Feyerabend and the harmfulness of the ontological turn (Agent Swarm)

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by Terence Blake

Feyerabend stands in opposition to the demand for a new construction that some thinkers have made after the supposed failure or historical obsolescence of deconstruction and of post-structuralism in general. On the contrary, he wholeheartedly endorses the continued necessity of deconstruction. Feyerabend also rejects the idea that we need an overarching system or a unified theoretical framework, arguing that in many cases a system or theoretical framework is just not necessary or even useful:

a theoretical framework may not be needed (do I need a theoretical framework to get along with my neighbor?) . Even a domain that uses theories may not need a theoretical framework (in periods of revolution theories are not used as frameworks but are broken into pieces which are then arranged this way and that way until something interesting seems to arise) (Philosophy and Methodology of Military Intelligence, 13).

Further, not only is a unified framework often unnecessary, it is undesirable, as it can be a hindrance to our research and to the conduct of our lives:

“frameworks always put undue constraints on any interesting activity” (ibid, 13).

Feyerabend emphasises that our ideas must be sufficiently complex to fit in and to cope with the complexity of our practices (11). More important than a new theoretical construction which only serves “to confuse people instead of helping them” we need ideas that have the complexity and the fluidity that come from close connection with concrete practice and with its “fruitful imprecision” (11).

Lacking this connection, we get only school philosophies that “deceive people but do not help them”. They deceive people by replacing the concrete world with their own abstract construction

that gives some general and very mislead[ing] outlines but never descends to details.

The result is a simplistic set of slogans and stereotypes that

“is taken seriously only by people who have no original ideas and think that [such a school philosophy] might help them getting ideas”.

Applied to the the ontological turn, this means that an ontological system is useless, a hindrance to thought and action, whereas an ontology which is not crystallised into a unified system and a closed set of fixed principles, but which limits itself to proposing an open set of rules of thumb and of free study of concrete cases is both acceptable and desirable. The detour through ontology is both useless and harmful, according to Feyerabend, because a freer, more open, and less technical approach is possible.

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