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January 13, 2016

January 13, 1924

Paul Feyerabend, (January 13, 1924 to February 11, 1994 ) was a 20th century philosopher.

One of his major books is Against Method (1975). Herein (actually the third edition) the Austrian author explains what he means when he says

Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise; theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.

His view of science was, according to Feyerabend, "a triviality to Mach, Boltzmann, Einstein, and Bohr." One assumes Feyerabend means it is that obvious to these other major thinkers.

A major point Feyerabend makes is about the nature of sensory knowledge, that bastion of empiricism. He uses a metaphor of a cat to explicate his position. The moon appears to keep up with a person walking at night; they have the impression the moon is following them, and this impression is just as vivid to them as would be "a cat really running along the [roof] tiles..." beside the person.  The example illustrates the nature of sensory experience.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[Feyerabend] having studied science at the University of Vienna, moved into philosophy for his doctoral thesis, made a name for himself both as an expositor and (later as a critic of Karl Popper's “critical rationalism”, and went on to become one of the twentieth century's most famous philosophers of science.

His life is engrossing also and here are some excerpts from that Encyclopedia's

1924 Born in Vienna. Son of a civil servant and a seamstress.

1940 Was inducted into the Arbeitsdienst (the work service introduced by the Nazis).

1942 Drafted into the Pioneer Corps of the German army. After basic training, volunteered for Officers' School.

1943 Learned of his mother's suicide.

1944 Decorated, Iron Cross. Advanced to Lieutenant. Lectured to Officers' School.

1945 Shot in the hand and in the belly during the retreat from the Russian Army. The bullet damaged his spinal nerves.

1946 Received a fellowship to study singing and stage-management in Weimar. Joined the “Cultural Association for the Democratic Reform of Germany”.

1947 Returned to Vienna to study history and sociology at the University. Soon transferred to physics. First article, on the concept of illustration in modern physics, published. Feyerabend “a raving positivist” at the time.

1948 First visit to the Alpbach seminar of the Austrian College Society. Became secretary of the seminars. Met Karl Popper and Walter Hollitscher. Married first wife, Edeltrud.

1949 Became student leader of the “Kraft Circle”, a student philosophy club centred around Viktor Kraft, Feyerabend's dissertation supervisor and a former member of the Vienna Circle. Ludwig Wittgenstein visited the Kraft Circle to give a talk. Feyerabend also met Bertolt Brecht.

1951 Received doctorate in philosophy for his thesis on “basic statements”. Applied for a British Council scholarship to study under Wittgenstein at Cambridge. But Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend arrived in England, so Feyerabend chose Popper as his supervisor instead.

1952 Came to England, to study under Popper at the London School of Economics. Concentrated on the quantum theory and Wittgenstein. Studied the typescript of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, and prepared a summary of the book. ....

1953 Feyerabend returned to Vienna. Popper applied for an extension to his scholarship, but Feyerabend decided to remain in Vienna instead. Translated Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies into German. Declined the offer to become Popper's research assistant. Agassi took the post. Feyerabend became research assistant to Arthur Pap in Vienna.

1954 First articles on quantum mechanics and on Wittgenstein published. Pap introduced Feyerabend to Herbert Feigl.

1955 Took up his first full-time academic appointment as lecturer in philosophy at the University of Bristol, England. His summary of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations appeared as a review of the book in The Philosophical Review.

1956 Married second wife, Mary O'Neill. Published an article on the “paradox of analysis”. Feyerabend got to know the quantum physicist David Bohm, whose ideas were to influence him substantially.

1957 Gave a paper on the quantum theory of measurement to the Colston Research Symposium at the University of Bristol.

1958 Took up visiting lectureship at the University of California, Berkeley. Two of his most important early papers, “An Attempt at a Realistic Interpretation of Experience”, and “Complementarity” appeared in the proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. In them, Feyerabend argued against positivism and in favour of a scientific realist account of the relation between theory and experience, largely on grounds familiar from Karl Popper's falsificationist views.

1959 Accepted a permanent position at Berkeley, and applied for a Green Card to work in the US.

1960 As a result of earlier discussions with Herbert Feigl, Feyerabend published “Das Problem der Existenz theoretischer Entitäten”, in which he argued that there is no special “problem” of theoretical entities, and that all entities are hypothetical. ....

