Paul Feyerabend, fully Paul Karl Feyerabend

Feyerabend, fully Paul Karl Feyerabend

Austrian-born American Philosopher of Science, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley who also lived in England and New Zealand

Author Quotes

We have to realize that a unified theory of the physical world simply does not exist. We have theories that work in restricted regions, we have purely formal attempts to condense them into a single formula, we have lots of unfounded claims (such as the claim that all of chemistry can be reduced to physics), phenomena that do not fit into the accepted framework are suppressed; in physics, which many scientists regard as the one really basic science, we have now at least three different point of view (relativity, dealing with the very large, quantum theory for an intermediate domain and various particle models for the very small) without a promise of conceptual (and not only formal) unification; perceptions are outside of the material universe (the mind-body problem is still unsolved) - from the very beginning the salesman of a universal truth cheated people into admissions instead of clearly arguing for their philosophy. And let us not forget that it was they and not the representatives of the traditions they attacked who introduced argument as the one and only universal arbiter. They praised argument - they constantly violated its principles.

Ultimate Reality, if such an entity can be postulated, is ineffable.

'Truth', written 'in capital letters', is an orphan in this world, without power and influence... ['Reason'] cannot stand diverging opinions - it calls them 'lies'; it puts itself 'above' the real lives of human beings, demanding, in a way characteristic of all totalitarian ideologies, the right to rebuild the world from the height of 'what it should be', i.e. in accordance with its own 'invincible' precepts. It refuses to recognize the many ideas, actions, feelings, laws, institutions, racial features which separate one nation (culture, civilization) from another... The reason of ordinary people trying to create a better and safer world for themselves and their children (which is reason with a small 'r' and not Reason 'written in capital letters') has very little in common with these ignorant dreams of domination.

There is no coherent knowledge, i.e. no uniform comprehensive account of the world and the events in it. There is no comprehensive truth that goes beyond an enumeration of details, but there are many pieces of information, obtained in different ways from different sources and collected for the benefit of the curious. The best way of presenting such knowledge is the list - and the oldest scientific works were indeed lists of facts, parts, coincidences, problems in several specialized domains.

The validity of usefulness, adequacy of popular standards can be tested only by research that violates them.

The semblance of Absolute Truth is nothing but Absolute Conformism.

The sciences of today are business enterprises run on business principles. Research in large institutes is not guided by Truth and Reason but by the most rewarding fashion, and the great minds of today increasingly turn to where the money is - which means military matters.

The members of the Japanese enlightenment of the early 1870's, Fukuzawa among them, now reasoned as follows: Japan can keep its independence only if it becomes stronger. It can become stronger only with the help of science. It will use science effectively only if it does not just practice science but also believes in the underlying ideology. To many traditional Japanese this ideology-the scientific worldview- was barbaric. But, so the followers of Fukuzawa argued, it was necessary to adopt barbaric ways, to regard them as advanced, to introduce the whole of Western civilization in order to survive. Having been thus prepared, Japanese scientists soon branched out as their Western colleagues had done before and falsified the uniform ideology that had started the development. The lesson I draw from this sequence of events is that a uniform 'scientific view of the world' may be useful for people doing science... However, it is a disaster for outsiders (philosophers, fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a new age, the (“educated public"), who, being undisturbed by the complexities of research, are liable to fall for the most simpleminded and most vapid tale.

The material which a scientist actually has at his disposal, his laws, his experimental results, his mathematical techniques, his epistemological prejudices, his attitude towards the absurd consequences of the theories which he accepts, is indeterminate in many ways, ambiguous, and never fully separated from the historical background. This material is always contaminated by principles which he does not know and which, if known, would be extremely hard to test.

The ideas survived and they can now be said to be in agreement with reason. They survived because prejudice, passion, conceit, errors, sheer pigheadedness, in short because all the elements that characterize the context of discovery, opposed the dictates of reason and because these irrational elements were permitted to have their way. To express it differently: Copernicanism and other "rational" views exist today only because reason was overruled at some time in their past. (The opposite is also true: witchcraft and other "irrational" views had ceased to be influential only because reason was overruled at some time in their past.)

The existence of antagonistic "conspiracies" was recognized by the defenders of religious and political views. Iconoclasts knew that images might distort the basic message of their creed (which consisted of words and resided in Holy Books). Church architecture and church music were adapted to the needs of the Holy Faith. Alternative styles were either fought or made part of religious PR. I conclude that our 'field of experience' is molded, overlaid, and 'conspired' against not just by language, but by numerous other patterns and institutions, many of them in mutual conflict. An inference from a style, a particular linguistic apparatus, or, more recently, from scientific beliefs, to a cosmology, corresponding ways of life and an all-embracing "spirit of the age therefore needs special support; it cannot be made as a matter of course.

So far Unitarian realism claiming to possess positive knowledge about Ultimate Reality has succeeded only by excluding large areas of phenomena or by declaring, without proof, that they could be reduced to basic theory, which, in this connection, means elementary particle physics.

Scientific "facts" are taught at a very early age and in the very same manner in which religious "facts" were taught only a century ago. There is no attempt to waken the critical abilities of the pupil so that he may be able to see things in perspective. At the universities the situation is even worse, for indoctrination is here carried out in a much more systematic manner. Criticism is not entirely absent. Society, for example, and its institutions, are criticized most severely and often most unfairly... But science is excepted from the criticism. In society at large the judgment of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgment of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago. The move towards "demythologization," for example, is largely motivated by the wish to avoid any clash between Christianity and scientific ideas. If such a clash occurs, then science is certainly right and Christianity wrong. Pursue this investigation further and you will see that science has now become as oppressive as the ideologies it had once to fight. Do not be misled by the fact that today hardly anyone gets killed for joining a scientific heresy. This has nothing to do with science. It has something to do with the general quality of our civilization. Heretics in science are still made to suffer from the most severe sanctions this relatively tolerant civilization has to offer.

