Killing Time

Paul Feyerabend

The University of Chicago Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Paul Feyerabend was one of the most controversial philosophers of science, best known for his iconoclastic Against Method and infamous as a result of a description in Nature as "the worst enemy of science". Killing Time is his autobiography, completed shortly before his death last year. It has an unusual feel to it: it is serious but lighthearted in tone, very personal and at the same time unemotional and "objective".

While Killing Time is definitely not a narrowly intellectual autobiography, it does contain material on the development of Feyerabend's philosophical ideas. Here is an example:

Paul Meehl was interested in the mind-body problem and in the relation between theory and experiment. The positivists favored an "upward seepage" of meaning, as Meehl called it: observation statements (which we put at the bottom of our diagrams) are meaningful; theoretical statements, taken by themselves, are not but receive meaning via logical links that tie them to observation statements. Continuing the drift of my 1958 paper I argued then that meaning travels in the opposite direction. Sensedata in and for themselves have no meaning; they just are. A person who is given sense-data and nothing else is completely disoriented. Meaning comes from ideas. Meaning, therefore, "trickles down" from the theoretical level toward the level of observation. Today I would say that both positions are rather naive. Meaning is not located anywhere. It does not guide our actions (thoughts, observations) but arises in their course. Meaning may stabilize to such an extent that the assumption of a location starts making sense. This, however, is a disease and not a foundation.
Mostly, however, Feyerabend writes about more personal matters, about his academic career, his private life and his relationships with other people. He appears to be quite honest in addressing topics such as his relationship with women (despite permanent impotence resulting from a war wound, he was quite a womanizer) and his lack of response to Nazism during the war.
On March 14, 1938, the day Hitler entered Vienna, I started on my usual walk toward the center of town. I didn't get very far. Some streets were closed by the police, others were jammed with enthusiastic spectators. A religious mania seemed to engulf the place. Thoroughly annoyed, I returned home. There my father listened to the announcements on the radio; I tried to stop him — the noise interfered with my reading. For me the German occupation and the war that followed were an inconvenience, not a moral problem, and my reactions came from accidental moods and circumstances, not from a well-defined outlook.

Many famous people make appearances in Killing Time, from Niels Bohr to Stephen Jay Gould, but Feyerabend, perhaps deliberately, seems to write more about those who are not quite so well known. He also discusses the literary and artistic movements which influenced him; he was an opera fan (and a singer himself), and goes into some detail (more than I was really interested in) about notable singers and performances he had seen.

Fans of Feyerabend will obviously want to read Killing Time, but, as an engaging autobiography of an intriguing individual who lead an eventful life, it could also be appreciated by those who have no real interest in the philosophy of science and have never even heard of Feyerabend.

August 1995

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%T Killing Time
%A Feyerabend, Paul
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1995
%O hardcover, b&w photos, index
%G ISBN 0226245314
%P 192pp