Monday, March 16, 2015

Social-scientism vs. reductionist-scientism (Part I)

I've distinguished two strands in the use of 'scientism'. On the one hand, there's what I've called 'the mid-20th-Century' use (post 9), or the 'cold-war use' (post 11), which channels apprehensions about left-wing political agendas, especially Marxism. In post 11, I conjectured that this deployment of the term echoes some of the concerns behind the earliest uses of the French 'scientisme'. In both cases, 'scientism(e)' gave voice to dark forebodings about radical, 'socialist' agendas whose aim was to jettison much of tradition in a drastic redesign of society. Such radical programs were linked to science by their putative roots in the new social sciences.

Let's coin the label social-scientism for the kind of scientism that was being attacked in these uses. Who was supposed to be guilty of social-scientism? While cold-war fulminations targeted Marxism, the earlier French uses of 'scientisme' were more often motivated by opposition to the visions of Saint-Simon and Comte (and their followers). My understanding of the earlier French concerns is suggested by Richard G. Olson's work. In his Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Olson writes: 
The Saint-Simonians unquestionably understood themselves as scientists, developing a science that comprehended the events of the social as well as of the natural world. Moreover, nearly thirty years before Friedrich Engels appropriated the term 'scientific socialism' for the doctrines that he and Karl Marx had developed, Karl Grün (1817-87) had applied the term to Saint-Simonianism (Olson, Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe, [Urbana, IL: the University of Illinois Press, 2008], p. 59).
In both the cold-war and earlier French castigations, social-scientism was reviled for its supposed reduction of persons to mere cogs in a machine, social bits and pieces susceptible of the same sort of understanding to be had in the physical sciences. To be sure, proponents of social-scientism might abjure attempts to reduce special sciences to physics, denying that the subject matter of the social sciences (or of any science other than physics) could be reduced to that of any more basic science. Nonetheless, they (e.g., Comtean positivists) held that the same sort of method that had met with such stellar success in the physical sciences now promised an understanding of humanity (if only it were applied to that subject matter). The kind of intellectual operation at work in this method involved the subsumption of the subject matter under universal laws of nature, themselves to be discovered by empirical study.

Note that those who were charged with social-scientism need not be taken by their critics to have embraced reductionist materialism or, indeed, any metaphysics at all. Instead, they were seen as using their science to plot other people's lives, designing a new social order in which people were treated as pawns to be manipulated rather than as free agents to be let alone. (Such worries about social-scientism are echoed by libertarian animadversions about social engineering.)

Note, also, that since social-scientism was associated with socialism, its critics tended to be conservative traditionalists. However, many who have warned of the dangers of scientism have been further to the left on the political spectrum.

This observation brings us to the second strand in the uses of 'scientism'. The main theme in this second strand is a concern about reductionist programs in which a physical science (such as biology) threatens to gobble up the subject matter of the old humanistic disciplines or of the newer social sciences. Let's call scientism of this second variety reductionist-scientism. This is the kind of scientism that members of the X-Club were thought to embrace. Critiques of reductionist-scientism were more likely to include the accusation that its adherents were committed to a materialistic metaphysics. Clearly, concerns about this brand of scientism were fueled by the advent of evolutionary theory. The concerns were exacerbated by the subsequent rise of social Darwinism. Opponents of reductionist-scientism included not only traditionalists but many left-wing authors as well.

The current use of the term 'scientism' incorporates elements from both social-scientism and reductionist-scientism, although the influence of the latter variety has been more pronounced in the past few decades.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

'Scientism' 14 - 1891-1968

Fourteenth in a series of fourteen posts (123456789101112, & 13).

In 1891, the New York positivist T. B. Wakeman chose, as W. M. Brown would later do, to embrace 'scientism' (the doctrine and the label). Wakeman wrote:
We find the religious history of our race to consist, therefore, of a gradual evolution of its leading peoples from a broad base of general animism and fetichism [sic], thence to astrology, thence to polytheism, thence to monotheism, and thence to scientism expressed chiefly to us in the pantheism of Goethe, the positivism of Comte, the synthetism of Spencer, the cosmism of Fiske, and finally by the monism of Haeckel. He proposed this word monism as expressive of the world-unifying law of science, as the summary of all that was true and good in the other philosophic names proposed by the philosophers just named, while it excluded what he regards as the crude and vulgar notions of materialism, spiritualism, and dualism. (Thaddeus B. Wakeman, 'Ernst Haeckel', in Evolution in Science, Philosophy, and Art: Popular Lectures and Discussions before the Brooklyn Ethical Association [NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1891], p. 41; italics in the original)
Uses from the 1930s are interesting, since they precede the papers by Hayek that popularized 'scientism'. In his 1935 doctoral dissertation, Contribution of the Ideologues to French Revolutionary Thought, Charles van Duzer had this to say:
Two major currents ran through French thought during the latter half of the eighteenth century. On the one hand was Rousseauistic sentimentalism which tended toward the close of the century to pass into a religious mysticism as exemplified in the writings of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Saint-Martin; on the other, the Voltairian philosophy of common sense and scientism which informed the rational and utilitarian tendencies of Encyclopedic thought. (van Duzer, Contribution of the Ideologues to French Revolutionary Thought in The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science Series 53, No. 4 [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1935], p .5 of the number [p. 419 of the volume])
Next, there are two uses from the late 1940s. First, we have Max Horkheimer's use in 1947: 'Like any existing creed, science can be used to serve the most diabolical social forces, and scientism is no less narrow-minded than militant religion'  (Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, 1947).

