Killing Time by Paul Feyerabend

Much has been written about Feyerabend. My two cents’ worth.

A striking aspect of this book is that philosophers and scientists, even (or perhaps specially?) the greatest of them walked hand in hand. They listened to each other. Am I incorrect to say that now there is a complete schism? It’s all very well to blame the philosophers who generally avoid science because it’s too hard.

But an equally fair generalisation is that scientists now are culturally ignorant. They don’t read, they don’t go to theatre or engage in philosophical argument. They don’t even do science. They have tiny fragmented parts to play in something which might or might not have a big picture. They refuse to be engaged on some other tiny bit even if it sits right next to theirs, or to the small big picture. That, at any rate, is my overall impression and needless to say there are obvious exceptions, at least on the goodreads site. Clearly if they believe that they can do a good job of being a scientist with nothing even remotely approaching a world view, they are scarcely going to see any advantage in an interdisciplinary education or way of engaging with the world.

Feyerabend is enormously well-read and seems to read anything. I suspect if he seems like an odd thinker it is partly because he takes from so many places. Not much, I’d say, from feminism. I note that he mentions many lays in this book, none of them are attributed with a surname. Why? If it were to protect their anonymity, he could at least have given his wives surnames since they are no chance to remain unknown.

Feyerabend was a lost soul, a person with no purpose, who drifted into everything he did in life. His only love appears to have been for opera and theatre, but that is probably only because he didn’t make it in these areas, though he might have fought to do so at various times. It is clear that he only wants what he can’t have, once he gets it, whether it be a woman or a job, very shortly he is planning where else to be. Added to that, he is easily led to ambiguity.

One can readily imagine how this happened, a difficult childhood followed by army service for the Nazis during which he was seriously and permanently wounded. He seems to have disassociated from it as it happened. The journey back, his gift for his last wife, must have been cathartic and painful. With very few words indeed, he once or twice manages to show his shame at his own behaviour. He never feels sorry for himself, though many would in his shoes. It is not easy for any non-Jewish German to write about their attitudes in the Nazi period. I can’t say I am convinced by his arguments.

From all this, however, towards the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was love. It’s really terribly moving to see him trying to explain this. What a pity he could not read Romulus, My Father, which does it so very well.

The account is matter of fact, but eloquent, regrets contained by humour. Anybody who wants an idiosyncratic, thoughtful, renegade view of Austria from the twenties through to after the war, academia around the world up to the early nineties, and the theatre and opera during all of this period is warmly recommended to this book. Bring some tissues for the denouement.

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2 thoughts on “Killing Time by Paul Feyerabend

  1. We need more science popularizers like Feyerabend. Those trained in the philosophy of science can make a contribution re. figuring out how to evolve quality control in science to fit current needs, I don’t think that’s where the major contribution should/will come from. Philosophy of science seems to me to have more important fish to fry, e.g. translating basic issue in epistemology to a public that has been browbeaten by naive realist blowhards (not my point here that naive realism is wrong). Some of the current batch of scientific popularizers try to jam such simplistic assumptions down peoples throats so as to give pause to anyone who is slightly reflective, let alone trying to convince those who are already doubtful.

    While scientific practice needs all the important overhauling discussed here (and IMHO major reform of statistical practice should be the centerpiece of that) philosophers of science have the equally important task of convincing people that properly practiced science is the best set of methods yet developed for prediction, explanation, and control. It seems that the more convinced people are of that, the more interest they will have in trying to insure that science is properly practiced (at least as far as is possible, e.g. re. some of the ideas suggested here).

    Lee Smolin is one of those popularizers of today (e.g., “Trouble with Physics” – superlative science book), even when his big mouth sometimes gets him into trouble (e.g., “Time Reborn – so and so science book)…

    • Philosophers in general seem to be too scared of science these days to get involved. And as the nature of all academia still moves towards increased specialisation, one can understand the reluctance, quite aside of how difficult the science might be. We need more interdisciplinary approaches, more appreciation of the important of big pictures.

      I do think too that big pictures help popularise science.

      Read Trouble with Physics, one of the first I read in the area and a real eye opener!

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