Against Method: Why Feyerabend insists that we read Carlyle, with asides on the US Election and the Current Politico-Ideological Climate

by Mark Wallace

Perhaps my favourite book of all those I have read throughout my academic life so far is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (first published 1975; I will refer to the Verso 2010 publication edited with an introduction by Ian Hacking and based on Feyerabend’s final edition of 1993 [he died in 1994]). Its influence on me has so far not been very advantageous in career terms: a criticism I have come up against several times is that my methodologies do not tend to be very sophisticated by academic standards. It is by invoking Feyerabend, among other things, that I try to defend this: I’m not looking for theoretical sophistication; I don’t accept that thought in the humanities is well served by an insistence on theoretical sophistication. Rather than directly defend this position at this point, I will recap a few key arguments from Feyerabend’s book, which will give some indication of the arguments I try to use on this point.

Feyerabend came from a scientific background, and he was interested in progress in science. His central contention was that this progress came about not through following tightly structured research according to well-developed methodologies, but through retaining an openness to experimentation and a general looseness of approach. Feyerabend was very historicist about this point: he less wanted to prove theoretically that it was so than to show that this was how scientists from Einstein to Galileo worked. Thus, he quotes Einstein in the opening pages, on the idea that the scientist should appear as a kind of “ruthless opportunist” (2), when it comes to epistemological method, picking up data and ideas wherever he can find them, rather than confining himself to what such data/ideas as were considered scientifically proven according to the dominant paradigm.

Feyerabend describes his epistemology in the opening lines as “anarchism”, being careful also to differentiate his position from political anarchism. Nevertheless, this designation and that implied by the famous “anything goes” statement on page 12 has led to Feyerabend being rather misunderstood. One might well think he disavows all standards of truth, and is a pure postmodernist-relativist. However, Feyerabend should be absolutely distinguished from relativism. He does not think all methods are, in the final analysis, of equal validity, but he does think the final analysis never comes. The point for Feyerabend, rather, is not to prejudge. We cannot take account of all the evidence if we stick to a single methodology, so we have to keep open at all times to other approaches, even ones that have been dismissed by authorities. Handily, the edition I consult has a “Postcript on Relativism” from Feyerabend that tackles this misconception about him. Here he clarifies that he allows for rival methodologies because “there cannot be any theory of knowledge (except as part of a special and fairly stable tradition); there can be at a most a (rather incomplete) history of the ways in which knowledge has changed in the past” (284; Feyerabend’s italics). If we can never have a full theory of knowledge – at least not until the post-apocalyptic final analysis – then we have to try and stay as open to epistemological pluralism as we can.

So what are the consequences for a researcher in the humanities of a Feyerabendian epistemology? One, I suggest, is that we become very much aware of the provisionality and historicity of our own ideologies and metanarratives. This sounds rather postmodern. In theory, perhaps it is, but in practice, it is not. Because postmodernism, though allegedly it rouses us from our certainties, in practice has given rise to a young intelligentsia who are as complacent about their own positions as any group can be.  The political consequences of having an academic/press/internet intelligentsia who manage absolutely no sympathetic engagement with opposing positions has recently manifested in England in the Shy Tory phenomenon, wherein everybody in media and most people in media-run polls express a preference for liberal politics, but then vote Conservative on the day. By denying a platform to speak for persons of a right-wing persuasion, we don’t abolish the sentiment associated with such a persuasion – rather we strengthen it by melding it with a strong sense of disgruntlement among right-wingers, who begin to conceive of themselves as a silent majority, being essentially kept down by the media and the intelligentsia. This may be about to become a whole lot more live as an issue, if the Trump campaign in the US elections does perform better than expected on polling day. Then, finally, we might start seeing some meaningful movement from academics about speaking to those who are outside the loop.

So, I’m not talking about science here – and neither was Feyerabend, a committed humanist whose favorite point of reference in Against Method was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I’m talking about how we make sense of our own and each other’s lives. We shouldn’t do that by developing our own theory at the expense of all others, but by practicing standing outside that theory and applying an external standard of judgement. We need to engage with the Other. And here my contention is that we need – to truly step outside contemporary academic ideology – not to engage with and identify with any group we consider victimized. This would be in itself the ideological move par excellence. Let us recall Žižek here:

[T]he key feature of the ideological constellation that characterizes our epoch of the owrldwide triumph of liberal democracy: the universalization of the notion of victim. The ultimate proof that we are dealing here with ideology at its purest is provided by the fact that this notion of victim is experienced as extra-ideological par excellence: the customary image of the victim is that of an innocent-ignorant child or woman paying the price for politico-ideological power struggles. (Metastases of Enjoyment, 213)

To truly step outside contemporary ideology we must identify with our true Other: the exploiter, the non-victim, the self-perceived alpha male, the colonizer, the racist. We must seek to identify the grain of validity and empirical truth that must lie within any such position, even if we we are accustomed to demonize it. And we must use our knowledge of this position against ourselves, against our own smug certainties. It will not be a comfortable ride.

Here is where Carlyle comes in. He identifies with the racist and the colonizer, and he lauds the alpha male. He hates victims and the weak. He espouses all the positions from which we shrink, but which, had circumstances been otherwise, could have been our imbibed and internalized ideology. Engaging with Carlyle is precisely what we should be doing, rather than finessing a, say, Foucauldian theory of power, as though our object were not life in its indefinable and untheorizable wholeness, but the works of a selected canon of theorists who shape our ideology and whose work is expected to yield a coherent whole if only we continue theorizing it with all our intellectual might.

And, doubt it not, even in Carlyle we will find a redeemable core. We will find expressed some issues of continuing relevance. Maybe they are not expressed in a theoretically convincing way, maybe the methodology is paradigmatically outdated, but we should agree with Feyerabend that this is not all. We should still take on these theoretical failures and “make the weaker case the stronger” (14), because strengthening our own case, on our own terms, is worth little, except in a narrowly academic sense. Something about Carlyle worked for a 19th-century readership, and we should try and isolate and recover it; we could concentrate on his failures, but that doesn’t advance our understanding. It is by engaging with the truths of our opponents, of the Others, that we advance.