People all over the world have developed ways of surviving in partly dangerous, partly agreeable surroundings. The stories they told and the activities they engages in enriched their lives, protected them, and gave them meaning. The 'progress of knowledge and civilization'—as the process of pushing Western ways and values into all corners of the globe is being called—destroyed these wonderful products of human ingenuity and compassion without a single glance in their direction ... I am against ideologies that use the name of science for cultural murder.I think Feyerabend's philosophy of science is the only interpretation of scientific activity that has any humane potential. The early modern scientists never tired of inveighing against scholastic system-building -- rationalism for its own sake. Feyerabend's theory realizes the liberating possibilities of that critique. If, as Feyerabend shows, we need neither rigid methodological principles nor the provincialism and narrow-mindedness of certain scientasters, then we can move away from viewing science as Baconian state domination or as the inseparable handmaiden of ecological destruction.
- Paul Feyerabend, Against Method
But I think his argument is not without its flaws; perhaps they are not crippling, but they pose a threat to the antifoundationalist project in science. In many ways, these flaws are the result of Feyerabend not going far enough in his critique.
1. If anarchism is "not the most attractive political philosophy" (as opposed to methodological principle), how can Feyerabendian open debate occur in a "free society"? Feyerabend argues that no organon, no prescribed set of assumptions, can underlie an open debate. Rationalism, like mysticism, must contend with other conceptual schemes, without arbitrarily specifying its premises as given. But a free society that is not anarchist cannot therefore sustain an open debate, for an underlying set of assumptions always exists: the requirements, ideologies, and mystifications of those in power. Indeed, stripping the veneer of rationalism from debate must inevitably instantiate these requirements as basic assumptions (since, in the environment of open debate, such an explicit intervention is the only means the state possesses for securing its ends). This is a strange criticism to have to make, given Feyerabend's Leninist influences; yet it points out the explicitly political potential of his project.
2. If science is to be evaluated with respect to its impact upon social and ethical practices, does this not lead to its permanent establishment as an adjunct of the state? Feyerabend is a humanist, and hence concerned with "quality of existence"; but it is difficult to fully justify his claim here. The institution doing the evaluation is grounded in a social and political reality, whatever its nominal independence may be, and its dependence on that reality means science that supports the status quo will be preferred over science with liberating or social-integrity-threatening potential. In the long run, what Feyerabend justifies as a humane moral concern will end up as a prettier version of Baconian enlightened domination. This concern is valuable when one's opponents are grim rationalist technocrats, but becomes distinctly reactionary when confronted with a less hidebound vision.
3. If an open debate assumes nothing, does it not fall prey to the classic contradiction of liberalism, namely, its inability to reconcile tolerance with the intolerable? If an entry in such a debate implies the need for a rejection of the debate itself--methodologically, institutionally, perhaps even ethically--then the debate must collapse, which destroys the productive field of interplay between conceptual schemes and hence the possibility for further reevaluation. If any such entry is to be rejected, then a foundational assumption has been created. This is no idle objection to be defused with an appeal to pragmatism: the question of the legitimacy of debate is a serious one, and the field of interplay would be substantially narrowed if particular responses to it were excluded a priori. Equally unsatisfactory is allowing nihilistic conceptual schemes to participate on the condition that they defer or abandon their destructive tendencies; that approach, which has been characteristic of liberalism in practice, in fact makes a mockery of Feyerabend's whole project.
These are serious problems. But for all that, I think Feyerabend's vision is superior to anything Habermas has been able to produce. Though Reason might be a complicated concept, its realization in practice is far more fraught with conflict and confusion than even most post-structuralists would admit; of course, that goes double for our latter-day rationalists. For my part, I think the three problems I outlined have a solution: an anarchistic, total debate that determines its own ethics and accepts self-destruction--as well as rebirth. To make power contingent upon this debate is the only way of neutralizing its dominating potential.