‘Philosophy of Nature’ reviewed by Sheldon Richmond

Philosophy of Nature

Polity, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2016. 288pp., £25 hb
ISBN 9780745651590

Reviewed by Sheldon Richmond

About the reviewer

Sheldon Richmond is an Independent Scholar and author of Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the …


Paul Feyerabend writing about the “philosophy of nature” as his code-word for worldviews and myth, is a puzzle. In his early career he was a hard-core philosopher of science. In his mid-career, though still noted as a hard-core philosopher of science, he rocked the boat with his arguments against methodology and for the incommensurability of different scientific theoretical systems. Even if you did not know this about Feyerabend you could find out in the appendix where the editors include Feyerabend’s 1977 request for a sabbatical year that integrates his work in the philosophy of science with a project to explore and write about myth and the origins of philosophy and science in myth. The last document of a few pages in the appendix is a report dated 3/18/85 on Feyerabend’s 1980 sabbatical. However, Feyerabend had already completed the manuscript for the book on the “philosophy of nature” or worldviews and myth, for which he requested funding and a sabbatical year. In the early 1970s during the same time period that he had written the iconoclastic Against Method (1975), Feyerabend had also written his manuscript on myth. It is interesting that the manuscript for the book on myth was only recently rediscovered by Eric Oberheim and Torbjorn Gunderson in August 2004 (vide x). For some reason, Feyerabend buried it even though it was commissioned (by Vieweg, Braunschweig) as part of a 5-6 volume study. (229) Why does it deserve exhumation? Are there other than purely scholarly, historical reasons for publishing the manuscript? Does the book have any interest to current questions in philosophy about science and myth? Does the book have any interest to current questions about the role of science in society?

Even if the book only sheds more light on Feyerabend’s intellectual development, it still can be of interest to those caught in the currents of the immediate present. From my point of view, I am reading the book as a current study of alternative worldviews that attempts to demonstrate historically Feyerabend’s methodological principle of proliferation explained in the editors’ Introduction (xvii). The principle of proliferation is the serious form of Feyerabend’s ironically intended anti-methodological principle of anything goes. Indeed, Feyerabend spells out the “Considerations [that] … made me proclaim, in a joking way, a no-method methodology with the principle `anything goes’ as its only methodological rule: if you want a rule that works, come what may, then this rule will have to be as empty and ridiculous as the rule `anything goes’. A researcher must make up his methodology as he goes along just as he must build his instruments and his theories as he goes along.” (225) So, Feyerabend is not anti-methodology per se, but similar to his former teacher and nemesis, Karl Popper, he advocates treating methodologies as instruments for cognitive development rather than as fixed rules – neither fixed in scientific society nor fixed in nature. Scientific methods or principles, including Feyerabend’s principle of proliferation, are social instruments for research and subject to change depending upon the nature, direction, and outcome of the research. I emphasize Feyerabend’s principle of treating methodologies as tools for research because I think it is part of the background for this exploration of how philosophy and science evolve from myth. However, Feyerabend cannot resist the role of provocateur: “In the past anthropology emphasized … myth functions as a social glue, but it has no cognitive content. In the course of my research I started suspecting that myths have cognitive content as well. Moreover, considering that the mythmakers created culture and advanced it to a surprising extent, that the rise of science led to some canvas-cleaning which more than once has thrown out the bad as well as the good I suspected that there might be cases where science and myth are in conflict, but the myth is right, and science is not.” (223) The very next sentence sums up the real importance of myth for Feyerabend where he is not only winking at his readers as a provocateur but more importantly reminding his readers as a serious pluralist philosopher that myth presents alternative worldviews: “myths are fully-fledged alternatives to science with a content and a method of presentation of their own.” (223) Feyerabend’s main innovation when it comes to the study of myth, as so offhandedly stated in his sabbatical request, is that myth is not merely a subject for cultural history – intellectual history, cultural anthropology – but that myth is a subject for the study of an intellectually worthy alternative to science.

The task of the first two chapters of the book is to critique established approaches to myth as under-valuing the cognitive content of myth and the superior practical, nature-aligned, intelligence of the earliest mythmakers and their myths. Feyerabend discusses Stonehenge as an example of the superior practical and social intelligence of our earliest mythmakers. Stonehenge “functions as heavenly clock, forecast station, and religious arena all in one; we should never underestimate the propagandistic skills of the guardians of knowledge, who are always somewhat influenced by religion. Their success serves to strengthen both faith (knowledge) and the power of priests.” (20).

