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Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

 

Philosopher of science, a promiment advocate of epistemological anarchism, whose most famous work is Against Method (1975). Feyeabend's exclamation, "Anything goes!" sloganized the central point of the book – that there are no absolute truths and science is an essentially anarchic enterprise. Richard Rorty has called Feuerabend "the Norman Mailer of philosophy."

"Successful research does not obey general standards; it relies now on one trick, now on another; the moves that advance it and the standards that define what counts as an advance are not always known to the movers." (from Against Method)

Paul Feyerabend was born into a middle-class Viennese family. His father, also Paul, was a civil servant. He had participated in the First World War as an officer in the merchant marine. "We were friends, sort of," recalled Feyeabend in his autobiography, "but not very close; I was much too self-centered and much to involved in my own affairs." Years later after his father death, Feyerabend saw him in a dream and asked forgiveness.

Feyerabend's mother, Rosa Witz, was a seamstress; she committed suicide in 1943. Thirteen years earlier she had tried to gas herself. Her suicide note, filled with love and a desire for peace, she addressed to husband.

Feyerabend was an excellent student at school. From the local public library he borrowed Zane Grey, Edgar Wallace, Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, Marie Ebner Eschenbach, Jules Verne, Hedwig Courths-Mahler. At high school he started to read Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Plato, Descartes, Büchner and other dramatist and philosophers. With his father, he built a telescope and became a regular observer for the Swiss Institute of Solar Research, reporting on sunspots. Talented in music, Feyerabend played the accordion, took violin lesson, sang in a mixed choir under the direction of Leo Lehner, and took singing lessons in a conservatory.

After finishing high school in 1942, he was drafted into the German army – an inconvenience according to Feyerabend, not a moral problem, because more than anything else he wanted to read. However, he also considered joining the SS, mainly for aesthetic reasons: "an SS man looked better and spoke better and walked better than ordinary mortals." For his service on the eastern front Feyerabend was awarded an Iron Cross, second class, in 1944. While in Poland in 1945, he was wounded by machine-gun fire and paralyzed for a period of time. One bullet got stuck in his spine. Throughout his life, Feyerabend endured periodically great pain from his war wound, which made him impotent. As a result of his injuries, Feyerabend used painkillers, but was also interested in non-conventional medical treatment.

In 1945, Feyerabend entered the Weimar Music Academy, where he studied theater science. He then moved to Vienna in 1946, where he studied history, sociology, physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtforschnung, part of the University of Vienna. He also began to take singing lessons again and was told that he was not a bass but a tenor. Critics compared him to the Austrian-Czech tenor Leo Slezak (1873 - 1946). "I thought I was better," said Feyerabend.

In the late 1940s, Feyerabend joined an informal philosophy group, named the Kraft-Kreis after Viktor Kraft, a member of the old Vienna Circle. Its meetings took place in Alpbach, a small mountain village near Brixlegg in the Tyrol. The visiting speakers included Elizabet Anscombe, Georg Henrik von Wright, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who enjoyed the disrespectful attitude and impudent questions of the students. During his stay in Alpbach, Feyerabend became acquainted with Karl Popper, a Viennese-born British philosopher of science and logic, famous for such works as Logik der Forschung (1937) and The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Before they actually met, Feyerabend had skimmed through Popper's Logik der Forschung, and had formed a mental image: "he would be tall, thin, serious, slow and deliberate in his speaking. He was the very opposite." Popper deeply influenced Feyerabend's thought, although he turned away from his rational model of science in the 1960s. He considered Popper's philosophy as internally inconsistent, in that Popper did not support methodological pluralism, though he advocated theoretical pluralism. Moreover, Feyerabend stressed the impossibility of comparing theories.

Feyerabend married his first wife, Edeltrud, a student of ethnology, in 1948. "We married for practical reasons," Feyerabend explained, "in the 1940s only married couples could travel together or book a single room." Between 1949 and 1952, Feyerabend attended various courses and summer schools in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy with the dissertation Zur Theorie der Basissätze (1951), Feyerabend moved to London, where he attended Popper's lectures and seminars at the London School of Economics. Upon his return to Vienna he translated Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. For a year, he worked as an assistant to Arthur Pap, and then, in 1955, he went to Bristol, where he taught philosophy of science and the philosophy of quantum mechanics. The course weas a disaster, confessed Feyerabend in his autobiography. In 1956, Feyerabend married Mary O'Neill, his former student – "a masterful performance on my part, full of passion and despair, finally brought her around," Feyerabend said later. However, soon after the honeymoon was over the marriage started falling apart, and Mary moved to the second bedroom.

From 1958 to 1990, until his retirement, Feyerabend was a professor at the University of California in Berkeley. On the wall of his Berkeley home he hung giant King Kong poster. During these years he became acquainted with Thomas Kuhn, the writer of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1960), who first coined the phrase "paradigm shift" Kuhn argued that scientific progress is not gradual, but crisis in "normal science" is sometimes resolved by a revolution that replaces the old paradigm with a new one. The competing paradigms are incommensurable. Feyerabend went even further and suggested that the new theories are not only inconsistent with the old theories, but at the same time a corresponding change takes place in the concepts and the so-called scientific observation terms. There is, in other words, no permanent neutral framework of meanings. All methodologies have their limits. "A scientific revolution which shows the limitation of the theory and which points out very plainly where it is wrong therefore gives back empirical content to the theory," Feyerabend wrote in a letter to Kuhn. "Conclusion: better live in permanent revolution than in the state of normalcy."

