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the Complete Review
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Conquest of Abundance

Paul Feyerabend

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Title: Conquest of Abundance
Author: Paul Feyerabend
Genre: Philosophy
Written: (2000)
Length: 282 pages
Availability: Conquest of Abundance - US
Conquest of Abundance - UK
Conquest of Abundance - Canada
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  • A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being
    • Part One: The Unfinished Manuscript -- the manuscript that Feyerabend was working on at the time of his death in 1994.
    • Part Two: Essays on the Manuscript's Theme -- twelve essays by Feyerabend covering similar material.
  • Edited by Bert Terpstra
  • With a Preface and Acknowledgments by Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend
  • First published 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, multi-faceted approach to the idea (and consequences) of abstraction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 22/6/2000 Ian Hacking
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 10/11/2005 Michael Hagner
TLS . 23/6/2000 Bas C. van Fraassen
Die Zeit . 9/2/2006 Maximilian Probst

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ein einfaches, flüssig geschriebenes Buch hatte er schreiben wollen. Was wir vor uns haben, sind ein unausgegorenes Fragment und abgeschlossene kurze Texte, die ihre Thesen, Beispiele und Zitate mit ermüdender Redundanz wiederholen. Von einem "letzten Buch" oder gar einem "Testament wichtiger Einsichten seines Denkens", wie es der Verlag anpreist, kann keine Rede sein." - Michael Hagner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Naturally a posthumous compilation does not have the unity of a finished book, and although it is possible to see how every part was to contribute to the whole, it is almost better to read the chapters as independent essays. Collectively they display Feyerabend's lifelong fascination with transformations in our ways of seeing: how we see the gods, the world, ourselves, and everything else there is. Despite his dismay about the way in which academic philosophy seems intent mainly to cut things and to dry them, Feyerabend's writing is essentially optimistic and hopeful." - Bas C. van Fraassen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Es sind diese Materialfülle und Paul Feyerabends großes Gespür fürs Dramatische, die sein Buch so lesenswert machen." - Maximilian Probst, Die Zeit

Please note that the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paul Feyerabend died in 1994, before he could complete the book he was then working on, Conquest of Abundance (the working title he mentions in his autobiography, Killing Time (see our review), and which has been kept for this volume). Bert Terpstra undertook the challenging job of taking Feyerabend's unfinished manuscript and shaping this volume out of it. Given Feyerabend's penchant for reworking material this was no small task. Terpstra has, however, done an excellent job.
       Of particular note is the exemplary presentation of the material. Beginning with a Preface that quotes the relevant pages describing the project in Killing Time, to Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend's Preface and Acknowledgements, to Terpstra's own succinct explanation of what he has done and how he did it the book is well introduced.
       Terpstra then offers his 126-page version of Feyerabend's unfinished work. It is impossible to judge how close he comes to what Feyerabend wished to create, but he has presented a sensible, readable text that seems to make Feyerabend's points and arguments clearly and well.
       Fortunately, the other half of the book is taken up by Twelve Essays on the Manuscript's Themes, a variety of pieces, most previously published (though not in book form), that cover the same ground as the manuscript. There is some repetition here -- of specific arguments, examples, and quotes -- but Feyerabend is engaging enough (and the pieces generally short enough) that they serve to support his arguments without growing tiresome.
       Terpstra avoids an interfering editorial hand through most of the text (beyond having actually put the text together, of course), preferring to remain silent on most points. There are few explanations or elaborations regarding the various texts which were not originally written by Feyerabend, barely an editorial note beyond those pointing out where material overlaps. Occasionally more explanation might be called for, but we agree with Terpstra's refreshing restraint -- the commentators will come to dissect the work soon enough. Overall, Feyerabend can be most pleased with the fine volume that Terpstra has produced.

       In Killing Time Paul Feyerabend describes the book he was working on in the last years of his life:

The book is intended to show how specialists and common people reduce the abundance that surrounds and confuses them, and the consequences of their actions.
       It is a book on "the topic of reality". The subtitle suggests the direction in which Feyerabend is leaning -- it is poor abstraction versus "the richness of being". Feyerabend shows that there has long been a tendency towards abstraction, an inevitable consequence of trying to understand any subject. From the ancient Greeks to modern physicists specifically the search for an understanding of reality has led to abstraction. Feyerabend argues that this process is a problematic one, in that abstraction fails to encompass the true diversity and richness of reality. Abstraction, though useful to a certain extent, easily becomes a simplification that impoverishes.
       The manuscript Conquest of Abundance contains four chapters and an interlude. The first three chapters describe "two different ways in which the distinction between appearance and reality was introduced." The examples are from ancient Greece -- centering around Achilles, Xenophanes, and Parmenides. The interlude is "On the Ambiguity of Interpretation." The fourth chapter discusses the famous example of Brunelleschi and the invention of perspective, to illustrate "problems of reality and cultural change."
       Feyerabend's arguments and examples are lucid and interesting, and the first chapter on Achilles particularly effective. His main argument is fairly well presented, as are some of the further consequences he elaborates on -- so, for example, the care that must be taken in considering logic in different settings (where the underlying terms and concepts must be understood differently).
       The twelve essays that make up the second half of the book are generally variations on his theme, covering some of the same territory while also offering additional material that sheds light on Feyerabend's central argument. Some of these essays offer other perspectives and help explain Feyerabend's thinking more fully.
       A 1991 essay Ethics as a Measure of Scientific Truth (Comments on Fang Lizhi's Philosophy of Science) is a useful and more political statement of the dangers Feyerabend sees in how science is perceived and supported. Various essays deal with the problems and issues arising from quantum theory (with its own ideas of "reality"). The last essay is a typically Feyerabendian criticism of an appeal signed by various eminent philosophers and scientists calling for governments to give greater support to the study of philosophy.

       Feyerabend's refreshing and often contrarian attitude almost always make for an interesting read. His arguments here are not entirely as radical as in some of his earlier work (the notion of "anything goes"), but do offer an interesting challenge to the enthusiastic embrace of abstraction. Feyerabend's inclusiveness and willingness to consider other ideas, opinions, cultures, approaches, and attitudes is salutary. Certainly, his argument for the richness of being and of actual experience (rather than abstracted reality) should be kept in mind, a welcome counterweight to the prevailing attitude and approach in so much of human life.
       Many of Feyerabend's works are a similar jumble of essays, making his point from all directions. In this Conquest of Abundance seems almost typical. It is, unfortunately, not complete as Feyerabend might have wanted it, but it is still a convincing, fascinating document. (And given how prone Feyerabend was to changing even his published work -- see the different editions of Against Method, for example -- expecting a definitive version would probably be unrealistic in any case.) Conquest of Abundance is a fitting testament to a fascinating philosopher. Recommended.

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Conquest of Abundance: Reviews: Paul Feyerabend: Other books by and about Paul Feyerabend under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • David Edgar's play, Pentecost, offering another perspective on the question of the discovery of perspective in painting. Feyerabend might have approved.
  • See Index of Philosophy books

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About the Author:

       Paul K. Feyerabend was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1924. He received his Ph.D. in 1951, and went on to study at the London School of Economics. From 1958 to 1990 he was a lecturer and then professor at the University of California at Berkeley, while also teaching at numerous other academic institutions. The author of such works as Against Method and Science in a Free Society he was among the most influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. He died in 1994.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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