Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

Feyerabend was referring to a seminar series he ran while teaching at Zurich university. One of the invited speakers was Freidrich Dürrenmatt. He

…came to speak on Platonic entities, and used a chair instead of a bed as an example. His conclusion: the Platonic chair is nothing but the idealised hind end of the sitters. Dürrenmatt had been warned that there would be other talks and that he had to restrict himself to twenty minutes. ‘Oooch’, he replied. ‘I won’t know what to say anyway, I won’t talk for more than ten minutes.’ He was late, and we started without him; when he arrived, he produced a huge manuscript and would have gone on forever if he hadn’t been stopped after twenty-five minutes. (Mrs Huber, who was chairing the meeting, hestitated to interrupt, but I, sitting next to her, egged her on: ‘No exceptions for big shots!’) Dürrenmatt didn’t say a word. He came to dinner with us afterward, tried to get me drunk, told me he had read Against Method, and entertained us with stories about himself and Hohler. But he refused to come again. ‘You don’t let a person finish!’ he yelled at the organiser when he next rang him – and hung up.

4 thoughts on “Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

  1. Ah! Feyerabend! It’s not everyday I can read a post comprising both Dürrenmatt and Feyerabend. But Feyerabend, for all his brilliance, became so keen on his own pet theory (theoretical anarchism) that he ended up talking nonsense. Of course there are common elements to all scientific endeavour. While it is a mistake to try to describe exact rules of procedure all scientists claim to be telling us something about the way the world works independently of our perceptions of it i.e. it aims at an objective account. As a consequence all scientists accept that there has to be some sort of check of theoretical claims about the world in terms of observational data (frought though this process often is). Scientists don’t just talk about theories, they do things with them.

    • I get the impression from his memoir Killing Time which I read recently – and from which this extract is taken – that Feyerabend was happy to change his mind a lot. It’s been so long since I read Against Method, that it’s on my list to pick up again….though I’m not sure when that will be.

      I found it interesting, however, talking to a research scientist recently to hear his ‘confession’ about a paper he had just written, which he insisted was written in a way typically done in the research world – fit a sensible story to the results. If it is so that this is a typical way of writing up research, it follows that it is going to look non-anarchic or less anarchic than perhaps it actually is. I am hoping to follow up on that.

      • Have you ever read Kuhn and Popper?

        I understood that it was the logical positivists who decided that what could not be verified was meaningless. As I understood also, Popper declared that what could not be falsified was merely not science, not that it was “meaningless”. You would have to give examples of astrology not countenancing any negative instance. Astrology has certainly progressed from regarding certain planets (Mars and Saturn) as “malefic”, or likely to have a negative influence, to the more modern, Jungian psychological approach that sees the cycles of these planets reflecting human, often unconscious, drives.

        Of course, these developments have not proceeded through testable, scientific method, so it falls short of the test of falsifiability, but if it is to be regarded as “meaningless” then so too must economics, sociology, psychology and anthropology, as last weeks Popper article showed.

        The only alternative, in allowing the above mentioned disciplines to take their place as meaningful and worthy of study and having their methodologies acknowledged as valid, is to accord the same respect to astrology, which is more a humanistic than scientific study.

        This excellent blog (http://thekindlyones.org/2011/02/14/astrology-and-its-problems-popper-kuhn-and-feyerabend/) on the differing views Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend have about astrology ably demonstrates the limits of falsification and the reason that astrology, more than any other so-called pseudoscience, provokes such fury among the scientific materialists who, often unwittingly embody the falsification ideology to the detriment of a proper acceptance of the importance of the arts and humanities to human knowledge and understanding of existence.

        • I’ve read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution, which I rant about on my blog somewhere. I don’t know if I was just grumpy when I read it or if my objections are objective. Haven’t read any Popper, I know I should!

          As for the astrology, yes, I’ve been reading about Feyerabend’s take on that – thanks for the link. It seems to me a difficult situation. I don’t like the idea that scientists spend a lot of their lives dealing with diversions – climate change denial and creationism most obviously at the moment. And yet you always run the danger of rejecting things unfairly in making these decisions about your time. There are many things that we ‘know’ are true, but science’s attitude is that it can only be true if we understand why.

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