Most of his time in the late 1960s, Feyerabend divided between Berkeley, London, and Berlin. An internationally highly sought lecturer, Feyerabend also taught in Auckland, Hamburg, Kassel, Brighton, and Yale. According to a story, he once ended his lecture at the London School of Economics by jumping out the window and riding off on his motorbike. In London, his close friends included Imre Lakatos. At Popper's house, Lakatos, Feyerabend and other philosophers of science, who had criticized him, were known as "the Wasps' Nest Club."

Against Method, which first appeared in volume 4 of the Minnesota Studies, was originally meant to be Feyerabend's part of his common enterprise with Lakatos. However, his colleague died suddenly in 1974, before he could write his planned reply to the work. Where Marx sought to liberate the working class from the tyranny of capital, Feyeabend wanted to liberate scientists from the stultifying effect of "the Laws of Reason." Feyerabend did not contend, that there is no such thing reason, but the complexity, vagaries and unpredictableness of human activity defy the naive and simple-minded rules of rationality. Many of the arguments had been presented in Feyerabend's earlier papers, and even as a student Feyerabend had mocked the theories and abstract concepts of philosophers. Reviewers compared his attitude to that of Karl Kraus.

From 1980 to 1990, Feyeabed taught during the summers at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich. Farewell to Reason (1987), a collection of essays, dealt with such issues as 'Reason, Xenophanes and the Homeric Gods,' 'Progress in Philosophy, the Sciences and the Arts,' 'Galileo and the Tyranny of Truth.' Feyeabend stressed that "scientists in general may profit from a study of unscientific methods and points of view and Western civilization as a whole can learn from the beliefs, habits, institutions of 'primitive' people."

In 1989, Feyerabend married Grazia Borrini; they had met already in 1983 at Berkeley, where she had attended his seminar. A brilliant student of physics, she had given up her promising career in natural sciences after having seen human misery in India, and devoted herself to conservation and development. Upon his retirement, Feyerabend lead a withdrawn life in Switzerland. During this period, Feyerabend wrote his autobiography, Killing Time, and worked on a book entitled The Conquest of Abundance. It was intended to show "how specialists and common people reduce the abundance that surrounds and confuses them, and the consequences of their actions." Feyerabend did not finish the book. A couple of weeks after writing the last words of his autobiography, a tumor began to affect the pain center in his brain.  Having been accustomed to painkillers, he needed extremely high doses of morphine. Feyerabend died on February 11, 1994, in Geneva.

During his active academic career, Feyerabend's unconventionality, independence and provocative writings turned him into a legendary figure. It was known that he did not always prepare his lecture or he could cancel it at the last minute, because he had something better to do. It was also (wrongly) claimed, that he had eleven children. Although Feyerabend's agitative style did not even scratch the surface of academic etiquette, his anti-foundational mode of thought, arguments against rationality, and epistemological anarchism stimulated the postmodernist deconstruction of tradition. On the other hand, before becoming pope Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in a talk Feyerabend in support of his views.

For further reading: Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists by David C. Stove (1982); Beyond Reason: Essays on the Philosophy of Paul Feyerabend, ed. by Gonzalo Munévar (1991) ; Criticism and the History of Science: Kuhn'S, Lakatos's and Feyerabend's Criticisms of Critical Rationalism by Gunnar Andersson (1994); Feyerabend: Philosophy, Science and Society by John Preston (1997); The Worst Enemy of Science: Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend, ed. by John Preston et al. (2000); Feyerabend and Scientific Values: Tightrope-Walking Rationality by R.P. Farrell (2003); Feyerabend's Philosophy by Eric Oberheim (2006)

Selected works:

  • Humanities in Austria: A Report on Postwar Developments, 1955 (translated by Ingeborg Satzinger, Vilma Anderl, and Elvin Schlecht)
  • Knowledge without Foundations, 1961 (two lectures delivered on the Nellie Heldt Lecture Fund)
  • Mind, Matter, and Method: Essays in Philosophy and Science in Honor of Herbert Feigl, 1966 (editor, with Grover Maxwell)
  • Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, 1975
  • Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, 1976 (edited by R. S. Cohen, P. K. Feyerabend, and M. W. Wartofsky)
  • Science in a Free Society, 1978
  • Der wissenschaftstheoretische Realismus und die Autorität der Wissenschaften, 1978
  • Ausgewählte Schriften, 1978-1981
  • Erkenntnis für freie Menschen, 1979
  • Realism, Rationalism, and Scientific Method: Philosophical Papers. Volume 1, 1981
  • Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers. Volume 2, 1981
  • Wissenschaft als Kunst, 1984
  • Farewell to Reason, 1987
  • Three Dialogues on Knowledge, 1991
  • Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend, 1995
  • Briefe an einen Freund, 1995 (edited by Hans Peter Duerr)
  • Paul Feyerabend-Hans Albert Briefwechsel, 1997 (edited by Wilhelm Baum)
  • Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction Versus the Richness of Being, 1999 (edited by Bert Terpstra )
  • Knowledge, Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers. Volume 3, 1999 (edited by John Preston)
  • For and Against Method: Including Lakatos's Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence, 1999
  • Naturphilosophie, 2009 (edited by Helmut Heit and Eric Oberheim)
  • Aber ein Paul hilft doch dem anderen: Paul Feyerabend--Paul Hoyningen-Huene Briefwechsel 1983-1994, 2010 (edited by Christian Augustin)
  • Tyranny of Science, 2011 (edited, and with an introduction, by Eric Oberheim)


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