INCOMMENSURABILITY AND RELATIVISM. A DISCUSSION ABOUT PAUL FEYERABEND'S THOUGHTJun/23/2016
“I wouldn’t want to belong to any club
that accepted me as a member!”
Although we are gathered here at Boston University to commemorate Paul Feyerabend, we would nevertheless be hard put to deny a certain sulfurous odor surrounding his work. We are all familiar with those epistemologists and scientists who are irritated by the mere mention of his name. “A Manual for Adventurers”: that was how a well-known Italian physicist described Against Method. Feyerabend’s famous slogan as regards methodology - “anything goes” - and his “relativist” position still shock.
Philosophers usually reject the relativist label, preferring to define themselves as nihilists, pessimists, deconstructionists. “Relativist” is an epithet reserved exclusively for adversaries. Even Feyerabend later denounced relativism as the other face of objectivism. Objectivism considers scientific propositions truths regardless of by whom or when they are articulated. The “pure” relativist on the other hand sees every cultural production as isolated, incapable of communication with productions of other cultures. A case of two sides of the same absolutist coin, which denies what was essential for the later Feyerabend: exchange and dialogue between traditions and cultures. More than a relativist, Feyerabend was an anti-antirelativist; or a “relative relativist”, or even a “weak relativist” (in Italy “weak” has become an accepted philosophical adjective).
In any case, “absolute relativism” is a contradiction in terms. If by relativism we intend “the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other”, then - as Rorty comments - no serious philosopher can be a relativist. Even if such an “absolute relativist” existed, he could easily be countered with the self-referential argument used by Socrates against Protagoras.
The relativist who says that we can break ties among serious and incompatible candidates for beliefs only by ‘non-rational’ and ‘non-cognitive’ considerations is just one of Platonist or Kantian philosopher’s imaginary playmates, inhabiting in the same realm of fantasy as the solipsist, the skeptic, and the moral nihilist (...) These positions are adopted to make philosophical points - that is, moves in a game played with fictitious opponents, rather than fellow-participants in a common project.
In fact, relativism is today influential, in cultural as well as in philosophical spheres, as “relative relativism”: not as philosophical theory, but as a style of approach which stresses the unavoidable plurality of theories and discourses. “Relative relativism” in a way reinforces relativism by relativizing itself, and in another way weakens relativism because it implies that not always and not with everyone is it right to be relativist. In this “weak” and “relative” sense Feyerabend as well - despite his later denials - is a relativist.
The famous anti-relativist argument is: “Saying that nothing is absolute is in itself an absolute affirmation, and therefore self-contradictory”. Consequently, there would be no avoiding absolutism.
In reality, the basic contradiction of relativism is precisely that which saves it: if it were not contradictory, relativism would be incontestable, beyond criticism, in other words absolute. But in this way, it would truly contradict itself. The fragile nature of relativism thus becomes its paradoxical strength: precisely because it is eternally contestable, relativism leaves space for its opposite... In accepting itself as contradictory, “weak” and “relative”, relativism accepts being “logically” surpassable, and thus de facto it [self]-relativizes itself. The relativist, defeated on the logical-semantic plane, is victorious on the dialectic-pragmatic plane: by leaving space for absolutism, it “shows” how relativism itself is relative.
Before delving further into this theme, I will summarize Feyerabend’s contribution to the philosophy of science, if for no other reason than to clear the air of any misunderstanding regarding his thought - that was much helped by Feyerabend’s delight to épater le rationaliste.
Feyerabend’s critique of epistemology is the inevitable end result of the 20th century epistemological thought (in somewhat the same way that Hume’s skepticism was the logical end result of British empiricist philosophy, and Nietzsche’s Dionysian oeuvre the outlet for the Romantic movement). In this thought, Viennese empiricism and Popperian falsificationism have prevailed.
In both logical empiricism and falsificationism, science seemed a ruthless confrontation between propositions and facts: propositions must be verified, falsified or corroborated by facts (in inductive theories, facts lead to propositions; in falsificationist theories, facts select propositions). With Lakatos and Feyerabend in contrast science comes to be seen as the result of a competitive confrontation between theories, or languages, therefore between flesh-and-blood scientists. To paraphrase Quine (he wrote that Occam’s razors often break against Plato’s beard): Feyerabend broke Popper’s razor on Marx’s beard.
Let me use an unusual biological metaphor: the new philosophy of science - Feyerabend included - sees the development of science and its relationship to the real as resembling the development of a living species. An elephant does not mirror the tropical environment it inhabits: rather it dwells well in it -- which does not prevent other species (including “rival” animals) from inhabiting the same savanna. In a similar way, sciences are seen less and less as “mirrors of nature” - to borrow Rorty’s expression - and progressively more as resembling the struggle of animal species to dominate and survive: theories do not mirror the world of “facts” but inhabit it. Consequently, a myriad of other “true theories” - that is, other ways of surviving among the facts, mastering them - are possible.
Adaptation to the environment is only one of the conditions permitting a species or a theory to survive. Ethologists, in fact, maintain that it is not just the lineage of the individual who survived more dangers which advances, but also the lineage of the more “seductive” males and females. For example, the intricate antlers of the male deer are of absolutely no use in the process of adapting to the environment, and serve exclusively to attract the female. Analogously, whether or not a theory prospers depends not only on whether or not it adapts to its “environment”, but also on whether or not it succeeds in reproducing sufficiently; that is, in pleasing the scientists. To continue our metaphor, positivism and Popperianism only emphasized the relationship between individuals and their environment. In the post-Popperian current, the theory-theory relationship is emphasized; that is, mutatis mutandis, the appeal of the “antlers,” the successful competitiveness of theories-individuals in seduction and reproduction. Feyerabend reconstructed Galileo’s “propaganda” - in other words, his magnificent rhetorical “antlers” - to convince his contemporaries of the superiority of the Copernican theory on the basis of uncertain data.
Elephants, with nothing to fear from predators (except man), reproduce seldom and very slowly. Rabbits, on the other hand, with no defenses against predators, compensate by reproducing often and rapidly. In a Popperian epistemology, all accepted theories are like elephants: thanks to their fallibilist bulk, they have survived all attempts at falsification. But post-Popperian philosophy of science has shown that if all theories were like elephants, they would be extinct; they must also be like rabbits: they must know how to convince and seduce scientists. The single theory/rabbit can be easily devoured by falsifications, but its descent will survive.
But moving to a game-metaphor: in post-Popperian philosophy facts are like cards in a game of poker. Although the cards are randomly dealt, some good players habitually win, while others generally lose. Luck is important, but in the end what prevails is one’s “art”, in poker as well as in science, the way one “plays” the empirical cards which from time to time happen into one’s hands, in order to survive and dominate the rivals. Thus Galileo or Einstein no longer seem pure, disembodied minds “mirroring Nature”, but audacious gamblers who assumed the risks of new paradigms.
