Anything goes? Feyerabend and method

This entry looks at Paul Feyerabend’s reductio ad absurdum of specific rationalist conceptions of scientific method, perhaps one of the least understood arguments in the philosophy of science. I explain the structure of the reductio before considering how Feyerabend applied it.

The first point to note is that the misunderstanding of Feyerabend’s argument is due to his critics. When Feyerabend first published his Against Method, he was explicit about his aim:

My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic. (1975, 32)

He went on to entreat the reader to “always remember that the demonstrations and the rhetorics used do not express any ‘deep convictions’ of mine”. Nevertheless, this work has consistently been described as an attempt to advance and defend the methodological principle “anything goes”, so much so that Munévar complained that “it should be an embarrassment to the profession that many reviews were completely unable to see the structure of this simple reductio” (1991, 181). (See Laudan, 1996, and Newton-Smith, 1981, for examples of such failures.) As a measure of his exasperation at such empty critiques, Feyerabend’s Science in a Free Society contains an appendix entitled “Conversations with Illiterates” (1975, 125-218), in which he responded to some of his detractors.

The structure of Feyerabend’s reductio is quite straightforward, notwithstanding its confusion with a positive argument for anarchism: faced with the methodological principles of certain forms of rationalism (or what Feyerabend considered under this rubric, most notably logical positivism and falsificationism) and their proponents, together with so-called paradigmatic instances of these at work in the history of science, Feyerabend sought to show that the same rationalists would have to admit that science has developed in a fashion either contrary to their standards or otherwise in a manner that they would have to characterise as irrational. As a consequence, the standards would have to be dropped.

As a result of this rhetorical strategy, Feyerabend was able to explain his argument clearly:

‘Anything goes’ is not the one and only ‘principle’ of a new methodology, recommended by me. It is the only way in which those firmly committed to universal standards and wishing to understand history in their terms can describe my account of traditions and research practices … If this account is correct then all a rationalist can say about science (and about any other interesting activity) is: anything goes.

The reductio thus took the following form:

  • Take the principles of a rationalist methodology for science;
  • Consider what these rationalists propose as a representative example of such a methodology at work in the history of science;
  • Note that the decisions made on the basis of a rational methodology should, ceteris paribus, be rational; and
  • Demonstrate that an account of this episode in such terms forces us to describe the actions of those purportedly following the rules as irrational or in violation of them.

Before we look at Feyerabend’s argument, it is useful to take a simple example of a reductio at work. If we are dogmatic falsificationists (or else advocate basing our acceptance and rejection of scientific theories on so-called decisive experiments) and suppose Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to have been a step in the right direction with regard to gaining knowledge of our universe, we find that we run into a problem. Falsificationists do not dispute the historical account of 1905, in which the first response to Einstein’s paper noted that his theory had already been refuted by Kaufman’s experimental results, published in the Annalen der Physik in that year. The dogmatic falsificationist is thus forced to admit that Einstein should have dismissed his theory as falsified – which, of course, he did not. (This example is discussed in detail here.) We are led to the unfortunate position of either arguing that Einstein was irrational in his refusal to give up the special theory (and moreover that we, as good falsificationists, would have rejected it, along with any consequences), which is a demand we would now consider absurd, or else accepting that dogmatic falsificationism fails.

Feyerabend preferred to use another – more famous – example from the history of science: Galileo’s work on geostaticism. Feyerabend’s reductio here consisted in three stages, designed to critique naïve empiricism, Popper’s falsificationism and Lakatos’ Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes in turn, each being an instance of a rationalist approach to science (and, in the case of the latter two, the most common even today).

For the first of these, he considered the famous Tower Argument, which had been used by Aristotelians to discount the possibility of a moving Earth. Its proponents pointed to the fact that a stone dropped from a tower lands at its base. If the Earth was moving, as some supposed, the tower would move with it and hence we would expect the stone to drop some distance away. (A variant of the same argument stated that an arrow fired vertically into the air should fall far from the firer, since he or she would have moved - along with the earth - while the arrow was in flight.) This was an idea everyone could understand and hence served as a powerful refutation of the notion that the Earth moves.

