Donald Gillies 

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science, University College London

Some Personal Reminiscences of Feyerabend

From a talk given at UCL on 28 February 2011

The last of the three famous philosophers of science whom I met when I was doing a PhD with Imre Lakatos as my supervisor was Paul Feyerabend.  Feyerabend was not a member of staff of the LSE’s philosophy department, and so I did not get to know him as well as Lakatos and Popper.  However, he did visit LSE quite frequently in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Let me first explain how this came about.

Feyerabend was at the height of his international fame at this time.  As a result, he was offered well-paid professorships all over the world. Feyerabend accepted not just one of these, but several.  This is how he describes the situation in his autobiography (1995, p. 127):“In the late sixties I was still highly marketable.  I received offers from London (a chair in the history and philosophy of science), Berlin (a new chair in the philosophy of science), Yale (a professorship in the philosophy of science), Auckland, New Zealand (a professorship – or was it a chair? – in the philosophy of science).  I was invited to become a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, …”

Of these offers, and there were more, the most lucrative seems to have been the one in Berlin.  Of this Feyerabend says (1995, pp. 131-2):“In Berlin I had two secretaries, one for German, one for English and French, and fourteen assistants.  … I had a large room with an impressive desk and antique chairs, as well as an anteroom and a secretary in it.”

As far as I can gather from his narrative, Feyerabend accepted 3 or 4 of these offers, and so divided the academic year between different universities.

Thus he says (1995, p. 127):“I was already spending one term in Berkeley, one in London, again a term in Berkeley, and so on.  While in London I would also work in Berlin, commuting by plane once a week.  In 1968 I interpolated a semester at Yale.”

Feyerabend’s success and fame was partly of course because of his individual achievement, but also partly because history and philosophy of science was very fashionable in those days.  The leading exponents of this approach to philosophy were at that time international stars with all the concomitant privileges.  All this was to change soon, when history and philosophy of science became unfashionable, and came to be seen as a fringe discipline.

Feyerabend’s professorship in London was not at the LSE, but in the department of history and philosophy of science at UCL.  Much later I was to become a member of this department, when it had acquired its new name of Science and Technology Studies, but, as a graduate student, my connections were with LSE and Cambridge, and so I did not know what was going on in history and philosophy of science at UCL.  I cannot therefore say what Feyerabend did at UCL.  I only got to know him because he visited LSE on a regular basis.

Most visitors to the department of philosophy at LSE at that time would come to the Popper seminar, but Feyerabend did not do so.  I only remember seeing him once among the audience of the Popper seminar, and I never heard him speak at the seminar.  He had been a student and research assistant of Popper’s in the early 1950s, and his relations with Popper had already gone through the usual cycle of friendship, followed by disagreements and estrangement.  By the mid-1960s, Feyerabend seemed anxious to avoid Popper as much as possible.  On the other hand, Feyerabend was very friendly with Lakatos, who was his favourite partner for philosophical discussions.  So Feyerabend mainly visited LSE to see Lakatos.

At this time, I was not only a PhD student of Lakatos, but also worked as his research assistant.  My activities in this latter capacity were carried out at a desk in Lakatos’ office.  I first met Feyerabend when I was sitting at my desk in Lakatos’ office.  Feyerabend entered the office to call on Lakatos, and I was introduced to him.  Feyerabend was a well-built man with striking good looks of a blond, northern European kind.  Most of his photographs do not capture his good looks.  Perhaps he was not photogenic.  He had been partly crippled by a bullet in the spine during the war, and walked with crutches.  I learnt later that his war wound gave him a great deal of pain for the rest of his life, but I did not guess this from meeting Feyerabend himself, as he was invariably friendly and affable and always appeared to be in good spirits.

