REMEMBERING FEYERABEND: On the Fortieth Anniversary of AGAINST METHOD

This year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Feyerabend’s AGAINST METHOD. It seems an appropriate time to revisit the book, and Feyerabend’s thought more generally, to see what contribution it can make to our current intellectual and existential concerns. Feyerabend did not separate philosophy from the general culture, and he constantly considered abstract intellectual pursuits in relation to concrete life. This privileging of life over abstract motivations is the well-spring of Feyerabend’s repeated claim that he is not a philosopher. Paradoxically, this insistence is part of what makes him a great philosopher, one who breaks the rules not out of “provocation” but because he has not the slightest interest in allowing his conduct and thought to be governed by the abstract stipulations of lifeless thinkers.

There will be a workshop held in July at Durham University to commemorate this anniversary by exploring the meaning and impact of AGAINST METHOD, and its continuing relevance to contemporary debates. The book is still very relevant not just to contemporary philosophy of science but also more widely to debates and movements in Continental Philosophy. The line up of papers is very interesting, but I don’t think it gives full justice to this wider relevance. In particular, Feyerabend’s thought has a strong and persistent ontological dimension, one of his earliest published papers, “Physik und Ontologie”, dates from 1954. Feyerabend’s work, including AM, is important to gain a perspective on recent discussions in speculative realism, and in relation to the ongoing philosophical projects of philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, François Laruelle, and Alain Badiou.

In some ways this 40th anniversary is a “false” one, as the breakthrough in Feyerabend’s thought was expressed in the original version of AGAINST METHOD, which was first published in 1972 as an essay in the Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science, available here. The “breakthrough” was accomplished when Feyerabend ceased to consider that he was elaborating a new, more satisfying, general method for science and began to propose a new use for all methods as heuristic suggestions for a more inventive approach to science and to life in general, rather than as fixed universal and prescriptive rules for the conduct and evaluation of research.

As part of the general process of commemoration Ian James Kidd has published a very interesting text reviewing the book from a contemporary, sympathetic, perspective: “What’s so great about Feyerabend? Against Method, forty years on“. Part of what makes it necessary to remember Feyerabend and to re-read his texts is the prevalence of a set of very inaccurate stereotypes and simplifications of his work. In particular, there is a widespread impression that Feyerabend is “old hat”, that his ideas belong to a dated debate, and that we have gone far beyond that intellectually antiquated phase of the philosophy of science. Indeed, often one cannot see what all the fuss was about, as many of the supposedly “provocative” ideas defended by Feyerabend, such as the absence of a universal method for the sciences, today seem self-evident, even trite.

Ian James Kidd remarks:

It is interesting that many of the claims that, back in the mid-1970s, made Feyerabend a radical maverick are, nowadays, rather commonplace. Consider the general picture of science sketched in Against Method, of ‘science’ as pluralistic and disunified, socially situated, unavoidably value-laden, complexly bound up with sociopolitical concerns, whose social and epistemic authority is disputed and, to a degree, fragile.

Feyerabend would seem to be the perpetual has-been, who wrote one vaguely interesting book, AGAINST METHOD, in which he popularised recent ideas on the history and the methods of science. The book led to much controversy, stirring up a preliminary version of the Science Wars, but its notoriety was based on a misunderstanding. Feyerabend, on this view, merely presented ideas that were already generally accepted within the philosophical community but chose to express them in a sensational and provocative style. Kidd sums up what one might call the “disappointed” reaction that a contemporary reader might have when confronted with Feyerabend’s text:

“It is interesting that many of the claims that, back in the mid-1970s, made Feyerabend a radical maverick are, nowadays, rather commonplace. Consider the general picture of science sketched in Against Method, of ‘science’ as pluralistic and disunified, socially situated, unavoidably value-laden, complexly bound up with sociopolitical concerns, whose social and epistemic authority is disputed and, to a degree, fragile”.

On the basis of this disappointment, the seeming familiarity and self-evidence of the books main ideas, a popular myth has arisen about Feyerabend’s intellectual evolution. Kidd talks of an “inherited narrative of Feyerabend’s career”:

good work in the 1960s, but then, into the 1970s, losing the plot, sliding into relativism, polemics, and ill-thought-out political theorising.

It is interesting to see that a work that was initially seen as “crazy” and “irrational”, AGAINST METHOD, is now perceived as trite and trivial. Now it is the later work on relativism that is perceived as irrational, until one day it too will be absorbed without fair acknowledgement into the mainstream. Perhaps this is what Bruno Latour is trying to do with his AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE project.

Faced with this reflex reduction of Feyerabend’s message of pluralism and disunity to a by now very familiar lesson, Kidd tries to find a more underlying, less familiar, message of AGAINST METHOD, “deeper” than its critique of monism, and its defence of pluralism. I do not find his argument entirely plausible here. Feyerabend shows a concern not just with epistemology, but also with ontology, from the beginning of his published work to the end. AGAINST METHOD is no exception here, and I think it would be a mistake to validate, even partially, the current myth that AGAINST METHOD is exclusively, or even primarily, an “epistemological” work. Kidd himself indicates a dissatisfaction with this valid but superficial appreciation of the book as follows:

My suggestion is that this book was more than a critique of methodological monism, and more than a call for epistemic pluralism—although both of those are indeed there.

