A long back-and-forth
I was having at 2Blowhards the other day prompted Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata
one of my postings as "the silliest and most potentially disastrous blog
comment of the year 2002". His problem was that I suggested that Michael
Blowhard read more Feyerabend, and he considers Feyerabend (or me, it’s not
entirely clear) to be an "anti-philosopher of anti-science".
At the same time, I was having a hard time with the Blowhards. Friedrich seemed
to be lumping Feyerabend in with Nietzsche, while Michael went one better and
started comparing him to Foucault, of all people. Then, a few days
later, 2Blowhards printed a guest posting by the more philosophically adept
Chris Bertram, who mentioned Feyerabend in the same breath as David Hume.
Now it’s unclear whether Mr Bertram considers Feyerabend to be a philosopher
in the same tradition as Hume, or whether he believes the opposite. But certainly
there seems to be a general perception that Feyerabend is a crazy continental
type who doesn’t belong in the tradition of analytic philosophy. And I just
wanted to use my baby pulpit, here, to assert that he is, indeed, a very rigorous
analytical philosopher, who very much works in the tradition of Hume.
The reason I say this is not necessarily because I agree with everything he
says, and it’s certainly not because Feyerabend was a very good physicist before
he became a philosopher. (Many physicists display distressingly woolly thinking
when it comes to disciplines outside physics.) Rather, I consider Feyerabend
to be at the forefront of the single most important project in philosophy: to
What I’m talking about here is philosophy in the tradition not only of Hume,
but also of Descartes or Wittgenstein. Each of these people carried the skeptical
position further than it had been taken before, in attempt to find out exactly
what we can be sure we know about the world. Hume addressed inference: how can
we know the sun will rise tomorrow? Well, because it always has in the past,
and the future will be like the past. But how can we know the future will be
like the past? Well, because it always has been in the past. The question just
circles back onto itself, and never gets answered. So far, no one has managed
to really solve this paradox which lies at the heart of all science, and indeed
of all our everyday behaviour.
Descartes addressed not our expectations of what will happen in the future,
but our experience of what is happening in the present: what if all our senses
were being tricked by some evil demon? What if this is all some kind of dream?
Can we really trust the evidence of our senses?
And Wittgenstein addressed not what we perceive, but how we think: since we
think in language, and no one can be entirely sure exactly what we mean by anything,
can we even rely on our own thought processes as Descartes proposed?
OK, these are Philosophy 101 oversimplifications of great philosophers. Wittgenstein,
especially, is a lot more complex and nuanced than I’m giving him credit for
here. (If you want, you can dump the "real" Wittgenstein for Saul
Kripke’s "Kripkenstein": he fits my thesis a bit better.) But you
get the general idea: the way that philosophy is advanced is by philosophers
setting out a skeptical stall, and then trying to find solutions to how we can
still arrive at life and knowledge despite the nihilistic attraction of the
And Feyerabend fits very easily into this tradition. For sure, he attacks science
as we know it, and sets out a position which basically says it’s no better than
witchcraft. But that’s what philosophers do: they advance the skeptical position
so that those who believe in science (which is most of us) are forced to construct
with much more rigor and clarity the argument for exactly why we do.
Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry
on Feyerabend. At the bottom, there’s a list of related entries: "analytic
philosophy | anarchism | essential vs. accidental properties | Frege, Gottlob
| Galileo Galilei | Kuhn, Thomas | Lakatos, Imre | liberalism | logic: inductive
| logical positivism | Mach, Ernst | Marxism | meaning | Mill, John Stuart |
Nietzsche, Friedrich | paradox: of analysis | Popper, Karl | postmodernism |
Principia Mathematica | quantum mechanics | rationalism vs. empiricism | realism
| relativism | scientific method | scientific realism | social democracy | Vienna
Circle | Wittgenstein, Ludwig". This isn’t a list of woolly-headed Frenchy
post-structuralists, this is the core of hard-nosed analytic philosophy.
So feel free to disagree with Feyerabend: most of us do. But don’t dismiss
him as an "anti-philosopher": he deserves a lot more respect than