Comments on Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ I: Real Materialism Versus Marxian Materialism


I am currently rereading Paul Feyerabend’s excellent book Against Method. It’s a very good book and I find myself in agreement with an awful lot that is in it. I have noted, however, that the argument suffers in some places because of the author’s lack of concern about rigour.

In fact this is a constant problem in the book and it stems from the manner in which the author thinks. Feyerabend insists that empiricism as commonly understood is wrong. In a watered-down version of empiricism we must test theories against facts and if the facts refute them then we must throw away the theory. In plain empiricism then, the facts come first.

For Feyerabend, however, science often proceeds by making bold assertions that are only really proved after the fact. He thinks that the main process involved in scientific discovery is what we might refer to as ‘play’ — that is, the play of ideas, concepts and theories against themselves until a new constellation of thought emerges. I very much so agree with this approach but as I said it does lead to the risk that one might lose rigour. It also opens the way for people to somewhat arbitrarily push theories that are incoherent in the hope that they will someday be supported by some mixture of empirical relevance and consensus.

Feyerabend articulates in the third chapter what might be called the ‘paradox of dogmatic empiricism’. He makes the case that theories often generate their own facts — or, to put that differently, that certain new facts cannot be discovered without changing one’s theoretical apparatus. As I have written on this blog before I entirely agree with this assessment.

But such a view leads to the conclusion that it is perceptions that are primary. What I mean by that is something like “truth is in the eye of the beholder”. It is only by looking at something in a particular way that the relevant facts can be illuminated. That seems to imply either one of two things: (i) that there exists no real ‘material’ or ‘external’ world at all and that to be is to be perceived, this is the radical idealist position or (ii) that the ‘material’ or ‘external’ world is dependent on some ‘spiritual’ or ‘internal’ world, this is the dualist or rationalist position.

To be absolutely clear in what I am saying, Feyerabend’s argument implies that our theoretical preconceptions are like spotlights illuminating certain parts of our reality. But this must mean that they have a primacy — either they are all that really exists (radical idealism) or they are primary in relation to some external, material world (dualism/rationalism).

Later in the book, however, in chapter 12 Feyerabend appears to try to use his argument to justify a materialist position which he himself seems to hold. But if such a materialist position is indeed true then how on earth can our perceptions — that is, the theoretical ‘filters’ that we apply — matter at all? Surely, if all that IS is immediately given to us in the form of material reality and our consciousness is simply an outcome of material interactions — i.e. it does not play an active role in the world — then Feyerabend’s idea that theories have primacy over facts is wrong.

The reason for this confusion, I think, is because ‘materialism’ means two different things today. The first meaning — which is the correct meaning — is the materialism of the mechanists. I think here of the likes of Richard Dawkins, the biological determinists and the neuropsychologists. In times past we might have also referred to their cousins, the eugenicists and the phrenologists. This is true materialism as it holds that consciousness is wholly the product of physical forces that operate outside of our control. This is the materialism that George Berkeley was arguing against in the 18th century when he first proposed radical idealism.

The second meaning is what might be referred to as ‘Marxian materialism’. This, I think, is what Feyerabend has in mind in chapter 12. The problem is that Marxian materialism is not really materialism at all. It is a hodge podge of half-understood idealism and assertions about the nature of society. In actual materialism consciousness is subordinate to external physical forces — i.e. we live in a determinate universe. But in Marxian materialism consciousness — class consciousness — is THE activist force in history and can be shaped by the revolutionary vanguard.

One can find this in all the Marxian literature, from Lukacs to Althusser. The concern is always with ‘ideology’, ‘class consciousness’ and so forth. But a true materialist would laugh at this. “Consciousness,” they would say, “is simply a product of genetic traits, it does not play an active role in history. We are all just machines subject to physical laws. It really doesn’t matter much what we think. This is, after all, just an outcome of the movements of atoms and so forth.”

In Marxian materialism, on the other hand, consciousness is assumed to play an activist role. “Men make their own history…” Marx writes at one point. But if this is true then Men cannot be wholly subject to a material reality outside of themselves. The Marxian will then typically respond “ah, you have misread your Marx…” (a typical refrain) “…his was a dialectical materialism, it took account of the interaction between consciousness and material reality in the form of the dialectic.” Well in that case it is not materialism at all. Indeed, it would be more accurately classified as “dialectical dualism” as it reconises two substances that are dialectically intertwined — that is, Consciousness/Spirit and Matter.

