James Griesemer

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy

University of California, Davis

Reflection on taking a class with Feyerabend

February 18, 2021

I arrived at UC Berkeley in the Fall of 1973 as a new freshman. For a suburban kid, it was a bit overwhelming, living on the seventh floor of a high-rise dormitory with a view of the city of Oakland out my window, lots of traffic in the streets, and lots of people everywhere. It was exciting too. The campus was large, complex and older than most of the built-environment I had ever experienced. Its many departmental libraries invited quiet exploration and intellectual engagement. The libraries and the immense diversity of potential topics of study listed in the course catalog were some of the things that most attracted me to the campus. The city had lots of cheap cafes offering places to study for the price of a cappuccino, including Café Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue, which featured a sign on the wall behind the counter where the espresso machines sat: “Heroin dealers not welcome.” I was later told that it’s where Kuhn and Feyerabend used to meet and talk when Kuhn was writing his Structure of Scientific Revolutions book. “The Avenue” was a perpetual street fair that was my daily path to campus.

I went to Berkeley with a pre-law plan, though I didn’t yet know what major to choose. Eventually, I landed in a Genetics major, still with the intention of going to law school, to pursue public interest law. Recombinant DNA was just breaking as a new technology that even the scientists developing it feared might be quite dangerous. Eventually I joined the Undergraduate Genetics Association (UGA — the "opal" (or "umber") stop codon in the genetic code). We were very clever with our name, choosing it to represent our mission to stop reckless uses of genetic technology and to promote thoughtful reflection on the impact of science on society before its development and deployment. We were offended by the public rhetoric of science savoring the potential value for research and promising eventual (but likely out of reach) benefits to society. A genetics major seemed to me like a good segue to a career in law in the public interest, defending society against science. Although that is famously a Feyerabendian theme, Feyerabend’s actual influence on me had a different origin and a rather different outcome because I became disenchanted by the idea of Law School after talking to actual students at the cafe across the street from Boalt Hall.

Classes at Berkeley were a bit overwhelming, at first. Some of them were small and intense. Others were large and intense. Everything at Berkeley was intense: the Vietnam War was just ending, the Watergate investigations were ongoing, and in winter, the Symbionese Liberation Army abducted newspaper heiress Patty Hearst from her Berkeley apartment a few blocks away from me and turned her into a domestic terrorist. I had been traveling through Europe the summer before I arrived at Berkeley and many of us kids from the US put Canadian flags on our backpacks out of shame or defiance of the corruption of the US government. I had also applied that summer before college to be a conscientious objector as I turned 18 and first faced the military draft (though the draft ended right after I was approved). Hearst’s kidnap shut down streets near me. By the end of my first year at Berkeley, I knew for sure I had left the suburbs.

My first year in college was eye-opening in many ways, not least because I took a couple of philosophy classes. One was “theory of knowledge” with Paul Feyerabend. I had no idea what to expect. The class was held in the newly opened Physical Sciences Lecture Hall, a large amphitheater with a long table and many blackboards at the front. When I arrived, the hall was filled to capacity, including what looked like the whole school football team lined up in the back row. There was no teacher at the front. We sat expectantly, and noisily. I sat with a new friend from the dorm. Then, there was a rumbling noise at the front and the whole thing — table and blackboards — began to rotate. It was a stage. Around with the rotating stage came a new table and blackboards, with Feyerabend rotating around with them, as if he were the next chemistry or physics experiment set up for students to learn about, leaning on his walking cane. When the stage came to a halt, he walked around the table and started writing with chalk on the board in a loopy hand the titles of books: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, a collection of plays by Bertolt Brecht, and a dozen others I don’t now remember. Even though I didn’t know what to expect of a theory of knowledge class, this certainly wasn’t the kind of booklist I expected. (I had tried to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in English translation in high school—I think to annoy my teacher and friends, mostly.) 

When Feyerabend finished writing his book list on the board, he walked back around to the front of the table, hopped up on it, and sat on the table facing the crowd. He used his cane as a pointer and waving behind his back, rather wildly without turning around, he gestured at the titles while he told us in heavily Austrian-accented English about each book. He told us that to pass the class, we had to read three books on the list and write essays on them for the final exam. We copied down all the titles and were dismissed. I met with my friend after class to discuss what had happened. We agreed that we couldn’t understand him very well due to his accent and our inexperience, so I planned to bring a tape recorder to class until we could learn to understand him better. By the next class meeting, I understood why the room was so full the first day.

