‘Screw you, I’m going home’

Ian Hacking

  • Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction Versus the Richness of Being by Paul Feyerabend, edited by Bert Terpstra
    Chicago, 285 pp, £19.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 226 24533 0

Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science and famous iconoclast about the sciences, wrote in Killing Time, his autobiography published post-humously in 1996, that ‘in an incautious moment’ he had promised his young wife that he would produce ‘one more collage, a book no less, on the topic of reality’. He stopped work in November 1993 when he became ill, and died soon afterwards, at the age of seventy. So now we have even more of a collage than he intended. Half the published book is literally half a book, for at page 128 we find the final footnote: ‘Here ends the manuscript.’ The remaining 140 pages are versions of papers written after 1989, which run parallel to the book he was writing. We owe the excellent editing to a Dutch engineer working for Shell: Bert Terpstra had sent an intelligent fan letter out of the blue, too late for Feyerabend to have read it. On the strength of that letter Feyerabend’s widow, Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, had the wit to choose him as editor.

They missed just one thing: the letter to the reader, printed below, almost certainly intended as the foreword to the book. It turned up rather dramatically last October, when (following the official opening of the Feyerabend archive at the University of Konstanz) the archivist returned a floppy disk to Dr Borrini-Feyerabend. She was looking casually through it on the Sunday she returned home, and found the letter, which is printed here for the first time, with her permission.

The ‘abundance’ of the ironic title of the book refers to our world of incredible variety, almost boundless in its perspectives. We who are the heirs to the civilisations of Europe, the Mediterranean, West Asia and North America, have tamed and trammelled that abundance. The subtitle makes the point: ‘Abstraction versus the Richness of Being’. Since Richness of Being sounds like a Good Thing, we infer that Feyerabend thought Abstraction a Bad Thing. Well, not quite, for what he really opposed was what Blake called ‘single vision’: ‘May God us keep/From Single vision – Newton’s sleep.’ Which can only encourage a belief in Feyerabend’s anti-scientism. His most widely known book, Against Method (1975), was intended to be one of a pair of books, the other written by Imre Lakatos, who died suddenly in 1974. I reviewed the recently published correspondence between the two friends in these pages (20 January). The book was not against either science or method, but against the idea that there is some unique and best methodology to follow in order to produce good science or good anything else. The best remembered aphorism from that book, ‘anything goes’, did not mean that anything except the scientific method (whatever that is) ‘goes’, but that lots of ways of proceeding, including the innumerable methods of the diverse sciences, ‘go’. It also meant that an anti-rationalist like Feyerabend was perfectly entitled to use rationalist arguments to discomfit the rationalists he opposed. What Feyerabend disliked was any kind of intellectual or ideological hegemony. His favoured text was Mill’s On Liberty, even if his own preferred style was Dada. 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.

This half-book is not, however, a paean to proliferation and a denunciation of abstraction. It shows a new concern for the way in which different visions can learn from each other, and one vision grow out of another. Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn between them made famous the idea that competing or successive scientific theories or world views are ‘incommensurable’. That sloganeering word acquired a lot of meanings, but the core idea was that different principles or ways of thinking could not speak to each other: no common language could encompass both; no shared standards could decide which was best. Kuhn spent his last years trying to produce a precise theory of language and classification that both explained incommensurability and made it inevitable. (There is a two-thirds finished last book by Kuhn, too, but his editors seem not to want speedy publication.) Feyerabend happily went in the opposite direction. He came to realise that incommensurability, when it did exist, was the result of dogmatism or excessive abstraction, usually of the two together. One could continue the argument, suggesting that Kuhn came to expect incommensurability because he turned flexible ordinary languages into abstract structures between which mutual translation or adaptation had been engineered out.

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