1981 — »The grounds we build upon and adapt our lives to will not be there forever«
Paul Feyerabend’s »Irrationalität oder: Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann?« revisited
By Nicola Condoleo
»Reporter: Mister Feyerabend, in your last book…
Feyerabend: You mean one of those printed digressions Suhrkamp Verlag absolutely had to throw out onto the market?
Reporter: … In your last book you pursued the idea that in a free society all traditions must have the equal right to develop, and without being subordinated to a rationalist ‘super tradition’. To ensure this, it should be supervised by a police, in your opinion. But this police gives me a headache…« That is how Hans Peter Duerr fabulated an interview with his friend Feyerabend in his Satyricon from 1985.
Feyerabend loved to crack rationalist skulls. And he used tough nut arguments. If one is to believe Hans Peter Duerr’s humorous descriptions, then cracking rationalist nuts was indeed Feyerabend’s deliberate intention. This racking of brains started latest with the publication of his Against Method. Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), where he sums it up in a nutshell: »Anything goes!« According to Feyerabend, every cognitive or knowledge tradition is worthy of consideration. Or as he describes his proposition: »My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits.« What started out initially as a bet of sorts with his friend Imre Lakatos represented a scare for the philosophy of science circles back then—and still scares them at times today. What currently makes Feyerabend’s position so remarkable is, in particular, the emphasis on the close connection between politics and science.
In the article »Irrationalität oder: Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann?« (Irrationality or: Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman?) Feyerabend proposes the following two thoughts: First, scientists have supremacy. Their reign is called rationalism (which had its illustrious debut with Plato, who posited the universal against the concrete). This rationalism is (like) religion, hence a »religion of reason«. The blame of irrationality, says Feyerabend, is always a defense of this supremacy. Secondly, he focuses on the comparison of abstract universal concepts and the concrete, situative daily practice in medicine. Here, clinical medicine is set opposite to systematic, scientific, objective medicine. (41) While the former is rooted in experience, builds upon it and responds to it, and thus constantly changes, the latter is no longer such an art (techne) rather a system, a knowledge (episteme), a doctrine—as he exemplifies with the practice of bloodletting (49f.): Benjamin Rush was convinced that bloodletting would dampen the irregular convulsive action of blood vessels—according to the doctrine, the only existing cause of illnesses, which scholars shared as the universal thesis at least for some decades. Instead of a complex and multifaceted practice of traditions, a single valid theory (a concept) is set for all humankind: »The process of being sick is removed from its social context.« Especially today, (natural) sciences are experiencing a golden age. They are the new oracles.
When accused of irrationality, says Feyerabend, we should be suspicious. Wouldn’t that be an attack on the maturity of citizens? For him, the concept of democracy must be broadened, namely in keeping with the tradition of the Enlightenment—in this respect, the author remains an ambivalent proponent of the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity, and when the tradition of rationalism ironically spoon-feeds people, it would imply a decisive—very serious—imperative for Feyerabend: to sustain the emergence from self-imposed immaturity through democratic institutions and claims. Hence, the tradition of the Enlightenment not only contradicts itself by upholding both the generally accepted objective rationalism as well as self-empowerment; it also contains that which is irrational: »The blames of irrationality we hear from the sciences, or a philosophy that serves the sciences, are therefore largely manifestations of the inherent irrationality in the scientific endeavor itself.« (54)
Against this backdrop, when we now look at the situation and measures around SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, the question arises: What is happening in light of this obscure, incomprehensible, and irrational connoted disease and its transmission routes? What are rational measures? What is politically acceptable? What is reasonable? Precisely this remains obscure, incomprehensible in itself. But who can and may decide this, and how? Perhaps, this reveals an eye-opening difficulty given the events triggered by SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19: How rational are the decisions by governments, which build upon prognoses and recommendations of virologists and epidemiologists? How irrational is the objection that can be raised against them? Or: Who exactly is able to determine all of this?
But, one could counter, aren’t the manifold explanations for SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 circulating the web legitimized by Feyerabend’s positions? Albeit, this would not live up to his position. He would likely be less interested in the manifold explanations, and focus rather on how the scientific (and political) rationalism, in this battle on two fronts, responds to the irrational as nonsense (e.g. senseless conspiracy theories) and the foreign, other, unexplainable (namely the many unclarities that continue to prevail in the research of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19). Or, put differently by Feyerabend in an interview, where he provocatively answered the question if creationism should also be taught at schools next to Darwinism: »Why not?! Why not? Look, lots of nonsense is taught in school […] so much garbage is being put in the brains, so it doesn’t really matter, I mean, if you use a little of the other garbage and put that in, if you think it is garbage. So, why be so selective?« That the manifold SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 explanations went viral—including a lot of »garbage«, too—makes it all the more urgent to put the social, the political circumstances into perspective. However, Feyerabend’s intention to restrict rationalism to its given social and historical framework (as one of many traditions) surely never meant that each and every explanation was legitimate, rather that every explanation in the ranks of worldviews could potentially claim to be the »truth«—but still in the sense of a better explanation among others, and precisely not in the sense that all »garbage« should be considered true, rather, in turn, it must be verified anew. In this regard, Feyerabend was quite modest.
Today Feyerabend’s contrapositions of abstract concept versus concrete practice or clinical versus objective medicine once again play an important role. Even though one could accuse Feyerabend of disregarding the dualism of theory and practice in these contrapositions, his underlying question remains virulent: how do the sciences manifest in politics or, vice versa, how does the politics of science take effect? It illustrates how a scientific rationalism governs the sphere of political agon when medicine, or more precisely the epidemiologists and virologists, ponderously—or rather, boldly—raise an admonitory finger. The unknown is there, plain and obvious, but often camouflaged in the white coat of scientificity. This Enlightenment would not only be dialectic in nature but also epistocratic—as US American logos proved once again recently, however introduced and conceived under different circumstances.
But when it comes back to the police, who caused a headache for the »reporter«, Feyerabend countered as follows—or at least how Duerr imagined:
»Feyerabend: Well, don’t you worry about that. Look, I personally know a number of very nice policemen, people with a horizon you definitely wouldn’t find in the seminar of Ayatollah Popper.«
Many thanks to Insa Härtel and Julia Boog for their thoughts and improvements!