Tag Archives: Paul Feyerabend

Did you immediately get the references to other philosophers that this title implies? Did you think of Bertrand Russell’s book ‘Why I am not a Christian’? Or rather of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essays titled ‘Why I am so clever!’ and ‘Why I write such good books!’? Well, I did, after I thought it up. Russell’s text was meant to give a criticism of Christianity, of course, and the personalized sentence was meant to give it urgency, and to draw attention. Nietzsche’s texts did more, philosophically. They criticized the idea that philosophy can be detached from the individual that writes it, and in the meantime they make you smile, at least they did that to me, as the irreverent boasting so strongly goes against the grain of the courteous style of classical philosophy. Untill Nietzsche philosophers succesfully upheld the image that they could erase themselves as individuals, giving the weight of universality to their thoughts, and in the meantime, through the backdoor so to speak, bestow fame upon their own, impersonalized selves as ‘thinkers’. Plato was ‘a great thinker’, it is said. Never ‘he was a great man’.

Since Nietzsche, and to be sure some others from his times, we can not get rid of the nagging truth that there is a man, or a woman, speaking in those venerable texts. And of recent, with the appearance of Heidegger’s notebooks, it gets more and more difficult to separate thought from life. Feuerbach already was very clear in this point, of course, the thinker whose words I took as the motto of this very blog: ‘try not to think as a thinker, but as a human being.’ What you feel, what you have enjoyed and what you have suffered not only will appear in your work, but you should let your work profit from it, more, express it in your work, to let others get a fair view of your experiences and be able to dialogue with your thoughts in the context of your life, and possibly to learn from them.

Just a few days ago I realized why I am a philosopher. And by that I do not mean to say why I became one, why I decided to go and study philosophy a long time ago – this had a very simple reason: I had the impression that the study of philosophy would help me the most to better my writing, which was my main goal when I was young. And it did. I also do not mean to say anything about the advantageous effects being a philosopher might have – like being able to clear up minds, my own and other’s, or being able to enhance the knowledge of why our world is like it is, etcetera. These are all positive effects of being a philosopher, to my view. What I mean with the title of my post of today is, however, something else: just what makes me passionate about what I am doing, right now, every day anew, if possible. What makes me enthusiastic. Why I LIKE it. I just suddenly saw that doing philosophy to me is the possibility of being in an adventure. The adventure of the mind, so to say.

Feyerabend said it very clearly, in his ‘Against Method’, although he was speaking about science: only ‘a little brainwashing [makes] the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ [than it actually is]’. In fact it is ‘as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains’. The same goes for my pathway through philosophy: it is complex, sometimes chaotic, it contains mistakes, and it is entertaining. And I want to add this: it is exciting. Learning something new from time to time, seeing new connections, after having read so many books and articles some times without really knowing why – untill they suddenly and unexpectedly get connected amongst each other, creating new views to understand things which were irritatingly incomprehensible before. I just like it, like wandering, not knowing where I will go when I start out. The best views are the unexpected ones. The sudden glittering sunlight on a canal, when I take an alternative route with my bike. Finding an unknown part of town, or of countryside. Meeting people who have a view of life I did not know before. Learning from grief and disappointment, from success, and from shame. In doing philosophy, which is always mixed with all these personal events: suddenly getting enlightened about something which seemed closed to understanding for years on end. Yes! I like it!


Thanks to Terence Blake, who made me aware of this book, I started to read Feyerabend’s postumous Conquest of Abundance. On the side, I watched the only substantial interview with the famous philosopher I could find on the internet, the Interview in Rome, from 1993. What struck me most in the interview was Feyerabend’s obvious sympathy for times before ‘Entzauberung’ – a word which is hard to translate in English. Max Weber introduced it to signify the disappearance, in modernity, of spiritual experience from the public domain. The world, the public realm in which we live, is not subject to spiritual experiences, nor magical interferences any more – but only to calculation and argumentation. While Enlightenment ideology has convinced us most of the time of the blessings, progress, and improvement of everything modernity brought – Feyerabend seems to have seen the intrinsic relationship between Entzauberung and the ugliness of our world, and also the peril we are in.