Lakatos had already substituted the empiricist and Popperian discrimination between “true scientists” and “false scientists” with a weaker discrimination between “progressive” and “regressive” scientists. But for Feyerabend this Lakatosian criteria was still excessively severe and intolerant. It was necessary to accept the fact that every research program is “good science”, that “anything goes”. As in Andersen’s tale, the ugly ducklings of science can turn out to be magnificent swans. In fact - Feyerabend objects - can we advise scientists faithful to regressive research to throw in the sponge and pass, bag and baggage, to progressive program? The result would be catastrophic because, as history teaches us, many great revolutions have substantially consisted in the rehabilitation of “regressive programs”. Copernicus brought back from oblivion, eighteen centuries later, the old “regressive” heliocentric theory of Aristarchus of Samos. The triumph of Newtonian mechanics made the Cartesian physics of vortex appear a “regressive program”; in the 19th century, however, the development of electromagnetism and Maxwell’s theory would emerge from “Cartesian” assumptions. The losing program was revealed suddenly to be the most useful for expanding the field of physics. And examples of this phenomenon are endless. The moral: the only recommendation one can offer scientists - concludes Feyerabend merrily - is to be tenacious, and not discouraged by rival programs.
Anyway, in weakening Lakatos’ discrimination (between progressive and regressive scientists) to the point of anarchism - or Dadaism - Feyerabend does not deny scientific progress: in fact, it is in its name that he launches his final attack on what remains rationalist in Lakatos. The ideal of pre-historicist epistemologies was to explain scientific progress as the side effect of a considerable discriminating capacity; in neo-historicist philosophies, it is instead the historical progress of science that discriminates between what does and does not work in the methodologies. The epistemologist no longer explains progress, it is progress that explains epistemology; the epistemologist fails to demarcate, history does.
In authors such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, while demarcation persists, there are no criteria of demarcation: one does not make a discrimination between science and pseudo-science, but between a “scientific” and a “non-scientific” community (but are communities of psychoanalysts, acupuncturists or political economists scientific or non-scientific?). According to this epistemology, the deciding element as to what is “serious” and what is not are the winning scientific elites and not epistemology. In Feyerabend, instead, it is the obstinacy, the effrontery even, of the losers, which ensures progress. Polanyi and Kuhn are champions of an aristocratic epistemology; Feyerabend is the champion of a democratic, almost populist approach. What unites them, however, is the renunciation of a criteria that would decide - above and beyond any historically situated scientific practice - who is admitted to the club and who is not.
According to Popper, the true scientist is the epitome of the anti-dogmatic, honest liberal. Instead, for many post-Popperians, a certain dose of dogmatism in scientific competition is not bad. The Ruse of Progress lies in its availing itself of dogmatic tenaciousness. For Popper - who also indulges in biological metaphors - a theory which is immunized against falsification loses its scientific quality. But the Duhem-Quine hypothesis shows that if science were Popperian it would have died long ago of AIDS (which is a fatal immune deficiency). In order to survive, any research program must be partially immunized. Lakatos re-baptized “protection belt” this defense of programs against fact-predators.
According to the rationalist tradition, the sublime image of science must be purged of all the passions - political, religious, even sexual - of the scientist. For example, for centuries Newton’s reputation was safeguarded by concealing the fact that he was an alchemist and theologian. But all “irrational clutter” swept out the door will inevitably come back in through the window. The ruse of reason helps science progress, thanks to the competition between passions, dogmas, dares and tenacities. The secret of scientific evolution lies in the proliferation of conjectures, research programs and passionate metaphysics.
Darwinian evolution is the effect of two concomitant processes: casual mutation of the genes, and adaptive selection on the part of the environment. The empiricist-Popperian model of progress counted above all on selection, the Lakatosian-Feyerabendian model on the proliferation of mutations.
This praise of the proliferation of mutants retrieves Hegel and John S. Mill’s On Liberty rather than Darwin. Like most British gentlemen, Mill was partial to eccentrics. In his pamphlet, he wrote that in the name of progress space had to be given to any idea - however peculiar - leaving it to history to pass judgment on its eventual utility. However, Mill believed that the proliferation of eccentricity served progress; for Feyerabend, progress would appear to consist in the proliferation of eccentricity.
But what progress? Didn’t Feyerabend himself claim that any scientific breakthrough must be considered relative, given that although any paradigm might explain many more phenomena than the previous paradigm did, it might also ignore and “forget” many phenomena that the previous paradigm did not? And yet, Feyerabend believed in absolute progress: a quantitative one. Only quantitative progress can be asserted, such as an increase in variety and differences. Thus, scientific progress is not dissimilar to “progress” in the arts. True, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is incommensurable with respect to Giotto’s Madonnas, yet nevertheless represents “progress”, having enriched the world of art by adding to the possibile ways of representing an adored woman. Science as well makes progress in the sense that it enriches the world with novelty. For Feyerabend, rationalism is anti-progressive, because it simplifies the wealth and complexity of the world, while progress is instead the multiplication of variety.
A world richer in differences, colors and odors, is better than the gray, odorless, undifferentiated rationalists’ world. Feyerabend, who was also a man of the arts, claimed that life’s abundance was as an inconceivable magma with which thought must continually contend in order to reduce its scope. It is not surprising, then, that his other posthumous book is entitled Conquest of Abundance; in it he demonstrates how both specialists and common folk produce abstractions in order to reduce the enormous abundance that surrounds and distracts them.
With Feyerabend, the parabola of that philosophical Diaspora which spread from the Vienna of Mach and Wittgenstein to the London of Lakatos and the Berkeley of Feyerabend was thus definitively concluded, and with a checkmate. Step by step, this philosophy was forced to lower its discriminatory sights, and to admit that its rational reconstructions of scientific progress, although ever more flexible, proved every time to be excessively rigid and restrictive. Scientific progress cannot be totally reduced to epistemological Reason. Scientific creativity is always richer than the rational justifications constructed après coup, post factum, to justify it. In fact, it was Newton’s physics to inspire Kant’s philosophy of time and space in the transcendental aesthetics of his Critique of Pure Reason, and not vice versa; it was the relativity of Einstein which made possible the development of the Wienerkreis program against neo-Kantianism, and not vice versa. Science historically triumphs over the philosophy of science.
A “relative relativist” must refute not only the objections of the objectivist universalist, but also those of the progressivist evolutionist, for whom history is a universal march towards better systems. The progressivist evolutionist hierarchizes cultures: superior, more complex cultures “comprehend” inferior, more undifferentiated cultures, and not vice versa. The relationship between cultures is not comparable as much to the incommensurability between checkers and chess, but rather to the inclusion of a weaker system within a stronger one.
According to the progressivist evolutionist, it is a historically proven fact that when certain forms of archaic or primitive forms of life come into contact with more advanced and perfected forms, they are superseded. Why are all physicists today pro Einstein and none pro Newton? Whenever, during the past two centuries, Western culture has come into contact with other cultures, why has it prevailed, and not always through recourse to violence? Would this not demonstrate that the artistic, scientific and ethical culture of the West is superior to others?
The relative relativist does not deny that Einstein’s physics have proven better than Newton’s, just as he does not deny that a certain realism in Western art has prevailed, even in completely different cultures. He only differs from the progressivist evolutionists in how he describes that historical success. Feyerabend says: it is not through a point by point comparison of the results of form A (archaic or traditional) with those of form B (modern and “advanced”) that form B prevails, but because form B as a whole appears to represent a better relationship to the world, more adequate and seductive for the majority of human beings at a given time. One form of culture prevails not because its every proposition has been proven better than those of another, but because it succeeds in imposing on the community its own rules and language as “most suitable”. If we grasp that difference, we will understand that the relativist position is based on a distinction which is at the same time profound and fragile.
