From a quick read of Wikipedia, I got the impression that Feyerabend's philosophy would suggest it's beneficial for scientists to ignore all philosophical prescriptions when practicing science. However, in a letter to Wallace Matson (included in For and against method, appendix B), he wrote and I quote,

The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilised savages, they lack in philosophical depth - and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

the attitude of which seems to conflict with his own philosophical stand. My question is then, why was he so dismissive of Feynman, Schwinger etc. and what are the "disastrous consequences" he was referring to?

  • I'm no expert on Feyerabend, but I would point out that there's no obvious tension between holding that working scientists should ignore philosophical prescriptions and at the same time be fluent in philosophy. There's no more a contradiction here than saying that someone going on a road trip should ignore anyone else's restrictions on which destinations his trip might take him to, but at the same time should be skilled in navigation and driving a vehicle. – transitionsynthesis Nov 21 '18 at 20:00
  • @transitionsynthesis, What better way is there to ignore philosophical prescriptions than ignore philosophy altogether? It would be interesting to know in what way Feyerabend thought philosophical depth was helpful for physics research, so that despite the danger of being contaminated by philosophical prescriptions, physicists should still learn philosophy. – Jia Yiyang Nov 21 '18 at 23:46

Feyerabend does not suggest science should, or can, be conducted free of philosophical concerns. To make such a prescription would itself violate the notion of curtailing the arrogance of method, as it would make a fixed methodological restriction on the evaluation criteria.

If you are not going to prescribe a given range to scientific inquiry, you actually want as much breadth of exposure of professional scientists to the remainder of thought as possible. Otherwise, the prescribed ambit into which technocracy naturally falls will de facto create methodological limitations of its own.

The problem overall with the notion that postmodernism means less modernism is that then it is just relativistic reversion to pre-modern notions, which have had their chance since Pyrrho, and never amounted to anything. There is a necessary tension between faith and doubt necessary to do real thinking of high quality, and if you abandon it by choosing a given body of faith, or a given mechanism for generating truths, you have lost a primary necessary component for covering the research domain. Professionalism is just another path to methodological hegemony.

  • Natural scientists at any given point of time have a cluster of norms for their practice, which may or may not change in time, this bit we can all agree. Wikipedia’s description of Feyerabend’s thought, even read charitably (or maybe non-charitably), at least seems to indicate that Feyerabend thinks scientists should ignore what philosophers tried to prescribe for them. It’s doubly baffling to me that Feyerabend was critical of Feynman when he actually used the theory of renormalization (in which Feynman played a huge role) to justify his philosophy. – Jia Yiyang Nov 21 '18 at 3:53
  • @JiaYiyang Prescribe is the relevant word. And it is not just philosophers, Feyerabend would oppose any sort of prescription on an entire domain of study. Period. But ideas come from somewhere, and they should come from whatever sources can be convincing to practitioners, which cannot happen if the practitioners are not broadly exposed. (Having actually read Against Method, I really don't care how badly Wikipedia has mischaracterized it.) This narrowness does apply to the younger Feynman, although he changed a lot in old age. – user9166 Nov 21 '18 at 18:46

This is not a direct answer to the question, just a comment on Feynman's perspective on philosophy which may shed some light to the OP. Based on what I've read, I didn't knew him personally.

Feynman was known for his pejorative opinion of philosophers.

On one side, he has a strong argument: there are no corresponding ontology to express the ideas that pure mathematics suggest about the fundamental reality. Moreover, philosophy could be misleading, since it is based on entities that are fallacies in the fundamental reality. We have not even words that allow expressing the noumenal reality. Our language objectifies every perception, but fundamental nature is not made of objects, therefore any ontology is by definition excluded. Therefore, there would be no place for philosophy on this almost-pure discipline. Hillary Putnam expressed this perspective as this: "philosophical interpretation is just what mathematics doesn't need".

But on the other hand, making mathematics without philosophy is risky. Several philosophers warned of the fallacy of pure mathematics without a rational significance (read it multiple times, but can't find any quotation right now, sorry, but anyway, the argument is sound), which implies making philosophy to assess what has been done and what is to do. Mathematical formulas without a philosophical interpretation cannot be considered as knowledge (a friend sustains that knowledge is judgement, which fits appropriately here; we cannot have a judgement of a set of symbols). There are several examples: when the three laws of thermodynamics were obtained, everybody was happy... until we (philosophically) realized that there was no formal definition of temperature; in consequence, the zeroth law was formulated. Another example: an artificial intelligence neural model is not knowledge, just a set of numbers. Another example: we have a formula of entropy, but its philosophical interpretation is so complex, that its original definition has lead to the development of hundreds of papers that can be contradictory. In fact, in discordance with his disdain for philosophers, Feynman was himself a remarkable philosopher of QED, and perhaps that's one of the most important reasons his writings are a mandatory lecture for beginners. His interaction diagrams, implying complex ideas about time, space and fundamental interactions are a beautiful philosophical interpretation of the fundamental reality, which allows new scientists to continue upon a solid foundation. Thanks to his philosophical development. When he writes against philosophers, we can just say... Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman.


It seems obvious why Feyerabend was critical of physicists after Schrodinger, Schwinger etc. since one only has to read a little of people like Feynman to see that their thinking lacks philosophical depth. I wouldn't dare call them 'uncivilised savages' but would endorse this view. Feynman is like a child on philosophical topics and says many foolish things that would be laughed at on this forum.

"What are the "disastrous consequences" he was referring to?" I guess it's the current situation in which most physicists are uneducated and uninformed in respect of philosophy and religion. One only has to browse through the writings of the quantum pioneers to see the contrast between them and succeeding generations. It's as if the education system failed in about 1950.

Presumably it's the degree of specialism required to be a top physicists that causes a lot of the problem. It's as if somewhere around the 1950s physics stopped being taught by universities and started to be taught in polytechnics and technical colleges, becoming instrumentalist rather than thoughtful.

I share Feyerabend's view that the problem originates with philosophers and their 'professional shell'. It may not be a coincidence that it was around 1950 that the absurd idea of Behaviourism became popular among professional philosophers. The philosophical naivety of physicists is today so great that many are Materialists and Democritus is still treated with respect.

It is surely an odd thing that Plato, considered the father of modern philosophy, wanted to burn all the books of Democritus, considered the father of modern science. Nothing much seems to have changed since their time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.