Against Method by Paul Feyerabend

  1. This book proposes a thesis and draws consequences from it. The thesis is: the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere. Concert developments have distinct features and we can often explain why and how these features led to success. But not every discovery can be accounted for in the same manner, and procedures that paid off in the past may create havoc when imposed in the future. Successful research does not obey general standards; it relies now on one trick, now on another; the moves that advance it and the standards that define what counts as an advance are not always known to the movers. Given any rule, or any general statement about the sciences, there always exist developments which are praised by those who support the rule but which show that the rule does more damage than good. One consequence of the thesis is that scientific successes cannot be explained in a simple way. All we can do is give a historical account of the details, including social circumstances, accidents and personal idiosyncrasies. Another consequence is that the success of ‘science’ cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved problems in a standardized way. The thesis says that there are no such procedures. It also follows that ‘non-scientific’ procedures cannot be pushed aside by argument.” Four main features of methodological monism which are identified: principle of falsification (theories must correspond and be consistent with all relevant facts), a demand for increased empirical content, the forbidding of ad hoc hypotheses, and the consistency condition (any new theory must be consistent with past theories – favoring the status quo rather than the best)
Key Takeaways
  1. Feyerabend will forever be known for his term “anything goes.” He never meant that anything except the scientific method ‘goes.’ He meant that lots of ways of getting on, including the innumerable methods of the diverse sciences, ‘go.’ There are no universal methodological rules and dogmatic use of rules should be avoided at all costs as such a method would limit the activities of scientists and hence restrict scientific progress
  2. Single-mindedness in pursuit of any goal, including truth and understanding, yields great rewards. But single vision is folly if it makes you think you see (or even glimpse) the truth, the one and only truth. Hence the need for the counter-irritant maxim, ‘anything goes.’
  3. Was labeled an anarchist. “I am for anarchism in thinking, in one’s private life, but not in public life.” The term “Dada” was also often applied to him as anarchism turned violent. Dada would never hurt a fly and does not imply indifference, but passion
  4. Things are never what they seem to be. Reality, or Being, or God, or whatever it is that sustains us cannot be captured that easily. You must also resist the temptation to classify what I say by giving it a well-established name
  5. If scientific achievements can be judged only after the event and if there is no abstract way of ensuring success beforehand, then there exists no special way of weighing scientific promises either – scientists are no better off than anybody else in these matters, they only know more details. This means that the public can participate in the discussion without disturbing existing roads to success (there are no such roads).
  6. There can be many different kinds of science. People starting from different social backgrounds will approach the world in different ways and learn different things about it. Chinese technology for a long time lacked any Western-scientific underpinning and yet it was far ahead of contemporary Western technology. It is true that Western science now reigns supreme all over the globe; however, the reason was not insight in it’s ‘inherent rationality’ but power play – the colonizing nations imposed their ways of living and the need for weapons. Western science so far has created the most efficient instruments of death.
  7. I am against ideologies that use the name of science for cultural murder
  8. Creation of a thing, and creation plus full understanding of a correct idea of the thing are very often parts of one and the same indivisible process and cannot be separated without bringing the process to a stop
  9. Science is not one but many enterprises and no single policy can support all of them. There are no general solutions
  10. As the world is an unknown entity that we are exploring and trying to understand, we must not limit ourselves by falsely siloing or isolating branches of science from one another. We must not restrict ourselves in advance but keep as many options open as possible
  11. Consistency criterion – to insist that new theories must be consistent with older theories gives the older theory an unfair advantage and possibly lead to aesthetic rather than rational choices
  12. Philosophy can neither succeed in providing a general description of science nor in devising a method for differentiating products of science from non-scientific entities like myths
  13. Falsificationism, the thought that theories must correspond and be consistent with all relevant facts, should be ignored as science progresses unevenly
  14. Scientific pluralism which makes comparisons between any theories at all forces defendants to improve the articulation of each theory and therefore the critical power of science
  15. The only approach which does not inhibit progress is “anything goes.” “Anything goes is not a ‘principle’ I hold but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history.”
