Nancey Claire Murphy

Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena (California)

A Tribute to Paul Feyerabend

27 Sept 202???

There was only one time when Paul was too busy for me. I’d phoned him (being one of the few who knew the code to get him to pick up) but he asked me to call back later after his favorite TV show was over. Of course I wanted to know what he’d been watching. It turns out that it was also my mother’s favorite, the soap opera “Edge of Night.” This might be one of the clues that had led me to think he was relieved by the fact that I never talked philosophy with him.

In an undergraduate course, I’d read one of his articles, “Against Method,” a prequel to his best known book.  Not even knowing at the time where he was teaching, I had pursued him to Berkeley, only to find out upon arrival that he was seriously ill and not taking new PhD students; in addition he was very elusive—never keeping office hours and seldom answering his phone.  

I have never been quite sure how to account for my immediate and strong attraction to Feyerabend’s work. In part, he was the sharpest critic of the theory of scientific method (neopositivism) that had ruined psychology for me—the only observable data were human behaviors; no one could see inside the black box (the brain) that was influenced by the input of reinforcement schedules and the output of behavior. Perhaps it was also an unarticulated sense that his openness to a variety of methods of inquiry would translate into a rationale for openness to a variety of worldviews—something I would need at Berkeley as never before. I had grown up in a Catholic home, attended the same small Catholic school that my father had, and did my undergraduate work at Creighton University, a Jesuit school. During those years there were Catholics and non-Catholics, and the differences among the latter didn’t much matter. But in the philosophy department at Berkeley I encountered philosophical atheism for the first time; I felt like the last Christian on earth. The faculty seemed to be divided only on the question of whether religion was still worth arguing against. 

Given Paul’s illness and elusiveness, I’d been assigned to a different advisor. My first sighting of Paul was at the beginning of my second quarter (January 1974), when he was scheduled to teach an undergraduate class. When I got to the assigned room I encountered a mob scene, even spilling out into the hallway. There was a limit on the class size and apparently the members of an entire fraternity were pushing into the room to get punch cards that would allow them to register. He was known to require only a final essay exam, and I’d heard that in the past he had given A’s to all the students. He now had a T.A., Gonzalo Munévar, who I suspect loved giving F’s. Apparently the frat rats hadn’t been notified. I have only one line of notes from that first day, stating that indeed the grade would be based only on a final essay using Imre Lakatos’s methodology; apparently the fight for enrolment cards had taken up most of the hour. The rest of the class (I’ve kept the notes and just reread them) was the most learned, far-reaching, and fascinating I’ve ever encountered.

The final essay I wrote used Lakatos’s concept of progress to show that Freud’s work, one of Popper’s favorite examples of non-science, was, in fact, scientific. The obvious contempt of Freud shown by all my undergraduate professors (it was the dreadful behaviorist era) propelled me to study his life and thought during the summer between my two degrees. In my essay I argued that Freud’s reorganization of previous theories by means of his recognition of both a life instinct (eros) and a death instinct (thanatos) gave him the ability to present a general theory of personality, rather than merely to attempt to explain and treat neuroses. 

To meet Lakatos’s criteria for a scientific theory he needed to add auxiliary hypotheses that would (1) explain anomalies (I listed psychosis, sadism, and narcissism); (2) provide excess content (Freud had not been interested in social phenomena before—I included family fights, hatred of other groups, and warfare); and (3) show that the excess content was corroborated. In this case it was not, in Lakatos’s original sense of making empirical predictions that later turned out to be confirmed, but it was in Eli Zahar’s sense of showing that a previously known fact could be explained more naturally than before.  Finally, (4) the new theory retained the essential core: the thesis that neurosis was anxiety resulting from repression of unconscious desires. Only now, the concept of anxiety has been broadened considerably: it is a fear reaction to danger that any sort of impulses of the id will break out and express themselves. Fear of libidinal desires are still explained as a subclass of a now much larger class of drives, including hatred and destructiveness. Thus, while I had no competing research program with which to compare it, by Lakatos’s criteria, Freudian theory needed to be counted not only as scientific but also as empirically progressive.

