Feyerabend and philosophy

A long back-and-forth

I was having at 2Blowhards the other day prompted Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata

to nominate

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

defeat skepticism.

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

skeptical position.

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


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9 Responses to Feyerabend and philosophy

  1. Michelle says:

    Who are you? But the bizarre thing is – I halfway understood what you just wrote. God I hate philosophy.

  2. Stefan says:

    Look, obviously science progresses in the sense that it creates a more accurate, usable picture of the real world over time, and art progresses in the sense of accumulated experience, like history. While we use the same word–progress–they mean completely different things. Philosophers are clever to the extent they realise this. Why do we have to bring in big names into these arguments anyway–are they mean to bolster our respective positions?

  3. Felix says:

    No, Stefan, the philosophers are meant to make us defend our positions: make us reconstitute them from first principles, as it were, rather than just think we know them without ever really addressing the issue. You can assert that science uniquely “creates a more accurate, usable picture of the real world over time”, but the point of reading Feyerabend is to make you doubt that, and to articulate clearly exactly why you do believe it.

    Surely you can see the Hume-style paradox here: the only way to prove your assertion true is, essentially, by saying that science says shows it to be so.

  4. Chris says:

    How do you arrive at the conclusion that Feyerabend’s philosophy is a project to defeat skepticism?

    My own reading of Feyerabend is that he tries to defeat extremism in any direction. This means that skepticism can be useful at one time and fruitless another.

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