I want to talk about a short dialogue between Joachim Jung and Paul Feyerabend that was published in the memorial volume “THE WORST ENEMY OF SCIENCE?: Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend”. The dialogue took place in Feyerabend’s last days, when he was hospitalised with an inoperable brain tumor, with the left side of his body entirely paralysed. He had only two weeks to live. The text is quite short, only ten pages long (p159-168). Aside from the two interlocutors (Feyerabend and Jung) Feyerabend’s wife (Grazia Borrini Feyerabend) was present, but does not intervene in the interview, except once. Though she she does not take part in the discussion her presence is of prime importance for situating the dialogue in the context of light and of love that Feyerabend saw as characterising the final phase of his life, with Grazia:
“Grazia is with me in the hospital, which is a great joy, and she fills the room with light” (KILLING TIME, p181).
We know in fact from KILLING TIME that Feyerabend died peacefully in his hospital bed holding hands with Grazia on February 11, 1994 (at just over 70 years of age), after more than a week of morphine-induced coma. So this dialogue, which took place on January 27, 1994, was very close to the end. Thus it truly was, as Deleuze and Guattari formulate such an event in the life of a philosopher, “a moment of grace between life and death” (WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, p1) where Feyerabend expresses himself with “sobriety” and “a sovereign freedom” on the question “What is it that I have been doing all my life?”. Deleuze and Guattari claim that such sobriety and freedom are attained, if at all, only towards the end of life “with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely” (p1).
[Note: this "speaking concretely" is also described by them as the attainment of a "nonstyle". I think that this explains my initial reaction to this Last Interview and to Feyerabend's autobiography KILLING TIME. I found them disappointing, almost boring. It took me much time and many detours to see the abundance (conceptual and affective, intellectual and existential) that they contain.]
Feyerabend often claimed that he was not a philosopher, and that he had no philosophy (cf. p162: “I do not have a philosophy, I have lots of opinions”). So it is interesting to see that one of his last conscious public acts – bed-ridden, paralysed and dying of a brain tumor – was to give an interview on his views on philosophy. The least we can say is that he gives a lot of importance to the question of philosophy and to his stance of dis-identification with this category, as with all categories. In the course of the interview he talks about death and disfigurement as facts of life, of people in hospitals being kept barely alive and of the decision to pull the plug or not: “This is something you have to think about” (p166). It is clear that Feyerabend has thought about it, and that in engaging in this dialogue he is doing exactly what he wants. The interview is an expression of his “sovereign freedom”.
“Freedom” is one of the main themes of the dialogue. Feyerabend emphasises that he was very “fortunate” to have been free not just to think whatever he liked but to publish and teach his ideas with the same freedom:
“Ideas are free everywhere. Publication is the problem….I taught in Berkeley…and I could say whatever I wanted…I was completely free…Also, in Switzerland, when I came here to the ETH…I could practically do what I wanted” (p160). This freedom is not just a primary personal value for Feyerabend but is essential for research in any domain. He quotes Niels Bohr as saying: “When you do research you cannot be tied down by any rule, not even the rule of noncontradiction. One must have complete freedom” (p162). This primacy of freedom over logic and arguments came to him in a dialogue with von Weizsäcker. It embodies one of the most important philosophical conversions in Feyerabend’s life.
Feyerabend tells us the story of this conversion in several places. It occurred in 1965 in Hamburg in von Weizsäcker’s seminar. Feyerabend was at the height of his “pluralist” phase. He defended at this time his own philosophical synthesis, which tried to specify a general methodology not just for the sciences but also for the arts. So Feyerabend had a philosophy in 1965: philosophical pluralism. He was a rationalist and a pluralist, committed to finding “general rules that would cover all cases and non-scientific developments as well”. (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, p117). According to Feyerabend: “My arguments were excellent. But von Weizsäcker gave a historical account of the rise of quantum theory and this was much richer and more rewarding and I realised that what I was talking about was just a dream” (p162).
This realisation concerned not so much the arguments themselves, as Feyerabend conserved them but put them to a different use. He no longer tried to impose general rules, but he did not advocate the pure and simple abandon of rules. He used his arguments to expand the repertoire of accepted rules, and to argue for the reseacher’s complete freedom with respect to all rules:
“Today the same arguments are offered with a very different purpose in mind, and they lead to a very different result…All attempts to revive traditions that were pushed aside and eliminated in the course of the expansion of Western culture…run into an impenetrable stone wall of rationalistic phrases and prejudices. I try to show that there are no arguments to support this wall and that some principles implicit in science definitely favour its removal” (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, p144-145).
Thus when Feyerabend concludes in the interview that “excellent arguments don’t count when you want to deal with something which is as rich as nature, or other human beings” (p162), he is slightly overstating his case. Excellent arguments don’t count when you want to impose general rules on research or on life. The important thing is the purpose of the arguments (freedom or servitude) and the attitude. Feyerabend declares that he had a rationalist attitude up to his dialogue with von Weizsäcker, “when I suddenly realized how barren such an attitude is in the face of concrete research” (SFS, p144).
This abandon of the rationalist attitude had effects on Feyerabend’s thinking and research, but also on his teaching and his life. He began to give more importance to feeling and to the concrete details of life. Indeed, the rationalist “de-conversion” was just as much an affective experience as an intellectual one:
“For the first time I felt, I did not merely think about, the poverty of abstract philosophical reasoning” (KILLING TIME, p141).