Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 4



Let’s resume our discussion of Paul Feyerabend’s recently (posthumously) published Philosophy of Nature, an idiosyncratic analysis of the evolution of Western culture via the succession of the “forms of life” aimed at making sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. (Part I; Part II; Part III) The fourth chapter is about the transition between myth and philosophy, or what Feyerabend refers to as the shift toward a conceptual (as opposed to a poetic) understanding of nature.

Indeed, the chapter begins with this statement: “In the seventh and eighth centuries Homer’s colorful and detailed image of humanity and nature underwent a series of changes that gave rise to Western literature, philosophy, and science … until in the fifth century BC in Athens we eventually find ourselves confronting science, politics, literature, philosophy, and numerous other disciplines as independent and in many respects modified.”

This is historically correct, but while most of us take the transition to have been an unqualified good, Feyerabend’s position is, shall we say, a little more nuanced, and far more skeptical. One of his points is that we “rush” to praise any change that smells even remotely of modernity, forgetting that we are reading the history of thought in a highly selective fashion. For instance:

“Everyone praises Anaximander for eliminating the personal gods — for being the first one who eventually approaches nature through sober observation, as befits a rational human being, and for removing the phantoms of an insufficiently tamed imagination. However, his theory of dualities, in which heat includes the heat of love and coldness the chills of hate, is thrown aside as a sad leftover of past confusions.” The point being that, obviously, Anaximander didn’t see it that way. But a similar example could be made of Newton, who both made some of the most important contributions to science and yet spent a significant chunk of his life studying alchemy and the Bible. We are certainly justified in filtering the history of ideas, keeping the good stuff and throwing away the rest, regardless of the genius of the people involved.

Feyerabend suggests that the shift from myth to philosophy in Ancient Greece had some advantages and some disadvantages: “Indirect descriptions of cosmological principles (in which I always also include notions of human nature) by means of suitably structured myths are replaced by their explicit formulation, first through a picturesque cosmogony (Hesiod, Anaximander) and subsequently through the imageless, gray medium of concepts.”

Where is the downside in this? “The Homeric human being was an open aggregate of limbs, feelings, and perceptions, a playground of partly internal and partly external elements of consciousness, a switchboard processing countless factors. The new human is an ‘autonomous subject’ with self-willed ideas, motives, and feelings, and this subject is both emotionally and epistemologically separate from its environment.” In other words, it sounds like Feyerabend is suggesting that philosophy, and later on its offspring, science, began the process of alienation of humanity from its natural environment.

In fact, he says so explicitly shortly thereafter: “Concentration on abstract ideas of little content further leads to an obliteration of our community with the world and other humans. We notice an increasing alienation … Parmenides represents the high point of this destruction. The philosophy that systematically developed the novel, more abstract notions isolated itself from the life of tribe and city; it became a specialty practiced by the learned, who later would transform the city’s life from the outside and often by means of force (Plato in Sicily!).”

Not positive what the problem was with Plato in Sicily. Plato famously left Athens after the death of Socrates, clearly disenchanted with the very idea of democracy, an institution he blamed for the execution of his friend and mentor. He arrived in Syracuse and became the tutor of the young king Dionysius. That didn’t quite work out, and Plato barely escaped from the island with his life. I’m just not sure that that episode contributed to human alienation from its environment.

But back to that sense of alienation, allegedly caused by philosophy (but just as likely, I should think, by the evolving structure of society and it concomitant cultural evolution): “[it] transformed [humans] from a component of nature and society, directly subjected to the impact of both, into their observer and transformer … New institutions such as democracy, which lends the individual a hitherto unknown latitude of action and thought, tragedy, which indirectly and by use of concrete emotions proposes new behaviors and critiques old ones, religious community, which attempts to reinstate the old tribal morale, and philosophical schools, which attempt similar things in a more conceptual manner, served to solve the emotional and social problems.”

Well, this is a mixed bag. Surely some of these things are bad overall (e.g., religious institutions enforcing tribal morality), but for others Feyerabend’s verdict is more questionable (e.g., is it that bad — Trump aside — that democracy gives people unprecedented latitude of action and thought?).