The relativist does not deny, for example, that Michelson’s and Morley’s experiment put classical physics in a difficult position, or that it provided an important support to Einsteinian physics. He does, however, deny that classical physics was globally refuted by this experiment - the proof being that Michelson always rejected the theory of relativity. If Einstein had not invented the theory of relativity, classical physics would have continued, and would have found some ad hoc explanation - some “epicycles” - of the results of that experiment (which is what Lorentz did, with some success).
In any case, even the most accepted theory will have puzzles to solve, as Kuhn said. And for a new theory to supplant the old one, it must do more than resolve one puzzle. Both old and new theories present difficulties, but the newer theory will inevitably prevail when on the whole it appears to adapt better to reality. This signifies that the decisive factor is not a few crucial experiments: every new theory implies a general vision of its object which, as a whole, appears more pertinent. (As we will see further on, here we find ourselves faced with the holistic assumption of relativism.) We agree today that Einstein’s theory of the field explains our solar system much more satisfactorily than Ptolemy’s theory did - not because Ptolemy’s theory has been discredited point by point, but rather because our physics appears comprehensively better. In fact, our physics makes it possible not only to explain the motion of the planets, which Ptolemy had already explained well enough, but many other things as well.
Also on this point, the reconstruction of the new philosophy of science approaches Darwinian biology in its modern reformulation owing to genetics. Darwinism had propped up last century’s progressivist evolutionism - today it can prop up what I call relative relativism. Modern biologists demonstrate that an organism survives and prospers not because every organ adapts the individual to the environment: to the contrary, the organism recycles certain organs which are available to it for completely fortuitous (or “structural”) reasons, to exploit a new environment. An organism is revealed to be adapted to its environment in a “weak” sense: in the sense that, taking everything into account, it survives, and not because every organ is suitable. In fact, many organs prove not very adaptive: the structure of the organism explains the existence of some organs, which après coup - that is, at another moment - also “find” an adaptive function. An organism is not a machine, whose gears exist ad hoc for adaptation to the environment: it is always richer than its adaptation’s strategies. Adaptation at most explains the survival, not the existence, of an organ. To use the biologist François Jacob’s expression: Nature is not an engineer but “a bricoleur”, a tinker - constructing organisms bit by bit, using leftovers from the past, adapting the organism to new situations by means of tricks. Nature “si arrangia” (makes do) - as we say in Italian - and is not a planner à la Le Corbusier.
Theories can be viewed as organisms, and the world which they claim to explain is part of their environment. Thus, various theories can “live” simultaneously in the same world, thanks precisely to their incommensurability and/or impermeability. Theories are not artifacts constructed ad hoc for their function alone, but “make do” with the latest experimental data.
Now, the fact that a form of life prevails as a whole, and not because it is more capable than others to resolve certain specific points, has major philosophical implications: the choice between two theories, or two artistic forms, is not made by calling upon an arbiter, a Method, which establishes, through a point-by-point examination of the results, which of the two is the better. The outcome of this conflict is decided in the end by history and life. Acquiring or increasing knowledge is an overall process, and not a simple critical, neutral examination of opposing theses. Feyerabend challenged the critical philosopher, à la Popper, to explain rationally and in depth why history chooses precisely the thesis that it does. The critical spirit can in fact decide among specific propositions articulated in a specific form of life, but cannot prefer one form of life in general to another.
Rorty expressed the relativist position when he said that it no longer posed the problem of the truth or falseness of propositions - as in any traditional rationalist philosophy - but of the advantages or disadvantages of a vocabulary. By “vocabulary” Rorty intends that which others call Language; thus, something holistic. For a language, or vocabulary, the problem posed is not one of its truth or falseness, but its “utility” or “adequateness” for use. And the adequateness of a language is not simply the result of the sum of its true propositions.
Take as an example the present crisis in Marxist thought, in relation to the dissolution of “Real Socialism’s” countries. The question is: “Which historical event truly determines the refutation of Marxist Hope?” Some more far-sighted did not have to wait for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in order to realize that the Socialist countries were losing their race with the West: the construction in 1961 of that Wall was more than sufficient (as it implied the admission that West Germany exercised a very strong attraction for the East, and not vice versa). For others, the collapse of the Communist regimes was not a sufficient reason to abandon Marxism: they would maintain that the variants of Real Socialism up to the present have all been a failure, and that true Socialism has yet to be seen. The “strong” Marxist is still waiting for true Socialism. It is we - depending on our temperament, the weakness or strength of our commitment to a theory, what Feyerabend called tenacity - who decide whether or not a given event demonstrates the failure of a political theory. Historical events, in short, do not necessarily belie a theory but, placed in the general political debate, become material for rhetorical persuasion.
The rationalist ideal is to eliminate as far as possible the rhetorical persuasion from the critical debate. Feyerabend instead considered every theory or cultural form as an organism attempting to immunize itself against criticism and falsification, in order to survive. Those defending the old “regressive” form of life often do so in no less a critical rigor than those who attack it. What finally decides is rhetorical ability which succeeds in making us “see with our own eyes” the superiority of one system over another.
We all know that purely rational arguments rarely succeed in convincing those who rationally support an opposing thesis. Much more than rational arguments are needed to deprive a Marxist, a Liberal, a Positivist, a Popperian, or a Freudian of his faith. As Feyerabend exclaimed, “Who would sell his soul for an argument?” Even in the exact sciences a theory usually prevails not because it has won over its competition, but because those who sustained the losing thesis have slowly died out. For objectivist philosophers, the fact that it is so difficult to convince our rivals of our theses, even if rigorously argued - which explains why intellectual debate often appears as mere ritual - simply demonstrates that the majority of philosophers and scientists are not as rational or “dispassionate” as they should be. Consequently, they refuse to seriously analyze the real history of Western science.
However, this conservative strategy of the rational human being who does not allow himself to be convinced by pure reasoning, has some rational justification. We have said that facts and argumentation usually tolerate a broad range of interpretations. Because in every theory or world-view there is always something which does not square, all rational effort will aim to put things right, by means of logical maneuvers, or else by digging up ad hoc explanations for recalcitrant facts. As Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend have demonstrated, defending with “rational” tooth and nail one’s own theory or world-view is part of the trials or ordeals through which each research program must necessarily undergo in order to mature.
Certainly, human ideas are not unshakable; Kant did a complete turnabout around the age of fifty, although not immediately after having read Hume. The new philosophy of science’s relativist approach signifies that even in rational conversations it is necessary to let matters take their course. Given time, a new concept can conquer even old recalcitrants. In cases of scientific and philosophical controversy as well, a diachronic holism prevails. The ancient philosophers discussed extensively the fact that a thousand grains of corn thrown onto the earth one by one make no noise, while all of them thrown together produce a considerable thud. How can the sum of many zeros produce anything positive? The fact that this “non-logical” thing occurs at all signifies that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy”. Analogously, rational conviction is formed through sedimentation over time and not conclusive, individual reasoning. The increase of knowledge therefore resembles more an educational Bildung, and does not proceed according to the medieval scholastic ideal of disputes.
It is against this background that the contribution of Feyerabend on the incommensurability of theories should be situated.
The application of the concept of incommensurability to scientific paradigms is said to have occurred in the late 1950s, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, during the course of animated conversations between Feyerabend and Kuhn.
The idea of incommensurability is attacked with the usual refrain: accused of making every culture a closed universe incapable of communication with other cultures, of considering any translation from one culture to another impossible, and so on. This is however a misunderstanding.
