Obituary: Professor Paul Feyerabend
Friday 04 March 1994
PAUL FEYERABEND was one of the most gifted, colourful, original, and eccentric figures in post-war academic philosophy.
Always a voracious reader, Feyerabend was reading the works of philosopher scientists such as Ernst Mach, Pierre Maurice Duhem, Jules Henri Poincare and Hugo Dingler while still attending high school in Vienna. He served in the German army from 1942 and became a lieutenant in the Pioneer Corps. During the retreat from the Russian army his unit had to stay behind to blow up bridges and he got badly shot up in 1945. He emerged from the Second World War in a wheelchair. Afterwards he walked again, but always with the aid of a crutch, and was often in considerable pain, though he never complained.
After the Second World War he studied singing and stage management at a Musikhochschule in Weimar. In 1946 he returned to Vienna to study theoretical physics, history and philosophy at the university. He was an early attender at the international summer seminar at Alpbach, of which he became scientific secretary. There he met the philosophers Karl Popper and Elizabeth Anscombe. He helped his teacher Victor Kraft, a lone survivor in Vienna of the celebrated Vienna Circle, in running a 'circle'. In 1950 Anscombe spent some months in Vienna, and persuaded Wittgenstein (who had cancer and had come back to stay with his family) to talk to Kraft's circle. Under her influence Feyerabend wrote a long review in German of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which she translated into English. Other visitors included Georg Henrik von Wright the young American philosopher Arthur Pap, who took on Feyerabend as his
In 1951 Feyerabend obtained his PhD from the University of Vienna for a thesis on theories of basic statements. Strongly recommended by Kraft, he visited the LSE as a British Council scholar in 1952-53 to study the philosophy of quantum mechanics under Karl Popper. He later translated Popper's The Open Society (1945) into German. He came to speak and write English in a fluent, racy way.
In 1954 Feyerabend was back with Kraft and Pap in Vienna, where Herbert Feigl was a visitor. In 1955 he took up a lectureship at Bristol University, under Stephan Korner who, in 1957 organised a famous symposium on philosophy and physics with David Bohm, JP Vigier and others. Feyerabend gave a paper there. Like many of his early papers, this was on problems arising from quantum mechanics. In September 1958 he moved to Berkeley.
He became a regular visitor to the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, run by Feigl and Grover Maxwell. In this period he published some impressive and much-discussed papers - most notably 'Problems of Empiricism' (1965) - which were critical of empiricist philosophy of science; incommensurability and proliferation now appeared as major themes in Feyerabend's work. He also defended a materialist view of mind. He contributed delightful entries on the physicists Ludwig Boltzmann, Werner Karl Heisenberg, Max Planck, and Erwin Schrodinger to Paul Edwards's The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1966), and in 1968-69 he made a long, scholarly defence of the physicist Niels Bohr against Popper's criticisms of the Copenhagen Interpretation (of the quantum theory).
At Berkeley Feyerabend was something of a loner. He eschewed all non-contractual departmental functions and declined to supervise postgraduates, preferring to 'ham it up' before large undergraduate audiences - at which he was highly successful. As a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin during the student revolt, he continued with his lectures, and the students continued to attend. He often talked of leaving Berkeley, but invariably concluded that he could not because of his singing teacher in San Francisco. In 1977 he began dividing his year between Berkeley and the ETH (Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule), in Zurich, and held professorships at both until 1990.
In the early 1970s he became ever more intellectually involved with Imre Lakatos at LSE, whose Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes Feyerabend praised as a liberalisation - which, however, he felt did not go far enough - of Popper's falsificationist methodology. They met often and kept up an unflagging correspondence in between (both men were marvellous letter- writers). Feyerabend was now working on a book which was supposed to include a reply by Lakatos - but Lakatos died suddenly, aged 52, in 1974. The book, Against Method, came out in 1975, and became a best-seller, a German translation doing particularly well. It propounded an epistemological Anarchism or Dadaism. Feyerabend's popularity waxed among young leftists and waned among academic philosophers, who generally read with dismay a book which, under the banner 'Anything goes', commends Voodoo and other such contrary-to-science endeavours. The dustjacket carried a photograph representing Feyerabend as a middle-aged enfant terrible. When the book came in for the sort of treatment it meted out to others, he protested vociferously. As well as two volumes of collected papers, he published four more books and had completed an autobiography before he died.
Paul Feyerabend was a free spirit - irreverent, brilliant, outrageous, life-enhancing, unreliable and, for most who knew him, a lovable
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