Lessons from Feyerabend

A standard account of the Copernican revolution might run like this: as the body of celestial observations grew (aided by the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century) anomalies were recorded which revealed inadequacies in the Ptolemaic system, motivating astronomers to consider rival theories. Among these was the heliocentric system of Copernicus, which ultimately turned out to be the best (it explained the data in the simplest, most elegant way, adopted the least auxiliary hypotheses, etc.). Despite the efforts of the Church it gradually came to be accepted. According to this story observation and theory are independent of each other — observation is the neutral party which can topple old theories and adjudicate between new ones.

This presumed independence of theory and observation is one of the main targets in Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method [1]. Feyerabend illustrates his point by considering the tower argument against the motion of the earth, which was for a time one of the main sources of resistance to the heliocentric model of the solar system. He quotes Galileo [2]:

[H]eavy bodies. . . falling down from on high, go by a straight and vertical line to the surface of the earth. This is considered an irrefutable argument for the earth being motionless. For, if it made a diurnal rotation, a tower from whose top a rock was let fall, being carried by the whirling of the earth, would travel many hundreds of yards to the east in the time the rock would consume in its fall, and the rock ought to strike the earth that distance away from the base of the tower.

Needless to say, this argument eventually lost its purchase. Nowadays we understand that the observation that rocks dropped from towers fall perpendicular to the earth is not evidence that the earth is stationary. The force of the reasoning derived from something we have lost [3]:

[Galileo] tells us that the everyday thinking of the time assumes the ‘operative’ character of all motion, or, to use well-known philosophical terms, it assumes a naive realism with respect to motion: except for occasional and unavoidable illusions, apparent motion is identical with real (absolute) motion.

Without absolute motion the tower argument makes little sense, and a crucial component of the Copernican revolution was the adoption by astronomers of Galilean relativity. As the standard story tells it this shift in attitudes toward motion occurred at the level of theory, while the observations — e.g. that falling rocks fall straight to earth — remained stable. Feyerabend disputes this. Naive realism about motion cannot be considered part of the old Ptolemaic theory; one reason is that it is not required, but the more important is that it couldn’t even be stated until Galileo had provided an alternative. Naive realism about motion was not part of the explicit theory, it was an implicit natural interpretation of the observations [4].

Natural interpretations, unlike explicit hypotheses or postulates, cannot be said to be distinct from the data. On the contrary: they permeate the observation language itself. To put it another way, they are part of what the terms used to state and record observations mean to the people using them. According to Feyerabend, it is not correct to say that in championing Copernicus Galileo was offering a new theory that did a better job of accounting for the data. Quite the opposite: it was inconsistent with the data as then understood. As he writes [5]:

[A] theory may clash with the evidence not because it is not correct, but because the evidence is contaminated.

Galileo did not just argue for a new theory, he provided a new observation language. From this Feyerabend concludes that scientists must from time to time proceed by what he calls ‘counterinduction’, that is by actively developing theories which contradict the current body of observation. By doing so they can unearth (and perhaps then discard) the natural interpretations it contains.

While others have made similar points about holism and the theory-ladenness of observation, Feyerabend is more suspicious than most of overly prescriptive views of scientific method. Taking all this a step further, we can note that his idea that new theories provide not just new explanations of the data, but in effect change the very data to be explained is one that applies to rational discourse in general.

Take materialism and idealism. Idealists have on occasion been accused of denying the existence of their own hands [6]. This criticism likely rings hollow for them — while the idealist does deny that the hand exists in any mind-independent sense, they need not deny the existence of the hand as such, because on their view the things they refer to as their hands were just perceptual entities all along. In virtue of their idealism they mean something different by ‘my hand’.

Similarly, materialism often gets criticised on grounds like “it is the nonsensical idea that mindless physical stuff can crash together to create minds”. The materialist will be unmoved by this, because what is materialism if not the thesis that physical systems can indeed be mindful? As with the above comment on idealism it is at best a cynical rephrasing of the position, and at worst a question-begging criticism of it.

The pattern crops up all over the place, particularly in relation to the big questions of morality, truth, and the existence of God. Beliefs on these topics have deep semantic ripples, and the opportunities for those with differing views to talk past one another are manifold. Feyerabend’s philosophy of science can help us see that this needn’t be because of malice or disinterest on either side, but may simply come down to the fact that charitable interpretation is really hard — it requires more than paying attention to someone’s definitions, it requires stepping into their entire paradigm. The general point can be put somewhat crudely: it is not just the case that the beliefs we hold depend on what we mean by the terms that compose them, but also that what we mean by those terms will depend on (and change with) the beliefs we hold that involve them.


1. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (4th edition). First published in 1975. (This really was a pleasure to read.)