Feyerabend, like Lakatos and Popper, was an unusual character, but, while I have some rather tentative hypotheses about Lakatos’ and Popper’s psychologies, I have to say that Feyerabend, whom I knew less well, always remained mysterious to me.  There seemed to be contradictions in Feyerabend which I could never understand.  I would say from my personal acquaintance with Feyerabend that he was always kind and reasonable.  In his correspondence with Lakatos, Feyerabend always comes across as kind and pleasant, and altogether lacking the harsh streak which existed in Lakatos’ character and which one finds in his letters as well.  Yet Feyerabend tells us in his autobiography (1995, p. 39) that, during the war. he considered joining the SS.  Admittedly Feyerabend was only 14 when Hitler took over Austria, so that, subjected to Nazi propaganda as a naïve school boy, he may have become partly convinced.  Still, it seems surprising that someone of a kind disposition should ever want to join the SS.  Feyerabend was always very reasonable in everyday life, and yet in his philosophy became the prophet of irrationality, writing a book with the title: Farewell to Reason.  By contrast, Lakatos who always defended rationality in his philosophy was often carried away by emotion in everyday life.

Feyerabend was particularly nice towards students, and, despite his international fame, never ‘pulled rank’.  I lived in a flat in London which I rented with some fellow students.  On one occasion, we decided to give a party, and I invited Lakatos, who regularly invited me to parties at his flat. Lakatos said he would come, but could he bring Paul Feyerabend?  Naturally I said I would be delighted if Feyerabend came along.  Feyerabend appeared to be completely in his element at this student party.  I remember him sitting on a sofa, and telling me that there was no reason to regard the writings of Marshall McLuhan as any less scientific than the writings of mainstream physicists.  Marshall McLuhan was a well-known media guru of the 1960s, who became famous for the slogan:  The Medium is the Message.

Although Feyerabend was employed by UCL, Lakatos persuaded him to give a course of lectures at LSE.  Unlike Lakatos and Popper, Feyerabend prepared his lectures carefully, and delivered them in a brilliant fashion. Feyerabend was very interested in theatre, and was even offered the job of assistant to Bertold Brecht in Berlin.  Feyerabend comments in his autobiography (1995, p. 73): “I said no and stayed in Vienna.  I once thought (and said so in print) that this was the biggest mistake of my life.  Today I am not so sure.”

Feyerabend’s showed great interest in Galileo, and wrote extensively on him This interest may have been partly stimulated by Brecht’s play:  The Life of Galileo.  The very dramatic style in which Feyerabend delivered his lectures must surely have been influenced by his love of the theatre.  As Feyerabend was somewhat crippled by his war wound, and used a crutch, this might well have put him at a disadvantage as a lecturer; but he managed to turn this apparent disadvantage to an advantage.  While lecturing he moved about with surprising agility, and gestured with his crutch for emphasis, or to point to the blackboard.  He reminded me of Long John Silver in the well-known film of Treasure Island.  His style may also have been influenced by Laurence Olivier’s film portrayal of Richard III.

Feyerabend naturally adopted the historical approach to philosophy, and obviously had a very strong interest in history.  Since he was an avid reader, he had acquired a remarkably extensive historical knowledge.  He used his great erudition to give brilliant outlines of the general character of historical periods.  I remember very vividly his account of the Middle Ages.  He quoted from a book giving instructions to priests on how to preach.  The author advised the priest to describe in great detail the sufferings of the damned in hell.  This should be continued “until at least two or three women have fainted”.  At this stage, the priest could pass on to another point. Feyerabend also described the illnesses with which people were afflicted in the Middle Ages, adding that not just people but also their cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens were frequently ill.

Feyerabend’s course of lectures was not disjointed, like that of Popper, but on the contrary was unified by a main theme.  This was the attempt to demonstrate that during the period of the Copernican revolution, the study of astronomy and mechanics was less rational and empirically based than the contemporary study of witchcraft.  Feyerabend used as his source for the theory of witchcraft, a book called Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Wicked Women).  In his 1978 (p. 92), he says:  “In 1484 the Roman Catholic Church published the Malleus Malificarum, the outstanding textbook on witchcraft.”  He adds that the Malleus is “superior to almost every physics, biology, chemistry textbook of today.”  This last remark is very much in line with the lectures which I heard him give.

