Paul Feyerabend

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
twentieth-century philosophy,
Name: Paul Feyerabend
Birth: January 13, 1924
Death: February 11, 1994
School/tradition: Critic of Falsificationism
Main interests
Philosophy of science, Epistemology, Politics,
Notable ideas
"Anything Goes!," scientific anarchism
Influences Influenced
John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard Imre Lakatos, Paul Churchland

Paul Karl Feyerabend (January 13, 1924 – February 11, 1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science. He was one of the half-dozen or so most important and influential post-positivist philosophers of science in the years from about the mid 1950s to about the end of the 1980s. (See the articles "Vienna Circle," "Logical positivism," and "Analytic philosophy" for an account of positivist philosophy of science and the demise of positivism.) His most-read book, Against Method (1975)—read by all philosophers of science and many working scientists, as well as many other bystanders to those specialties—provoked both praise and outrage from all sides. He is most noted for moving from supporting some form of logical or quasi-logical method in science and scientific discovery to what came to be known as an "anything goes" anti-method stance. Besides his philosophical interests, he had training and work in as well as great appreciation of singing and theater.


Feyerabend lived, worked, and taught in Austria, England, the United States, Germany, New Zealand, Italy, and finally Switzerland. One commentator has noted, "If one looks at the course of Feyerabend's life, one is struck by the fact that he was often in places where especially intensive discussions in the philosophy of science occurred at the time." (Paul Hoyningen-Huene, "An Obituary: Paul K. Feyerabend," in The Worst Enemy of Science?) His major works include Against Method (1975), Science in a Free Society (1978), and Farewell to Reason (a collection of papers published in 1987).

Feyerabend was at one time a follower and defender of Karl Popper, but he ultimately broke with Popper and became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He has been accused of being a supporter of postmodernism, deconstructionism, and anti-intellectualism, and has been placed "in a tradition that has undermined the intellectual authority of science." (John Preston & David Lamb, "Introduction," to The Worst Enemy of Science?) He is an influential figure in the philosophy of science and also in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Opponents have accused him of irrationalism and he was once described in Nature as being "the worst enemy of science." Gonzalo Munévar, a onetime student, has reported that "Feyerabend believed that academia had become too conceited and pompous, and he set out to shock his intellectual audience out of its complacency." ("Preface" to The Worst Enemy of Science?)

Contradictory personality

As a person, Feyerabend was so complex that even his closest friends found him brilliant and original but erratic and unreliable and often difficult to take. The late John Watkins, a Popperian and onetime friend of Feyerabend, has written that "Paul Feyerabend was one of the most gifted, colorful, original and eccentric figures in postwar academic philosophy—irreverent, brilliant, outrageous, life-enhancing, unreliable, and, for most who knew him, a loveable individual." ("Feyerabend Among Popperians, 1948-1978," in The Worst Enemy of Science?) Sheldon Reaven, another of his students, has written of Feyerabend's reputation as "a bold, outspoken enfant terrible, a hovering gadfly at Alpbach, in the Kraft Circle [a circle of philosophers, modeled on the Vienna Circle, led by Feyerabend], and several other intellectual and artistic venues in Vienna and England." ("Time Well Spent," in The Worst Enemy of Science?) Watkins was once asked to write a recommendation letter for Feyerabend to the University of Sussex in England, so he wrote truthfully that he "is one of the few people I know with real brilliance and originality. He is also wayward, erratic, moody and idiosyncratic. I personally find him a rather loveable person, but he can be pretty exasperating."


Paul Feyerabend was born in 1924 in Vienna where he attended primary school and high school. In this period he got into the habit of reading a lot, developed an interest in theatre, and started singing lessons. In fact, theater, opera, and singing remained lifelong interests, as much as philosophy. When he graduated from high school in April 1942, he was drafted into the German Arbeitsdienst.


