How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology? A Further Reply to Kidd, Massimo Pigliucci

Author Information: Massimo Pigliucci, City College of New York,

Pigliucci, Massimo. “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology? A Further Reply to Kidd.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 8 (2016): 10-16.

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Image credit: Matthew Kirkland, via flickr

Ian Kidd (2016a) has written a compelling interpretation of Paul Feyerabend’s famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) so-called defense of astrology (and homeopathy, and a number of other pseudoscientific notions). Kidd’s take is that Feyerabend is best read from a virtue epistemological standpoint, and I agreed in my response to his paper (Pigliucci 2016a), although I also pointed out two crucial objections: 1) Feyerabend, while rightly chastising (some) scientists for their epistemic arrogance, himself fell short of virtue: he did not seem to be overly bothered by the lack of integrity on display when one defends—in however qualified a manner—practices that are not only indefensible epistemically, but in some cases positively dangerous; and 2) It seems that it didn’t even cross Feyerabend’s mind that his scorched earth attitude would damage not just his own credibility (which it very clearly did, hence the periodic necessity of positive exegeses like the one proposed by Kidd), but that of his whole field of inquiry, philosophy of science. 

Personal Virtue and Vice

In his reply to me, Kidd (2016b) makes a number of additional good points, so much so that our positions are beginning to converge rather nicely. Nonetheless, there are still a few issues that remain open, and that my discussion with Kidd may encourage other philosophers of science and science studies scholars to further pursue.

The first point is rather minor, but it is welcome nonetheless. Kidd reminds us that by the 1980s Feyerabend—under the influence of his soon to be wife, Grazia Borrini—had developed better examples than those that he “had been in the habit of using (astrology, voodoo, a bit of medicine)”.[1] This, however, seems to be lost on some contemporary followers of Feyerabend, such as Babette Babich (2015), who recently published a paper on “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.” In it, Babich writes that “Feyerabend himself was all too aware of both the advantages and the limitations of non-Western medicine” (15), going on to quote him as saying that: “Ultimately, ‘Any argument that seems to work against ghosts [as against creationism, psychoanalysis, psi-fields] will hit scientific ideas of a similar generality and any move that lets such ideas survive will also save ghosts’” (23). All of this within the context of a paper in which she insists in portraying homeopathy, AIDS denialism, cold fusion, and climate change denialism, among other dangerous or problematic notions, in a somewhat positive way. I will get back near the end of this note to the more general problem that papers like Babich’s present for the issues under discussion.

The second of Kidd’s points is that the contrast between Polanyi and Feyerabend could usefully be “dramatized” as the counterposition of pragmatism vs idealism, two different strategies to securing and maintaining public trust in science, a paramount goal shared by Polanyi and Feyerabend, as well as by Kidd and myself. This is good as far as it goes, but then one has to ask just how effective both Polanyi-style pragmatism and Feyerabend-type idealism have been in achieving that stated goal. I’m not sure, it’s an empirical question that I urge sociologists and historians of science to investigate further.

The final major point made by Kidd (2016b) is that even though Feyerabend was himself most certainly not a model virtue epistemologist—as I’ve argued in my first response (Pigliucci 2016) and Kidd is happy to concede—he joins the rest of us in having a dappled character—a fact he affirms in his autobiography. So the fact that Feyerabend himself fell short of virtue does not undermine the virtue-epistemic reading of his work that I offered—for my aims were to show that this usefully fills out the rationale for his criticisms of the Humanist signatories and points to an interesting conception of epistemic authority” (Kidd 2016b).

Indeed, just because individuals fail at practicing virtue it does not mean that a virtue ethical reading of what they were attempting to do is not both interesting and on the mark. However, this line of reasoning risks condoning a “do what I say, not what I preach” attitude, which would in turn undermine the whole point of virtue epistemology. I think it is time for philosophers to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. Sure, philosophers are fallible human beings, but just like few would trust a doctor who himself indulged in all sorts of bad health habits, or an economist who was known for irrationally wasting his money, I don’t see why anyone is bound to pay attention to philosophers (or scientists) who act very differently from the way they write. After all, it is Kidd himself who builds his virtue epistemological framework of Feyerabend’s defense of astrology on the failure by the signatories of the anti-astrology manifesto to coherently behave like good scientists. It would be openly contradictory, hypocritical, even, not to call philosophers out for an analogous failure.