Kidd argues that the methodological pluralism that can be found in AGAINST METHOD is not its deepest contribution. Feyerabend’s pluralism is not only a normative affair. In trying to describe the deeper message of AGAINST METHOD Kidd falls back on a notion of description as being more fundamental than prescription, and he emphasises the descriptive inadequacy of the standard vision:

The deep message of Against Method was that we ‘late moderns’ esteem science as a pre-eminent social and epistemic authority, due, in part, to its enjoying certain honorific features—for instance, its being methodologically unified or value-free, in a way that other traditions are not.

The disunity and value-ladenness of science are important features of Feyerabend’s description. However, this description is itself subject to the same disunity and value-ladenness as the object (science) that it purports to describe. Feyerabend is not dogmatic in his pluralism, and he does not contest that relatively unified and seemingly “objective” sequences of rational knowledge production can be isolated out of the historical process. However, he argues that such isolated sequences attain their unity and objectivity by political means, and that the ethical question of their place in a free and fulfilling life is always a valid and important one.

AGAINST METHOD is importantly an ontological project as well as a sketch of a more adequate prescriptive and descriptive framework for science. There is an impressive unity in Feyerabend’s work concerning both ontology and the need for a new way of thinking that he found embodied in Einstein’s and Bohr’s scientific practice and methodological discussions. Feyerabend’s early reflections on complementarity continue throughout his middle period, and underlie the new perpective he sketches out in his last works, as can be seen in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE.

To give primacy to the epistemology in Feyerabend is part of the general neutralising strategy that surrounds his work. From the beginning Feyerabend’s work mixes together ethical or valuative (including political) and ontological considerations, as if they were inseparable. If we admit that, Latour’s belated “modes of existence” project was largely anticipated, in a more complete and satisfying way, by Feyerabend.

Underlying the polemics on the pluralism of methods and on the descriptive disunity of science, there is the problem of the value of science, its place in our lives, and its role in society. Kidd indicates that revising and complexifying the description has, or should have, practical consequences that must themselves be examined:

if we think that science is epistemically privileged because it has a special method, then if it turns out that there is no such thing, then we need to offer alternative credentials, or else rethink those privileges.

We find the same concern for description, credentials, and privileges in Bruno Latour’s work on science. It is interesting to note that Latour himself does not see any resemblance between his own theoretical project and Feyerabend’s. Whenever he discusses Feyerabend Latour promulgates the same old dismissive stereotypes that Kidd is arguing against. In a very interesting interview, Latour has this to say about Feyerabend:

I think deep down, Feyerabend rendered a disservice to the history and philosophy of science. I don’t take very seriously political anarchism, and I don’t take very seriously anarchism in science because it is completely reactionary…The attitude of unveiling and denouncing the falseness of the scientific method always reinforces the argument of the scientist, so I think Feyerabend has been rather counterproductive.

Latour’s whole career has been based on revealing the falseness of the thesis of a scientific method. So there would seem to be a process of misrecognition going on.

In another more recent interview (2012), Latour even declares that what he has learned from his “empirical” study of scientific research is that “anything goes”:

“this a thing that I learned from the “scientists” I studied, i.e. that: “Anything goes as long as it leads to what you want to find”. Just as in a laboratory you have instruments of all sorts, including the most archaic and the most contemporary, because that is what is necessary in production, I myself have learnt a lot from “true” scientists, hard scientists, i.e. total indifference to questions of method” (page 123, my translation).

This is very exactly what Feyerabend proposes in AGAINST METHOD (already in the essay version published in 1971). Latour continues in the same vein for two and a half pages, applying this notion of epistemological anarchism to his own work, and concludes:

“So, how do you produce objects that resist what is said of them?, well, anything goes(126).

Latour does not acknowledge Feyerabend’s contribution, he merely appropriates it almost 40 years afterwards, and presents it as the conclusion of his empirical science studies. No wonder that Feyerabend’s originality has been difficult to perceive. Latour’s “anxiety of influence” is too strong here to allow him to see just how many of his ideas were already expressed, and often more clearly and more entertainingly, by Feyerabend decades ago. Ian James Kidd’s article is an important corrective to the sort of wilful ignorance and misrepresentation to be found in pronouncements such as Latour’s.

Yet despite his efforts to present a consensually acceptable epistemological anarchist and ontologically pluralist vision of science, Latour, like Feyerabend before him, has been unjustly accused of being “anti-science”. Kidd is at pains to distinguish the task of critical examination of a widespread entrenched ideology of science and the quixotic rejection of science itself:

Crucially, a rejection of certain credentials offered in support of the authority of science is not the same as a rejection of that authority, a point often missed by those who criticise Feyerabend as an ‘anti-science’ traitor to the cause. But it is better to think of him not as anti-science, but as anti-scientism: a critic of false, exaggerated, or inflated conceptions of the nature, scope, and value of science.

This reminder is more than ever necessary today. Contrary to a false rumour, scientism is still rampant in Continental Philosophy. Further, even when “scientism” is condemned, as for example by Graham Harman, the same simplistic unity of science is pre-supposed in the condemnation. The model of a unified value-free knowledge may even be transposed to the philosophical realm. This is where Harman’s unified knowledge of “real objects” encounters Laruelle’s naively scientistic ambitions of a “science” of philosophy.

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