On Epistemological Anarchism

Paul Feyerabend

The hallmark of political anarchism is its opposition to the established order of things: to the state, its institutions, the ideologies that support and glorify these institutions. The established order must be destroyed so that human spontaneity may come to the fore and exercise its right of freely initiating action, of freely choosing what it thinks is best. Occasionally one wishes to overcome not just some social circumstances but the entire physical world which is seen as being corrupt, unreal, transient, and of no importance. This religious or eschatological anarchism denies not only social laws, but moral, physical and perceptual laws as well and it envisages a mode of existence that is no longer tied to the body, its reactions, and its needs. Violence whether political or spiritual, plays an important role in almost all forms of anarchism. Violence is necessary to overcome the impediments erected by a well- organised society, or by one's own modes of behaviour (perception, thought, etc.), and it is beneficial for the individual, for it releases one's energies and makes one realize the powers at one's disposal. Free associations where everyone does what best suits their talents replace the petrified institutions of the day, no function must be allowed to become fixed - 'the commander of yesterday can become a subordinate of tomorrow. Teaching is to be based on curiosity and not on command, the 'teacher' is called upon to further this curiosity and not to rely on any fixed method. Spontaneity reigns supreme, in thought (perception) as well as in action.

One of the remarkable characteristics of post-enlightenment political anarchism is its faith in the "natural reason' of the human race and its respect for science. This respect is only rarely an opportunistic move – one recognizes an ally and compliments him to keep him happy. Most of the time it is based on the genuine conviction that pure unadulterated science gives a true account of man and the world and produces powerful ideological weapons in the fight against the sham orders of the day.

Today this naive and almost childlike trust in science is endangered by two developments.

The first development is the rise of new kinds of scientific institutions. As opposed to its immediate predecessor, late 20th- century science has given up all philosophical pretensions and has become a powerful business that shapes the mentality of its practitioners. Good payment, good standing with the boss and the colleagues in their 'unit' are the chief aims of these human ants who excel in the solution of tiny problems but who cannot make sense of anything transcending their domain of competence. Humanitarian considerations are at a minimum and so is any form of progressiveness that goes beyond local improvements. The most glorious achievements of the past are used not as instruments of enlightenment but as means of intimidation as is seen from some recent debates concerning the theory of evolution. Let somebody make a great step forward - and the profession is bound to turn it into a club for beating people into submission.

The second development concerns the alleged authority of the products of this ever-changing enterprise. Scientific laws were once thought to be well established and irrevocable. The scientist discovers facts and laws and constantly increases the amount of safe and indubitable knowledge. Today we have recognized, mainly as a result of the work of Mill, Mach, Boltzmann, Duhem and others, that science cannot give any such guarantees. Scientific laws can be revised, they often turn out to be not just locally incorrect but entirely false, making assertions about entities that never existed. There are revolutions that leave no stone unturned, no principle unchallenged. Unpleasant in appearance, untrust worthy in its results, science has ceased to be an ally of the anarchist and has become a problem. Should he abandon it ? Should he use it ? What should he do with it? That is the question. Epistemological anarchism gives an answer to this question. It is in line with the remaining tenets of anarchism and it removes the last hardened elements.

Epistemological anarchism differs both from scepticism and from political (religious) anarchism. While the sceptic either regards every view as equally good, or as equally bad, or desists from making such judgements altogether, the epistemological anarchist has no compunction to defend the most trite, or the most outrageous statement. While the political or the religious anarchist wants to remove a certain form of life, the epistemological anarchist may want to defend it, for he has no everlasting loyalty to, and no everlasting aversion against, any institution or any ideology. Like the Dadaist, whom he resembles much more than he resembles the political anarchist, he 'not only has no programme, [he is] against all programmes', though he will on occasions be the most vociferous defender of the status quo, or of his opponents: 'to be a true Dadaist, one must also be an anti-Dadaist'. His aims remain stable, or change as a result of argument, or of boredom, or of a conversion experience, or to impress a mistress, and so on. Given some aim, he may try to approach it with the help of organized groups, or alone; he may use reason, emotion, ridicule, an 'attitude of serious concern" and whatever other means have been invented by humans to get the better of their fellow men. His favourite pastime is to confuse rationalists by inventing compelling reasons for unreasonable doctrines. There is no view, however 'absurd' or 'immoral', he refuses to consider or to act upon, and no method is regarded as indispensable. The one thing he opposes positively and absolutely are universal standards, universal laws, universal ideas such as 'Truth", 'Reason", 'Justice', 'Love' and the behaviour they bring along, though he does not deny that it is often good policy to act as if such laws (such standards, such ideas) existed, and as if he believed in them. He may approach the religious anarchist in his opposition to science and the material world, he may outdo any Nobel Prize winner in his vigorous defence of scientific purity. He has no objection to regarding the fabric of the world as described by science and revealed by his senses as a chimera that either conceals a deeper and, perhaps, spiritual reality, or as a mere web of dreams that reveals, and conceals, nothing. He takes great interest in procedures, phenomena and experiences such as those reported by Carlos Castaneda, which indicate that perceptions can be arranged in highly unusual ways and that the choice of a particular arrangement as corresponding to reality', while not arbitrary (it almost always depends on traditions), is certainly not more 'rational' or more 'objective' than the choice of another arrangement: Rabbi Akiba, who in ecstatic trance rises from one celestial sphere to the next and still higher and who finally comes face to face with God in all his Splendour, makes genuine observations once we decide to accept his way of life as a measure of reality, and his mind is as independent of his body as the chosen observations tell him. Applying this point of view to a specific subject such as science, the epistemological anarchist finds that its accepted development (e.g. from the Closed World to the 'Infinite Universe') occurred only because the practitioners unwittingly used his philosophy within the confines of their trade - they succeeded because they did not permit themselves to be bound by 'laws of reason', 'stand ards of rationality", or 'immutable laws of nature'. Underneath all this outrage lies his conviction that man will cease to be a slave and gain a dignity that is more than an exercise in cautious conformism only when he becomes capable of stepping outside the most fundamental categories and convictions, including those which allegedly make him human. 'The realisation that reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, design and chance, consciousness and unconsciousness [and, I would add, humanitarianism and anti-humanitarianism] belong together as a necessary part of a whole - this was the central message of Dada,' writes Hans Richter. The epistemological anarchist agrees, though he would not express himself in such a constipated manner.

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