Paul Feyerabend was born in 1924 in Vienna, where he attended primary school and high school. In this period he got into the habit of reading a lot, developed an interest in theatre, and started singing lessons. When he graduated from high school in April 1942, he was drafted into the German Arbeitsdienst. After basic training in Pirmasens, Germany, he was assigned to a unit in Quelern en Bas, near Brest (France). Feyerabend described the work he did during that period as monotonous: "we moved around in the countryside, dug ditches, and filled them up again." After a short leave, he joined the army and volunteered for officer school. In his autobiography, he wrote that he hoped the war would be over by the time he had finished his education as an officer. This turned out not to be the case. From December 1943 on, he served as an officer on the northern part of the Eastern Front, was decorated with an Iron cross, and attained the rank of lieutenant. After the German army started its retreat from the advancing Red army, Feyerabend was hit by three bullets while directing traffic. It turned out that one of the bullets had hit him in the spine. As a consequence of this, he needed to walk with a stick for the rest of his life and frequently experienced severe pains. He spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries.
When the war was over, Feyerabend first got a temporary job in Apolda where he wrote pieces for the theatre. He was influenced by the Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht and was invited by Brecht to be his assistent at the East Berlin State Opera but turned down the offer. Feyerabend took various classes at the Weimar Academy, and returned to Vienna to study History and Sociology. He became dissatisfied, however, and soon transferred to Physics, where he met Felix Ehrenhaft, a physicist whose experiments would influence his later views on the nature of science. Feyerabend changed the subject of his study to philosophy and submitted his final thesis on observation sentences. In his autobiography, he described his philosophical views during this time as "staunchly empiricist". In 1948 he visited the first meeting of the international summer seminar of the Austrian College Society in Alpbach. This was the place where Feyerabend first met Karl Popper, who had a "positive" (early Popper), as well as "negative" (later Popper) impact on him. In 1951, Feyerabend was granted a British Council scholarship to study under Wittgenstein. However, Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend moved to England. Feyerabend then chose Popper as his supervisor instead, and went to study at the London School of Economics in 1952. In his autobiography, Feyerabend explains that during this time, he was influenced by Popper: "I had fallen for [Popper's ideas]". After that, Feyerabend returned to Vienna and was involved in various projects; a translation of Karl Popper's Open Society and its Enemies, a report on the development of the humanities in Austria, and several articles for an encyclopedia.
The depression stayed with me for over a year; it was like an animal, a well-defined, spatially localizable thing. I would wake up, open my eyes, listen -- Is it here or isn't? No sign of it. Perhaps it's asleep. Perhaps it will leave me alone today. Carefully, very carefully, I get out of bed. All is quiet. I go to the kitchen, start breakfast. Not a sound. TV -Good Morning America-, David What's-his-name, a guy I can't stand. I eat and watch the guests. Slowly the food fills my stomach and gives me strength. Now a quick excursion to the bathroom, and out for my morning walk -and here she is, my faithful depression: "Did you think you could leave without me?"
Feyerabend writing in his autobiography, Killing Time
Feyerabend moved to the University of California, Berkeley in California in 1958 and became a US citizen. Following (visiting) professorships (or their equivalent) at London, Berlin, and Yale, he taught at the University of Auckland, New Zealand in 1972 and 1974, always returning to California. He later enjoyed alternating between posts at ETH Zurich and Berkeley through the 1980s but left Berkeley for good in October 1989, first to Italy, then finally to Zurich. After his retirement in 1991, Feyerabend continued to publish frequent papers and worked on his autobiography. After a short period of suffering from a brain tumor, he died in 1994 at the Genolier Clinic, overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Feyerabend's position is generally seen as radical in the philosophy of science, because it implies that philosophy can neither succeed in providing a general description of science, nor in devising a method for differentiating products of science from non-scientific entities like myths. It also implies that philosophical guidelines should be ignored by scientists, if they are to aim for progress.
To support his position that methodological rules generally do not contribute to scientific success, Feyerabend provides counterexamples to the claim that (good) science operates according to a certain fixed method. He took some examples of episodes in science that are generally regarded as indisputable instances of progress (e.g. the Copernican revolution), and showed that all common prescriptive rules of science are violated in such circumstances. Moreover, he claimed that applying such rules in these historical situations would actually have prevented scientific revolution.
One of the criteria for evaluating scientific theories that Feyerabend attacks is the consistency criterion. He points out that to insist that new theories be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the older theory. He makes the logical point that being compatible with a defunct older theory does not increase the validity or truth of a new theory over an alternative covering the same content. That is, if one had to choose between two theories of equal explanatory power, to choose the one that is compatible with an older, falsified theory is to make an aesthetic, rather than a rational choice. The familiarity of such a theory might also make it more appealing to scientists, since they will not have to disregard as many cherished prejudices. Hence, that theory can be said to have "an unfair advantage".
