Feyerabend’s “The Concept of Intelligibility in Modern Physics” (2): the intelligible is the familiar

In his first known article, “The Concept of Intelligibility in Modern Physics”, published in 1948, Feyerabend attempts to describe a method, that he calls “positivism”, that he claims has “fallen into discredit among a large number of philosophers”. The key feature of this method, as it is usually stated, seems to be that the discovery of a new regularity within the phenomena obliges the physicist to peel away undue assumptions and only to entertain hypotheses that remain within the limits of the phenomena:

it is maintained that some sort of regularity forces the physicist
to hold fast to the phenomena, and remove from his mental picture all those elements that display no references to the phenomena (PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY, page 3).

This “purely descriptive attitude” is adopted by the positivists in sharp opposition to the concept of the external world elaborated by traditional philosophy. Feyerabend suggests that this opposition between philosophy and physics, as defined by the opposition between the external world and the phenomena, leads us into an impasse, and suggests that a more indirect approach can be more fruitful.

Positivism presents itself as being free of ontological assumptions about a real external world beyond the phenomena, as being purely descriptive. Feyerabend proposes to

provide a description of the foundations of this peculiar
method, as well as of its epistemological assumptions (3).

In other words, Feyerabend undertakes to apply the positivist method to itself, to give a description of a descriptive method. He proposes to describe a method that purports to be without philosophical foundations and ree of assumptions in terms of its foundations and assumptions. To that extent Feyerabend is already practicing in this youthful article his method of immanent criticism (what in later texts he describes as his use of ad hominem argument).

It is interesting in the light of the rhetorical, and methodological, complexity of this early text to keep in mind that the context is dialectical and indirect. The essay is not proposed in isolation as the direct exposition of the author’s views, but as an “antithesis” written in response to an essay by Erwin Schrödinger. The preamble reads:

Written as an antithesis, after a discussion at the philosophical and physical scientific study-groups of the Collegegemeinschaft of Vienna, to Prof. Schrödinger’s essay, “Die Besonderheit des Weltbildes der Naturwissenschaften” (3).

Thus it is one side of a conversation with Schrödinger, as Feyerabend later insisted that AGAINST METHOD was one side of a conversation with Lakatos, and not to be taken in isolation. It does not propound Feyerabend’s “position”, nor does it advance fixed “theses”, but rather it sets out to identify and remove potential obstacles to the pursuit of science and to the improvement of our knowledge.

Another important point in appreciating the contribution of this text to our understanding of Feyerabend’s philosophical development is that it was published in 1948, the year he met Popper (in late Summer). It does not cite Popper, and shows no sign of any influence from his thought or vocabulary. It embodies a well-thought out conceptual investigation in line with his mature thought and its indirect, ad hominem, dialectically complex methods.

The question has been posed: Was Feyerabend a Popperian? A popular narrative is that Feyerabend was a “Popperian” in that he was impressed by Popper’s and came under his influence, as can be seen by the presence of Popperian themes and vocabulary and by his citations of Popper in his ealiest texts. Feyerabend on this account broke with Popper after some years and later came to modify his early articles by suppressing diverse references to Popper and gave a tendentious account of his development by systematically downplaying Popper’s real, and important, role. This first text would seem to give the lie to this account as it already contains typical Feyerabendian concerns.

In this short text, Feyerabend argues against the conservatism and stability imposed by the criterion of intelligibility as picturability, and in favor, on both methodological and historical grounds, of replacing accepted observational concepts and vocabularies by new unfamiliar descriptive notions. His arguments and analyses are conceptual investigations constituting indirect dialectical interventions in an ongoing series of conversations. He makes use of a combination of historical and methodological considerations to remove obstacles to thought. Finally he proceeds by ignoring the separation between philosophy and science assumed by both traditional philosophers and positivist scientists, treating them as part of one and the same enterprise of improving our knowledge of the world.

My conclusion is that Feyerabend was already in possession of his own philosophical viewpoint and methods in 1948, and he made use of Popper’s theses and vocabulary to make his own concepts intelligible. This is true whether Feyerabend was fully conscious of it at the time or not. When Feyerabend came later to downplay Popper’s influence he was not giving vent to personal feelings of resentment or animosity, such explanations are not intellectually rich or robust. He was proceeding as a philosopher, reconceptualising his past in terms of his later philosophical understanding of what was really going on at that time. This is the aim of philosophy: not to manipulate the data (instrumentalism), but to understand the world, including oneself and one’s past, in new and better ways (realism).

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2 Responses to Feyerabend’s “The Concept of Intelligibility in Modern Physics” (2): the intelligible is the familiar

  1. landzek says:

    As always: You are a gold mine of info . I am indebted to you. I didn’t know this of F. What I see, through this small window , is that if it is as F says of positism description, then obviously there must’ve some manner that is offering more than such description. Indeed. How coincidental his book is ‘against method’ ? Or that other guy who wrote ‘truth and method’ (I forget who but I have his book I haven’t read yet. G. I think his name starts with).

    Like

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