Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

Introduction to the Brazilian translation of: P. Feyerabend, Ambiguità e armonia. Lezioni trentine Dec/12/2023



Introduction to the Brazilian translation of: P. Feyerabend, Ambiguità e armonia. Lezioni trentine (Ambiguity and Harmony. Trento Lectures)[1]. Edited by Francesca Castellani (Laterza, 1996)

Apèndice 1, “Ricordi su Feyerabend”, Paul K. FeyerabendCiência, um Monstro. Lições trentinas




Sergio Benvenuto


“A memory of my personal encounters with P.K. Feyerabend”. In relation to the publication of his Seminar at the University of Trento of May 1992.


“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose this one: the sudden agile leap of the philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of Lightness.” 

Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Next Millennium

I first met Paul Feyerabend in person in April 1991, a little like Cinderella met her prince in the classic folk tale. In 1988 I had published with a small publisher[2] a book, Confini dell’interpretazione. Freud Feyerabend Foucault (“The Boundaries of Interpretation”), in which I dedicated a long chapter to Feyerabend’s thought. Never would I have imagined that a minor book published by a young scholar like myself would be presented by Feyerabend himself! Not only did he read it, though he found it difficult to read Italian, but he took the time to come Naples for a public presentation of the book at the Istituto di Studi Filosofici, at the time one of Italy’s most prestigious philosophical institutions. An event I hadn’t organised myself. And to think that in that chapter I criticized Feyerabend’s thesis! Other participants at this dance, from which I should have escaped at midnight, were the philosophers Giulio Giorello[3] and Aldo Masullo (who was also a former European Member of Parliament in Strasbourg)[4], the well-known psychiatrist Sergio Piro[5] and Roberto Esposito, who was destined to become one of the best-known Italian philosophers at the international level. I couldn’t have hoped for a more prestigious presentation.

            Some time later I asked Feyerabend’s wife Grazia Borrini, having in the mean time become good friends with her: “Why did Paul travel all the way to Naples to present a little book by an unknown author?” And Grazia replied: “Because he liked your essay very much.” That says a lot about Paul: He did things because he liked them, even if there was no gain in doing them.

            In Naples Paul said to me: “to read your book I had to continuously consult the dictionary. Far more than I usually have to with other Italian texts. Therefore I understood, alas, that you write in a fine Italian.” At the time Paul was trying to learn Italian, mainly because his splendid wife Grazia, some thirty years younger than him, lived in Rome, and Paul, who wanted to leave Berkeley after the 1989 earthquake, didn’t rule out moving to Italy. He’d already spent six months a year in Zurich, where he lectured. His trip to Naples, like his subsequent seminar in Trento in May 1992, were part of this re-Europeanization.

            He must have found his lack of knowledge of the Latin languages a problem. Ian Hacking, in his obituary for Paul[6], narrates that in Geneva (where he followed Grazia, who had started working there), when he was hospitalized for the tumour that caused his death, a doctor asked him why one of the most famous critics of the tehcnosciences wished to be cured in a hospital that relied on the most state-of-the-art scientific technology. And he replied: “To learn French”.

            His desire to learn new languages at the age of nearly 70 shouldn’t surprise us. Paul had always been inspired by an iron will, of the sort that can move mountains. Despite his light-hearted jocosity, Paul’s life had always been tainted by a fog of deep physical and spiritual pain. He didn’t have full use of his legs – due to a war wound, suffered when he was 20 – and always walked with a crutch. He had to live with long rehabilitations and pain-killers (the war injury still caused him strong pains), and with his “faithful depression”, as he called it. His melancholy hadn’t prevented him from amassing a vast culture, he’d had four wives, though the war wound had made him impotent, and at the time he was married to an exquisite young Italian woman who deeply loved him. 