The concept of incommensurability is a mathematical metaphor - metaphor because philosophy usually does not deal with measurable quantities, and, like any metaphor, reveals its meaning while at the same time concealing it. The Greeks realized with astonishment, 2,500 years ago, that the measure of the side of a square and the measure of its diagonal are incommensurable. Now, this does not in any way imply that side and diagonal belong to two heterogeneous non communicating universes, which make war! It simply means that not even the most minute segment exists which is contained a whole number of times both in the diagonal and side of that square. And that is it.
And yet, even 2,500 years ago, the discovery of incommensurability caused a troublesome scandal. For Aristotle, philosophy springs from an astonishment “before the puppets (automata), the solstices and the incommensurability of the diagonal to the side”. Not surprisingly, the square root of 2 - the length of the diagonal of a square the side of which is 1 - was christened an irrational number, because it appeared to challenge mathematical Reason. Today, irrational numbers are considered a respectable class. And yet, the emotional reaction of rationalism is presently revived when in the social sciences and in philosophy one speaks of “incommensurability”. The cry is irrationalism, just as it was two and a half millennia ago.
But what is the significance of this concept when applied to qualitative events in society and in theory?
Saying that cultures are incommensurable is equivalent to saying that single concepts, institutions, habits, rules, etc., of two cultures are not completely translatable in a bi-univocal way. In other words, all cultural paradigms cannot be reduced to atomic propositions - like the “elementary propositions” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus - common to all paradigms; in fact, for empiricism paradigms can differ widely, but all are composed of the same “atoms” - absolute logical bricks. For the incommensurabilist, the atoms in which we might analyze a paradigm are not the same, they are a function of the paradigm itself. Against rationalist atomism, incommensurabilism embraces a holistic concept.
However, the impossibility of translation does not ensue from incommensurability: an untranslatable language cannot even be called a language (“the presumed notion of an untranslatable language is no less bizarre than that of an invisible color,” Rorty notes). The relativist says simply that every translation will always be incomplete (“traduttore traditore”, “translator-traitor”, as the Italian saying goes), that it is possible to make various translations from one language to another, or various representations of one culture in another, which are all valid, without, for this reason, being equivalent. The assumption of incommensurability implies that translation from one language (or culture) to another is asymptotically perfectible. Like the irrational number, which is “perfected” by every decimal cipher added to it without ever reaching the completeness of the rational number, translatability analogously is a virtually infinite prospect, because the true sense of a concept of a culture can be infinitely approximated by another culture. In general, cultures do not overlap completely because they would not manifest exclusively one nature. The incommensurabilist believes that a dialogue between individuals and cultures is possible, and desirable, precisely because cultures do not manifest a universal human nature; yet it is still possible to understand ever better another culture. The labor of understanding is virtually infinite. Universality in the end is at most an ideal, hopefully to be realized, rather than either a fact or a truth which - as Plato would put it - we have forgotten.
Therefore, the assumption of incommensurability in a strong sense presupposes a holistic - we could even say structural - concept of culture and language: if we compare two cultures as a whole, what emerges is a heterogeneity between “all” of one culture and “all” of the other. Two cultures relate to each other like two grids, of different densities and form, but with the same surface area: when one is superimposed over the other, the contours formed by the bars of the two grids do not match, and there will inevitably be excess or shortage of space in one or the other, however for the most part the empty spaces of both match (and thus translations are de facto feasible).
According to another version of incommensurabilism, every culture applies its own specific rules. Chess is incommensurable with checkers because the two systems of rules are different, although checker pieces and chess pieces are in fact moved in roughly the same way. But both “semantic” (every culture divides the world in its own peculiar way) and “syntactic” (every culture is characterized by its own system of rules) holism tell us that it is impossible to “jump” from one game to the other.
Feyerabend avenged his individualism, an ethical form of atomism, over holism - for example, he rejected Foucault’s holism. Is this then a question of incoherence?
Feyerabend was always fascinated by the revolution which in Greece marked the passage from the archaic to the classical age; he considered it exemplary of the passage between two incommensurable cultures. He attempted to demonstrate how “primitive” Greek painting, literature, religion, and the view of man and the world of that epoch manifested a form of life (to borrow a term from Wittgenstein) specific to that epoch, a structured way of relating to things found in all aspects of pre-5th century B.C. Greece.
In all that has come down to us from that epoch, Feyerabend notes the prevalence of a paratactic method: each element is added to another, yet without any hierarchy in which one trait, considered more “substantial”, would mold and dominate the others. For example, the archaic painter, representing a lion eating a goat, juxtaposes open jaws onto the conventional image of a lion, next to which he places the conventional image of a goat, which is represented as tranquil according to the paradigm of the painting in that period, and certainly not as an animal writhing in terror at what is about to happen. There is no flexion of the elements to accommodate context.
We find something analogous in the poems of Homer. “Nine-tenths of the Homeric epics consist of formulae”, writes Feyerabend - “(...) Using the formulae, the Homeric poet gives an account of typical scenes in which objects are occasionally described ‘by adding parts in a string of words in apposition’. Ideas we would today regard as being logically subordinate to others are stated in separate, grammatically coordinate propositions”. This paratactic structure explains why Aphrodite is called “sweetly laughing”, even when in fact she complains tearfully (Iliad, V, 375), or why Achilles is called “swift footed” when he is sitting talking to Priam (Iliad, XXIV, 559). “Just as in late geometric pottery (...) a dead body is a live body brought into the position of death (...), in the same way Aphrodite complaining is simply Aphrodite - and this is the laughing goddess - inserted into the situation of complaining in which she participates only externally, without changing her nature”.
All this is not because ceramists and poets were unable to express themselves in a more lively or realistic way - their art expressed adequately that civilization’s view of the world and man, a view which, like these arts, had paratactic characteristics. For example, time is considered as an aggregation of instants; the human body is not seen as a dynamic unit, but as “a puppet put together from more or less articulated parts. The puppet does not have a soul in our sense (...). The ‘soul’ is an aggregate of ‘mental’ events which are not necessarily private and which may belong to a different individual altogether”.
As you see, Feyerabend described archaic Greek culture as an olón, a whole, to affirm its incommensurability with later Greek culture. That entire form of life, and not just some of its artistic or literary expressions, would have paratactic characteristics. The culture of archaic Greece - like any culture - is a systematic interpretation of the world and man. Does not this type of “relativism” then admit that a culture can have, for example, a paratactic literature, hypotactic painting, and Kantian ethics? Relativism appears to take for granted a consistency within a historical culture, which presents endless difficulties.
Foucault attempted (in Les mots et les choses) to demonstrate the close consistency between certain aspects of a culture closer to us, that of 17th/18th-century Europe, by determining the specific paradigms of biology, linguistic research, and economic reflection of that epoch. But it is difficult to define a “project” common to the paradigms of these three forms of knowledge. Not even he succeeded in describing a single coherent structure manifest in all aspects of knowledge and life during that period. At most, what emerges - to put it with Wittgenstein - are “family resemblances” - however difficult to “communicate them” - present in all these forms of life. How is it possible to demonstrate a relationship between Baroque art on the one hand and Reformation and Counter-Reformation on the other? Or a relationship between the development of scientific rationalism in that epoch and the taste for corpulent women with shiny, pink complexions? What relationship is there between Elizabethan theatre, Gongorism, the music of Bach and the monism of Spinoza? And so on. Certainly, historians are forever ingeniously conjecturing on relationships between these cultural manifestations. However, a historical analysis would also suggest the pertinence of temporal gaps (which Ernst Bloch called Ungleichzeitigkeiten, “Nonsynchronism”): it is as though different histories, with different rhythms and times, had been pieced together in a certain period while nevertheless remaining for the most part independent of each other. In every society, the old and the very young, “progressives” and “archaics” cohabit: various “times”, various forms of life, intersect within the same social space. That which from a distance appears as olón, upon closer scrutiny turns out instead to be a patchwork of discourses and narrations. In the final analysis, there is the suspicion of an incommensurability also between forms from the same culture and epoch. However, wouldn’t extending incommensurability to what is inside a single culture not risk exploding the very concept of incommensurability?
