Guido Bacciagaluppi

Associate Professor of Foundations of Physics, Utrecht University

Memories of Paul Feyerabend in Zürich

In October 1984 I began an undergraduate degree in physics at ETH Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Back in the 19th century, the founders of ETH in their wisdom had set up a Faculty of Humanities, and it was required of all students that they should enroll in a humanities course each semester – something I (unlike many others) was very keen on when I filled in my first enrollment form. At the time, however, Paul Feyerabend was spending his winters at Berkeley and teaching in Zürich only in the summers, so he was not there during my first semester. (Instead I followed courses by another wonderful teacher, Abner Shimony – something that ended up determining my future career.) The first I saw of Feyerabend – before he started his regular courses in the next semester – was when he introduced a special lecture by his guest Thomas Kuhn in a bursting full Auditorium Maximum at ETH. Feyerabend was brief but effective, and underlined particularly Kuhn’s vast influence by exclaiming (in English) “I am a Kuhnian!”. Thus began a memorable evening (in the course of which I also made lifelong friends). It was going to remain my only (if insightful) live experience of Thomas Kuhn but my first of very many of Paul Feyerabend!

From the beginning of my second semester I was in regular attendance at virtually all of Feyerabend’s courses and seminars. (One year he was on sabbatical, and I took a more intimate course about Kuhn taught by Paul Hoyningen-Huene.) When spending the semester in Zürich, Feyerabend would hold one lecture course and one series of seminars. Both (as I recall) consisted of weekly two-hour sessions in a large auditorium seating some 200 on the Hönggerberg campus. After my first year I no longer had normal lectures there, because I had switched to mathematics, but twice a week I would take the shuttle bus from ETH main building in town to go and hear Feyerabend. His lecture courses tended to be on some specialised topic, while the seminars had a broader scope and often included guest speakers, but both were packed. I remember a series of seminars on Konrad Lorenz (who however was too elderly at the time to come as a guest), and David Bohm speaking about holism – whom Feyerabend knew well from their time at Bristol in the 1950s. (Bohm also talked about his hidden variables theory for Hans Primas’s seminar in the chemistry department.)

It was Feyerabend’s lectures that were the truly amazing experience. The topics tended to be characteristic of him. One year, for instance, he lectured on “History of Atomism” – a favourite example of his of a theory that had gone through phases of being very much the underdog, but in hindsight had been worth keeping alive. Feyerabend had taught himself ancient Greek to be able to read the original texts (I am no longer sure whether it was for that particular course or in order to read the ancient sceptics – who he explained would always make a point of arguing for both sides in a debate), and he clearly had a facility with languages – instantly translating into German any book he held in his hand to quote from. But the stated topic of the course would often turn out to be almost by the by. As a rule Feyerabend stayed on script for the first 10 minutes, then the questions started. And from then on anything might happen: often the lecture went off from one tangent to another for the rest of the two hours. Feyerabend turned into a volcano of brilliance, and into a source of bafflement for his audience. Remarks such as “I am a philistine!” (“Ich bin ein Banause!”) – when he was criticising the figure of the intellectual – or that a fascist might be OK to have a beer with, still retain their shock value in my memory. He was a phenomenally quick thinker, and as far as my slower mind could tell, his rhetorical brilliance always graced an argumentation that was impeccably rigorous. (I remember only once a friend of mine calling him out mid-argument on a logical fallacy.) Feyerabend might have styled himself an “entertainer”,    but the entertainment he provided was always of the highest intellectual quality. I very soon realised that the first questions that had sprung into my mind were rather naïve (did he really believe that science did not follow at least some very general rules, such as hypothetical-deductive reasoning?). I could let others ask those, sit back, and enjoy the show.

The Faculty of Humanities did not issue undergraduate degrees, but one could take humanities courses as a component of one’s final exams, and my fast-thinking friend (Thomas Breuer) did one with Feyerabend, who asked him: “What did you dislike in my lectures?”. As for me, after a couple of years the only thing I started to find slightly annoying was that so much time would be taken up by very predictable questions (to which by then I also knew the answers). So in fact – for the first and only time – in the last year Feyerabend was lecturing in Zürich before his retirement I decided not to attend his course. I did make sure, however, to be at the very last lecture. Feyerabend never gave a farewell lecture at ETH, but even he could not have surpassed himself when he casually declared (on the grounds that people could always talk to each other): “Relativism is silly!” (“Relativismus ist dumm!”)…

I regret never having had much direct personal interaction with him, but there are a number of signs that mark me as a former student of Paul Feyerabend. For one, I own a copy of the Malleus maleficarum (which I picked up some years later at Moe’s in Berkeley). For another, I have been immunised against facile readings of what relativism is supposed to be. “Anything goes” is not itself a methodological prescription but the cry of desperation of the rationalist. A relativist is not someone who worries every time they sit down on a chair whether the chair will disappear underneath them (a sketch Feyerabend used to perform while explaining this). I took away that a relativist is someone who values tolerance very highly, but still within limits (human sacrifice for instance is not acceptable). More importantly, I think it is also something that I have been putting into practice. Finally, I find that my daily work in the foundations of physics, especially quantum mechanics, consists in fact of fighting for the underdog: Bohm’s theory, spontaneous collapse theories, Everett’s many-worlds theory, and other less mainstream approaches to quantum mechanics. I always try to make the strongest possible case for each. All of them are or have been unfairly marginalised and even ostracised (sometimes tragically so for the people involved). But all provide valuable insights into quantum theory and may prove even more valuable in the future. I cannot say whether I have developed this attitude thanks to Feyerabend’s teaching, or whether    it has come from the exposure to the peculiar history of the field. (It has been plausibly suggested that the contrast between Bohm’s theory and “orthodox quantum mechanics” was a contributing factor to the development of Feyerabend’s own ideas.) But in this sense, as a point of fact, in my own work I am a Feyerabendian.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!