Science is not sacrosanct. The mere fact that it exists, is admired, has results is not sufficient for making it a measure of excellence. Modern science arose from global objections against earlier views and rationalism itself, the idea that there are general rules and standards for conducting our affairs, affairs of knowledge included, arose from global objections to common sense.

Results from a given approach are "facts" as long as the approach fits the group or the tradition that is being addressed.

Progress was often achieved by a "criticism from the past"... After Aristotle and Ptolemy, the idea that the earth moves - that strange, ancient, and "entirely ridiculous", Pythagorean view was thrown on the rubbish heap of history, only to be revived by Copernicus and to be forged by him into a weapon for the defeat of its defeaters. The Hermetic writings played an important part in this revival, which is still not sufficiently understood, and they were studied with care by the great Newton himself. Such developments are not surprising. No idea is ever examined in all its ramifications and no view is ever given all the chances it deserves. Theories are abandoned and superseded by more fashionable accounts long before they have had an opportunity to show their virtues. Besides, ancient doctrines and "primitive" myths appear strange and nonsensical only because their scientific content is either not known, or is distorted by philologists or anthropologists unfamiliar with the simplest physical, medical or astronomical knowledge.

People have different professions, different points of view. They are like observers looking at the world through the narrow windows of an otherwise closed structure. Occasionally they assemble at the center and discuss what they have seen; then one observer will talk about a beautiful landscape with red trees, a red sky, and a red lake in the middle; the next one about an infinite blue plane without articulation; and the third about an impressive, five-floor-high building; they will quarrel. The observer on top of the structure (me) can only laugh at their quarrels-but for them the quarrels will be real and he (the observer on top) will be an unworldly dreamer. Real life... is exactly like that. Every person has his own well-defined opinions, which color the section of the world he perceives. And when people come together, when they try to discover the nature of the whole which they belong, they are bound to talk past each other; they will understand neither themselves nor their companions.

Now - how can we possibly examine something we use all the time and presuppose in every statement? How can we criticize the terms in which we habitually express our observations? Let us see! The first step in our criticism of commonly-used concepts is to create a measure of criticism, something with which these concepts can be compared. Of course, we shall later want to know a little more about the measuring stick itself; for example, we shall want to know whether it is better than, or perhaps not as good as, the material examined. But in order for this examination to start there must be a measuring-stick in the first place. Therefore, the first step in our criticism of customary concepts and customary reactions is to step outside the circle and either to invent a new conceptual system, for example a new theory, that clashes with the most carefully established observational results and confounds with the most plausible theoretical principles, or to import such a system from outside science, from religion, from mythology, from the ideas of incompetents, or the ramblings of madmen. This step is, again, counter-inductive, Counter-induction is thus both a fact' - science could not exist without it - and a legitimate and much needed move in the game of science.

Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens.

Mathematical Reasoning is not only exact; it has its own criteria of reality.

Language became a colorless and as indistinct as the business suit which is now worm by everyone, by the scholar, by the businessman, by the professional killer. Being accustomed to a dry and dreary norm and sees in it an obvious sign of arrogance and aggression; viewing authority with almost religious awe he gets into a frenzy when he sees someone pluck the beard of his favorite prophet.

Is it not a fact that a learned physician is better equipped to diagnose and to cure an illness than a layman or the medicine-man of a primitive society? Is it not a fact that epidemics and dangerous individual diseases have disappeared only with the beginning of modern medicine? Must we not admit that technology has made tremendous advances since the rise of modern science? And are not the moon-shots a most and undeniable proof of its excellence? These are some of the questions which are thrown at the impudent wretch who dares to criticize the special positions of the sciences. The questions reach there polemical aim only if one assumes that the results of science which no one will deny have arisen without any help from non-scientific elements, and that they cannot be improved by an admixture of such elements either. "Unscientific" procedures such as the herbal lore of witches and cunning men, the astronomy of mystics, the treatment of the ill in primitive societies are totally without merit. Science alone gives us a useful astronomy, an effective medicine, a trustworthy technology. One must also assume that science owes its success to the correct method and not merely to a lucky accident. It was not a fortunate cosmological guess that led to progress, but the correct and cosmologically neutral handling of data. These are the assumptions we must make to give the questions of the polemical force they are supposed to have. Not a single one of them stands up to a closer examination.

In a war a totalitarian state has a free hand.

If the world is an aggregate of relatively independent regions, then any assumption of universal laws is false and a demand for universal norms tyrannical: only brute force (or seductive deception) can then bend the different moralities so that they fit the prescriptions of a single ethical system. And indeed, the idea of universal laws of nature and society arose in connection with a life-and-death battle: the battle that gave Zeus the power over the Titans and all other gods and thus turned his laws into the laws of the universe.

Human paint, produce films and videos; they dance, dream and make music; they engage in political action, exchange goods, perform rituals, build houses start wars, act in plays, try to please patrons- and so on... They contain patterns, press the practitioners to "conform" and in this way mold their thought, their perception, their actions, and their discriminative abilities.

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Feyerabend, fully Paul Karl Feyerabend
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Austrian-born American Philosopher of Science, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley who also lived in England and New Zealand