In the closing chapter of "Against Method", Feyerabend states that:

"Science is neither a single tradition, nor the best tradition there is, except for people who have become accustomed to its presence, its benefits and its disadvantages. In a democracy it should be separated from the state just as churches are now separated from the state."

In the rest of the chapter he continues developing his 'science is not special and is driven by social and historical factors' viewpoint. At one point he seems almost contradictory, when he describes how Japan went from being a weak nation to being a strong nation by adopting the scientific worldview, but still maintaining that science is special only to scientists, and not to society as a whole. He states

"On the other hand, we can agree that in a world full of scientific products scientists may be given a special status just as henchmen had a special status at times of social disorder [...]"


"[...] a uniform 'scientific worldview' maybe useful for people doing science...However, it is a disaster for others." (the italics are his).

What I fail to grasp here is:

  • Is Feyerabend contradicting himself? Science is useful sometimes, and can allow a nation to go from being a primitive nation to an advanced one, but is still special only to scientists and a disaster for others? If it allows nations to develop then isn't it useful beyond its own domain, regardless of how others feel about that?
  • If science is to be separated from the state just as the church is, what epistemic principle is left for leaders to base their decisions on? If the FDA can't use science to legislate for drugs and food safety, then what should it use? financial profit? social considerations? Aesthetic values? And what about environmental policies? If science is separate from the state, how should environmental policy decisions be made? What is Feyerabend advocating here, other than complete anarchy and relativism?
  • 1
    Cultural relativism of rationality standards is right, and he is mellow compared to strong programme or hyperfeminists, who e.g. find male bias in hydrodynamics. Feyerabend equates science's status to church's, whose role may have been positive after the great migration, but not so much during inquisition, clergy benefits from its special status, but others not necessarily, etc. Frankly, I am not sure that public officials listen to scientists more than to social/religious activists nowadays, so perhaps Feyerabend and other post-modernists got their wish already.
    – Conifold
    Apr 19, 2016 at 19:40

1 Answer 1


1. No, Feyerabend's view is not contradictory on this point.

He distinguishes between science and scientific worldview. "Science" he calls the special activity that we normally call science. "Scientific worldview" is the (false) self-image of science, its ideology. Feyerabend's claim is not contradictory if we concede this distinction.

Science, Feyerabend concedes, is useful at times to society. The scientific worldview may be a conception that scientists need in order to do science, but it is "a disaster" if taken as a conception for society as a whole. He uses Japan (rightly or wrongly) to demonstrate a case where a society has adopted science as a tool to develop technologically, but has not taken up its ideology to replace previous world views in society.

Note that Feyerabend has a positive conception of science, which he developed as an alternative to the scientific worldview. While he thinks that the "scientific worldview" is monolithic in character, he also thinks that science has given rise to other self-images, which better represent its actual activity. It is an alternative description of science which he tried to develop for many years and was published posthumously in his book Naturphilosophie (2009). Similar proposals can be found in his posthumous series of lectures The Tyranny of Science (2011).[1]

[1] The English title, chosen by the translator, doesn't do justice to its content. The original title is Ambiguity and Harmony.

2. Feyerabend is advocating what he calls "democratic relativism".

If one finds relativism self-defeating or otherwise unacceptable, then Feyerabend's proposal will surely be met unfavorably.

If science is to be separated from the state just as the church is, what epistemic principle is left for leaders to base their decisions on?

Feyerabend's point is exactly that an answer to this question cannot be given by experts (including philosophers and scientists), but has to be the outcome of democratic deliberation. Thus he explicitly refuses to give an answer qua philosopher. "Financial profit", "social considerations", "aesthetic values" are all on the table. It is up to democratic decision-making involving society to weight and set up "principles".

Feyerabend's more in-depth political considerations are contained in his book Science in a Free Society (1978). There he explains the concepts of democratic relativism and free society in more detail. The book contains an illuminating analogy to exemplify his proposal of a free society and the role of experts therein: the system of courts of law in which citizens are judged by a jury of peers. While experts may be called to testify, they do not necessarily have an exceptional standing and are one factor among many leading to the final verdict, which is deliberated and agreed upon by a group of citizens.

In a sense, this is more than an analogy. Feyerabend points out that we already have a system in place which doesn't simply follow evidential rules, but weighs evidential criteria against others and trusts non-experts to do this in literally life-or-death situations. He urges us to extend this model: citizens should have the final say in social-political decision-making.

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    Note that in his later books, Feyerabend came to harshly criticize his earlier relativist view. It seems he didn't want to have Science in a Free Society republished. @Alexander S King, free to ask about this in a separate question if you want.
    – DBK
    Apr 19, 2016 at 22:11

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