Dadaist Prophet Feyerabend

I have been living from one day to the next – making the recurrent switch from research time (meaning reading and thinking, for a philosopher) to teaching time. My agenda is not mine anymore the next three months, some three to four hundred students will occupy it with their legitimate demands. The switch must explain this longest time between posts: nearly two weeks. A different kind of time installs itself. When doing research, I have to force myself to going slowly, to let things fall into place, and critical views develop. When preparing for classes it is the other way around: I have to force myself to move fastly from one subject to the next, sharing it with others, instead of letting it incubate in my reflection.

The first few weeks I will deal with the changes that occurred in philosophy of science between, say, 1935 until 2014 – 80 years. Oh no, my students awaits no course on the history of… these first classes will be dedicated to making understandable how the field changed from it’s interest, with Popper, in legitimacy, or justification, of knowledge as knowledge, to the situational, culturally critical approach which is claiming attention nowadays in the work of Bruno Latour. So I will tell about Popper’s criticism of induction, and of the logical positivist belief that empirical data could provide a rock bottom of certainty for knowledge. Of his insistence though, that we keep on testing our scientific convictions, and aim to keep them testable. The background of his being so passionate about this in his experiences with those massive ideological movements of the twentieth century: communism and fascism. Then I will treat of Kuhn’s criticism of a Popperian focus on justification. Of Kuhn, who shifted the attention in understanding science to those periods of revolutionary change, the paradigm shifts, which make researchers see the world in a completely new light. 

Or is it that the world itself changes in a paradigm shift? Latour, one could argue, moves further in the direction which Kuhn first made possible – for which Kuhn proposed a new paradigm in understanding science. This new, historical and situationist, paradigm not only had to explain the important changes in the theory of physics in the early twentieth century – it not only changed the world of science as we understand it – it also changed the way science plays it’s role in the rest of life: in morality and politics, in economy and culture. Science is no longer an innocent search for objective truths – Latour’s symmetrical anthropology of the modern life, shows science to be a cult, one could say, that gets our factish gods to produce a certain life for it’s believers. Secular, consumerist, rational, individualist.

Latour offers a cultural criticism, showing implicitly the limitations of modern life. But he leaves it there. He shows no road to change, should we not like so much the view of our life which he has given. Here we have to go back in time to the work of Feyerabend, who was, although he probably was not completely aware of it in every respect, a prophet for change. And very fundamentally so. Interesting is that he not only offers an alternative view of science (something like: believing in certainty through method is having a false consciousness), but that he shows an alternative approach: doing research in a Dadaist fashion. Dadaist means not only playful, but also crossing disciplinary and methodical boundaries, on purpose. The Dadaist artist shows loudness in font size of her print letters, or indicates the screaming quality of a color in sound – thus crossing the boundaries of the senses. Dadaism also introduces collage as a method to destruct method. Having no original beginning, the work of art springs from shifts and changes. Noticing this it springs to the eye that the first argument on the first page of Feyerabend’s Against Method is a collage. By sticking citations from Butterfield, Hegel and Lenin playfully together, he constructs this argument, that history is so complex that we can never cut through it’s multi-faceted interactions by designing and following a ‘method’. It is the surprising coherence between these divergent authors which is meant to convince the reader, as much as the content of what he says. If one can arrange citations like these to make it look like they sprung from one mind, that proves already the complex, anarchistic way knowledge production works.

You will have noticed: Feyerabend’s approach fascinates me, more so than that of the now much more famous Bruno Latour. Latour remains in the end in the observing mode of the anthropologist, while Feyerabend cuts the Gordian knot, even without the detour of a culture criticism: if we have reached a dead end with the law-and-order enterprise of modernity – if we feel it kills the pleasure of being human, of being able to play, if it kills nature, and our own soul in the process – why not change our ways, radically, by adopting ‘theoretical anarchism’. Since Feyerabend leaves the order of security and control behind, he does not need to prove that his alternative approach will work. He can only advocate that we try it out.


I cited from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, Verso 1993 [original edition 1975]. Actually it is online.

I wrote on his life and ideas before here and here.


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