In the same year, we find Werner Jaeger using the term as follows: 'The unilateral emphasis on the physical side of pre-Socratic philosophy in their works is a product of 19th-century scientism and its horror of everything metaphysical' (Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 195, n. 25).

In a letter to William L. Kinter (dated July 30, 1954), C. S. Lewis wrote that That Hideous Strength 'is about a triple conflict: Grace against Nature and Nature against Anti-Nature (modern industrialism, scientism, & totalitarian politics)' (C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters, v. III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, ed. Walter Hooper [New York: HarperCollins, 2006], pp. 497-98).

By the 60s, uses of 'scientism' had become common , but it's interesting to see how Leszek Kolakowski used the word (in 1968):
...scientism, that is, the doctrine according to which any question that cannot be settled by the methods of the natural and deductive sciences is an improper question' [p. 160]. ... It [logical empiricism] professes scientism, that is, it asserts the essential unity of the scientific method, accounting for differences between the sciences on this score -- especially between the social and the physical sciences -- by the immaturity of the former [pp. 177-8] (Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason, [1968]).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

WWI links, some literary

First German Gas Attack at Ypres by William Roberts

British entries on the Somme (National Archives) and on Passchendaele (the Wellcome Library).

Five Oxford University podcasts: 'Oh What a Lovely War? First World War Anniversary Lectures'.

Images and more from Canada's National Film Board.

Two items about Canadians defending against an early gas attack (at Ypres): Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge and Chlorine at Ypres.

Entries on WWI German generals.

Shashi Tharoor on the 1.3 million Indian troops who served in WWI.

Issam M. Fares on the Great War's devastation of the Middle East.

An extract from Charles Townshend's When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921.

French and German families commemorate the first (?) WWI casualties: 'French Lance Corporal Jules-Andre Peugeot and German Sub-Lieutenant Albert Mayer died in a fire exchange on August 2, 1914, one day before Germany formally declared war on France.'

Gary Sheffield looks at several books about the outbreak of WWI.

Review of John Gooch's The Italian Army and the First World War (2014).

Here's an International Encyclopedia of WWI.

'The 1914 Christmas Truces as History and Memory'.

From the BBC, several items on the influence of Craiglockhart Hospital (where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon) on mental healthcare.

An American blog on WWI: Roads to the Great War; and the excellent Great War Fiction blog.

A very thorough collection of dust jackets for WWI books.

'How Tolkien's Experiences on the Somme in World War One Inspired his Famous Stories'.

In 2014, Yale published Edward M. Strauss' new translation of Louis Barthas' Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918.

Also in 2014, Thomas Keneally reviews Gabriel Chevalier's Fear (trans. Malcolm Imrie).

Susan R. Grayzel on teaching Henri Barbusse's Le Feu/Under Fire.

From last September in the TLS blog, 'Charles Péguy, early victim of the Great War'.

From the same blog, a post on the TLS reviewer and Russianist George Calderon. Here's Calderon on Tolstoy:
Tolstoi is, above all things, a good hater. In War and Peace he wants to lower Napoleon, his chosen enemy, in the eyes of the world. The ascription of his successes and failures to Fate is a splendid humiliation; there is such a crushing moderation about it.
Balliol College's page on WWI poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart. One of his friends, Ronald Knox, wrote a book about Shaw-Stewart.

A review of Brian Bond's book on Western Front memoirs, and one of Ross Davie' 'A Student in Arms': Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War.

Paul Johnson on Max Egremont's Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew. David Crane reviews Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew.

Andrew Lycett on Rudyard Kipling:  'His early propagandist efforts were admittedly silly, fuelled by his virulent anti-Germanism. But as the conflict intensified, particularly after his only son John was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, he was as merciless as Sassoon or Gurney in depicting the random cruelty of war.'