*          *          *


At the time of the Trento seminar, Feyerabend was at the height of his popularity in Italy. Every cultivated person, including non-specialists in science or philosophy, knew at least the name of that celebrity. The most prominent, i.e. the most conformist, Italian philosophers of science were Feyerabendian and/or Popperian. Starting from Giulio Giorello, Philosophy of Science professor at Milan State University, who occupied the prestigious chair that had belonged to Ludovico Geymonat (considered until the 1970s Italy’s most eminent philosopher of science, a Marxist and very committed to the far left). Giorello had launched Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos in Italy, imposing them as essential benchmarks in the philosophy of science. Even Marcello Pera, a former Popperian and/or anti-Popperian Philosophy of Science professor at the University of Pisa, one of the least “anarchic” people you could imagine, had become Feyerabendian. Soon after Pera became one of Silvio Berlusconi’s “theorists”; an intellectual on the frontline of the Italian Berlusconian right-wing who was elected president of the Italian Senate and served in that role from 2001 to 2006. It may come across as quite daunting that someone who had been a follower and a friend of Feyerabend had then became the second highest-ranking citizen of the state (such is the role of the President of the Senate in Italy, second only to the President of the Republic). Indeed, Paul used to speak of Pera as his best Italian friend, someone for whom he felt great fondness and regard, and his friend’s hyper-conservative and hyper-institutional turn would certainly have surprised him. 

            There was instead disregard for Feyerabend among the scientists I happened to meet - with the exception of a few who were also interested in philosophy.They considered him a provocateur and an adventurist. Years ago, a theoretical physicist, who is today one of my best friends, stopped talking to me when he found out I’d written about Feyerabend (though he later had a change of heart). These opposing reactions by philosophers who know about science on the one hand and scientists who know little about philosophy on the other are quite striking. It was precisely what Feyerabend regretted: he wanted scientists to become a little more like philosophers, something that would have done his philosopher of science colleagues (including himself) out of a job. As he clearly said at the Trento seminar, his wish was: less philosophy of science, more philosopher scientists.

            The Trento seminar was organized by Riccardo Scartezzini, professor of Sociology of International Relations at that university. The official invitation was from Giuliano Di Bernardo, professor of Philosophy of Science at the Sociology Faculty of Trento University, from 1990 Grand Master of the Grand Orient of Italy. The following year he was to found a new Masonic fraternity, the Regular Grand Lodge of Italy, of which he became Grand Master.

As translators at the seminar, Paul had his wife Grazie and myself. We took turns to translate him from English to Italian. Grazia also added her own comments to the conversation, who weren’t strictly philosophical in nature, but more ethical and political (Grazia was an “activist” for an NGO dealing in economic and political proposals for developing countries). It’s a shame, however, that some of the exchanges between us were deleted. 

For example, in one of my contributions (quoted on page 168 of the Italian edition) I suggested to translate his famous expression anything goes [in scientific practice] with a very colloquial Italian one, “tutto fa brodo” (literally ‘anything makes broth’). So, in the scientific practice everything contributes to the broth. Paul found the suggestion entertaining and accepted it (as can be read in the text) and Grazia added (as cannot be found in the text) that the expression was reminiscent of the famous risqué Cole Porter song (the lyrics to which can be found at the end of this introduction). Paul agreed, that expression – he said – did indeed come to him with that very song in mind. I am pointing this out because when, after Paul’s death, I wrote in a journal that he had taken the expression from that song, the editor accused me of sensationalism: anything goes – he said – is just a common expression. Instead, as I specify further down, I think this tribute to Porter was by no means a coincidence.

            A moment of tension was also erased from the printed text. After Paul had illustrated the Pythagorean demonstration of the incommensurability of the length of the diagonal of a square with its side, a professor intervened to challenge Paul’s reconstruction. Before Paul could reply, a young mathematics professor [Marco Panza] stood up and vigorously asserted that Paul’s historical reconstruction was in fact absolutely correct, alluding to a certain narrow-mindedness of his colleagues (which possibly explains why his contribution was not printed). The incident is, however, illuminating, because it brings grist to Paul’s mill. Indeed, even something that should be absolutely elementary for all mathematicians – the discovery in ancient Greece of incommensurability in geometry – could be seen by today’s specialists from different, even incommensurable, angles.

