FEYERABEND’S DEMOCRATIC PLURALISM: democratising Latour’s diplomatic pluralism

The aim of Feyerabend’s democratic pluralism is to permit, facilitate, and encourage open exchanges on all levels, i.e. between individuals, collectives, and traditions. For Feyerabend an individual is himself or herself a democratic self-correcting self-transforming tradition, a process of individuation. An open exchange is one in which there is no fixed framework of dialogue imposed by one partner, or dictated by some outside instance. The goal of such exchanges, from Feyerabend’s point of view, is the full development of the participants (individuals, groups, or traditions).

One can trace an evolution in Feyerabend’s pluralism, from his earliest thought espousing a form of pluralist process-philosophy to his final reflections on a democratic pluralism. Bruno Latour in considering his own pluralist evolution poses the question: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” and replies with a typology of stages on the way of pluralism. It is my argument that Feyerabend has gone through a similar evolution, and taken it one step further. One can divide up the evolution of Feyerabend’s pluralism into 6 phases, although there is much interference and overlap between the various positions.

1) process-relational ontology – Feyerabend has always made heuristic use of process ontology since at least the 1950s, basing himself on Hegel, Mach, and Bohm. Following a suggestion by Ernst Mach Feyerabend analyses the world in terms of multiplicities of elements and relations, composing and decomposing provisional assemblies. Feyerabend proposes this ontology as an underpinning for the unity of the arts and sciences, and gives examples of its application in Galileo’s scientific research, Ionesco’s theater, and Wertmüller’s cinema.

2) epistemological pluralism – this is a radicalisation of Popper’s methodology for the sciences, elaborating a methodological pluralism not only for the sciences but also for the arts, and for the conduct of life. This form of pluralism proposed the active pursuit of a plurality of rival and alternative theories as a normative methodology.

3) epistemological anarchism – in the 60s, in a series of conversations with von Weizsäcker concerning the history of quantum mechanics, Feyerabend came to see that even this pluralist methodology was both descriptively inadequate and too constraining when compared to the concerete practice of science. This is Feyerabend’s phase of deconstruction of Popper.

4) tradition (or ethnographic) pluralism – in the late 1960s, as a result of new educational policies the University of Berkeley, where Feyerabend taught, received an influx of students of all sorts, who had been excluded from the educational process before. Feyerabend declined to teach them a new doctrine of pluralist anarchist principles, deciding that this would be simply perpetuating the same domestication or murder of minds and souls that rationalists had always perpetrated on the non-rationalist traditions.

5) ontological pluralism – Feyerabend argued that this relativist pluralism needed to be reinforced with an ontological pluralism derived in part from pseudo-Dionysos. He emphasised the realist aspect of pluralism, that many traditions and hypotheses receive support and confirmation from Being but not all.

6) democratic pluralism – for Feyerabend this ontological pluralism permits us to protect people and traditions from attempts at political control by the imposition of traditions of thought and practice validated by the a worldview presented as reality itself. This democratic pluralism Feyerabend affirms that the determination of what is real cannot be the prerogative of an abstract ontology, and thus of the intellectuals who promulgate it. There is no fixed framework, the manifest realities are multiple, and Being is unknowable. Thus the determination of what is real depends on our choice in favour of one form of life or another, i.e. on a political decision. This leads to Feyerabend’s conclusion: ontology “without politics is incomplete and arbitrary”. Feyerabend’s democratic pluralism is based on dialogue, open exchange, and democratic self-correcting and self-transforming processes.

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