I have been examining recent Continental philosophy in terms of 5 criteria of evaluation: pluralism, diachronicity, apophaticism, testability, and democracy. To complement the analysis I wish to consider the case of Paul Feyerabend’s later philosophy, as sketched out in his freely available correspondence with Isaac Ben-Israel, which took place over a 2 year period stretching from September 1988 to October 1990.
(1) Pluralist: Feyerabend is well-known for his advocacy of a theoretical and practical pluralism.
But one could object that Feyerabend is a relativist and so that “empirical research” for him could give whatever result we want, because in his system “anything goes”. In fact the best gloss of this polemical slogan is “anything could work (but mostly doesn’t)”. Feyerabend’s epistemological pluralism is supported by an ontological realism:
reality (or Being) has no well-defined structure but reacts in different ways to different approaches. Being approached over decades, by experiment of ever increasing complexity it produces elementary particles; being approached in a more ‘spiritual’ way, it produces gods. Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse.
(2) Diachronic: this is why Feyerabend sometimes refuses the label of “relativist”, as according to him “Relativism presupposes a fixed framework”. For Feyerabend, the widespread existence of communication between people belonging to apparently incommensurable structures shows that the notion of a frame of reference that is fixed and impermeable has only a limited applicability:
people with different ways of life and different conceptions of reality can learn to communicate with each other, often even without a gestalt-switch, which means, as far as I am concerned, that the concepts they use and the perceptions they have are not nailed down but are ambiguous (32).
(3) Apophatic: Feyerabend distinguishes between Being, as ultimate reality, which is both unsayable and unknowable, and the multiple manifest realities which are produced by our interaction with it, which are themselves knowable. Approach Being in one way, across decades of scientific experiment, and it produces elementary particles, approach it in another way and it manifests the Homeric gods:
I now distinguish between an ultimate reality, or Being. Being cannot be known, ever (I have arguments for that). What we do know are the various manifest realities, like the world of the Greek gods, modern cosmology etc. These are the results of an interaction between Being and one of its relatively independent parts (32).
(4) Empirical: the difference between Feyerabend’s pluralism and relativism is that not all approaches or modes of existence are viable. There is no guarantee that any particular approach will work. Being is independent of us and may respond positively, which is often not the case.
Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse. So I would say that different societies and different epistemologies may uncover different sides of the world, provided Being (which has more sides than one) reacts appropriately (31).
(5) Democratic: Feyerabend concludes that the determination of what is real and what is a simulacrum cannot be the prerogative of an abstract ontology and thus of the intellectuals who promulgate it.
There is no fixed framework (diachronic), the manifest realities are multiple (pluralist), the Real or Being is unknowable (apophatic), experience cannot prescribe our worldview but can exclude many proposed cosmologies (testable) .
Thus the determination of what is real depends on our choice in favour of one cosmology or form of life or another, i.e. on a political decision. This leads Feyerabend to conclude:
epistemology [but the same goes for ontology] without politics is incomplete and arbitrary (22).