Posts Tagged postmodernism

Paul Feyerabend – The Worst Enemy of Science

William Storage           7  Aug 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

PFK3This post is a selective look at Paul Feyerabend, called the worst enemy of science by a 1987 Nature essay. The topic relates directly to the preceding posts on Postmodernism and Thomas Kuhn and is aimed at a discussion of how misunderstood science and misunderstood criticism of science has impacted business and technology.

Feyerabend’s direct influence outside of the extended world of philosophy might be seen as fairly limited. But his indirect influence may exceed that of Thomas Kuhn. Unlike Feyerabend, Kuhn was never quoted by a pope.

PopeFeyerabend (1924-1994), a philosopher of science at UC Berkeley for 30 years, was famous for a theory epistemological anarchism – though he doesn’t use that term –  which entails a rejection of scientific methodological rules.  Specifically, Feyerabend claimed the consistency criterion in scientific theory selection is biased toward orthodox views, correct or not.  Further, he faulted science for dogmatic falsificationism. I.e., unlike in mathematics, in science a theory very rarely is consistent with all relevant observations. He later expanded this to a categorical rejection of Popper’s falsifiability/demarcation theories and Popper’s critical rationalism in general. Whether Feyerabend meant to imply any degree of social anarchy in his 1975 Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge is debatable. But a vast range of audiences who viewed science as a flawed method or as an institution in league with corporate, government and military demons found strong justification in it for their existing anti-science positions.

A decade before Against Method (in which he disputed Popper), Feyerabend was more or less a Popperian and therefore strongly critical of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. However, he approved of Kuhn’s message that science needed more irrationality. Kuhn intended no such message. While defending himself against the charge of relativism  in the 1965 Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, Kuhn called Feyerabend’s irrationality-based support of Structure, “not only absurd but vaguely obscene.”

In his 1987 Farewell to Reason Feyerabend commented on his two previous books:

“In Against Method I argued that the customary accounts of scientific knowledge and scientific method are faulty and that scientists do not proceed ‘rationally’ in the sense of rationalist philosophers. In Science in a Free Society I argued that the sciences are particular ways of gaining information and of interfering with the world, that there are other such ways and that these ‘other’ ways are satisfactory in the sense that they meet the material and spiritual needs of those who use them. I added that, like all institutions in a free society, the sciences should be subjected to a democratic control.”

As with Kuhn, Feyerabend chose provocative language that sounded much more radical outside of philosophy of science than within it. Even for that narrow audience, the language of Against Method was radical enough, and became more so later.

The fine print – or rather, less cited print – of Against Method included explicit limits on scope:

“My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic.”

As with Kuhn, the most common criticisms of Feyerabend’s thesis of Against Method (as opposed to the provocative prose he embedded it in) fail to grasp its limited scope, misunderstand it, and refute a caricature of it. Unlike Kuhn, Feyerabend seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the corresponding fame and infamy, and to have run with it. Feyerabend’s theories expanded in scope, becoming more sociological, and more political. He frequently reversed positions, reversal ultimately becoming core to his philosophy.

PKF2At times, Feyerabend is hard to argue with. He’s got good points regarding falsificationism and modern scientific theories enduring some inconsistent observations. Elsewhere his case seems weak. He opportunistically redefines science between method and institution to suit his needs. He builds a straw man from claims that science believes it creates facts as opposed to models. Whether he was right or wrong or even cared about such distinctions isn’t terribly important to his impact on popular conceptions of science and popular understanding of criticism of science, which was enormous.

I’ll leave you with a handful of other Feyerabend quotes from the ’70s and ’80s, some conciliatory, some shocking when removed from their context, some fiendishly provocative regardless of original context. Many of the sentiments – or the exact words – will sound familiar today, now core to religious, pseudoscientific, new age, motivational, and occasionally business management strategies. For that Paul Feyerabend deserves praise or blame.

“The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing.”

“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

“All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.”

“Revolutions have transformed not only the practices their initiators wanted to change buy the very principles by means of which… they carried out the change.”

“Kuhn used a different approach to a similar (not an identical) situation. His approach was historical, mine was abstract.”

“Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash.”

“First-world science is one science among many.”

“Progress has always been achieved by probing well-entrenched and well-founded forms of life with unpopular and unfounded values. This is how man gradually freed himself from fear and from the tyranny of unexamined systems.”

“The sciences of today are business enterprises run on business principles. Research in large institutes is not guided by Truth and Reason but by the most rewarding fashion, and the great minds of today increasingly turn to where the money is — which means military matters.”

“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.”

“Without a constant misuse of language, there cannot be any discovery, any progress.”


Photos of Paul Feyerabend courtesy of Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend. Used by permission.

