Books, Duty Calls, Philosophy

Feyerabend and the tyranny of science

In October 2011 PLoS Biology, a top biology journal, tried something new – it took a deeper look at the boundary between biology and philosophy:

“Does the cultural divide between science and the humanities, first articulated by C. P. Snow over 50 years ago, still exist between biology and philosophy? In a mini experiment to find out, we asked a philosopher and biologist to review the recent English translation of Tyranny of Science, by 20th century philosopher Paul Feyerabend, perhaps best known for rejecting the claim that science is a singular discipline unified by common methods and concepts.”

What a nice idea! The philosopher is Ian J Kidd from Durham in the UK, who does research on Feyerabend and other philosophers of science, while the biologist is Axel Meyer from Konstanz in Germany, who studies diversity in fish. And Feyerabend (1924-1994) is a very good choice, because he is notorious as a polemic writer and not known for holding back his opinions. If there is any divide of any kind anywhere, Feyerabend will be right in the thick of it.

So what do the two articles tell us about a possible ‘cultural divide between science and the humanities’? Unfortunately not much, because the ‘experiment’ has failed! Not because of the small sample size, but because of the biased experimental setup. What can the result possibly be if Prof Meyer feels free to point out:

“I have to admit that I hold a few prejudices against philosophers and even have a rather polemical relationship towards philosophy.”

Well, thank you, it seems like the divide exists at least for Meyer. He continues:

“This might prevent you from reading on. And this attitude will surely disqualify me with people in the humanities, … “

Suffice it to say that not only ‘people in the humanities’ (not all of them philosophers) but also some of us natural scientists value open-mindedness and don’t think prejudices are an intellectual strength. But it continues:

“… but those people don’t read science journals anyhow, apparently even some of those that philosophically interpret science for a living. In my opinion this makes it hard to take them seriously.”

I wonder if Prof Meyer could name any particular philosopher of science who never reads science journals or is this just some general rant about ‘those people’?


Anyhow, so what does all that have to do with Feyerabend? Let’s start with the title of Meyer’s article:

On the Nature of Scientific Progress: Anarchistic Theory Says “Anything Goes”—But I Don’t Think So

Ok, an anarchistic theory of science, that sounds like true Feyerabend. But it is a funny title for a review of Tyranny. The anarchy is all in ‘Against Method‘ and not that much has spilled over into Tyranny. One of the reasons is that Anarchy was published in 1975 and Tyranny (orginally in Italian) two years after Feyerabend’s death in 1994. That’s a difference of 19 years. Enough for most people to double-check their opinions and maybe update their views. Enough especially for Feyerabend, who was much more happy to change his views and argue both sides of a topic than to smuggly say ‘I told you so from the beginning’. Some might call that inconsistency, I call it open-mindedness.

In Tyranny the notorious anarchistic theory of science comes up explicitly only once. At the very end (p129 of 134) Feyerabend is asked in the Q&A:

“I would like you to explain the sub-title of your book Against Method

The subtitle is ‘Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge‘ and Feyerabend answers

“The whole thing is a joke”.

As I understand it, “the whole thing” is not the book Against Method but just its title. Feyerabend explains that combining anarchism (=disorder) with theory (=order) is an impossible undertaking and a Dadaist trick.

On the following page [p130] Feyerabend explains his Anything Goes principle:

The most surprising things lead to great discoveries. […] So, ‘anything goes’ means only ‘don’t restrict your imagination’ because a very silly idea can lead to a very solid result.

He could also have called it ‘serendipity‘ and I don’t know what (in this version) would be wrong with it. Most good science talks contain a high level of out-of-the-box thinking – and this is exactly the type of ‘silly ideas’ that Feyerabend is talking about.


Rationality is a concept key to understanding Meyer’s article. According to him, rationality is found in the natural sciences and not so much in philosophy, because there they do …

“… not deal with measurements, data, or testable theories and falsifiable hypothes[e]s, but rather with words alone.”

