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Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, by Paul Feyerabend

Ed. Bert Terpstra. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 285 pp. $17.00 (trade paperback).

 

 

“How is it that views that reduce abundance and devalue human existence can become so powerful?” (16). Paul Feyerabend, professor of philosophy at Berkeley and best known for his books Against Method (1975) and Farewell to Reason (1987), introduces this question as the central issue of Conquest of Abundance. Published posthumously and uncompleted in 1999, Conquest in fact answers that question in great detail, following an historical tract that leads from the worldviews of ancient Greece (Homer) to Classical Greece (Plato, Xenophanes) and onward to the philosophy and “scientific” approach of quantum physics (Heisenberg, Bohr).

 

To say that Feyerabend answers his own question—a simple rewording could ask, “How has the template of ‘scientific method’ come to limit our perception of the world?—does not mean to suggest that he offers a set of solutions to the implied problem. His view of history reminds the reader of the “Butterfly Effect”—chaos theorist Edward Lorenz’s notion that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on one continent can lead to a hurricane on another. In Conquest, Feyerabend lays out a record of the West where a seemingly unlikely event builds into a great force, with implications in communication, science, and our views of reality. The drawback is that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings becomes insignificant within the tempest of its own creation; Feyerabend presents a world consumed, where subtleties and complexities are lost to a storm gathering force over the centuries.

 

Before moving from generalization to specifics, from abstraction to richness of being, I will note the Feyerabend’s work finds utility and purpose in a diversity of fields. I found in researching his book citations in academic and popular works that ranged from the metaphysical to the pedagogical, from Dadaistic diatribes to the philosophy of science. For those who study language and its limiting effects on the way we think and reason, Feyerabend adds that “language is not the only ‘conspiracy’….Humans paint, produce films and videos; they dance, dream and make music; they engage in political action, exchange goods, perform rituals, build houses, start wars, act in plays, try to please patrons—and so on. All these activities occur in a fairly regular way; they contain patterns, ‘press’ the practitioners ‘to conform’ and in this way mold their thought, their perception, their actions, and their discriminative abilities” (28). According to Feyerabend, emphasis on the aggregate rather than the exception imposes limits on understanding and progress.

 

Part One

 

We can occasionally explain why crude ideas get the upper hand: special groups want to create a new tribal identity or preserve an existing identity amidst a rich and varied cultural landscape; to do so, they ‘block off’ large parts of the landscape and either cease to talk about them, or deny their ‘reality,’ or declare them to be wholly evil (13).

 

The published form of the “complete” manuscript exists today in a single section, with the unwritten second portion substituted by series of contemporaneous essays. Section 1 of Part One, “Achilles’ Passionate Conjecture,” argues that modern philosophy, scientific method, and the arts have set limits on our view of the world, and that these limits have become so deeply imbedded in our reasoning, that we don’t realize they are there. Feyerabend uses a speech by Achilles as a launching point. Culled from The Iliad, the content of Achilles’ speech matters less than the fact that the god attempts to articulate a message that does not fit the template of current (ancient) Greek thought. He has stepped outside the box, relaying a point of view that falls so far outside the fashion and mores of the time that it seems nonsensical to his listeners. Feyerabend rejoins, “One theory that that has become rather popular assumes that languages, cultures, stages in the development of a profession, a tribe, or a nation are closed in the sense that certain events transcend their capacities. Languages, for example, are restrained by rules” (20). Had not the Greeks granted Achilles’ a status as god, his speech might have found dismissal as so much gibberish. In fact, Achilles was a god, and his speech served as a “butterfly moment” for western culture as his audience groped to find the meaning of his words. History changed. As told by Feyerabend:

 

“It [“cultural compartmentalization” as per a radical interpretation of “subjectivity”] is of relatively recent origin and the conceptual barriers it postulates did not and still do not affect the commerce between cultures. Misunderstanding can happen. Even the most ordinary events baffle some people, enrage others, and render still others speechless. But we also find that ordinary people, i.e., people not yet confused by higher learning, readily accept statements which sound strange to their neighbors and nonsensical to scholars….Physicians, teachers, laborers, missionaries in so far unknown cultures, astronomers interested in unity, they all face new situations, products, challenges, and they deal with them, often successfully….potentially every culture is all cultures” (32-33, author’s emphasis).

