Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend


Attention Conservation Notice: A review about an autobiography of a man famous in the philosophy of science, written by a guy who doesn’t have a degree in the philosophy of science, discussing events you neither have heard or probably care about.


I first met Paul Feyerabend at my university’s library. He was sitting in the Philosophy of Science shelf, staring at me in the form of a title: The Worst Enemy of Science? Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend. Here we go, I thought, another lunatic, probably a creationist, probably doesn’t even Do Science. So I picked up his The Tyranny of Science, along with Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (that famous book that for some reason, while remaining unread, appears, inscrutably, on a large number of self-help reading lists).I have a strong feeling its recommenders haven’t read it either. Purporting that it will “tell you about how to change your worldview,” it is instead dense on intricate details in the history of science, metaphysical debates about incommensurability, and contains approximately zero self-help advice.

I had to hate him. I liked science and he was its worst enemy. It took me a while to come around.

It took me a while to come around to Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions as well. Revolutions is a book that lends itself to instense hatred, as Errol Morris–famous for two things, The Thin Blue Line and complaining that Thomas Kuhn “threw an ash tray at him”—showed rather well with his long form attempt at ad hominem.Morris claims in his book The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) that when Kuhn was his academic advisor at Princeton University, an argument over Maxwell’s theory of displacement current ended with Kuhn throwing a cut glass ashtray full of cigarette butts at him. Kuhn, obviously, operating in a completely incommensurable paradigm, saw the event in a different light. Kuhn’s son doubts the event ever happened. I hated Revolutions when I first read it as well, and would have been able to rattle off arguments to imaginary opponents or ladies who would take me on dates with the intention of discussing at length debates in the philosophy of science.Also, unfortunately, imaginary Kuhn was a filthy relativist and I was a steadfast believer in the existence of a comprehensible absolute reality. Ok, yes, no one cares about [melodramatic stuff].

In any case, afterwards I sat through a lecture on Kuhn’s Revolutions. Fuck. This guy was right. And now I had that awful feeling one gets when realizing one has been a chump, completely wrong, mouthing off [embarrassing things]. Fortunately, no one had thought me important enough to voice my public opinion on Kuhn.

Considering Kuhn was denying reality, and he happened to be right, I thought I better read The Tyranny of Science. It was OK. Enough to be intrigued. Feyerabend’s style is purposely mystical. He’s trying to tell stories instead of create theories, and it’s almost as if he wants to make sure you know his method of deliver is not the style of those horrid rationalists:

I choose my words very carefully &mdash they must sound right, must have the right rhythm, and their meaning must be slightly off center; nothing dulls the mind as thoroughly as a sequence of familiar notions. Then comes the story. It should be interesting and comprehensible, and it should have some unusual twists. I avoid "systematic" analyses. The elements hang together beautifully, but the argument itself is from outer space, as it were, unless it is connected with the lives and interests of individuals or special groups. Of course, it is already so connected, otherwise it would not be understood, but the connection is concealed, which means that, strictly speaking, a "systematic" analysis is a fraud. So why not avoid the fraud by using stories right away?*Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend.* The University of Chicago Press, 1995. pg. 163.

It took a while to get from “The Tryanny of Science is OK” to swallowing his Against Method thesis—that scientific method is no method at all, but rather “anything goes”—whole. That’s a series for another day. This article is meant to about Feyerabend himself.

Feyerabend is really … different. He grew up in Vienna and soon found himself drafted into a German army fighting for Hitler. And yet Feyerabend, absorbed in his reading material, seems to not have really noticed.

