The Victorian Sage

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Tag: paul feyerabend

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

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.



Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between conservative-Burkean “beautiful illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds?

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*



*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.

How to Make a Contribution to Knowledge

This is the apportioned task of all doctoral researchers. Its difficulty lies in the post-modern problematization of the concept of knowledge. We have to argue that we are contributing to knowledge, even if the argument withinour thesis involves an assertion that knowledge is merely contingent, therefore our attempts to add to it are doomed to partiality and dependent on circumstance, i.e. a postmodern argument. Another view of knowledge, which is neither the classically rational nor the postmodern, is that of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend puts it as follows:

Knowledge […] is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. (Against Method, Verso, 2010, p. 14)

Here, then, knowledge can be added to, but without the rationalist presumption that knowledge can be perfected by a singular path to truth. Rather, a new path may come into existence with any individual thesis (which is what we are talking about here), which may be incompatible with other theses, may appear outlandish and sui generis, or even plainly wrong, but yet it may be treated as a contribution to knowledge, and may have that effect.

It is the notion of right and wrong that need to be relegated in doctoral studies in the humanities. The idea that a thesis has to “prove” something. “What have you set out to prove?”, you will be asked. This, I submit, is the wrong question. It is not the proven that is of sole importance, and humanities above all need to recognise this. All world religions have been not proven, but their importance is inestimable. Marxism, itself, in so far as it was verifiable, has been debunked by the failure of a dictatorship of the proletariat to arise. The “logical force” of Marx’s argument has given way to this empirical fact, but the “material effect” of Marxism has remained massive, and its attraction to academia similarly. Feyerabend insists on the virtual inextricability of “logical force” and “material effect”, such that one should never simply talk of an argument’s logical force, but also include the material effect from the beginning – not so neat, but if we wish to understand the development of consciousness, and contribute to it, necessary (Feyerabend, p. 9). The provenness of an argument may be quite secondary. So when a humanistically inclined scholar sets out to write a thesis, they should set out, I submit, not to “prove” any one thing or the other, but to add an alternative, which then enters into play with the many other alternatives already floating round the ocean of knowledge.

The strange couplings that will ensue between this and that alternative are not wholly foreseeable, historical circumstances being as chaotic and ever-changing as they are, but the addition of a new alternative is in itself dynamic, and, even if it is an alternative we feel sure is fundamentally wrong, disagreement is in itself a stimulus – further, we do not, unfortunately, know that this alternative is wrong. The last instance in which knowledge is finally exactly defined and contributions to it specified and isolated never comes. Proof is a posture: when we analyze texts and historical moments and movements, we prove little. Only the relatively mundane is capable of being proved. To limit ourselves to the provable is wrong, and to declare those complex social, cultural and historical configurations that we study to be provable is also wrong.

We are not proving, we are simply adding, creating connections and creating the possibilities of further connections, which may or may not come to pass. Rather than trying to prove, I suggest we should try to introduce – introduce concepts, ideologies, and theories to each other. Perhaps they will hit it off, create a spark. We cannot know, can only produce the written form of our investigations. We don’t judge these investigations by their provability, but firstly, by the process as we experience it: understanding is produced by “playful activity”, Feyerabend says (p. 10), like children; secondly, by how others can work with it – can it create engagement? If we can do these things, we will be more productive, creative, and, of course, happier. If we seek to prove the improvable, we condemn ourselves to intellectual torment, we bore ourselves and others, we twist the available facts and select what we can use, we are always vulnerable – even, perhaps, to our own conscience. Only the greatest openness to the ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives can keep us engaged with knowledge, rather than ossifying in some self-validating theory that explains all the world in a certain number of pages, and closes of all of history that contradicts it. I will close with Feyerabend again, on scientific education:

It simplifies “science” by simplifying its participants: first, the domain of research is defined. The domain is separated from the rest of history (physics, for example, is separated from metaphysics and from theology) and given a “logic” of its own. A thorough training in such a “logic” then condition those working in the domiain; it makes their actions more uniform and it freezes large parts of the historical process as well. (p. 3)