The Tasks of Philosophy and Science Studies

Why does this matter? Let us recall what our joint goal is: “a central and urgent task for the philosophy of science is to actively contribute to public and political understanding of the sciences. It is hopefully now clearer that virtue epistemology can contribute useful resources to this large project—to affirm the epistemic virtues constitutive of scientific authority and to expose the epistemic vices characteristic of so many enemies of science” (Kidd, 2016b). Precisely, but doing so will require also the willingness to turn our critical scrutiny toward our own discipline, be that philosophy of science or so-called science studies. And there is a lot to be desired in both instances.

As I’ve pointed out recently (Pigliucci 2016b), philosophy of science and science studies have unfortunately diverged from each other over the past several decades, in part as a reaction by some philosophers against precisely the sort of academic sterility and even arrogance that Feyerabend was railing against—not just on the part of scientists, but of overly science-friendly philosophers of science.

Let me provide the reader with a thumbnail sketch of the two approaches to the study of the nature of science, so to better appreciate why they diverged, and why, in my mind, they ought to begin to reconcile—a process that I believe papers like Kidd’s (2016a) may be instrumental in catalyzing. Philosophy of science, as it has been understood throughout the 20th century, is concerned with the logic of scientific theories and practices, which range from broad questions about science at large (say, whether falsifiability of scientific theories is a valid criterion of progress: Popper (1963) vs Laudan (1983, 111)) to fairly narrowly defined problems within a given special science (e.g., the concept of biological species: Brigandt (2003); Pigliucci (2003)). In other words, philosophy of science is a type of broadly analytical practice, where one is concerned with the logic of arguments and the logical structure of concepts, in this case those deployed by scientists in the course of their work.

Science studies—as I am using the term here—is a bit more fuzzy, as it includes a number of approaches to the study of science that are not necessarily compatible with each other in a straightforward manner. This includes philosophers who use what may be termed an ethnographic approach to science (e.g., Latour and Woolgar 1986), those who are interested in cross-cultural comparisons among similar types of science laboratories (Traweek 1988), and those who take a feminist approach to scientific epistemology (Longino 1990), among others. What these authors have in common is a focus on the social and political dimensions of science, which is seen primarily as a human activity characterized by ideologies and issues of power.

The clash between the two perspectives has led to the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s, of which the iconic moment was represented by the highly controversial “Sokal affair” (Sokal and Bricmont 2003). As is well known, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, fed up with what he perceived (at the least in part, it must be said, rightly) as postmodernist nonsense about science, concocted a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” submitted it to the editors of the prestigious postmodernist journal Social Text, and managed to get it published before exposing it as a hoax. While certainly shaming for the editors involved, and a highly visible black mark for a certain way of criticizing science, the import of the affair should probably not have been as large as it turned out to be.

Sokal himself recognized that one can hardly impugn an entire tradition of scholarship on the basis of one editorial mistake, particularly given that Social Text is not even a peer reviewed publication. Nonetheless, one can understand the frustration of scientists (and of analytical philosophers of science) in the face of, for instance, extreme feminist epistemology, where one author boasts (with little to back up her rather extraordinary claim) that “I doubt in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself” (Harding 1989); or of Bruno Latour’s (1988) scientifically naive psychoanalytical re-interpretation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

What got lost in the kerfuffle is that of course science is both an epistemic activity that at least strives for (and has been historically remarkably successful at) a rational use of evidence and a social activity with inevitable ideological, political and even personal psychological components playing a non inconspicuous part in it. Indeed, it is simply not the case that 20th century philosophers of science completely ignored the social (and even historical) dimension of science. That is what made Kuhn’s (1963) famous work so notable (and controversial), besides of course the very radical critique of science produced by Feyerabend (1975a) that is the object of this discussion.

