Paul Karl Feyerabend (January 13, 1924 - February 11, 1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science, who later lived in England, the United States and New Zealand. His most famous works include Against Method (published in 1975), and Farewell to Reason (collection of his papers published in 1987).
Feyerabend commenced an eclectic intellectual life reading history, sociology and then theoretical physics. He appears to have followed the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, then coming under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. He was granted a British Council scholarship to study under Wittgenstein, who died before Feyerabend moved to England. Feyerabend then chose Popper as his supervisor.
It was at the London School of Economics that he met another of Popper’s students, Imre Lakatos. They planned to write a collaboration in which Lakatos’ Method of Scientific Research Projects would be followed by a critique by Feyerabend. Lakatos' sudden death put an end to this planned joint publication. Despite this, Feyerabend wrote the critique, which became his famous criticism of methodology, first as an article and then as a book entitled Against Method(AM).
Feyerabend’s critique of science takes place on two fronts. Having been influenced by Popper, he examines in detail the logic of scientific method, as well as making a detailed, if unconventional, study of key episodes in the history of science.
Feyerabend argued that adherence to any strict method, such as those presented by Lakatos or Popper, would in the long run be counterproductive for the progress of science. All such methods place unhelpful restrictions in the path of progress.
Feyerabend points out that to insist that new theories be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the older theory. He makes the logical point that being compatible with a defunct older theory does not increase the validity or truth of a new theory over an alternative covering the same content. That is, if one had to choose between two theories of equal explanatory power, to choose the one that is compatible with an older, falsified theory is to make an aesthetic, rather than a rational choice. The familiarity of such a theory might also make it more appealing to scientists, since they will not have to disregard as many cherished prejudices. Hence, that theory can be said to have “an unfair advantage”.
Feyerabend also argues that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. He uses several examples, but ‘renormalization’ in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style: “This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered” (AM p. 61). Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that physicists not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods – quite the opposite. He is arguing that they are essential to the progress of science. Feyerabend’s dispute is with methodologies that hide this fact.
Together these remarks sanction the introduction of theories that are inconsistent with well-established facts. Furthermore, a pluralistic methodology that involves making comparisons between any theories at all forces defendants to improve the articulation of each theory. Thus Feyerabend proposes that science might proceed best not by induction, but by counterinduction.
Feyerabend examines in detail crucial events in the history of science, arguing that they provide examples of counterinduction at work. For instance, from the point of view of an Aristotelian, that a ball dropped from a tower lands directly under the point from which it was dropped, and not to one side or the other, is a falsification of the hypothesis that the earth moves. Feyerabend argues that in order to progress beyond Aristotelianism, Galileo had to make use of ad hoc hypothesis and alterations to the very language in which observations are made. For Feyerabend, Galileo proceeds counterinductively, and against the rational principles of scientific method.
Feyerabend objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. New theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition of progress you see fit) is "anything goes": "'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history." (Feyerabend, 1975).
Feyerabend enjoyed using inflammatory and direct language. He described science as being essentially anarchistic, of being obsessed with its own mythology, and of making claims to truth well beyond its actual capacity. He called for a separation of the state and science for much the same reasons that are used to justify the separation of state and church.
There is passion and energy in Feyerabend's writings unequaled by other philosophers of science. In his autobiography Killing Time he reveals that this came at great cost to himself. Following the initial reviews of Against Method, which were overwhelmingly negative, he fell into a deep depression.
The depression stayed with me for over a year; it was like an animal, a well-defined, spatially localizable thing. I would wake up, open my eyes, listen --Is it here or isn't? No sign of it. Perhaps it's asleep. Perhaps it will leave me alone today. Carefully, very carefully, I get out of bed. All is quiet. I go to the kitchen, start breakfast. Not a sound. TV -Good Morning America-, David What's-his-name, a guy I can't stand. I eat and watch the guests. Slowly the food fills my stomach and gives me strength. Now a quick excursion to the bathroom, and out for my morning walk -and here she is, my faithful depression: "Did you think you could leave without me?"
Despite this, Feyerabend remained an aggressive controversialist to his dying days. In his last book, unfinished when he died, he talks of how our sense of reality is shaped and limited. Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being bemoans the propensity we have of institutionalizing these limitations.
Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)
Science in a Free Society (1978)
Farewell to Reason (1987)
Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991)
Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend (1995)
Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being (1999)
Realism, Rationalism and Scientific Method: Philosophical papers, Volume 1 (1981)
Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (1981)
Knowledge, Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3 (1999)