2. Galileo Galilei, Trattato della sfera, quoted AM p50.

3. AM p54.

4. ‘natural interpretation’ is a phrase Feyerabend borrows from Francis Bacon. See AM p55.

5. AM p15.

6. This argument sometimes gets accredited to GE Moore. Presumably this comes from his essay A Defence of Common Sense, though in it he seems to be making a subtler point.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Feyerabend

  1. Artem Kaznatcheev September 4, 2014 / 11:23 pm

    Great summary, I was very moved by Against Method but haven’t been able to find the words to summarize my experience. Although I have sprinkled him in occasionally. Now that I read your post, I know that I don’t need to summarize for myself, and can just refer others to your article. Although I still feel it is important to provide a detailed account of a dialectic (or even dialetheism) and of theory-laden observation that plays carefully with Feyerabend’s thought.

    I also wanted to point you to a few resources, in case you haven’t seen them already, that have been helpful after my reading of Feyerabend. I highly recommend the Renaissance Mathematicus’ discussions of Galileo (that link is to a particular post, but search the site for plenty more goodies), I find it to be a slightly more neutral and historic account of events than the one found in Against Method. Also, although I am a huge fan of the dialectic approach to thought, which I think Feyerabend is advocating, I am a little skeptical of his critique of self-consistency. I was wondering if you had more resources on this. From the history of science perspective, Vickers’ Understanding Inconsistent Science seems to be particularly relevant and unsupportive of this part of Feyerabend, but I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on the book, yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • SamL September 5, 2014 / 11:20 am

      Hi there Artem, thanks for your comment and your kind words — I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Thanks also for the links, I look forward to getting stuck into some of your meaty posts (particularly the computability theory stuff — once upon a time I was planning on going into research in that area!). I really loved reading Feyerabend, he’s a breath of fresh air in what can be a rather stodgy field. His bombastic way of saying things granted, I came away from Against Method feeling that he often gets unfairly interpreted. For example, he is often portrayed as a radical anti-realist, but as far as I could tell he was less concerned with metaphysics than with questions of justification in science (and of course with eviscerating anyone he found trying to give a neat, prescriptive account of it!).

      So re self-consistency, I take him not to be saying that genuine inconsistency is OK, but that a judgement of incoherence is always relative to the conceptual scheme from which it is made. So if a new idea looks completely inconsistent to us this may just be due to assumptions deep down in our conceptual scheme (which we may not even know about, eg naive realism with respect to motion), so we shouldn’t dismiss it on those grounds alone — perhaps we’re just lacking the conceptual scheme that makes sense of it.

      I see this as related to Quine’s idea that two apparently inconsolable positions can always be made consistent if we’re prepared to do enough interpretive work. To me this suggests that to argue that a view is incoherent or self-defeating is an intrinsically weak and unpersuasive strategy, and is liable to run one afoul of the principle of charity.



      • Artem Kaznatcheev September 6, 2014 / 4:10 am

        I have to admit, that I also read him as an anti-realist, probably because I read my own post-positivist views into his writing. However, I do find the structure of his argument to not be very fitting with the tension coming from the tension of different conceptual schemes (a sort of inconsistency that I am very comfortable with). Quoting from pg. 245-246:

        the idea that things are well defined and that we do not live in a paradoxical world leads to the standard that our knowledge must be self-consistent. Theories that contain contradictions cannot be part of science. This apparently quite fundamental standard … loses its authority the moment we find that there are facts whose only adequate description is inconsistent and that inconsistent theories may be fruitful and easy to handle while the attempt to make them conform to the demands of consistency creates useless and unwieldy monsters.

        I find it strange to open with “we do not live in a paradoxical world” and to use the singular “only adequate description” if he is referring to multiple inconsistent viewpoints on the same topic. However, the mention of “Theories” and the pragmatic modeling considerations at the end of the last sentence does suggest that your reading is possible. I think that next time I have the book in my hands, I will return to that part and think about it more.

        However, your interpretation is awesome, and you should consider giving it (or a slight expansion of it) as an answer on my philosophy.SE question. I find it more useful than the two answers that are already given. I also like it when Quine is brought into things!

        I have a bunch of your posts open in my tabs right now, so do expect some more rambling comments from me in the future.

        Liked by 1 person

        • SamL September 9, 2014 / 6:36 pm

          Yep — I do think there are certain ways in which Feyerabend writes which suggest sympathies with antirealism (for instance often talks about what is true and what is justified as interchangeable, though whether this is a stylistic thing is hard to say), and I would very much doubt that put the question he would subscribed to any sort of regular realism, though I definitely think that the primary point of Against Method was an epistemological and not metaphysical one. May very well write up a reply to your SE question — when I find a spare moment that is, gah!



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