In his Conquest of Abundance he approaches this issue in ontology, in the essay ‘What Reality?’ Here he makes it clear that cultures are not closed, that we have to accept pluralism in ontology, as ‘a unitarian realism’ is unconvincing, having to reduce ‘large areas of phenomena […], without proof, […] to basic theory, which, in this connection, means elementary particle physics.’ His plea for pluralism, and for intercultural learning implies that we should take seriously alternatives to modernism as they are present in history as well as in other cultures in modern times. It struck me that even in these texts written in the last years of his life, his coming closer to a more animist outlook is still so hesitant. Just as it was with William James, in his late work A Pluralistic Universe. Of course one might explain this hesitation from their position as philosophers, having to deal with the massive corpus of writings that have tried to make belief in the soul, in life, in change extinct.

In other disciplines this hesitation is less strong – as in the anthropological work of Felicitas Goodman, who by means of practical experimentation found that ancient statuettes show body postures that lead to specific types of trance. Trance that leads one to be able to learn from the spirit realm, about health, living in peace with nature, and about the afterlife. In her book Where the Spirits ride the Wind, she describes her research in this field, and advocates it as a way to rediscover human potential that was lost not only since modernity, but much longer, every time humans transferred from being hunter gatherers or horticulturalists to large scale agriculture. The time when woods are destroyed, wild animals retreat and die, and shamanism gradually gives way to monotheistic theology. Here, with monotheism, starts the belief in the autonomous subject, the individual who is a unity like his God, and who can (and should) bear responsibility in a moral sense – as he lives and moves under the ever present gaze of his God.

We are not finished by far with the task of having to analyze the effects of this event. Declaring all history after the agricultural revolution to be mistaken would be going too fast. As would be a simple declaration that prehistoric life is beautiful, lovely and a great loss. One has to move slowly, and search for negatives and positives on both sides. One has to try to understand, to see, before judging. I do not mind someone like Goodman taking a very unusual approach methodologically, as I agree with Feyerabend that in order to understand one should try his principle that ‘anything goes’. I do not share Goodman’s pessimist conclusion however that myths that are lost are to be mourned, as ‘extinction is forever’. I rather believe in the words of the native healer from Tonga cited by Robert Wolff, the psychologist who came into contact with his own shamanic powers through the training he received from an indigenous people in Malaysia in the sixties. He spoke with this woman about his sadness that so much old knowledge has been lost. She replied, after some thought, to him: ‘[…] there have always been people who know. When we most need it, someone will remember that ancient knowledge.’ And here lies for me the important point: we cannot understand our own position in history, nor do we know whether we already need it, that ancient knowledge, and in what measure. Time will tell.

Books mentioned and cited from are:

Paul Feyerabend Conquest of Abundance. A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, The University of Chicago Press, 1999

Felicitas D. Goodman Where the Spirits ride the Wind. trance Journeys and other exstatic Experiences, Indiana University Press, 1990

William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1909]

Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom. Stories of an ancient way of knowing, Inner Traditions International, 2001

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.


In an earlier post I wrote about Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography. The publisher of the Dutch translation of the work changed it’s title into ‘Tijdverspilling’, which is not exactly the same as killing time – the expression is more negative, meaning ‘a waste of time’. It draws a conclusion from Feyerabend’s thoughts, which is not off the point, as the philosopher described his academic career as not living to the full, as a blind state, not more than a preliminary to the joy and love which he discovered only later in life. It came to me, however, that a meaningful ambiguity of the original title was lost in this translation. An ambiguity I will explore below.

Killing time can be understood, as I did in my earlier post, as it is in everyday language – referring to an art we seem to have lost in the modern Western world, but which is still known to men in economically less ‘developed’ countries, who manage to stand around on streets for hours, or who keep hanging around in the barber’s shop long after they have been shaved, just to discuss sports and society with each other. It is an art which prevents the experience of boredom, the boredom which induces one to action. Watching the pace at which people in ‘rich’ countries work and even keep themselves active in their free time, one may draw the conclusion that they have forgotten how to keep boredom at bay, fleeing it in continuous activity – like the lonely, cold, bored young man Feyerabend saw himself to be in earlier life – travelling, studying, singing, working endlessly to forget  that he forgot what life was all about.

There is another meaning to the expression, however, which relates to the main content of his activities: philosophy. Killing time is what Western philosophy has tried to do in the most literal sense, from its beginnings in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosophers (okay, apart from Herakleitos) were fascinated by the eternal, the timeless, which they saw in the heavens. The continually changing aspects of earthly life, they thought, could only be understood when one digged up it’s timeless essence, and expressed this in general concepts. Although time as a concept was never denied, it was itself understood in a timeless manner, that is, in its measurable, discrete, ‘timeless’ form – subjected to the stripes on a clock which cut time to pieces.

