Paul Feyerabend – Against Method


Paul Feyerabend. Against Method. 3rd Ed. Verso, 1993.

This book is, as the title is saying plainly, challenging the idea that in science there is and has been a proper methodology for scientific research distinctive from non-science and pseudo-science. If only one methodology were allowed in science, we could not have had science as what we have today, because there might have been no progress in science. In the history of science, there have never been just a proper method, but rather the scientific revolutions have been always possible with the pursuit of different method, or even with neglect of the established method. Even though historians and philosophers of science define the principles of scientific research and theorize what makes science and what does not, they only interpret and thus restrict the concreteness and variety of the history of scientific revolution.

For Feyerabend, “the events, procedures and results that constitute the science have no common structure”(1). Since there is no one proper scientific method distinct from other intellectual activities, and there is no uniform procedure in science universally applicable, he argues that “science is an essentially anarchic enterprise”(9). As the results of historical research on science will show, “there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other”(14). For him, “such violations are not accidental events”, rather they are “necessary for progress.” Science is as an anarchic project because such scientific “events and developments … occurred only because some thinkers either decided not to be bound by certain ‘obvious’ methodological rules, or because they unwittingly broke them”(14).

For there is no exclusive rule in the procedure of scientific progress, scientists have to find (invent) ad hoc methods or principles which could fit to their own situations and problems. Moreover, “anarchism helps to achieve progress in any one of the senses one cares to choose.” Thus, if there is only one principle in science (and in all forms of social fields), for Feyerabend, it is the principle of “anything goes”(19). Put it another way, progress in science is only possible in the situation that anything can be regarded as a solution – that is open to every methods. It is not a certain rule or method that makes science, but this anarchic situation, in which plural methodologies or unlimited methods are allowed to participate in the arena and compete with each other, is the very principle of science. When he advocates traditional Chinese medicine, he is not making an argument that it is a proper scientific method. Rather, he insists that only in that circumstance where quasi-science or non-Western science can equally compete, we can acknowledge that science is properly working. For him, “First-world science is one science among many”(3). According to him:

Knowledge so conceived is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. Nothing is ever settled, no view can ever be omitted from a comprehensive account. (21)

My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic. (23)

However, this kind of anarchic method (or methodological anarchism) – and the epistemological relativism (though he refuses this title) – is so radical that it shakes the very foundation of history and philosophy of science. To prove his hypothesis and support his argument, Feyerabend look into the historical example of Galileo. Feyerabend thinks that Galileo could succeed in justifying his ideas, not only because he didn’t follow strict rules such as logical positivists’ verifiability and Popper’s falcifiability, but also because he broke the rules in some ways. For Galileo, who attempted to introduce a new idea and construct a new system against Aristotelian physics which has been developed for a long time, there were much more things unverifiable than the verifiable facts. Thus, his theory could not be successful at all in competing with Aristotle if it was to be determined by Popper’s or logical positivists’ standard – for it was full of unverifiable and falcifiable cases and there “exist numerous discrepancies between observation and theory” (40). As Feyerabend explains with Galileo’s reasoning:

Galileo’s utterances are indeed arguments in appearance only. For Galileo uses propaganda. He uses psychological tricks in addition to whatever intellectual reasons he has to offer. These tricks are very successful: they lead him to victory. But they obscure the new attitude towards experience that is in the making, and postpone for centuries the possibility of a reasonable philosophy. They obscure the fact that the experience on which Galileo wants to base the Copernican view is nothing but the result of his own fertile imagination, that it has been invented. (65)

Instead of the power of reason, what Galileo used to prove his ideas and system was propagandistic machination and trickery – “the refutations being made ineffective by ad hoc hypotheses and clever techniques of persuasion”(105). Nonetheless, Galileo’s dynamics has been successfully developed by Newton and other scientist, and now there is no one who argues that Galileo’s theory had to be dropped since it had not been verifiable or falcifiable. That is to say, an emerging theory form the developmental process of science (and scientific theory) needs to be left unsettled until it can demonstrate its potential, rather than simply being verified and deserted by the established rules. For Feyerabend, development of science will be obstructed if science is determined by only “rationality” in choosing the proper theory.

AS Feyerabend asserts in the preface, science should maintain its independence from non-scientific culture (“rationalist, secular humanist, Marxist, and similar religious movements”(viii)) and vice versa. He regards the established law-and-order and natural reason – social and political intervention as well as philosophical interpretation of science which poses the principle of what science has been and should be – as functioning like an obstruction to the development of science. He thinks that, only when the orthodox methodology and dogmatic approach towards science are removed, real progress can be achieved. However, Galileo’s case as he uses as an example for that argument can work as a counter-example. Galileo’s social power and other cultural (religious) factors could make it possible to propel the development of his theory which is discrepant with the observation.


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