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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction Versus the Richness of Being by Paul Feyerabend, edited by Bert Terpstra (University of Chicago Press) From Homeric gods to galaxies, from love affairs to perspective in painting, Paul Feyerabend reveled in the physical and cultural abundance that surrounds us. He found it equally striking that human senses and human intelligence are able to take in only a fraction of these riches. From this fraction, scientists, artists, all of us construct encompassing abstractions and stereotypes. This basic human trait is at the heart of Conquest of Abundance, the book on which Feyerabend was at work when he died in 1994.

Prepared from drafts of the manuscript left at his death, working notes, and lectures and articles Feyerabend wrote while the larger work was in progress, Conquest of Abundance offers up rich exploration and startling insights with the charm, lucidity, and sense of mischief that are his hallmarks. Feyerabend is fascinated by how we attempt to explain and predict the mysteries of the natural world, and he describes ways in which we abstract experience, explain anomalies, and reduce wonder to formulas and equations. Through his exploration of the positive and negative consequences of these efforts, Feyerabend reveals the "conquest of abundance" as an integral part of the history and character of Western civilization.

"Conquest of Abundance should be a simple book, pleasant to read and easy to understand," he planned in his autobiography. Indeed it is; filled with pleasure at the diversity of things and genuine engagement with philosophers and scientists across the centuries, Conquest of Abundance is a great philosopher's view of a basic yet complex human trait and how it affects our lives.

Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) was educated in Europe and held numerous teaching posts throughout his career, including at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1959 to 1990. His Against Method--translated into seventeen languages--is a classic of modern philosophy of science. The University of Chicago Press published his autobiography, Killing Time, in 1995.

The wonderful, idiosyncratic and radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, has written Conquest of Abundance about the historical eradication or diminishment of the full richness of being itself. By this he means the experience of each and every human being on the planet with the totality of his/her culture, thoughts, feelings, prejudices, opinions and so on and so on. This is of course wildly expansive and demonstrates the variety as experienced by people everywhere. Feyerabend's main contention is that, over time, and through the gradual abstraction practised by select people, often philosophers or "scientists" or anyone who is pulled in this direction through his/her education, influence of others or a bent away from the "scary real world", the fullness of one's world is slowly made barren, empty of life. Anyone who grows up in the education system of the Western world can confirm this idea (the teachers of Robin Williams caliber aka "Dead Poet's Society" are few and far between). Unfortunately, science especially has been progressively dehumanized not through a need to objectify but rather through the belief that this is necessary or the "real" world will escape us. Now more than ever this is powerfully evident and as Feyerabend notes: "...the arts whose popularity at any rate far outweighs that of the sciences or rock music, film etc" (pp 261). No longer, or infrequently so, are readers captivated by the incredible intuitive power of an Aristotle or a Heraclitus. There is a general need for something which should replace the now discredited world religions, science or the abstraction it now stands for is not it.

Feyerabend is radical in the sense that he knows there are more important things than science or philosophy, he continuously examines his own views and freely criticizes them and explores them further rather than sticking to some form of personal dogma which is the current form of practice, no doubt strongly supported through the culture of the individual which now dominates the western world. He criticizes philosophy for its lost concern for the world it once possessed (for example, Aristotle) and the empty murmurings about abstract principles rather than the problems of the world such as famine, violence and environmental disasters.

As such this book is to be commended as a needed critique. However, this book is often a rehash of Feyerabend's earlier ideas so intensely expressed in his radical "Against Method". Conquest of Abundance lacks the earlier energy and power, but Feyerabend has lost none of his intelligence or wit even though this stood out far more through humorous twists and outright damnation in his earlier work. It is also unfortunate he never finished this book with, I believe, at most half of it completed before his death. I felt that the earlier parts, which investigate the Greeks and the start of abstraction, would have been thoroughly complemented with later historical eras and at least a chapter devoted to the opening of society and a renewal of the zest for life that Feyerabend wanted to invigorate today's world with.

The publisher claims that Conquest of Abundance is a book for everyone and is supposed to be written for anyone to read and enjoy not as a technical exercise. Rather we find that the arguments are not straightforward or that enjoyable and I feel the book is intended far more for the interested scientists and philosophers "out there" who are looking for a way to energize their own fields.

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