In a period when Anglophone philosophy has been represented as isolated from the European mainland, philosophy in England, America, and Australia in the twentieth century has in fact been remarkably invigorated and decisively shaped by Continental émigrés, beginning with Wittgenstein and including Carnap and Popper. Most of these philosophers came to speak and write English almost as if native to that tongue. They in fact testify to a long and strong link between England and Vienna, and in particular between English philosophy and the Vienna Circle: the philosophical link of a common empiricism and positivism and a conviction that science can be justified, and indeed proves its meaningfulness and rationality, by its embodiment of the empirical method.
One of the latest and greatest of these thinkers was Paul Feyerabend.footnote＊ As his autobiography tells us, he grew up in Vienna, in a lower middle-class home, and as a young man, though brought up a Catholic, espoused some sort of logical positivism. With Viktor Kraft he helped to found the Kraft Circle as a continuation of the Vienna Circle. However, there were crucial differences between Feyerabend and his Viennese predecessors. They settled in the Anglophone countries in the period between the wars: most of them were refugees from Continental fascism, and for many positivism was an ideology, a political weapon that revealed fascism as irrational mystification, strictly meaningless, and certainly unscientific. Feyerabend, a younger man, came to England after the end of the Second World War, in the early 1950s. He had been a positivist militant in Vienna, but his chief target there seems to have been religion. Certainly, he was not a political refugee.
In Vienna Feyerabend had studied physics, and this and his Viennese background led him naturally into the philosophy of science. The dominant figure in this field in England at the time was an earlier Viennese émigré, Karl Popper. According to the autobiography, Wittgenstein had agreed to supervise Feyerabend’s doctorate in England, but when Wittgenstein died it was to Popper that Feyerabend transferred.
Popper’s chief contributions to the philosophy of science were his
Feyerabend came to England in 1952 and soon ‘fell for’ falsificationism. But during his time in his first university post, at Bristol from 1955, and on to Berkeley in 1958, he began to move away from Popper. He developed a cluster of ideas that converged with Thomas Kuhn’s in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), though reached independently: the theoretical character of observation statements, the incommensurability of theories, the strategy of demolishing theories in the philosophy of science by confronting them with the actual historical practice of scientists such as Galileo. These ideas decisively undermined falsificationism, and empiricism in general, and in the process undermined also the critique of Marxism that Popper had based on his (mis)conception of science. It’s little wonder that the Left took Feyerabend to their hearts.
But he was a restless spirit, like Galileo’s Earth always on the move, and was already, characteristically, pushing his ideas to more radical extremes, to the brink of paradox, and beyond. Attempts by philosophers like Popper to formulate norms of rationality, he argued, were bound to fail, and science in particular does not conform to any such norms. In his first and most famous book, Against Method (1975, based on a paper completed in 1969), he argued for an anarchist epistemology in which ‘Anything Goes’. Not only was science not the embodiment of some abstract rationality, it was not necessarily the only way of acquiring knowledge, or a better way than, say, religion, or myth, or ‘alternative’ medicine. At Berkeley in the sixties these were explosive ideas, and with his talent for dramatic presentation the student movement saw in Feyerabend a charismatic teacher.
What did he see in them? To what extent was Feyerabend committed to the student movement? According to the autobiography, he adapted his teaching to include discussions of earlier revolutionary movements and their philosophies, citing ‘Cohn-Bendit, Lenin’s “Left Wing Communism...”, essays by Chairman Mao, and Mill’s “On Liberty”’. It may seem now that of these it was to be Mill who would exercise most influence on Feyerabend. He approved of much of what was happening but did not wholeheartedly participate. Thus, he says, ‘It was a tremendous achievement when the faculty supported the position of the student leaders and forced the administration to withdraw; but ‘I didn’t always accept the advice of the student leaders. For example, I didn’t participate in the strikes they declared.’ He felt solidarity with the students but not with the organizers of the strike. ‘They presumed to speak for all students just as Johnson presumed to act for all Americans—the old authoritarianism