The next two chapters study the cognitive aspect of myths as worldviews – as ways for talking, thinking, and perceiving reality. Those chapters also study the practical aspect of our early myths or worldviews – as ways for guiding the telling of stories, the making of art, and the making of instruments and crafts that in themselves are ways for understanding and controlling reality. For Feyerabend, to all intents and purposes, “to be = to be part of a worldview”. In the terminology of another philosopher very different from Feyerabend in style and in philosophical methodology, Nelson Goodman, worldviews are also ways of making worlds. (Ways of Worldmaking, Nelson Goodman, 1978)

In the remaining three chapters, Feyerabend’s task is to describe the shift from our early worldviews where myths integrate us with nature, to modern worldviews of increasing cognitive abstraction and increasing cognitive/perceptual separation from nature. Feyerabend almost chastises the current quantum mechanical worldview as the most distancing form of our thought where we have created a chasm between ourselves and nature. This is the main point of Feyerabend’s book. The point of post-mythical thought ever widening the chasm between humanity and nature, makes the discussion of the book important for the current state of science, society and politics. I will return to Feyerabend’s worry about the still current state of our world(view) after I describe more of how Feyerabend explains the shift away from the integrated worldview of our ancient myths, to the modern worldviews of philosophy and science.

According to Feyerabend, though many of the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophers began the way to the dissolution of the Greek myths consolidated by Homer and Hesiod (chapter 5.1, 5.2), it was Parmenides (chapter 5.3) who created the new continental divide in thought between mythological thinking, on the one side, and philosophical and scientific thinking on the other. According to Feyerabend, the history of philosophy, science, and mathematics are footnotes to Parmenides and his disciple Zeno who discovered the paradoxes concerning continuity versus discreteness, infinity versus finiteness, motion versus rest, momentum versus position. In short, our worldview after Parmenides shifted from humanity integrated with nature, to humanity alienated not only from our own intellectual products but also from nature as we experience it. Nature and reality as we experience it became denigrated as mere appearance according to post-Parmendian philosophy and science.

Though Aristotle according to Feyerabend attempted to close the chasm between abstract thought and practical activity in nature (chapter 6.1), his philosophical system was dissolved by Descartes (6.2), and completely replaced by Galileo and Bacon (6.3). There was no looking back when Newton arrived on the scene with his antagonist, Leibniz (6.5). Later post-Newtonian science with Einstein and his antagonist, Bohr (6.6) pushed the realms of science and mathematics into a parallel universe incomprehensible from the perspective of ordinary lived-experience and practical activity. Post-Newtonian science would even have been incomprehensible to Hegel (6.4) with a dialectic that supposedly comprehends all conceptual dualities where ultimately all will be resolved into a super-conceptual unity – an impossibility according to Feyerabend – where concepts must constantly move to avoid rigidity as well as to adapt to new discoveries and circumstances, including social and political circumstances. In brief, the intellectual asteroid that infinitely opened the chasm between philosophical, scientific and mathematical thought on the one side, and our lived-experience and practical reality in the natural world on the other side, according to Feyerabend, began with Descartes and culminated with Bohr. Feyerabend concisely outlines the intellectual asteroid that blew apart all familiarity with nature and sense of at-homeness with nature: “first, the mathematical approach to nature; second the absence of a foundation; and third, the constant dynamics of concepts” (169)

However, Feyerabend does not want to leave us in total despair that we are forever alienated from nature as a consequence of the development of the anti-mythological worldviews stemming from Parmenides. There is “a return of mythological forms of thought, which seemed to have abandoned human thought forever with Parmenides.” (203-4). In the concluding seventh chapter, Feyerabend expands on what he hopes is the return of myth and “a new philosophy of nature … to create a process that fuses humans and nature into a higher … unit.” (207) The “new unit” will no longer involve “raping our surrounding nature”.(207) Feyerabend’s wishful remarks lead me to wonder: Will that “higher unit” be sufficient to cease the “rape of nature”? Or, will we need finally to put our technologies under democratic control? (See Joseph Agassi, Technology: Philosophical and Social Aspects, 2005)

