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“I am a sadist; you are a masochist; so let us have some fun together”: Agassi on Feyerabend, Feyerabend on Agassi March 19, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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My previous posts on Joseph “Joske” Agassi are here and here.

I was very disappointed when the parties responsible for this utterance were not, as I recalled, Joseph Agassi and Paul Feyerabend.  This utterance is found in the correspondence between Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos, where Feyerabend is grousing about Kuhn and a few other things, but it is mostly about scientists being honest about who they are and what they actually do, instead of pretending. Lakatos, before his early, tragic death in 1974, was one of the most important historians of physics and mathematics to emerge after the Second World War and a top-rate philosopher of science.

Agassi believed Lakatos a bully who actively tried to sabotage him (also here) and an unparalleled operator, whom in Agassi’s felicitous phrasing “was burning day-and-night with the ambition to control.” (A Philosopher’s Apprentice: In Karl Popper’s Workshop, pg. 281) I do not think that Agassi does justice to Lakatos (although his critiques are provocative).  Agassi is better on Lakatos’ pedagogy than his history of mathematics (I am not a historian of mathematics, but I am very interested in pedagogy). I have no idea if Agassi’s following statement on Lakatos’ teaching is valid: “Lakatos’ classical ‘Proofs and Refutations’ reports the ongoings in a classroom in Utopia.” But it is interesting; it is provocative; and it is Agassi’s mind wandering in a funny way.  Agassi’s humor and his mind wandering are important things to keep in mind.

Paul K. Feyerabend

Paul K. Feyerabend

Feyerabend is known for his relativism and his methodological anarchism.  His historical studies are exquisite and sometimes obscure. I most enjoy him on Galileo Although Feyerabend abuses the existence of “scientific method”, he is most likely inveighing against “the scientific method” as synonymous with knowledge and a “rationalism first” perspective He is not the worst enemy of science, as my one-time teacher Peter Achinstein put it to me.  Agassi knew this; Feyerabend agreed with Agassi that Feyerabend was a brilliant philosopher.

Agassi’s 1976 review of Against Method should be viewed in light of L. Pearce  Williams’ 1975 review of Agassi’s book on Faraday in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.  If Williams decided that Agassi’ should not write history, Agassi instead decided that Feyerabend should write philosophy, just not Against Method.  Looking at Agassi’s review of Feyerabend is instructive because nowhere does Agassi say that Feyerabend should not be allowed to write philosophy, even though Feyerabend is being irresponsible. Agassi argues the opposite: he hopes that Feyerabend writes more and more reasonably.

Agassi’s review famously began: “How do you read a book which extols lies?”  Imagine this being a review of one of your books!  How to explain this?  The only explanation I can offer is that there are many interweaving strands in Agassi’s thinking.  Some of which are openly articulated, some of which have to be drawn out.

First, he sees Feyerabend’s brand of “philosophy” as similar to Wittgenstein’s.  If Feyerabend is correct, if there is no such thing as scientific method and no such thing as a search for the truth, then philosophy is pointless.  Wittgenstein makes much the same argument for Agassi.  If metaphysics is nonsense- in the literal sense as “if there is no sense to it,” then there is no point to philosophy.  If philosophy is not about seeking truth and the correction of small errors, but the cleansing of language into a science, then there is no point of philosophers existing.   If Wittgenstein had his way, philosophy would end.  Philosophers would be no more than fools. Feyerabend would render useless philosophers too.

Is Agassi’s review of Feyerabend any different from L. Pierce Williams’ review of Agassi?

Yes. There are a number of different filaments here, much related to Agassi’s pluralistic position and the importance of criticism. Most of all, there is the personal dimension.  Agassi and Feyerabend were friends, Feyerabend was a student of Popper’s (more or less).  Agassi here is dismayed that Feyerabend is espousing all of these absurdities about science and its practice.  Agassi knows of course that individuals frequently spout absurdities; he wishes that Feyerabend would not do this.  Agassi firmly believed Feyerabend did not truly believe much of what he wrote in Against Method.  And Agassi is correct- Feyerabend, to the end of his life, regretted writing portions of the book. He also became more dogmatic, if less of a relativist; he also stopped publishing in English.  If Agassi thinks that Against Method is a book that extols lies, Agassi also is calling out Feyerabend for writing in a provocative and flippant way.