These mistakes plague philosophy today and they arise, as I have insisted before, because people do not understand the debate between George Berkeley and the materialists/dualists. Since that time idealism has become synonymous with the abstractionism of Hegel, when it was an anti-abstractionist philosophy in Berkeley, and materialism has become an empty signifier meaning anything and everything.

Thus it is that self-proclaimed materialists organise conferences on consciousness and socially constructed realities while not seeing that in actual materialism, to paraphrase Thatcher, there is no society because there are no emergent properties. There are only atoms and genes swirling around in a pre-determined vortex over which Man has no control.


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Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional. Writing about all things macro and investment. Views my own.You can follow him on Twitter at @philippilk.
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12 Responses to Comments on Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ I: Real Materialism Versus Marxian Materialism

  1. Tom Hickey says:

    The controversy began in the West in ancient Greece with the opposition of the atomistic mechanism and naturalism of Leucippus and Democritus to the metaphysical speculation of most of their contemporaries. Plato is reported to have desired that the books of Democritus be burned, for example.

    In ancient India, this is reflected in the opposition of Charvaka to the Vedic and Jain schools. Democritus traveled widely in his search for knowledge, possibly to India, so he could have known about Charvaka thought.

    From the outset the problem has been epistemic. If everything is “matter” and functions mechanistically, what is the transmission mechanism from object to subject. Until recently, there has been promising explanation. However, some contemporary scientists project that a neurological and even quantum explanation will be forthcoming.

    That leaves two other options. Dualism or idealistic monism. Idealistic monism solves the epistemic problem by asserting that consciousness is fundamental and the subjective and objective are complementary poles of consciousness. Then knowledge is innate. But again, explaining how knowledge occurs is an issue and so far no idealistic explanation has carried the day compellingly.

    The other alternative is dualism of mind and body/world, with the mind-stuff being fundamentally different from matter. Here, explaining the epistemic bridge in a way that satisfactorily explains how knowledge of the real instead of mere appearance is known has been unsatisfactory.

    At present, there is no compelling answer to the epistemic question that underlies the ontological one. Wittgenstein held that this is owing to the logical limitations of language, which philosophical analysis reveals.

    Regarding Marx, it is known that he rejected Comte’s positivism in its rejection of real causality after Hume. Marx was a mechanist insofar as he thought that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was correct, although he understood that Darwin’s theory doesn’t imply progress and Marx was a believer in progress.

    However, he was also a metaphysician in the sense of accepting real causality. Marx doesn’t reject Hegel, but turns Hegel on his head, making matter primary in the sense that material conditions give rise to ideas. Marx was chiefly a philosopher and earned his doctorate with a dissertation significantly titled, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. He understood the history of Western philosophy in terms of the major issues.

    I am not well versed in Marx’s works but my impression is that he set aside articulating the more knotty metaphysical and epistemology questions in favor of what he considered to be more pressing practically in the context of his day. So I think we have to figure out what his assumptions regarding this were.

    We know that the Young Hegelians with whom he was associated rejected Hegel’s metaphysical assumptions based on theology while appreciating his dialectical method, and Marx was certainly an theist, so theistic and supernatural assumptions would be ruled out. I would place Marx at the cusp of the transition taking place in the 19th century from metaphysics to scientism.

    But I don’t see him focusing on this issue specifically and articulating his own assumptions carefully. As a result he left those knotty philosophical questions ambiguous. It seems to me that Marx simply assumed that consciousness is a real cause, although not the dominant cause in the way that Hegel did. In a way, one can see Marx’s philosophical endeavor as one of making Hegel more scientific without falling into positivism and abandoning real causality.

    • Or we can drop the assumptions and just call a spade a spade: Marx was a rubbish philosopher with no coherent metaphysics and made self-contradictory statements throughout his life.

      But again, explaining how knowledge occurs is an issue and so far no idealistic explanation has carried the day compellingly.

      I don’t understand this. How is idealism unable to explain how knowledge occurs?

      • Tom Hickey says:

        I said unable to explain it “compellingly” so far.

        In my view, only a view of idealistic monism has a chance at presenting a compelling explanation that will eventually emerge as the dominant paradigm. So far that hasn’t happened.

        There’s a lot of good stuff on this, but it is not generally known. In addition, the there’s a lot of flaky stuff to wade through that obscures the worthwhile. Opponents use to this confusion to discredit the entire project.

        But the hard problem of consciousness, that is, accounting for quality, has not been definitively resolved in a compelling way.