Furthermore, the “relativist” view must deal with progressist evolutionism. To the relativist thesis that “in the archaic arts man expressed adequately what he saw”, the progressivist evolutionist counters “the archaic arts appear clumsy to us because people then did not possess the technique necessary to express what they saw”.
Even regarding what children produce, which is something very close to us, opinions provided up to the present are inconclusive. Clinical psychologists tend to see infantile drawings as often quite adequate expressions of the way children see and invest the world at least by their libido or emotions. Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, tend to see the same drawings as stages in the process of learning the verisimilar representation of adults. And the debate goes on.
Not by chance incommensurabilism flourished for the most part among anthropologists and linguists, those interested to a greater extent in the problems of translation. Dealing with cultures very different than their own, they were obviously more concerned than others about misunderstandings produced by a universalist and objectivist view.
The anthropologist normally seeks to translate distant populations’ ways of thinking into the language of his compatriots. "In the course of the comparison [between their way of thinking and his own] - P. Feyerabend writes - the anthropologist may rephrase certain native ideas in English. This does not mean that English as spoken independently of the comparison [Feyerabend's italics] already contains native ideas [previous version: "is commensurable with the native language"]. It means that languages can be bent [Feyerabend's italics] in many directions and that understanding does not depend on any particular set of rules."
Linguists and anthropologists believed for example that there are twenty Inuit words referring to various kinds of snow, but no word equivalent to the English word snow (this belief is wrong, but let's imagine that it was true). The “relative relativist” limits himself to saying that an Inuit would be guilty of dreary ethnocentrism if he sought to translate the word snow using one of the terms of his language designating a specific state of the snow. However, if he were to pass a few winters in America, and learned to speak English, he would in the end understand what an Anglophone meant by “snow”. Then, once back in Alaska, he could coin a new Inuit word, modeled after the English snow, explaining it to his fellow Inuits who had never left their igloos, thus enriching his culture with a new concept. That does not contradict incommensurability, but presupposes it.
These are problems familiar to any translator. Take the expression: “A whore may be naked, but a mistress is nude.” The translation of this in Italian, for example, is very difficult (because there is only one Italian word for nude and naked, and that is nuda), but not impossible, because a paraphrase can always be found in Italian - albeit lengthy - to express an English connotation.
Just as a square’s side length can be compared with its diagonal length, any text can be translated - but there will always be a remainder. The hypothesis of incommensurability implies that there is no bi-univocal relationship between the concepts in one language or culture and those in another.
The linguist Roman Jakobson wrote that if an isolated phrase were translated from English into Russian, and then from Russian back into English, and then once again back into Russian, and so on, we would very soon find ourselves with a phrase which expressed something completely different than the original one, or without any sense whatsoever (similar to a repeated series of money exchanges at an unfavorable exchange rate; the sum would tend to be reduced asymptotically to zero). “Something” is always lost in translation, and when that something is accumulated, it ends up changing the entire sense.
We have noted that the strong meaning of incommensurability starts from the assumption that a language or culture is a consistent system, similar to a mathematical system, the single parts of which are strictly correlated. But in another sense, can we call signs and behavior incommensurable even when they are not interpreted as traits or parts relative to an overall pattern? According to this weak sense of incommensurability, translation from one language or culture into another is always approximate, simply because the experience and forms of life of those participating in the two different cultures or languages do not coincide. But here, the concept of incommensurability fades into a much more obvious and general one of partial incommunicability, not only between cultures, but also between two human beings.
For example, it is legitimate to translate breakfast as prima colazione, only in that both are the first meal of the day. However, when one speaks of colazione in Italy, what comes to mind is cappuccino, butter, honey and marmalade, while the English word breakfast conjures up visions of a meal which includes tea, eggs, bacon, sausage, apple dumplings and muffins. In this “weak” sense, however, the suspicion of “incommensurability” can be extended also to include communication between subjects sharing the same language and culture.
For example, Vienna for me is the Vienna of Wittgenstein and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, while for my interlocutor Vienna can have none of these associations, and it is perhaps the city of the Amusement Park at the Prater and where his Aunt Charlotte lives. Our denotations of the sign Vienna do not coincide (but can we say - metaphorically - that they are incommensurable?) in the sense that our ways of referring to the world are different.
Obviously, if I made an appointment with my interlocutor for the following week at the Hauptbanhof in Vienna, he would most probably keep that appointment, despite the difference in intensional meanings of Vienna. All considered then, what leads us to believe that we share a common language is the fact that, after we have made an appointment, we very often find the person right where he should be. Despite the differences in our lines of meaning, they do intersect at some points, permitting a minimum reciprocal traceableness in space and time. But there is often a vast difference among many of us in our ways of inhabiting a world and a language that we find convenient to consider common. Anti-relativist universalism smuggles as ontological truth what is the fruit of its practical decision: attributing importance only to that on which human beings find common ground.
But does this more radical, individualistic and non-holistic, relativism still have something to do with the thesis of incommensurability?
“Holism” considers every form of historical life a system. But what leads us to conclude that something is a system? A certain resistance to change. Just imagine that - with the aid of Wells’s time machine - Marcel Proust were catapulted into that archaic Greece dear to Feyerabend. We could say that, insofar as his writing style would be rejected outright by the Ancients as abstruse, incomprehensible, boring, immoral, and so on, that Greek culture constitutes a system. System implies stability, ensuring a cyclical repetition. For example, the solar system is called a system because for millions of years the orbits of the planets have remained more or less unchanged. These stable units can be recognized as systems when external agents fail in their attempt to modify their repetitive cycle. So, into the concept of “system”, a historical presupposition is introduced, a teleology more than a causality: every system is such to the extent to which it resists that which threatens to modify it, aiming as it does to preserve its own homeostasis. However, if each anthropological system resembles more a biological organism than it does a mathematical system, then the mathematical metaphor of incommensurability becomes misleading: and in this case, we would rather have to speak of the impermeability of a system. Of an organism we could say, without risking being ridiculous, that it has a télos: it struggles to guarantee its own survival, its own inertia; for example, by means of the system of immunity the organism defends itself against external agents. In this context, would every form of life be incommensurable with others simply because it implements strategies of impermeability against external influences?
A cosmopolitan form of Western culture - above all American - prevails today throughout the world. However, local forms of culture have usually survived, above all in the private sphere. Modern man would appear to be increasingly torn between various “incommensurable” forms of life, without necessarily being submitted to unbearable laceration. Arab engineers study advanced Western electronics, then go to the mosque to pray just as Arabs have done for centuries.