The issue here is Feyerabend’s sincerity (the issue of sincerely held beliefs and their connection to action is actually an interesting issue in Agassi’s philosophy.)  Agassi’s displeasure with his lack of seriousness goes to a deep point about Agassi’s method: we cannot expect everyone to behave rationally all the time; Feyerabend’s misbehavior is a perfect exemplar of why monism is an untenable position; with people like Feyerabend in the world, it is naïve to think that all of language can be reformed on a scientific basis (positivism); if people cannot even be rational or act in their own best self-interest, how can the arts and sciences the evaluated according to one strict, absolute standard.   How would a Neo-Darwinist explain Against Method? How does a highly controversial work (which leads to great unhappiness on the part of the author) affect Feyerabend’s “inclusive fitness.”

 Consistent too with Agassi’s notion of criticism (and perhaps like much of Agassi’s work, too much of a buried idea) he believes Feyerabend to be an equal and is criticizing him.  With Feyerabend, we have some idea of how Agassi’s pluralism would work (counseling those “crazies at the table” that they are mistaken) He writes to Feyerabend to try to convince him of his errors and also very significantly, to underscore where Feyerabend is not mistaken.

Much (all) of Agassi’s writings are him actually engaging in a dialogue. Whom he is dialoguing with is occasionally unclear.  Obviously he is here talking to Feyerabend; but I also think Williams is in the background.  Williams, through declaring Agassi should not write history (and indeed, that Agassi’s history was so dangerous and profane that no philosophers should write history ever, for eternity), was attempting to “debunk” Agassi’s method, his approach and his conclusions. What Agassi was saying about Faraday was false, untrue dangerous. The distinction between criticism and debunking is very important for Agassi articulation of pluralism.

In great detail he notes (Science and its History, pg. 41ff) that criticism embodies a degree of respect for the views which are being criticized and the person who holds them. Criticism assumes that even though there are errors in the views being criticized, there is truth as well; criticism holds that the views can lead to some good, some productive movement, some progress.

All theories have errors in them; all ideas have errors in them as well; this does not make them true or false. Math and computer science “recognize reasonable error in approximation theory and its application.”  Some error is perfectly consistent with reason (42.) Finding error is a perfectly natural activity and is open to everyone.  One not need to be an expert in order to point out errors and in this way criticism is open to everyone. Some errors, moreover, are even “ingenious” (43.)  Agassi noted that both Einstein and Bohr committed errors, but this does not detract from their ideas.  How, we criticize errors, Agassi contends, has to do with the intellectual level of the person and the social position of the individual.  We would praise the schoolchild if they were responsible for the same errors committed by Adam Smith in his economics.

Debunking is very different.  Debunkers do not like either the ideas of those they debunk nor the originators of the debunked ideas.  Debunkers find no merit in the views they debunk.  Debunked ideas do not contain errors; they are false, unproductive, irrational and illogical. They will lead to nothing good.

Through all of this discussion then we have a clue as to Agassi’s rhetoric, his tone, his approach to Feyerabend’s philosophy, to criticism and to relativism.  Pluralism, properly done is a difficult enterprise; it is ongoing and never done; it is dialectic and Socratic; the dialogue element; the Socratic nature gets to an element of Agassi’s style that no reviewer perhaps has realized. Agassi is an unusual example of one who gives of a great deal of both heat and light.

