Reflections on Paul Feyerabend

The best lecture I’ve ever attended was given by Paul Feyerabend, in the Old Theatre of the LSE, in 1967. Two hours before he started, every seat was taken, at least a hundred more were sitting in the aisles, and closed-circuit tv had been set up in separate rooms. People had travelled from abroad, down from Inverness and up from Plymouth to be there, tipped off by a network relying only on letters and phone calls. It was a rowdy affair – cheers, whistles, clapping, feet-stamping from the audience; outraged, hardly-contained protests from members of the LSE philosophy department who wriggled uncomfortably in their seats in the front row, waving their arms, mumbling insults. This was the apotheosis of the old-style university celebrity gig. There were so many such gigs in those days – visiting stars who kept their audience enthralled but never silent – and I wonder if they don’t belong to a long-gone era of university life, snuffed out by modern concerns for political correctness. The only event I can remember that came close to rivalling Feyerabend’s performance was when Joan Robinson, a Marxist economist at Cambridge, came to the LSE a year before to give a brilliant critique of Keynesian economics. She brought the house down, finishing with a wonderfully-cutting, satirical riff aimed at the economics department of LSE. “What makes you laugh”, she concluded, “is the sheer effort they exert to make the whole silly story sound plausible”. The audience rose to give her a standing ovation, while the department members stormed out.

Feyerabend started his academic life in Vienna in the late 1940s. He changed from physics to philosophy, and made plans to study with Wittgenstein in Cambridge, but Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend arrived in England, so Feyerabend ended up, rather begrudgingly, with Karl Popper as his PhD supervisor. He became a big fan of Popper’s falsificationist view, though ideas of the “incommensurate” nature of rival theories of science (a term made famous a decade later by Thomas Khun and which we will hear a lot more about) already concerned him. In a nutshell (a very cracked one): Feyerabend thought Popper was right epistemologically to stress the asymmetry between truth and falsehood (we’ll never know if a theory is true, but we can know if it’s false), but he wasn’t sure that rival theories were comparable. He went back to Vienna, torn between academia and his desire to be an opera singer, and then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where his first really influential paper was published: “An Attempt at a Realistic Interpretation of Experience” (1958). In the paper, he lambasted positivism and supported Popper’s falsificationist view.

It’s important to point out here that Feyerabend’s criticism of positivism referred to a school of philosophy started by Comte (1848) and brought to a disastrous end by the Vienna School in the 1920s. No scientist these days calls themselves a positivist, despite which, the label “positivist” is now commonly used by badly informed so-called scholars in SLA to refer, disparagingly, to those in their field who base their studies on empirical evidence and rational argument. When you read current stuff written by postmodern, social constructivists like Larsen-Freeman, Lantolf, Thorne, Block and so many other intellectual imposters,  “positivists” are the bad guys, the ones suffering from “science-envy”, the ones choking real progress in our understanding of second language learning by adopting an outmoded “scientific paradigm”. Whatever merits their arguments might have, and I see none, let it be perfectly clear that using the term “positivism” to refer to scientific method displays an ignorance of both philosophy in general and the philosophy of science in particular.

Where were we? Ah yes, Feyerabend. He ended up back in London in the early 1960s, where he became good friends with Imre Lakatos, second in command of the Philosophy department of LSE, nominally headed by Karl Popper, but in fact run by Prof. John Watkins. Popper by this time had become world famous, thanks to the publication of Conjectures and Refutations (Popper, 1963), a much more accessible version of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Popper, 1959), popularly referred to by everybody I knew as “LSD”, a drug we all took far too much of, but which never dented our  allegiance to English beer. By the time Feyerabend gave his lecture, he was already disenchanted with the philosophy department of LSE, which he considered a suffocating environment, something close to a cult, a cabal with increasingly closed ranks devoted to defending the Popperian canon against all critics. I had some personal reasons to agree with him.

In 1965, the philosophy of science was offered as a new option for undergraduates doing the B.Sc. (Econ) degree (before then, it had only been a postgraduate degree). I was among the first cohort to take up the option. Once in, I was delighted by all the clever people I mixed with, delighted by my increasing grasp of Popper (particularly his brilliant reply to my hero Hume), and delighted to meet Paul Feyerabend in the Three Tuns bar, where he regularly held court. I got drunk more than once with Paul and Imre, where all the rows going on within the department were discussed with outlandish candor. Inspired by their rants against W.W. Bartley, whose book The Retreat to Commitment attempted to rescue Popper’s critical rationalist view from its critics, I, still an undergraduate, presented a paper to the department suggesting that Bartley had done nothing useful to address the problem of infinite regress. “It’s still turtles all the way down” I concluded, much to the horror of Watkins, who couldn’t quite believe his ears, but couldn’t muster a good off-the-cuff reply either. He asked me to present a second paper, this time with “the seriousness and rigor one might expect of such a …. bla bla bla”. I did so, and a couple of years later, out came Watkins’ paper “Comprehensibly Critical Rationalism” in the Philosophy journal (Watkins, 1969), where my argument was dressed up with the necessary obscurantist finery, with no acknowledgement of my contribution.

Such was – and still is – the world of academia, but anyway, Feyerabend (not present at either of my presentations) was particularly scathing of the way Watkins and others in the department behaved. At one of our boozy sessions in the Three Tuns bar, Paul suggested that a very bright post grad. student –  Jane, we’ll call her – should take my final exams for me, while he, Imre and I went off on a fishing trip.  Jane was up for it, Imre too, but I bottled out, missed the fishing trip, did the exams myself, and ended up with a mediocre 2.2 honors degree, tho my “essay on a philosophical subject” – on Bartley – got a first. “Never mind”, Lakatos told me “you’ll do a doctorate with us”.  Later that year, 1968, I was involved in “disturbances” at the LSE which resulted in my being named as one of six “ringleaders”, served with an injunction forbidding me access to the LSE, and charged with criminal damage to LSE property.

