Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index


By Paul Feyerabend (2000, New Left Books [first published 1975])

A philosophical discussion about the use of specific methodology in science, using the observations of Galileo as evidence.



1+ stars+

Read December 1st, 2002 to February 11th, 2003  
    I am afraid that I didn't enjoy as much of this book as I had hoped I would. Some things were way beyond my skill, and the author seemed to ramble on for far too long, just like an academic...

A low grade, I must remind readers, does not necessarily mean a poor book. I rarely give this consideration, but sometimes a book can be well-written and thoroughly researched, yet not be to my tastes. This is the case with this book. To somebody knowledgeable enough to gain insight from it, or with the knowledge to refute it, I am sure it would be a much happier reading experience.

As a University undergraduate, I once took a course on the History and Philosophy of Science. Some of it was interesting, and so much of it just seemed wrong. In either case, I found that I was woefully unprepared, as I couldn't even refute or confirm things that the Professor was saying, regarding simple physics, chemistry and engineering. I hated the course, and didn't do too well in it, either, something that normally goes hand-in-hand.

This book is a lot like that course. Some arguments that the author makes can be made clear with a little effort. Other things seem dead wrong -but I am sure they are right when you think about them philosophically. Once again, I lack the experience and knowledge to tell.

The author seems to be random when picking his examples, in which he wants to illustrate further. Perhaps it is because some are easy to describe, while others would require equations and sketches. I would have welcomed sketches, when it came to discussions on the telescope. I don't know what he means when saying that the scope shows things differently in space than on the ground. I assume he is talking about the psychological aspects, because he talks about reference points, but then he goes to "explain" how optical theory taught today is false. Once again, I think this is a philosophical matter, something that physicists would not worry about. But how can I be sure, without devoting myself to his references?

And are his references ever extensive! So many chapters consist of more text in the footnotes than in the body. He should have expanded the body of his chapters to include much of that, and saved some flipping back and forth, with so many interruptions.

I never intended to read this as a real book, page after page, day after day. It was something to pick up every once in a while. Some days, I would enjoy what he was discussing, like Galileo's logical explanations about why the planet is moving. The author twists things around, though, to make them seem more complicated than they really are. Perhaps it was just as complicated in Galileo's time. Other times, I would leave the book alone for days, even weeks, because I became frustrated with his challenges to what we "seem" to know today.

He uses Galileo and the massive change brought about by the Newtonian dynamics as the major case study for why scientific principals must be broken in order to bring about a scientific revolution. The middle part of the book was almost enjoyable, not because I could follow his arguments, but because of the history of Galileo, and the times he inhabited. They are certainly the most interesting parts of the book.

In describing the historical world, he uses a simpler example, in ancient artwork, to describe how we must think about Galileo; to think of him as a modern contemporary, even to the extent of rescinding his excommunication, would be wrong, he argues, because we would be bringing Galileo into our world. In terms of art, at first I found it hard to believe in what he was describing, as it sounds absurd to think that nobody could have even thought of tracing the world as it looks to our eyes on paper (or equivalent). It seems that only sculptures were meant to represent the world as we see it, in three dimensions, but two-dimensional art showed things as how they fit together, so that every part was shown, even if to our eyes a person's feet were hidden by a wall. The 2D artist knew they were there, and that they were part of the person, so they had to be drawn. It was not representational of what we saw, but of what the object was. There is a fundamental difference, which we cannot fully grasp, I think, and this is what the author compares the ancient historical world with. This section of the book became rather interesting because of it.

Afterwards, however, the author delves into "reason" and "rationalism", and my ignorance again came to the fore, as even after rereading sections, I still cannot fathom what he was talking about. Those later chapters became quite frustrating again, just like the beginning of the book was. It appears that I am not as good at abstract theorizing and comparison as I needed to be to grasp his concepts.

The final chapter discusses his motivations for the work, and I found his personal experiences to be more palatable, probably because of the personal experiences. Again, however, this chapter is a mix of good and complicated, which brings the level of enjoyment right down.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy certain parts of the book. I was definitely forced to think, throughout the pages, chapter after chapter. The author forced me to search my own research methods, to think about preconceived notions, about how a theory comes into focus, even against the odds. He claims that the theory that he presents goes against as many observable facts as it proves, yet I don't see it. Maybe with a little more philosophical training, I would be better off. As I said after my course, I don't want any more philosophy, thanks.


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