This co-existence of different cultural elements in the life of the same person supports the thesis of the “relative relativist”. I can “skip” from one form of life to another precisely because these forms of life would be relatively incommensurable (impermeable?), just as I can “skip” from canasta to bridge, without confusing them, in that the two games are incommensurable.
Feyerabend is “individualist” - notwithstanding the holism of the concept of incommensurability - because he tends to consider as incommensurable not only entire cultures, but the discourses of single individuals, a combination which gives the impression of an organic Culture. The most typical relativism is sociologically holistic: only two systems, that is two “wholes”, can be incommensurable. Up to the present, one has insisted on the incommensurability which exists between languages and cultures, in the wake of cultural-anthropological thought. It might be well here to point out the incommensurability existing within a language and a culture, or better yet, affirm the irreducible plurality of the forms of life within a single culture, even within a single person. At that point, it is pertinent to employ the notion of incommensurability against the claim of inserting these different forms of life into a single hierarchy. Incommensurability would then be the defensive strategy by means of which every form of life defends its own irreducible character.
In order to understand this shift in the notion of incommensurability, it is necessary to refer back to the life of Feyerabend, who had every reason to consider himself an underdog. He was a soldier in World War II for the German Reich, which lost the war and its honor. He was wounded and remained permanently disabled. In addition to the war and his health, he lost his country and his language; he lived for the most part outside Austria and always wrote in English. He was not able to become the opera singer he dreamed to be. Who more than he could have identified with the ugly duckling? I am bringing all this up not so much to detract from the merits of his thought as to recall the form of life it expressed. Consequently, it was important to him to rehabilitate the “losers” in science as in history, showing how they could become “winners”. Through the holistic concept of incommensurability, he attempted to remind us that the game for individuals is never over: that defeated interpretations can come back into the limelight, and reconquer the world. “Incommensurability” for Feyerabend meant above all “inassimilability”. Theories and forms of life must survive as distinct, in order to pass from the regime of the monopoly of rationalism to the regime of coexistence and competition between theories and forms of life. What I call “relative relativism” is not truly concerned, as traditional philosophers understand it, with affirming the subjectivity of any image of the world against an objective point of view, but rather - as Feyerabend later clearly stated - with affirming the historical and virtual plurality of our images of the world. “Subjectivism” here is only an unnecessary consequence of the claim for pluralism.
Hilary Putnam, distancing himself from what he calls ahistorical rationalism and cultural relativism, wrote: “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world.” A nice formula, which I might amend to “the minds and the worlds jointly make up the minds and the worlds”, because the important stress is on pluralism rather than on subjectivism. So, Feyerabend used the holistic idea of incommensurability to affirm the coexistence of many theories, cultures and customs, through the acceptance of the dignity of theories, cultures and ethoses other than one’s own. The classical analytic philosopher is horrified by what he perceives as the historical subjectivism of Foucault, Kuhn or Feyerabend, however the latters’ insistence on different interpretations, paradigms, or systems of power-knowledge is nevertheless not at the service of a subjectivist Berkeleyan philosophy such as “only the mind exists, things are illusions”. For example, Foucault, in studying the origin of psychiatric asylums or prisons, does not argue that “madness does not exist, it is not an organic disease” nor that “crime is a matter of interpretation, even when one kills one’s own father”, but rather that asylums and prisons are not the only means to deal with mad people and unacceptable behavior. Kuhn says that an oscillating chandelier is a certain object (a falling solid) according to the Aristotelian system, and another object (a pendulum) according to the Galilean system, but without denying a something, an event, an oscillating thing, a horizon common to both. But Kuhn also says that, between the lines, the thing “oscillating chandelier” must be considered a sort of Kantian thing-in-itself, that physics and human discourses are interpretations of these things-in-themselves, and that we should not confuse “objects” with things-in-themselves. In this sense, the “relative relativism” of Kuhn, Foucault or Feyerabend, like Putnam’s approach, runs on a very Kantian track: we should not be so ethnocentric to take the objects of our discourses as the things-in-themselves, that is, we have to give up the Cartesian pretension of certainty, and to suppose that “the thing” remains beyond our theories and discourses. But at the same time, the “relative relativists” are rather Hegelian, and not Kantian, when they say that this unavoidable shaping of the world is not a deed of the universal mind of human Reason, but of historical “minds”, of specific cultures with their own strategies of truth - which is why the classic word “mind”, implying a classical opposition to the world, should be replaced by words such as “interpretations”, “grammars”, “subjectivities”, etc.
The question of ethnocentrism is closely connected to the question of relativism. The hermeneutic approach rejected the possibility of unprejudiced objective historiographical or sociological comprehensions and/or explanations; it was necessary to eliminate the prejudice that all prejudice had to be eliminated. “Other” texts are comprehended only within the context of the inclinations, paradigms and systems of questions and expectations of the reader. The pretense of being freed of ethnocentrism would thus be vain. But Feyerabend was hostile to ethnocentrism; we might ask ourselves why.
What happens when one attempts to understand exotic forms of cultures in their specificity? For a Hegelian ethnocentrist like Rorty the masks of the Dogon of Mali, for example, are of interest simply in order to appropriate them as a Westerner, pragmatist and liberal. In fact the masks of the Dogon have influenced such eminently European artists as Picasso and Braque, who did with Dogon art what an Inuit would have done by introducing the concept of “snow” to his tribe. But the ethnocentrist states that our interest in those masks is our very own, and very different from that of the Dogons. The Other is inevitably received, as an other-than-me, within my own circle.
Another type of “relativist” might instead say that the Dogon masks fascinate us Westerners because they give us a glimpse of a form of life which is not our own, but which might have been. Every culture different from our own, “actualizes” - to use an Aristotelian concept - a human possibility: the very existence of a cultural form means that it was “in potentiality” - anyone could have been a Dogon. The African mask fascinates because it reveals something of me: not what I am in my human universality, but what I could have been or could be in particular.
In Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Ulrich’s fascination with “Moosbrugger the monster” does not signify his desires to massacre women the way Moosbrugger did: he is simply fascinated by one human possibility “at the limit”. We are interested in the monster not because it might contribute to the edification of liberal democracy and Western values, but precisely because it is so far from - and yet possible for - us. I am interested in the other not because he is fundamentally like me, but because through him I live virtually other lives and other worlds.
Relativism does not therefore necessarily exclude a transcendent vocation in man, his openness as regards the Other, his ethnofugal being. Some men and women (not all), unhappy with their own ethnos, dream of being other than what they are, and attempt to “transcend themselves”.
But does this ethnofugal passion for other possible lives not have in its turn an ethnopetal aspect? In fact, our culture places enormous value on possibility and potentiality, to the detriment of any identity or actuality. Today, more than ever, there is admiration for versatility in changing identity and being always open to the new, and contempt for a rigid identification of a subject with her own social mask. And here lies the paradox: a specific trait of our ethnos is its inciting us to be dissatisfied with our ethnos, our desire to be other than what we are. Those who champion the abnormal consequently get two birds with one stone: that is, by affirming their autonomy from their ethnos they become admirable champions of their own ethnos. This is the “double bind” of ethnocentrism.
But the renunciation by Feyerabend of the rational and universal foundation of ethic, aesthetic and scientific convictions should not be interpreted in the sense of the ethnocentrist argument of hermeneutics - for the very reason that Feyerabend remains an individualist.
