How ‘Against Method’ Was Born and Where It ‘Left’ Us (1968-75) – Part I/III

How Against Method Was Born and Where It Left Us

New Left Books: London 1975, first edition (hardcover)

As is well known, Feyerabend presented Against Method (Feyerabend 1975b) as his own contribution to an ultimately failed joint project: a volume which had been designed to recap the dialogue that Feyerabend had entertained with Imre Lakatos over the previous two decades, but which could not be possibly finalized due to Lakatos’s premature death on 2 February 1974.

This essay is the first part of a book on rationalism that was to be written by Imre Lakatos and myself. I was to attack the rationalist position, Imre was to restate and to defend it, making mincemeat of me in the process. Taken together, the two parts were supposed to give an account of our long debate concerning these matters that had started in 1964, had continued, in letters, lectures, telephone calls, papers, almost to the last day of Imre’s life and had become a natural part of my daily routine. The origin explains the style of the essay: it is a long and rather personal letter to Imre and every wicked phrase it contains was written in anticipation of an even more wicked reply from the recipient. It is also clear that as it stands the book is sadly incomplete. It lacks the most important part: the reply of the person to whom it is addressed. I still publish it as a testimony to the strong, and exhilarating influence Imre Lakatos has had on all of us. (Feyerabend 1975b, p. 7)

In the years following the publication of Against Method, Feyerabend often insisted on the personal, epistolary, nature of the book, with the main aim of justifying the informal, sometimes aggressive, style of its text, whose rhetoric excesses its reviewers had not failed to notice and frown upon. (See, e.g., Feyerabend 1976b, pp. 381-382, 384n1, which later became part of Science in a Free Society).

About twenty years ago, a selection of the letters which Feyerabend and Lakatos exchanged between December 1967 and February 1974 was included in a collection of previously unpublished writings by Lakatos and Feyerabend, edited by Matteo Motterlini for the University of Chicago Press. Indeed, the section of For and Against Method (1999) which goes under the title “The Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence (1968-1974)” represents the bulk of the book, covering more than 250 of its roughly 450 pages, and was set up with the explicit “intention of filling [the] gap” (p. 119) left by Lakatos’s missing reply to Feyerabend’s Against Method.

It must be emphasized that Motterlini warns the readers that “[t]he letters chosen […] do not […] make up the whole correspondence” (p. 119) between Lakatos and Feyerabend, but only a specific part of it. More precisely, in accordance with the stated purpose of this section of the collection, the editor only “selected those letters which appeared most relevant to the debate surrounding the ideas of Against Method and those most useful in suggesting Lakatos’s possible response ‘For Method’” (p. 119). In addition, he included “letters dealing specifically with the student revolt of 1968 and important international political affairs of the time” and “letters in which the authors comment on books, papers, conferences, and works of general and specific interest” (pp. 119-120). Admittedly, “[t]here is necessarily a subjective element involved in this choice” of the editor and, to be sure, there are some more such elements in the “cuts and omissions that [Motterlini] deemed necessary in reference to strictly private matters, or simply in order to avoid repetition and improve the readability of the text” (p. 120). However, the editor assures that, “[b]y and large, the [selected] letters appear in their original form and in full” (p. 120).

Unfortunately, Motterlini does not specify the amount of what was left out of his selection: neither with respect to the whole Lakatos-Feyerabend correspondence, nor to the letter exchange from the time span on which he chose to focus (1968-1974), nor – as is customary and almost inevitable – to individual letters included in the collection. The editor simply informs the readers that they “should not expect a reply to every letter” and suggests that they would better “loo[k] at [the selected] letters as a patchwork, rather than a continuously woven, fully articulated, and coherent tapestry” as “[t]he exchange is […] often interrupted at times when the two interlocutors had the chance to meet regularly and to continue their discussion face to face” (pp. 119-120).

So, all in all, I cannot claim that Motterlini did not make me aware that “The Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence (1968-1974)” was far from being a critical edition of (a section of) their letter exchange. Still, I must confess that I was quite puzzled when, about eight years ago, I visited the LSE Archives for the first time and started working on the papers of the Lakatos Collection. In fact, it became immediately clear to me that the published version of the letter exchange between Lakatos and Feyerabend was of rather limited use as a primary source in historical research and that a lot more work had to be done to sort out the Lakatos-Feyerabend correspondence.

“The Women’s Library Reading Room” – reading room of the LSE Archives and Special Collections

This conclusion could be drawn at a glimpse, considering that the set of letters included in For and Against Method consists of about 200 items, whereas the “complete” Lakatos-Feyerabend correspondence, extending between 1964 and 1974, includes more than 700 surviving items between letters, postcards and telegrams, with roughly 600 of them dating to the 1968-1974 period. In other words, “The Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence (1968-1974)” encompasses slightly more than a quarter of the entire letter exchange between Lakatos and Feyerabend that was preserved in Lakatos’s personal archive and only a third of the existing correspondence dating between 1968 and 1974.

As I went through the original letter exchange more carefully in the following years, it turned out that the selection published in For and Against Method was flawed in several other respects – and quite apart from Motterlini’s editorial notes, whose defects were noticed early on by a reviewer of the book (see J. Agassi, “A Touch of Malice”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32:1 (March 2002), pp. 113, 114). Some mistakes in the transcription were definitely to be expected, given the number of letters involved and that quite a few of them are handwritten. Most readers may not consider the fact that cuts and omissions within single letters are not always properly signaled particularly annoying. But they should find rather disturbing that some items have been put in the wrong chronological order. This is also partly excusable, though not less irritating, as Feyerabend’s letters were often sent undated. And even if some of them were inscribed with a date by Lakatos himself, possibly upon receiving them, possibly later (e.g., when he filed Feyerabend’s letters in his archive), Lakatos’s annotations are not invariably reliable. Consequently, it may require a painstaking cross-examination of several different sources to ascribe a convincing, if sometimes only approximate, position in time to specific undated items. It is far less excusable, however, that what were originally two different letters are presented in the published selection as a single one.

Nevertheless, these are admittedly minor faults from a historiographical point of view, if compared with the substantial lacunae in the selection of letters dating to the time interval under Motterlini’s attention, both within and especially without the chosen items. As it happens, only a limited number of the gaps that can be found here and there in the epistolary conversation as represented in the selection are due to logistic circumstances which allowed the dialogue between Lakatos and Feyerabend to continue in person. These are often easily detectable based on the content of the exchange and they are obviously to be accepted by default. On the other hand, the far larger amount of gaps that are supposedly justifiable in terms of Motterlini’s criteria of relevance for his aims are hidden to the readers’ view. What is more, they interfere with what might be considered a reasonable expectation on the readers’ part, namely getting a clearer view of the Feyerabend and Lakatos’s intellectual relationship not only through the evocation of Lakatos’s plausible response to Feyerabend’s purported provocations, but also through the detailed reconstruction of the genesis and development of the project which eventually led to the publication of Against Method.

This is what I shall try to do in the next installments. It is not unlikely that the result of such an effort would show only partial congruence to Feyerabend’s initial narrative about the genesis of Against Method. It could also contribute to illuminate the reasons why Lakatos did not actually even start to write a proper answer to Feyerabend’s work.

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