        And that is not the hardest problem either, at least in my view. It is necessary to account for perennial wisdom as the testimony of “mystics” and teaching of sages worldwide from time immemorial. Moreover, I think that the account that can be found there is the most compelling.

        Even if materialistic monism would come up with a highly detailed mechanistic explanation in terms of neurology, that is no proof it is a comprehensive explanation. Idealistic monists pretty generally assume that a mechanistic explanation is possible on the level of matter and will eventually be forthcoming. Reductionists erroneously claim based on the principle of economy that a mechanistic solution would end the matter.

        Mind-body dualism is also becoming less and less tenable. Recent studies in cognitive science are strongly suggesting that mind-body dualism is based on incorrect assumptions that are ignorant of how the nervous system actually functions. The dualistic route seems to lead to a dead end in so far as they are based on 17th and 18 th century assumptions that still persist.

      • The link you provided is asking a bizarre question. Effectively it is asking:

        Why do we as human beings experience the world in the way we experience the world?

        Well, that is effectively the same question, in somewhat disguised form, as:

        Why do we as human beings exist?

        It is the same question because if we accept that all we as human beings have access to is our experience (and who denies that…?) then asking why we experience the world in the way we do is effectively asking why we experience the world at all… that is, it is asking the question as to why we exist.

        That question is not answerable. Frankly, it’s not a philosophical question. That is a theological question. There is no “answer”. Only belief. You can believe in a deity that put us here or you can believe in some mythic origins story of a mechanistic, pre-determined universe or you can believe that a giant bunny rabbit did it.

        This simply isn’t the domain of philosophy. Any philosophy that pretends to answer these questions is a religion — and any philosophy that tries to answer them is an aspiring religion.

  2. Tom Hickey says:

    Generally speaking, since Aristotle’s formulation philosophical questions are “why” questions and inquire into causes. Historically Western philosophy grew out of dissatisfaction with mythological and theological answers. Heidegger summed this up in the fundamental question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” assuming that deus ex machina is ruled out. Brute facticity can be labeled “experience.” “Why” is the request for an explanation of this given.

    Science is generally about “how” questions. It’s also about causes but in the form of causal mechanisms, later modified to include probability statements.

    Materialism-mechanism-scientism is about how questions. Some hold that answering how satisfactorily accounts sufficiently for why, mechanism being the sole type of cause and other “causes” being merely speculative reasons. Others hold that this just avoids more fundamental questions.

    Wittgenstein held that most “why” questions philosophers address cannot even be formulated in a way that could be answered sensically in his sense. His view seems to have been that there are matters of importance humanistically that we don’t have the ability to capture in language owing to logical limits.

  3. Tom Hickey says:

    Wittgenstein was not adverse to other forms of expression such as myth and poetry as long as one did not confuse them with scientific description, which many people tend to do. Wittgenstein was as much an aesthete as a logician trained as an engineer. He was disappointed that the Vienna Circle took the Tractatus to be a positivist manifesto, for example.

    LW was not a reductionist, and he did not think that the limits of language imposed limits on experience. Some aspects of experience, perhaps even the most significant, cannot be captured in language and communicated to others. But that doesn’t imply that they don’t exist or are unimportant.

    The elusive area of quality and qualia are included in this. His final notes were published posthumously as Remarks on Colour, for instance.

    LW’s point was simply to be clear about what is actually being communicated rather than supposing something is going on that is not. For example, he thought that Freud’s work on the unconscious was significant even though he denied that it was scientific and criticized Freud for imposing his own mythology on patients.

    LW’s emphasis was on logical clarity rather than formal rigor (Carnap), and the therapeutic method he employs ln the Philosophical Investigations has been compared with bringing what is unconscious to light using elucidation to enable one to see what one is missing or mistaking. In this sense, LW’s approach is critical (although not in the Kantian sense) rather than constructive. His approach to doing philosophical analysis adds nothing substantial. Rather it removes through seeing what is actually happening with symbol-use.

    I think this relates to Feyerabend’s method in Against Method. He is saying that rather than attempting to identify the essence or structure of scientific method, look at what scientists actually do and how science is conducted. It’s a lot messier than many if not most philosophers of science want to admit. As far as the charge of lacking rigor, he would likely respond there is a place for rigor and also limits to rigor, similar to Keynes contra Tinbergen. They were both deconstructionists in this regard, warning not to attempt to get more juice out the orange than is it. This was LW’s message too. What this does is to deconstruction a lot of pretentious (idealized, stylized) claims that exceed the capability of the method or contradict what is actually done in practice.