After basic training in Pirmasens, Germany, he was assigned to a unit in Quelerne en Bas, France. Feyerabend described the work he did during that period as monotonous: "we moved around in the countryside, dug ditches, and filled them up again." After a short leave, he joined the army and volunteered for officer school. In his autobiography Killing Time, he wrote that he hoped the war would be over by the time he had finished his education as an officer. This turned out not to be the case. From December 1943 on, he served as an officer on the northern part of the Eastern Front, was decorated with an Iron cross, and attained the rank of lieutenant. After the German army started its retreat from the advancing Red Army, Feyerabend was hit by three bullets while directing traffic. It turned out that one of the bullets had hit him in the spine. As a consequence of this, he needed to walk with a stick for the rest of his life and frequently experienced severe pains. He was also impotent. He spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries.

When he was 23 years old, Feyerabend received word that his mother had committed suicide. He did attend the funeral but reports that he felt nothing about it. When his father died he did not bother to attend his funeral.

When the war was over, Feyerabend first got a temporary job in Apolda in which he wrote pieces for the theatre. After that, he took various classes at the Weimar Academy, and returned to Vienna to study history and sociology. He became dissatisfied however, and soon transferred to physics, where he met Felix Ehrenhaft, a physicist whose experiments would influence his later views on the nature of science. Feyerabend changed the subject of his study to philosophy and submitted his final thesis on observation sentences. In his autobiography, he described his philosophical views during this time as "staunchly empiricist." In 1948 he visited the first meeting of the international summer seminar of the Austrian College Society in Alpbach. This was the place where Feyerabend first met Karl Popper, who had a large influence on him and his work, first in a positive way so that for a time he defended Popper and called himself a Popperian, but later in a negative one when he rejected falsificationism and denounced Popper.


In 1951, Feyerabend was granted a British Council scholarship to study under Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend moved to England. Feyerabend then chose Popper as his supervisor instead, and went to study at the London School of Economics in 1952. In his autobiography, Feyerabend explains that during this time, he was influenced by Popper: "I had fallen for [Popper's ideas]." After that, Feyerabend returned to Vienna and was involved in various projects. He was paid to do a number of projects: he translated Karl Popper's Open Society and its Enemies into German, he did a report on the development of the humanities in Austria, and he wrote several articles for an encyclopedia.

In 1955, Feyerabend received his first academic appointment at the University of Bristol, England, where he gave lectures about the philosophy of science. Later in his life he worked as a professor (or equivalent) at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Auckland in New Zealand, the University of Sussex in Englznd, Yale University, the University of London, and the University of Berlin. During this time he developed a critical view of science, which he later described as "anarchistic" or "dadaistic" to illustrate his rejection of the dogmatic use of rules. This position was incompatible with the contemporary rationalistic culture in the philosophy of science.

At the London School of Economics, Feyerabend met Imre Lakatos, a student of Popper. Feyerabend and lakatos planned to write a dialogue volume in which Lakatos would defend a rationalist view of science and Feyerabend would attack it. Lakatos' sudden death in 1974 put an end to this planned joint publication. Against Method, Feyerabend's half of that projected joint project, became a famous criticism of current philosophical views of science and provoked many reactions. There is passion and energy in his writings unequaled by other philosophers of science. In his autobiography, he reveals that this came at great cost to himself:

The depression stayed with me for over a year; it was like an animal, a well-defined, spatially localizable thing. I would wake up, open my eyes, listen—Is it here or isn't? No sign of it. Perhaps it's asleep. Perhaps it will leave me alone today. Carefully, very carefully, I get out of bed. All is quiet. I go to the kitchen, start breakfast. Not a sound. TV—Good Morning America—, David What's-his-name, a guy I can't stand. I eat and watch the guests. Slowly the food fills my stomach and gives me strength. Now a quick excursion to the bathroom, and out for my morning walk—and here she is, my faithful depression: "Did you think you could leave without me?"