One of the underlying questions here is why did philosophy emerge when it did? Feyerabend proposes a broad analysis, which includes technological advancements (especially concerning warfare) and an increase in general wealth, the circumnavigation of the African continent ordered by an Egyptian king, the Persians sailing through the strait of Gibraltar, and Euthymenes traveling in the South Atlantic, all examples of major cultural changes that characterized the period. As he puts it: “the special form of life that we now proudly call ‘rational thought’ — without having any idea of what it consists in and what its advantages are — developed surprisingly quickly, nourished by ancient traditions, contemporary factors, random effects of more recent historical events, the aftereffects of Homer’s rationalism, a desire for universality, Ionian no-nonsense directness, a critical turn against legends, and new experiences of the self and the world, affecting all of their causes retroactively and uniting with them in manifold combinations.”

Anaximander and the other Ionians changed the way we think about the world, moving us from the idea of gods arbitrarily imposing laws on the cosmos to the concept of natural law, immanent in the universe itself. Predictably, Feyerabend is not convinced that this was an unqualified good:

“Today this step is generally regarded as ‘rational,’ and the gradual elimination of divine traces as a further increase in rationality. Yet this means identifying rationalism with materialism — a dubitable procedure based on a naïve naturalistic interpretation of the material. It indicates an oversight of the possibility that materialism may have contradicted the contemporary experience of the world, and so it may be considered ‘irrational’ in light of an empiricist methodology.”

Let me unpack this a bit. Feyerabend is contrasting the Homeric and the Ionian world views, arguing that what Anaximander and the others were proposing may have been in conflict with an empiricist stance, because people had really being experiencing the world as populated by gods and vital forces. This may very well be, but it is analogous to the “theory-driven” conclusion that there really is not such thing as a sunrise or a sunset, their appearance being caused by the rotation of our planet on its axis. This too goes against the “empirical” observation that the sun rises and sets every day, but that just means that a naive empiricist view of the world is, well, naive! I would therefore suggest that the Ionians, the forerunners of modern science, really did take a step forward in our understanding of the world. Whether the subsequent development of science made possible by the Ionian gamble has then contributed to the alienation of humans from their environment is a distinct question. Whether and what extent that alienation is a negative thing is yet another question, and the answers to those cannot simply be taken for granted, as Feyerabend appears to do.

The next disreputable character in Feyerabend’s treatment of early philosophy is Parmenides: “The impact of Parmenidean thought on oriental [sic] philosophy and science can hardly be overstated. Parmenides was the thinker who replaced concrete sequences of events with invariable and purely conceptual laws, thus strictly separating experience of the world from reality, intuition from thought, knowledge from action. Mathematics owes him the turn from the intuitive to the abstract and its ‘rise’ from a general theory of the life world to a theory of ideal entities. Science is indebted to him for its belief in eternal laws and its axiomatic method of representation, which has now come to be regarded as the universally valid basis of understanding.”

Again, I’m not positive on why we should assent to the idea that the above listed developments are negative, or even a mixed bag. Be that as it may, after Parmenides, Feyerabend sees a split between two general approaches to understanding the world within philosophy:

“The first group of theories attempts to solve the problem of motion and development by means of concepts and entities that do not have any direct counterpart in everyday experience [Democritus, Plato] … the second group of theories attempts to grasp the objects of our experience in a more direct manner and to show that the concepts of ordinary language used in this undertaking are not too far removed from the Parmenidean ideal of invariability [Aristotle].”

Broadly speaking, the split corresponds to that between the traditions of rationalism and empiricism that were finally reconciled only in the 18th century by Kant, but I am now getting ahead of myself, since we have another chapter to go before we arrive at modern science and philosophy.

18 thoughts on “Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 4

  1. Paul Braterman

    What does Feyerabend mean by “materialism” and why does he find it objectionable? And is he suggesting that myths only work when we regard them as true in the same sense as scientific observations? (I would suggest that the exact opposite is the case; that we cannot fully benefit from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Genesis 1 – 12, or Homer’s Iliad for that matter, if we take them seriously as historical records)


  2. Massimo Post author


    I wondered myself about what Feyerabend meant by “materialism,” and my guess is the straightforward definition: the philosophical position that everything, ultimately, is made of matter.

    I think he is suggesting that myths “work” as a way of making sense of the world if people consider them real, at the least in some respects. No need to go all the way to considering them equivalent to science.


