Sheldon J. Reaven

Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Stony Brook 

New York, NY (USA)

Paul K. Feyerabend: my Doktorvater and friend

November 2020

Paul Feyerabend was my doctoral dissertation advisor at Berkeley and my friend ever afterward.  Writing these reminiscences has been sweet.  As I read over the letters and postcards, typed and handwritten, that Paul sent me for twenty-five years, until his death, I was brought back into his warm, funny, witty, learned, mesmerizing, and wise company.  I’ll tell some stories and try to convey what it was like to be around him.  I will draw on my memories, his letters, and an article I wrote twenty years ago that was disguised as a review of his autobiography Killing Time, but actually was composed as a memorial to my great, singing, teacher and friend.*  As requested for this Centennial tribute, the vignettes that follow come mostly from my years of graduate school.


I vividly remember my first seminar with ‘Professor Feyerabend.’  He soon insisted I call him Paul.   Philosophy of Science was the official course title, but sure enough the class swept through dozens of topics, fields, and great works along the way.  Paul strode with his cane into our group of five or so students, and without saying a word went to the blackboard and wrote What is experience?  That sentence  -- that experience -- has stood in my mind ever since.  I never forgot it. My appreciation of its bewildering simplicity, profundity, and mystery has grown constantly through the decades.  After that first day, the class met outdoors, sprawled on the lawns next to the Berkeley Campanile, and went adventuring.   The animated discussions would continue afterward, as Feyerabend would with difficulty make his way to his bus stop.  I often walked him there, carrying his books.


Whatever experience itself may be, I can say that Paul Feyerabend was its distillation, a man who experienced life con brio when he could, and whose presence was a con brio experience for me and many others.



Take mealtimes, for example.  Feyerabend would hold court outdoors at Berkeley’s faculty restaurant, in later years at the Chez Panisse restaurant.  A steady stream of students, faculty, and assorted personages came and went, a la Act I of Der Rosenkavalier (which he loved).  Paul was the main attraction.  Discussions would careen through fine food and wine; music and opera; romantic prospects and denouements; Feyerabend’s revered classics of literature, history, science, and philosophy – perhaps he would be rereading an old favorite, perhaps a new book offered a novel treatment; Perry Mason, mystery books, and the best soap opera actors – soap opera being the sole repertory acting on TV; intellectual celebrity gossip; even philosophy of science.   These were immensely sunny times.  Feyerabend was like champagne to be around.


Always there were jokes and gentle teasing; not infrequently there would be singing.  You could tell that Feyerabend meant what he said in Killing Time:


When at my best, I could do almost anything with my voice.  I could let it go, rein it in, produce the softest pianissimo, and could increase my volume without feeling that I was reaching a limit.  Singing gave me a great sense of power.  My voice also projected well: soft or loud, it could be heard anywhere in a large concert hall.  And it was beautiful, at least while I treated it well.  For me, no intellectual achievement can give the joys of using an instrument of this kind 


You can hear this ebullient, charmed instrument for yourselves, in interviews and talks in English and German scattered across the web, and most movingly of all in the recordings he made for his beloved Grazia, which she made into a CD, Stories from Paolino’s Tapes:  Private Recordings 1984 – 1993.


I quickly realized that for me no other professor would do as guide and advisor.  Paul was in a league of his own.  So, when somehow or other he welcomed me as his student, I could not believe my good luck.  How and why this came to pass is beyond me. But we did hit it off.


I was twice a teaching assistant for his undergraduate course, the single most popular non-required class at Berkeley. Sometimes the only space large enough was the Hearst Greek Theater, to Paul’s delight a replica of Epidaurus.  Mostly he sat on a tall stool, rising when he wanted to act out a scene.   As he says in Killing Time, he was a natural and professionally trained actor to the degree that his war injuries allowed.  Paul had such fun, with the ‘audience’ in the palm of his hand. 


A treat was his passion for dramatic readings aloud of great works from ancient to modern times, particularly by mathematicians, scientists, and natural philosophers who actually could write clearly and beautifully, a skill whose current desuetude Paul always despised.


I have ever since tried to repay these infectious gifts from Paul by passing them on to my own students.


Feyerabend was twenty or twenty-one when the bullets came that crippled him for life.  From then on he was often beset with crushing pain.  I will never forget how Paul would wince from and be drained by this cross, how he was driven to a succession of herbalists, acupuncturists, and massagers in his search for relief.  His interest in oriental medical and scientific paradigms and practices was far from abstract.   It was a big and happy occasion when he got a specially outfitted car. 


His home atop the Berkeley Hills was a dense labyrinth of books. He’d saunter about this treasure chest and pull out a book he said I should read.  Indeed for years one of my functions was to scout out interesting books on any topic, and interesting musical discoveries, to recommend to him (and vice-versa).


He constantly expressed his love and admiration for America, which amazed and delighted him.


During my years at Berkeley (1969-1975), Paul was putting together the ideas for Against Method.  When the book came out, many of its arguments already were familiar to me, as were Paul’s related discussions with Imre Lakatos and his other friends.  And not just materials connected to (say) Galileo or to Paul’s beloved The Mechanization of the World Picture.   For instance, I was ready for Paul’s impish astrology chart on the book flap of Against Method because Paul had me read The Case for Astrology and ancient and medieval treatises, Ptolemaic and otherwise, many of which were familiar to pioneers like Johannes Kepler (say).