Gonzalo passed my essay on to Paul, who (through Gonzalo) responded that I should enroll in his next PhD seminar and present the material there. I was, of course, scared (nearly) to death but did as requested. On the day I was to present, I assumed the position—not that one; the power-position I’d learned from Michael Scriven, my then advisor—to perch on one corner of the desk in front, with one foot still on the floor and the other crossed over the knee, as if barely willing to stay and tolerate the inferiors in the room. At some point after that Paul offered to supervise my dissertation.

Surprisingly he remembered both my presentation and the (faked) confidence. Replying in 1985 to a letter I’d sent him, in which I noted that I would be going for the first time to the American Academy of Religion (religionists’ version of APA Eastern Division Meeting) and would be giving critiques of a series of papers, he wrote back later saying that he hoped my meeting had gone well, but was sure it had “from the way you flattened the objectors in my seminar.” 

Oh, the dissertation! Despite hating to go to campus (dogs, he said, always barked when he walked by due to the sound of his crutch—another good reason to hate them) he met me in the faculty lounge to discuss a plan for the dissertation. I had gotten through less than half of my first question; it contained the word “belief” and he interrupted me to ask what that meant, saying  “I don’t have any beliefs!” I was so flummoxed that I have absolutely no memory of what happened next. Somehow we reached an agreement that, rather than attempt to discuss my chapters as I wrote them, I would mail them to him. He would read them and send back comments. So after each chapter I received several single-spaced pages of criticisms and questions. After giving myself several days to recover from each such onslaught, I crossed out criticisms and questions that no one could be expected to answer and then rather easily responded to the rest. 

Feyerabend didn’t mind my ignoring much of what he had to say (the “impossibles” took up about three-fourths of each critique). He had written in “Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem” that those who attempt to provide a coherent picture of the world are all too often held up by “philosophical bickering,” and ought to learn to “look through the arguments which are presented against them.” 

In the midst of my dissertation writing, Gonzalo, by then having already graduated, came back for a visit, and the three of us were on our way to lunch. He had come up with what I believe he thought was a brilliant way to embarrass both me and Paul at the same time. He told Paul that it was widely said that he required his women students to sleep with him in exchange for reading each of their chapters. Paul’s expressive eyebrows shot up and he said “But I don’t even have any female students.” Gonzalo poked his elbow in my direction and asked “What about her?” End of that conversation. 

My dissertation again involved psychology (I’d double-majored in psychology and philosophy, beginning with the first; I’d expected to be learning how the human mind worked, but instead came away knowing more about how to train rats in a Skinner box). The title of my dissertation is “Progress and Proliferation in Psychiatry.”  Its primary purpose was to accumulate a bit of confirmation for Paul’s “methodological” advice; that is, to allow for the proliferation of competing theories in science, especially because what can be noticed in the world depends heavily on different points of view concerning what the world contains. However, his “anti-methodology” was offered as medicine for a particular set of circumstances. In the fields of psychiatric medicine, clinical psychology, psychiatric social work, and all of the “talk therapies” devised since Freud’s day, I believed that the cacophonous theoretical arguments were anything but productive. 

I therefore resorted to the use of a looser term than ‘science,’ which is also used in various ways in science: ‘models.’ I used it to refer to a set of assumptions about the nature of the subject of study, which serve the purpose of simplifying reality, and also of providing general guidelines for both theorizing and the practices of treating mental illness. By means of great oversimplification I settled on two: the medical model and the psycho-social model. The medical model sees mental illness as symptomatic of physical abnormalities, most likely in the brain. The psycho-social model sees mental illness as the effect of a physiologically normal person attempting to cope with an abnormal social environment.

As I wrote the dissertation I was much helped by a mentor in the psychology department, Prof. Gerald Mendelsohn. We worked particularly on the statistical methods that were needed to show whether psychotherapy could be shown to work. The findings of meta-analyses, even of a hundred individual studies, produced such disappointing results that I concluded that the effects of psychotherapy could scarcely be claimed to represent more than a placebo effect.

