This is part of a 15 minute presentation I did on Paul Feyerabend. It's mostly about his relation to science, and his 'epistemological anarchism'

Science, State, Self: Situating Epistemological Anarchism

(or, How Paul Feyerabend Dances the Soft Shoe...)


What is Feyerabend’s problem with science? It seems that his biggest problem is with its smugness. The attitude that, “Yes, we know are the only ones that know the answers, and we will share them with you, only if you accept our ways.” (like missionaries handing out food or blankets in exchange for conversions) This attitude contains three assumptions:

1. It assumes that science has exclusive access to ‘the answers’ or ‘the Truth’

2. Therefore, the state (whose goal is defined as finding and following the truth) should indoctrinate its citizens in science

3. And, those that disagree (those who are worse off, crazier, backwards, and just plain wrong) should be ignored/ridiculed

Feyerabend challenges all three of these assumptions. Science and (importantly) rationalist reconstructions/interpretations of science (Popper, et al) assume that science has exclusive access to the truth about the world because (unlike other epistemological systems) it:

a) Has a rational method, that functions to guarantee the objectivity of its results.

b) And that it, exclusively, produces useful results.

“A” assumes that there is in fact a method that underlies all history of science and that it is rational. But, Feyerabend thinks, for every method proposed, we are able to find key (and numerous) counter examples that cannot fit into it.

For example against naïve inductionism (which states that science functions by collecting facts and then inducing irrefutable theories from them) he uses the ‘arguments’ of Galileo. Galileo (who is often seen as an excellent example inductive reasoning) is shown to have used irrational, rhetorical arguments, which could not be simply induced from the facts at hand. Feyerabend discusses this in great detail in his Against Method. Feyerabend quotes Galileo as saying:

“I am (indeed) unwilling to compress philosophical doctrines into the most narrow kind of space and to adopt that stiff, concise, graceless manner, that manner bare of any adornment which pure geometricians call their own, not uttering a single word that has not been given to them by strict necessity… I do not regard it as a fault to talk about many diverse things, even in those treatises which have only a single topic … for I believe that what gives grandeur, nobility, and excellence to our deeds and inventions does not lie in what is necessary – though the absence of it would be a great mistake – but what is not…” AM 55

From here Feyerabend moves on to discuss (in chapters 6 and 7 of his AM) the role of rhetoric in Galileo’s work, rhetoric that was irrational but still convincing. Feyerabend argues that without Galileo’s trickster-ism he would not have been able to push his ideas into popular acceptance. For Feyerabend, Galileo was more like a scientifically minded con artist than a rational scientist.

He also argues against Popper and falsificationism (which states that theories change only after they have been falsified by anomalies. When an anomaly pops up, the theory is immediately discounted). Feyerabend says we can see clearly enough that Newtonian mechanics, though ridden with anomalies, took a very long time to get rid of them. And then even when it could not get rid of the anomalies, it took a long time to die off. And, really it is still around except in special cases (at speeds approaching the speed of light and on very small scales). If a theory actually was immediately discarded when an anomaly popped up, Newtonian mechanics would have died a youthful death.

Feyerabend states as much:

“Methodologists may point to the importance of falsifications – but they blithely use falsified theories; they may sermonize how important it is to consider all the relevant evidence, and never mention those big and drastic facts which show that the theories they admire and accept may be as badly off as the older theories which they reject. In practice they slavishly repeat the most recent pronouncements of the top dogs in physics, though in doing so they must violate some very basic rules of their trade.” AM 50-51

He uses the Copernican theory as a key example of this. If an anomalous theory (which does not fit with present facts) is automatically rejected, then how could Copernicus ever get anywhere with his theory? A theory which not only did not fit with some facts, but contradicted almost every accepted theory of the day, including common sense! Popper simply cannot explain cases like this!

There are a lot more examples, applying to different aspects of different rationalist projects, but you get the point. In effect, Feyerabend takes the stance that no ‘rule’ (or rational method) can apply to all historical cases. Hence, the idea that some sort of coherent scientific method can justify the supremacy of science over all other epistemological systems is without basis. There simply is no scientific method.

His problem with (b) the idea that only science produces useful results is that it assumes that only the things which science calls ‘results’ are TRUE results. Under this view, saving ‘souls’ (which are not scientific objects) would not count as a result. Thus, science’s lack of ability to save souls, and certain religions’ ability to, does not indicate that science is lacking results which religion can provide. The absurd begging of the question is pretty obvious here. It is obvious that there are certain things that science can do that other systems can’t, but it is equally obvious (to Feyerabend) that there are things (a lot of things) that science can’t do that other systems can. Here he brings up a variety of examples, acupuncture, magic, etc.

So, to recap: Science (and rationalist reconstructions of it) argue the following:

1. Science is legitimate in its supremacy over other systems because it:

a) Has a unique, unified method which guarantees objectivity and ‘truth’

b) It exclusively provides tangible, and useful results

From 1 it follows that

2. The state should teach science uncritically because it is the one true way.


3. People who reject science should be ridiculed/ignored (and their opinions seen as invalid or unable to critically engage science. See: Creationism vs. Darwinian evolution)

>So, if 1 is shown to be false (as both a and b have been, by Feyerabend) then it follows that 2 and 3 should be at least reevaluated.