Words versus measurements – that sums up the humanities’ feeling of inferiority:

“The philosophers’ traditional hold on explaining the world is threatened or even superseded by scientific insights and technological and biomedical progress. Moreover, most scientists’ ignorance of history and philosophy is unfathomable to philosophers, adding insult to injury. But what do they expect? Where does rationality reside if not in the sciences?”

The argument seems to be that a rational understanding of the world can avoid all history and philosophy (and one wants to add: poetry, dance, emotions, …). Feyerabend (like all philosophers) feels threatend by this and thus becomes an enemy of science:

“From reading his book one gets the feeling that [Feyerabend] really does not like science or at least deeply distrusts the whole scientific enterprise and what he calls scientific ideology.”

Maybe this is true, but it seems to me that the question is not whether Feyerabend likes science or not, but what limitations he thinks science has. A clue to answer this question is in the very beginning of the book (p5) right after Feyerabend has talked about experimental results in cosmology, racial riots in LA and the bestiality of war in former Yugoslavia:

Now compare the two kinds of events I have just described. On the one sider there is a great and exciting discovery, affecting so it seems, all of humankind. On the other side war, murder, cruelty. Is there a connection? Is there a way of making sense of both?

Feyerabend’s frustration is not that the sciences have surpassed philosophy in their power to explain how the world works, but that they have fled into an abstract, rational world-view that excludes subjective human emotions and suffering. Confronted with problems that are real and that are on the news every night the sciences claim ‘That’s not our business.’

What’s bothering Feyerabend is not rationality per se but an overkill of rationality that leads to dogmatism and complete abstraction.  Emotions are subjective and as good rational scientists we need to abstract from them. Feyerabend’s point is that -if taken to the extreme- this view blocks out many other ways of understanding the world (poetry, dance, ..) that are not objective and rational, can’t be pressed in a unified theory and thus are not a model of what the sciences think is the real world. That’s what IJ Kidd means when he writes in the companion paper:

“Feyerabend is critical not of science itself, but of false and misleading images of the sciences.”

The false and misleading image is science as the only way to truth to the exclusion of everything else.


Good scientists emerge themselves in their topics and try to find out the last detail about the object they study. Is this also true for philosophers? Meyer denies it in the case of Feyerabend:

“He does not see a need to spend times in laboratories and to know what scientist actually do in their daily lives. Feyerabend clearly states that he does not want to learn how science is done—that’s in his opinion not important, to him it’s just background noise to the major events in science.”

Where does Feyerabend state this so clearly? What I found were pretty clear statements to the opposite. For example on p12 of Tyranny:

“[A] ‘systematic presentation’ leaves me cold. What I am interested in is how, under which circumstances and in what personal ways, people aquired a liking for certain patterns.”

That’s exactly the opposite to what Meyer claims: A systematic presentation would contain the ‘major events in science,’ in which ‘personal ways’ are indeed only a ‘background noise’ – but that’s explicitly not what Feyerabend is interested in. More evidence for Feyerabend’s interest in the practice of science lies in the great level of detail in which he describes Galileo’s research in Against Method.


It won’t come as a surprise that Meyer doesn’t think very highly of Paul Feyerabend. The words ‘cynic’, ‘provocative clown’, ‘severe depression’, ‘time waster’ and ‘Dadaist’ come up in one breathless rush in the middle of Meyer’s article. At the beginning and end of this paragraph Meyer writes:

“The year after his death [Feyerabend’s] autobiography Killing Time —its title in German is Zeitverschwendung (which means waste of time)—appeared. […] He seemed to feel that he had wasted his time and those of others that actually took him seriously—an honest Dadaist.”

First of all, as a German Meyer could have noticed that the title is a play on Feyerabend’s name in German, Feierabend, meaning ‘after work’ or ‘work-free time’ (and to all non-German speakers Wikipedia is happy to point it out). And even if Meyer thinks this is far-fetched, he completely misses Feyerabend’s irony in calling his life and work a waste of time! Does he really think the title is a confession?

