Feyerabend and historiographic proliferation

In the introduction to his Against Method, Paul Feyerabend paraphrased V.I. Lenin by claiming 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”. He went on to quote Einstein’s remark that the scientist who necessarily resists “the adherence to an epistemological system”, which the practise of science (rather than its form according to those advocating just such an epistemological system) requires, “must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist”. 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. Based on this understanding of the historiography of science, Feyerabend constructed a reductio argument against those he called “capital R Rationalists” and anyone who proposed to methodologically restrict science. His reductio took the following general form:

i. Select a example from the history of science of a transition between theories that is paradigmatically accepted as scientific progress;
ii. Demonstrate that those actors involved argued (successfully) in irrational or non-rational terms (whether wholly or in part), where rationality is defined by adherence to the methodology purported to define or characterise science;
iii. Demonstrate further that they could not have achieved progress otherwise; and
iv. Conclude that insisting on the methodology at the time would have forced the actors to give up.

The result was to place the epistemic systematists in the absurd position of advocating a methodology for science that would have killed the very progress allegedly brought about because early scientists followed the methodology.

Although this reductio succeeds, I want to suggest that Feyerabend’s historiography, and perhaps the historical approach in general, is somewhat paradoxical. The aim of his historiography is to free us from methodological or epistemological strictures but we find ourselves using the lessons of history to show that there are no lessons to be learned from history. This is too simplistic, though: what Feyerabend argued was not that there is and can be no methodology worth adopting but rather that all methods have their limits. Nevertheless, the paradoxical aspect comes from considering the use Feyerabend makes of history. Faced with a methodological rule, we can look to the history of science - and to apparently paradigmatic cases of good practice in particular - and show that an application of the rule would have been disastrous. However, it seems that this relies implicitly on a fixed interpretation of the events under consideration; after all, if it were possible for a rationalist or anyone else to recast the episode in a more favourable light for the rule at issue, we might be able to show that in fact its application would have worked then as now. Cases like dogmatic falsificationism are relatively straightforward insofar as they present so restrictive a rule that almost any interpretation would contradict it, but what of others? If, for example, it is possible to view Galileo not as a master rhetorician and opportunist but as a prototypical or actual rationalist, then it would seem reasonable and indeed advisable to not be restricted in historiography any more than in methodology or epistemology.

How might Feyerabend respond? He would probably argue that this is exactly the kind of criticism that is needed and hence that if the rationalist can identify this limitation of the reductio then he will likely also appreciate and accept the limits on his own methodology. It might be objected that Feyerabend’s interpretation of historical events is but one of many, with the rationalist versions at least having the merit of supporting a rational account of scientific history. The difference perhaps lies in Feyerabend’s commitment to proliferation, notwithstanding that he would approve of the tenacity of the rationalist view; after all, we can view Feyerabend’s approving quote of Lenin as pointing to the inevitability of conflicting historiographies. This tension between tenacity and proliferation will be further explored in a subsequent entry.

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

One Response to Feyerabend and historiographic proliferation

  1. Pingback: Philosophy of science nerd-fest « Praj's Blog

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