Philippe's Reviews > Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend

Killing Time by Paul Karl Feyerabend
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's review
Feb 01, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, philosophy
Read in January, 2001

This is a slim volume, barely 200 pages, but it charts an awesome spiritual odyssee. Paul Feyerabend - enfant terrible of late 20th century philosophy - looked ruthlessly in the mirror and painted an unadorned picture of himself. At the end of his life, he painfully recognised that its course had been shaped by absences, rather than by specific events or, for that matter, ideas: absence of purpose, of content, of a focused interest, absence of moral character, absence of warmth and of social relationships.

Only when Feyerabend approached the final fifteen years of his life and settled as a professor in the philosophy of science in Zürich - after having lectured four decades at Anglo-American universities - he started to relax. And eventually, a woman came and set things right. In 1983 he met the Italian physicist Grazia Borrini for the first time. Five years later they married. His relationship with Mrs. Borrini must have been the single most important event in Feyerabend's life. Reading his autobiography is an experience akin to listening to Sibelius' tone-poem 'Nightride and Sunrise': after 1983 the colours change dramatically and his prose is infused with warmth and immense gratefulness. It is a delight to read his rapt eulogies on the companion of the last decade of his life, on his most fortunate discovery of true love and friendship. Indeed, although Feyerabend is not interested in 'spoiling' his autobiography with an extensive reiteration of his philosophical positions, there are a few messages he clearly wants to drive home. The central role in life of love and friendship is one of them. Without these "even the noblest achievements and the most fundamental principles remain pale, empty and dangerous" (p. 173). Yet, Feyerabend clearly wants us to see that this love "is a gift, not an achievement" (p. 173). It is something which is subjected neither to the intellect, nor to the will, but is the result of a fortunate constellation of circumstances.

The same applies to the acquisition of 'moral character'. This too "cannot be created by argument, 'education' or an act of will." (p.174). Yet, it is only in the context of a moral character - something which Feyerabend confesses to having only acquired a trace of after a long life and the good fortune of having met Grazia - that ethical categories such as guilt, responsibility and obligation acquire a meaning. "They are empty words, even obstacles, when it is lacking." (p.174) (Consequently, he did not think himself responsible for his behavior during the Nazi period).

Contrary to someone like Karl Kraus, Feyerabend seems to think that men, at least as long as they have not acquired moral character, are morally neutral, whilst ideas are not. A question which remains, of course, is who is to be held responsible for intellectual aberrations and intentional obfuscation if this character is only to be acquired by an act of grace, an accidental constellation of circumstances.

There is an enigmatic passage in the autobiography which may shed light on this important problem. After having seen a performance of Shakespeare's Richard II, in which the protagonist undoes himself of all his royal insigna, thereby relinquishing not just "a social role but his very individuality, those features of his character that separated him from other", Feyerabend notes that the "dark, unwieldy, clumsy, helpless creature that appeared seemed freer and safer, despite prison and death, than what he had left behind." (p. 172) It prompts him to the insight that "the sum of our works and/or deeds does not constitute a life. These . . . are like debris on an ocean . . . They may even form a solid platform, thus creating an illusion of universality, security, and permanence. Yet the security and the permanence can be swept away by the powers that permitted them to arise." (p. 172) These ideas do not exactly solve the question about moral responsibility, but they do suggest a tragic 'Lebensgefühl' - an acknowledgment of the fact that the spheres of reason, order and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science and technical resources will change their relevance - which seems to underpin Feyerabends very earthbound philosophy.
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