January 13, 2010
Born in Austria, PAUL FEYERABEND (1924-1994) studied theater and physics before he was drafted into the German army, rose to the rank of major, and suffered a spine injury on the eastern front. His career touched a half-dozen other philosophical luminaries during his transformation from Vienna Circle positivism to postmodern relativism, from playwright Bertolt Brecht to philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. He took a postdoctoral fellowship to study under Ludwig Wittgenstein, completing his research under Karl Popper after Wittgenstein’s death. But where Popper saw science’s emphasis on method and falsification-driven progress as the landmark example of what he called “the open society,” Feyerabend came to see only creeping conformity, with negative results for both society and science. Science, Feyerabend argues, is and ought to be an anarchic enterprise; there are no laws of progress — in fact, there is no progress at all. Anything goes. “The history of science,” he writes in his landmark Against Method, is “as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains.” Feyerabend gives Against Method’s epigraph to Brecht: “More and more, order’s replacing nothing; it’s a sign of decline.” With his Dada-inflected wit, Feyerabend wanted to defamiliarize rather than tame science, taking pleasure in challenging conventional wisdom and entertaining an audience. Feyerabend saw both scientists and philosophers as entertainers; half of the effect of a logical argument or empirical demonstration was theatrical. On that score, his writing never disappointed.
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