn on those who believe in it. It has constructed a narrow one-dimensional tunnel for itself and refuses to think and reason outside of the box.

Paul Feyerabend was not right about everything but he did perceive - brilliantly so - that modern science was nearing the end of its naturalistic 'rope' and now needed to employ different, non-naturalistic methodologies.
Robin A. Brace. September 12th, 2011.

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