    I may sympathize but do you mind elaborating a bit?


  3. wtc48

    It seems like the replacement of the (naive) empirical by rational concepts is an ongoing sequence, where the rational concept becomes the empirical one and is then replaced by a new rational one, and so on. The gods make the sunset happen, then observed phenomena lead us to accept the earths rotation as the new empirical explanation, which is then extended rationally to the idea of the Ptolemaic universe, which becomes empirical until its rational replacement by the Copernican universe, etc. “Rational” and “empirical” in this sense are always relative, as design and raw material, respectively.

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  4. milesmutka

    As you say, this is a very “selective” reading of ancient greek philosophy. If you read the surviving fragments of Parmenides’ poem, it features for example an unnamed divinity, a muse that rides a chariot and lifts the veil of seeming to show things as they truly are. So not really gray or imageless in the original, although it may seem that way when distilled into a dialogue by the idealist Plato (who btw might object to being paired with the laughing philosopher in such an offhand manner).

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  5. Markk

    Is the argument here that the turn to rational or scientific thought inevitably squeezes out the mythical, but there are valuable elements within the mythical that ought to be kept? Is this because the value in the mythical in itself constitutes knowledge, or more that as human beings we have a psychological need for it?


  6. brodix

    “One of the underlying questions here is why did philosophy emerge when it did? ”

    The feedback starts to go exponential? Especially from beyond the scope of the organic group, such that collective wisdom cannot be contained within the canon/mythos, but keeps always growing and pushing the framing devices, creating more feedback loops and connections. Such that objective “truth” emerges as a goal distinct from “good” and “desire.”


  7. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think Feyerabend thinks that science inevitably squeezes out the mythical. I mean, look at how much mysticism still exists today, often trumping science in the mind of many.

    But yes, he is saying that any shift in how we make sense of the world comes with trade offs and it is not an unqualified good. I would agree with that, but I haven’t yet read an argument from him in the book as to why the trade off in question has been particularly bad, or what he would propose instead.


    Yes, Kant did reconcile the empiricist and rationalists traditions by introducing the idea that we come equipped with certain tools to make sense of the world (like concepts of causality, space, time), which are prerequisites to absorb and make sense of empirical data. but those tools are insufficient to arrive at entirely a priori knowledge of the world. So both the empirical and rationalist traditions, on their own, are insufficient.


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Of course, Kant made certain assumptions about human rationality. That said, not all Humean-era assumptions about our empirical observations totally stand up today, either.

    I was thinking in part about specific frameworks of Kantean integration, as much as anything.


  9. Massimo Post author

    Yeah, I don’t think one needs to buy into the specifics of Kantian categories and such. Just like one doesn’t need to buy into the specifica of Hume and so forth. But the general idea strikes me as about right.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. davidlduffy

    Nietzsche on Parmenides, “By tearing entirely asunder the senses and the ability to think in abstractions, i.e., reason, just as if they were two thoroughly separate capacities, he demolished the intellect itself, and incited people to that wholly erroneous separation of “mind” and “body” which, especially since Plato, lies like a curse upon philosophy.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sherlock

    Has any work been done on the possible evolutionary origins of Kantian concepts and categories and so on? Or more generally, would current evolutionary theory favour empiricism or rationalism in the philosophy of mind?


  12. Massimo Post author


    Modern science, in my mind, definitely confirms the sort of compromise between rationalism and empiricism that Kant envisioned, though we actually still know remarkably little about the evolutionary, genetic and developmental origins of the structure of our minds.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. wtc48

    Massimo: “Modern science, in my mind, definitely confirms the sort of compromise between rationalism and empiricism that Kant envisioned, though we actually still know remarkably little about the evolutionary, genetic and developmental origins of the structure of our minds.”

    If we grant that animals have minds, to a varying degree, and that it doesn’t make much sense to separate mind and body in this case, so how does the human situation differ? I think one factor is that humans are autodidacts. Animals also learn as they develop after birth, from older animals and trial and error, assisted by instinct to a far greater degree than humans, but I doubt that any non-human animal ever embarked on a self-training program. Our self-training is (or should be) life-long, and in this process we can draw on as much of the entire body of human culture as we have access to, so that the mind of an individual human is the product of a marriage between innate structure and external influences.

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