From the Australian Broadcast Corporation, Michael Cathcart talks to Mark Dapin about ANZAC WWI memoirs and poems, etc.

Excerpts of a German graphic-book version of Karl Kraus's Last Days.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Some philosophy links (February)

Chad Hansen's new MOOC 'Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought'.

'Stanford scholar explores Arabic obsession with language....Key also found that the early scholars benefited from a holistic perspective. The ancients lacked the modern methodological divide between arts and sciences, and so were able to see language as a cognitive function shared between poetry and logic.'

In Our Time - Melvyn Bragg talks with Simon Blackburn, Jennifer Hornsby, and Crispin Wright about truth. and with Simon Glendinning, Joanna Hodge, and Stephen Mulhall about phenomenology.

Julie Allard on 'Ronald Dworkin: Law as Novel Writing'.

A collection of new papers on Jaegwon Kim will be available this month from Cambridge University Press.

Harald Sack on Pierre Gassendi.

Gary Saul Morson: 'On Toulmin, Tolstoy, & the Dawkinsization of the humanities'.

Steven Shapin: 'The new scientism, for all its claims that there is a way science can make you good, shares one crucial sensibility with its opponents: having secularized nature, and sharing in the vocational circumstances of late modern science, the proponents of the new scientism can make no plausible claims to moral superiority, nor even moral specialness.'

Richard Zach on 'Carnap on "Syntax" vs. "Semantics"'.

Elucidations podcasts: from October,  Episode 64: James Conant and Jay Elliott discuss the analytic tradition; and from December, Episode 66: Haim Gaifman discusses mathematical reasoning.

Krista Tippett interviews Paul Elie, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Robin Lovin discuss Reinhold Niebuhr's legacy. Audio recordings of some of Niebuhr's sermons and lectures.

At Philosophy Bites, Christine Korsgaard on the status of animals.

'Ethics and Aesthetics are One: The Earnestness of High Modernism in Wittgenstein and Musil' by Genese Grill.

At Philosophers Zone, Joe Gelonesi talks to David Papineau about consciousness and the brain.

Nicholas Maxwell on 'what philosophy ought to do'.

Colin Strang's obituary.

Winthrop Pickard Bell: 'Husserl asked his Canadian student to write his dissertation on Royce, and when completed he praised it. ... [Bell] received his degree in 1922. Bell was the first teacher of phenomenology at Harvard from 1922-1927; his students included Dorion Cairns and Charles Hartshorne.' More about Bell:
During the fall of 1921 [Bell] returned to academia and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto and within the same time frame made an application to have his doctorate from Göttingen University re-instated. The formal doctorate was finally issued to Dr. Bell in May of 1922. His tenure in Toronto was to be short-lived and he resigned after the spring semester. In the fall of 1922 he took up teaching in the philosophy department at Harvard University.
Rebecca Suter reviews Matthew Strecher's The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami:  'According to Strecher, the metaphysical realm in Murakami’s work is the place where individual subjects are able to connect to their “inner narrative,” get in touch with their innermost feelings and (re)construct a worldview that is closer to their true self than the false myths or “collective narratives” produced by society.'

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, a student of Kant's -- well, he attended some of Kant's lectures -- wrote some early science fiction tales. Michael Hauskeller has a blog post on Hoffmann's tale 'Sandman'. Another blog post about 'Sandman'. In his chapter of Wiley's Companion to Science Fiction, 'The Origins of Science Fiction', George Slusser devotes a section to Hoffmann's 'Sandman'.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

'Scientism' 13 - Charlton on the difference between positivism & scientism

Thirteenth in a series of fourteen posts (12345678, 9, 10, 1112, & 14).

The relation between the phrases 'positivism' and 'scientism' is ambiguous. Some use 'scientism' as a synonym for 'positivism' (see Leszek Kolakowski's uses in The Alienation of Reason [1968]; e.g., p. 160 and pp. 177-8). Others take positivism to be a proper subset of scientism (my preferred use). Still others take the two groups to be disjoint.