1962 “Explanation, Reduction, and Empiricism” appeared. Criticised existing empiricist accounts of explanation and theoretical reduction (Hempel, Nagel), and introduced the concept of incommensurability, based on the “contextual theory of meaning” which Feyerabend claimed to find in Wittgenstein's Investigations.

1963 “How to be a Good Empiricist”, a position paper summing up his point of view, was published, along with his two main articles on the Mind/Body Problem in which he introduced the position now known as “eliminative materialism”.

1965 Publication of the first part of the essay “Problems of Empiricism”, and his “Reply to Criticism”, in which Feyerabend made his last serious attempt to construct a “tolerant”, “disinfected” empiricism. Although beginning to put some distance between himself and Popper, Feyerabend was still able to write a glowing review of Popper's Conjectures and Refutations.

1967–8 Focus of his published papers had by now moved to “theoretical pluralism”, the view that in order to maximise the chances of falsifying existing theories, scientists should construct and defend as many alternative theories as possible. Feyerabend's articles “On a Recent Critique of Complementarity” defended Niels Bohr's views against Popper's critique. Popper not amused.

1969 In a tiny article, “Science Without Experience”, Feyerabend finally gave up the attempt to be an empiricist, arguing that in principle experience is necessary at no point in the construction, comprehension or testing of empirical scientific theories.

1970 Publication of “Consolations for the Specialist”, in which Feyerabend attacked Popper from a Kuhnian point of view, and the essay version of “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge”, in which “epistemological anarchism” was revealed for the first time. Feyerabend claimed to be applying the liberalism of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty to scientific methodology. Published little during the next few years.

1974 Death of Feyerabend's friend Imre Lakatos, putting paid to their plans to produce a dialogue volume, For and Against Method. Feyerabend, lecturing at the University of Sussex, was ill too. Published a scathing review of Popper's Objective Knowledge.

1975 Appearance of Feyerabend's first book, Against Method, setting out “epistemological anarchism”, whose main thesis was that there is no such thing as the scientific method. Great scientists are methodological opportunists who use any moves that come to hand, even if they thereby violate canons of empiricist methodology.

1976–7 Feyerabend replies to most of the major reviewers of Against Method. Got depressed. Published his first major article on relativism: the first time he explicitly endorsed the view.

1978 Science in a Free Society appears, including replies to reviewers of Against Method. Some clarification of epistemological anarchism, and very little retreat from the position set out in AM. Explored further the political implications of epistemological anarchism. The book also included one of Feyerabend's major endorsements of relativism, one of the views for which he was becoming known. First volume of the German edition of Feyerabend's philosophical papers appears. (Feyerabend published increasingly in German from this point onwards).

1981 English publication of the first two volumes of Feyerabend's Philosophical Papers, with new material in introductory chapters.

1983 Met Grazia Borrini at his Berkeley lectures.

1984 Publishes “Science as an Art”, in which he defends an explicitly relativistic account of the history of science according to which there is change, but no “progress”. Also continues his campaign to rehabilitate Ernst Mach.

1987 Publication of Farewell to Reason, a volume collecting some of the papers Feyerabend had published between 1981 and 1987. Relativism again at the forefront, especially in its “Protagorean” version.

1988 Second, revised edition of Against Method, omitting the long chapter on the history of the visual arts, but now incorporating parts of Science in a Free Society, appeared.

1989 Paul and Grazia married in January. Left for Italy and Switzerland in the fall, at least partly because of the effects of the October earthquake in California.

1990 Officially resigned from Berkeley in March.

1991 Retired from Zurich. Three Dialogues on Knowledge and Beyond Reason, a festschrift edited by a former pupil, Gonzalo Munévar, published. Also lots of small publications, many of them in Common Knowledge. Signs of an increasing unhappiness with relativism in Feyerabend's publications around this time. But still vigorously opposed to “objectivism”.

1993 Third edition of Against Method published. Feyerabend developed an inoperable brain tumour, and was hospitalized.

1994 Feyerabend died in the Genolier clinic (Genolier, Canton of Vaud, Switzerland), February 11th. Several major memorial symposia and colloquia on his work took place over the next two years.

1995 Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend published.

Stanford's full article is available at the link above. I do not 'get' all the references above, but it is clear enough that Feyerabend is not just a thinker worth studying, but of central relevance to the 20th century.

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