Anything goes

People have a propensity to fit palatable, well-understood explanations to difficult or complicated problems.  Dan Eaves called this phenomenon the ‘rage for order’—the ‘human instinct which forces the creation of illusory or aesthetic order out of chaos, if no other order is to be had’.  We ‘Rage for Order’ in many aspects of our lives, from designing to story-telling. 

Rage for Order manifests as a desire to be seen to have a solution to a problem quickly, and for rapid and often premature closure.  In crime stories from London to LA, the fumbling police officer swallows the master-criminal’s red herring and closes the case on the spot, opening the way for the Holmes/Poirot/Columbo character to set about a convoluted process of painstaking investigation to uncover what really happened.  Rage for Order can also be seen in the human propensity to rationalise one’s actions, to protect oneself, or someone else, from blame or implication of fault.  In the witness box, a participant in a crime scene can be so driven to account for themselves (or others) that he fabricates a new truth with such self-belief that all traces of doubt are dismissed.  Over the centuries, believers have flocked to naïve and sometimes simple biblical explanations of life’s great mysteries, much to the chagrin of agnostics.  We are perpetually ill at ease with disorder and the unexplained. 

The designer exhibits Rage for Order when he prematurely or inappropriately reduces a complicated problem to one he knows how to solve.  In the words of Abraham Maslow, ‘he that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail’.  A hammer works fine until we use it to bludgeon the head of a screw.  In the history and philosophy of science, ‘hammers’ abound.  Take positivism as an example.  Positivism in the form of the scientific method has ruled the natural and physical sciences since the Enlightenment, and continues to be the incumbent philosophy of scientific reason and investigation to this day.  In positivism, objects have stable properties, actors are well-behaved, and effects have traceable root causes.  Few would doubt that positivism has delivered to humankind physics and biology, and their countless progeny—modern medicine and pharmacology, materials science and engineering, earth and climate sciences to name a few.  But some authors have doubted the assumed universal applicability of positivism.  Of these, one particularly stands out. 


Paul Karl Feyerabend (1924–1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.  He became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules.  Feyerabend is famous for declaring war on scientific dogma.  Through a series of philosophical arguments, Feyerabend took the view that much of scientific discovery is opportunistic and that all theory is incomplete or based upon generalisations that are unsupportable in all cases.  Feyerabend argued that scientific discovery—and in fact all action—emerges from amidst a ‘maze of interactions’ and that ‘successful participation in a process of this kind is possible only for a ruthless opportunist who is not tied to any particular philosophy and who adopts whatever procedure seems to fit the occasion’ (p. 10).  He argued for a view of methodology that integrates history, a pluralistic methodology in which a designer adopts many perspectives, constantly compares and contrasts ideas, and attempts to improve failed ideas rather than discarding them—all in the interests of leaving options open so that truth can be discovered rather than being prematurely shut off. 

Implications for scientific enquiry of the ‘opportunism and arbitrariness of discovery and design’ are espoused by Feyerabend, who claimed that ‘science is an essentially anarchic enterprise, and that theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives’ (Feyerabend 1993, p. 9).  Quoting Lenin, Feyerabend warned that history is always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and more subtle than even the best methodologist can imagine.  History is full of accidents and conjectures, curious juxtapositions of events, and it demonstrates to those who care to look ‘the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men’.  Are we really to believe, Feyerabend argues, that the ‘naïve and simple-minded rules of which methodologists take as their guide are capable of accounting for a such a maze of interactions?’ (p. 9). 

Barely a single rule or principle is not violated at some time or other, he argues.  Far from an embarrassment or a result of insufficient knowledge or inattention to detail, such violations turn out to be necessary fulcrums upon which new discoveries are made.  It is when researchers and pragmatists decide not to follow scientific dogma or when they unwittingly break the canon that serendipities unfold.  Given any rule, however fundamental or rational, Feyerabend claims, ‘there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule, but to adopt its opposite’ (p. 14), citing the alternate wave/particle theories of light and other examples. 

Feyerabend suggested a universal maxim of his own.  It is clear, he claims, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naïve a view of man and his social surroundings.  When we look to the rich material provided by history, we must avoid the temptation to abstract and simplify it for purposes of condensing it into a tell-able size, or cherry-picking scenarios so as to fit a pre-existing rationalistic orientation.  We must resist our learned instincts to reduce the complexity of reality into elements of canonical objectivity, or instances of familiar theory.  If we honestly do this, Feyerabend implores, there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances, in all human creational activities, and in all stages of human development… ‘the only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes’ (p. 14). 

Feyerabend appeals for a weaker form of anarchy than his mantra might initially suggest.  Firstly, he is not advocating ignorance of theory or conventional wisdom, because he suggests a strategy of ‘counter-induction’ in which he urges us to intelligently formulate hypotheses that are counter-inductive to established theories and established facts.  This requires us to know the theories and facts in the first place.  He advocates a pluralistic methodology, in which a scientist/designer adopts many perspectives, compares his ideas with other ideas, and attempts to improve failed ideas rather than discarding them.  He focuses us on contrasting rather than aligning our constructs with extant theory in order to generate alternatives, on destabilising stultifying assumptions, and on stimulating thought.  Feyerabend argued for an injection of stimulant into the lethargic veins of the scientific method.  Nothing is ever settled and no view is ever cast in concrete.  An idea, the theory it begat and its history must all be preserved together, because such preservation leaves the theory open to further development, and possible reinterpretation in new contexts. 


The implications for design include epistemology and the role and form of methods.  For software design, Feyerabend’s position on method leads to an injection of history into descriptions of what was designed, rather than some variant of post hoc rationalisation in which system and project outcomes are reinterpreted to fit preconceived ideas of rationalistic design.  He recommends replacement of systematic accounts of knowledge with a historical account of each stage of knowledge, in which discoveries or developments are expressed as narratives.  He promotes a re-conceptualisation of design methods so that they encourage unhindered generation of alternatives rather than technical adherence to a single path. 

Beyond this, he advocates the generation and exploration of alternatives that counter accepted wisdom (counter-induction) on the basis that ‘there is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge’ (p. 33).  He advocates improving rather than discarding theories, ideas or designs that initially appear to be unstable or unsuitable in the interests of leaving options open.  Feyerabend challenges the designer to be suspicious of the Rage for Order within, until such time as the problem is sufficiently explored and the method sufficiently well-fitted.  

If Feyerabend was alive today, he might be considered something of a father-figure to the design thinking crowd, just as Christopher Alexander is regarded by the software patterns movement.  To be read and reinterpreted by a successive generation dealing with their particular problems is all that most writers can hope for.  If there is one thing ‘design thinkers’ can take away from reading Feyerabend, it is to always remember to question every assumption. 

Related posts:
How Music History Moves, a comment on how Feyerabend’s anarchic philosophy might explain music composition.

The philosophy of Paul Feyerabend, a summary of the philosopher’s contributions, including Epistemological anarchism (‘it is impossible to view the progress of science in terms of one set of methodological rules that is always used by scientists’).

Resources:

Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against Method, Verso, London.

Eaves, D. (1992b). “The Prospects of a Formal Discipline of Software Engineering”, Technical Report 2/92, Department of Information Systems, Monash University, Working Paper Series.

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