On (at last) reading Feyerarbend’s “Against Method”

As a more-or-less loyal Popperian, I’d always thought of Paul Feyerabend as being more or less in league with Satan, or at least with Derrida. But I’m finally getting around to reading his Against Method, and it’s a stunning accomplishment.

I’ve had a strong amateur interest in the philosophy of science since college days. Like most amateurs &#8212 and unlike most professionals &#8212 I have a natural affinity for Popper’s falsificationism as an account of the logic of what it means to be “science,” though after reading Kuhn I couldn’t deny its inadequacy as an historical explanation of how science grew, and grows. I can still recall my delight at first reading Conjectures and Refutations; whatever his merits or defects as a philospher, Popper’s prose is superb.

I’d read some of Feyerabend’s work, and (naturally, given my predilections) found him almost incomprehensibly perverse: an agent of Satan, or at least of Derrida. As a result, I’d never bothered to read his Against Method, until now.

Of course I’m in no position to check Feyerabend’s historical claims, and haven’t looked at what his opponents had to say. But it’s really quite a stunning essay, and quite convincing in places, especially in his discussion of Galileo and the Copernican Revolution.

That doesn’t make me any less distrustful of Feyerabend’s professedly “Dadaist” intentions; his plea for the “separation of science and state” still seems incomprehensible in a world where legislatures, officials, and judges need constantly to decide about matters of fact and prediction in situations where philosophic agnosticism provides no guide to present action. So I’m going to recommend that all my friends read Against Method, while praying that the Discovery Institute never finds it or grasps its polemical power.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

7 thoughts on “On (at last) reading Feyerarbend’s “Against Method””

  1. I haven't read "Against Method" since college, so I won't comment too mcuh on it (my memories of it aren't particularly fond, however). Galileo was hundreds of years ago, however, and I often wish certain philosophers of science would get over it.

  2. You need to read Larry Laudan, _Progress and its problems_. That will put your demons to rest. If you have time see also his: _Beyond Positivism and Relativism_.
    Laudan is a pragmatist, which I think will dovetail with some of your biases.

  3. And don't forget that for years Popper claimed that the theory of evolution wasn't science since it couldn't be falsified. Later he changed his mind and said it not only was falsifiable, but had in fact been falsified (his example, that not everything was an adaptation, showed more that he didn't understand evolution very well.)

  4. John Casti's Paradigms Lost has some interesting observations about the history and methods of science (chapter 1, and the book is aimed at a lay audience).
    But for a very good read about what science is about, I recommend Sokal & Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense. Chapter 4. The book is mostly refuting philosophers who know nothing about science but use the terminology and concepts in misguided ways. As part of that exercise, the authors devote one solid chapter to how science "works". There, Popper is taken to task (mildly) and Feyerabend as well. Hume and Kuhn are also discussed.
    (Full disclosure: I am a big Alan Sokal fan.)
    One thing about Kuhn: He focused on the area of science, fundamental forces, that do require a substantial revision of all theory as new details emerge (gravity, first Newtonian, then Einstienian). But other areas of science don't work that way, they are cumulative, and don't have Revolutions. For example, early discoveries that blood circulates in the body haven't required revision.
    Another book to check out for comments on how science proceeds is Heinz Pagels' The Dreams of Reason. Again, for a lay audience.

  5. Martin Gardner also does an excellent job of bshing the hell out of Feyerabend & Co. in "The Night Is Large".
    To go back to the REAL seminal philosopher of Deconstructionism, however, one must quote a certain up-and-coming German politician of the 1930s: "A new age of magical interpretation of the world is coming, of interpretation of it by the will rather than by the overrated intellect. There is no such thing as truth, either in the moral or in the scientific sense." No wonder Paul le Man had Nazi sympathies…

  6. I'm sure the Discovery Institute is well-aware of Feyerabend, but he's a tough horse for them to hitch their wagon to, whether for his Nazi youth or his extreme-left middle age. But the real problem with Against Method is that he doesn't really grapple with the problem of theory choice in any scientifically productive way. If Lysenko has the most guns, so to speak, what do we do with Lysenkoism?
    I recommend the prologue and afterword of F. Suppe’s The Structure of Scientific Theories for more on this.

Comments are closed.