Rebel without a commitment

Killing Time
October 13, 1995

Paul Feyerabend, who died of an inoperable malignant brain tumour in Rome in February 1994, was a well-known philosopher of science. Yet his commitment to philosophy, so he claims, was frequently not wholehearted. He did philosophical work only to kill time (hence the title of his book) and to fight depressions.

Only in the final decade of his life did something - his love of Grazia Borrini, his last wife - endow his life with a sense of coherence and with happiness. Indeed, he movingly waxes lyrical about her and sensibly claims that love and friendship matter more than anything else.

Feyerabend narrates the story of his life, his early days in Vienna, where he was born in 1924 into an Austrian lower middle-class family, his war service and its aftermath, the beginnings of his studies and his rise into academic fame. After studying at the University of Vienna, where he took his doctorate, he came in 1952 to the London School of Economics to sit at Karl Popper's feet. Popper, whom he had met, when still a student, in the Austrian Alps at the Alpbach International Summer School (that hot-house of intellectual activity) greatly helped him, but this debt is not properly acknowledged. He adopted his mentor's style of conducting seminars and his criticism of induction, but rejected his view that falsifiability is the criterion demarcating scientific theories from nonscientific ones.

After three years as a lecturer in the University of Bristol (well before my time there), he went to America - to Berkeley where he stayed for almost thirty years. He combined this appointment with posts in other universities - Yale, the Minnesota Center of Philosophical Studies, University of London (University College and the LSE), Sussex, Berlin, Kassel, even Auckland, and the Swiss Federal Technical University in Zurich, where he spent half of his time during the last decade or so of his teaching life (the other in Berkeley, of course), while living in Rome with Grazia. At one time, he even held four posts simultaneously. Thus, as an academic philosopher he made the most of the opportunities which some universities, not necessarily to their advantage, offer to some star professors. His commitment to universities seems not to have been very deep. At times it looks as if he treated them like hotels. He records meeting a large number of influential philosophers and scientists during his peripatetic existence. Only too often, however, he laces his description with mischievous comments instead of providing memorable portraits or giving accounts of genuine achievements.

Feyerabend patently hated to appear respectable and dull. He wanted to be a rebel, a gadfly, "a bigmouth" (his own word), debunking all kinds of established attitudes. That attitude made him a super relativist. "Anything goes", he claims.

Science is, for him, like art or myth-making, a form of storytelling, scientific theories are like courtesans. If sufficiently seductive, it is possible to have fun with them, for a while. Rational discussion is, he alleges, incapable of settling any question. But surely he overshoots his target! Admittedly, reason cannot comprehend the whole of life, but this does not mean that rational arguments are not able to solve some problems.

A man of wide interests, Feyerabend loved the theatre and almost became a singer and an actor. His flamboyance and eccentricity appear to have won him many admirers. And he appears to have had the gift of making people sit up and think.

Feyerabend was a schoolboy in Vienna when Hitler seized Austria in March 1938. He was called up to fight in the war, earned the Iron Cross for bravery, due to foolhardiness rather than to courage, and was severely wounded, which left him a cripple and permanently impotent. (This latter disability did not stop him from marrying four times and having many affairs). He was - and this is credible - not a Nazi. While he was impressed by Hitler's oratory, he found his prose turgid. Nazism, he maintains, hardly affected his life. Still, it is strange that a man of his sharp intelligence, relentless curiosity and natural rebelliousness paid virtually no attention to that which Nazism stood for.

He writes that soon after the end of war, "the past had almost disappeared". He agrees that "hatred, contempt, and a desire for justice are the right attitude toward ideas and actions that had caused and prolonged an atrocious war and led to the murder of millions of innocent people". However, since "the distribution of good and evil is not easy to figure out" and "compassion, unselfishness, love can be found in the very center of evil", he feels that "a clear moral vision implies simplifications, and, with them, acts of cruelty and injustice". But this is a weird and inadequate reaction to the deeds of Hitler and his henchmen. Perhaps Feyerabend wanted to say, and expressed himself badly, that there can sometimes be mitigating circumstances.

The impression which emerges from the book is that the author was a showman, an egotist, with a streak of ruthlessness, a thinker not free from contradictions, but endowed with charm, strong feelings, refreshing unconventionality, and a fearless desire to attack established views. Whether any of his ideas will stand the test of time, is another matter. But this lively book reveals a striking personality capable of arousing both enthusiasm and exasperation.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend

Author - Paul Feyerabend
ISBN - 0 226 24531 4
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £18.25
Pages - 192

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