Friday, 26 May 2000

Paul Feyerabend: Farewell to Reason (1987)

Edition: Verso, 1987
Review number: 513

Farewell to Reason is a collection of essays on the subject of relativism. Though they were rewritten for inclusion in this volume, their independent origin still shows in a certain repetitiveness and in disparity of content - some are far more concentrated on a single theme than others (for example, some are criticisms of particular writers).

The essays pick on the same kinds of targets as Feyerabend's book Against Method, and attack the idea that science is a unified whole, with a single overriding method. Karl Popper is singled out for criticism, but much of what is said would apply to anyone who contrasts "scientific thinking" with other modes of thought (this is usually done do dismiss religious ideas).

Most of the criticisms that can be made of Against Method are also appropriate here. The rhetorical style of Feyerabend's argument, his use of Galileo as a paradigm of scientific method, and the use of counter examples from areas not always regarded as scientific such as economics are faults common to both. The essay form adds new problems, and some parts do not fit into the whole terribly well (notably the discussion of Aristotle's philosophy of mathematics, though it is interesting in itself). Neither Popper nor Feyerabend seem terribly convincing to me; while it is obvious that not all scientific thought is uniform, most practising scientists have quite similar ideas about what they are trying to do. These differ in details (such as the precise relationship between theory, experiment and whatever may count as underlying reality), but then philosophy does not interest many and certainly there are few who would let it affect their work.

The most interesting new point is part of the essay on Galileo and the church, in which Feyerabend parallels the attitude of Catholic cardinals then and the scientific establishment today. As the money and administrative side of scientific research grow every larger, it is more and more difficult to be a (successful, rather than starving) iconoclast. For science to have a religious orthodoxy of this kind is a bad thing, and we need people like Feyerabend to continually attack its genesis.

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