This is an ad hoc summation of Paul Feyerabend’s book Farewell to Reason, which presents a vigorous challenge to scientific nationalism. Feyerabend was Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich. He died in 1994.
Paul Feyerabend may have been the last
major philosopher of the twentieth century, although his critics would rather
he had never taken up his pen. Feyerabend (whose name is pronounced
‘fire-a-bend’) is that rarest of things, a relativist with claws. While other
relativists have found themselves retreated to an untenable position akin to
solipsism (the belief that the only thing one can know with any certainty is
one’s own perceptions), Feyerabend runs roughshod over the landscape of
philosophy with the sure footed confidence of someone not only blessed with
great intellect, but an exceptional grasp of history and a grand compassion
that is infectiously democratic.
Farewell to Reason is a collection of disparate essays which deal with cultural diversity and cultural change. Their goal is to demonstrate that diversity is beneficial while uniformity reduces both our available resources and the joy of living. Although it succeeds in this goal, it will not convert Feyerabend’s opponents (whose philosophical position, frankly, may be so entrenched as to perhaps be intractable) and his rigorously presented arguments are not for the intellectually timid, nor for the philosophical amateur. This material is hard to read – but all the more rewarding because of it.
(In order to get the most from Feyerabend,
an awareness of the philosophies of Wittgenstien and Kuhn is an inessential but
useful starting point. Anyone approaching Feyerabend from a position of total
philosophical ignorance is likely to be completely out of their depth, or at
the very least, unlikely to fully comprehend Feyerabend’s concepts).
Feyerabend contends that there exist powerful traditions which oppose diversity. The proponents of these points of view concede that people may arrange their lives in a variety of fashions but they insist that there must be limits to variety, and further claim that these limits are constituted either by moral laws which regulate human action, or by physical laws which define our position in nature. In particular, Feyerabend criticises two ideas which have historically been used to justify and make respectable the expansion of Western forms of life (or the ‘brave new monotony’, as one essay terms it) – namely the idea of Reason and the idea of Objectivity.
When someone says that a procedure or point
of view is objective (or ‘objectively true’, which is synonymous) they are
asserting that it is valid irrespective of human expectations, ideas, attitudes
and wishes. It is an underlying claim which many modern scientists and
intellectuals assert about their work. This issue is explored in more depth
than I can possibly reproduce here, with historical examples spanning from the
ancient Greeks through Galileo to more modern examples such as Popper. (Fans of
Popper beware: Feyerabend worked with Popper at one point in his life and
appears to have developed a pathological hatred of the father of what is termed
In the context of Reason (with a capital R), or Rationality (the words are functionally equivalent, if not synonymous), Feyerabend presents fundamental problems even in the introduction to the book, as this short extract demonstrates:
Hardnosed empiricists regard it as irrational to retain view plainly in conflict with experiment while hardnosed theoreticians smile at the irrationality of those who revise basic principles at every flicker of the evidence.
He asserts that the notions of ‘this is rational’ or ‘this is irrational’ are ambiguous, and never clearly explained, and demonstrates why attempting to enforce such views would be counter productive. By way of context he suggests:
The assumption that there exist universally valid and binding standards of knowledge and action is a special case of a belief whose influence extends far beyond the domain of intellectual debate. This belief… may be formulated by saying that there exists a right way of living and that the world must be made to accept it.
He proceeds to give examples of religious intolerance and war propelled by such a belief. Indeed, he is far less generous to religion than I would be, but does demonstrate that it is extreme fundamentalism (of the kind expressed above) which causes the problem – and it matters not if this is built on a religious, political or scientific framework. I have long been seeking someone who could present this viewpoint in an erudite fashion, as I have been struggling alone with it for many years. Feyerabend continues:
We may surmise that the idea is a leftover from times when important matters were run from a single centre, a king or a jealous god, supporting and giving authority to a single world view. And we may further surmise that Reason and Rationality are powers of a similar kind and are surrounded by the same aura as were gods, kings, tyrants and their merciless laws. The content has evaporated; the aura remains and makes the powers survive.
In many respects, the perspective that Feyerabend sets down in this book has much in common with the views espoused by Robert Anton Wilson in ‘The New Inquisition’. While Feyerabend lacks
Wilson’s entertainingly constructed prose, he makes up for it with a rigorous argumentation built on a much more solid understanding of philosophy and history (and an absence of entertaining drug-addled rambling). Fans of
Wilson’s work, however, and especially those with the patience for highly academic material, would gain much from considering Feyerabend.
