Feyerabend’s Epistemological Anarchism and Naturalism in Philosophy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

In reading a paper on Bertrand Russell’s naturalism, which I hope to review here, the mind somehow wondered to the philosophy of science of Paul Feyerabend.

I myself am a card carrying naturalist, but one that, strangely enough, sees much that is worthy in the “epistemological anarchism” of Feyerabend. The latter is often seen as anti-science and is also oft invoked by, serious rather than coiffured, epistemological relativists in defence of their theses. Feyerabend, of course, led the charge.

I like the criticisms of scientific method made by Feyerabend because I think that the picture of science that traditional, method centric, views promote is far too algorithmic, and doesn’t much up with the historical record as it should if correct but I, nonetheless, can be no relativist.

How can the two positions, naturalism and Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism, be reconciled?

Say one is in cognitive state p which is to know p. Everybody that possesses the state p knows that p. So, for example, to know how to ride a bike is to be in a certain cognitive state.

To acquire p is to learn p. One has learnt to ride a bike when one develops the cognitive state associated with knowing how to ride a bike.

Methodological monism would be the thesis that there exists only one method by which we come to acquire p. Methodological anarchism would be the thesis that there is no single unique set of procedures or method which we follow to acquire p.

Anything goes, as it were.

But that does not mean that anything goes epistemically. There are many methods that one can employ to achieve state p but that does not mean that epistemological relativism follows for the one unique cognitive state obtains.

There can be, then, many methods to acquiring the knowledge needed to ride a bike but knowing how to ride a bike, alas, remains knowing how to ride a bike.

The same applies to science. Methodological pluralism is a thesis about method, it is not a thesis about knowledge as such and the two should not be conflated to either deflate scientific knowledge or to uphold relativism.

The search for a hard and fast scientific method by which to ground scientific knowledge is based on a reliabilist epistemology, which is externalist. Feyerabend, among others, has shown that these are not defensible positions.

Naturalists in philosophy spend a lot of time defending naturalism, much more than “getting on” with putting flesh to the naturalist bone. The objective now should be to advance naturalism in philosophy by doing it, by putting the sceptics to one side, and no one method, scientific, analytic, or otherwise, should determine the nature of inquiry.

In this sense naturalists in philosophy would emulate modern scientists, who learnt to forget the sceptics long ago.

I suspect that naturalism in philosophy will not advance as much as it might because of the continued dominance of empiricism. I tend to think that the road will open upon the dispensing of empiricist dogmas, such as reliabilism and externalism, because this will lead to the framing of hypotheses, for example in epistemology, philosophy of language, meta-ethics, in internalist or cognitive terms.

Toward that end a little bit of Feyerabend wouldn’t go astray.

Feyerabend was wrong to say, as an aside, that science had become an ideology. A certain picture of science, empiricism, or positivism, did indeed become an ideology, especially in post war America, but that picture or ideology of science should not be confused with science itself.

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