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Review of Feyerabend's Last Interview

Review of Feyerabend's Last Interview

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Published by Terence Blake

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Published by: Terence Blake on Mar 09, 2013
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05/22/2013

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ON THE WAY TO IMMANENCE
 
by Terence Blake
 
REVIEW OF FEYERABEND'S "LAST INTERVIEW"
1) FREEDOM AND THE DE-CONVERSION FROM RATIONALISM
I want to talk about a short dialogue between Joachim Jung and Paul Feyerabend that was publishedin the memorial volume “THE WORST ENEMY OF SCIENCE?: Essays in Memory of PaulFeyerabend”. The dialogue took place in Feyerabend’s last days, when he was hospitalised with aninoperable brain tumor, with the left side of his body entirely paralysed. He had only two weeks tolive. The text is quite short, only ten pages long (p159-168). Aside from the two interlocutors(Feyerabend and Jung) Feyerabend’s wife (Grazia Borrini Feyerabend) was present, but does notintervene in the interview, except once. Though she she does not take part in the discussion her  presence is of prime importance for situating the dialogue in the context of light and of love thatFeyerabend saw as characterising the final phase of his life, with Grazia:“Grazia is with me in the hospital, which is a great joy, and she fills the room with light” (KILLINGTIME, p181).We know in fact from KILLING TIME that Feyerabend died peacefully in his hospital bed holdinghands with Grazia on February 11, 1994 (at just over 70 years of age), after more than a week of morphine-induced coma. So this dialogue, which took place on January 27, 1994, was very close tothe end. Thus it truly was, as Deleuze and Guattari formulate such an event in the life of a philosopher, “a moment of grace between life and death” (WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?,  p1) where Feyerabend expresses himself with “sobriety” and “a sovereign freedom” on the question “What isit that I have been doing all my life?”. Deleuze and Guattari claim that such sobriety and freedomare attained, if at all, only towards the end of life “with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely”(p1).[Note: this "speaking concretely" is also described by them as the attainment of a "nonstyle". I think that this explains my initial reaction to this Last Interview and to Feyerabend's autobiographyKILLING TIME. I found them disappointing, almost boring. It took me much time and manydetours to see the abundance (conceptual
and 
affective, intellectual
and 
existential) that theycontain.]Feyerabend often claimed that he was not a philosopher, and that he had no philosophy (cf. p162: “Ido not have a philosophy, I have lots of opinions”). So it is interesting to see that one of his lastconscious public acts – bed-ridden, paralysed and dying of a brain tumor – was to give an interviewon his views on philosophy. The least we can say is that he gives a lot of importance to the questionof philosophy and to his stance of dis-identification with this category, as with all categories. In thecourse of the interview he talks about death and disfigurement as facts of life, of people in hospitals being kept barely alive and of the decision to pull the plug or not: “This is something you have tothink about” (p166). It is clear that Feyerabend has thought about it, and that in engaging in thisdialogue he is doing exactly what he wants. The interview is an expression of his “sovereignfreedom”.“Freedom” is one of the main themes of the dialogue. Feyerabend emphasises that he was very“fortunate” to have been free not just to think whatever he liked but to publish and teach his ideaswith the same freedom:“Ideas are free everywhere. Publication is the problem….I taught in Berkeley…and I could saywhatever I wanted…I was completely free…Also, in Switzerland, when I came here to the ETH…Icould practically do what I wanted” (p160). This freedom is not just a primary personal value for Feyerabend but is essential for research in any domain. He quotes Niels Bohr as saying: “When youdo research you cannot be tied down by any rule, not even the rule of noncontradiction. One must
 
