Friday, August 13, 2004

Method Man

Dug this out of an ancient MA literature review: I'm making it the first in a series of 'reviews' of classic books, stuff too many people missed the first time round. Imre Lakatos is one of the most neglected thinkers of the twentieth century...

Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999.

Anyone accustomed to thinking of philosophy as the otherworldly discourse of academics afflicted with what Fowlers’ Modern English usage called ‘abstractitis’ would surely be surprised and delighted by Imre Lakatos’ ‘Lectures on Scientific Method’ and by the book which houses them, For and Against Method.

Given to overflowing audiences at the London School of Economics in 1973, Lakatos’ addresses are remarkable examples of the cross-fertilisation of complex ideas and pressing social and political issues. To be sure, Lakatos is concerned in his lectures to treat a perceived crisis in the epistemological foundations of science, but in 1973 epistemology and politics were not easily separated.

As early as the fourth sentence of the first of his eight lectures Lakatos is acknowledging that his is not an “esoteric problem just for armchair philosophers”; soon he is launching into the first of many practical applications of the models for scientific method he is concerned to consider. The history of science (not to mention pseudo-science) is replete with potential props for Lakatos’ talks, but the Hungarian exile and disgraced anti-Nazi activist is determined to tie positions on scientific method to political positions, and twentieth century political phenomena as apparently diverse as the Hungarian revolution, racism in the Academy, the rise of fascism in Europe and the student disturbances of the 60s and early 70s are wheeled across the stage, often at considerable speed, to illustrate the dilemmas of the modern philosophy of science.

The texts of Lakatos’ lectures form the most valuable part of For and Against Method, a 1999 book Lakatos is credited with authoring with his close friend and professional rival, Paul Feyerabend. At the start of the 70s the two men had, to be sure, planned a book of the same title; after Lakatos’ death in 1974, Feyerabend did in fact publish his side of their argument as Against Method[1], the manifesto for ‘epistemological anarchism’ which won him fame, or rather notoriety.

For and Against Method, in its 1999 form, contains a wealth of documents which aim to ghost the book the two philosophers could never write together. Perhaps the most fascinating texts are found in the correspondence between Feyerabend and Lakatos between 1968 and 1974. The immediacy and openness of the letter-form reveals, even more than Lakatos’ freewheeling lectures, the political underpinnings of an important set of philosophical debates. For Lakatos and Feyerabend, politics was nothing less than an occupational hazard, as is shown by this excerpt from a letter wrote out of Feyerabend’s Berkeley office:

A few days ago a little revolution was going on in Berkeley with about $200,000 worth of windowpanes smashed, bombs going into police stations, one policeman killed, many wounded; I was on the street, when it happened, and almost got hit by a stone; next day, in both of my lectures, I preached…against “the revolution” (which, at any rate, is no revolution at all, it is ridiculous). Slogan (introduced here by me, but stolen originally from the KPD in Germany, 1929): the enemy is on the left. My lectures ceased to be systematic lectures long ago…[2]

For Lakatos and Feyerabend, epistemology was self-defence. Feyerabend’s letters from Berkeley complain of persecution at the hands of university bureaucrats, right-wing colleagues, and members of an increasingly inflamed student body, not to mention the demented followers of Ayn Rand! Lakatos, for his part, had become an exile because of the possible consequences of his defence of what he considered scientific rationality, and there is evidence that he felt little safer in his new home, where militant political activity was on the rise. In one letter to Feyerabend he describes himself as the ‘favourite Fascist of the [London School of Economics] Socialist Society’[3]. In the first of his 1973 lectures, he discusses the American Philosophical Society’s recent decision to condemn the work of a group of researchers as ‘racist, sexist, and anti-working class…dangerous and unscientific’, and juxtaposes it with an account of Stalin’s persecution of Mengelian biologists[4]. When, in a latter lecture, Lakatos asks his audience point blank ‘What criteria would have to be satisfied in order to have a moral justification to burn down the LSE? [London School of Economics][5]’ he can hardly be said to be making a joke.

For and Against Method is a valuable book because it shows, very clearly, the relationship between some major philosophical achievements and some major political events. Lakatos, who always saw his ‘Methodology of Scientific Programmes’ as a sort of bulwark against the irrationalist chaos he perceived in the modern world, is revealed by this very personal book as a man vitally concerned with the practical application of philosophy both in the social sciences and in society.

The mandarin image of philosophers and the naïve or doctrinaire empiricism of many sociologists have perhaps tended to obscure, traditionally, the links between conceptual and social investigation. It is these links that Lakatos, in his work and in his attitudes, forces us to consider.

[1] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, New Left books, London, 1975
[2] Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999, pg 191
[3]ibid., pg 164
[4]ibid., pg 21-23
[5]Lakatos and Feyerabend, 1999, pg 24

PS: Just looked through this and realised it doesn't actually tell you much about Lakatos' ideas! I knew I was doing something wrong! I'll post something longer on the man when I have the time, but in the meantime go and get it from the horse's mouth: Imre Lakatos live!


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