It does not matter at this stage whether Galileo was an empiricist or not: in order to undertake the reductio, we assume that he was and see what follows. What Galileo did was to accept the observations made by those who had tested this theory (that the stone falls at the base) and then appeal to a principle of relativity (often called Galilean relativity). He asked his readers to imagine two friends throwing a ball to each other while inside a cabin on a ship alongside and then to consider the same situation while the ship was underway, asking whether more (or less) force would be required to throw the ball when the ship was moving. This was also a thought experiment that people could follow and it helped him to explain that there was in fact no difference, since any motion of the ship would also be shared by the passengers. That is, whichever direction the ship moved in, the cabin would as well, along with everything inside it.

As a result of this discussion, Galileo was able to demonstrate that the very same “fact” used in the Tower Argument - the stone falling at the base - also supported the idea that the Earth was rotating, since any evidence that the geostaticist could appeal to would likewise support the alternative (indeed, this is actually an example of underdetermination by data and the theory-ladenness of observational terms). The naïve empiricist has no means of deciding between these two rival theories and hence any choice made by Galileo would violate this form of empiricism. If our methodology insists that only those decisions made on the basis of evidence can be called rational then Galileo and the Aristotelians alike were irrational to prefer geokineticism or geostaticism respectively. We are thus forced either to give up on describing Galileo’s behaviour as rational or else admit that naïve empiricism is inadequate.

The reductio of Popper’s falsificationism proceeded in a similar way. Copernicus’ system predicted magnitudes for both Venus and Mars that were refuted by observations, which led to the same conclusion with regard to dogmatic falsificationism as in the example of Einstein above. Feyerabend instead considered the sophisticated version of falsificationism, according to which Copernicanism should have excess empirical content over the Ptolemaic model, including the prediction of novel facts that were falsifiable. Unfortunately, Copernicanism was of equal empirical content to its rival (see Kuhn, 1985 and Swerdlow, 1973) and was incompatible with the Aristotelianism of the day. This latter point is an important one to appreciate: Aristotelianism did not merely consist in an astronomical theory concerning the heavens but was an integrated system that applied widely. In particular, Aristotle’s dynamics was a theory of change, including explanations of generation, corruption, locomotion and qualitative change. The theory that Galileo proposed in its stead dealt only with locomotion, which was a decrease in truth-content (as always, from the perspective of that time). Thus we find that Copernicanism represented a theory that was falsified, of equal empirical content and of lesser-truth content. As Popperian falsificationists, we are forced again to admit either that Galileo was irrational to persist in his studies or that Popper’s methodology is flawed.

The last reductio that Feyerabend attempted – that of Lakatos’ much more insightful approach – could not rely on his analysis of Galileo’s behaviour, since Lakatos was in complete agreement (Lakatos and Zahar, 1975; see also Lakatos, 1978). Since Lakatos’ methodology was careful to incorporate the lessons of the failure of falsificationism, his classification of research programmes as progressive if they demonstrate excess empirical content that has been confirmed (and degenerating for the converse) was far better equipped to survive problematic episodes in the history of science. Indeed, Lakatos accepted that a new theory would initially show a loss in empirical content as it took time to become established, and further that ad hoc measures are acceptable insofar as they help the theory avoid falsification and thus allow it to develop. The obvious difficulty with such a methodology, of course, is where to draw the line when so much wriggling is permitted; after all, a degenerating theory could eventually become progressive if given the opportunity (or even if not). It was at this difficulty that Feyerabend aimed his argument and here we finally meet the notion that “anything goes”.

Introducing the concept of an epistemological anarchist, or a person with an aversion to ideologies and opposed “positively and absolutely” to all universal standards (1975, 175), Feyerabend asked how, at the time of Galileo, the actions of an epistemological anarchist would differ from those of a Lakatosian. It was immediately clear that the former could do as he or she liked, by definition, but what of the Lakatosian? Herein lies the problem: Lakatos’ Methodology enables us to describe a situation but it does not tell us how we should act. A Lakatosian could accept Aristotelianism as a progressive research programme and reject Copernicanism as degenerating, but he or she could also do the converse. No restriction is placed on what should be done; all we have is a new vocabulary to explain ourselves.

