Radiant with triumphant calamity — Feyerabend in Frankfurt?

Great minds think alike. Having recently read Feyerabend’s Tyranny of Science I was reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung), a key text in Critical Theory and the Frankfurt school. I had never managed more than the first chapter of Dialectic, but that was already enough to find surprising parallels. Feyerabend doesn’t mention Adorno or Horkheimer in his autobiography, but he sure converged on some of the same ideas.

Tyranny of mind over nature

Just look at these opening statements of Dialectic, and contrast them with Feyerabend’s Tyranny. The famous first lines of Dialectics are

“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity,” [p1, translated by Edmund Jephcott]

and on the next page Adorno and Horkheimer write:

“The ‘happy match’ between human understanding and the nature of things that [Bacon] envisaged is a patriarchial one: the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature.” [p2]

Feyerabend could have written that. He had always fought the idea that mind (read: rationality, abstraction) necessarily has a leadership role and is the only way to insight. Just look at the title of his last book, ‘Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being‘, which was posthumously assembled from his drafts after his death in 1994.

From Myth to Science to Myth again

And it’s not only the beginning. The similarities pervade the whole of Dialectic. The Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy summarizes the main message of Dialectic as a “‘double perspective’ on the modern West” and explains:

[Adorno and Horkheimer] summarize this double perspective in two interlinked theses: “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (DE xviii).

And in more detail:

The first thesis allows them to suggest that, despite being declared mythical and outmoded by the forces of secularization, older rituals, religions, and philosophies may have contributed to the process of enlightenment and may still have something worthwhile to contribute.

This sounds pretty much like Feyerabend, who thought that many types of thinking can contribute to understand the world and that ‘truth’ can only be found in a multitude of opinions, including those that defenders of rationality think are un-scientific and un-founded in evidence.

The Stanford Encyclopedia goes on:

The second thesis allows them to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern forces of secularization, but without denying either that these forces are progressive and enlightening or that the older conceptions they displace were themselves ideological and destructive.

Also here I see obvious similarities to Feyerabend. He is seen as the ‘worst enemy of science’ and rationality, but he is not criticizing them per se; rather, he is exposing ideological and destructive tendencies in science — without denying that science can be liberating and that other world-views can be more ideological or destructive.

Homer, Parmenides and other Greeks with beards

A theme running through both Tyranny and Dialectic is their historical perspective. And ‘historical’ here means: back to the beginnings of Western civilization in ancient Greek (and beyond).

The first chapter of Dialectic dealing with the concept of enlightenment is immediately followed by two excurses, one on Homer’s Odysseus and the second one on De Sade’s Juliette. This might seem like a surprising combination and can leave the casual reade quite baffled. Exactly like reading Feyerabend, who happily combines a discussion of genocide with Galileo, Parmenides and Plato.

I feel this is not totally different from modern biomedicine, where labs are often composed of molecular biologists, geneticists, computer scientists, physicists and clinicians. If you are new to the field this spread of expertises and opinions can be quite surprising.

Great minds need to think alike.


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