Jamie Shaw

Post-doctoral Fellow, Leibniz University of Hanover (Germany)

A Feyerabend testimonial

November 2020

The first philosophy of science course I took was in the Fall term of 2011. The course was essentially, despite its title, a course in science and technology studies. I didn’t have any real expectations coming into the course. I had been enthralled by a postmodernism course I had taken previously, and was attracted to Nietzsche’s reflections about the overconfidence allotted to scientific knowledge. The course, run by Sergio Sismondo, was outstanding and would change my life. 

As the course neared an end, I sent Sergio an email – asking for suggestions for literature on the ‘philosophical background’ of the course. He recommended Bruno Latour’s Science in Action, David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and David Henry’s Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. I got them for Christmas and read them within the week. 

The next year, Sergio and I did a reading course on some of these materials – from Fleck, to Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Bloor. I never felt so captivated before. Each thinker seemed fearless – unwilling to capitulate to what ‘sounded right’ (a phrase that always struck me as dogmatic and an excuse not to learn). Like most undergrads, I had never thought of science like any of these thinkers did and I certainly felt the gestalt switch Kuhn so often referred to (except I would feel it every few weeks). Never before had I realized how little I knew, how much more there was to learn, and how even the most intuitive ideas can be hideously mistaken.

While each of these figures entranced me to some degree, it was Against Method that stood out the most for a few reasons. First, Feyerabend appeared to be struggled with the same conundrum I was at that age – finding out where to anchor rationality in a world of incredible diversity. To this day, I don’t think he ever found a way to have a coherent view that retained his desire to be intellectual rigorous (in some sense of the word) while being an anarchist. I remember when he says, at the beginning of chapter 4, that “every idea, no matter how ancient or absurd, can contribute to the growth of our knowledge.” After reading this, I went through many personal notes for ideas of lifestyles that I previously thought were absurd – how much more I got from them after looking at them again with fresh eyes! I remember one friend was particularly into numerology. I don’t think I ever became convinced of any of the deeper metaphysical claims she made, but I remember being amazed at a style of meditation she taught me which worked!  It also led me to take ideas about the reality of numbers more seriously than I had before.

Second, his close attention to history and his obvious knowledge of scientific achievements. The postmodern thought I engaged with before had the fault, I thought, that its proponents knew very little of the science they criticized. It was clear Feyerabend was an insider, making his critical discussions of scientific method all the more poignant. As much as I loved my undergraduate studies, much of the philosophy seemed so abstract that it was hard to bring into contact with something concrete. I never wanted to do philosophy for the sake of doing philosophy – this struck me as something a rich person detached from everyday life would want. I always wanted a philosophy that would help me make some sort of concrete difference. Feyerabend was the first thinker I encountered and understood as having the same ambitions.

Third was his sense of humor. As much as I loved any philosophy I could get my hands on, it certainly could wear on my sensibilities when it seemed too dry and formal. I tend to think being silly is a virtue and not necessarily opposed to trying to take a topic ‘seriously.’ As Feyerabend once wrote, “the heaviest task often needs the lightest hand.” Having a bit of personal hostility towards anything that smelled like elitism, his writing style was remarkably refreshing. He didn’t take himself too seriously, but still the ideas were clearly important. I finally felt like there was someone like me who succeeded as a philosopher. 

Almost immediately I noticed changes in my thinking patterns. I began to search for strange and unusual historical episodes, rather than either dismiss them or only concede to them as an abstract possibility. Most of my prejudices about politics, social life, and just about anything I stood firmly on gradually withered (although new prejudices also emerged, especially once Trump was elected). But the disenchantment I got from postmodern anti-foundationalism, where I felt intellectually impotent without any solid foundations, was replaced by a curious desire to explore unknown possibilities. I began to see my intellectual purpose shift from being some sort of prophet of ‘the truth’ to someone who broke down barriers that stand in the way of happiness and personal fulfillment.  

A few years in academia passed and I had moved on to more contemporary philosophical issues (namely, realism) because I thought my job was discuss whatever was newest. I joined the University of Western Ontario for my PhD with the plans on working on a dissertation on realism. Things happened, so the plans changed. I thought that if I was going to spend a few years reading something intensely, it may as well be something fun and what brought me here in the first place. So I wrote my dissertation on Feyerabend’s pluralism under the supervision of Kathleen Okruhlik. The faculty at Western were perfect mentors for this project. Together, they struck the perfect balance of being open to wherever my reflections led me while not holding back on criticism.

Feyerabend’s pluralism became central to my work in a number of ways. But still more importantly, his thought became a source of spiritual empowerment. I’m sure if I had the chance to tell him this, he would laugh and make fun of me. This became evident on what could have been a very difficult night.

My mom had died the day after I defended my PhD. After finishing the dissertation formally, I was thrust back onto a harsh job market where I found next to nothing. I was homeless for 8 months, eating roughly 5 meals per week, and constantly feeling ashamed for my lack of professional achievements (especially compared to my friends, who were all flourishing). Most of the time, I could sleep on a friend’s couch – but this wasn’t always a possibility. So a few times, I slept on park benches. Once, I did this two nights in a row – which forced me to realize that I am a homeless person. I found a place to rest and began to wonder whether this career, which I freely chose knowing that this was a possible consequence, was something to regret. I began to retrace my steps and how I got to where I am. I decided to take out my copy of Against Method from my bag, which I used as a pillow, and read it – remembering how important this book was to my choice of career. After reading through the energetic first chapter, culminating with ‘anything goes’, I was able to say to myself without a shadow of a doubt: this is the right career for me; this is what gives me joy and where my ambitions truly lie. I got a great night sleep and the next day I began writing the grant application that got me a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto which got me off the streets. 

I always felt a kinship with Feyerabend, despite never having met him. A part of me would like to think we could have been good friends and made each other laugh. Still, I am grateful for what I learned from him and thankful to have an intellectual mentor who I feel empowered to scrutinize to the best of my abilities.