Paul Feyerabend's globally acclaimed work, which sparked and continues to stimulate fierce debate, examines the deficiencies of many widespread ideas about scientific progress and the nature of knowledge. Feyerabend argues that scientific advances can only be understood in a historical context. He looks at the way the philosophy of science has consistently overemphasized practice over method, and considers the possibility that anarchism could replace rationalism in the theory of knowledge. This updated edition of the classic text includes a new introduction by Ian Hacking, one of the most important contemporary philosophers of science. Hacking reflects on both Feyerabend's life and personality as well as the broader significance of the book for current discussions.
Some of his other ideas, especially his call for a formal separation of science and state, have not aged gracefully. Judging by the overall thrust of his arguments I'm fairly certain that, were he still around, he'd revise these ideas in response to recent and powerful attacks on science (as with environmentalism, evolution, social policy, and medical research, to name some examples).
Feyerabend's notoriety originates squarely in his controversial thoughts on science, which earned him the dubious title of "science's worst enemy". These positions are made explicit here, and those who take for granted the objectivity and certainty of science will find little comfort. Feyerabend's argument centers on the privileged position afforded to science in largely secular, modern nations, a position he considers unfounded and, taken to logical conclusion, dehumanizing. Science often attempts to punch above its weight, he argues, and this is not only misleading -- as "the scientific method" is itself a myth -- but politically dangerous as we are meant to give priority to science over other forms of inquiry given that science is "objective".
Against Method is a sustained attack on all of these premises, and Feyerabend's own "anarchistic" anything-goes, no-method methodology of scientific discovery. He clarifies in an early footnote that he is no political anarchist; his "anything goes" mantra is meant to apply to rational acquisition of knowledge, a position which he credits more to the surrealists of the Dada movement than to the Black Block.
I'm not entirely persuaded by his argument, at least certain facets of it, but I do largely agree with his position against any universal methodology of science. It seems clear to me that all attempts to "explain science" have, to date, been unsuccessful (usefulness of these accounts is up for debate of course but none are without problems). I also share his skepticism about the creep of science into public policy -- not because policy should not be guided by objectively-grounded facts, but exactly because there is no clear definition of "science". The messy range of fields we call "science" can achieve a degree of corroboration and acceptance that we can venture a tenuous claim of "certainty", but to claim that this applies to anything baring resemblance to this hazy ideal is, at best, rosy-eyed optimism. I believe Feyerabend is right to point out these limitations, and that we should all take a longer pause before we jump on board with ideas that are "established" by scientific research.
There are problems with Feyerabend's account, to be sure. As with so many works of philosophy the point is not to climb aboard with starry eyes, but to consider the arguments made and realize that perhaps there is something of use to take away and that perhaps your own certainties could stand further examination. In that respect, Against Method succeeds.
Looking at the big picture, Feyerabend writes, “It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity,’ ‘truth,’ it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes” (pg. 18-19). Furthermore, “Science gives us theories of great beauty and sophistication. Modern science has developed mathematical structures which exceed anything that has existed so far in coherence generality and empirical success. But in order to achieve this miracle all the existing troubles had to be pushed into the relation between theory and fact, and had to be concealed, by ad hoc hypotheses, ad hoc approximation and other procedures” (pg. 49).
In this way, “There are situations when our most liberal judgements [sic] and our most liberal rules would have eliminated a point of view which we regard today as essential for science, and would not have permitted it to prevail – and such situations occur quite frequently. The ideas survived and they now are said to be in agreement with reason. They survived because prejudice, passion, conceit, errors, sheer pigheadedness, in short because all the elements that characterize the context of discovery, opposed the dictates of reason and because these irrational elements were permitted to have their way” (pg. 116). He cautions, “Neither logic nor experience can limit speculation and that outstanding researchers often transgressed widely accepted limits” (pg. 124). Furthermore, “Wherever we look, whatever examples we consider, we see that the principles of critical rationalism (take falsifications seriously; increase content; avoid ad hoc hypotheses; ‘be honest’ – whatever that means; and so on) and, a fortiori, the principles of logical empiricism (be precise; base your theories on measurements; avoid vague and untestable ideas; and so on), though practised in special areas, give an inadequate account of the past development of science as a whole and are liable to hinder it in the future” (pg. 157).
Feyerabend concludes, “Science is only one of the many instruments people invented to cope with their surroundings. It is not the only one, it is not infallible and it has become too powerful, too pushy, and too dangerous to be left on its own” (pg. 160). Additionally, “Science is not sacrosanct. There mere fact that it exists, is admired, has results is not sufficient for making it a measure of excellence” (pg. 124). Finally, “The cultures that call forth a certain reality and these realities themselves are never well defined. Cultures change, they interact with other cultures and the indefiniteness resulting therefrom is reflected in their worlds. This is what makes intercultural understanding and scientific change possible: potentially every culture is all cultures” (pg. 272).
The trouble with that is not just that scientists aren't good at rhetoric, or aren't trained in it, but that we are actively encultured to believe that good rhetoric is actively immoral.
When an argument is won or lost of the basis of who is the best rhetorician, then the truth is immaterial to which way the argument goes - and we couldn't have that - the wrong argument must always loose, whoever presents it and the correct one win. Of course the implicit (but false) belief here is that if the facts are presented, unadorned by any form of persuasion, the truth will always win out.
To be fair, this belief is also often shared by the public - just look at the distrust of lawyers - the best lawyers can win an argument for which side they are assigned to, and the public distrust this.
Of course, these are all fair points. But yet lawyers continue to 'nefariously' win the arguments they're assigned to, and politicians continue to garner votes on their abilities to "win hearts and minds". Science communicators, of necessity, need to get in on this.
I don't think it's a false belief "that if facts are presented, unadorned by any form of persuasion, the truth will always win out." I believe in both a universal standard of truth and 'the ideal speech situation'. The trouble is precisely that it is an ideal. No one has perfect powers of reasoning and it is impossible for facts to be presented unadorned by any form of persuasion. Unfortunately, power is present in all argument. It can even be present in the assigning of 'facts'.
Science communicators need to acknowledge this unavoidably imperfect state of affairs and use rhetoric for the right reason.
It is not an easy book to read, and there were times when I wondered if he would ever move beyond Aristotle and Galileo.
However, once you get into the second half of
At the end, he spelled out some of his own beliefs, and this raised the book to a higher dimension than I had initially thought possible. It is not a book for the faint of heart but stay with it and you will be rewarded.
A number of examples and arguments from the work of Gallileo, as well as other scientists support the claims of this "Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge" over the work of Popper and those who give a more staid account of the scientific enterprise.
Originally written to be a dialogue with another piece proposing counter-arguments from his sparring-partner Imre Lakatos, which was not produced due to his untimely death (Letters between them have however been published elsewhere). It is difficult to read in places, but worth the effort.
Recommended for anyone with an interest in the philosophy of science, or who works in science. Anything Goes.