Feyerabend was also critical of falsificationism. He argued that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. This would rule out using a naïve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Feyerabend uses several examples, but 'renormalization' in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style: "This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered" (AM p. 61). Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that scientists do not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods. Instead, he is arguing that such methods are essential to the progress of science for several reasons. One of these reasons is that progress in science is uneven. For instance, in the time of Galileo, optical theory could not account for phenomena that were observed by means of telescopes. So, astronomers who used telescopic observation had to use 'ad hoc' rules until they could justify their assumptions by means of optical theory.
Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts. He thought that previous theory might influence natural interpretations of observed phenomena. Scientists necessarily make implicit assumptions when comparing scientific theories to facts that they observe. Such assumptions need to be changed in order to make the new theory compatible with observations. The main example of the influence of natural interpretations that Feyerabend provided was the tower argument. The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been 'left behind'. Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth. This observation required a new interpretation to make it compatible with Copernican theory. Galileo was able to make such a change about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated, Galileo had to make use of 'ad hoc' methods and proceed counter-inductively. So, 'ad hoc' hypotheses actually have a positive function: they temporarily make a new theory compatible with facts until the theory to be defended can be supported by other theories.
Feyerabend commented on the Galileo affair as follows:
According to Feyerabend, new theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition one sees fit) is "anything goes": "'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history." (Feyerabend, 1975).
Feyerabend considered the possibility of incommensurability, but he was hesitant in his application of the concept. He wrote that "it is hardly ever possible to give an explicit definition of [incommensurability]" (AM, p.225), because it involves covert classifications and major conceptual changes. He also was critical of attempts to capture incommensurability in a logical framework, since he thought of incommensurability as a phenomenon outside the domain of logic. In the second appendix of Against Method (p. 114), Feyerabend states, "I never said... that any two rival theories are incommensurable... What I did say was that certain rival theories, so-called 'universal' theories, or 'non-instantial' theories, if interpreted in a certain way, could not be compared easily." Incommensurability did not concern Feyerabend greatly, because he believed that even when theories are commensurable (i.e. can be compared), the outcome of the comparison should not necessarily rule out either theory. To rephrase: when theories are incommensurable, they cannot rule each other out, and when theories are commensurable, they cannot rule each other out. Assessments of (in)commensurability, therefore, don't have much effect in Feyerabend's system, and can be more or less passed over in silence.
In Against Method Feyerabend claimed that Imre Lakatos' philosophy of research programmes is actually 'anarchism in disguise', because it does not issue orders to scientists. Feyerabend playfully dedicated Against Method to "Imre Lakatos: Friend, and fellow-anarchist". One interpretation is that Lakatos' philosophy of mathematics and science was based on creative transformations of Hegelian historiographic ideas, many associated with Lakatos' teacher in Hungary Georg Lukacs. Feyerabend's debate with Lukacs on scientific method recapitulates the debate of their respective mentors, Lukacs and Brecht, over aestherics several decades earlier.
The rationalist philosopher and popular essayist David Stove claimed that in his philosophical work Feyerabend was responsible for the "sabotaging of logical expressions". This was the practise of robbing logical statements of their logical force by placing them in epistemic contexts; for example, instead of saying "P is a proof for Q" one would say "It is generally believed by scientists that P is a proof for Q". This produces what Stove calls a "ghost logical statement": it gives the impression that serious statements of logic are being made when they are not - all that is really being made are sociological or historical claims which are immune to criticism on logical grounds.
Starting from the assumption that an historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argued that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions. Feyerabend also argued that scientific accomplishments such as the moon landings are no compelling reason to give science a special status. In his opinion, it is not fair to use scientific assumptions about which problems are worth solving in order to judge the merit of other ideologies. Additionally, success by scientists has traditionally involved non-scientific elements, such as inspiration from mythical or religious sources.
Based on these arguments, Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society. He envisioned a 'free society' in which 'all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power'. For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children's education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be 'rationalistic' is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.
In three short papers published in the early sixties, Feyerabend sought to defend materialism against the supposition that the mind cannot be a physical thing. Feyerabend suggested that our commonsense understanding of the mind was incommensurable with the (materialistic) scientific view, but that nevertheless we ought to prefer the materialistic one on general methodological grounds.
This view of the mind/body problem is widely considered one of Feyerabend's most important legacies. Even though Feyerabend himself seems to have given it up in the late 1970s, it was taken up by Richard Rorty and, more recently, by Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland. In fact, as Keeley observes, "PMC [Paul Churchland] has spent much of his career carrying the Feyerabend mantle forward" (p. 13).