Rather than discuss all of the essays in Farewell
to Reason, I shall focus my attention primarily on the first and the final
chapter. This is not to say the other material is not fascinating (or, in the
case of ‘Aristotle’s Theory of Mathematics’ completely beyond my comprehension!),
but these two chapters have the most general remit, and therefore are perhaps
easier to summarize.
Notes on Relativism
The first chapter discusses a particular attempt to make sense of the phenomena of cultural variety, namely relativism. In this essay, Feyerabend begins by presenting a particular thesis (which I will include here), then gradually strengthens the idea presented through a series of arguments. I cannot summarise this adequately, so one must accept that what I present here gives you some idea of how this chapter proceeds but does not give you the necessary information to fully comprehend (or meaningfully oppose) this viewpoint. For this, you must read Feyerabend’s work yourself.
The opening thesis concerns practical
relativism, which overlaps somewhat with opportunism:
R1: individuals, groups, entire civilizations may profit from studying alien cultures, institutions, ideas, no matter how strong the traditions that support their own views (no matter how strong the arguments that support these views). For example, Roman Catholics may profit from studying Buddhism, physicians may profit from a study of the Nei Ching or from an encounter with African witch doctors, psychologists may profit from a study of the ways in which novelists and actors build a character, scientists in general may profit from a study of unscientific methods and points of view and Western civilization as a whole can learn a lot from the beliefs, habits, institutions of ‘primitive’ people.
(Note that this does not make a recommendation, nor suggest a requirement. It merely suggests that such a study may have effects which could be regarded as beneficial).
Feyerabend observes that there is a spectrum of response to this thesis:
- The thesis is rejected, which happens when a tightly knit world view is regarded as the only measure of truth and excellence, as happens with certain religious, political or scientific beliefs.
- The thesis is rejected, but only in certain areas, as occurs in pluralistic cultures with separate components (religion, politics, art, science etc.) that are each guided by a well defined and exclusive paradigm.
- An exchange of ideas and attitudes between different domains (cultures) is encouraged, but is subjected to the laws that rule the domain (culture) entered.
- An acceptance that even our most basic assumptions, our most solid beliefs, and our most conclusive arguments can be changed, improved or defused, or shown to be irrelevant by a comparison with what at first looks like undiluted madness.
He then discusses in great length the
relationship between modern science and this thesis, in a section that defies
Later, in considering R1 in the political context of democracy – which subjects important matters to public debate and is inherently pluralistic, encouraging the development of a variety of traditions – Feyerabend suggests that R1 suggests that each tradition may contribute to the welfare of individuals and to society as a whole. He therefore presents a new thesis:
R2: societies dedicated to freedom and democracy should be structured in a way that gives all traditions equal opportunities, i.e. equal access to federal funds, educational institutions, basic decisions. Science is to be treated as one tradition among many, not as a standard for judging what is and what is not, what can and what cannot be accepted.
(Feyerabend is quick to point out that he does not favour the export of ‘freedom’ into regions that are doing well without it and whose inhabitants show no desire to change their ways. Rather, R2 is restricted to societies based upon ‘freedom and democracy’ in order to avoid facile generalisations).
This is rapidly strengthened into:
R3: Democratic societies should give all traditions equal rights and not only equal opportunities.
The discussion builds over a number of subsequent theses; these intermediate propositions are used to suggest the following hypothesis:
R10: for every statement (theory, point of view) that is believed to be true with good reasons there may exist arguments showing that either its opposite, or a weaker alternative, is true.
And its stronger variant:
R11: For every statement, theory, point of view believed (to be true) with good reasons there exist arguments showing a conflicting alternative to be at least as good, or even better.
Feyerabend concludes the chapter with the obvious criticisms of the relativistic viewpoints expressed, in a manner that once again is highly resistant to summation. An extract is perhaps required for demonstrative purposes:
‘If two parties disagree’, says Popper, ‘this may mean that one is wrong, or the other, or both. It does not mean, as the relativist will have it, that both may be equally right.’
This comment reveals in a nutshell the weakness of all intellectual attacks on relativism. ‘If two parties disagree’ – this means the opponents have established contact and understand each other. Now assume that the opponents come from different cultures. Whose means of communication will they use and how will understanding be reached? … Popper… seems to assume that there exists, basically, a single medium of discourse, that the medium is ‘rational’ in his sense (for example, it obeys simple logical laws), that is consists mainly of talk (gestures, facial expression plays no role), and that everybody has access to it…
Why should it not be possible to say conflicting things about ‘the same situation’ and yet be right? A picture that can be seen in two different ways (Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit is an example) can be described in two different ways – and both parties will be right. It is a matter of research and not of philosophical fiat to decide whether the world we inhabit resembles a duck-rabbit picture.