Hermeneutic ethnocentrism can in fact lead to a conservative relativism: the Inuit must never leave his igloo. Today American Communitarians, or the French nouvelle droite, affirm that the foundation of action is the community (ethnos) itself. In these concepts all virtue is in the local communities, in traditions which give meaning to life, in the social olon which provides the foundation for theory and ethics; all evil lies in individualistic cosmopolitanism, in universalist objectivism of Reason which places itself above and beyond the historical community. Relativist holism becomes frozen: Truth, Beauty and Good lie in one’s community, outside of which there lies only senselessness and folly. In other words, what is revived here is a position which Hegel once described as “beautiful ethical substance”: every individual in harmony with his community as a whole. In similar communitarian approaches what is rejected - as illusory and/or wicked - is the yearning of certain individuals to detach themselves from group beliefs and traditions.
Instead, the individualist relativist Feyerabend does not “take literally” the primacy of Tradition over objectivity individually pursued: he comprehends what I would call individualist dissent. Relativism does not always lead - as its detractors are convinced - to ethnocentric cultural conformism. In its “weak” form, it leads to Foucault and Feyerabend, deep-down dissident spirits, who attributed great importance to the outsider, the eccentric, the “abnormal”. Precisely because the non-dogmatic relativist makes the most of historical experience, he knows that the ethnoí have been swept along in an inexorable process of change. The later Feyerabend insisted on this: cultures are not isolated. Relative relativism does not signal only the plurality of communities, but also their incessant modification, radicalizing the historicist trend in Western thought.
In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes to the Great Khan the many extraordinary cities he has seen. But - specifies Polo - of these cities what he observed was not what a Chinese might have, but only that in which they differed from Venice, his native city. And when the Great Khan described to Marco Polo a city identical to Venice, Polo failed to recognize it as such. Although what he saw in any city was what made it differ from Venice, the original model had been forgotten, lost. Unlike the ethnopetally-oriented, the relative relativist says that it is necessary to lose one’s own ethnos in order for it to guide us in the “other’s” world. But what is important is that the other is grasped as just that; other.
“Weak relativism” does not imply that we should return to our own community. Marco Polo’s view of the cities of the world will be increasingly “Venetian” the more he forgets Venice. The community can be lost, a heritage from an irretrievable infancy. Our ethnos provides us with categories with which to read the “other’s” world, but our “native village” vanishes into the historical mist, while our categories change as well. Our “beloved birthplace” cannot provide a solid foundation for our categories. Relative relativism implies that our ethnos is but a derisory foundation. Calling the foundation ethnic is an oblique way of saying that there is no foundation - Venice no longer exists.
Every ethnic community changes because it is a particular interpretation of the world and life and, like any interpretation, it sacrifices some dimension - potential - of life itself. Every interest in the exotic and the monstrous alleviates our anemia of the possible, which any belonging implies. A warrior society, for example, will eliminate certain aspects of feminine sweetness, cooperative charity, which will then be taken up by the eccentrics or reformers of that society. Feyerabend felt sympathetic towards dissent because it avenged forms of life which modern society - centered as it is on technological rationalization and mercantile competition - had rendered marginal: mystic quests, solidaristic spirituality, communion with nature, the taste for the ineffable, etc. But this dissident flood of sacrificed forms of life produces continuous instability, and consequently a mutation of every ethnos. The “conservative” currents (such as, to some extent, the “liberal imperialism” of Rorty) ignore that our ethnos is a “groundless ground”, a foundation permanently changing.
In fact, the relativist in the absolutist denounces an unwitting ethnocentrism. But the Western ethnos tends to become absolute, presenting itself as a universal paradigm. Relative relativism warns against claims to render our universalistic ethnos absolute: remember that many societies refer to themselves as Human Beings, True Men, the Good Ones, and so on, while the names indicating other tribes are various declinations of the concept of the barbarian. However, in this way the relativist places himself in a dissident position - at least potentially - as regards his own universalistic ethnical community.
Now, some see this critical aspect of relativism as one of its contradictions - a corollary of the great original contradiction of every relativism, Plato’s reproach to Protagoras. If the relativist says that all knowledge on human beings is structured within one’s specific ethnos, how then can he criticize this specific ethnos insofar as it considers itself the best or only valid one? Can he articulate this criticism only if he transmigrates ideally to the City of Reason where, from the highest tower (of historical-sociological objectivity), he can observe all the cities below and consider them partial variants? And, in this way, will the relativist not once more find an objective hierarchy of horizons, thus refuting himself?
It is true that relativists often criticize their own community, but this does not necessarily imply that criticism must descend from the heights of the City of Reason. Criticism can also evolve on a horizontal plane - for example, when I speak for exigencies and forms of life left out by the dominant or reigning ones.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher often described himself as an outsider, extraneous to his own Polis. The difference being that at that time that extraneousness was vertical: the philosopher was too far above the mass. Today the relativist describes this (relative) extraneousness in horizontal terms: he is going to build a community which is awry to his own ethnos. He criticizes his own community not because he feels superior to it, inhabitant of the City of Reason, but because he is part of the fringe sub-ethnos of relativist philosophers.
In fact, a relative relativist like Feyerabend is comparable neither to the Voltairian satirist of the Enlightenment deriding the prejudices of his fellow citizens nor the melancholic Romantic in quest of origins - but rather to the gypsy. A relativist is he who abandons Rome, with its claims to pax universalis, and becomes a Rom. Like the Rom, or gypsy, Feyerabend belongs to an ethnos, but one without a land or nation - and yet, Feyerabend did belong to the community of philosophers of science which, worldwide, communicates through books, journals and conferences. Feyerabend was taken seriously by his colleagues and consequently was an active member of a community which accepted certain rules. Now, the rules of philosophers consist in applying an absolutist language, more akin to a mathematical or religious language than to poetic, or imperative, descriptive, optative ones. Because Feyerabend used the absolutist language of the philosophical community to promote a historical and nihilistic point of view, he found himself in an oblique position in relation to his community. Thus the sulfurous odor around him.
Gypsies are part of our European society, yet they are also extraneous to it. Relativist and nihilist philosophers are also members of our community and at the same time extraneous to it. Decidedly, this would appear to be a logical contradiction. But no logical refutation will suffice to eliminate this dialectical reality: that an ethnos, even of scientists, is constituted also by that which is extraneous, or opposed, to itself.
Feyerabend led a vagabond life; what characterized his thought was not a corpus of beliefs, theories or principles of action, but a style of discourse and of life - a graceful flexibility. A modern Heraclitus, he cultivated an aesthetic of openness to what was new and different, and not a specific world-view. Feyerabend dreamed a city - the free society - in which to have a sense of well-being - even though, in his case, it was a city-paradox (but one can live decently even in a paradox): a city of nomads.
Feyerabend was a paradoxical Rom also because a war wound made moving about difficult for him. He was perpetually both within and without the austere club of the philosophy of science whose great protagonists - from Carnap to Tarski, Popper and Lakatos - were his friends. He nonetheless lived in keeping with the famous quip of Groucho Marx: “I’d never want to be a member of a (epistemological) club which accepted me as a member!”. And, everything considered, what is Against Method if not an act of joyous self-exclusion from the haughty epistemological club which had so willingly accepted him?