To Review the Literature or Not to Review the Literature

Having reached endgame in the writing of my thesis, I now have to reflect on some of the choices I made. Unorthodox choices are the hardest, the ones that will be questioned closely in the viva. And I have made some of those. Case in point: I have no explicit literature review in my thesis. General handbooks on theses always simply assume a literature review chapter will be present. There’s Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, then the Data Analysis or Case Studies chapters, depending on the subject/ discipline. This is derived from a social science model, but is presented as simply the default mode in all the guides I have consulted. The idea of not having a literature review just doesn’t come up. This may be to an extent a reflection on my university and its emphasis on the scientistic and business models to the neglect of the humanistic, with a library to match. However, it also seems to be the standard, even in guides specifically targeted at humanities, like this one.

But my thesis will have no literature review. One reason for this is that the literature review is a place where “the study is located within a specific theoretical tradition or perspective” (Paul Oliver, Writing Your Thesis, SAGE, 2008, 6). A humanistic study, I maintain, is not about adopting a specific perspective, but rather about trying to attain the widest perspective possible. This may involve making use of any available methodological tool at any specific moment. This renders the methodology section of the thesis problematic as well as the literature review. My “methodology” is partially a defense of retaining an open methodology (which comes perilously close to having no methodology).

“The new thesis should not be seen as an isolated study, but as a study which exists in an academic tradition, and the purpose of the literature review is to try to establish the nature of that tradition” (Oliver, 93). Of course, my thesis is in an academic tradition, and is written according to academic standards. But I nevertheless maintain that by engaging with the humanist tradition, it is making a claim to being somewhat sui generis, and that this is not simply a formality, but a consequential fact with regard to method and structure. It is not, evidently enough, exactly the same as any other thesis, and is a product of a particular consciousness in a particular situation; dealing with particular source materials in particular combination. To exactly define the tradition from which it springs would place all of the analysis in the body of the thesis under intolerable strain, as it would have to be justified not only in terms of an argument, but also in terms of a tradition.

In terms of writing conventions and (mostly) basic structure, it is indeed a standard academic thesis, but epistemologically, it does not aim to privilege any specific tradition over all others. Such epistemological specificity is only possible, it seems to me, in a project where the methodology itself is very specific. A quantitative study using positivistic methods: yes, that has a clear epistemology, very well defined and very limited. It has its place, obviously, and a large place under current academic conditions, but it is not all. I’m not anti- the defined and restricted epistemology of quantitative research, by any means, and believe that it can be incorporated into even humanistic study. I argue only that a space be retained for the non-methodological investigation. In my thesis, I rely at certain important points on Paul Feyerabend:

We must, therefore, keep our options open and we must not restrict ourselves in advance. Epistemological prescriptions may look splendid when compared with other epistemological prescriptions, or with general principles but who can guarantee that they are the best way to discover, not just a few isolated ‘facts’, but also some deep-lying secrets of nature? (Against Method, Verso, 2010, 4)

By keeping our options open, who knows what we might uncover? Perhaps nothing. But the point is that we don’t know exactly what knowledge is, so we can’t impose methodologies on it; not if we have any broad purposes, at any rate. We can’t limit it to a certain academic tradition which we can partition off from the rest of history, culture and nature.

The points I have been making problematize the notion of methodology just as much as that of literature review. I have dealt with the problem of methodology in my thesis by having a formal methodology, but a fairly capacious one, and by stressing the need to think and analyze openly rather than, or certainly in addition to, methodologically. My methodology chapter has also incorporated a measure of literature review, for in delineating my method, I have referred to many others in similar areas of research, This overcomes, I hope, the need for a separate literature review chapter; such a chapter would only serve to delineate too narrowly the field in which I operate. The onus would move onto my analysis to respond to and interact with the field laid out in the critical review, whereas the objects of study may demand and reward quite other methods of study. It is possible to be too narrow, I feel, to go into too much depth in one field, a field which has been created through the artificial processes of academia and which, the more it attains a sophisticated methodology peculiar to itself, the more it cuts itself off from history and forgets that academic research is not an end in itself, and an increase in theoretical sophistication is not necessarily an epistemological advance.

If academic research is not an end, then, what is the end? Here, I haven’t gotten very far, so for the moment I just go with Feyerabend again: “The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man” (4).

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