have complete freedom” (p162). This primacy of freedom over logic and arguments came to him ina dialogue with von Weizsäcker. It embodies one of the most important philosophical conversions inFeyerabend’s life.Feyerabend tells us the story of this conversion in several places. It occurred in 1965 in Hamburg invon Weizsäcker’s seminar. Feyerabend was at the height of his “pluralist” phase. He defended atthis time his own philosophical synthesis, which tried to specify a general methodology not just for the sciences but also for the arts. So Feyerabend had a philosophy in 1965: philosophical pluralism.He was a rationalist and a pluralist, committed to finding “general rules that would cover all casesand non-scientific developments as well”. (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, p117). According toFeyerabend: “My arguments were excellent. But von Weizsäcker gave a historical account of therise of quantum theory and this was much richer and more rewarding and I realised that what I wastalking about was just a dream” ( p162).This realisation concerned not so much the arguments themselves, as Feyerabend conserved them but put them to a different use. He no longer tried to impose general rules, but he did not advocatethe pure and simple abandon of rules. He used his arguments to expand the repertoire of acceptedrules, and to argue for the reseacher’s complete freedom with respect to all rules:“Today the same arguments are offered with a very different
 purpose
in mind, and they lead to avery different
result 
…All attempts to revive traditions that were pushed aside and eliminated in thecourse of the expansion of Western culture…run into an impenetrable stone wall of rationalistic phrases and prejudices. I try to show that there are no arguments to support this wall and that some principles implicit in science definitely favour its removal” (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, p144-145).Thus when Feyerabend concludes in the interview that “excellent arguments don’t count when youwant to deal with something which is as rich as nature, or other human beings” (p162), he is slightlyoverstating his case. Excellent arguments don’t count when you want to impose general rules onresearch or on life. The important thing is the
 purpose
of the arguments (freedom or servitude) andthe
attitude
. Feyerabend declares that he had a rationalist attitude up to his dialogue with vonWeizsäcker, “when I suddenly realized how barren such an attitude is in the face of concreteresearch” (SFS, p144).This abandon of the rationalist attitude had effects on Feyerabend’s thinking and research, but alsoon his teaching and his life. He began to give more importance to feeling and to the concrete detailsof life. Indeed, the rationalist “de-conversion” was just as much an affective experience as anintellectual one:“For the first time I felt, I did not merely think about, the poverty of abstract philosophicalreasoning” (KILLING TIME, p141).
2) CONVERSION TO IMMANENT RATIONALISM
Feyerabend’s dialogue with Joachim Jung is given a particular importance and solemnity by thecircumstances in which it took place: Feyerabend in hospital with an inoperable brain tumor, half his body paralysed, discussing what? Certainly not life after death as Socrates does in thePHAEDO, nor the necessity to obey the dictates of reason and the Laws. It is a thoroughly anti- platonic dialogue in that respect, as Feyerabend facing the prospect of his imminent “fading away”(this is the title of the heart-rending last chapter of KILLING TIME) discusses the need to abandonthe rationalist attitude and to have total freedom from binding rules in research as in life. Heenvisages his own life as pervaded by freedom, from the assertion that in his teaching he was“completely free” to the declaration that he had never been hindered in anything (“No, I was never hindered in anything. No, I was never hindered in anything” (p161). Feyerabend’s insistence that he had never been hindered in anything comes as a reply to thequestion of his motives for dealing with science and with philosophy and of the origin of his
 
“anarchistic” ideas. Jung asks if they had their origin in some special negative experience (of frustration or constraint). Feyerabend reiterates his basic experience of freedom and declares thathis motivation for dealing with science and philosophy was
interest 
, the active interest of someonewho plunges into a new activity and learns by immersion: “Interest. Like somebody who starts playing the piano” (p161). This emphasis on the positivity of his experience and of his motivescomes as a necessary corrective to the widespread conception that Feyerabend’s work is essentiallynegative. This is far from being the case, but unfortunately some of his terminology and his general provocative attitude have contributed to this misunderstanding.Feyerabend’s abandon of rationalism stems from a dissatisfaction with a certain type of rationalitywhch submits action to universal rules (here many would agree) or even, more liberally, to a set of conditional contextual rules (the
nec plus ultra
of most relativists and multiculturalists). He definesrationality as: A set of rules which you are supposed to follow, and which says: “If so then it will bethis and that”. (p162)In Deleuzian terms these rules (universal or contextual) are transcendent to the field that theyconstrain or regulate. What Feyerabend rejects is transcendent rationality and rules astranscendences imposing actions and hindering us in our research and in our life. To go back toFeyerabend’s conversion experience, von Weizsäcker did not abandon all argument. He refused toaccept Feyerabend’s abstract arguments and treated them as irrelevant to the historical process of invention and adjustment that characterised the development of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. He argued historically, and not abstractly, allowing the methods to emerge in theimmanent field of research. Feyerabend remarks elsewhere (FAREWELL TO REASON, p317) thatthis attitude was not new, and constituted in effect a “return to Mach”.Indeed, we are confronted here with a case of “the negation of the negation” (Feyerabend wouldhave been comfortable with this formulation as he admitted to being a Hegelian, but of a specialsort: a pluralist Hegelian, or a Machian Hegelian). According to Feyerabend it is the rationalist whohave abandonned (immanent) reason and replaced it with an abstract phantasm that they callReason. So abandoning the phantasm of transcendence and returning to immanent reason looks likeyou are abandoning reason and defending irrationalism:“some thinkers, having been confused and shaken by the complexities of history, have said farewellto reason and replaced it by a caricature…they have continued calling this caricature reason (or Reason…to use my own terminology). Reason has been a great success among philosophers whodislike complexity and among politicians…It is a disaster for the rest, i.e. practically all of us. It istime we bid it farewell” (FAREWELL TO REASON, p17).So we must read “farewell to Reason” as in fact “farewell to the farewell to reason”, or “Helloreason, my old friend”.
3) THE ARROGANCE OF TRANSCENDENCE
Methodological Preamble: Deleuze remarked on several occasions that an important difference between Continental philosophy and anglophone analytic philosophy lay in their respectiveattitudes to the creation of concepts. Of course, Deleuze maintained that all good philosophy, bothcontinental and analytic, is creation of concepts. However, whereas Continental philosophy preferred to highlight this creation by giving familiar terms unfamiliar meanings or by inventingnew terms, Anglo-american philosophers would mask their conceptual creation behind ordinaryvocabulary as far as possible. Continental philosophy’s concepts are signposted in a very conceptualstyle, and run the risk of being more rigid. Anglo-American philosophy is less conceptual inappearance (but this is, according to Deleuze, a false impression) and more fluid, harder to naildown.[Aside: this is why translating a text from English into French can seem to "clarify" it. This is not because of any intrinsic superiority of Gallic vocabulary (
le mot juste
!) or syntax (plethoric

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