What follows is Feyerabend’s reevaluation of 2 and 3, which is to say, his reevaluation of the role of science in relation to the state, and in relation to the self.

The State

I’m going to characterize the Feyerabendian state as very much like the sort of state that John Stuart Mill envisioned. Feyerabend describes two kinds of exchange between people: the ‘guided exchange’ and the ‘open exchange’.

A guided exchange presupposes that the participants are from the same sort of background; that they are all scientists, or all witches, etc. They have the same ‘tradition’ and have generally been educated in the same way. In this type of debate, one cannot participate unless one has been indoctrinated into the particular tradition. It is like a Shriner’s convention, if you aren’t a Shriner, and don’t know what Shriner’s are about, then you can’t participate. This is how Feyerabend sees the current practice of governments and educational institutions in the Western world. And the ‘tradition’ we need to take part in, in order to participate, is that of scientific rationality.

Feyerabend thinks that the state ought to be more like an open exchange, which he defines as:

“…guided by a pragmatic philosophy. The tradition adopted by the parties is unspecified in the beginning and develops as the exchange goes along. The participants get immersed into each others’ way of thinking, feeling, perceiving to such an extent that their ideas, perceptions, world views may be entirely changed – they become different people participating in a new and different tradition. An open exchange respects the partner whether he is an individual, or an entire culture while a rational exchange promises respect only within the framework of a rational debate. An open exchange has no organon though it may invent one, there is no logic, though forms of logic may emerge in its course” SFS 29-30.

So, we can see here that his relativism in the realm of scientific change is reflected in his political philosophy as well. As I interpret it, Feyerabend’s characterization of science as one of many equally valid systems is the jumping off point for his political agenda, one that coincides with a version of Mill’s libertarianism. His is a thoroughly pragmatic system that is based, not on a systematized logic, but the attempt to achieve consensus through pressure free discussion. I would just like to further strengthen the comparison between Feyerabend and Mill by quoting Mill’s essay On Liberty:

“Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance to public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power would be justified in silencing mankind.” Mill 21

Essentially, Mill is proposing the same kind of forum that Feyerabend is. All opinions, no matter their majority or minority, should be heard. No one person, and no group (for Feyerabend the biggest such group is the scientific-state) has any sort of ‘right’ to silence anyone, or make a value judgment on any opinion (or system) no matter how absurd it may seem from their perspective.

The Self

After seeing what sort of political system Feyerabend wants, what sort of individual philosophy would he espouse given that political system? It seems that his personal beliefs can also be connected closely to both his political system and his characterization of science.

Feyerabend has defined his stance epistemological anarchism, which he separates from political anarchism. He states that:

“While the political anarchist wants to remove a certain form of life, the epistemological anarchist may want to defend it, for he has no everlasting loyalty to any institution and any ideology. Like the Dadaist (whom he resembles in many respects) he ‘not only has no programme, he is against all programmes’” For and Against Method.

So, like his political philosophy, his individual philosophical stance is one of anti-systematic relativism. Like the Feyerabendian state, the Feyerabendian individual can, and should, examine (and even hold) contradictory, and various different views of the world. The individual should not let himself become absolutely dedicated to a particular programme because, as we have seen through his examination of science, no one programme can ‘truly’ describe the world. All forms of life and systems have certain things to offer, the goal of the individual is to explore the interesting possibilities peculiar to each of them. Thus, while science may hold the attention of some epistemological anarchists (as it does for Feyerabend) it may be irrelevant to the project of another. Similarly with all epistemologies: they may or may not be of interest to the epistemological anarchist. A version of this epistemological anarchism is reflected in more recent work by pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty thinks that only in realizing the fact that our own worldviews (which he calls ‘final vocabularies’) are contingent, can we truly begin to build a project of self-creation. Rather than attempting to provide explanations for the world around us, and make them ‘absolute’ (as philosophers from Plato to Popper have attempted) we should create our own descriptions of the world as we see it, pulling in elements from systems created by others to aid in our own project.

A few references:

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method, Verso, 1988 1975 New York. Referred to in the text as AM
Feyerabend, Paul. Science in a Free Society, New Left Books, 1978, London referred to in the text as SFS.
Paul Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos, For and Against Method, edited by Paul Feyerabend and Matteo Motterlini (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999). (Feyerabend's correspondence with Imre Lakatos, and a previously unpublished essay by Lakatos the correspondence is hilarious.)

Other 'philosophy of science'-esque nodes:

Imre Lakatos
How Science Undergoes Changes of Theory
The Strong Programme
Thomas Kuhn
Normal Science
Logical Postivism
Philosophy of Science
Descriptive and Prescriptive Philosophy of Science
All Swans Are White
Philosophy of Science and Certainty
Philosophical Interpretations of Quantum Chaos