  16. People should be protected from science as an ideology just as they are of other forms. Science started out as a liberating movement but has swung to become oppressive and repressive
  17. Science should not have the privileged position it holds today in western societies and in fact should be separate from the state in the same way that religion and state are separate in a modern secular society
  18. Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown by both an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example  we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively.
  19. The consistency condition which demands that new hypotheses agree with accepted theories is unreasonable because it preserves the older theory, and not the better theory. Hypotheses contradicting well-confirmed theories give us evidence that cannot be obtained in any other way.
  20. Proliferation of theories is beneficial for science, while uniformity impairs its critical power. Uniformity also endangers the free development of the individual.
  21. There is no idea, however ancient and absurd that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.
  22. No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain, yet it is not always the theory that is to blame. Facts are constituted by older ideologies, and a clash between facts and theories may be proof of progress. It is also a first step in our attempt to find the principles implicit in familiar observational notions. As an example of such an attempt I examine the tower argument which the Aristotelians used to refute the motion of the earth. The argument involves natural interpretations – ideas so closely connected with observations that it needs a special effort to realize their existence and to determine their content. Galileo identifies the natural interpretations which are inconsistent with Copernicus and replaces them by others. The new natural interpretations constitute a highly abstract observation language. They are introduced and concealed so that one fails to notice the change that has taken place (method of anamnesis). They contain the idea of the relativity of all motion and the law of circular inertia. In addition to natural interpretations, Galileo also changes sensations that seem to endanger Copernicus. He admits that there are such sensations, he praises Copernicus for having disregarded them, he claims to have removed them with the help of the telescope. However, he offers no theoretical reasons why the telescope should be expected to give a true picture of the sky. Nor does the initial experience with the telescope provide such reasons. The first telescopic observations of the sky are indistinct, indeterminate, contradictory and in conflict with that everyone can see with his unaided eyes. And the only theory that could have helped to separate telescopic illusions from veridical phenomena was refuted by simple tests. On the other hand, there are some telescopic phenomena which are plainly Copernican. Galileo introduces these phenomena as independent evidence for Copernicus while the situation is rather than one refuted view – Copernicanism – has a certain similarity with phenomena emerging from another refuted view – the idea that telescopic phenomena are faithful images of the sky. Such ‘irrational’ methods of support are needed because of the ‘uneven development’ (Marx, Lenin) of different parts of science. Copernicanism and other essential ingredients of modern science survived only because reason was frequently overruled in their past. Galileo’s method works in other fields as well. For example, it can be used to eliminate the existing arguments against materialism, and to put an end to the philosophical mind/body problem (the corresponding scientific problems remain untouched, however). It does not follow that it should be universally applied. The Church at the time of Galileo not only kept closer to reason as defined then and, in part, even now: it also considered the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s views. Its indictment of Galileo was rational and only opportunism and a lack of perspective can demand a revision. Galileo’s inquiries formed only a small part of the so-called Copernican Revolution. Adding the remaining elements makes it still more difficult to reconcile the development with familiar principles of theory evaluation. The results obtained so far suggest abolishing the distinction between a context of discovery and a context of justification, norms and facts, observational terms and theoretical terms. None of these distinctions plays a role in scientific practice. Attempts to enforce them would have disastrous consequences. Popper’s critical rationalism fails for the same reasons. Finally, the kind of comparison that underlies most methodologies is possible only in some rather simple cases. It breaks down when we try to compare non-scientific views with science and when we consider the most advanced, most general and therefore most mythological parts of science itself
  23. Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet it is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down. Science is neither a single tradition, nor the best tradition there is, except for people who have become accustomed to its presence, its benefits and its disadvantages. In a democracy it should be separated from the state just as churches are now separated from the state. The point of view underlying this book is not the result of a well-planned train of thought but of arguments prompted by accidental encounters. Anger at the wanton destruction of cultural achievements from which we all could have learned, at the conceited assurance with which some intellectuals interfere with the lives of people, and contempt for the phrases they use to embellish their misdeeds, was and still is the motive force behind my work.
What I got out of it
  1. Anything goes. Trying to impose strict rules, thought patterns, structures, etc. will inhibit progress. There are no universal rules and dogmatic use of rules should be avoided at all costs as such a method would limit the activities of scientists and hence restrict scientific progress