An American Literature scholar associated Paul’s position to Derrida’s deconstructionism (p. 169). Paul’s reaction to her intervention doesn’t appear in the text: He said that he didn’t appreciate French post-structuralism, even though, he admitted, he was often referred to as a deconstructionist himself. In fact, the so-called “continental” and deconstructionist philosophers have largely applauded Feyerabend’s thought, but this sympathy was not returned. Paul was ambivalent with regard to Foucault too, as can be seen in his correspondence with Lakatos[7]. He didn’t accept Foucauldian non-individualism – if I may call it that. Paul always remained in the wake of empiricist and utilitarian thinking, he always remained an individualist anarchist. As a “nominalist” – as he liked to describe himself – he didn’t believe in impersonal structures, in a deterministic history that overlooks the needs and wishes of individuals. 


*          *          *

More than once, however, I felt a certain restlessness setting in among the audience, which was made up largely of university professors, some quite elderly. Now, as we can see from the text of these seminars, Paul never stopped talking about apparently elementary subjects, in a simple didactic language. He dwelled on matters that Italians, at least those who went to classic or scientific studies high schools[8], learnt when they were sixteen, being history of philosophy a pivotal subject in Italian secondary education: He talked about Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates… Things all Italians with a decent education believe they know everything about. I couldn’t say whether Paul was aware that he was provoking them, but the fact that he actually enjoyed starting from the ABC of philosophy, bypassing al the complex jargon of contemporary philosophy, was evident. And the expressions on the faces of many of those who were attending revealed what was on their minds: “Does he think he’s lecturing first year Philosophy students? Why is he telling us all these anecdotes on the early Greek philosophers?”

            Feyerabend appears as light years away from Heidegger, yet both were fascinated by ancient Greek culture, and by pre-Socratic philosophy in particular. Both thought that to understand any philosophical problem, even those of today, we must study the Greek philosophers, especially the earliest. Paul realized that these philosophers had already posed all the essential questions. He would have agreed with Whitehead, who wrote that European philosophy is a long series of footnotes to Plato’s Dialogues[9]. Philosophy does not believe in progress[10]: It likes to always return to the beginnings, to the core, to the problems how they emerged.

            Since then, I started to imitate him: In public events, I too try to speak in the simplest and clearest way possible, even if the subject is extremely complex. I start from the ABC; more from the A than from the B or C. And I try to return to the Greeks, because I too have a soft spot for Ancient Greece. And for modern Greece too, to be honest.


*          *          *


            I wonder how many of those who had come to listen to Paul in Trento had a precise idea of his thought. We spent several hours with an affable professor of Theoretical Physics, talking about everything and anything. He made sure to explain to Paul the current debate on particles in physics, but I realised this was a gaffe, because Paul seemed well-informed on that debate. Then this professor, to top things off, said with a studiedly humble tone and look: “Physics is no big deal, after all. Its discoveries are of value only because of the method used to make them.” We all remained in an embarrassed silence – it was the exact opposite of what Paul had always argued. But Paul always avoided any kind of personal wrangle, he let things slip by. Speaking in that self-deprecatory tone, that professor was obviously proving what Paul lamented about many scientists: having us believe that physics is the what they talk about when they pontificate about physics, not when they do it seriously. 

            Or perhaps that physicist was acquainted with Feyerabend’s theses, but still wished to stress, with an implicit polemic, something I would call the narcissism of Method. I’ve heard many scientists argue, full of emotion in their voices, that what makes them proud about their field is not those discoveries that leave lay persons gaping, from quarks to black holes. They know what really counts about their discipline, something people can’t see and know nothing about: the method. That method they think everyone ought to follow in every intellectual activity. The fact that Paul challenged the hard core of scientists’ pride, their method, was paramount to high treason. A much milder offence would have been challenging the existence of atoms, as Ernst Mach had done, or the Big Bang theory. In actual fact, Paul never challenged any scientific discoveries. Hence the equation that ruined Paul’s reputation among many rational (or, rather, rationalistic) individuals: That deconstructing the conception of the scientific method was equivalent to attacking science, period. But this was by no means his intent. Hence the regret Paul confesses in his autobiography: to have been profoundly misunderstood by his contemporaries. And it must be said that the title of the English version of this seminar – The Tyranny of Science – brings grist to the mill of this misunderstanding.