He had moved to University of California at Berkeley in Southern California in 1958 and became a US citizen. Following (visiting) professorships (or their equivalent) at London, Berlin, and Yale universities, he taught at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1972 and 1974, always returning to California. Feyerabend later enjoyed alternating between posts at ETH Zurich and Berkeley through the 1980s, but left Berkeley for good in October of 1989, first to Italy, then finally to Zurich. After his retirement in 1991, Feyerabend continued to publish frequent papers and worked on his autobiography. He died in 1994, at his home in Zurich, from a brain tumor.

The wartime injury Feyerabend received left him impotent. But this did not stop his having many affairs with many women. He left a string of broken hearts in his wake. He was married four times, and carried on relationships with other women while he was married. At Berkeley, for one of his primary locations, he took away the girlfriends of numerous students—after all, he was a famous professor and they were just lowly students. He does seem to have finally found happiness and contentment with his last wife, Grazia Borrini Feyerabend. They remained together until his death and she was with him when he died. After that she took loving charge of his papers and work and saw through posthumous publication of some of them.

Work regarding the nature of scientific method

Earlier in his career Feyerabend produced work, much of it in long papers, in what could be called conventional analytic philosophy of science. He was for some time a Popperian and defender of Popper.

But later on he moved decisively away from all that. In his books Against Method and Science in a Free Society Feyerabend defended the idea that there are no methodological rules which are always used by scientists. He objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. In his view, science would benefit most from a "dose" of theoretical anarchism. He also thought that theoretical anarchism was desirable because it was more humanitarian than other systems of organization, by not imposing rigid rules on scientists.

For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a 'search for the truth' in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? "Is it not possible," asks Søren Kierkegaard, "that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?" I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard's sense) is urgently needed. (Against Method, 154)

Feyerabend's position is generally seen as radical by the "establishment" in the philosophy of science because it implies that philosophy can neither succeed in providing a general description of science, nor in devising a method for differentiating products of science from non-scientific entities like myths. It also implies that philosophical guidelines should be ignored by scientists if they are to aim for progress.

To support his position that methodological rules generally do not contribute to scientific success, Feyerabend provides counterexamples to the claim that (good) science operates according to a certain fixed method. He took some examples of episodes in science that are generally regarded as indisputable instances of progress (e.g. the Copernican revolution), and showed that all common prescriptive rules of science are violated in such circumstances. Moreover, he claimed that applying such rules in these historical situations would actually have prevented scientific revolution.

Consistency criterion

One of the criteria for evaluating scientific theories that Feyerabend attacks is the consistency criterion. He points out that to insist that new theories be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the older theory. He makes the logical point that being compatible with a defunct older theory does not increase the validity or truth of a new theory over an alternative covering the same content. That is, if one had to choose between two theories of equal explanatory power, to choose the one that is compatible with an older, falsified theory is to make an aesthetic, rather than a rational choice. The familiarity of such a theory might also make it more appealing to scientists, since they will not have to disregard as many cherished prejudices. Hence, that theory can be said to have "an unfair advantage."


Feyerabend was also critical of falsificationism. He argued that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. This would rule out using a naïve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Feyerabend uses several examples, but renormalization in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style:

"This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered" (Against Method, 61)

Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that scientists do not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods. Instead, he is arguing that such methods are essential to the progress of science for several reasons. One of these reasons is that progress in science is uneven. For instance, in the time of Galileo, optical theory could not account for phenomena that were observed by means of telescopes. So, astronomers who used telescopic observation had to use 'ad hoc' rules until they could justify their assumptions by means of optical theory.

Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts. He thought that previous theory might influence natural interpretations of observed phenomena. Scientists necessarily make implicit assumptions when comparing scientific theories to facts that they observe. Such assumptions need to be changed in order to make the new theory compatible with observations.