One might detect an atavistic desire in Feyerabend to return to a supposed golden age of the past where humans with their mythological viewpoints were more integrated with nature. One might also detect in Feyerabend a blind-spot to previous forms of atavism in Nietzsche and Wagner, for instance, regarding romantic attitudes to nature and ancient mythology where the end result was Nazism and Fascism. Feyerabend’s Nietzschean approach not only to myth but to current thinking is evident in his early patterns of thought before developing a fully romantic view of myth. In a 1963 letter to Jack J.C. Smart reprinted in the Appendix he writes, “we may become builders both of new kinds of human beings … and builders of new kinds of commonsense” (219). Such hubris whether in the gods or in humans, as the ancient Greeks knew, is the source of tragedy, mayhem, and murder. The hope to re-enchant nature by reviving ancient mythologies, could be at best escapism from present realities and conditions, but at worst it could be an invitation to propagate racist and supremacist mythologies. Myth-making, contra Feyerabend, is socially, politically, and even intellectually dangerous.

18 February 2017


  1. The idea that modern western science has severed the connection between [God], nature and man or religion, art and science or truth, beauty and goodness (etc.) is very general. We find it in Goethe who called modern science the ’empirico-mechanico-dogmatic torture chamber of nature’. Husserl in the Crisis of European Sciences highlights the radical dis-junction between the lebenswelt and the abstractions of science. And so on. (Preceding Goethe, Kant had already clearly recognised and accepted that science, morality and art had finally parted company by writing three separate critiques on them though he did not view the phenomenon negatively.)
    Richmond presents Feyerabend’s views on myth vs science fairly, but towards the end abruptly
    turns hostile pronouncing a harsh judgement on Feyerabend’s theory. There is certainly something positive to salvage from Feyerabend’s critique of modern science.

  2. Sarban writes:
    There is certainly something positive to salvage from Feyerabend’s critique of modern science.

    But Feyerabend and Goethe and all the rest are quite wrong. The notion that science has shown that religions are ancient stone age ideas that were perhaps acceptable in the stone age, but are now known to be both false and retrogressive, is quite correct.

    But, in contrast, it is quite incorrect to assert that science stands in opposition to Nature or to Culture. In truth, it is precisely science that has brought Nature closer to us; it is capitalism that has created the divide between society and Nature. Even more is it true that science IS a crucial part of contemporary culture. Scientists as a group and in their work, are especially conscious of humankind’s changing and varied culture. This hostility to science is simply hostility to knowledge.

  3. Sydney is entitled to his views, but I find his and Richmond’s dismissal of Feyerabend’s critique of science as causing severance of man from nature hasty, if not also ill-considered.

    I agree with Sydney that capitalism is at the root of most our problems. However, I’d say that modern science, or the philosophy underlying it, does not remain untainted by the logic or spirit of capitalism. In EPM, Marx talks of man’s four-fold alienation with the advent of capitalism: from nature; from fellow men; from himself; and from his species-being. He also talks of a four-fold disjunction in the modern world: between different philosophical trends, philosophy and science, ethics and political economy, and the theoretical and practical spheres (See Meszaros’ Theory of alienation). In such a situation, afflicted by all-round alienation and fissures, how could science end man’s alienation from nature and how could science not suffer distortions? Meszaros writes:'[Marx] sharply criticises both philosophy and the natural sciences. The first for being speculative and the latter for being “abstractly material” and “idealistic”. In Marx’a view both philosophy and the natural sciences are manifestation of the same estrangement. (The term “abstractly material” and “idealistic” indicate that natural science is now in an “estranged form” the “basis of actual life” because of the fact it is necessarily interconnected with an alienated form of industry, corresponding to an alienated mode of production, to an alienated form of productive activity.) This is why Marx opposes to both “speculative philosophy” and “abstractly material” natural science his ideal of “human science.” What Marx means by human science is a science of concrete synthesis, integrated with real life. Its ideal is the non-alienated man whose actul human — as opposed to both “speculatively invented” and “abstractly material” — needs determine the line of research in each field (101).’
    At least Goethe was in search of such a human science. The British physicist Henri Bortoft has recently brought out a beautiful book ‘The wholeness of nature: Goethe’s way of science’ in which he argues that modern science is not incorrect, but there is a better way to approach and understand nature, viz. Goethe’s science. It is for Sydney and Richmond to have a look at it. Bortoft goes a step further than Heisenberg who could very well appreciate certain aspects of Goethean science despite his disagreements. See his essay ‘The teachings of Goethe and Newton on colour in the light of modern physics’.

    I should stop. I thank Sydney for being always trenchant and thought-provoking.

  4. It is pleasant to agree with Sarban, as I do today. It is also pleasant to agree with a former colleague (Mezaros, who most certainly does not know of me.)

