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Philosophy of Nature by Paul Feyerabend

Massimo Pigliucci says the bad boy of philosophy of science has done it again, posthumously.

I must admit that it took me some time to come around to seeing that Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) actually had something interesting, even important, to say about science and philosophy. When I was a young scientist interested in philosophy of science I eagerly read Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and even enjoyed their disagreements about doing prescriptive philosophy (that is, telling scientists how to do science properly, à la Popper), versus focusing on a descriptive program (that is, studying how scientists actually do science, à la Kuhn). But when I got to Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975) I was tempted, to quote David Hume, to consign it to the flames, since it appeared to me to contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. Then the years passed, and with age and experience my thinking about the nature of science got a bit wiser. And more recently I was asked to write a series of commentaries on an interesting paper by Ian Kidd titled ‘Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, virtue, and the authority of science’ (Social Epistemology 30, 2016), in which I found myself to be somewhat sympathetic to Feyerabend’s concerns. So I was glad to have an opportunity to take a fresh look at this controversial author by way of reviewing his ‘new’ book Philosophy of Nature, which came out in 2016, twenty two years after he died.

Paul Feyerabend
Paul Feyerabend (photo © Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend)

The book comes with a helpful introduction by Helmut Heit and Eric Oberheim which puts it in the proper historical and cultural context. Turns out Feyerabend had been working on and off on a series of books about what he called ‘philosophy of nature’, meaning, about how human beings have historically made sense of the cosmos. The project began to take shape in the early 70s, but by the end of the decade it was forgotten, apparently even by Feyerabend himself. An incomplete manuscript eventually showed up at the Philosophical Archive of the University of Constance, and then a second, longer manuscript was uncovered as part of follow-up archival research. The edited, published version was translated into English by Dorothea Lotter, with assistance from Andrew Cross. It represents only one of the three volumes originally intended by Feyerabend. It is a strange thing indeed, and very typical of the iconoclastic, highly original, but ultimately frustrating approach that characterized the author. Philosophy of Nature is also incredibly ambitious. In six chapters we get an overview of how people have made sense of the world, beginning in the Stone Age and ending with quantum mechanics. Chapter 6 alone covers everything from Aristotle to Niels Bohr!

The basic thesis of the book is that humanity has transitioned through three ‘forms of life’ or types of framework deployed in order to make sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. That’s why it opens with a discussion of Paleolithic art and Stonehenge astronomy (Chapter 1), then devotes Chapters 2 and 3 to the structure of myth and the landmark contribution of Homer. In Chapters 4 and 5 we get to philosophy, with the rejection of the mythological interpretation of reality and the turn toward abstract logicism, particularly in Parmenides, one of Feyerabend’s favorite villains, as I’ll explain in a moment. Finally, Chapter 6 moves breezily from Aristotle to Descartes, from Galileo and Bacon to Hegel, from Newton and Leibniz to Einstein and Bohr.

Feyerabend rejects the standard narrative that the above transitions represent progress. He sees the Parmenidean move toward theoretical and abstract thought – which laid the foundation for what today we call science – as coming at the cost of beginning a process of alienation of human beings from their surroundings. This alienation has slowly led to an increased detachment from our environment that eventually, but for Feyerabend inevitably, catalyzed the environmental destruction that’s becoming an existential threat to our species and much of Earth’s ecosystem.

We can get a good idea of Feyerabend’s approach by way of his own summary of where he intended to go (but never did) with his philosophy of nature project:

“Here is my plan for the two volumes to follow. The second volume is dedicated to Plato, Aristotle, and the medieval period up to the Renaissance… Aristotle remained the only thinker who attempted to reconcile the demands of thought with intuition in such a way as to erect a complete dwelling in which we humans can feel at home and in a familiar environment again… The third volume [will] cover the period that leads to the present time [around 1970]… The large mass of the orthodox scientific enterprise is gradually turning into a business pushed forward by unhappy, fearful, and yet conceited slave souls… [But we will soon see a] new philosophical and mythological science, the still indistinct outlines of which can be seen on the horizon. It is one of the aims of this work to clarify the historical preconditions – discoveries and errors – of this science, thus accelerating its birth.”

To put this into context, Feyerabend was convinced that science, especially quantum mechanics, was rediscovering the importance of the subjective, and was about to welcome the existence of paranormal phenomena and the hidden powers of the human mind. It isn’t at all clear what sort of new science he envisioned, but it’s safe to say that it was nothing like what has actually happened in the intervening four decades. If anything, science has become even more ‘Parmenidean’ – even more abstract. Witness for instance the debates within fundamental physics about superstrings and the multiverse; concepts that are entirely theoretical and so distant from any foreseeable empirical confirmation that some scientists and philosophers are beginning to talk about a ‘post-empirical science’. Aristotle would have been aghast.

Moreover, Feyerabend says at the end of Philosophy of Nature that “the triumph of Cartesianism pushed aside not only certain theories but also a large number of obvious facts. This includes all those facts supporting an independent existence of the soul, which is not easy to explain in mechanistic terms, or the existence of mental powers that are independent of matter.” No, Paul, there are no good empirical reasons to believe in the existence of the soul, nor in matter-independent mental powers. And these conclusions are firm in part precisely because of the extraordinary successes of materialist science at explaining how the world works.

Despite my criticisms, Philosophy of Nature is well worth reading to appreciate what philosophy of science used to be. In a sense, Feyerabend was the last great practitioner during the golden age of the discipline. For over half a century, philosophy of science had been in the business of proposing grand theories of how science works, from the Logical Positivists to Popper and Kuhn, to Feyerabend himself. After that great period it has become a more specialized enterprise, with most of its practitioners focused on specific aspects of different fields of science, from evolutionary biology to quantum mechanics. This may be an inevitable result of the fact that one simply cannot arrive at unified theories of science that apply to all scientific disciplines, or it may be a transitional period before the next wave of big thinkers. Time will tell. But however things develop, I seriously doubt they will do so along the lines envisaged by Feyerabend in his Philosophy of Nature. Even so, intellectual progress is made also by understanding where great thinkers went wrong; and Feyerabend was definitely one of the great thinkers of twentieth century philosophy.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2018

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and the author of, among others, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org.

Philosophy of Nature, Paul Feyerabend, Polity Press, 2016, 288 pages, £15.99, ISBN: 0745651593

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