The "tower argument"

The main example of the influence of natural interpretations that Feyerabend provided was the tower argument. The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been 'left behind'. Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth. This observation required a new interpretation to make it compatible with Copernican theory. Galileo was able to make such a change about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated, Galileo had to make use of 'ad hoc' methods and proceed counter-inductively. So, 'ad hoc' hypotheses actually have a positive function: they temporarily make a new theory compatible with facts until the theory to be defended can be supported by other theories.

Scientific pluralism

Together these remarks sanction the introduction of theories that are inconsistent with well-established facts. Furthermore, a pluralistic methodology that involves making comparisons between any theories at all forces defendants to improve the articulation of each theory. In this way, scientific pluralism improves the critical power of science. Thus Feyerabend proposes that science might proceed best not by induction, but by counterinduction.

According to Feyerabend, new theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition one sees fit) is "anything goes": "'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold… but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history." (Feyerabend, 1975).

Feyerabend also thought that the possibility of incommensurability, a situation where scientific theories cannot be compared directly because they are based on incompatible assumptions, could also prevent the use of general standards for establishing the quality of scientific theories. He wrote that "it is hardly ever possible to give an explicit definition of [incommensurability]" (Against Method, 225), because it involves covert classifications and major conceptual changes. He also was critical of attempts to capture incommensurability in a logical framework, since he thought of incommensurability as a phenomenon outside the domain of logic.

In Against Method Feyerabend claimed that Imre Lakatos' philosophy of research programmes is actually "anarchism in disguise," because it does not issue orders to scientists. Feyerabend playfully dedicated Against Method to "Imre Lakatos: Friend, and fellow-anarchist." One interpretation is that Lakatos' philosophy of mathematics and science was based on creative transformations of Hegelian historiographic ideas, many associated with Lakatos' teacher in Hungary Georg Lukacs.

Work regarding the role of science in society

In his later work Feyerabend described science as being essentially anarchistic, being obsessed with its own mythology, and making claims to truth well beyond its actual capacity. He was especially indignant about the condescending attitudes of many scientists towards alternative traditions. For example, he thought that negative opinions about astrology and the effectivity of rain dances were not justified by scientific research, and dismissed the predominantly negative attitudes of scientists towards such phenomena as elitist or racist. In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology, even though it arguably started as a liberating movement. Feyerabend thought that a pluralistic society should be protected from being influenced too much by science, just as it is protected from other ideologies.

Science as oppressive ideology

Starting from the assumption that an historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argued that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions. Feyerabend also argued that scientific accomplishments such as the moon landings are no compelling reason to give science a special status. In his opinion, it is not fair to use scientific assumptions about which problems are worth solving in order to judge the merit of other ideologies. Additionally, success by scientists has traditionally involved non-scientific elements, such as inspiration from mythical or religious sources.

Based on these arguments, Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society. He envisioned a "free society" in which "all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centers of power." For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children's education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be "rationalistic" is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.

Other works

Some of Feyerabend's work concerns the way in which people's perception of reality is influenced by various rules. In his last book, unfinished when he died, he talks of how our sense of reality is shaped and limited. Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being bemoans the propensity we have of institutionalizing these limitations.

His autobiography, Killing Time, is highly readable and essential to anyone who wants to attempt to understand him.


Major works:

  • "Consolations for the Specialist," in Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970)
  • Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (London: New Left Books, 1975; Revised ed. London: Verso, 1988)
  • Science in a Free Society (London: New Left Books, 1978)
  • Realism, Rationalism and Scientific Method: Philosophical papers, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
  • Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
  • Farewell to Reason (London: Verso, 1987)
  • Three Dialogues on Knowledge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)
  • Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) published posthumously, essays edited by Bert Terpstra.
  • Knowledge, Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Works about Feyerabend:

  • John Preston, Feyerabend: Philosophy, Science and Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997)
  • John Preston, Gonzalo Munévar, & David Lamb, eds. The Worst Enemy of Science? Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

External links

All links retrieved November 21, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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