Hegel and the development of Feyerabend’s thought

In his paper Two models of epistemic change (1970), Feyerabend argued that we can distinguish between two approaches to prolonged stability of theories or concepts. The first interprets durability as a measure of success: on an instrumentalist view, it may be possible to improve predictive tools but there is little motive to overhaul the underlying framework; and for a realist, a commitment to increasing the degree of verisimilitude permits the development of theories but not of incommensurable concepts or the deliberate undermining of assumptions. The opposing view, which Feyerabend attributes to Hegel and Mill, holds that constancy is an indication of failure: there are always improvements to our theories to be made or sought and indeed a desire to escape the confines of a particular theoretical framework is, for Feyerabend, the spontaneity that is essential to science. (On the second view, it could even be argued that realism in a sense collapses into conceptual instrumentalism. This is to say that the assumptions involved are not required to be tested or subjected to further challenge because the success of the theories based upon them does not warrant it and even speaks against it.) Feyerabend concludes the paper by declaring the methodological lessons:

Do not work with stable concepts. Do not eliminate counterinduction. Do not be seduced into thinking that you have at last found the correct description of ‘the facts’ when all that has happened is that some new categories have been adapted to some older forms of thought, which are so familiar that we take their outlines to be the outlines of the world itself.

On the face of it, this conflicts with Feyerabend’s argument in his Consolations for the Specialist that proliferation, which Feyerabend is recommending in these lessons, is supportive of a principle of tenacity. This latter principle provides for the retention of stable concepts and theories, even in the face of anomalies or evidence to the contrary, because development and improvement are always possible; indeed, an accommodation between the theory held to tenaciously and the difficulties it faced may eventually be possible. However, in Feyerabend’s explication of the second approach to conceptual and theoretical stability, both principles emerge from a Hegelian perspective.

The influence Feyerabend attributes to Hegel is itself of interest to Feyerabend scholars. (Although the similarity between Feyerabend’s view of the development of theories and Hegel’s thought has been noted by Barnett (1998), he insists that Feyerabend did not mention Hegel.) In setting out the second (Hegelian) model of epistemic change, Feyerabend asserts that, following Hegel, any complete description of an object (such as a concept or a theory) is self-contradictory since it contains its negation and participates in all other objects. Through the dialectic process, which for Feyerabend involves ensuring that concepts interact with observations, experiments and basic statements (and vice versa), the negation of an object does not result in the same thing or nothing at all but instead in an enriched object, which is the unity of the original object and its negation. For Feyerabend and for Hegel, this process is a developmental one: it requires not merely attending to the possibility of change but noting that stable concepts and theories are those for which internal contradictions have yet to be revealed or exposed, and for which the apparent stability is actually born of isolation.

In this reading of Hegel we can perhaps find something of the Popperian Feyerabend: the dialectic process calls for the negation of the theory under examination and this is seen as a positive step. However, the development is more than falsificationism provides for because the original theory is retained: for Feyerabend, we strengthen the knowledge we already possess by subjecting it to negation and vigorous challenging, even to the extent of undermining it, attacking it via alternative theories or by asserting that whatever concepts and theories we believe are secure should be treated with skepticism and assaulted. As an example, Feyerabend points to the Newtonian concept of space, retained for most purposes in spite of the development of Einstein’s version and yet permitting an enhanced understanding of the former’s utility and limitations.

On Feyerabend’s account, this skepticism cannot be selective. The result of such an approach is that we must constantly seek to criticise our theories via undermining their stability and elaborating alternatives, as well as using this process to enhance (and therefore preserve) what we started with. It is here that we find the principles of proliferation and tenacity emerging from Feyerabend’s reading of Hegel, which support the lessons Feyerabend has already taken from Mill (hence his claim in the paper that the second model of epistemic change can be characterised as following from either Mill or Hegel). Note also that these principles, derived from Hegel and Mill, are therefore intended by Feyerabend to be entirely positive.


Barnett, S. (1998) Hegel after Derrida (London, Routledge).
Feyerabend, P.K. (1970) Two models of epistemic change, in P.K. Feyerabend (1981) Problems of empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Feyerabend, P.K. (1970) Consolations for the Specialist, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (Eds.) (1970) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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3 Responses to Hegel and the development of Feyerabend’s thought

  1. Peter says:

    Interesting take on Feyerabend. When you say “realism in a sense collapses into conceptual instrumentalism”, do you mean that the concept is an instrument for increasing verisimilitude? I’d find it hard to see realism collapsing into practical or technical instrumentalism (so-named here simply to differentiate from “conceptual instrumentalism”) since, as I understand it, instrumentalism normally eschews any claims on realism; it’s more like betting tips than The Truth about the world.
    Anyway, the dialectic view of science seems like a third way in contrast to instrumentalist and realist accounts. Rather than good bets or increasing versimilitude, the dialectician seeks to say progressively more interesting (“enriched”) things about the world.

  2. Paul Newall says:

    Thanks for the comment. I had in mind that, on Feyerabend’s view, we can argue that any theory in the first sense is relying on a conceptual framework that, since it is not subjected to scepticism, is essentially functioning instrumentally. Indeed, we could potentially employ his methodological argument for realism at the conceptual level, which would be interesting if it implies the rejection of conceptual stability.

  3. terenceblake says:

    In CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE Feyerabend distinguishes between realism as an hypothesis and realism as a worldview (p169-172). Realism as an hypothesis refers to an explicitly stated and testable realism that could conceivably be discarded, as in Bohr’s interpretation of quantum theory. Realism as worldview is something quite different, and far more entrenched. It is an implicit, partly unconscious and partly just “hidden” set of concepts (your “conceptual framework”), but also of beliefs, attitudes, practices that is not just intellectual in nature but that “involves the whole person” (p164). Given the unquestioned status of this realism as worldview, explicit discussions of realism vs instrumentalism as hypotheses will usually be “truncated”, as the hidden realist worldview will nonetheless influence and distort the discussion: “from its hiding place it still affects the debate through insinuations, slogans, and attitudes” (p172). So proliferation will have to be exercised also at this meta-level by elaborating a rival, nonrealistic, worldview. Feyerabend cites the ideas of Niels Bohr and of Wolfgang Pauli as containing sketches of just such a nonrealistic worldview.
    So in these terms your thesis that “realism in a sense collapses into conceptual instrumentalism” since “the assumptions involved are not required to be tested or subjected to further challenge because the success of the theories based upon them does not warrant it and even speaks against it”, is explicitly supported by Feyerabend. The instrumentalist (theories are instruments, the best theory is the one that works) aspect of the amalgam of scientific realism and worldview realism can be seen in the nostalgia expressed by John Bell (quoted by Feyerabend p172): “for me it is a pity that Einstein’s idea does not work. The reasonable thing just does not work”.

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