To support Paul’s proliferation thesis I needed to argue that even though the psycho-social model was noticeably less progressive at that time, it nonetheless widened our knowledge of illness considerably.  My strategy was to argue that while the placebo effect was widely known, it was in the main seen as a bothersome complication of medical research. Yet if there are entire university departments, conferences, journals, and a large herd of practitioners whose work is (largely) based on it, it can’t be written off as a mere nuisance. In fact, there seems to be no way in which the medical model can account for it. The result is that because both models have flourished side by side, we have a great deal more to learn about the phenomenon of illness than we would have had the psycho-social model been eliminated.

In fact, there are now numerous studies providing great anomalies for the medical model. For example, There is sufficient evidence that combined treatment with both pharmacology and psychotherapy together produce significantly better outcomes in cases of major depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder than either treatment alone—and each type of treatment seems to contribute about equally to the larger effect of the combined treatment. 

Near the time I finished my PhD I realized two things. First, the majority of examples used in philosophy of science those days were from physics; not having a grasp of physics (or the mathematics I would need to learn it), I would never be a first-rate philosopher of science. I did not relish a career in which I would always have to be making second-hand use of science. Second, I realized that the question of the status of religious knowledge was more challenging and more existentially engaging for me than that of scientific knowledge. The philosopher of science must (or as Paul would say, must not try to) answer the question “In what does the rationality of science consist?” Few besides Feyerabend (in those days) would question whether science is rational. The philosopher of religion, in contrast, must provide an apologia for the very possibility of religious knowledge. I decided to pursue this topic, and reasoned that if the philosopher of science needs first-hand knowledge of science, the philosopher of religion must need first-hand knowledge of (at least one) religion. There being no religious studies department at Berkeley, I took advantage of the presence (also in Berkeley) of the Graduate Theological Union (affectionately called “Holy Hill”; I’m not entirely sure about the “holy,” but it was certainly a very steep walk uphill from the north side of UCB).

So a few months after graduating from UCB, I enrolled in the ThD program, rather than the PhD, since the one difference in the programs was that the PhD required students to have a professor from Berkeley on their dissertation committees. But I had had my fill of most of them. It was said behind my back when it became known that I was going on to study theology: “What a waste of a good education!” If I’d needed someone from Berkeley, Paul, of course, would have been my only choice.

It was not that I didn’t want to stay in touch with him. In addition to being able to call him, I knew his address because I was his regular chauffeur. He didn’t drive in those days, thank God. He later had a car in Zürich, where he once drove me and my husband to lunch while we were on sabbatical nearby; I estimate that his driving counts as the second most frightening experience of my life!

When I started my second dissertation I asked him if he’d be willing to read and comment on it; I was delighted that he so readily agreed.

I had never thought of myself as a “Lakatosian” until I started studying theology. If ad hoc reasoning is a problem in science, it seemed to me to be much more tempting in theology. So my dissertation, titled “Theology in the Age of Probable Reasoning,” was a proposal to use Lakatos’s methodology for theology—a methodology, he wrote, that was specifically designed to rule out ad hoc reasoning.  I’ve often quoted two passages, one from Lakatos and the other from Antony Flew, a philosophical theologian, to illustrate the parallels. Here is the one from Lakatos: 

The story is about an imaginary case of planetary misbehavior. A physicist of the pre-Einstein era takes Newton’s mechanics and his law of gravitation, (N), the accepted initial conditions, I, and calculates, with their help, the path of a newly discovered small planet, p. But the planet deviates from the calculated path. Does our Newtonian physicist consider that the deviation was forbidden by Newton’s theory and therefore that, once established, it refutes the theory N? No. He suggests that there must be a hitherto unknown planet p' which perturbs the path of p. He calculates the mass orbit, etc., of this hypothetical planet and then asks an experimental astronomer to test his hypothesis. The planet p' is so small that even the biggest available telescopes cannot possibly observe it:  the experimental astronomer applies for a research grant to build yet a bigger one. In three years’ time the new telescope is ready. Were the unknown planet p' to be discovered, it would be hailed as a new victory of Newtonian science. But it is not. Does our scientist abandon Newton’s theory and his idea of the perturbing planet? No. He suggests that a cloud of cosmic dust hides the planet from us. He calculates the location and properties of this cloud and asks for a research grant to send up a satellite to test his calculations. Were the satellite’s instruments (possibly new ones, based on a little-tested theory) to record the existence of the conjectural cloud, the result would be hailed as an outstanding victory for Newtonian science. But the cloud is not found. Does our scientist abandon Newton’s theory, together with the idea of the perturbing planet and the idea of the cloud which hides it? No. He suggests that . . . . 