In concluding this essay, Feyerabend is keen to point out that he is not opposed to science:
Nor am I asserting that we can do without the sciences. We cannot. Having participated in, or permitted, the construction of an environment in which scientific laws come to the fore, both materially, in technological products, and spiritually, in the ideas that are allowed to guide major decisions, we, scientists as well as the common citizens of Western civilization, are subjected to their rule. But social conditions change and science changes with them.
This essay opens Farewell to Reason with a resounding clatter of cymbals, presenting and arguing for an understanding of relativism with a thoroughness and philosophical precision which is admirable. My précis here captures only a fragment of the piece, and even then only the tone is conveyed, not the underlying arguments. For this, one must read ‘Notes on Relativism’ oneself.
One of the most striking aspects of this piece is the way it places science and religion on equal footing by considering both to be ‘traditions’. This approach had not occurred to me before, but provides a useful tool for examining belief systems from markedly different backgrounds. Viewed from Feyerabend’s vantage point, the last few hundred years of the history of science seem rather like Orwell’s Animal Farm: the forces of Reason manage to unseat the tyrannical despotism of religious traditions, only to take upon the aggressive fundamentalism of that which they opposed (but from a different set of prior beliefs – replacing theism with positivism i.e. the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge), and eventually emerging themselves as fanatical dictators, imposing onto others what can and cannot be believed. One might be inclined to suggest the problem was not with the religion or science that provided the motivation, but in the fascism that resulted.
As someone already sympathetic to
relativism, the most surprising part of this chapter for me was how it made me
re-evaluate democracy. For the first time in many years, I began to consider
how democratic values might be worth rescuing, instead of being trapped in a
place where the only political philosophy that seemed appealing was
‘enlightened anarchy’ (a state achievable only by luck). It is a call to arms
for everyone open to new ideas, diversity of belief, and variety in approach,
to participate in the development of our own societies.
Farewell to Reason
The final chapter appears to have been
written to clarify points Feyerabend raised in his book Against Method,
and as such has a strangely uneven quality. However, it makes a good closing
statement for this book, as well as a potential introduction to Feyerabend’s
One of Feyerabend’s themes is that there is no common structure to the sciences; individuals may assert that there is, but an analysis of the history of science shows how impressively ad hoc the development of science has been. This is not exploited as a criticism of science, per se, but rather identified as a strength: it argues against placing restrictions and limits on the spirit of open inquiry that underlies science:
My main thesis on [the structure of science] is: the events and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure: there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere (the objection that without such elements the word ‘science’ has no meaning assumes a theory of meaning that has been criticized, with excellent arguments, by Ockham, Berkeley and Wittgenstein)…
A theory of science that devises standards and structural elements of all scientific activities and authorizes them by reference to some rationality-theory may impress outsiders – but it is much too crude an instrument for the people on the spot, that is, for scientists facing some concrete research problem. The most we can do for them from afar is to enumerate rules of thumb, give historical examples, present case studies containing diverging procedures, demonstrate the inherent complexity of research and so prepare them for the morass they are about to enter.
Another key theme is that science should be understood as one tradition among many, which is to say, Feyerabend questions the authority of the sciences:
I assert that there exist no ‘objective’ reasons for preferring science and Western rationalism to other traditions. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what such reasons might be. Are they reasons that would convince a person, or the members of a culture, no matter what their customs, their beliefs or their social situation? Then what we know about cultures shows us that there are no ‘objective’ reasons in that sense. Are they reasons which convince a person who has been properly prepared? Then all cultures have ‘objective’ reasons in their favour. Are they reasons which do not depend on ‘subjective’ elements such as commitment or personal preference? Then ‘objective’ reasons simply do not exist (the choice of objectivity as a measure is itself a personal and/or group choice – or else people simply accept it without much thought).
He patiently attacks numerous common arguments extended to assert the innate superiority of science:
[Some intellectuals] distinguish between basic science and its application: if any destroying was done, then this was the work of the appliers, not of the good and innocent theoreticians. But the theoreticians are not that innocent. They are recommending analysis over and above understanding, and this even in domains dealing with human beings; they extol the ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ of science without realising that a procedure whose main aim is to get rid of all human elements is bound to lead to inhuman actions. Or they distinguish between the good which science can do ‘in principle’ and the bad things it actually does. That can hardly give us comfort. All religions are good ‘in principle’ – but unfortunately this abstract Good has only rarely prevented their practitioners from behaving like bastards.
He is particularly horrified by Popper’s suggestion that:
…the benefits of civilization may occasionally have to be imposed, on unwilling victims, by ‘a form of imperialism.’
