Paul Feyerabend and the debate on the philosophy of science

Paul Feyerabend (born January 13, 1924, died February 11, 1994) is best known for his contributions to the philosophy of science, which is somewhat ironic because, I guess, he wouldn’t have considered himself a philosopher of science. I don’t just mean that he wouldn’t have considered himself only a philosopher of science. No, I mean he saw himself as a thinker for whom disciplinary boundaries meant absolutely nothing. In his later years, he even denied being a philosopher. But from the moment he truly made his mark as an independent thinker (independent of the philosophers under whom he had studied and worked), Feyerabend’s tendency was to wade through huge swaths of human thought, disregarding their own. assumed differences and limitations. lines. This is in part why in his books and articles one encounters not only the usual philosophical suspects, but also a wide range of thinkers, including scientists of all stripes (of course), the Fathers of the Church, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, historians, playwrights, poets, political thinkers, anthropologists and astrologers. (It was this quality of an enormously wide intellectual spectrum, I must say, that first attracted me to his works). One of the reasons Feyerabend came to despise contemporary philosophy was undoubtedly that it no longer presents, and perhaps cannot truly present, the kind of characters he admired most, such as his pioneering colleagues Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein, for whom the expression “philosophers-physicists” was coined.

It is also ironic because while Feyerabend was a fervent admirer of certain scientists, he also provided, or canonized, a perspective on knowledge which does not give science any special or privileged place. This was cemented quite early in the book that made its name, Against the method (1975). to throw them aside when they get in the way. Although Feyerabend had some influence on important figures in the philosophy of science, such as Bas van Fraassen, Ronald Giere, and John Dupré, the real impact he had was outside of philosophy, as he became known in other disciplines as an “epistemological anarchist”, and the idea that a philosopher of science could have this reputation has given impetus to relativistic tendencies of all kinds outside of philosophy, for example in archeology.

Paul Feyerabend enjoying a walk in Rome, Italy. Attributed to Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend via Wikimedia Commons.

This reputation itself gave rise to the charge that Feyerabend was “science’s worst enemy” (Theocharis, T. & Psimopoulos, M., “Where Science Has Gone Wrong”, Nature, 1987, p.596). He certainly does not have mean be that, and his fans have enthusiastically sought to defend him from that accusation. You can see where the reviews are coming from, however. Because the way Feyerabend plans to assess science is somewhat unusual. His work seems to preclude, or at least discourage, any attempt to assess different approaches, including science, in truly epistemic terms. That is, he was deeply skeptical of any attempt to say that one approach, or theory, constituted knowledge where another was only opinion. And that skepticism spread, I believe, even to much more qualified epistemic evaluation terms, such as claims that an approach or theory was better epistemically justified than, or more likely to be true than, or even just more. closer to the truth than another. However, this does not mean that Feyerabend did not consider any way to evaluate the approaches. Rather, he encouraged us to evaluate approaches, including science, in terms of their contribution to human happiness. I’m afraid that while one could apply this suggestion at a very general level, to the comparative assessment of worldviews, it doesn’t really tell us anything about how to assess different theories. in science.

I’m also concerned that besides being too hard on science (since some people will inevitably reject science on its basis), Feyerabend’s suggestion is also too soft on him. Feyerabend was, especially in later works such as The tyranny of science (2011) an enemy of “scientism”, the belief that science has the resources to answer all important human questions. But due to his marked allergy to disciplinary boundaries, he lacked one of the main elements of what I consider the most plausible case against scientism, the idea that there are kinds questions, and therefore considerations from one domain cannot always be used to answer questions in another domain. Those of scientist persuasion, however, may well assert that, having opted for the scientific worldview on the basis of its contribution to human happiness, they not only accept it in its entirety, but also find that view. of the world able to answer all important questions. In other words, scientism seems to be able to legitimize itself in the light of Feyerabend’s suggestions.

Thus, I find myself torn between admiration for Feyerabend, and the feeling that his philosophy cannot really provide ammunition against those who, like some of the great contemporary defenders of scientism and atheism, think he there are no real questions outside of science. or against those who, like Steven Hawking, think that philosophy has been supplanted by science.

Featured image credit: Title page of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) by H. Institutoris, a widely read medieval text on the extermination of witches. Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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