I am reading Feyerabend's "Against Method", where he uses Copernicus's (and Galileo's confirmation) discovery of the fact that the Earth orbits around the Sun and other examples to show that irrational approaches can lead to legitimate scientific progress. He then claims that no unified epistemic principle or principles can be used to define science, and that science is best characterized by anarchy.

Is he confusing the way scientific truth is discovered with the way scientific truth is epistemically justified?

Even if it is true that Copernicus, Galileo and others used irrational methods to arrive at valid scientific discoveries, why does that affect science's special epistemic status compared to other fields of inquiry?

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    At exactly what point does one stop discovering and begin justifying an argument? In addressing someone else's arguments, one might separate the two, but in making one's own, the form of the argument to be justified is continually discovered as it reaches justifiability, in the sense that it becomes more solid and acquires more detail until the two ends come together. So how can you confuse something with itself?
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 19:08
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    @jobermark I don't know. If I trip and accidentally spill vinegar on litmus paper, does that have anything to do with why it turns red? I justify the theory that litmus paper turns red when drenched in vinegar because I have confirmed it multiple times, or because I have failed to falsify it, despite multiple experiments. My tripping or being drunk when I made the discovery is irrelevant, right? Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 19:46
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    There is no argument there. Data is not scientific truth. It does not need to be justified, and cannot be falsified. Science starts when you involve a theory. The theory that vinegar has some essential quality that matters here, and this involves the concept of acidity is something that one would need to develop, and if you were to develop it from scratch, you would be simultaneously discovering and justifying it. If it has been discovered, and you are justifying it, then what you are doing is simply rehearsing an orthodoxy and not actually making an epistemic justification.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 22:46

3 Answers 3


That is what positivists and Popper would (and did) say. But in his own view Feyerabend is not confusing them, he is dissolving the distinction. And he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

The context of justification/context of discovery distinction, just like "relativized a priori", was coined by Reichenbach, a founding father of logical positivism credited for absorbing neo-Kantianism into it. It was one of the four "dogmas of empiricism" shared by positivists and Popper, along with the analytic/synthetic and theory/observation distinctions, and the demarcation of science and non-science. By the time of Feyerabend Quine already put the first two under severe stress, and without neutrally expressed observations the attention turned to the basis of justification. How and when it is implemented in science, who is doing it, and by what standard. Positivists and Popper had a neat answer: they, i.e. philosophy, will stand in judgement of sciences by applying a priori methodological principles (although they disagreed on verificationism vs. falsificationism). That is the division of labor between scientists and philosophers.

But scientists did not tend to submit themselves to the judgements of philosophers, so the simpler point of Feyerabend's historical excursions was that if those methodological principles were at work in actual science we'll uncover them there. But what he uncovered instead was that seemingly anything works in science. That is the minor premise. And Quine already supplied the major premise, whatever works - goes. Indeed, "the unit of justification is the whole of science" with all its methodological principles, subject to the "tribunal of experience", which judges only if science works empirically. Since anything works - anything goes, the motto of epistemological anarchism.

However, Feyerabend also had a deeper point on norms and standards: how are we to judge what works? Late Wittgenstein already argued that meaning is use, and Quine concurred. But when discoveries are made and new theories emerge, the use of science changes, and with it "meanings" and "observations". Hence Feyerabend's notion of "meaning variance". What standard of justification can possibly stand over and above theories, say new and old, that are using different languages, play different language games? None, concluded Feyerabend. It was from him that Kuhn absorbed the notion of "incommensurability", when they both worked in Berkeley in 1962 and he was finishing Scientific Revolutions (although his was more moderate than Feyerabend's, which got largely overlooked in the subsequent controversy). It was left to Kuhn, who also worked with Quine directly at Stanford in 1958-59, and credited him as major influence, to neatly package everything into paradigms that come with their own observations, language and standards of research, and transform the question of justification into the question of acceptance, which is open to pragmatic, cultural, sociological, etc., influences. And there went the demarcation. See Zammito's insightful historical/philosophical account in Ch.4 of The Nice Derangement of Epistemes.

It is easy to see today that Feyerabend, and to a lesser extent Quine and Kuhn, overdid it, but at least part of the blame should be laid at the feet of Popper and Reichenbach, who did half of Feyerabend's work for him. It is they who consigned most of scientific process to "discovery", and then cast it aside as irrational and philosophically irrelevant, "conceiving or inventing a theory, seems to me neither to call for logical analysis nor to be susceptible of it... there is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas, or a logical reconstruction of this process" wrote Popper, see Hanson's Is There a Logic of Scientific Discovery? It is they who masterminded the conceit of (their) philosophy standing in judgement of science based on forever principles. But when that bluff was called the pendulum has swung the other way too far, see Have any philosophers applied the concept of "underdetermination" to non-scientific contexts?

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    Ok - this adds historical context to the question and clarifies Feyerabend's position. But in the long run the helio-centric model is true, or at least much closer to the truth than the geo-centric model, nobody would argue with that. What is the epistemic basis or justification for this then, if Feyerabend's dissolving of the distinction holds? Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 17:17
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    @Alexander It doesn't, not to Feyerabend's extreme. Zammito argues nicely that post-modernistic dissolutions need to be deflated as they deflated classical bright lines. Sure, languages shift, but not to the extent that they make competing paradigms incomparable (already Kuhn stressed that, anomalies make no sense otherwise), methodological principles get revised, but not to the extent that anything goes, and science/non-science line is blurred, not erased. I think Friedman, late Kuhn and structuralists are on the right track with their stratification and pragmatization of old positivism.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 18:16

I think not.

The "methodological anarchist" approach adopted by Feyerabend into Against Method is that, pace Popper and Lakatos, there is no "absolute" and uncontroversial rational method to justify the adoption of a scientific (and not only) theory in spite of a competing one.

Against Method explicitly drew the “epistemological anarchist” conclusion that there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge.

This is the exemplified by its critical reading of Copernicus and Galileo controversies: from a "rational" point of view, there were no compelling reasons to assert that the heliocentric theory was "more justified" than the geocentric one.

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    Mauro please see my comment to Conifold's reply. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 17:18

Let's take quantum gravity as an example; this is the research programme that looks at unifying two classical theories - Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity; despite immense effort there is still no satisfactory unified theory that has broad consensual agreement in the physics community.

Either we have all the elements for such a theory, and it is a new idea that is missing; or we lack experimental evidence, which would also require new ideas.

This example illustrates there is no method in generating new ideas: inspiration is required, and inspiration is irrational, in the sense of lacking method; one can turn this around and say that there is 'method in his madness'.

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    On the contrary, there is a method to generating new ideas. A person does not "all of a sudden" come up with a new theory/idea, or "pull it from thin air." This is usually the result of gathering various "pieces of information" that may seem unrelated and then being able to relate them by coming up with a new theory/idea.
    – Guill
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 20:09

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