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The Incommensurable Thomas Kuhn

William Storage           4 Aug 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, appears in Wikipedia’s list of the 100 most influential books in history. In Structure, Kuhn introduced the now ubiquitous term and concept of paradigm shift. As Kuhn saw it, the scope of a paradigm was universal. A paradigm is not merely a theory, but the framework and worldview in which a theory dwells. Kuhn explained that, “successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.” His view was that paradigms guide research through periods of “normal science,” during which, any experimental results not consistent with the paradigm are deemed erratic and are discarded. This persists until overwhelming evidence against the paradigm results in its collapse, and a paradigm shift occurs.

Kuhn stressed the idea of incommensurability between associated paradigms, meaning that it is impossible to understand the new paradigm from within the conceptual framework of its predecessor. Examples include the Copernican Revolution, plate tectonics,  and quantum mechanics.

Countless discussions and critiques of Kuhn and his work have been published. I’ll focus mainly on aspects of his work – and popular conceptions of it – related to its appropriation in technology and business process management; but a bit of background on popular misunderstandings of his work from a philosophy perspective will come in handy later.

Kuhn’s claim of incommensurability led many  to conclude that the selection of a governing theory is fundamentally irrational, a product of consensus or politics rather than of objective criteria. This fueled flames already raging in criticism of science in postmodernist, subjectivist, and post-structuralist circles. Kuhn was an overnight sensation and placed on a pedestal by all sorts of relativism, sociology, and arts and humanities movements, despite his vigorous rejection of them, their methods, their theories, and their paradigms. Decades later (The Road Since Structure), Kuhn added that, “if it was relativism, it was an interesting sort of relativism that needed to be thought out before the tag was applied.”

Communities outside of hard science – 20th century social theory in particular – couldn’t get enough of Kuhn and his paradigm shifts. Much of the Philosophy of Science community scoffed at his book. Within hard science there was considerable debate, particularly by Karl Popper, Stephen Toulmin and Paul Feyerabend. And even in the hard science community, Kuhn found himself in constant defense not against the scientific reading of his model, but against the ideas appropriated by schools of philosophers, cultural theorists, and literary critics calling themselves Kuhnians. Freeman Dyson recall s having confronted Kuhn about these schools of thought:

“A few years ago I happened to meet Kuhn at a scientific meeting and complained to him about the nonsense that had been attached to his name. He reacted angrily. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall, he shouted, ‘One thing you have to understand. I am not a Kuhnian.'” – Freeman Dyson, The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions

Postmodern deconstructionists are certainly right about one thing; there are many ways to read Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structure – if interpreted outside the narrow realm in which he intended it to operate – becomes strangely self-referential and self-exemplifying. Different communities consumed it as constrained by their existing paradigms. In The Road Since Structure Kuhn reflected that, regarding Structure‘s uptake, he had disappointments but not regrets. He suggested that if he had it do over, he would have sought to prevent readings such as the view that paradigms are sources of oppression to be destroyed.

Kuhn would have to have been extremely naive to fail to consider the consequences – in the socially precarious 1960s – of describing scientific change in terms of a sociological, political, and Gestalt-psychology models in a book having “revolution” in its title. Or perhaps it was a scientist’s humility (he was educated as a physicist) that allowed him to not anticipate that a book on history of science would ever be read outside the communities of science. Despite the incredulity of such claims – and independent of accuracy of his position on science – my reading of Kuhn’s interviews and commentary on the impact of Structure leads me to conclude that Kuhn is truly an accidental guru – misread, misunderstood, and misused by adoring postmodernist theorists and business strategists alike. Without Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shift would not rank in CNET’s top 10 dot-com buzzwords, futurist Joel Barker and  motivator Stephen Covey would have had very different careers, and postmodern relativists might still be desperately craving some shred of external validation.


“You talk about misuses of Kuhn’s work. I think it is wildly misused outside of natural sciences. The number of scientific revolutions is extremely small… To find one outside the natural sciences is very hard. There are just not enough interesting and signficant ideas around, but it is curious if you read the sociological or linguistic literate, that people are finding revolutions everywhere.” – Noam Chomsky, The Generative Enterprise Revisited

“Let us now turn our atention towards some historical analyses that have apparently provided grist for the mill of contemporary relativism. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” – Alan Sokol, Beyond the Hoax


The above use of a low-resolution image of Thomas Kuhn is contended to be a fair use because it is solely for the educational purpose of illustrating this article and because the value of any existing copyright is not lessened by its use here. The subject is deceased and no free equivalent can therefore be obtained. The image is of greatly lower quality than the original, reducing the risk of damage to the value of the original version.

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