    But to clarify matters, I should like to explain that “science” connotes three quite different objects.

    Firstly, there is the established, certain body of knowledge, which I shall call established scientific knowledge. This body of knowledge is true, that is, it is a good approximation to the reality that surrounds us. Contrary to some ‘philosophers of science’, these conclusions are not provisional and will not change unless the world changes markedly.

    Secondly, there is the social activity called scientific investigation. Scientific investigation is carried out in capitalist society supported by the capitalist class for their own purposes and not at all in the pursuit of knowledge.

    Thirdly, there is the corps of active scientists, who are indeed citizens, like any other, of one or another capitalist society.

    The last two points make it clear that indeed, Sarban and that fellow Marx are quite correct to see scientists and scientific activity as a class-based social activity dominated by the needs of the capitalist class. But scientific knowledge is rather special because it is true and because it has its own internal logic, which a few enlightened scientists may follow where ever it leads. Answering a different debate in this list, I note that these few, very enlightened scientists follow their own independent paths, and thus they show novel human agency, and thereby create new fields of knowledge. But they can only appear when the social time is ripe.
    Examples of such enlightened scientists who show agency, independently of the contemporary social, class relations include but are not restricted to;
    Epicurus, the Pole Nicolas Copernic, the Italian Galileo, the English alchemist Isaac Newton, The English churchman Charles Darwin, the German lawyer, Karl Marx and the German patent Officer, Albert Einstein. They all made discoveries, in spite of their social and scientific surroundings and not because of them.

    Finally, however, it is important to stress that Sarban and that fellow Marx are quite correct to imply that what most scientists study, especially in contemporary times, is predetermined by the needs of the capitalist class. Moreover, such true results as are obtained, and they are despite everything, are either immediately put in the service of the capitalist class or they are ignored or distorted.

    But we should not forget that in scientific knowledge there is an internal dynamic that permits human agency to bypass the restrictions placed on scientific investigation by capitalism.

  5. Although I have not read the Philosophy of Nature, I wanted to comment on the exchange of Feyeraband more generally. Richmond says the book was written during Feyeraband’s mid-career, or the so-called relativistic years. It is interesting that Richmond’s review suggests no sloppy relativism often mistakenly attributed to Feyeraband.

    Feyeraband is tricky, he can be used to defend many different views.

    Feyeraband’s latter works are more aligned with social constructivism and not an anti-scientific relativism.

    He started out as a defender of some sort of realism. In mid-career Feyeraband takes a relativistic turn.

    In “Against Method” the argument is for a strong epistemological relativism (and throughout his life he defended a political relativism). However, it is a(n all too common) misreading of Feyeraband to claim that his strong epistemological relativism is necessarily an endorsement of ontological relativism and anti-science.

    Feyerband attempted to distance himself from this misreading of Against Method, but his early attempts, collected in “Science in a Free Society” made things worse. In his autobiography he writes “I often wished I had never written that fucking book [i.e. Science in a Free Society].”

    Feyeraband’s “Farewell to Reason” emphasizes that his critique of “Reason” is a critique specifically of pure abstraction, this is certainly what Marx was also concerned with. Feyeraband leans toward radical anti-realist grounds when he claims that this “Reason” or pure abstraction is merely philosophical concepts with no content (this is anti-Marxist to be sure. The Marxian historian E.P. Thompson falls into a similar pitfall in his exchange with Althusserians).

    Social sciences in general are excessively incautious regarding the vantage point, level of generality, and the extension of scope of conceptual abstractions. Likewise the relationship between theory and facts is conducted in a cavalier and insensitive manner to the importance of historical and institutional context. Feyeraband has a lot to offer when critiquing de-historized, overly-abstract, and at the same time overly empirical theories like neo-classical economics.

    Finally, I disagree with Sydney’s characterization of religious knowledge as being shown to be incorrect by science. Art, religion, philosophy, etc. are capable of producing knowledge quite different then science. According to Feyeraband this is because the ontological correlate of reality is that it is not constituted by any one reducible thing, but many different kinds of things which cannot necessarily be reduced one to another. In fact, Feyeraband contends there are no strong epistemological grounds for the belief that reality has a purely determinate nature.

    This position gives important epistemological roles to Myth, Art, Religion, Philosophy, and Platonic Anamnesis as handmaidens and often midwives to science and scientific discovery. To deny this is anti-scientific.

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