FEYERABEND ON HIS RELATION TO POPPER: asymmetry and image of thought

The asymmetry in Feyerabend’s relation to Popper runs deeper than any factual account can register, and touches on the particular “cognitive style”of each of the participants in the relation. Feyerabend makes it clear that for him there were two tendencies in his own philosophical development, one tending towards ambiguity, complexity and concreteness (symbolised by Wittgenstein) and the other towards univocity, simplicity and abstraction (symbolised by Popper).

Feyerabend’s account and assessment of his personal, empirical relation with Karl Popper mobilises this philosophical contrast, whereas Popper is unaware even of the existence of such a thing.

In Deleuzian terms, Popper figures as a conceptual persona active in Feyerabend’s thought and evolution, allowing him to say things that he could not say otherwise without Popper’s mediation. On this interpretation, Feyerabend’s later discussions of Popper’s influence are fully philosophical, and cannot be judged simply by assembling the factual record.

According to Gilles Deleuze, the new always appears under the mask of the old, and may even conceive itself in terms of the old, that are inadequate to its novelty. Thus, whatever Feyerabend thought at the time of his interaction with Popper, and whatever his conscious intentions, he was doing something different than Popper was. The image of thought that was guiding his research was quite different. On this hypothesis we can read Feyerabend’s comments on his relation with Popper as primarily mobilising his philosophical concepts, with the historical facts as seen from outside that vision as only of secondary (but not at all negligible) importance.

The question is: do we see Feyerabend as a philosopher in the Continental tradition, where his life and writings cannot be separated from each other? if our answer to this question is in the affirmative, then his autobiography is as philosophical as his other writings, and not just the product of an academic takng time off from philosophising to settle his score with the past. For me, KILLING TIME is a work of conceptual pedagogy from beginning to end. Feyerabend is not at work faking the historical record (hypothesis of reconstruction) or re-establishing the facts (hypothesis of restoration), but seizing the concepts that were already there beneath the surface, and that became explicit only later (hypothesis of conceptualisation).

I am thinking here of the quite banal definition of philosophy as “creation of concepts”, as given by Deleuze and Guattari in their book WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (although I find this definition is far from complete, I think it captures a very important aspect). A plurality of perspectives is possible, but it seems to me that this one (of conceptual creation) is often neglected in discussions of Feyerabend. I think Feyerabend’s autobiography KILLING TIME is a piece of conceptual pedagogy from beginning to end, embodying his ideas in stories that are both true (to a degree that can be evaluated more or less by adducing source material) and “teaching anecdotes” for want of a better expression. This sort of reading fits best with seeing Feyerabend against a Continental context, but this is not a necessary condition for that type of reading.

I can bear witness to the fact that I was working on Feyerabend under the supervision of Alan Chalmers in the 1970s in Sydney University, and I found precious little sympathetic material on him in English. I discovered that pluralism was a well-respected thought in France (developped by such philosophers as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Serres), so I moved to Paris in 1980 to attend their classes, and read their books, and I was not disappointed. Today I read Feyerabend against the background of the most recent work of Alain Badiou (Logics of Worlds), François Laruelle (Non-Standard Philosophy), Bruno Latour (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), and Michel Serres, who is still going strong (Le Gaucher Boiteux). So my influences are different from those who approach Feyerabend principally in terms of the analytic tradition (which I hope does not pose a problem to analytic readers of my blog) and I find them to be very clear-minded thinkers.

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