The philosopher of science and contrarian anarchist thinker, Paul Feyerabend, was born in Austria in 1924 and died in 1994. At the time of his death, he was working on a book tentatively titled "conquest of abundance". In his autobiography "killing time", he said of this book:
"The book is intended to show how specialists and common people reduce the abundance that surrounds and confuses them, and the consequences of their actions...I also try to emphasize the essential ambiguity of all concepts...without ambiguity, no change ever... Conquest of Abundance should be a simple book, pleasant to read and easy to understand...one of my motives (is) ...to free people from the tyranny of philosophical obfuscators and abstract concepts such as "truth", "reality", or "objectivity", which narrow people's vision and ways of being in the world".
After his death, his widow cooperated with Bert Terpstra to produce this book from the notes and essays that he left behind. The book consists of four chapters put together (very scrupulously) from Paul's notes; followed by 12 essays that he had written on similar themes. It is a collage rather than a systematic and well-organized argument, but considering that Paul Feyerabend was the pre-eminent anti-systemic philosopher of the twentieth century, this is quite appropriate!
The first chapter presents an episode from the "odyssey" and Feyerabend uses it to argue his contention that "potentially, every culture is all cultures". Every cultural trait possesses an ambiguity that allows its meaning and usage to be modified by creative individuals as the need arises. Some philosophers are obsessed with abstracting a rigid "true meaning" from every situation (the "true scientific method", the "true Homeric viewpoint" and so on) and freezing it at that point. This procedure restricts the freedom of human beings to confront the richness of being and extract meaning from it with tools that themselves change their meaning as they are used.
This argument is then repeated in various forms throughout the book. Feyerabend wants to challenge the most cherished prejudices of the "educated person". The belief that abstracting the essential features out of a rich and variegated scene is somehow closer to the truth comes in for harsh criticism. Feyerabend does not deny that such abstraction may have its uses. But he feels that we have raised it to a fetish and have lost sight of the importance of the details. In trying to see the wood all the time, we have lost sight of the trees. The wood may be the correct image for SOME problems, but the individual trees are also the correct image for other problems. And no procedure exists to tell us beforehand what the correct image may be. Individual human beings facing particular problems use what they can, and how they can, to get the answers that interest them. Epistemological anarchy is not only desirable, it already exists. But all too frequently, we are being asked to deny this abundance and accept an impoverished and highly abstract picture as "THE TRUTH". He admires Aristotle above all other philosophers because he did not reduce the abundance of being to one formula. He investigated a hundred fields and tacked each on its own merits. And much to Feyerabend delight, he said " real is what plays a central role in the kind of life we identify with".
Paul Feyerabend was not a detached and objective philosopher. He denied that any such species exists. He was frequently contrarian and deliberately provocative. Fashionable beliefs like the supremacy of reason and the superiority of abstract monotheism are vigorously attacked and in the last (typical) chapter he even takes issue with a petition to encourage the teaching of philosophy. By the time he is finished, we seem to be left with no certainties to stand on. But to him, that is not the end of the story. Because the story is not just philosophy or science or theology or any other form of codified knowledge. All this is just one aspect of our existence, and to Feyerabend, a frequently treacherous and ephemeral aspect. Life is much bigger than these abstract notions. The crucial judgment on a life is not about the philosophy or theology that the person claimed to follow, but the kind of life that he actually lived. In his acclaimed autobiography "killing time", Feyerabend says:
"It seems to me that love and friendship play a central role and without them even the noblest achievements and the most fundamental principles remain pale, empty and dangerous".
For Feyerabend, "A humane science must be adapted to the requirements of a balanced and rewarding life".
"Conquest of abundance" is an excellent (and very readable) guide to the philosophical obsessions of Paul Feyerabend and is a must read for anyone interested in philosophy in general and the philosophy of science in particular. But to really understand his thinking and what lay behind it, it is also essential to read his autobiography and finally, to take his objections seriously and actually doubt the certainties we have been taught. The results can be surprising!