Only about a dozen of us showed up. I thought the rest had dropped the class. We found out that this meant that each pair of participating students would effectively get a TA (graduate student teaching assistant) of our own. My friend and I agreed with our TA to have our discussion sections in a cafe. The class would, effectively, become a seminar with Feyerabend. It was great. Feyerabend really argued with us students, not as equals in the argument, but as if our views really merited his attention, at least sufficiently to ridicule our naive positions and push us into deeper understanding of science and how to criticize it. He seemed especially fond of engaging a few of my classmates who claimed to know something about physics. Feyerabend turned their “understanding” upside down. I think we all learned not to be so smug and snot-nosed about what we “knew.” I realized later that during my course with Feyerabend, he must have then been writing Against Method, which I bought in hard-cover as soon as it came out in 1975 after it appeared on the shelves of University Press Bookstore. I know now that he had been treating us to his active research for that book as part of an introductory course. Now that’s a research university and a lesson I kept with me for my own teaching (though I’m sure my students no more realize this than I did as a student of Feyerabend’s).

At the end of the course, the final exam was held in a basketball court. All 500 students showed up to write their book reports and earn their “pass.” For me, the course was already over — the book reports were really pro forma; I had already learned so much, so differently from what I had expected, that the exam was really a let down and a sad reminder that the course was at an end. The exam was almost as much of a letdown as my sense of astonishment at what most of the students had passed up, in choosing not to participate in that remarkable seminar.

Feyerabend pushed me in that class to develop two philosophical habits that endure to this day: a multi-perspectivism about and within science, and a contrarian spirit. This mattered because after I majored in Genetics, I went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, to earn a master’s degree in Biology and a PhD in “Conceptual Foundations of Science.” The title of my degree from Chicago is quite funny because, true to my Feyerabendian beginnings, the only thing we in my cohort at Chicago really knew about science is that it doesn’t have any conceptual foundations. His liberatory philosophy of science opened my eyes to the diversity of scientific practices and put me on the road to what much later became called “the philosophy of science in practice.” Feyerabend taught me to see how the multiple perspectives one could take on science undermined — made a joke of, really — the idea that getting to the bottom of science means finding its true foundations. In hindsight, I can’t think of a better intervention for beginning undergraduates on Feyerabend’s part than to ask us to read about witchcraft of the Azande and to challenge us to find a rule, any rule, that distinguishes science from magic.

I also remember (fondly) how my PKF-inspired, life-long interest in the work of Bertolt Brecht conspired with my early interests in rhetoric and literary theory, in parallel with my interest in philosophy. My fascination with Brecht got me in trouble with Roger Hahn, a historian of science at Berkeley. When I took Hahn’s class on the scientific revolution and wrote an essay for him on Galileo, I drew on my thinking about Brecht’s play, Galileo, and wrote from the point of view of Brecht’s theory of theater. I remember that my essay was returned with big slashes of red marker down most pages and a very poor grade. Although Hahn was a student of the relations between science and society, he apparently didn’t like the theoretical aesthetics of a Brechtian perspective on Galileo, or perhaps just my cheek. What stayed with me from the experience was the realization that Hahn was right: I had not done a genuine job of historical scholarship nor paid much attention to important historical details and nuance, things I later came to value highly. I deserved that poor mark.

I also learned that taking a contrarian position to received views or common knowledge about science is both philosophically important and highly entertaining. I have since made a career of multi-perspectival contrarianism as a philosopher of biology, to the extent of arguing that philosophers shouldn’t take my perspective too seriously either. I have Paul Feyerabend to thank for putting me on that path, even though he surely didn’t take any particular notice of me as a student and though he might be quite disappointed that I didn’t turn out quite as radical a commentator on science and society as he might have wished. He did inspire in me enough of a sense of humor about philosophy, though, to truly appreciate it when, a few years after I started teaching at UC Davis in 1983, an hour away from Berkeley, after I had lent my precious hard-cover copy of Against Method to a student, she declared that she was an anarchist (of both the epistemological and political kinds) and would not be returning my copy of the book. I could not argue with her.