            But I would add: Which important philosopher hasn’t felt misunderstood by his contemporaries? The deepest regret of all thinkers is not being understood, not even by their acclaimers and disciples. Misunderstandings are the atmosphere in which all communication breathes, and by no means only intellectual communication.

            For many of the professors at Trento, Paul was an alien who had landed on their campus. The academic world in Italy has always been graver and loftier than in America. A professor who was attending university said to me: “Someone dressed like that couldn’t have any sort of university career here in Italy!” Indeed, Paul always wore his thin long and totally dishevelled, he always wore a plain T-shirt, that today reminds us a little of the one flaunted by Mark Zuckerberg. Seeing him in a suit and tie was unthinkable. Sometimes he would also wear a tatty wide-brim hat that no one would have worn at the time. Seeing him dressed like that in the seat of honour of an official lunch offered by the University, with the freemason professor receiving him like a prince, made quite an impression. 

            Always polite and ready to listen, he did however have his idiosyncrasies. For example, he couldn’t stand talking to people at the end of a seminar or conference; he would disappear in a blink of an eye.

            Nevertheless, that week spent in Trento with Paul, Grazia and all the other friends was delightful, also because of the many anecdotes Paul would tell us. There was a prevalence of jokes about Popper. The image he evokes of Popper was one of an extremely intolerant and despotic man, a profile that has since become a standard vignette, which led to the quip that circulates in Britain about one of his best-known books: “It should have been called The Open Society BY One of Its Enemies”. He told us, for example, about the time Popper appeared on TV and they’d surrounded him with pupils of his. Everything went fine as long as he spoke, but then when one of the students intervened, Popper became irritated and gave him a scolding: “You obviously didn’t pay attention during my lesson of… [date]”. The pleasure Paul took in making fun of Popper was a sign, in my opinion, of his being still profoundly attached to his former mentor with an acute ambivalence. I would say, as Hacking[11] would say, that P.K.F. “though he had many bitter quarrels with Popper, the infallible self-proclaimed fallibilist, he was no less ‘one of Popper’s men’”. Many interpret Feyerabend’s thought precisely in this key; as a sort of ultimate outcome, self-destructive and nihilistic, of Popperism. From this point of view, Feyerabend showed where you end up if Popper’s thought is rigorously brought to its extreme consequences. For this reason, I sometimes think Paul was the last philosopher of science. Perhaps, as he himself hoped, it’s time for scientists to become philosophers of science.

            To Popper’s haughtiness, Paul opposed a modest and delicately mordant irony. He couldn’t stand the aspect in Italy we call “trombone”. By “trombone” we mean individuals who are full of themselves, who speak in a pompous voice thinking they are pronouncing immortal phrases. As the Dadaist he described himself as, his tone was mainly a playful one and he aimed at a certain lightness, of the kind Italo Calvino memorably praised in one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium[12]. He even used to make fun of Grazia when he saw her becoming too grave. He once noticed that, while talking to an Italian professor, her face had turned very serious, and Paul, who couldn’t understand what she was saying, smiled and said: “You’re obviously talking about some quite serious things, because you put on en extremely grave face”. It was clear that his pleasure consisted in talking about the most serious things – philosophy, physics – in the most playful way possible.

            Paul spent a lot of time visiting museums and landmarks in Trento, and everywhere he would find surprising, interesting and peculiar details. To him art was no less important than philosophy or science. And in fact, in his autobiography he talks at length about his musical experiences as being no less important than his experiences with scientists and philosophers.