 

But to say that we all can “potentially” communicate does not necessarily imply that we all do. Feyerabend notes that we communicate when the need arises. Such need might arise from something as mundane as commerce, or from the cognitive dissonance sustained by hearing a seemingly nonsensical speech from the lips of a deity. Change, further understanding of the world around us, takes place not in the cultural or currently popular templates we use to mold reality, but in the exceptions to the rule, the things that just don’t quite fit into our current “worldview.” Feyerabend notes that we can ignore, dismiss, or even legislate away these apparently incongruent phenomena in comfort. Or we can grope, often in intellectual discomfort, to understand them.

 

The remainder of Part One expands upon Achilles’ speech, tackling issues of science, religion, and philosophy—in fact, our evolving (or devolving) view of reality. “Abundance” gives way to clumsy, monolithic ways of thinking with false dichotomies and an almost fervent ability to dismiss the richness of the world standing at the forefront. For instance, Feyerabend looks at the historical trend toward monotheism as one example. He turns to Classical Greece, when many gods existed with distinct personalities and frailties. The amalgamation of Greek city-states into larger states inevitably led to the consolidation of their respective gods, where the people “emphasized their similarities over the differences” (53). A single “God” resulted, and it lacked the human characteristics and foibles of Hera, Prometheus, or even Zeus. According to Xenophanes, this new “God” existed as all-knowing, all-being, “[a]lways without any movement he remains in a single location….he moves all that is” (53). Feyerabend refers to this apparition repeatedly as a “monster” and just one example of how diversity and “abundance” fell under the weight of abstraction. (Feyerabend further details how this new “monster” entity of pure “being” led to the concept of “non-being” and ultimately the false dichotomies of ancient Greece which govern much of our political, social, and moral thought today.)

 

Despite this avalanche, this seemingly inevitable “snowballing” of events over time, Feyerabend does strongly suggest that we don’t live in a mechanical, pre-determined world. He writes:

 

Still, a look at history shows that this world is not a static world populated by thinking (and publishing) ants who, crawling all over its crevices, gradually discover its features without affecting them in any way. It is a dynamical and multifaceted Being which influences and reflects the activity of its explorers. It was once full of Gods; it then became a drab and material world’ and it can be changed again, if its inhabitants have the determination, the intelligence, and the heart to take the necessary steps (146).

 

Feyerabend thus offers hope, but no specific solutions or methods to the dilemma of a “drab and material world.” So ends Part One.

 

Part Two

 

There is no part two.

 

As mentioned, Paul Feyerabend died before completing the manuscript. But before viewing the work as hopelessly unfinished—or worse, before we construct from the groundwork Paul Feyerabend laid and try to follow, cult-like, to a conclusion that answers the questions of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”[1]—let’s remember Feyerabend’s own sense of humor in the whole endeavor. He sets us up to fall several times in his argument. For instance, he draws the incautious reader into cultural analyses of an event only to later reveal that the historical and social milieu used in the argument occurred, in fact, centuries before the event itself—a means by which Feyerabend cautions us to question comfortable conclusions sculpted from data[2]. (That is, he warns that researchers of any ilk may construct very complex theories to achieve pre-determined conclusions, which may have more to do with popular or culturally defined templates, acceptable outcomes, or concretely faulty information.)

