Feyerabend on Kuhn and Historiography

This entry looks at some comments from the first of two letters of 1960-61 that Feyerabend wrote to Kuhn concerning a draft copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR), on which Feyerabend was commenting. He objected that in SSR Kuhn was writing “ideology covered up as history”. Feyerabend did not mean that we can or should live without ideology, or that history should be “written without a point of view in mind”, but rather that there is no “nice distinction [that] can be drawn between what is regarded as a factual report, and what is regarded as an interpretation according to some point of view”.

Feyerabend’s key claim was these points of view “can be made explicit and it is possible to write history in such a manner that the reader is always aware of one’s ideology or point of view as well as of the possibility of an alternative interpretation of the historical facts”. We should therefore separate what is fact and what follows reasonably from it, rather than claiming that “alles wirklich ist vernünftig” (a reference to Hegel’s Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts) and writing as though the interpretations follow naturally or uncontroversially from history. Feyerabend thus objected to the presentation of a belief as an obvious consequence of history.

For his part, Kuhn began SSR by agreeing that the aim of science textbooks has been “persuasive and pedagogic” and stated that he would “sketch… a quite different concept of science that can emerge from the historical record of the research activity itself” (p1). Feyerabend’s objection was to the use of the term “emerge” here as a rhetorical tool, giving the impression that a specific interpretation is uniquely implied by the historical record and waiting to be uncovered. This is the reporting of an interpretation as fact that Feyerabend disliked and described as “ideology covered up as history”.

There are (at least) two issues to consider here: firstly, can or should history be written in this way; and secondly, did Feyerabend live up to his own demand? This entry looks at the second question, with the first to be returned to. Feyerabend’s Against Method (AM) is used because it includes explicitly historical arguments.

At the beginning of AM, Feyerabend paraphrased Lenin in saying that history is “always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and subtle” than “the best historian and the best methodologist can imagine” (p9). He went on to quote Einstein’s remark that the scientist who necessarily resists “the adherence to an epistemological system”, as the practise of science requires, “must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist” (p10). (This characterisation has often been applied to Feyerabend himself and is one Feyerabend made of Galileo as he sought to establish Einstein’s (and, earlier, Mill’s) point.) Feyerabend then stated his aims clearly at the outset:

My intention is not to replace one set of rules by another such set: my intention, rather, is to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits… Always remember that the demonstrations and the rhetorics used do not express any ‘deep convictions’ of mine. They merely show how easy it is to lead people by the nose in a rational way. (p23)

However, Galileo’s defusing of the Tower Argument is then introduced “[a]s a concrete illustration and as a basis for further discussion” (p55; emphasis added). As a result, it is difficult to argue against the conclusion that Feyerabend relied on a fixed interpretation just as Kuhn did. We can perhaps understand his insistence on the “possibility of an alternative interpretation of the historical facts” as consistent with proliferation but not tenacity (and not rhetorical force either; after all, Feyerabend argued that Galileo’s arguments were successful in part because of his skilled use of rhetoric, saying that Galileo “uses propaganda [and] psychological tricks in addition to whatever intellectual reasons he has to offer” (p65)).

The difficulty for Feyerabend is that while his account of Galileo provides an interpretation that aids his reductio of the rationalist case, it follows from his values-based conception of science that alternatives exist and should be developed. Moreover, following his advice to Kuhn, he is bound to admit to his readers that there is a difference between a “factual report” of what happened and his “interpretation according to [his] point of view”. The question is: what force remains in his argument if both demands are satisfied? While it would be fair to say that AM signposts the aims of his argument in more than sufficient detail, there is little room for doubt in the account itself that Feyerabend’s Galileo emerges from history just as surely as Kuhn’s normal science does.

The interesting aspect for the relationship between the history and philosophy of science is the extent to which any argument in the philosophy of science that relies on the history of science must inevitably presuppose a fixed interpretation of an historical episode in science. After all, if interpretations are in flux, if there are multiple and conflicting interpretations of similar merit, or if – following Feyerabend’s advice to Kuhn – we caveat the lessons we draw with a reminder “of the possibility of an alternative interpretation of the historical facts”, then which philosophical argument is best supported? As Feyerabend noted and emphasised later in his work on the theory-ladenness of observation statements, the distinction between “factual report” and “interpretation” does not hold up, so perhaps it is understandable that Kuhn, like any other historian (including Feyerabend), should often write as though a specific and natural interpretation of the historical record exists. Holding the account to be unclear, uncertain or subject to challenge, though, would seem to undermine the force of the argument, if not its content.

In summary, Feyerabend set out his aims clearly in AM and his advice to Kuhn seems well intentioned. However, it is difficult to see how any historian could live up to his requirements, including Feyerabend himself. More importantly, perhaps, doing so might make connecting the history and the philosophy of science a tall order.

This entry was posted in Feyerabend, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Feyerabend on Kuhn and Historiography

  1. Peter says:

    The points you make apply not only to what we might normally think of as history of science, but also to science itself in that every research report is a history of certain investigations. It may indeed be possible (to paraphrase Feyerabend) “to write a research report in such a manner that the reader is always aware of one’s ideology or point of view as well as of the possibility of an alternative interpretation of the scientific facts”, but to do so probably requires the writer and reader to be in good agreement as to what constitutes the relevant scientific facts. In that case, they probably have similar ideological outlooks too, so the demand to make it explicit may not be that great. In my experience, where parties differ in ideology, they usually rationalize their differences into arguments about relevant fact sets.

    Where does that leave the philosophy of science? To be sure, one can build a philosophy of knowledge – an epistemology, but that can (and possibly should) be done without regard for how much it correlates with what is colloquially called “science”. Since the likelihood of science reforming itself around an independently-developed epistemology is approximately nil, that leaves us with science as a sociological phenomenon, capable of producing real knowledge, no doubt, possibly even better than any other identifiable social institution, but not holder of any monopoly and certainly not infallible. In other words: skeptical common sense.

    BTW, Paul, with this and the astrology article, you seem to be making moves on cornering the Feyerabend scholarship market. A niche market, I guess, but probably one with a firm cult consumer base. I look forward to more in this line.

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