FEYERABEND’S HEURISTICS: the way of the scientist

Feyerabend discussed what I have called his “heuristic meta-attitude” toward the diverse rational methods, rules, criteria, and structures in a number of places, under the name of the “way of the scientist” to distinguish it from the “way of the philosopher”. The way of the scientist is based on provisional, local, temporary, approximative, and tentative rules. The criteria and prescriptions have no universal application but are intended as possible procedures and considerations, rules of thumb, that concrete research has to fill out and decide on:

I neither want to replace rules, nor do I want to show their worthlessness; I rather want to increase the inventory of rules, and I want to suggest a different use for all of them…Usually it is assumed that rules determine the structure of research in advance, they guarantee its objectivity, they guarantee that we are dealing with rational action. By contrast I regard each piece of research both as a potential instance of application for a rule and as a a test case of the rule: we may permit the rule to guide our research, i.e. to exclude some actions and to mould others, but we may also permit our research to suspend the rule, or to regard it as inapplicable even though all the known conditions demand its application… We are guided, rather, by the vague hope that working without the rule, or on the basis of a contrary rule we shall eventually find a new form of rationality that will provide a rational justification for the whole procedure”.

The “way of the scientist” is based on a discussion of of actual scientists: Mach, Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Pauli, von Weizsäcker. This is the sort of research that he favours. We see that Feyerabend is not “anti-science”, nor does he think that a scientific approach has no distinctive characteristics. Yet he refuses to encapsulate them in a fixed, universal, and prescriptive model.

Feyerabend carefully distinguishes forms of rationalism based on a-historical principles or on abstract structures (the way of the philosopher)  from his own historical approach (the way of the scientist). So it would be a mistake to affirm without suitable qualification that Feyerabend is anti-rationalist. As we see in the quote above, Feyerabend is in favour of rationality and of rational justification.

It is also a mistake to lump him in with “postmodernist philosophers” without discussing their actual ideas, and not the travesties proposed by the science warriors.

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THE FEYERABEND WARS: towards pluralist peace

A few remarks on Massimo Pigliucci’s new contribution to the discussion of Feyerabend’s pluralism. I agree with many of Pigliucci’s ideas but I wish to indicate a few points where I differ.

Feyerabend was not “anti-rationalist”, he was against scientistic methodological reason and more generally against abstract (or Platonistic) accounts of rationality.

On the question of pluralism: Feyerabend admits to having elaborated and defended a pluralist methodology in the sixties, but adds that he later rejected it as too abstract. In fact Feyerabend “pluralised” his own pluralism, turning it into a heuristic meta-attitude rather than a doctrine of method or of rationality.

Feyerabend’s defence of astrology is a reaction to an authoritarian dismissal. His aim is not to advocate in favour of astrology but to criticise a caricatural scientism’s attitude towards a caricature of astrology.

Feyerabend repeatedly said that his anarchism (or “pluralised” pluralism) was meant to make things more difficult for research, not easier. Whatever plasticity his pluralism led to was compensated by the need to confront the resistance of the real.

Nevertheless Feyerabend admits to having himself fallen into the trap of relativism on several occasions. He makes clear that he rejects epistemological relativism in the name of realism.

Note: I have detailed different phases in Feyerabend’s pluralism here.

I think Pigliucci’s reference to the “science wars” connection is a mistake. Feyerabend was a rationalist and a realist, not the anti-science caricature that the science warriors set up.

I have no idea who the “post-modern philosophers” that Feyerabend is associated with are supposed to be. I myself read Feyerabend in relation to Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, Serres, Serres, Latour and Stiegler – all pluralists and realists. Lyotard published a book THE POSTMODERN CONDITION in 1979 but his sophisticated idea of postmodernism is not what is usually meant when “postmodern” is used as a scare-word. He was by no means anti-science, nor are any of the other philosophers I mention.

