Anarchist Scientist, Postscript

by Kiko Matsing

The Worst Enemy of Science?

My main motive for writing the book was humanitarian, not intellectual. I wanted to support people, not to ‘advance knowledge’. People all over the world have developed ways of surviving in partly dangerous, partly agreeable surroundings. The stories they told and activities they engaged in enriched their lives, protected them and gave them meaning. The ‘progress of knowledge and civilization’–as the process of pushing Western ways and values into all corners of the globe is being called–destroyed these wonderful products of human ingenuity and compassion without a single glance in their direction. ‘Progress of knowledge’ in many places meant killing of minds. Today old traditions are being revived and people try again to adapt their lives to the ideas of their ancestors. I have tried to show, by an analysis of the hardest parts of science, the natural sciences, that science, properly understood, has no arguments against such a procedure. (Introduction to the Chinese edition, pp. 3, 4, underline mine)

Despite his warning that Against Method is not a systematic treatise, but a letter to a friend, Feyerabend again surprises us in the last chapter of the book, where he offers, not a grand summary of his thesis and corollary prescriptions, but an intellectual biography–the source of the point of view underlying [the] book[, which] is not the result of a well-planned train of thought but of arguments prompted by chance encounters. Except for Camille Paglia who openly acknowledges that her unique perspective comes from her Italian Catholic upbringing and 1960s counter-culture generation, I have never encountered any other writer who comes clean with such disarming intellectual honesty. His style is wry, matter-of-fact, self-deprecating:

From 1958 to 1990 I was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. My function was to carry out the educational policies of the State of California which means I had to teach people what a small group of white intellectuals had decided was knowledge. I hardly ever thought about this function and would not have taken it seriously had I been informed. I told the students what I had learned, arranged the material in a way that seemed plausible and interesting to me–and that was all I did. Of course I also had some ‘ideas of my own’–but these ideas moved in a fairly narrow domain (though some of my friends said even then that I was going batty). (p. 263)

His first love was not science, nor philosophy, but theater and opera. He trained and almost became a professional singer.

He writes about his first encounter with Popper, who, to my surprise, was not the stuck up hand-slapper I imagined him to be from Feyerabend’s asides in the text:

I had met Popper in Alpbach in 1948. I admired his freedom of manners, his cheek, his disrespectful attitude towards the German philosophers who gave the proceedings weight in more senses than one, his sense of humour (yes, the relatively unknown Karl Popper of 1948 was very different from the established Sir Karl of later years) and I also admired his ability to restate ponderous problems in simple and journalistic language. Here was a free mind, joyfully putting forth his ideas, unconcerned about the reaction of ‘professionals’… Popper himself did not think too much of his philosophy of science at the time for when asked to send us a list of publications he included the Open Society but not the Logic of Scientific Discovery. (pp. 260, 261)

Dada Poster,  Anna Blume Dada Poster

He also writes, to my delight, about the influence of Dadaism in his approach:

I had studied Dadaism after the Second World War. What attracted me to this movement was the style its inventors used when not engaged in Dadaistic activities. It was clear, luminous, simple without being banal, precise without being narrow; it was a style adapted to the expression of thought as well as of emotion. I connected this style with the Dadaistic exercises themselves. (p. 265)

This chapter was expanded to a full autobiography, Killing Time. The title is a literal translation of his German name. Characteristic of his self-deflating manner, it is a slim volume at under 200 pages.

In a similar way the Dadaists brought sublime but inhumane thoughts down to earth and back into the sewers from which they had emerged. After destroying the language that had lent itself to such machinations, they rebuilt it, revealing what it could do when used simply and with imagination… After Nestroy [‘the nineteenth-century Austrian writer of dialectic comedies’] and the Dadaists I avoided scholarly ways of presenting a view and used common locutions and the language of show business and pulp instead. (This led to problems with translators…) (p. 144)

Now that book reads like a love letter to his wife, Grazia Borrini–very much his own Harriet Taylor. She is the muse of Farewell to Reason (It is through her that I became acquainted with the vast subject of ‘development’). He finished the book only a couple of weeks before he succumbed to a tumor in the brain. His last words were very touching in their self-denials and affirmations.

These may be the last days… My concern is that after my departure something remains of me, not papers, not final philosophical declarations, but love… Whatever happens now, our small family can live forever–Grazina, me, and our love. That is what I would like to happen, not intellectual survival but the survival of love.

Feyerabend, the intellectual, renounces the vanities of philosophy, and finally finds peace and wisdom in love.