To me it’s a great strength of Feyerabend that he doesn’t seem to take himself to seriously. Self-deprecation is a virtue and a sign of humility. In Killing Time Feyerabend tells a funny story of a dinner party hosted by his friend Imre Lakatos where many other philosophy big-shots were present. While everybody was having after dinner drinks and discussed deep philosophical theories, Feyerabend went to the kitchen to do the dishes until Lakatos came to drag him back.

Irony is one of the things Feyerabend shares with Socrates: One handicapped by ugliness, the other handicapped by a war injury. Both charismatic; both more interested in questions than in answers. In the Apology Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (horsefly) that “buzzes” and “bites” at the complacent, compelling them to consider matters of virtue. I guess the contrarian Feyerabend liked that image: the irony in calling yourself a gadfly avoids self-importance and is close to living an existence of killing time.


So far we have talked about science in pretty general terms. What about more specific sciences? Remember this is an article in PLoS Biology. Meyer writes:

Many would say that biology has taken over the role of the lead science since the revolution of molecular biology from physics. But this is something Feyerabend pretty much ignores.

For a change I found myself agreeing with Meyer. I don’t know what makes a science a ‘lead science’ and don’t think that rankings within and between disciplines do science any good – but Meyer is certainly right that Feyerabend has a very physics-centered view of science. This is not surprising, given that Feyerabend was trained as a physicist. But it results in views that for biology don’t sound quite right. For example, Feyerabend writes [p30]:

Also there is a kind of ordering of scientists. This is very interesting for it again reflects some very old attitudes: on top are the theoreticians, then come the curve fitters and at the bottom are the fact finders. Not everybody accepts that ordering – but it is very popular.

Really? Certainly not in biology (at least not in the bit that I work in). Being a curve fitter myself, I don’t feel on top of the fact finders. It’s rather the other way round – the computational biologists have to fight hard for their positions on papers and almost never become last authors – this position is generally taken by an experimental biologist, a fact finder.  The best curve fitters can do is to hear: ‘Nice job! You can be second to last! Good boy!’. And in biology no one trusts a theoretician. It’s becoming better since systems biology appeared and there are more and more mathematical models around – but in wide areas of biological research mathematics is seen as a waste of time. Biology is just too complex, they say.

This difference between disciplines points to a much more general issue: philosophy of science is mostly philosophy of physics. The only biological topic that often makes it into the philosophical discourse is evolution – but why can’t we discuss other biological examples of paradigm shifts instead of endlessly ruminating Galileo and Einstein?

The two cultures

But let’s get back to the question we started with and which PLoS Biology planned to address in this experiment: how far apart are the two cultures?

Judged from these two examples they differ widely: Philosophers argue logically, rationally and un-emotionally – which all counts towards a high scientific standard – while natural scientists rely on prejudices and hearsay. In the two articles in PLoS Biology the rationality of the humanities is pitted against the prejudices of the sciences – that’s somehow not what I expected. I had hoped there is logic and rationality on both sides.

The experimental failure might reflect a poor choice in the experimental specimen. And that’s really a pity, because -again- I think the basic idea of discussing philosophy of science in scientific journals is great. Hearing more opinions from different people might help to rescue the experiment.


Don’t trust me, read the originals:

8 thoughts on “Feyerabend and the tyranny of science

  1. “….in spite of it, he had a throng of attractive female students that followed him around and even carried his brief case to the lecture hall.” is Meyer jealous of the philosopher…?


  2. I cannot agree more with your article [and with Feyerabend]! As researchers, there’s a lot to be gained from not staying “philosophically illiterate”—at least to be able to engage in an informed and thoughtful critique of philosophy.


  3. I think that both science and philosophy are inherently deeply intellectual endeavours. In science, however, we are increasingly devoting time to technical aspects essential for making empirical measurements. The more time we spend on following complicated experimental protocols, the less time we have left for thinking. In the extreme case, one could perhaps build a successful scientific career by generating big datasets and not thinking much about their conceptual implications in a broader intellectual / theoretical framework. That cannot happen in philosophy.


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