Bruno Latour poses the quite Feyerabendian question “What is the recommended dose of ontological pluralism“, and he sketches out his own intellectual development in terms of an ever-increasing dose of this pluralist medecine. Feyerabend’s own development can be seen in similar terms but with a slightly different order in the stages he traverses.
Like Latour, Feyerabend went through many stages and understandings of pluralism. In each new step he realised that he had been maintaining some abstract presupposition that needed to be jettisoned. He held in horror the idealist or structuralist relativism (recently repackaged and sold under the name of “correlationism” by those who wish to cultivate a false originality based on historical ignorance) that maintains that we are each walled up inside our own tradition and incapable of communicating with those in other traditions, or even of understanding them.
Feyerabend thought that this relativist perspective presupposed an unrealistic vision of the diversity of opinions and ideas, and that it presupposed both more structure and more inflexibility than real life contained. According to Feyerabend our “structures” are not univocal, hermetically sealed, cut off from each other, but porous or permeable, being constructed out of fluid and ambiguous terms. For example Feyerabend says explicitly that there is no “culturally authentic” murder. Some things are just inacceptable, and must not be tolerated.
One way of expressing the need to combine pluralism with the openness and porosity of conceptual structures was his affirmation that “one culture is potentially all cultures”.
Feyerabend’s big enemy was anti-human abstractions that authorise us to lie, kill, and enslave in the name of some abstract principle dogmatically held and inhumanely applied. He recommended pluralism as a protective mechanism, not as a principle that would allow us to tolerate the inhuman treatment of others as long as it was justified by some narrow “worldview”.
He was against the merely semantic interpretation of theories that produce seemingly insuperable obstacles to comprehension and to interaction between them. He pointed out that in practice such obstacles were not decisive, and that the boundaries that they traced were crossed constantly without causing trouble, and often without even being noticed.
Ontological pluralism is no abstract a priori principle, but is requireded by epistemological honesty. Feyerabend gives us a rich testimony to the pursuit of such honesty in the various editions of his AGAINST METHOD, culminating in the 4th edition, which bears traces of all the previous stages. Epistemological honesty led Feyerabend to espouse pluralism for Popperian reasons, i.e. for increased testability of our theories. That same honesty led him to see from his conversations with von Weizsacker that such pluralism elevated to a universal principle would disqualify much of science, so he made it into a rule of thumb instead, and called himself an “epistemological anarchist”.
Epistemological honesty does not just apply inside science, so when he was confronted with people belonging to other knowledge traditions Feyerabend realised that even this flexible anarchistic approach needed to be supplemented by “relativism”. Unfortunately, the attempt to produce a coherent formulation of this relativism led to so many problems that to save what is good in the idea (namely, that more than one hypothesis or tradition can be viable) and to exclude the various erroneous interpretations (nothing is true, every belief is just as valid as any other) he moved on to ontological pluralism.
Paul Feyerabend is most often associated with a purely destructive criticism resulting in an anarchism that flouts every rule and to a relativism that treats all opinions as equal. This negative stereotype is based on ignorance and rumour rather than on any real engagement with his texts. Feyerabend’s work from beginning to end is concerned with problems of ontology and realism, culminating in the outlines of a sophisticated form of pluralist realism.
The still largely unknown ontological turn taken by Feyerabend’s work in the last decade of his life was based on seven strands of argument: ontological realism, the ineffability of Being, the viability of a plurality of persectives, the historical (or diachronic) approach, cosmological criticism, the quantum analogy (complementarity), and the primacy of democracy.