I had the opportunity to present this imaginary case at a conference in which Flew was one of the main speakers. I then read his own “parable of the Gardener”:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.  Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” 

This juxtaposition of stories suggests that independent corroboration of auxiliary hypotheses is at least as relevant in theology as it is in science. In addition, it was easy to show that theological schools had (or could be rationally reconstructed to have) the same structural characteristics as a Lakatosian research program (hard core, auxiliary hypotheses, analogues to theories of instrumentation, a positive heuristic—in this case, to treat all of the standard theological doctrines in a way consistent with the core). The fact that there are so many varieties of Christian theology can be explained by identifying the different core theories to which each school adheres. Another major source of disagreement involves the auxiliary hypotheses that are analogous to theories of instrumentation in science, since these in turn result in differences in what count as data for the theologian, or, as in the case of Scripture, what counts as an authentic mode of interpretation of the texts.

After Paul had read enough of the dissertation to see where I was going he called me a “methodological dictator.” I reminded him that he had said or written in many instances that dicta needed to be aimed at the appropriate audience in an appropriate time and place. For example, he wrote: “I Think there is very little we can say ‘in general’, that the observations we make and the advice we must give take a specific (historical, social psychological, physical etc.) situation into account that we cannot proceed unless we have studied this situation in detail.”      I told him that theologians now needed a credible (credible because apparently scientific) dictator. He folded, I’d got him! 

This discussion continued in letters and postcards. In a postcard (Jan. 16, 1986) he wrote: “It seems to me that there are cowardly subjects and bold subjects. Bold subjects go ahead and do what they are doing and let others worry about method. Physics in some of its phases is a bold subject. Cowardly subjects look around, try to get support from what the bigmouths of society regard as reputable disciplines and go ahead only after the support has been given. Some sociological debates are of this kind. And then there are in between subjects that do have a subject matter but want to sell it to suspicious buyers. They will use the best PR they can lay hands on—and this, it seems to me, is what you are doing. Am I right? And note, that this is NOT an objection. . . .” In a later letter he wrote that in this confused situation methodological PR may be of great importance.

It’s interesting to note that “this confused situation” is one of long standing. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of modern theology,” titled his early and best known book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799). 

Gonzalo, in his email inviting me to contribute this essay, asked me to reflect on what role Paul’s philosophy, style, or both had played in my own work. At first I thought that there would be little to say about this. Regarding style, I can recall him looking out at a particularly glum roomful of students and brightly asking them why they were there; why don’t you go out and enjoy the sunshine?

In my case most of my students had to take one of my philosophy classes, and for many, they came with great trepidation. I often tried to relieve their anxiety by emphasizing that this was a philosophy class, not theology, so there weren’t any wrong answers. And, second, there is no such thing as a stupid question here; what may seem like one to you may turn out to be one of the most significant.

I’ve often wished I could more closely approximate his remarkable personality: in the midst of the most serious arguments he was playful and full of joy. He was one of the kindest people I have known, and I’ve been dumbfounded by the personal attacks made on him in print. At first I assumed that this was the result of the writer not having personally experienced his playfulness and rhetorical flourishes. But in the third part of Science in a Free Society he prints his responses to reviews of Against Method; the first is to a review by Joseph Agassiz,  whom he called “dear Joske,”  and throughout he indicated that they were close acquaintances.

Paul devotes most of his response to attempting to clear up misinterpretations of the book and its purpose, but there was much more nastiness that he could have called out besides Agassiz having attributed to him “hate blasts” and “scathing attacks.” For example Agassiz writes “Perhaps the book should be dismissed as a bad joke” (173), but that in spite of his “dislike of his violence and vulgarity” (176-7) he had decided to publish his review. “Perhaps he had to get so much rubbish out of his system so as to be able to start afresh” (177). “I hope he can now become the benign, flippant, exciting scholar that he so much wants to be” (177).