*          *          *


            Contrary to what many believe, Feyerabend’s work is a tribute to scientific creativity, when it is free from the chains of methodological ceremonials. Feyerabend never criticised scientific discovery, he criticised rationalistic reconstructions of scientific discovery; i.e. he showed the limits of rationalism in accounting for the activities, however rational, of science. His non-rationalistic reconstruction of Reason has been mistaken for a criticism of it. He did of course criticize today’s hegemony of the scientific myth (which he thought had replaced religion as the dominant discourse in societies), but he did not mistake this hegemony of a certain image of science for the sciences – as he would say, rather than science in the singular – as they are concretely practiced. This because Feyerabend always remained a sort of radical empiricist, an Empirio-criticist, I would call him with a term coined by Mach, who he recognised as his mentor. And, significantly, his collection of essays is entitled Problems of Empiricism[13]. He refers to the sciences as “empiricism”; for him they are praxis – this is the core of what he explained to us in Trento. The sciences are mostly based on “tacit knowledge”, as the philosopher chemist Michael Polanyi[14]said, and hence the presumption of the philosophical methodologies to capture their variety in a single logical system is destined to fail. PKF’s is then an empiricism that is no longer logical (in contrast to the empiricism of the Vienna Circle) but is instead, I would say, existential. In Trento he said that the rationalist histories of science are equivalent to histories of art that describe works as natural products and not as the products of historically situated individuals who wished to speak to their contemporaries. Science is imbued with the substance, with the passions, of living beings who work in the sciences. In a certain sense he tried to give a proletarianized image of the sciences. He once said that Popper’s reconstruction of science was like Byzantine art, in which figures are all seen frontally and in hieratic poses  (a vision that does have its beauty, I would add; hence the “Byzantine” charm of Popper’s thought). Paul instead saw science more as the baroque and sensual paintings of Rubens, he saw it dizzyingly in motion, in  an aerial perspective.

            This is the key to understanding his “anything goes”, the “anything makes broth” of my translation in Trento, which triggered some even furious rejections. It is true that in a later version Paul had softened this apophthegm by saying that “anything goes” is the reaction of rationalists when, after studying the history of the sciences, ascertain how discoveries do not in any way follow a single method: “So, in science anything goes then!” they say, stunned. Perhaps, however, with that saying Paul wanted to evoke something that actually appears in the Cole Porter song: 

In older days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.


If Paul was thinking about the above verse, then he was probably comparing methodological rationalism to puritan America, when mores were severe and women’s legs had to be fully covered. But today we are in a Feyerabendian world, in which rationalistic severity has been replaced by an unprejudiced flexibility, which many today, in the wake of Zigmunt Bauman, describe as “liquid”. Flexibility in economics, politics and art, undoubtedly, but also in the reconstruction of scientific reason. At a time in which all philosophical attempts to found knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, the good and the beautiful, the true and the sacred, have failed, in which everything appears bottomless, unfounded, even Feyerabend’s thought shouldn’t come across as particularly shocking, because it ultimately expresses very effectively the Stimmung of our epoch. One of abundance[15], as Paul himself said, which for that very reason we find hard to accept.


[1] English version: The Tyranny of Science

[2] The book was later republished with the same title by IPOC, Milan, 2013.

[3] Giulio Giorello (1945-2020) was already at the time the principal proponent of the (post-Popperian) new philosophy of science in Italy.

[4] Aldo Masullo (1923-2020) was at the time the most prestigious Neapolitan philosopher.

[5] Sergio Piro (1927-2009) was the best-known southern Italian psychiatrist, a reformer together with Franco Basaglia.

[6] I. Hacking et al., Paul Feyerabend, Humanist, Duke University Press, Durham (NC), 1994. Commemoration of Feyerabend held at the University of California, Berkeley

[7] I. Lakatos & P. Feyerabend, For and Against Method, edited by M. Motterlini, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1999; location 3732.

[8] In Italy the most prestigious schools are the “scientific” and “classical” “lyceums”, highs schools for 14 to 18-year-olds. In both, Philosophy is one of the main subjects, according to the precepts of Giovanni Gentile, philosopher and Minister of Education from 1922 to 1924.

[9] A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, New York 1979, p. 39.

[10] As stated in the famous motto (which quotes Nestroy) of Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen.

[11] Op. cit.

[12] Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Cambridge (MS), Harvard University Press. A reference the curators of the posthumous book by Lakatos & Feyerabend (cit.) – Giulio Giorello and Matteo Motterlini – had the good idea of putting as an epigraph at the beginning of the volume and which I have put as an epigraph at the beginning of this essay.

[13] 2 volumes, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press, 1981. Online Publication: June 2012.

[14] Cfr. M. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, London, Routledge. (Reprint: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[15] P. Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999.

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