An example of this latter use can be found in D. G. Charlton's admirable book Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire, 1852-1870. (Oxford University Press, 1959) Charlton reserves 'positivism' for the view of those positivists who remained true to the anti-metaphysical tenets of that philosophy and who did not pretend to draw ethical results from science (or from reason). 'Scientism' then refers (for Charlton) to distortions of positivism that erect ethical or metaphysical doctrines (e.g., materialism) on a putatively scientific basis (Charlton 1959, p. 2; cf. p. 224). Charlton's use of 'scientism' is clarified by this line about Claude Bernard: 'He rejects the claim of scientism that science alone can offer a new ethic of life and reorder civilization'. (Charlton 1959, p. 81)

Chapters 3-7 of Charlton's book distinguish between, on the one hand, those authors who stayed true to positivist epistemology by remaining agnostic about metaphysics and ethics (and much else) and, on the other hand, those who betrayed positivism by laying claim to knowledge beyond what was verifiable, thereby lapsing into scientism. By Charlton's lights, only Bernard and Émile Littré were true positivists while Comte, himself, Ernest Renan, and Hippolyte Taine had unwittingly forsaken positivism for scientism. Here's an interesting remark that Charlton makes about Taine:
He illustrates with especial clarity one of the most significant distortions of positivism in the mid-nineteenth century, a distortion arising from the intermingling of German idealism and Anglo-French positivism. The addition of Hegel and positivism produces scientism: this is the equation demonstrated in the philosophies of Taine and Renan alike. (Charlton, Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire [Oxford University Press, 1959], p. 154)
I quote this intriguing passage but, won't delve into it here.

Charlton's use of 'scientism' connects with what I said in the final paragraph of post 11. Indeed, much of Charlton's book is devoted to 'catching out' supposed positivists in moments of betrayal.

In short, for Charlton, since science is silent on metaphysics, ethics, etc., positivism urges silence on such matters.* 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' (though I don't mean to say Wittgenstein was a positivist). For Charlton, scientism won't shut up about the 'whereof'.

*The nature of this urging is unclear. It's normative, so, by positivist standards, it isn't based on scientific method, which itself consists of normative claims....Though perhaps at that point they rely only on hypothetical imperatives.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

'Scientism' 12 - James, Dewey & Mueller

Twelfth in a series of fourteen posts (12345678, 9, 10, 11, 13, & 14).

William James used 'scientism' in a few letters. The first such letter was addressed to his father's friend James John Garth Wilkinson (a Swedenborgian). James wrote to Wilkinson about the latter's book Greater Origins and Issues of Life and Death. In the letter (dated March 8, 1886), James wrote of his desire protest against the sottish sect of "scientists" so far as it is a sect - which of course it is on an enormous scale.... Science carries its own remedy in its method and will slough off each successive crust of scientism that tries to harden over it, before it has had time to set. (James, letter to James John Garth Wilkinson [March 8, 1886], The Correspondence of William James, v. 6: 1885-1889, ed. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley; [Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2004], p. 125)
'Scientism' appears in two letters that James penned in later years, one of which was sent to James Mark Baldwin (in Jan., 1889) (Ibid., p. 477) about Baldwin's critique of James' 'Will to Believe'.

As was noted in an earlier post, James used the even more ungainly word 'scientificism' in his published work. Why didn't he use 'scientism' instead? Perhaps he thought it had associations with more conservative religious authors; or, perhaps, in an effort to play up the supposed folly of scientism, he opted for a more ridiculous, comical phrase.

I said in my 6th post of this series that John Dewey was taken for a paragon of scientism by some of his contemporaries. Further evidence of that tendency may be found in a review from 1949 by Roy Wood Sellars. In the course of discussing some lectures by R. B. Perry, Sellars said:
This is James' meliorism with fideism. God is the mightiest champion of the good. Not so much of this remains in Dewey, with his increased scientism and humanism. (Sellars, 'The Cook Lectures: "Characteristically American": A review of a distinguished philosopher's five discussions of fundamental aspects of American life, as recently presented to University audiencess', The Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus [1949]: at 190)
Finally, in 1936, Gustav Emil Mueller (a Swiss-American philosopher) published Philosophy of Our Uncertainties, which included a chapter called 'The Four Fallacies of Scientism'. Mueller there said:
We now proceed to examine the mongrel scientism. Its position may be stated as follows: The universe is an object of scientific knowledge; what remains of philosophy will be a series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences. This maxim raises a legitimate issue against 'popular' pretensions to solve 'the riddle of the universe' in competition with scientific endeavors, and by wholesale and 'intuitive' methods of their own. We now turn to the criticism of the fallacies implied in it, if it is meant as a metaphysical position and not merely as a regulative, pragmatic maxim. (Mueller, Philosophy of Our Uncertainties [Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1936], p. 70)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

January philosophy links

Eric Banks interviewed about his new book The Realistic Empiricism of Mach, James, and Russell: Neutral Monism Reconceived. Banks wrote an earlier book called Ernst Mach's World Elements.