The inevitable consequences of this statement are hopefully clear, and I will leave the political ramifications in respect of foreign policy as mere implications.
The spirit of relativism infuses the
This is a general feature of all ideological debates: arguments in favour of a certain world view depend on assumptions which are accepted in some cultures, rejected in others, but which because of the ignorance of their defenders are thought to have universal validity.
Feyerabend summarises his position in two statements:
(A) the way in which scientific problems are attacked and solved depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the (formal, experimental, ideological) means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of scientific research.
(B) the way in which problems of society and the interactions of cultures are attacked and solved also depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of human action.
Thus he criticises the view:
(C) that science and humanity must conform to conditions that can be determined independently of personal wishes and cultural circumstances.
And also the assumption:
(D) that it is possible to solve problems from afar, without participating in the activities of the people concerned.
(Opponents of the IMF, and of cultural imperialism of any kinds, will especially appreciate this point).
Finally, Feyerabend pointedly distinguishes
between abstract traditions and historical traditions:
Historical traditions cannot be understood from afar. Their assumptions, their possibilities, the (often unconscious) wishes of their bearers can be found only by immersion, i.e. one must live the life one wants to change. Neither (C) nor (D) apply to historical traditions… my main objections against intellectual solutions of social problems is that they start from a narrow cultural background, ascribe universal validity to it and use power to impose it on others. Is it surprising that I want to have nothing to do with such ratiofascistic dreams? Helping people does not mean kicking them around until they end up in someone else’s paradise, helping people means trying to introduce change as a friend, as a person, that is, who can identify with their wisdom as well as with their follies and who is sufficiently mature to let the latter prevail: an abstract discussion of the lives of people I do not know and with whose situation I am not familiar is not only a waste of time, it is also inhumane and impertinent.
I say that
Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education… which most of the time consists in turning wonderful young people into colourless and self-righteous copies of their teachers… it shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own, sorry image… in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty.
As far as I am concerned there exists no difference whatsoever between the henchmen of
Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind’ – life is misused for special purposes in both cases. The problem is the growing disregard for spiritual values and their replacement by a crude but ‘scientific’ materialism, occasionally even called humanism: man (i.e. humans as trained by their experts) can solve all problems – they do not need any trust in and any assistance from other agencies. How can I take a person seriously who bemoans distant crimes but praises the criminals in his own neighbourhood? And how can I decide a case from afar seeing that reality is richer than even the most wonderful imagination.
It is apparent, I suspect, that Feyerabend’s work is both polemic and completely against conventional assumptions many intellectuals take for granted. Indeed, the worth of his work lies precisely in his willingness to take such a hard stance against pervasive ideologies that are seldom identified and rarely opposed openly.
If there is a flaw in Feyerabend’s approach
it is not with his philosophy, per se, but in its application. Is it possible
for the transformation of science and society to proceed at a ‘grass roots’
level, from the everyday citizen? It is possible, but doubtful. We have handed
over tremendous political and academic influence to intellectuals (who, for
instance, can affect political decisions without themselves being elected as
representatives), and they will not give up their power lightly. Opposing this
state of affairs by attacking the philosophies which are used to prop up the
status quo will likely fail because people with strong belief systems are
rarely convinced by contrary argument.
What perhaps is needed are people to come to the imaginary negotiating tables with the intent of building bridges. This is what I attempt in my life. It is a thankless task – opponents of religion insist that those with religious belief systems cannot be reasoned with, while opponents of science insist that those with materialist belief systems cannot be reasoned with. I dispute both propositions, although I cannot deny it seems harder to reason with the latter (whose faith is often more absolute) than the former (for whom doubt is a more common experience). Indeed, in my own philosophical investigations, I have thus far been attacked only by the latter, and never by the former, but I do not claim from this trivial sample that blame is attributable to one party and not the other.
Feyerabend draws a line in the sand, and stockpiles enough philosophical ammunition to arm potential revolutionaries willing to tackle the difficult problem of engaging an ‘enemy’ who does not appear to recognise their own culpability, and who seem determined to enforce their solutions on other people against their will. I would prefer to find ways to avoid the conflict entirely, but to do so may require inestimable patience in the face of people with intractably absolute belief systems. I suspect I lack Feyerabend’s pugnacious confidence, but I am certainly grateful to have access to his body of work.
I welcome discussion, but please remember this is a summation of a book: if you wish to fully understand, usefully critique or meaningfully oppose Feyerabend’s views, you should read the book first and not assume my synopsis is anything other than a brief introduction to his work. Or to put it another way: Don’t shoot the messenger! My best wishes to you all!