But Feyerabend was in agreement with Rousseau’s criticism of “the philosophy which does not travel”: he travelled. Not only geographically - living first in England, then in California, and finally in Switzerland, where he died - but also from one form of life to another: he was a philosopher, singer, expert in science and a man of the theatre. He attempted to put into effect that pluralism which one of his spiritual masters - the later Wittgenstein - had proposed as an antidote to that monist monologue of rationalism from which he also came. Classical Reason, in eliminating the empirical multiplicity of the world, sought a monolithic unity of Being or Method. Feyerabend wished the joy and sensual versatility of theatre and song to wend their way into the furthest corners of austere philosophy. Even his choice to live in the U.S. was consistent with his thought: what he liked about America was its rootlessness, its quality of an effervescent melting-pot of diverse races and cultures, its never being completely itself. California satisfied his philosophical taste for miscegenation; in short, for wealth. In the ancient battle between Identity and Diversity, he broke his lance, honed with intelligence and irony, in the defense of Diversity.
 Paper presented at the Conference “Memorial on Paul Feyerabend”, Boston University, November 1996.
For example, in P. Feyerabend, “Against Cultural Ineffability. Objectivism, Relativism and Other Chimeras”, Common Knowledge.
The epithet which the anthropologist Clifford Geertz attributes to himself: “Anti anti-relativism”, American Anthropologist, 86, 2 (June 1984), pp. 263-278.
Richard Rorty in “Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism”, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 166.
Op. cit., pp. 167.
This dramatic comparison between language and world applied to the formation of scientific knowledge the basic concept of truth which, according to Heidegger, philosophical metaphysics has always proclaimed: adaequatio rei et intellectus, correspondence (adequateness) of discourses to things. Although Feyerabend remained extraneous to the thought of Heidegger, there are affinities in the way both philosophers criticized rationalism.
See Willard V. O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 5. I developed this reconstruction of the ‘new philosophy of sciences’ in Sergio Benvenuto “Paul K. Feyerabend (1924-1994) - Search for Abundance”, Telos, 102, Winter 1995, pp. 107-114.
Richard Rorty, Philosophy as a Mirror of Nature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980).
Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (London: Routledge, 1967).
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); The Essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
See Pierre Duhem (1904-05), La théorie physique (Paris: Vrin, 1993); Willard V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 1961). See Sandra G. Harding, ed., Can theories be refuted? Essays on the Duhem-Quine thesis (Dordrecht, Boston: D. Reidel, 1976).
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Cfr. P. Feyerabend, “Two Models of Epistemic Change: Mill and Hegel”, part of Against Method, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 4, 1970, pp. 27ff; taken up again in Feyerabend, Problems of Empiricism, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 65-79.
Take for example the way in which Henri Poincaré considers the implications of the experiment of Michelson and Morley in La Valeur de la Science, published in 1904 (Paris: Flammarion)(see H. Poincaré, Oeuvres; [Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1916-1956]). Einstein’s theory of restricted relativity would be published only the following year, and yet Poincaré is perfectly aware of how this experiment challenged the principle of classical relativity. However, he maintained the hypothesis of the ether (while we, after Einstein, are convinced that the elimination of the hypothesis of ether was the direct result of the experiment of Michelson and Morley). Despite what Quine thought, after certain experimental results scientists are more disposed to abandon certain “central” logical or mathematical rules in the system of science than the specific theories of their fields.
For example, Stephen J. Gould - “How does a Panda fit?” in An Urchin in the Storm. Essays about Books and Ideas, (New York, London: W.W. Norton, 1987), pp. 19-26 - demonstrated how the panda survived despite its extremely unsatisfactory adaptation to the environment. “Evolutionary biology is the primary science of history; strict adaptationism (...) downgrades history to insignificance by viewing the organism’s relation to environment as an isolated problem of current optimality. How inappropriate to clamp this conceptual lock upon the panda - a demonstration, if ever one existed, that past histories exert a quirky hold (through inefficiencies imposed by heritage) upon an imperfect present” (op. cit., p. 24). Pandas, like other species, are certainly “adapted” in a weak, down-to-earth sense: they survive. But their passage from a carnivorous to a herbivorous diet has no adaptive value whatsoever: it is a purely historical event, lacking any useful function. Recent developments in evolutionary sciences, in fact, confute the functionalist dogma: that each biological system can be perfectly described through its functions of survival, utility, etc. We see now that relativism is incompatible with functionalist concepts: resisting the establishment of a hierarchy of systems, it therefore also rejects a hierarchy based on function (according to which the higher systems would be those which adapt best). Relativist pluralism is conceivable only if we do not reduce the plurality of systems to functional stages: each system (biological, cultural, epistemological) is the fruit of pure emergences, of purely contingent factors which in their turn cannot be referred back to a single, dominating logic. Remember that Gould confided to Feyerabend that Against Method had inspired his formulation of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.
François Jacob, “Evolution and Tinkering”, Science, 196 (1977): pp. 1161–1166.
For example, R. Rorty, “Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth -Century Textualism”, in Consequences of Pragmatism, cit., pp. 139-159.
P. Feyerabend, Dialoghi sulla Conoscenza (Roma: Laterza, 1991), p. 75.
Hamlet, Act I, 5.
Consequences of Pragmatism, cit., p. 42.
The negation of a perfect translation dates back to Bronislaw Malinowski, and would be taken up again by anthropologists, in particular by Barry Barnes and David Bloor: the translations which we are able to do are interpretations done for pragmatic purposes (see Martin Hololis and Steven Lukes, eds., Rationality and Relativism [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985]). Willard Van Orman Quine (World and Object [New York: Wiley, 1960]) had shown that two translations from the same original language can result incompatible in the language into which they are translated.
For example, see his letter to Lakatos in Matteo Motterlini, ed., Sull’orlo della scienza (Milan: Raffaello Cortina, 1995).
Ibid., p. 179.
Ibid., p. 180.
Ibid., p. 181.
“Between the lines,” Feyerabend prefers the archaic form of life to the classical one. This will be clearer in later writings (for example in “Miseria dell’epistemologia”, Lettera Internazionale, 30, October-December 1991, pp. 55-59), in which the ascent of Greek rationalism is interpreted as an impoverishment in relation to the preceding form of life. Feyerabend tends to overturn the hierarchy of evolutionist historicism: the paratactical method better expresses the richness and multiplicity of the real, and above all eliminates the substance/accident hierarchy, which is at the basis of any rationalism. By means of logical argumentation, Feyerabend expresses an ethical-aesthetic claim: the recovery of a less rationalist and more concrete, less hierarchical and more horizontal form of life. In this Feyerabend belongs to the tradition of Romantic protest against rationalism, which is centered around the myth of a nóstos, a regressive return to the more ancient, considered truer, more authentic, happier.
Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).
Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit, in Gesamtausgabe, Bd. 4 (Frankfurt a.M.: 1962-1977). We adopt the translation nonsynchronism from Rabinbach; “Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of our Times and the Theory of Fascism” in New German Critique, 11, 1977.
Twentieth-century anthropology has been for the most part dominated by the hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf; see B. Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality (New York, London: J. Wiley, 1956).
Against Method, cit., p. 188-9. The differences between the first edition (1975) and this 1993 edition are slight but very significant -- for example, Feyerabend abandoned the concept of "incommensurability”.
Modern systemic thought defines as system any entity constituted by many inter-correlated elements, defined by certain confines and in interaction with an external environment. Cfr. L. von Bertalanffy, “An Outline of General System Theory”, British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, 1950, 1, pp. 134-65; “General System Theory”, General Systems Yearbook, 1956, 1, pp. 1-10.
Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), p. XI.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1974.)