Feyerabend brought to his lectures an old leather-bound copy of the Malleus Maleficarum in Latin.  As very few, if any, of the audience could read Latin, this put us at a disadvantage in argument, since we had to rely on Feyerabend’s translations into English.  Feyerabend would characteristically proceed in something like the following way.  He would read out a passage from the Malleus Maleficarum in Latin, translate it into English, and then explain why it was such a good example of sound empirical reasoning.  He would emphasise the large amount of empirical evidence which the authors gave for their views, how they considered not just one explanation of the evidence, but several, and how they used careful reasoning to decide which of the various explanations was the correct one.  After this praise for the passage from the Malleus Maleficarum, he would then quote a long passage from Galileo, and point out all its defects.  Galileo does not give any significant amount of empirical evidence for his views, his criticism of opposing views is weak, and contains logical errors, he relies on rhetorical devices to support his position rather than sound argument, and so on.  This was all part of his general claim that the Copernicans succeeded by successful propaganda, and not because they had superior empirical and rational arguments.  At times Feyerabend might have sounded like an apologist for Roman Catholicism, but I don’t think he was in reality at all religious.  He just liked to attack views which were held by most liberal- minded philosophers of science.

Feyerabend would emphasize how strong the empirical arguments against Copernicanism were.  One such argument, which was popular at the time, was that if the Earth really rotated, then someone who jumped in the air would land some distance away.  I remember Feyerabend explaining this argument in characteristically dramatic fashion by jumping in the air, and saying:  “Look if the Earth really rotated, I should have landed on the other side of the room.”  This mode of exposition made the argument unforgettable for me.

Lakatos would often come to these lectures and sit at the back of the room. Sometimes, when Feyerabend was arguing for some particularly outrageous thesis, Lakatos would no longer be able to control himself, and would utter a protest.  I remember on one occasion when Feyerabend was arguing that Aristotelian mechanics had a greater empirical content than Newtonian mechanics, because it dealt with all kinds of change such as change in colour, and not just change of place.  From the back, we heard Lakatos’ voice exclaiming:  “Oh Paul!  How can you say such a thing!” 

As can be imagined, these lectures were very enjoyable indeed, but I could not help wondering whether Feyerabend really believed what he said. Feyerabend never used formal or mathematical logic, but he had a brilliant command of informal logic and argument.  I suspect that he must have learnt his skills in argument, at least in part, from Popper.  This skill in argument, combined with enormous historical erudition, meant that Feyerabend was always able to defend his position against objections.  But did he really believe that in say 1640, the theory of witchcraft was better confirmed by empirical evidence and rational argument than Galileo’s science; or that Copernicanism triumphed over the Ptolemaic theory just because its advocates were more skilful propagandists?  Did he believe these things, or was he just saying them to create a stir, and make himself well-known for his outrageous views?  There was something very enigmatic about Feyerabend, and I was never sure what he really did believe.

In this respect, Feyerabend was very different from Lakatos and Popper. Whatever their other faults, there was little doubt that both Lakatos and Popper said what they thought, and that they were both trying to give a correct account of science, even though each of their accounts of science had, naturally enough, its limitations and defects.  But was Feyerabend really trying to give a correct account of science in his 1975 book:  Against Method?  Did he really believe that ‘anything goes’, and that scientific medicine should not be considered superior to the ministrations of witch doctors?  Many philosophers of science have accused Feyerabend of frivolity, and of using his great intellectual talents to provide an ingenious defence of obviously absurd positions.  He has also been accused of bringing history and philosophy of science into disrepute by giving what to outsiders must have seemed like a reduction ad absurdum of the whole approach. Certainly there was a sharp decline in the popularity of history and philosophy of science after 1975, and Feyerabend may have been partly responsible, though I am sure that there were many other causes, quite apart from Feyerabend’s writings, of the change in philosophical fashion which occurred after 1975.

My own view is that Feyerabend’s general position is indeed absurd and unbelievable, but that, nonetheless, his writings have great value, not least because they are so well argued and draw on such a range of examples from the history of science.  Skilful argument for an absurd position is always intellectually valuable, because it poses a problem.  In this case, nearly all philosophers of science would agree that there are rational and empirical reasons for preferring science to witchcraft, but Feyerabend’s writings show that there are surprising difficulties in defending this common sense position.  He therefore poses to philosophers of science the problem of overcoming these difficulties.




Feyerabend, Paul (1975)  Against Method, Verso Edition, 1978.

Feyerabend, Paul (1978) Science in a Free Society, Verso Edition, 1982.

Feyerabend, Paul (1995) Killing Time, University of Chicago Press.

Motterlini, Matteo (ed.)  (1999)  For and Against Method, University of  Chicago Press.