Response to Patrick Heelan: Individuation, Special Worlds, Stupidity, and Openness

Patrick Heelan made a eulogious comment on this blog here:

« Enthralling! Excellent theatre!
A lesson in learning by becoming the teacher; or better – by sharing the life of the teacher in the teacher’s world. Schroedinger had this way of bringing his students into his own world at the level of the science which he taught. He did not challenge the students, as it were to test their competence, he wanted his students to enjoy the beauty of what he was teaching and he presumed that the students shared this vision. »

I was enthralled, and immediately began a reply, which I never finished and so never posted. This is unfortunate, and in the spirit of Feyerabendian « self-correction » (see below) I completed it today:


Yes, sharing the world of the teacher is a transformative and enriching experience. Feyerabend has been my teacher (or educator, in the sense that Nietzsche speaks of « Schopenhauer as Educator) since I first read the essay version of « Against Method » in 1972. I was amazed and inspired, and also, I think, definitively ruined as far as classical analytic philosophy goes. At first not many people knew about Feyerabend, and those that did thought he was crazy, though I suspect that not many of these had bothered to read him. Reading him implies apprehending his world, and not just cherry-picking jokes, slogans, theses, concepts, arguments. Finding and entering his world should have been easy as, despite Feyerabend’s repeated affirmations that abstract discussion didn’t interest him and that the important thing was the concrete historical case studies, these case studies usually occupy only a third of his text at most. So if the rest is not « abstract discussion » what is it? This is where he presents contextually the world in which the arguments and case-studies take their full sense. It is in terms of the world projected that meaningful dialogue can take place. This is why Feyerabend found that most debates and discussions were a waste of time, « silly », as there is no shared world to give them sense, and very often no coherent world at all.

An excellent example of this can be seen in the difference between SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY (SFS) and its German « version », ERKENNTNIS FÜR FREIE MENSCHEN (EFFM), which amounts in fact to a completely different book. In effect, a cursory glance at both shows us that whereas nearly half of SFS is occupied by the last part of the book, « Part Three: Conversations with Illiterates », pages 125-219. This is perhaps my least favorite of Feyerabend’s  books, in some respects, because of the repetions, the sometimes hectoring tone, the presence of a certain quantity of seemingly untransmuted negativity.If we look at EFFM we can recognise a certain similarity, and large chunks that are the same as in SFS, or only slightly rewritten. But the book itself is nearly a third longer (300 pages), despite the fact that the conversations with illiterates has been shrunk to a single synthetic chapter in part 1 (Erster Teil, Kapitel 7: « Sonntagsleser, Analphabeten und Propagandisten », p100-109), less than nine and a half pages, leaving all the more space for the positive elaboration of his ideas.

Yet there are some amazing things in the replies in SFS that have gone virtually unnoticed, and that I would like to develop someday (when I finally talk about Feyerabend’s early and late ontologies, and about his philosophy in a possible world where Popper never existed). Feyerabend was clearly unsatisfied, as he cut almost all of that out in the German edition. He explains that this activity of replying to critics forced him into the enunciative position of having « something to say », a definite and unambiguous position to defend. He could no longer go on like the ancient Greeks « who seemed to live in a special and self-contained world » (KILLING TIME, p140).  The result was at the professional level a set of unsatisfying responses to criticism (he was no longer speaking in his own name and in his own style) and at the personal level a lingering depression. All this is from pages 144-148 of his autobiography, KILLING TIME.

I think that in this passage Feyerabend was being too hard on himself. In his preface to SFS he acknowledges some positive points to these replies. First, as I have already hinted, these pieces are not just reactive rehashes of stale old ideas and well-rehearsed replies. There is an ongoing active development of his ideas that he will reappropriate later in his explicitly « positive » phase. He claims

« I publish them because they develop points only hinted at in AM » (SFS, p10).

Secondly, living « in a special and self-contained world » is not enough, it is perhaps a necessary phase in an individuation process, but it contains the premises of stagnation if it endures. Much of Feyerabend’s long development –  as he himself was a « self-correcting process » (cf. KILLING TIME p146 where he call first science, then democracy, self-correcting processes and where he pronounces in favour of the larger englobing entity correcting the smaller entity it contains without that being a case of external « interference ») and went on evolving when others stop and stick to restating and defending their « position » – was a process of opening his world out onto the larger world. his favorite term for that was engaging in a « free exchange », a transformative encounter. Now it is not given to us to systematically situate ourselves inside a free encounter, all sorts of degrees and gradations and compromises are the rule, yet even then the attempt is « good », in the sense in which Stiegler says that all that goes in the direction of individuation is good (this is of course only a pragmatic rule of thumb, not an ethical dogma). Feyerabend says of this individuating by opening to the other:

« even a one-sided debate is more instructive than an essay » (SFS,10).

Needless to say that this positive emotion of openness and benevolence in always trying to create as much of a human relation as is possible in the circumstances was accompanied by a rejection of all the forces of de-humanisation and dis-individuation (what Feyerabend sometimes calls « deterioration ») that assail us. Deleuze gave this anger against « stupidity » a prime place in the motivation of a philosopher, the need to strike a blow for the individual and for the « collective to come » (somehow I think that they are one and the same thing, as neither Feyerabend nor Deleuze believed in the substantiality of the ego): « nuire à la bêtise » (strike a blow against stupidity). Feyerabend more simply and more directly says:

I want to inform the wider public of the astounding illiteracy of some « professionals » (SFS, p10).

I think that even this phase of striking a blow against « stupidity » (Deleuze) or against « chauvinism, illiteracy, and intolerance » (Feyerabend), is a transition to something else, for the same reasons that living in a special self-contained world is transitional. On the technical level we can see it in Feyerabend’s passage from seeing incommensurability as an absolute obstacle to communication and change imposed from the outside to his mature view that « every culture is potentially all cultures » (KILLING TIME p152). Every book can aid us in our individuation, and any book can make us stupid: even our own writings can make us stupid, as Feyerabend discovered with AGAINST METHOD.

When I first read KILLING TIME I was very disappointed, it was not « conceptual » enough for me. The same happened this Xmas when I first listened to « STORIES FROM PAOLINO’S TAPES » (SFPT). But while musing on them I found that they were privileged modes of access to Feyerabend’s world, which contains many concepts, but also affects, percepts, feelings for the body, ethical intuitions, and aesthetic perceptions and sentiments. This is what I was trying to elucidate in my sequence of posts on SFPT, what you call « sharing the life of the teacher in the teacher’s world », where « life » is something more than the empirical happenstance. It was my attempt to « enjoy the beauty », in the hope that this would permit me to see Feyerabend’s other works in a new light. People often talk about the virtues of a « close reading », and Feyerabend was a master of that art (though sometimes he tried to pretend otherwise, affecting a nonchalant superficial frivolity). We can see this talent at work not just in his positive case studies, but also in his « negative » refutations. They do not so much comment on the light that makes that reading possible. But you did. So, thanks.


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