PLURALISM, HISTORICITY, AND REALISM: the case of Paul Feyerabend

A liberation from the abstract and rigid conceptual schemas of standard philosophy is possible, if we think and act outside its stable frameworks and fixed paths. This is what I call “diachronic ontology”.

A consequent philosophical pluralism has its own dynamic of thought that leads from a pluralism inside philosophy (e.g. Feyerabend’s methodological pluralism), to a pluralising of philosophy itself as an ontological realm and a cognitive régime arrogantly claiming unicity, completeness and universality (cf. Feyerabend’s Machian open “way of research” as one finds it exemplified in the arts and the sciences in opposition to the closed speculation of what he calls the “way of the philosophers”, and also his later ontological pluralism, whose target is the arrogant universalism of “philosophy as a discourse that covers everything … an all-encompassing synthetic view of the world and what it all means”.

Here I think comes the move of putting philosophy in relation to a non-philosophical outside (non-philosophical not meaning a negation but a wider practice, as in non-Euclidean geometries). This relation of philosophy to non-philosophy is a reasonable, and even necessary, prolongation of pluralism. The works of Feyerabend, Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour and Bernard Stiegler provide us with good examples of such a pluralism navigating between philosophy and non-philosophy.

The whole direction of empiricism for at least a hundred years has been to argue that speculation is an essential, ineliminable, and positive ingredient of our knowledge -being both heuristically useful and compositionally fecund.Confining ourselves to the Anglophone empiricist camp we can say that far from being against speculation Russell, Carnap, Quine, and Popper argued for its necessity and for its usefulness in the exploration of the real.

Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend from his early beginnings to his last writings was in favour of both speculation and realism. This is what attracted him to Popper in the first place, and what separated him later. Feyerabend’s major critique of Popper was that he put too many constraints on the use of speculation, and that therefore his realism was not thoroughgoing, containing dogmatic untestable elements hidden in the presuppositions of his methodological assumptions, and needed to be complemented by a methodological pluralism (cf. HOW TO BE A GOOD EMPIRICIST).

This empiricist defence of pluralist speculation in the service of realism confines itself to the context of speculation as it occurs within the sciences. But one can also pose the question at a higher level of abstraction, that of the value and interest of philosophical speculation in general. Feyerabend’s later meditations on Being (especially those published in the essays collected in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE) led him to suggest that both speculation within science and external speculative extrapolations of scientific results cannot exhaust the meaning of Being and cannot be imposed on full-fledged traditions that interpret and experience things otherwise.

Contrary to the repeated attempts to associate Feyerabend with a naive espousal of chaos and anarchy, Feyerabend emphasised that we need both tenacity and proliferation, rules and their heuristic suspension, order and chaos, speculation and testability. He condemned the “naive anarchism” of no rules, he disliked chaos but claimed to have made creative use of it in certain contexts, and he rejected the dogmatism of the traditional anarchists along with their scientism. Feyerabend wanted more responsibility, not less, and proposed that all those concerned, in citizen assemblies, should decide on what ontologies, theories, methods to apply – and not just the experts.

Feyerabend’s anarchism is “epistemological” precisely because he wants to get away from the need to posit a dogmatic “anarchist” method. Feyerabend explains that he did propose such a dogmatic anarchism for science in the early 60s, but then the encounter with the needs of the practicing scientist, and later the encounter with the needs of the more diverse population of students that were enrolled after more democratic education policies were adopted in the US (at the end of the 60s), led him to reject even the most open set of rules as long as they were meant to be applied universally instead of as rules of thumb. This is similar to Latour’s evolution from the methodological anarchism that he espouses above to his later concerns with democractic assemblages.

On the whole question of methodological anarchism versus epistemological anarchism Feyerabend is quite clear that Popper was advocating methodological anarchism, the idea that there was no fixed method for science other than what worked or was appropriate in a specific case, in the 40s. Already Feyerabend agreed, but thought it was a banality, as his friends in the Kraft Circle took this methodological anarchism for granted. The problem, as Feyerabend later came to realise, was that this methodological anarchism is basically incompatible with taking science as a preconstituted object, and so he argued that Popper’s more specific methodological suggestions were a case of circular reasoning. Popper, he claimed, presupposes the very instances of good science (eg Newton, Maxwell, Einstein) that his criteria are supposed to neutrally select out. In fact the criteria are generalisations made from a partisan set of pre-decided instances, and not the other way around. This is the difference, at least in Feyerabend’s work, between methodological anarchism applied inside the pre-constituted and pre-demarcated sciences, and Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism (circa 1966) which puts that demarcation totally up for grabs and argues for all sorts of transversal composites as necessary for what we commonly think of as scientific progress.

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