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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 6 June 2016

"Against Method" by Paul Feyerabend

Feyerabend is a firebrand, an iconoclast, whose purpose is to demolish any theory that seeks to systematise the processes of scientific discovery. He starts with the statement that "anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology, and for the philosophy of science" (p 1). The history of science is "complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining." (p 3) And he continues to challenge throughout the book. Don't be misled by the italics, which he peppers with the abandon of a Caribbean chef. This is not the work of an obsessed dilettante. He is thoroughly immersed in the history of science and proceeds to provide extensive evidence from the Copernican revolution.

Although it is a little worrying, given his tendency to make broad-brush statements such as "There is not a single interesting theory that agrees with all the known facts in its domain" (p 14; my emphasis), that the evidence he cites comes exclusively from the Copernican revolution (with a little bit added in about Newton but he rarely strays into biology or chemistry or even quantum physics).

His essential thesis is that scientists are mavericks who don't assess theories in terms of the facts they can explain (and certainly, despite Popperianism, don't reject theories because they are falsified by inconvenient facts). Nor do scientists neatly construct methodologies. Indeed, in Feyerabend's eyes, the process of scientific discovery is an essentially ad hoc muddle of methodological innovation, new philosophical insights and perspectives, and facts. In order for science to make progress it is necessary, from time to time, to flout the rules of scientific methodology. (p 7) "Inventing theories and contemplating them in a relaxed and 'artistic' fashion, scientists often make moves that are forbidden by methodological rules." (p 150)

This is an interesting book and contains many insights into the work of Galileo in particular. He can get carried away: "his natural sense of humour and not the inbred and always rather nasty kind of jocularity one finds in specialized professions" combines yet another of his italicisings with the naturalistic fallacy with a sweeping generalisation ('always') and bitchiness. But on the whole it is well written, with reams of footnotes (some pages have more footnote than text) and tons of well-argued evidence.

I often do not read the Appendices of books. Hence, having reached Appendix One, I put the book down and wrote the blog post above. Then, for some reason, I took the book back up and discovered that there were five more chapters after Appendix One (including, interspersed, Appendix Two). And a Post Script. That really is it. So below is the rest of the blog post.

The remaining chapters investigate the processes involved when two inconsistent ideas interact, which is where he differs from Thomas Kuhn who his classic Structure of Scientific Revolutions has suggested that paradigms can be so different as to be incommensurable with no possibility of interaction. Feyerabend believes that "Incommensurability depends on covert classifications." (p 171) and he defines "Covert classifications are sensed rather than comprehended." (p 170) This means that when, for example,an iconoclastic young Turk in, say, theatre despairs of the theatre of his time and, by searching outside the box, promotes a revolution in drama, his new revolutionary school can and does interact with the old school which may "lead to a slight modification of the original practice, it may eliminate it, it may result in a tradition that barely resembles either of the interacting elements." (p 224) This is a very common-sense view.

But his overall argument, summed up in his title Against Method, is that "all rules have their limits" although "I do not argue that we should proceed without rules and standards" (p 242). He uses a nice analogy which will even work in the sat nav era: "The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds ... Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them." (p 233)

But one of the reasons why a single uniform method should not be imposed is that we are always seeking to explore hitherto unmapped regions. "We don't know the region, we cannot say what will work in it." Fair point, although one suspects that the human reaction will be to try to apply whatever has worked so far.

He's right of course. Scientists don't follow their own rules. Who does? Exploration must always involve a great deal of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. We should not try to discern, still less impose, a single Method on research. That is just common sense. But Feyerabend's gift for communication sometimes makes him seem more like a prophet than a philosopher, more of an iconoclast than an academic, and ever so slightly a crank. When he seems to suggest that physics as a way of discovering the universe is not as good as mysticism, it is easy to see why his opponents should accuse him of an 'anything goes' platform when actually his 'anarchy' is merely a plea against totalitarianism.

June 2016; 287 pages

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