John L. Heilbron

Professor Emeritus of the History of Science, University of California, Berkeley 

Some recollections of Paul Feyerabend

28 January 2021

I first met Paul when I was a graduate student in the History Department at Berkeley working with Tom (as I then did not address him) Kuhn. One day Kuhn told me that Karl Popper was to come to town for a shoot-out over The structure of scientific revolutions. Popper did not want a public event but ask that Paul be present as a witness to the devastation he would wreak. So Kuhn thought that he too needed a second and I, as his senior graduate student and by then collaborator, received the charge. The venue was Kuhn's house. We assembled, to almost uncontainable expectations. Kuhn chose the weapon: a pack of cigarettes. That created an impasse. Popper could not accept the choice since he was, or claimed to be, deathly allergic to smoke; whereas Kuhn, a chain smoker, could not reason without it. Paul tried to find a solution but the clear logic of the situation defeated even his brilliance. The match had to be postposed, indefinitely.

In later years, when I too was a professor at Berkeley, I used to run into Paul frequently on the campus as we had offices in adjoining buildings. On one occasion I injudiciously entered into a discussion with him about some fine point in the interpretation of quantum physics. Later that day I received reprints of several of his articles on the subject. Nothing unusual in that. What was unusual and characteristic, the reprints came with the advice not to read most of them. Why not? Paul had come to regard large sections of them as nonsense. He was an honest as well as an incisive scholar.

He was also a popular lecturer and often had standing room only in his introductory undergraduate courses. To solve the resultant seating problem, he announced that students who had the good sense not to come to class would receive an A grade. As might have been expected, enrollments soared and attendance dropped. This presented a problem to the committee that oversaw the conduct of courses. A few of its members, who did not have the brains to think of Paul's ingenious way of raising enrollments, considered it a capital offense. Others, thinking a headless philosopher virtually useless in the classroom, urged leniency. Knowing that Paul's magnetism would fill his classroom even if he could not offer everyone an A, the committee decided to limit him to giving only two grades, "pass" or "not pass." He had no hard feelings, for which I was grateful, as I was the chair of that Solomonic committee.