Paul Feyerabend
Against Method (1975)

Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge

Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.

For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counter-inductively. The consistency condition which demands that new hypotheses agree with accepted theories is unreasonable because it preserves the older theory, and not the better theory. Hypotheses contradicting well-confirmed theories give us evidence that cannot be obtained in any other way. Proliferation of theories is beneficial for science, while uniformity impairs its critical power. Uniformity also endangers the free development of the individual.

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain, yet it is not always the theory that is to blame. Facts are constituted by older ideologies, and a clash between facts and theories may be proof of progress. Any new natural interpretations constitute a new and highly abstract observation language. They are introduced and concealed so that one falls to notice the change that has taken place (method of anamnesis). Initial difficulties caused by the change are defused by ad hoc hypotheses, which thus turn out occasionally to have a positive function; they give new theories a breathing space, and they indicate the direction of future research.

Occasional unorthodox observations are needed because of the 'uneven development' of different parts of science. Copernicanism and other essential ingredients of modern science survived only because reason was frequently overruled in their past. Feyerabend suggests abolishing the distinction between a context of discovery and a context of justification and disregarding the related distinction between observational terms and theoretical terms. Neither distinction plays a role in scientific practice.

Given the real nature of science, reason cannot be universal and unreason cannot be excluded. This feature of science calls for an anarchistic epistemology. The realisation that science is not sacrosanct, and that the debate between science and myth has ceased without having been won by either side, further strengthens the case for anarchism. For science is not a neutral structure containing positive knowledge that is independent of culture, ideology, and prejudice.

The reason for society's special treatment of science is, of course, our little fairy-tale: But the fairy-tale is false, as we have seen. There is no special method that guarantees success or makes it probable. Scientists do not solve problems because they possess a magic wand - methodology, or a theory of rationality - but because they have studied a problem for a long time, because they know the situation fairly well, because they are not too dumb (though that is rather doubtful nowadays when almost anyone can become a scientist), and because the excesses of one scientific school are almost always balanced by the excesses of some other school. (Besides, scientists only rarely solve their problems, they make lots of mistakes, and many of their solutions are quite useless.) Basically there is hardly any difference between the process that leads to the announcement of a new scientific law and the process preceding passage of a new law in society: one informs either all citizens or those immediately concerned, one collects 'facts' and prejudices, one discusses the matter, and one finally votes. But while a democracy makes some effort to explain the process so that everyone can understand it, scientists either conceal it, or bend it, to make it fit their sectarian interests.

Even the ingenious attempt of Lakatos to construct a methodology that (a) does not issue orders and yet (b) puts restrictions upon our knowledge-increasing activities, does not escape this conclusion. For Lakatos' philosophy appears liberal only because it is an anarchism in disguise. And his standards which are abstracted from modern science cannot be regarded as neutral arbiters in the issue between modern science and Aristotelian science, myth, magic, religion, etc.

Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without having ever examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realised.

Combining this observation with the insight that science has no special method, we arrive at the result that the separation of science and non-science (or pseudo-science) is not only artificial but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not 'just a small selection of them.