Against Method – Paul Feyerabend (1975/1988)

Against Method book
Against Method was initially published with the subtitle “Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge” but in a revised edition of 1988 the subtitle was removed, and numerous changes were made to the text. I quite liked the footnote that Feyerabend had in his original, where he actually backs away from the use of the term ‘anarchism’ and prefers instead ‘dadaism’:

A Dadist is utterly unimpressed by any serious enterprise and he smells a rat whenever people stop smiling and assume that attitude and those facial expressions which indicate that something important is about to be said. A Dadaist is convinced that a worthwhile life will arise only when we start taking things lightly and when we remove from our speech the profound but already putrid meanings it has accumulated over the centuries (‘search for truth’; ‘defence of justice’; ‘passionate concern’; etc., etc.) A Dadaist is prepared to initiate joyful experiments even in those domains where choice and experimentation seem to be out of the question (example: the basic functions of language). I hope having read the pamphlet the reader will remember me as a flippant Dadaist and not as a serious anarchist.

So what is this book about? I’m only about halfway through, and it is quite dense, but here’s my sense of it. Feyerabend makes the case that the advancement of science involves a whole lot more than mere rationalism; i.e. that there is no single method for advancing science. He argues against Popper and falsification, saying that all theories have some observations that do not fit perfectly. And he does a great job at bringing out the fact that assumptions underlie even the facts and obervations that are brought to bear on any subject.

He uses the history of Galileo to illustrate many of these points. Galileo used his telescope to make observations that would promote the theory that the earth revolves. Yet Feyerabend points out that the use of the telescope at that point did not have a good theoretical basis, optics was not well understood, and thus these observations brought with them the need for a whole new conceptual framework that was not yet in place at that time (Feyerabend says Galileo used ‘propaganda’ to advance his case).

Looking back on it now we have a much stronger conceptual framework, so we can accept the telescope evidence pretty easily. But Feyerabend claims that if the rationalists of today (who celebrate Galileo) were around with their mindset at that time, would likely have rejected Galileo’s arguments. I think he’s right.

So the Galileo case is used to show that science advances not just in rational steps, but in many different ways, and thus to insist on a certain method is to close the door on various possible advances. Now it’s very true that science has changed since Galileo’s time, but I think Feyerabend is making some points about science as a human enterprise that are important.

Update: Just adding a few thoughts now that I’ve finished the book. There’s an intriguing issue raised about whether science is ‘taking the path of least resistance’ – exploring those areas that seem most amenable to exploration, and ignoring things that are ‘too complicated’. The example given is the path of biology into molecular biology, seemingly bypassing the full systems approach.

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