During one of these trips a fellow soldier and I went through a field toward a farmhouse. An old woman appeared at the gate. We were hungry, and asked, in German, for milk and cornbread. ... She was kind, civil; she talked with us at length but gave us no food. She explained why: we were the enemy. That really surprised us.Feyerabend, pg. 44-45. </blockquote> German fellow troops would take off for the towns for sex and booze---"They go straight for your fly"---and Feyerabend stayed in the camp: "The camp was empty and quite, nobody gave me orders, and I could sleep or read the books I had brought with me." Feyerabend claims not to have had strong feelings about the Jews. He liked taking contrary positions just for the hell of it. "When papa bought *Mein Kampf*, I read it aloud to the assembled family. 'What a ridiculous way of making a point,' I thought, 'crude, repetitive, more barking than speech.'" He tells a story of how he was asked to give a lecture, and ended it saying "our misfortune is our own work, and we must not put the blame on any Jew, or Frenchman or Englishman." On the retreat, and with lieutenants, captains, and majors dying all around him, he found himself "in command of three tanks; and infantry battalion; auxiliary troops from Finland, Poland, the Ukraine; and masses of German refugees." Moving west, he is shot three times---he becomes impotent. Shit, now sex is going to be hard ... or not hard ... or, ok, forget it. One is not entirely convinced of his complete ambivalence during the war---although his defense, along with thousands of other German's, that he was simply drafted against his will, seems viable. At the least, his description of the German advance is a refreshing change from the usual tale---one doesn't often get to hear from a German soldier who *didn't really want to be there*. Post-war, Feyerabend goes back to study. He starts with history. Boring. He changes to Physics. And like every great intellectual of the 20th century, he seems to bump into everyone. Karl Popper is his supervisor. Schrodinger turns up at the University. Wittgenstein is invited to a group meeting: "Stop, that's not the way it is!" he says. Niels Bohr just happens to be giving lectures. Paul Dirac has lunch with him and students. Friedrich von Hayek shows up too. Bertolt Brecht offers him a spot in the theatre. Victor E. Frankl invites him to listen to a recording of his own lecture---the tape fails. Tarski and Carnap invites him for dinner. John Searle tries to get him fired from Berkeley. Feyerabend, not at all impressed by the level of conversation, gets frequently bored, and just flits around from university to university. He'll stop to tell you which operas he watched in each city and what he thought of them. But he's brief on the details. That's good. Most autobiographies give too many. All the while, Feyerabend ignores the usual way of being a professor. He refuses to have an office at the university: "No office, no office hours." When the Berkely Free Speech Movement rolls through, he continues to give lectures. "I asked students to give talks or prepare demonstrations instead of writing papers, and I invited outsiders to present their points of view." Eventually, he just moves his lectures off the campus:
Eventually I moved off campus, first into students' quarters, then into a church. Now the administration got on my back: teachers were supposed to remain in the assigned lecture halls. Consulting the regulations I found no such rule, and continued as before. For some of my colleagues, John Searle especially, this was the last straw; they wanted to have me fired. When they realized how much paperwork was involved, they gave up. Red tape does have its advantages.Feyerabend, pg. 126.
And then comes the most interesting section. *Against Method*, the book he is most famous for, comes out ... and he gets depressed.
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, pg. 147.
He goes through what all public intellectuals must: to be criticized by so many, so poorly, that he himself becomes confused to what he has said. Reviewers seem to avoid reading the book they are criticizing. He begins writing replies to his critics, only to read his book again and be reminded he never claimed what his opponents say he did. Ten-year-old articles taken out of context, linked to his book, and claimed as evidence of his rampant sexism. "He hates women!" "He loves women, but too promiscuously!" Ok. The usual suspects. And then, as the book comes to an end, and Feyerabend realizes his life is doing the same, he begins to wax eloquent. He tells stories like a grandfather (although he fails, after trying quite hard, to have children). I'm not sure what to make of it."These may be the last days. We are taking them one at a time. My latest paralysis was the result of some bleeding inside the brain. My concern is that after my departure something remains of me, *not* papers, *not* final philosophical declarations, but love. I hope that the manner of my final departure, which I would like to be peaceful, like a coma, without a death struggle, leaving bad memories behind. 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." ## Memorable Quotes On dating:
