Paul Feyeraband and the fight over ‘truth’

January 17, 2021

I read philosopher Paul Feyeraband’s book Against Method many years ago, and it has shaped my thinking ever since. Feyeraband has been wrongly criticized as anti-science. I would say that he felt that the modern definition of science was too narrow. He described true science as having methodological pluralism. There is no such thing as a unified science, only sciences plural, as French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has said.

Feyeraband also championed something he called epistemological anarchism. Wikipedia actually gives what I think is a good two-sentence summary:

[T]here are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea of the operation of science by fixed, universal rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

It is worth noting that the word “science” comes from the Latin “scientia.” That word does not denote a specific approach to understanding. It means more generally knowledge or skill. When we explore the world in search of competence in our living and being,we ought to be open to many sources of knowledge and many avenues to gain skills.

We get hints of Feyeraband’s view in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One of Kuhn’s main points was the new paradigms in science do NOT become ascendant because of their superior explanatory power. Rather, their rise has more to do with the death of prominent intellectual gatekeepers who are defending the old paradigms. Once the gatekeepers are gone, the way is open for new ideas to prosper.

Latour in The Pasteurization of France lays out Pasteur’s rhetorical and political strategies for gaining acceptance of his theories. This is the antithesis of the notion that facts speak for themselves. On the contrary, if there are no champions for what one regards as “the facts”, those facts often die an ignoble death.

For a long time climate scientists believed that their overwhelming and voluminous findings would sway policymakers. Some have now turned to activism because progress on addressing climate change has been exceedingly slow—in part, due to the vast disinformation campaign waged by the fossil fuel industry about the issue.

It no longer seems strange to talk about scientific practice today being a cultural phenomenon shaped by politics, economics and personality. In fact, there is a newfound embrace of this observation among those seeking to prevent meaningful progress on such issues as climate change, air and water pollution, and sustainable agriculture. Strangely, such people are not so open to nuanced understanding when their own economic and political interests are being probed and usually spout a rigid, absolutist defense.

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To say that scientific endeavors are cultural is NOT to say that they produce no useful knowledge. Rather, these endeavors are not as systematic as we would like to believe, and more important, they are not the only way for us humans to gain insight into ourselves and our universe.

Literature and the arts have shaped us as much as scientific and technical pursuits. Meditation, philosophical speculation, and mystical insight have also given us ideas and observations to apply and test. Human life and culture are perpetual experiments, not a completed journey.

Still, we would like to hit bedrock, to know what is real and what is imaginary. Much of the dialog today about the sciences is in the form of whether one is pro- and anti-science. But getting back to the Latin root, there is no one who is against gaining useful knowledge that will help him or her live a better life. There is, in this case, disagreement about what constitutes “the facts.” There is what I have described as an epistemological battle going on. We no longer have opinions about a roughly common set of facts; we disagree on what actually constitutes a fact.

And, this is where Feyeraband gets under the skins of his critics. He maintained that what we call “facts” don’t have an independent existence. Rather, they depend on the methods for arriving at them and a consensus about them. My facts may differ from your facts. But if we are to move together as a body politic, we must find some way to share a common understanding.

That common understanding is always being negotiated in politics, in the arts, in business, in family life and even in religion. It is not stable. But when the methods for negotiating and coalescing around a consensus no longer work, you get something along the lines of what we have today in the United States: Two political camps entirely alienated from one another, each convinced that the other will bring only ruin to the country—mostly based on two entirely different set of facts.

But things are even more fractured than this. For there are so many subcultures of belief now arising—in part due to the influence of social media and the inability of people to check out various sensationalist claims for themselves—that the usual voices in politics, in community institutions such as schools, and in the pulpit cannot bring about a broad consensus on what is real and what matters.

I believe this is in part because the reductionist scientific view—a view I call the “nothing but” way of thinking, as in, “the world is nothing but atoms and molecules”— has lost its power of persuasion. Many people no longer believe that the supposed “products of science” such as pharmaceuticals, genetically engineered food and new communications technologies are going to make their lives happier and healthier. They have turned instead to natural health therapies, organic food and “electronic fasts” to better their health and their lives.

Part of this fall from grace for science and scientists has resulted from people who call themselves scientists aligning closely with corporations. As the sciences become less about gaining knowledge and more about making profit—and thus more and more a branch of engineering—it is no wonder that a growing number of people do not regard what scientists write and say as “objective” and “disinterested.”

One of Feyeraband’s arguments is that it has ever been thus. And now, only at a breaking point in public consensus, do we notice how trenchant both Feyeraband and Latour are.

The task now is to find new ways to negotiate about what constitutes “the facts” and which processes are legitimate avenues for constructing those facts. I think a resolution that ends with a broad consensus will only come about if the acceptable sources of knowledge are broadened considerably beyond the narrow reductionist point of view that so many still insist must rule world.

“An appalling attempt to muzzle the watch-dog of science”, political cartoon by Friedrich Graetz Caption: “The Society for the Suppression of Blasphemous Literature proposes to get up cases against Professors Huxley and Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and others who, by their writings have sown widespread unbelief, and in some cases rank atheism” … This cartoon was published in PUCK Magazine, v. 13, no. 314, (1883 March 14).

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: philosophy, science