    • Wittgenstein never understood Freud. Indeed, there is good reason to think that he couldn’t possibly have understood him or what he was doing. Lacan hinted LW may have been psychotic. I think there’s a case to be made. His criteria for communication was rather… how shall I put it… closed.

  4. Jasper says:

    Phil, I wonder if you are giving short shrift to the class of “emergent properties” that includes conscious experience. I’m sure you’ll agree that “conscious experience” exists. There is debate amongst neuroscientists (and neurophilosophers) about the implications of the experiments by Benjamin Libet and others (see — i.e. whether they imply that free will is wholly (or partly) an illusion. In any case, however, the gestalt “conscious experience” certainly exists; whether it is merely an after-effect or side-effect of electrochemical neural dynamics, with no participation in guiding subsequent events (movements of the body, etc.) or whether the perceived gestalt entity “I” actually acts as some kind of (at least partially) independently acting steering mechanism (“free will”) is the question I think you’re addressing here.

    It is perhaps a mistake to believe that merely because conscious experience emerges from a substrate of dynamic interactions of electrochemical events within brains, that this necessarily means that those electrochemical events are “all there is to it” and that we are automatons who merely experience an illusion of taking decisions. There’s no need to postulate the existence of “spirit” as a Deus ex machina, here. You can entertain, instead, the possibility that the substrate of electrochemical events occurring in the brain (which is not isolated from the world, but rather is in communication with the rest of the world through incoming flows of information through energy-transducing devices like eyes and ears, and muscles and hands) give rise, together, to the gestalt entity “I”, which, although it is an emergent property of the brain’s electrochemical flows, may incorporate, as a kind of surf-rider, an emergent ‘decision-maker’ property that can act reciprocally on the electrochemical substrate and so shift the body’s various parts differentially through space. Maybe the surf-rider’s options are not completely determined by the previous instant’s configuration of electrochemical flows; maybe “he” has some “free will”, even if not very much.

    Causality in the brain is not unidirectional, except perhaps in aggregate in the temporal dimension: The brain features constantly circulating, heavily feedback-ridden, extremely complex electrochemical wave-fronts pulsing throughout the brain. Somehow, the perception of a gestalt “I” emerges from this gigantically complex electrochemical cycling amongst hundreds of billions of neurons. Perhaps “free will” is mostly an illusion, yet perhaps it’s not wholly illusory. Maybe the emergent phenomenon we’re discussing (conscious experience) follows its own set of rules that cannot be reduced to the rules governing its constituent parts; and maybe it is able to act on the very substrate from which it arises, not quite independently, but not in a way wholly predetermined by the previous millisecond’s electrochemical dynamics in the substrate. Maybe the machine gives rise to an effector-ghost that can turn around and guide the machine — not with complete freedom, but with some limited freedom of decision. It’s a boggle, isn’t it?

    • You’re articulating a dualist position. One in which you are uncertain as to causality. I think the Marxians are saying effectively the same thing and then fooling themselves into thinking that they’re making a materialist case (i.e. what you refer to as “unidirectional cause”).

      Me? I think both materialism and dualism are incoherent and nonsensical. But I wasn’t really making that case in the above post.

  5. Tom Hickey says:

    The controversy over Freud and Freudianism has resulted in a large literature, for and against. I am no expert in Freud or Freudianism so my view is irrelevant.

    LW is on record as regarding Freud’s method as too arbitrary and mythological to be scientific. He did not t think it had a predictive basis as a theory but instead saw it as a method based on persuasion. Moreover, he viewed Freud as under the spell of the positivistic approach to science that he opposed as overly rigid and misdirected, resulting in Freud overinflating his claims.

    But Wittgenstein’s criticism of Freud is biased in some measure as a criticism of the man and his particular approach to his work rather than Freudianism. It seems that LW saw the possibility that such an approach could result in insight that brought to light what had been unconscious, and so connected it with his own logical approach as therapeutic.

    Nonetheless, the author of Wittgenstein Reads Freud sees LW’s criticisms as applying to Lacan also.

    Whatever, LW’s mental status his work stands or falls on its own merits. It would be just a irrelevant for me to point out that Freud used cocaine to criticize his work.

    • No, mental status is here relevant. For Freud and Lacan the main characteristic of an underlying psychosis is that there is no unconscious. Thus a psychotic writer would be unable to actually grasp what Freud meant by unconscious. It is certainly clear that if LW thought that his method in any way connected to Freud’s he would indeed indicate that he had not understood it.

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