Where were we? Ah yes, Feyerabend. The lecture. The Old Theatre of LSE must have been a theatre at some point, because it had a stage. At least 20 metres long, I’d say, with a huge blackboard almost as long as its only prop. So on comes Paul Feyerabend, the archetypal German army officer, blonde, blue eyes, and all that and all that, with a very noticeable limp (a war wound, of course). He takes a bit of chalk and draws a line along the blackboard. He stops the line in the middle, makes a tiny space, and continues the line to the end. Then he strides back to the middle, bangs the tiny gap he’s made in the line, and says, in a very loud voice: “Zat, my friends, is Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science!”.  Instant uproar! Shouts of “Bravo!” and “Nail him!” mingle with “Bollocks!”, “Rubbish!” and “Out!”.

What followed was a tour through the history of science, mostly physics, which aimed to question the status of ‘observation statements’, the basic pillar of science. Observation statements are supposed to be ‘empirical’ – objective statements about the things in the world that we observe through our senses and measure with reliable instruments. But they all turn out to be ‘theory laden” – shot through with unestablished assumptions about how the bits fit together. Feyerabend argued that a theory could easily be constructed using the conceptual apparatus of classical physics that would be just as comprehensive and useful as the classical apparatus, without coinciding with it – after all, the concepts of relativity include all the facts in Newtonian physics, yet the two sets of concepts are completely different and bear no logical relation to each other. So the suggestion that the meaning of observation language is determined by pure observation is wrong. In a body of knowledge, no part can be appraised individually, since each one is connected to others; therefore, there is no theory without observation, nor observation without theory. The meaning of an observation statement is determined neither by the pragmatic conditions in which a language is used, nor by the phenomenon that makes us assert it is true. To quote the 1958 paper, “the interpretation of an observation language is determined by the theories which we use to explain what we observe, and it changes as soon as those theories change”.

And thus, Feyerabend argued, we meet the problem unresolved by Popper, pace the famous Khun versus Popper confrontation at Bedford College, London, in 1965, of incommensurability: “I interpreted observation languages by the theories that explain what we observe. Such interpretations change as soon as theories change. I realized that interpretations of this kind might make it possible to establish deductive relations between rival theories and I tried to find means of comparison that were independent of such relations”.

Now, I have to pause again in my no doubt frustrating account of the lecture to tackle the term ‘incommensurability’ alluded to above. The term was coined by Feyerabend and Kuhn, and it is a term that modern constructivist, postmodernist, relativist intellectual imposters took to their feeble souls for succor, and used to create the worst body of academic work ever seen since the invention of the printing press.

Feyerabend met Thomas Kuhn in Berkley, California, in 1960, and it was Feyerabend who first suggested to Kuhn the idea of incommensurability. Feyerabend was already a star, and Kuhn was relatively unknown. Feyerabend read Khun’s work in 1959, and the two got together the following year. They got on well, but there was always, right from the start, tension between Khun’s sociological view of the history of science and Feyerabend’s more philosophical interest in, well, epistemology – he was, after all, a frustrated Wittgenstein scholar. In fact, Kuhn had better academic credentials – a Ph.D. in theoretical physics versus Feyerabend’s Masters in astronomy – but Feyerabend was surely the better thinker, the better philosophical mind, let’s say. Feyerabend’s initial interest in Kuhn’s work was inspired by his interest in quantum physics, and he wanted to pick Kuhn’s brain about its observational base.

Out of time. I have medical issues to attend to. Join me soon for the concluding Part Two, which will include references.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Paul Feyerabend

  1. thanks Geoff very interesting!

    I have been following Robert Brandom’s course ( and what you say here of Feyeraband seems he would be symathetic to pragmatist philosopy approach? e.g. theories need to be treated as a whole rather than atomically?
    also in your reference to infinite regress recalls issue of describing what is represented by another description?
    anyway look forward to reading more

  2. That is the reason I keep coming back to this blog. I wonder what word of advice you have for activists of our time. What is the difference between 1968 and cancel culture, ANTIFA and so forth? It seems that many have been feeding on a peculiar postmodern diet and are busy “constructing their own world” pushing it down history’s throat.
    Best, Thom

  3. Wonderful stuff, Geoff! I hope you’ll put these LSE/P of S columns together in a small book one day.


  4. Thanks, Mike. I’m a bit busy right now – trying to get my part of our book done! 🙂

  5. Hi Thom,
    Paul got seriously “affected” by Trotskyists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were right to oppose Stalinism, wrong to believe in the need for a vanguard party – as I kept telling him! The difference between 1968 and today is the triumph of neoliberal, global capitalism, and the power of social media. Still, it’s very much a case of plus ca change … My advice for activists today is the same as the advice anarchists have always given – act locally. Form cooperatives and link with others who fight for similar causes.

  6. Hi Mura,
    I’m not a fan of Brandom’s stuff, as I think you know. So, no, I don’t Feyerabend would be sympathetic to his philosophical approach. Feyerabend was VERY taken with Wittgenstein’s work, but persuaded by Popper, at least for a while, that the hunt for truth was a chimera. Well, what put Feyerabend off, as I suggest in this post, was the culture of the philosophy department at LSE, the Popperian cult, if you like. So I suppose you could argue that he was pragmatic in that sense. It’s important to stress that we’re talking about the philosophy of science here – not the philosophy of everyday life!
    As for infinite regress, I personally think that the only way out is to adopt a metalanguage – Gödel’s proof and all that. Frankly, I think I prefer turtles all the way down. 🙂

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