Reconciling Philosophy and Science Studies

While neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend can reasonably be considered part of the postmodern-continental tradition, they have both been invoked as forerunners of the latter when it comes to science studies. Both of them made points that should provide part of a blueprint for an expanded philosophy of science, albeit not necessarily following the exact lines drawn by these two authors. For instance, Feyerabend was being purposefully irritating when—in what sounds like a caricature of postmodernism—he said that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths, or when he wrote “three cheers for the fundamentalists in California who succeeded in having a dogmatic formulation of the theory of evolution removed from textbooks and an account of Genesis included” (Feyerabend 1975b). Then again, he did realize that said fundamentalists from California would soon become a center of power in their own right and cause problems in turn: “I have no doubt that they would be just as dogmatic and close-minded if given the chance.” A more equitable assessment of the situation might be that religious fundamentalists are much more likely than mainstream scientists to be dogmatic and close-minded, but that this doesn’t imply that scientists cannot be or have not been so as well.

Kuhn—who interestingly started out as a physicist, moving then to history and philosophy of science—contrasted his descriptive approach to understanding how science works with Popper’s more traditionally prescriptive one. While Popper (and others) pretended to tell scientists what they were doing right (or wrong) based on a priori principles of logic, Kuhn wanted to figure out how real science actually works, and one sure way of doing this is through historical analyses. The reason he became a precursor of certain types of science studies, and at the same time got into trouble with many in philosophy of science, is that his model of normal science equilibria punctuated by paradigm changes does not have an immediate way to accommodate the idea that science makes progress.

To deny that science makes progress was not Kuhn’s intention, hence his 1969 postscript to clarify his views and distance himself from a more radically postmodern reading of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Again, though, it seems to me that in Kuhn as in Feyerabend there is a tension that is not really necessary: one can reasonably argue that science is a power structure prone to corrupt if left unchecked, and yet not go all relativist and say that it is thereby no different than a fundamentalist church. Equally, one can stress the importance of both historical and sociological analyses of science without for that reason having to throw out the value of logic and epistemology.

Can the insights and approaches of philosophy of science and science studies be reconciled to forge a better and more comprehensive philosophy of science? Yes, and in fact such a project has been under way for some time. While there are a number of scholars that could be discussed in this context, not all of them necessarily using the same approach, I am particularly attracted to what Longino (2006) calls “reconciliationists,” a group that includes Hesse (1980), Giere (1988), and Kitcher (1993). I am not sure whether Kidd would recognize his own positions as akin to the reconciliationist ones, but I surely see them as eminently compatible and mutually reinforcing. While Kidd (2016a) invites us to revisit Feyerabend’s (in)famous defense of astrology from the point of view of virtue epistemology, I would broaden the call to the deployment of virtue epistemology as a general reading key to reconcile the so far largely parallel and somewhat conflicting traditions of philosophy of science and science studies. Science is the best epistemic practice available to us when it comes to finding out how the world works, but scientists and science supporters are ethically bound by the sort of considerations that Feyerabend put forth.


Babich, Babette. “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29, no. 1 (2015): 1-39.

Brigandt, Ingo. Species Pluralism Does Not Imply Species Eliminativism. Philosophy of Science 70 (2003): 1305–1316.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. Verso, 1975.

Feyerabend, Paul. “How to Defend Society Against Science.” Radical Philosophy 11 (1975b): 3-8. Reprinted in Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, edited by E. D. Klemke, Robert Hollinger, David Wyss Rudge, A. David Kline, 34-44. Prometheus Books, 1988.

Giere, Ronald N. Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Harding, Sandra. “Value-Free Research is a Delusion.” New York Times, 22 October 1989.

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Kidd, Ian James. “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016a): 464-482.

Kidd, Ian James. “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016b): 11-17.

Kitcher, Philip. The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1963 .

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Longino, Helen. Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press, 1990.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Species as Family Resemblance Concepts: The (Dis-)Solution of the Species Problem? BioEssays 25, no. 6 (2003): 596–602.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology? A Commentary on Kidd.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016a): 1-6.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Philosophy Itself — IV.” Part of The Nature of Philosophy series (2016b).

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge 1963.

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Traweek, Sharon. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Harvard University Press, 1988.

[1] Reference in Kidd (2016b).

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