p4. "After my mother's death, my father ran the household while I was studying at the university. He courted a variety of ladies, some of them married. He visited them at home, or took them out to educational events---lectures, demonstrations, films. Eventually he placed an advertisement: "Civil servant, retired but well preserved, intellectual interests, looking for sensitive mature woman---marriage not excluded." He got eighty replies. I ordered them according to age, income and style and sent him on his way, twice or three times a week. He returned well fed, inebriated from the rich wines the ladies had saved through the war, and bored to tears."
On work:
p.15 "I often accompanied my mother to the hairdresser. "What do you want to do when you grow up?" asked the ladies. "I want to retire," I replied. There was reason in my reply. Building sandcastles in the park I saw nervous men with briefcases running after crowded streetcars. "What are those people doing?" I asked mama. "They're going to work," she said. I also saw an elderly gentlemen sitting quietly on a bench, enjoying the sun. "Why is he here?" I asked. "He is retired." Well, after that, retirement looked very attractive indeed."
On standing up for yourself:
p.16 "I had no idea how other people lived or what to do with them. Papa gave me his military knapsack instead of the customary briefcase. "People will envy you," he explained. I was laughed at. "Defend yourself!" said mama. Next day I did just that. School was over and I started for home. I saw mama at the window, remembered her advice, turned to the main offender, and broke his arm."
On losing his religion:
p. 20 "In 1932 Saint Nicholas appeared for the last time. I was eight years old and we had already moved to our new apartment. ... Suddenly I heard steps in the anteroom---my father? Saint Nicholas? I had an inkling that things were not what they used to be and yet I was not sure about the difference. The door opened. Here was the old familiar figure: the long white dress, the golden embroidery, the staff, the pointed hat, the deep voice. But I also saw my father's shoes, which I had not noticed before, I saw the eyes behind the mask, which I had never separated from the mask, and I heard him, not Saint Nicholas. It was my father; clearly it was my father, yet equally clearly it was not my father but the Saint. Homer describes many situations of this kind. Aphrodite appears as an old woman; but Helen, whom she addresses, also sees "the round sweet throat of the goddess"; the second appearance does not eliminate the first, it adds to it. This was exactly what happened to me, for a short time at least; then the mystery disappeared and I was left with the commonplace. I was sad, not for myself but for my father, who, having been a mighty Saint, was now a vulnerable human being."
On joining the SS:
p.39 "Around that time I also considered joining the SS. Why? Because an SS man looked better and spoke better and walked better than ordinary mortals; aesthetics, not ideology, was my reason."
On discovering sex:
p.56 "About half a year later, when I was already living in Weimar, Rosemarie paid me a visit. We talked, and eventually went to bed---another first. I was embarrassed. I continued reading a cultural journal and talked endlessly about Kant's three critiques. Rosemarie undressed, rose, and stood before me. At last the parts of the puzzle united into an amazing whole: so this was how a woman looked!"
On lecturers:
p.67 "Radon was an internationally recognized authority. He was also rather nervous. Once it took him two blackboards to derive 0 = 0. "Das ist richtig," he said with sadness in his voice; "aber es hilft uns nicht weiter" ("It's correct, but it doesn't get us any farther")."
On Bohr:
p.78 "When the seminar was over, I approached Bohr and asked for details. "You didn't understand?" Bohr exclaimed. "That's too bad. I never expressed myself so clearly before." Aege Petersen had warned me of that phrase. "Bohr always says that---but then he repeats his old explanations.""
On falsifiability:
p.89 "Falsificationism now seemed a real option, and I fell for it. I occasionally felt a little uncomfortable, especially when talking to Walter Hollitscher; there seemed to be a worm somewhere in the woodwork. Still, I applied the procedure to a variety of topics and made it the centerpiece of my lectures when I started teaching. Today I regard this episode as an excellent illustration of the dangers of abstract reasoning. There are lots of dangerous philosophies around. Why are they dangerous? Because they contain elements that paralyze our judgement. Rationalism, whether dogmatic or critical, is no exception. Even worse---the inner coherence of its products, the apparent reasonableness of its principles, the premise of a method that enables individuals to free themselves from prejudice, and the success of the sciences, which seem to be rationalism's main achievements, provide it with an almost superhuman authority. Popper not only used these elements, he added a paralyzing ingredient of his own---simplicity. So what's wrong with a coherent philosophy that explains its principles in a simple and straightforward way? That it may be out of teach with reality, which means, in the case of a philosophy of science, with scientific practice. A philosophy, after all, is not a piece of music that can be enjoyed by itself. It is supposed to guide us through confusion, and perhaps, to provide a blueprint for change. Popper knew that a guide, or a map, may be simple, coherent, "rational," and