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

Against Method, 2nd edition (revised), 1988

To start with, one may be tempted to follow a long and distinguished tradition within Feyerabend scholarship and try to reconstruct the context in which Feyerabend developed Against Method entirely on the basis of the relevant autobiographical remarks scattered throughout Feyerabend’s work, including his own autobiography. A quick look at the slightly different stories that Feyerabend told about the genesis and development of Against Method, however, should suffice to persuade anyone that collecting such versions and assembling them into a coherent account, though not at all a pointless or unfruitful operation, is not unproblematic either.

Thus, in the Preface to the second edition of Against Method, completed in September 1987, Feyerabend offered a much livelier description of the circumstances that led to the conception of a co-authored book with Lakatos than in the first edition of a dozen years earlier. Moreover, Feyerabend added some interesting chronological details about the process of composition and revision of his own part of the projected volume.

In 1970 Imre Lakatos, one of the best friends I ever had, cornered me at a party. ‘Paul,’ he said ‘you have such strange ideas. Why don’t you write them down? I shall write a reply, we publish the whole thing and I promise you – we shall have lots of fun.’ I liked the suggestion and started working. The manuscript of my part of the book was finished in 1972 and I sent it to London. There it disappeared under rather mysterious circumstances. Imre Lakatos, who loved dramatic gestures, notified Interpol and, indeed, Interpol found my manuscript and returned it to me. I reread it and made some final changes. In February 1974, only a few weeks after I had finished my revision, I was informed of Imre’s death. I published my part of our common enterprise without his response. […] This history explains the form of the book. It is not a systematic treatise; it is a letter to a friend and addresses his idiosyncrasies.” (Feyerabend 1975b, 1988 [2nd edition (revised)], p. vii)

Only a few years later, Feyerabend’s autobiography Killing Time provided further particulars on the origins of the book project, on the development of Feyerabend’s part as well as on its publication process. These, however, shed a somewhat different light on the nature of Against Method.

In the late sixties New Left Books wanted to publish a collection of my papers. “Why don’t you write up the stuff you are telling to your students?” suggested Imre. “I shall reply, and we’ll have lots of fun. Personally,” he added, “I would have preferred Cambridge University Press; they are a large enterprise and less concerned about their reputation than a tiny business that has only just got started and is yearning for respectability.” (Imre was right. New Left replaced my Berkeley colloquialisms with British understatement and omitted all the jokes. Having lost my copy of the manuscript, I had a hard time restoring the text.) “But,” Imre continues, Judith [the person who had approached me] is a nice lady; you made a promise, so the New Left it is going to be.” Thus encouraged I started concocting Against Method (AM).

AM is not a book, it is a collage. It contains descriptions, analyses, arguments that I had published, in almost the same words, ten, fifteen, even twenty years earlier. […] All these impressions, surprises, ideas, reinforcements lingered, occasionally raised their heads, but seemed unacceptable when I met them in others […] when I started composing my collage […] I arranged [some of the events that had impressed me and some of the opinions that I held] in a suitable order, added transitions, replaced moderate passages with more outrageous ones, and called the result “anarchism”. I loved to shock people, and besides, Imre wanted to have a clear conflict, not just another shade of gray. […] The collage was finished in about a year. I read two sets of proofs and thought that now at least I could turn to other things. After all, I had said everything I ever wanted to say.” (Feyerabend 1995a, pp. 138-144)

Strictly speaking, Feyerabend’s three main autobiographical accounts of the genesis of Against Method – dating to 1974-75, September 1987, and 1993-94, respectively – are not mutually inconsistent. In fact, it is not that hard to reconcile them in a single narrative along the following lines. In the late 1960s, the then recently established publishing house New Left Books offered Feyerabend to publish a collection of his papers. Between 1970 and 1971, thanks to Lakatos’s stimulus and despite Lakatos’s qualms about the prospective publisher, Feyerabend started working on the project of a multi-part volume in which Feyerabend was supposed to attack rationalism and Lakatos to defend it. In 1972, the first part of the projected volume became, under Feyerabend’s craftsmanship, a collage of Feyerabend’s earlier papers cast in the epistolary mold of a long letter to Lakatos. This was designed to summarize the discussions that Feyerabend and Lakatos had had over the previous decade and was styled provocatively so as to elicit Lakatos’s pointed reply in the second part of the volume. However, as NLB changed Feyerabend’s informal prose to make it more acceptable and save their reputation and as the original manuscript got lost, it took Feyerabend another couple of years, and the help of Interpol’s services, to review NLB’s version, restore the original text and polish it properly. Yet, shortly after Feyerabend’s contribution was finalized in early 1974, Lakatos passed away and could no longer deliver his reply. As a consequence, the first part of the projected book was published in 1975 as an independent volume.

Although one may feel satisfied with such a reconstruction, there are clear disadvantages in relying exclusively on Feyerabend’s published testimony. First of all, the above sketch is the speculative result of combining evidence and clues from non-homogeneous and spurious materials, taken at face value and handled with the aim of maximizing the amount of information they convey as well as their mutual consistency. Adopting such an approach entails downplaying distinctive features of the relevant texts under examination, hence possibly misrepresenting their content, as well as setting aside tensions between them. Thus, for example, Feyerabend’s two prefatory accounts of the genesis of Against Method, which emphasize the dialogical and epistolary nature of the book to justify its peculiar style, read more like disclaimers than as genuine chronicles of the book conception, composition and publication process. On the other hand, the chapter of Killing Time devoted to Against Method, which seems to be constitutively more committed to providing a narrative which is firmly grounded on historical events, focuses almost exclusively on the content of the book and its reception, stressing its anthological nature and not even mentioning its alleged epistolary form. Moreover, the rhetorical overtones, sometimes admittedly bordering on the jocular, which characterized Feyerabend’s writing style at least since Against Method, make it difficult to tell an authentic description of events from a hyperbolic funny story, as is the case with Feyerabend’s reference to Interpol’s help in the quest for the lost manuscript of the first complete draft of Against Method. Quite in general, there is no guarantee that the most hermeneutically charitable approach to Feyerabend’s (or anyone else’s) autobiographical remarks yields the most reliable account of the events to which they refer. Ultimately, the problem lies in the, both intentional and unintentional, processes of selection and representation of past events underlying autobiographical remarks as well as autobiographies.

This brings us to the issues raised by those aspects that we would deem relevant to illuminate both the broader context and the finer circumstances in which Feyerabend’s first and most famous book took shape, but that are simply evoked in Feyerabend’s autobiographical remarks and in his autobiography. Indeed, it seems that working only with these sources, however carefully interpreted and manipulated as to the way in which they represent the past, opens many more questions than it answers. To mention but a few of them: What were the exact roles of NLB and of Lakatos in starting the project whose net result was the publication of Against Method? What urged NLB to try to recruit Feyerabend, involving him in their embryonic, ideologically driven enterprise? And how did Feyerabend become persuaded to accept their proposal and entrust a collection, later a collage, of his academic papers to a politically oriented, non-strictly-academic publishing house? If Feyerabend’s first version of Against Method was ready as early as 1972, how could happen that Lakatos did not even find the time to sketch a draft reply before he suddenly and untimely passed away in early 1974?

All this shows that if the aim is to provide a detailed reconstruction of the context and processes through which Against Method came to light, the temptation to limit the inquiry to Feyerabend’s autobiographical accounts must be resisted; at least as long as other sources are available.

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