Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music


Paul Feyerabend

Notes by Eric T. Berg


Music 829
April 17, 2000

Feyerabend, Paul. (1988). Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: Verso Editions.

Anarchy - The Paradox of Defining Feyerabend

In contrast to the attempts to provide a strict definition of science as compared to such thins as prescience or pseudo-science or to provide a specific paradigm within which science is to operate, Paul Feyerabend seems to take the position that 'anything goes'. Feyerabend believes that the workings of the universe involve a highly complex and diverse set of conditions and processes and that to limit our approach to a finite set of rules or conditions seriously undermines the accuracy with which we can draw conclusions about anything. By restricting the methods and attitudes we are restricting our potential for discovery.

Despite this apparent chaotic approach to science, Feyerabend does not seem to compeltely reject the idea of logical theoretical constructs.

"Knowledge so conceived is not a series of self-consistent theories that converge towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternaties, 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." (p. 21)
Feyerabend is concerned that, with the vastness of reality, and our limited understanding of it, that by limiting our approach, or by rejecting other theories, no matter how 'fairy-tale' like, might likely prevent us from gleaning important information about the world that we are examining.

At issue for Feyerabend, are the ways in which we approach scientific study. One perspective is that science is not an endpoint. He praises Niels Bohr who expressed that achieved results are nothing more than a starting point for further observations. (p. 15n). He feels that Popper is limited to having ideas first and then acting upon them, and then relates that children often learn by experiencing first and then coming to an understanding. (p. 16)

Feyerabend suggests a method based on the idea of a 'counter-rule', based on induction as well as 'facts'. The counter-induction proceeds by introducing elaborate hypotheses that are inconsistent with well established theories. the counter-rule regarding facts expresses that "prejudices are found by contrast, not by analysis." (p. 22) this is consistent with the concept that, if all we do is present evidence that supports existing theories, then what do we really learn. There is also the problem that Dr. Huron expressed in Music 838, regarding perception; which is that 'our senses can deceive us, sometimes deliberately.' From Feyerabend, "Given appropriate stimuli, but different systems of classification (different 'mental sets') our perceptual apparatus may produce perceptual objects that cannot be easily compared," (p. 172)

Feyerabend on Science and Society

Feyerabend states that his main reason for writing Against Method was

"humanitarian, not intellectual. I wanted to support people, not to 'advance knowledge'. People all over the world have developed ways of surviving in partly dangerous, partly agreeable surroundings. The stories they told and the activities they engaged in enriched their lives, protected them and gave them meaning. The 'progress of knowledge and civilization' -- as the process of pushing Western ways and values into all corners of the globe is being called -- destroyed these wonderful products of human ingenuity and compassion without a single glance in their direction." (p. 4)
People have survived for millennia without Western science, knowing and interacting inteligently with their surroundings. Feyerabend relates an example from Claude Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, where "several thousand Cuahuila Indians never exhausted the natural resources of a desert region of Southern California, in which today only a handful of whites manage to subsist." "...they were familiar with no less than sixty kinds of edible plants and 28 others of narcotic stimulant or medical properties." (p.3).

Witness too, how many fads and products are associated with 'scientific research' ("scientifically proven formula") that are contradicted only a short time later. 'The success of science cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved problems in a standardized way." and "non-scientific procedures cannot be pushed aside by argument." (p. 2) for example, because research is non-scientific, money will not be made available for research. Science is not always successful. "Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies must be protected from science." (p. vii)

Thoughts on Feyerabend's Theory

As we have seen from the arguments about falsificationism, it is not always possible to know which theories are valid and which are not. Theories can be initially disproven which are later upheld. If we discard them too early we risk losing a valuable line of inquiry. There is is also Feyerabend's point that we can't know in advance where our 'understanding' will come from and that 'reality' is too complex to be described by just one paradigm.

Problems also exist in that it can be inefficient to approach from every direction at once. Time and resources (including funding) often require that we pick an approach that seems most likely to bear fruit more quickly. Finally, following a more narrow approach allows new heories to be built on previous knowledge in a more direct manner.

When asked if he read all of the papers sent to him, Feyerabend responds, "'Anything goes' does not mean that I shall read every single paper that has been written...it means that I make a selection in a highly individual and idiosyncratic way...humanity and science will profit from everyone doing his own thing." (p. 165) Feyerabend denies the principle of 'anything goes', saying that he does "not think that 'principles' can be used and fruitfully discussed outside the concrete research situation they are supposed to address." (p. vii)