PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Of Ballungen and Anarchism: The Influence of Otto Neurath on Paul Feyerabend

Only in recent years has Otto Neurath’s place in the history of the philosophy of science been properly appreciated and his influence and relationship with the other members of the Vienna Circle been explored. Similarly, Feyerabend scholarship has exploded in recent years and has gone a long way towards reconstructing Feyerabend’s philosophy of science as expressed in his early, middle, and late periods, as it were. It is widely acknowledged that Neurath and Feyerabend denied any secure foundation for knowledge and argued for a pragmatic characterization of science whereby science is understood as being a socially, culturally, and politically conditioned discourse. Despite the philosophical similarities between the two, a survey of the literature reveals that there has been virtually no analysis of the possible influence of Neurath on Feyerabend. In this paper I argue that there are important conceptual affinities between the two thinkers that have hitherto gone unnoticed or underappreciated. I focus explicitly on their anti-foundationalism and attack on method. I contend that Feyerabend’s own foundationalist views were heavily influenced by what Cat and Cartwright (1996) call ‘Neurath’s general principle’, and that the common thread between their respective attacks on method is their mutual denial of meaning atomism. Their rejection of meaning atomism arises from their mutual disdain and dismissal of the conceptual conservatism expressed by the logical empiricists. There are important limitations to this paper to consider. The first is that although I believe there to be interesting historical connections between Neurath and Feyerabend, I do not have the space to study these in detail. The second is that there are pertinent similarities in their political philosophy of science, an area in which Feyerabend was almost assuredly influenced by Neurath in some way. These are topics in the larger project of studying the two in depth; my paper is simply a preliminary exploration and sketch of an argument. I suggest that there is much more interesting work here to be done.

Author Information:

William Wilson    
Virginia Tech


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