Intention vs. Position in HOPOS: The Instructive Case of Paul K. Feyerabend (1924-1994)

Matteo Collodel

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Over the last few decades intellectual history and the history of philosophy, HOPOS included, were characterized by a general lack of methodological theorizing, which only lately has shown some signs of resurgence. Two proposals recently advanced within the tradition of sociological studies of intellectuals and of philosophical knowledge which became established during the same period promise to be especially fruitful for historical research, aptly complementing its past theoretical reluctance and supporting novel historiographic trends: Neil Gross’s version of the “new sociology of ideas” and Patrick Baert’s version of “positioning theory”. Both approaches focus on the social contexts within which intellectuals operate and examine the social processes that shape their products and professional careers, affecting the genesis, development and reception of intellectual work at least as much as its alleged “internal” logic and “intrinsic” quality. However, Gross’s and Baert’s proposals crucially differ in the explanatory function they acknowledge to intellectuals’ intentions and, consequently, on the methodological strategies they countenance in analysing intellectual trajectories and interventions. According to Gross, what ultimately guides authors is their own “intellectual self-concept”, i.e. the typological narrative about their intellectual identity that they develop during their formative years, to which they tend to stick throughout their careers, and which can be reliably detected or reconstructed through carefully detailed biographical investigations. On the other hand, Baert is extremely sceptical of the psychological slant of Gross’s approach, mainly due to the necessarily circumstantial evidence on which underlying motives and calculations behind intellectual moves can be identified. Therefore, he suggests to abandon inconclusive quests for speculative intentions or deeper selves and rather look at intellectuals as agents engaged in power struggles over both symbolic and institutional recognition as well as over scarce financial resources. Accordingly, he recommends to concentrate on the range of those clearly observable rhetorical devices that intellectuals deploy to locate themselves and position others within intellectual fields and on which the success of their work and careers essentially depends. The main aim of this paper is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these proposals concretely, with reference to the intellectual trajectory of Paul K. Feyerabend (1924-1994) on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his birth and the 20th of his death. Feyerabend’s case presents a particularly stimulating challenge to psycho-social approaches to intellectual history under many respects. Indeed, the special circumstances that eased his astonishingly quick and successful academic career from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, his highly critical and even polemical attitude towards his peers and mentor, the apparent lack of any stable position throughout his intellectual development, and – not least – the wealth of autobiographical writings that he left behind make the complexity of his curve hardly intelligible if approached one-sidedly only. In fact, these peculiar features call for a combination of the proposals promoted by Gross and Baert, at the same time proving their rewarding compatibility in shaping a thick and comprehensive narrative explanation of the intellectual path of one of the most controversial figures of 20th century philosophy of science.