There are some Western philosophers who have tried to break away from this view of time, and who tried to stop killing it, most notably Henri Bergson and William James. In his Pluralistic Universe, James searches for expressions to conceive of time in a manner closer to experience. He speaks of the ‘sensational stream’ which makes up our normal, non-scientific, experience, in which there are no discrete elements. This goes together with a reluctant attitude to general concepts: ‘When you have broken the reality into concepts you never can reconstruct it in its wholeness. Out of no amount of discreteness can you manufacture the concrete.’ What he aims to express is that no experience or phenomenon can be isolated and then said to cause or influence another – experiences ‘compenetrate’ each other, time spans overlap each other. While one event can perhaps be seen to wear out, another has, in it and through it, already developed and influenced it, so that they never van be seperated exactly.

A meaningful example for the problematic James has indicated shows itself in medical research: while scientists are trying to find ever new medicines for the illnesses that plague humankind, they need large trials to ascertain their general effectiveness. Therefore they carry out double blind proofs in populations in which individual differences are ruled out statistically. What they are looking for are general truths, and consequently, medicines that obey to the laws of cause and effect – i.e. to time in it’s discrete, measured, ‘eternal’ version. It is a wonderful thing that in this abstracted, dead, time, many medicines have been developed that are effective in the real world, but all the same they have no answer to the complex streams of influences which may disturb the predicted effects in concrete individuals. When this happens, it is put aside as ‘side effects’, or as private complaints and feelings of patients, left to nurses, psychotherapists and relatives to deal with.

One wonders what would happen to science, and to medicine, if it succeeded in combining the  views of Plato and James. If it looked as seriously into concrete phenomena as into general truths. That would mean it had to move beyond conflicting paradigms, which would need revolutionary groundwork by philosophers. A great reason for them to get out of the ivory tower of overspecialized subjects, to stop killing time and try to change the way we conceive of life instead.

Whether Feyerabend himself contributed to the philosophical killing of time is a subject for another post.

Citations are from William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [original edition 1909].

I think he is the most funny philosopher that ever existed: Paul Feyerabend. I don’t remember why I bought his autobiography, Killing Time – I think I just saw it in the book shop at the Station, at a moment I was in need of something new to feed my mind. I didn’t know his philosophical work back then. In recent years I have read the book twice and would read it again, because it is so entertaining. And wise…

The title of the book is funny: normally we think of killing time as doing things with no lasting result, unnoticeable things, like playing cards, or worse: watching the screens with moving images which nowadays are everywhere in public spaces: in airplanes,in  busses, even in the waiting room of the family doctor. In countries where such screens would be unaffordable luxury men kill time in the traditional way: standing around on corners and talking about nothing… Feyerabend uses the expression to characterize his amazing international philosophical career.

As an Austrian youth he participated in World War II on the nazi side, and he is bluntly open about it. He discloses the fact that at age 19 he just had no deep thoughts about the events of his time, or that his own existence had any connection with the fate of others. He thought of war as just some adventure, but had to pay for his participation with irreversable invalidity. That, however, didn’t make him lose this attitude: the boyish, adventurous, wanting to live life to the full-attitude, which also characterized his life as an academic. He played around, wanted to win from his colleagues in debate, and became hugely popular with his ‘anarchistic’ book Against Method. It were the days of counter-culture and hippiedom, days that made the succesful professor into a cult figure. But none of this, he later saw, was really important. In those days, he knew no deep love, he didn’t understand about connection or compassion. It made him realize, as an older man: it all was just killing time.

Who wants to read his academic work might also enjoy his wittiness, and the cleverness in which it is dressed. But in his autobiography, with its narrative, instead of argumentative, style he didn’t turn into a lesser thinker. He turned into a better thinker instead. One might regret that because of his early death at 60 he didn’t have the time to turn his ripened vision of life into a new philosophical book. He himself writes, however, at the end of Killing Time, about the war inside him: between the ambition to be seen as a great philosopher and the human need to write clearly and simply, so one can share with other human beings. His final and humble insight is that he doesn’t desire intellectual immortality, but only that love may endure. Just the touching words of a man who is dying from cancer? Or a serious call to all ambitious fellow humans: ‘stop killing time!’

Paul Feyerabend lived from 1924 – 1994.

His autobiography is: Kiling Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend, The University of Chicago Press, 1995