Feyerabend’s positive recommendation can best be seen in his discussion of Wolfgang Pauli’s correspondence with Carl Jung in his search for a new “worldview” that would incorporate scientific and psychological “areas” of reality in a wider synthesis.


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MIMETIC CRITICISM: the descent into deconceptualisation

By their own admission Boghossian and Lindsay did not even try to fabricate a real hoax. They did make a half-hearted attempt with an obscure journal, their article was rejected, thus proving that scholarly standards were working correctly. So they settled for a vanity publication, which proved nothing much, except that vanity is vanity.

Their vanity prank was then blown up out of all proportion by its auratic association with its predecessor and model, the Sokal hoax.

In other words, form prevailed over substance, mimesis over critical thinking. Yet even in their imitation of Sokal’s gesture they debase it. Sokal’s article was a contribution by a physicist to a humanities journal, and talked critically about physics (one of Sokal’s areas of expertise). Boghossian and Lindsay’s contribution did not mobilise any expertise, and so did not purport to criticise their own fields.

Their gesture was doubly imitative and doubly empty. They imitated the form of Sokal’s original hoax (but only very superficially, as shown above) and they imitated the jargon and ideas of Gender Studies (also only superficially, as shown in the preceding posts).

This double-sided mimesis is governed by the same phenomenon of deconceptualisation on both sides. Boghossian and Lindsay do not read articles for concepts and arguments, they read for slogans and stereotypes. They do not even understand, or care about, the difference between their vanity prank and Sokal’s hoax, and they certainly do not try to understand anything about Gender Studies. Their prank “looks like” Sokal’s hoax, Gender Studies papers “look silly”, and that is enough for them.

Let us imagine a prominent thinker in Gender Studies, Judith Butler for example, feeling the need to reply to Boghossian and Lindsay’s spoof. What is there to reply to? Nothing, a puerile prank does not constitute an argument. The authors do not even try to initiate a rational discussion. They are shadow-boxers, beating the air with what they think is a knockout punch and crying out that the adversary is KO. But there is no adversary, just a business transaction that is equally cynical on both sides.

Boghossian and Lindsay are also imitating themselves. They have been earning money and street rep by dealing out knockout blows to fundamentalist Christianity. It never even crosses their mind that Gender Studies might present a different type of adversary, one that is considerably more complex in its reasoning and more sophisticated in its concepts than their own atheist vade mecum.

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THE SOKALIAN CONNECTION: vanity prank and argument by aura

I have established in my preceding posts that Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s hoax paper is not a meaningless pseudo-text but a sophomoric prank parodying an academic field based on a cherry-picked decontextualised hodgepodge of poorly understood ideas. The authors do not speak in the name of science and critical thinking, but in the name of a form of scientistic populism.

Gender Studies was chosen not out of any familiarity with the literature or care for the field, but for the predicted popular appeal in doing a takedown of a field that dares to be skeptical about our entrenched categories and beliefs regarding gender and sexuality. The goal was anti-skeptical and anti-critical.

The authors come out in favour of folk-ideology, protecting it from critical inquiry. The authors’ true aim is a nostalgic attempt to perpetuate, or to re-activate, the Science Wars of the nineties under the guise of an engagement for clarity and critical thinking against obscurantism and political correctness.

Critics were quick to point out that the hoax was worthless in itself. Paying to publish an already rejected article in a crappy journal does not refute in any way the field targeted by their parody, but merely shows up cynical business practices in academic publication. Boghossian and Lindsay do not engage with this cynicism so much as partake of it, and profit from it.

Behind the clamor, serving as horizon, model and reference, there lies the memory and the aura of the “Sokal affair”. Even the critics of the new hoax refer back to this incident as a model of how a real hoax should be carried out and analysed.

But the real Sokal hoax was not the prank paper, but the successor book FASHIONABLE NONSENSE, which already practiced the strategy of uncomprehending cherry-picking of decontextualised quotes supposed to prove the abuse of scientific jargon and theories by postmodern intellectuals. Fortunately for us Boghossian and Lindsay have produced no such book.

