Paul Feyerabend: Philosopher or Crank?

Review of
Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend.
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, 195 pages, $22.95

I first heard the name Paul Feyerabend in the mid-1970s but did not learn too much about him until a few weeks ago, when two things moved me to read some of his writings. First of all, the autobiography under review appeared on my desk. Secondly, I received a letter from a correspondent in Vienna telling me of nightly conversations with Feyerabend's ghost, which was revealing surprising things to her. After learning more about the man, I concluded that if I were of the class of people who converse with ghosts, I could not find a more sympathetic conversational partner than Feyerabend.

Over the past generation a revolution in the philosophy of science has moved the subject away from positivism and toward a historical approach. Associated with this revolution are four principal names: Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend. Of the four, Kuhn is the best known in the United States, Popper was the most traditional, Lakatos was the most original, and Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) was undoubtedly the most colorful and the most outrageous in his opinions.

While this is not the right place to go deeply into the philosophic views of these four men, I will top off the background by saying that Kuhn has put the phrase "change of scientific paradigm" into the current philosophic vocabulary; Popper did as much for the idea of falsificationism as the the criterion for a scientific theory; Lakatos stressed proof and refutation in endless success as a description of mathematical progress; and, finally, Feyerabend rejected the claims of science to objectivity.

Daniel C. Stove has called these four philosophers "the four modern irrationalists," but Feyerabend preferred to describe himself sometimes as an intellectual anarchist and sometimes as a Dadaist (Data being the artistic and literary movement that flourished form 1916 to 1923). Describing Dadaism in his magnum opus, Against Method (London, NLB, 1975, page 21) Feyerabend wrote,

A Dadaist is utterly unimpressed by any serious enterprise and he smells a rat whenever people stop smiling and assume that attitude and those facial expressions which indicate that something important is to be said. A Dadaist is convinced that a worthwhile life will arise only when we start taking things lightly and when we remove from our speech the profound but putrid meanings it has accumulated over the centuries ("search for truth"; "defense of justice"; "passionate concern"; etc. etc.)

Just as professor no longer lecture in tails and wing collars or in formal academic gowns, their style in writing about themselves has become increasingly colloquial, even as their professional writings have become impenetrable and coterie-directed. I was absolutely fascinated by Killing Time. A brutally honest account of Feyerabend's life, it's easy and compelling reading, and I read almost the entire book in a single sitting.

Feyerabend was born in Vienna shortly after World War I. His father was a minor civil servant and his mother (at the time of her marriage) was a seamstress. An only child, brilliant and remote from other children, Feyerabend went through the Vienna educational system on the most advanced tracks.

At the time of the Anschluss of Austria with Germany (March 15, 1938), his parents seemed to welcome Hitler and Nazism enthusiastically (the potential for more jobs; pride in the German war-planes that, with the Anschluss could be considered Austrian as well). At the age of 18, Feyerabend was drafted, first into the Arbeitsdienst and then into the German army. He served for three years in Russia, Poland, and the former Yugoslavia: "Marching around the countryside, we blew up every house we found; we put charges in strategic places, lit the fuse and ran."

A "Killing Time" indeed. By the end of 1944, despite his reputation as an oddball among the men he commanded, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant. He received the Iron Cross, having received bullet wounds in the hand, face, and spine, injuries that would lead later to sexual impotence and other disabilities. His mother, "a strange, distant, and unhappy being," committed suicide while he was away on military duty.

What is absolutely amazing initially, but totally understandable on further consideration, is the manner in which Feyerabend was able to live through the war as a moral zombie. People all over the world, and not just soldiers, have adopted the motto "Don't think about what you;'re doing; just survive." Feyerabend lived through the difficult postwar period by reading voraciously. Books offered an escape from the real world, and he arrived at a personal philosophy that found love at the center of all evil. As he matured, he rejoined the human race and ultimately became a forthright advocate of a humanitarian outlook.

Following the war and his hospitalization, Feyerabend enrolled in the Music Academy in Weimar. (As an adolescent he had sung in a church choir and for many years had taken singing lessons.) He soon switched out of music, however, and returned home to Vienna, where he took courses at the University of Vienna, studying mathematics, physics, and astrophysics. He had courses from Radon on tensor analysis, from Hlawka on differential equations, from Sexl on nuclear physics. He started out writing a dissertation on classical electrodynamics, and wound up (in 1951) with a dissertation on the philosophy of physics.

Feyerabend seems to have fallen inadvertently into a career as a philosopher. In his autobiography, he shows the greatest enthusiasm when describing operas, concerts, plays, musicals, soap operas, movies, famous stars he had met. There are many such passages in the book. He hankered after the stage; what he found, though, was not the stage of show biz but the lectern of philosophy. And the role he created for himself before that lectern was that of super skeptic, arrogant and sarcastic crank, and brilliant expositor and advocate of views that wandered from Pyrrhonism to "democratic relativism". He was, in short the enfant terrible of the philosophic revolution.

His writing can be caustic and comic, as when he challenges the claim that it is the "puzzle-solving tradition that sets the sciences apart from other activities." From his hilarious, one-page critique of safecracking as a problem-solving activity, is the reader to conclude that organized crime can be considered science? The goals of the safecracker are well known; one would expect that those of science should have developed in the formal theories. That is not the case, according to Feyerabend (Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2, pages 133-134).

He squirmed when people tried to categories his views. Was he this? Not really. Did he think that? No. He was the philosopher who denied that he had a consistent philosophy, the philosopher whose category was that he fit into no category. Casting disparagements at the "professional philosophers and intellectuals" (particularly Popper), he denied that he was one of them.

After short teaching hitches in London and Bristol, Feyerabend answered the summons of Berkeley, where he remained for many years. One morning he woke up and found himself famous: a hot number, a star, a very desirable property in the exclusive world of philosophy. His personality and extreme views led to offers from all over the world. He restrained his wanderlust only with difficulty, and at one point he held four academic appointments simultaneously. I assume he fulfilled those obligations in multiplex fashion. His reputation broke through professional bounds: Television knocked on his door, but he said no to that.

Feyerabend's Against Method is admirable in that it opens with an "analytical index" giving brief summaries of each chapter. The "laity" can read this index and ignore the rest, and still arrive at a fair picture of his views. Feyerabend's mission was to destroy the special claims of science to objectivity and to cast doubts on the features that philosophers had proposed as hallmarks of science. The widely trumpeted descriptions of scientific methodology he viewed as nothing but gentrified fairy talks. All "rules," he claimed, have been broken.

A few quotes from the index (pages 10-15):

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

The only principle that does not inhibit progress: anything goes.

Proliferation of theories is beneficial for science, while uniformity impairs its critical power.

There is no idea, however ancient or absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge.

Science is much closer to myth that a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best ... The separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.

Reading Feyerabend is like taking a cold shower. One steps in and is froze; one exits stimulated, invigorated, and agreeing with more of what he says than one is inclined to admit publicly.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

Reprinted from SIAM News Volume 28-10 December 1995 (C) 1995 by Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics All rights reserved.