 

What we have instead of a neatly-wrapped narrative metaphor to help codify the first portion of the book is instead a series of essays, chosen by editor Bert Terpstra, and written concurrently with Conquest of Abundance. Essay subjects present the range of Feyerabend’s current interests, ranging from “Realism and the History of Knowledge” to “Aristotle,” “Universals as Tyrants and Mediators” and “Art as a Product of Nature as a Work of Art.” These works serve as artifacts—glimpses of where Feyerabend had gone, and some idea of maybe where he “was going” with the unfinished manuscript. Even the most mildly curious human could find pet loves and erudite references to latch onto. For me, the no less than four references to Halton Arp (the once-renowned astronomer and professor who questioned the “pure mathematics” of quantum physics as applied to large mechanical systems and found himself exiled from the North American university system[3]) served as a foundation for my interests. Yet to say that Conquest speaks to an abundance of fields does not mean that it serves a broad audience. Those who find comfort in the predictability of their chosen reality, their chosen field, will not relate; those who find predictable results occurring with increasing frequency throughout their careers and pause at night to wonder “What Am I Missing Here?” will discover a gold mine in Feyerabend’s reasoning, as did earlier review writers and those who extensively cite Feyerabend’s work.

 

Previous Reviews and Conclusions

 

“Feyerabend bemoans the uncritical acceptance of precise concepts and rules that, if followed slavishly, my appear to be the only representations of thought”[4] writes Mark Tadajewski, a research student at the University of Leicester. A writer from Princeton asks, “What audience does this author constitute for himself, as intended target? An educated audience [though] Feyerabend wears his learning lightly….The conquest in the end is a sham conquest, an illusory victory for the forces of abstracting intellect.”[5] Conquest of Abundance does not rebuke science. In fact, Feyerabend reminds us at turns of great accomplishments that have come of science. Nor does Feyerabend attack the reasoning of historical figures with whom he apparently disagrees (or, more often, in whose proclamations he finds contradictions). Rather, he takes issue with a general historical trend that leads to greater generalizations (abstractions) in our perception (our making) of the world around us. “Early Chinese thinkers,” says Paul Feyerabend, “had taken empirical variety at face value. They had favored diversification and had collected anomalies instead of trying to explain them away” (165). As with the Babylonians studying lunar eclipses—those phenomenal exceptions to the rule of a routine, predictable, and hegemonic universe—Feyerabend finds in empirical anomalies and the apparently useless glitches that researchers trim like statistical fat at the outer limits of Bell’s curve, a view of an abundant world, and one that leads to leaps in scientific, cultural, and in fact human progress.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The title of a popular book (1982) by Douglas Adams, a frequent cross-reference with Feyerabend along with Buckminster Fuller, Robert Anton Wilson, Erwin Schroedinger, George Carlin, and a range of other recent “philosophers.”

 

[2] The Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges posed a similar critique of literary analysis in “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” by presenting an author who intended to re-write Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the 20th Century. What circumstances, we ask, would lead an author to write those exact words in the postmodern world? The implication of Borges (and of Feyerabend) is that we posit comfortable, well-suited meaning to our analysis, whether that analysis is of literature, cultures, or natural phenomena.

 

[3] Halton Arp continues his research in Germany at the Max Planck Institute. Arp’s book Seeing Red questions specifically the “leap of faith” that leads from the mundane appearance of red-shifted stellar bodies to the exotic assumption of “singularity” and the big bang (often capitalized as “Big Bang” among the true believers). In an email discussion with Eric J. Lerner, author of the more accessible The Big Bang Never Happened, he and I realized that while most “common” people see numbers as adjectives (ten cows, five apples, etc.) “pure mathematicians” often view numbers as NOUNS, things that actually exist as entities unto themselves, as did the mystics of ancient Greece, Pythagoras among them. We’re not off point here. Communication, even communication regarding something so absolute as whole numbers, breaks down when worldviews become so dogmatic, so rigid, that researchers will sooner entertain exotic, un-provable, and often useless notions such as singularity and string theory than to acknowledge more practical, applicable ideas that break fundamentally from the popular tide of thought and correspondent grant dollars.

 

[4] “HOT on the Limits of Organization Theory.” Ephemera Reviews: Critical Dialogues on Organization. <ephemeraweb.org/journal/4-1/4-1tadajewski.pdf>.

 

[5] Bas C. van Fraassen, “The Sham Victory of Abstraction: Review of Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance.” Times Literary Supplement 5073: June 23, 2000, 10-11.

 

 

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