Boghossian and Lindsay seek validation and indirect support by aura and association by means of the Sokalian Connection, to prop up their vanity prank.

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POST-CRITICAL THINKING: on skepticism as brand and niche

The “conceptual penis” hoax gives us the sad sight of two “critical” thinkers perpetrating a media strike in the name of standards that they do not themselves obey. If their aim is really to expose uncritical thinking they should immediately have laughed at Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc. for being taken in by the hoax within the hoax, i.e. by the supposed general import of their sophomoric prank.

I call the prank “sophomoric” because their “hoax” article reads like the product of an uncultured science student being forced to attend a “Theory” course, being alternately shocked, offended, and amused by the “fancy” language and unfamiliar and undesirable assumptions of the lecturers, and lashing out in contempt with a parody based on a few poorly understood ideas cherry-picked from the lectures and reading.

Many people confuse “critical” thinking with debaters’ strategies for getting cheap points for quick and easy refutations based on travestying the position and arguments of their opponent, of taking their statements out of context and ridiculing them. This is good style for a show where fundamentalist Christians confront fundamentalist “Skeptics”, but it is not appropriate to the reasoned discussion of complex issues.

The critical verdict is obvious: Boghossian and Lindsay punked a vanity pay-to-publish journal. The actual content of their article was irrelevant, it could have been about almost anything (from alien DNA in soldier ants to the social construction of marketised skeptics), and it would have gotten through to publication.

The prank was to punk an unscrupulous journal. The hoax, the real hoax, was on those who thought that this exploit proved anything about gender studies or the humanities. The authors unleashed an orgy of uncritical propaganda on social media. But because this uncritical self-congratulatory exultation amounted to propaganda for their own particular doxa they welcomed it.

Boghossian and Lindsay have debased the names of critical thinking and of skepticism to vulgar brand names in the struggle for profitable niches on a competitive intellectual market, thus contributing to the general deconcepting and denoetisation and reinforcing it. What is the point of laying claim to the brand name of “skepticism” by actions that are the diametric opposite?

Boghossian and Lindsay’s prank and their analysis of its import are contributions to the society of the spectacle and to niche marketing, not to the history of critical thought. Gender studies is a domain that is even more skeptical than Boghossian and Lindsay’s scientistic vulgate. Their “hoax” in fact reinforces dogmatism and seeks to diminish the presence and power of skepticism and of critical thinking.


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MORE WORK, LESS HOAX: the case of Badiou

The “Badiou hoax” only proves that there are shady intellectuals willing to exploit the difficulty of his thought to swindle people intellectually (and perhaps financially).

Badiou’s philosophy is untouched by this. Badiou never claims to be scientific, he is a philosopher. However, he repeatedly asserts that no philosophy can be taken seriously if it gets the science wrong, and includes his own philosophy under that prescription.

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AGAINST SARCASM: the myth of the pomo French intellectual

I live in France and lead a very active intellectual life here. I am constantly inspired by the rich and creative work being published here, and quite surprised by the image of it that I see on various Anglophone media.

There are no social constructionist French philosophers publishing today. Michel Serres, Alain Badiou, Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, François Laruelle are the major pluralist philosophical thinkers, and they are all very critical of social constructionism, as were their immediate predecessors. Deleuze, Derrida (contrary to what is often claimed), Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, all denounced the dangers of linguistic and social idealism that they found in one-sided versions of structuralism. These philosophers were also quite critical of meaningless jargon, despite their own style often veering towards extreme abstraction and neologism to match the generality and the novelty of the problems they were analysing and the concepts they were proposing.

So in fact they preceded the hoaxers by decades in confronting the problem of empty slogans and pseudo-discussions in philosophical fields. Their major difference with Boghossian and Lindsay is that they had mastered the literature and proposed well worked-out alternatives.

They were in favour of humour, and condemned sarcasm as the attribute of lazy egos enamored of their own sound bites in the place of real work.


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