It is for all the reasons stated above that Agassi laments: “It looks as if the author tries to be impish and get away with anything. I confess my sympathy is with the author, and this review is simply an expression of regret over the loss of an ally to the forces of irresponsibility and irrationalism” and again, more wistfully, “There is no doubt that Feyerabend still has the master’s touch. His Chapter 19 is a masterpiece.” “Yet valuable material is there to enjoy and really benefit from. What a mess any scientific situation really is when seen from close quarters is hard to believe not only because of the pretty-pretty reports.” And finally, “what does this book say? That at times we all cheat, that we all say silly things now and then, etc. True enough. That therefore even the stupidest liar may say something worthwhile. True enough. So what? Should we all listen to any stupid liar? Should we aim to be stupid liars? Should we commend Voodoo? Should the U.S. Federal Government emulate the wise government of the Chinese People’s Republic and impose folk medicine on government hospitals and sponsor Voodoo sessions in Federal City University? Should State colleges and Universities teach astrology? If Feyerabend says yes, he is a knave and a fool. If he says no, then he repudiates much that makes this book what it is. I do have the suspicion that he will waffle, that he merely cons his reader into a cheap fantasy, where science and Voodoo are both legit, and where all dreams come true, even horror dreams, but all ends well.” Unlike Chang,  for Agassi, one does not only need to set the table and invite the guests, but also to make sure that everyone eats their spinach before having their dessert.

Agassi is clearly aggravated.  He hopes for more from Feyerabend: “I hope he can now become the benign, flippant, exciting scholar that he so much wants to be.” Agassi thinks him rude, dangerous, naïve, irresponsible, challenging and exciting. Feyerabend drives him crazy. But he loves his work (at least chapter 19). Feyerabend is a great philosopher, that’s why Agassi is so upset.  Agassi is pointing out errors, in the hope that Feyerabend will realize his ways (or at least takes his reader and himself seriously.

Feyerabend for his part finds Agassi’s response to his Against Method humorous (unwarranted, but humorous).  Their exchange in Philosophia (March 1976, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 177-191) would require a post in itself.  I have also not done justice at all to Feyerabend’s philosophical and intellectual complexity.  There are many good books on Feyerabend;  many deep and searching obituaries.  What they seem to not realize (at least collectively) is that there is a deep division between argument and rhetoric in the generation of intellectuals to have emerged from Karl Popper’s workshop who took from “the Master’s” ideas and his “relentless stern moralism and his tendency to complain” the idea that one at least had to joke, some of the time. 

Feyerabend declares in the beginning of his response to Agassi’s review: “There are three things which never fail to amaze me when reading reviews of my book: the disregard for argument, the violence of the reaction, the general impression I seem to make on my readers, and especially on ‘rationalists.’  He continued,  I “would say that my book contains 85% exposition and argument, 10% conjecture, and 5% rhetorics. There are long passages devoted to the description of fact and procedure. Now the strange thing is that hardly any review I have read deals with this material. The only passages the reviewers seem to perceive are places where, with a sigh of relief, I stop reasoning and engage in a little rhetorics.” He concludes, “Of course, you are very good, you almost succeeded in convincing me that I was a “superrevolutionary, in politics as well as in methodology” – but the illusion did not last very long. A look at my book, and I saw that I was mistaken and that you were mistaken. How did this mistake arise? And, having realised it, how can I prevent you and my future readers from repeating it.” (177-8.)

Feyerabend in responding in this way is poking (or playing) with Agassi in a few different ways that again point to the core of Agassi’s intellectual position.  Feyerabend is saying that he knows exactly what Agassi is doing.  He is saying “Paul, you are mistaken.” Feyerabend responds, “No you are mistaken about what I am arguing” and what I am merely writing to poke fun. Feyerabend does not think that Agassi can distinguish between reasoning and rhetoric.  Feyerabend then wholly agrees with Agassi that individuals are not rational all the time, he thinks that Agassi that he does not understand when people are serious and when they are engaging in rhetoric.  Agassi and Feyerabend have the same plural view of man; Feyerabend merely tells Agassi that he had better  improve his ability to distinguish between the serious, rational side of man and the joking (even disappointing) aspect.  Man’s rationality and irrationality in both men’s view corresponds on the printed page to the distinction between argument and rhetoric. 

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