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Paul Feyerabend, 1924-1994

Paul Feyerabend, 1924-1994
A Personal Memoir
Paul Feyerabend died on February 11, a month after his
seventieth birthday. He wrote the last of his many letters to
me in October 1993, and on the outside of the envelope, in
typically casual fashion, he scribbled a message saying that
he might soon be coming to Brighton, because his wife was
helping to organise a conference there on conservation.

That would have been his first visit to England for twenty
years; the first since he taught at the Uni versity of Sussex for
two terms when he was considering, and being considered
for, the second chair of philosophy there.

I first met Paul in the mid 1950s when he joined the
Philosophy Department at Bristol University. We shared a
room in the university tower and became close friends.

When he married his second wife, one of our students, I was
his best man. He took the opportunity to scawl on an offprint of one of his early papers: ‘To the best man, from the
best philosopher’ . It was in those days that he developed the
endearing habit of walking with his hand on my leaning
shoulder, a gesture both affectionate and useful. He was a
cripple. He walked with a crutch, the legacy of a bullet in the
spine during the retreat from the Russian front in 1945. I
gather that his war service earned him the Iron Cross, but I
never heard Paul himself refer to the subject.

He was Viennese. Brought up a Roman Catholic, he
received some early training in acting and singing (he had
a good tenor voice), and music and the theatre became lifelong enthusiasms. I remember his delight at finding in a
Bristol shop a complete set of records (78s) of Mozart ‘s Don
Giovanni: in the cast was Ina Souez, who later became
Paul’s singing teacher, in California.

At the University of Vienna he studied physics, history,
and philosophy, and jointly with Victor Kraft founded the
Kraft Circle as a continuation of the Vienna Circle. ‘ … when
I got my British Council scholarship back in 1951’, Paul
wrote in a recent letter, ‘Wittgenstein was supposed to be
my supervisor. I had met him in Vienna and he had agreed.

But W died and I got P [Popper] instead.’

Paul had read the Philosophical Investigations in
manuscript and ‘the attitude expressed in it somehow became
a part of me. What attutude? Anti-theoretcial. Anti-largecomprehensive-concepts … ‘. But on the whole, with a few
exceptions such as Anscombe and even, for a time, Austin,
he was hostile to Wittgenstein and his influence. He regarded
his own key ideas as deriving from the Vienna Circle’s
discussion of protocol statements.

It was Paul’s work in the philosophy of science and his
relation to Popper that began to dominate attention in the
sixties. He had the advantage of knowing more physics than
most in the field. In the late 1950s he left Bristol for a chair
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

at Berkeley, and his criticisms of Popper’s falsificationism
and more generally of empiricism came to be associated
with the argument of Kuhn’ s Structure of Scientific
Revolutions (1962). But his key ideas – concerning the
theoretical nature of observation statements, the
incommensurability of theories, and the technique of
‘blowing up’ philosophical doctrines by confronting them
with the actual historical practice of scientists such as
Galileo – had already begun to develop in the 1950s,
independently of Kuhn.

In any case, he soon began to push them beyond this
stage, to the edge of paradox, or futher, attacking reason in
general. In April 1969 he wrote to me: ‘I am glad to tell you
that I have just finished my very last paper (called ‘Against
Method’) and that I may retire altogether in about five
years.’ It was this paper that grew into his first and best-:known book, published in 1975, sub-titled Outline of an
Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Among other riches it
contained that magnificent argument about Galileo and the
Copernican revolution, a masterpiece at once original,
scholarly and passionate.

Paul articulated and charismatically argued for some of
the characteristic ideas of the sixties’ movement, and in the
process blew the minds of a generation. (See for example,
John Krige, Science, Revolution and Discontinuity, Harvester
Press, 1980 and Nicki J akowska, ‘Seeds of Freedom:

Feyerabend’s Fairy Tales’ in Radical Philosophy 12.) On

the Left he was embraced, but warily. We were grateful for
his critique of Popper. Against Method was published by
New Left Books, and his article’ Against Science’ appeared
in Radical Philosophy 11. Buthis epistemoloigcial anarchism
and his disrespect for science seemed clearly and
comprehensively incompatible with Marx.

Besides, one of his most distinctive features was his
persistent refusal, or inability, to take things seriously, or at
any rate with their usual solemnity. He was the philosophical
joker of our age, and perhaps of any other. But his humour
was fully consistent with his philosophy, and had a serious
point. In 1970 he wrote saying that he wanted to return to
Europe: ‘ … keep me informed as soon as anything becomes
available in Brighton, it would be nice if we could open a
leftist colony there where the students run the courses and
we do nothing except get our salaries. ‘

The mockery was also self-mockery: ‘I am getting
famous. The Big Fakes of the World recognise me as one of
their own’ (from 1975). Gilbert Ry le once described Paul to
me as ‘clever as a box of monkeys’ – the implication being
‘and just as mischievous’ . In a later letter he wrote: ‘ … they
boo me here in Kassel … they find my frivolity very
distasteful. “Nietzsche suffered for knowledge” they say.

“Well, go ahead, suffer”, I say, “I prefer to lead ajolly life”.’

Did he achieve ‘a jolly life’? He suffered persistent illhealth, including depression. But I never heard him complain,
and he frequently joked about his problems. In June 1993 he
wrote: ‘Right now my only troubles are the pains I have
been having since I got shot in 1945 (year after next I
celebrate my fiftieth anniversary as a cripple)’ . He never felt
any anguish about being a cripple. The only thing that
bothered him was the pain: ‘I find the normal people rather
weird: how do they do it? Standing up without support,
walking on two legs only – surely they have some equipment

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to help them, but they have succeeded in hiding it … ‘ (his last
letter to me).

What’s more, he used his indifferent health to
philosophical advantage. He suffered bouts of illness that
mystified orthodox doctors, but for which alternative
medicine offered help. In April 1975, on notepaper headed
‘The Electric Symphony Orchestra Company’, he wrote:

, … quite by accident I was reading about the change of skin
resistance along acupuncture meridians and there came to a
description of certain functional ailments which leave no
organical sign but which are very debilitating … all the
symptoms fitted my case … the condition, so the authorities
say, is reversible … by correct acupuncture … but it can
neither be located nor improved by scientific means. What
irony that the author of Against Method should himself
becqme an argument against science.’

Certainly his fourth and final marriage, to the Italian
physicist Grazia Borrini, whom he met eleven years ago and
married in 1989, was the most successful of his partnerships.

It made his last few years more of a ‘jolly life’ than had his
earlier relationships. Among other things, Grazia’ s work in
public health and development in Third World countries
gave her experience of the concrete meaning of some of
Paul’s ideas. With Grazia, he became in later life a keen
admirer ofE.P.Thompson, sharing with him a suspicion of
grand theory and a principled preference for concrete
historical understanding from the inside.

In his last letters he referred to two more books he was
near to finishing – The Conquest of Abundance and his
autobiography, Killing Time. The last chapter of the
autobiography (‘still … to be written’) is called ‘Fading
Away’ . It’s a great grief that Paul has now faded away. But
we can still celebrate the brilliant, adventurous, cheerfully
mischievous spirit that lives on in his work.

Roy EdgJey

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Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

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