yet may not be about anything. Like Kraft, Reichenbach, and Herschel before him, he therefore distinguished between the practice of science and the standards of scientific excellence and asserted that epistemology dealt only wiith the latter: the world (of science and of knowledge in general) must be adapted to the map, not the other way around. For a while I reasoned in the same way. It had been fun to heap scorn on venerable traditions by showing that they were "cognitively meaningless." It was even more exhilarating to criticize respectable scientific theories by raising the magic wand of falsifiability. I overlooked the fact that I made an important and by no means obvious assumption. I assumed that "rational" standards, when applied rigorously and without exceptions, can lead to a practice that is mobile, rich, stimulating, and technologically effective as the sciences we already have, accept, and praise. But the assumption is false. Practiced with determination and without subterfuge, the doctrine of falsifiability would wipe out science as we know it."
On love:
p.105 "I was often in love, and passionately so, but my emotions changed when the affair, which to me was mostly a matter of the imagination, seemed to become real. Almost all my actions were tentative, unfinished, without an overall purpose. Perhaps I liked too many things and was reluctant to be nailed down. There were long stretches of loneliness and boredom when I wandered around, during the day or at night, hoping that somebody, preferably a woman, would appear and set things right."
On Popper:
p.109 "Walking up and down with a stern face [John Watkins] would chastise me for having been a bad Popperian: too little Popper in the text of my papers, no Popper in the footnotes. Having explained in detail where and in what manner Popper should have made an appearance, he would heave a sigh of relief, lead me to the dining room, and allow me to eat. Imre Lakatos, whom I met much later, attacked me in almost identical terms: "Why did you say X when Popper says Y, and why don't you mention Popper who, after all, also said X on a few occasions?" I hear that even now the sacred word POPPER continues to give strength to the faithful."
On authority:
p.126 "Eventually I moved off campus, first into students' quarters, then into a church. Now the administration got on my back: teachers were supposed to remain in the assigned lecture halls. Consulting the regulations I found no such rule, and continued as before. For some of my colleagues, John Searle especially, this was the last straw; they wanted to have me fired. When they realized how much paperwork was involved, they gave up. Red tape does have its advantages."
On logic:
p. 132 "Most of the assistants were revolutionaries, and to of them were sought by the police. Yet they didn't buy Che Guevara, or Mao, or Lenin; they bought books on logic! "We have to learn how to think," they said, as if logic has anything to do with that.
On science and religion:
p. 137 "That year I taught summer session in Berkeley---an hour a day for six weeks. Having chosen the study of church dogma as my subject, I read all the relevant books I could lay hands on, Harnack especially. His work does not yet appear to have been superseded. Sometimes I was one hour ahead of my class, sometimes only half an hour, sometimes two. Why church dogma? Because the development of church dogma shares many features with the development of scientific thought."
On identity:
p. 147 "I had often warned my students not to identify with their work. I told them, "If you want to achieve something, if you want to write a book, paint a picture, be sure that the center of your existence is somewhere else and that it's solidly grounded; only then will you be able to keep your cool and laugh at the attacks that are bound to come." I myself had followed this advice in the past, but now I was alone, sick with some unknown affliction; my private life was a mess, and I was without a defense. I often wished I had never written that fucking book."
On worldviews:
p.164 "In a way realists are like archaeologists, who, having removed layers of familiar and already boring events, find unexpected and unusual treasures. The treasures unearthed by science seem to have an additional advantage: being related to each other in lawful ways they can be manipulated or predicted by using the laws. But that makes them important only if the resulting scenario is pleasant to live in. The objection that the scenario is "real," and that we must adapt to it no matter what, has no weight, for it is not the only one: there are many ways of thinking and living. A pluralism of this kind was once called irrational and was expelled from decent society. In the meantime it has become the fashion. This vogue did not make pluralism better or more humane; it made it trivial and, in the hands of its more learned defenders, scholastic."
On writers:
p. 180 "But what is more important---to be understood by outsiders or to be regarded as a "deep thinker"? Writing in a simple style that general readers can understand is not the same as being superficial. I urge all writers who want to inform their fellow citizens to stay away from philosophy, or at least to stop being intimidated and influenced by obfuscators such as Derrida and, instead, to read Schopenhauer or Kant's popular essays."