My 1975 doctoral dissertation was called Holism in Language and Theories.  I was fascinated by Feyerabend’s portrayal of scientific theories as sometimes immiscible total systems of theory, observation, and methodology, and by Quine’s portrayal of languages as total systems in ways that suggested possible parallelisms.  The dissertation was about (a) incommensurability of comprehensive scientific theories, as with relativistic, quantum, and classical physics, (b) indeterminacy of translation (and maybe untranslatability) of natural languages, and (c) real or apparent paradoxes and contradictions that these points of view were said to embody.  There were (d) forays into arcane zones like the surprising and counterintuitive history of mathematical concepts of surface area.   Paul, to my great relief, said he loved the thesis and urged me to get it published.  I never got around to it.  Maybe I could do so now for Paul’s Centennial as a kind of belated thank-you.


I’m fluent in German.  At lunch Paul and I often would sing lieder, opera, and music dramas, or recite German poetry.  I’ll always be grateful for his working with me line by line through Kritik der Reinen Vernunft and other Kant masterpieces, with their German sentences that often ran on for two pages, and for introducing me to Brecht’s Leben des Galilei.  And several hundred other books!


We had an endless teasing difference of opinion over the music-dramas of Richard Wagner.  Here was I (an ardent member of the Wagner Society for forty years now)…so Paul wrote funny send-ups about “all this bellowing.”  In fact he really did love a lot of Wagner (Paul was, after all, almost a Heldentenor), and liked to sing from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg




“I am already starting to look around for a place to retire to and Hawaii may be it.  I was there a few times on my way to New Zealand and I loved it.  So, when you go to Hawaii, I shall ask you to look around for a nice piece of land and for a nice carpenter to build me a nice little house and I shall leave wherever I am to come to Hawaii and spend the rest of my natural in the sun, surrounded by flies and hopefully, some Hawaiian maidens.   … Well, you get a MacArthur and take care that Gonzalo gets a MacArthur then both of you can put me on your worksheet as a deductible item and can pay me to retire even sooner, in Maui, in a house which I am ready to call Villa MacArthur.”


“I am surprised I came as far as I did considering how many people think I am a bum.  A month ago I was even more surprised, I was asked if I wanted an Albert Schweizer Chair at NYU for $100,000.  Well, I thought a little and then sent them a firm NO –and the reasons are obvious.  First, with such a chair it would be good bye peace and quiet.  Secondly, I could not commute back and forth to Switzerland.  Thirdly, I like my little dog hut here.  I had it even improved now, from the inside, it looks like a real place to live in.  Fourth, all those eager people at NYU would make me very nervous.  For I am now cutting down on my ‘activities.’  Who says one must do something all the time, who says one must do anything?  I think that today with all those eager people eagerly doing something it is the obligation of people congenitally blessed with laziness to resist the trend and determinedly DO NOTHING.”  [after this Paul goes on to list a number of pet projects for small books]


[Paul teased me for writing him a personal letter and enclosing some article I wrote that had] “117 (one hundred seventeen!) footnotes!  And why not a word about music, or women? Are you drying up? And if so – stop before it is too late!”


“Gave a lecture series on Aristotle’s physics, one on Plato’s Timaeus, and shall continue ruining classics just as I ruined the philosophy of science.  It is fun, though, and Aristotle is a very clever guy.  Sorry I wasn’t there when you came.”




One bright and bitter-cold day in 1996, I stood before the grave of my teacher and friend, Paul K. Feyerabend, in the Southwest Cemetery of Vienna.  Partly by chance, partly by design, my wanderings through Vienna led to many of the places that peppered Paul’s transfixing stories and embellish his delightful, revealing autobiography, Killing Time.  In the deep snow by the narrow Feyerabend family plot, I thought of this man’s inner odyssey, recounted in his book, from a nonchalant who at this very spot was unmoved at his mother’s funeral and who did not bother to attend his father’s to an apostle of embracing tolerance and lovingkindness in his later years.


As each spot in Vienna called up its associations with Paul’s stories, I found myself wanting to be able to pickup our conversations where they had been suspended years before. At an enchanting Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper, for example, I wished we could schmooze about the Yannis Kokkos sets, designs of such floating, childlike beauty that just seeing them made tears well up.  We had sized up many an opera, many a Magic Flute in conversations I recall still.


When I read his books and articles, and especially his postcards and personal letters, I cannot help but imagine the trademark Feyerabend gestures and inflections that would have accompanied his printed words.   Those letters reprise many things that appear in his books, often in similar phrasing: his jugglings of job offers; his operatic, scholarly, and literary enamorments, and his generous advice on work, life, and love.  If only I could write back.


In a 1989 letter arranging to surprise Paul with a trove of letters from friends for his sixty-fifth birthday, Grazia wrote that surprise and secrecy were essential because “he always tries his best to avoid any kind of celebration of himself.”  And so in my mind’s eye I imagine with a big smile Paul’s mixture of amazed gleeful merriment and “uh-oh…” wariness at being the object of our global attentions.  Paul contained multitudes.  Prosit, Paul!


*Author’s note: some passages are taken from my article, “Time Well Spent: On Paul Feyerabend’s Autobiography,pp. 16 – 27 in John Preston, Gonzalo Munevar, and David Lamb, eds., The Worst Enemy of Science? Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend, Oxford University Press 2000.  Each section of my article is headed by a quotation from Die Zauberflöte that is ‘meant to be sung with musical accompaniment, or read inwardly as if so sung.’