POPPER AND FEYERABEND: anxiety of influence or annexatory propaganda?

Matteo Collodel has posted a very interesting article on the early relations between Karl Popper and Paul Feyerabend. This is a clear and well-written piece that tries to be fair and impartial. But this attempt at objectivity creates a conflict. To recount the facts Collodel must rely on Feyerabend’s posterior autobiographic writings. For example, on page xviii he cites Feyerabend’s “glowing image” of Popper, relying on his account in SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY. Yet he expresses caution with respect to Feyerabend’s declarations on the influence (or not) of Popper’s ideas on his own, and so he gives only half the story.

In the passage Collodel quotes, Feyerabend, after declaring his admiration for Popper’s attitude of freedom and disrespect, immediately goes on to say that he found Popper’s ideas to be “trivialities”, valid yet already familiar and taken for granted. Feyerabend consistently maintained this “double aspect” account of his relation to Popper, declaring he had been influenced by Popper’s initial anti-dogmatic attitude and repulsed by the dogmatic system that grew around it later.

I see no reason to doubt Feyerabend’s account as it correspond’s to the whole drift of his life as he recounts it in KILLING TIME, and also to what he says in his messages to Grazia in STORIES FROM PAOLINO’S TAPES. A purely “factual” account, without interpretative hypotheses, is a quite anti-Feyerabendian ideal, and seems unrealizable even superficially in the case under consideration, of Popper’s influence on Feyerabend. Perhaps Feyerabend gave in to the “anxiety of influence” in later life and downplayed that influence. However, we must remember that Popper’s followers mounted a formidable propaganda machine in his favour, and it was in their interest to exaggerate Popper’s influence and to turn a blind eye to his faults (such as dogmatism).

It is true that in later life Feyerabend tried to downplay the influence that Popper had on his thought. However, in a few places Feyerabend recounts how Agassi begged him to commit to Popper’s philosophy and to spread references to him through his articles. For example, in FAREWELL TO REASON page 312, and his autobiography KILLING TIME page 97. I think this should be held in mind when people claim that Feyerabend tried to falsify the historical record by removing the references to Popper that existed in his older writings. If we accept Feyerabend’s version then he was merely re-establishing the true state of his thought prior to his acquiescence to the demand to make publicity for Popper.

If we look at the version of their relations that is given in  KILLING TIME, what stands out is the complexity of Feyerabend’s account. I once attempted the thought experiment of describing Feyerabend’s epistemology while imagining that Popper had never existed. I found that the key concept would be complexity, rather than anarchy or even pluralism.

In Feyerabend’s account he plays off Wittgenstein against Popper. Intellectually he claims that “Popper’s ideas were similar to those of Wittgenstein but they were more abstract and anemic” (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, 116). As a consequence, he claims that Popper’s influence served to “increase [his] own tendencies to abstraction and dogmatism” (ibid). Wittgenstein, in contrast, increased his tendencies towards concreteness and complexity. Whatever one may think of Feyerabend’s analysis, Wittgenstein needs to be mentioned in any complete your account of the relation between Popper and Feyerabend. On a personal level, it is  important to remember that Feyerabend had initially chosen Wittgenstein to be his supervisor, and only chose Popper because Wittgenstein died.

In Feyerabend’s self-interpretation, his involvement with Popper represents a phase of alienation in his life. Part of the influence of Popper then is that it obliged Feyerabend to go through a long phase of dis-alienation after his rupture with Popper.

In Deleuzian terms, Feyerabend’s meeting with Popper was an “encounter” in the strong sense, and played an important, although ambivalent, role in his philosophical becoming. However, this encounter was asymmetric in its impact on the two men. Feyerabend was greatly influenced, Popper apparently not so much. Feyerabend, as is typical with him, had a multi-faceted reaction to Popper, seeing both freedom and dogmatism in Popper’s ideas and character. Feyerabend integrates this instability of perspectives and ambiguity of perception into his philosophy, where Popper seems to favour univocity and simplicity.

Note: I am indebted to Aurelia di Berardino’s contribution to the discussion of Collodel’s article for helping me clarify these ideas.

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