So how to account for my strikingly different appraisal of his personality? My first thought was that he had exercised some “reverse discrimination” by treating me as a shrinking violet who couldn’t survive his “typical” caustic manner. However, he sent me copies of letters of recommendations he’d written for me. In one, which I believe he sent in support of my admission to the G.T.U., he wrote: “From the very beginning Dr. Murphy struck me as an unusual . . . courageous person, not afraid to speak her mind or to explain her point of view. . . . She was and still is very determined, she . . . cannot be deflected by irrelevancies or attempts at intimidation.”

Regarding Paul’s influence on my thinking, I only came to recognize the magnitude of it while writing this bit of memoire. When I reread bits of his writings, I found myself recognizing over and over that I had come to think so much of what he had written so long before. Wittgenstein wrote that his type of thinking was not wanted in his present age. “Perhaps in a hundred years people will really want what I am writing.”  Regarding so much of what Paul wrote, it has taken me not half a century, but many years to appreciate.

Much of my later work has been based on the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, who is largely thought of as a philosophical ethicist, but what drew me to his writings is what I found in them regarding competing traditions of enquiry, and even at that time I recalled Paul’s insistence that Reason itself is but another tradition. To draw out all of the parallels would require an entire book, but there is one explicit point of contact in MacIntyre’s article, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science,” in which he addresses the impasse that seemed to occur in the three-way discussions among Lakatos, Kuhn, and Feyerabend.  This piece seems to have gone unnoticed by most philosophers of science. It is ironic that MacIntyre, who places so much emphasis on traditions of enquiry, gives so little recognition to the authors who have influenced him, but it’s clear from the article just mentioned that it didn’t take MacIntyre any time at all to appreciate Feyerabend’s contribution, and to do what Wittgenstein had hoped his readers (and listeners) would do: to go on.

I deeply regret that I did not take more advantage of my opportunities to spend time with Feyerabend. In part, I simply could not imagine him being interested in the company of a plain vanilla creature such as myself, and did not want to impose. Those opportunities ended in 1989. By this time, I had gotten divorced and remarried. (I wonder if Paul ever committed so grave a sin against Academia as I did: I married my advisor, James McClendon). Also, by this time he had fallen in love with Grazia. Jim and I invited him to a holiday dinner once, and he took me aside to ask me about marrying her: he was just a year younger than Jim, and apparently Grazia is close to my age. Jim and I were 27 years apart. I encouraged him wholeheartedly, explaining that I’d already seen enough acrimony in marriages between two academics at the same points in their careers—too much competition. And if one partner gets a great job offer and the other doesn’t magically get one nearby, then what? But when Jim had proposed he told me that he had already had his career, while mine was just beginning. He would go wherever I needed to go.

In the last letter I have from Paul, dated 11/02/89, he wrote: “Dear Nancey—Jim resigns and follows you to southern California. I am about to resign to follow Grazia to Rome. . . . So, you see, there are many parallels between the two of you and the two of us. . . .”

I mentioned above that Paul was suffering from an illness. He told me that it felt as though there were rats chewing inside his stomach. The doctors had gone through all the tests they could think of to make a diagnosis. When they proposed, next, exploratory surgery, Paul told them that if they didn’t even know what they were looking for, he certainly wasn’t going to let them cut him open. He chose to go instead to an acupuncturist (talk about incommensurable worldviews!). He asked me to drive him weekly to his acupuncturist in the Haight-Ashbury. What I remember most vividly is his singing bits from operas as we crossed the Bay Bridge. He sometimes invited me to sit on his balcony and drink a beer while he started cooking his dinner. 

He told me on one of those occasions that the only thing he was going to write before he died was his autobiography. I thought, “how can you write that until you know how it ends?” I was terrified that he did know the end because he was going to end it himself. But I didn’t feel our relationship to be close enough to ask him. In the end, though, his prediction was right: he died from a brain tumor just after finishing Killing Time; and just at the point when he had finally come to realize that time mattered—mattered especially for spending with his wife Grazia.