The reductio in this last case thus consisted in referring again to the “methodology” of epistemological anarchism – or the “anything goes” we began with – and showing that Lakatos’ approach could not be distinguished from it. Since “anything goes” is no method at all, rendering everything rational at a stroke, it follows that we either adopt a method that is not a method (which is absurd) or else reject the approach of the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.

The glaring point to notice in each of these arguments is that it is nowhere necessary for us to accept that there is no possible scientific method; that “anything goes”; that we should all become epistemological anarchists; or that Feyerabend was advocating any of these. All these terms and concepts, employed in critiques of Feyerabend then and since, are intended for use only inside the context of a reductio ad absurdum. The subtlety of this form of rhetoric (which Galileo himself had mastered) is lost when we interpret it as an attempt to replace one set of rules with another (and inexplicably in the face of Feyerabend’s own declaiming the possibility).

In summary, the common (mis)characterisation of Feyerabend’s “anything goes” bears no resemblance to what he wrote and completely ignores both the nature of his reductio argument and its targets. His intention was to free science from methodological and philosophical restrictions, not saddle it with yet another.


Feyerabend, P., Against Method (London: Verso, 1975)
Feyerabend, P., Science in a Free Society (London: New Left Books, 1978)
Kuhn, T.S., The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985)
Lakatos, I., The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978)
Lakatos, I. and Zahar, E., Why did Copernicus’ Research Program Supersede Ptolemy’s?, in Westman (ed), The Copernican Achievement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)
Laudan, L., Beyond Positivism and Relativism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996)
Newton-Smith, W.H., The Rationality of Science (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981)
Swerdlow, N., The derivation and first draft of Copernicus’s planetary theory: a translation of the Commentariolus with commentary (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1973, 117: 423-512)

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

6 Responses to Anything goes? Feyerabend and method

  1. Peter says:

    Nice post, Paul. I suppose there’s a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, understanding how things actually worked (or at least how we can reasonably talk about them) in specific cases in the past and, on the other, knowing what’s a good bet on how to proceed in the here and now. “Anything goes” may be the only principle that stands up to extended scrutiny in the first case, but it’s no help at all in the second. There, the “rationalist” methodologies can provide guidance that some may find helpful. However, the “anything goes” lesson from (Feyerabend’s reading of) history also tells us that such methodologies are not actually necessary.
    An interesting aspect of this discussion is the focus on rhetoric. Thought, logic or rationale are never really communicated between individuals. Communication is all rhetoric and the aim of rhetoric is to persuade; to persuade others to adopt habits of mind that (apparently at least) reproduce the thought, logic or rationale of the persuader. Rhetoric doesn’t necessarily have to be subtle or clever or elegant or even right. All it has to do is persuade. You say that “the misunderstanding of Feyerabend’s argument is due to his critics”. But does not that really mean that Feyerabend’s rhetorical strategies failed to work on them and, if their criticisms of Feyerabend are now perceived to hold sway over Feyerabend’s own arguments, that his critics’ rhetorical strategies have been relatively more successful? Should not Feyerabend’s exasperation evident in his “conversation with illiterates” (that title itself being more the rhetoric of preaching to the converted than of winning friends and influencing people) have been directed at himself for having failed to persuade so many vocal members of his audience?
    Of course, one cannot persuade everyone, so what’s important is to persuade the right people. Today, we can say that Galileo’s rhetoric did that because most of us agree that he was right. Galileo himself may never have been so sure, however, given the problems he had with the church authorities on whom his rhetorical strategies clearly did not work.

    • Paul Newall says:

      Thanks for the interesting comments, Peter. I have some more to say in response in a separate entry but I think Feyerabend was somewhat torn between wanting to convince only a few specific people (chiefly Lakatos) and the conviction that, even though rhetoric tends to outweigh philosophical rigour (as he had shown with Galileo), an argument that increases people’s freedom is one that needs to be fought and won. This latter relies on dropping or temporarily ignoring one’s own criticisms of over-simplification but I assume the context is taken to justify it. Whether this is any different or more admirable than other people doing likewise is what is at issue, I suppose. I hope to explore this in future.

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