Thomas Dixon on the history of the term 'altruism' (in a series called 'Philosophical Keywords'). In giving the rationale for this new blog project, Dixon mentions 'Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s view, expressed in the latter’s Aids to Reflection (1825), that there were cases when "more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign".’

Seyla Benhabib on the Charlie Hebdo massacres.

At Siris, 'the Key to Mill's Utilitarianism'.

David Auerbach's 4th post on Simmel's Philosophy of Money.

Duncan Richter has a couple of new drafts (developed from blog posts) on Winch, Wittgenstein, and religious experience.

Isabelle Kalinowski on 'Max Weber and Capitalism's Strange Reality'.

'Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Part 2)'.

More about Putin's philosopher, Ivan Ilyin.

Eric Voegelin at 114.

Musical interlude:

'The story of historian Natalie Zemon Davis, as she tells it, is largely one about the benefits that have accrued to an outsider'.

Elucidations podcast of Sally Sedgwick on Hegel and Kant.

Rebuilding a positivist church in Brazil:
The positivist ritual consists of classical music, readings from Comte’s works, debate and invocations to the Supreme Being. It was conducted weekly until one night in 2009 when the roof, its wooden beams weakened by Brazil’s notorious tropical termites, suddenly caved in.
In E. T. A. Hoffmann's 'Master Flea', Peregrinus (aka Mr. Peregrine Tyss) uses 'a microscope that allows him to observe people’s thoughts from the motion of their physical brain and nerves', thereby anticipating Herbert Feigl's autocerebroscope (elaborated upon by Paul E. Meehl). Hoffmann's 'Automata' (pdf) made io9's short list for the Victorian Hugos (1886, the year of its English translation)Here's Hoffmann's 'Sandman'. At Gutenberg.

'Take me then as a sort of reflective and experienced carp; but do not estimate the justice of my ideas by my facial expression.' In 'Shadows of the Coming Race' (1879) by George Eliot, we're outwitted and displaced by self-reproducing, mechanical zombies. Eliot's reflections were prompted by T. H. Huxley's 'On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata'.

Here's a neat old book, Contemporary Thought in France, in which Félix de Dantec (one of the early users of 'scientisme') is said to have adopted Huxley's epiphenomenalism. The book was written by Isaac Benrubi and translated from the German by Ernest B. Dicker in 1926 (the year of its initial publication).

Parts 1 and 2 of 'C. S. Lewis and the Inklings' on CBC Radio.

Harald Sack on 'Alfred Tarski and the Undefinability of Truth'.

Logicians in fiction:

Laura Mae Isaacman interviews Yannick Grannec about Grannec's The Goddess of Small Victories, 'a fictional story that re-imagines the life of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his wife Adele'.

Re. Richard Montague: Sacha Arnold on echoes of Montague in Samuel Delany's pornutopic Mad Man and in Aifric Campbell's Semantics of Murder.

Bertrand Russell was a basis for Scogan, an unflattering character in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. Russell was also a model for Sir Joshua Malleson in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, for Thornton Tyrell in Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and for Mr. Apollinax in a poem by T. S. Eliot. Bruce Duffy's The World as I Found It is about Russell, Wittgenstein, and G. E. Moore.

Friday, January 16, 2015

'Scientism' 11 - 'Scientism' in analytic philosophy

Eleventh in a series of fourteen posts (12345678, 9, 10, 12, 13, & 14).

The word 'scientism' has been in use among analytic philosophers at least since John Passmore used it twice in 1948 (in 'Philosophy and Scientific Method' and 'Logical Positivism III'). About ten years later, W. H. Dray accused Carl Hempel of scientism on p. 4 of his Laws and Explanation in History (1957).

More recently, we find the word appearing in the works of philosophers who were influenced by Wittgenstein. Recall that in post 10 of this series, I quoted a Jesuit philosopher, John Wellmuth, who saw in scientism an enemy of metaphysics. By contrast, Wittgensteinian critiques of scientism are more likely to see scientism, itself, as symptomatic of a residual attachment to metaphysics. For example, here's Warren Goldfarb in 1989:
It does make him [Wittgenstein] antiscientistic, against the smug and unexamined assurance that what wants explanation is obvious, and that scientific tools are immediately applicable. For Wittgenstein, scientism is just as misguidedly metaphysical as traditional, more transparently a prioristic, approaches. An immediate inclination to look to science for answers can in fact be an expression of a philosophical picture. Goldfarb, 'Wittgenstein, Mind, and Scientism'Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989)
Beyond the sphere of Wittgenstein interpretation, one finds several first-rate analytic philosophers with Wittgensteinian affinities disapproving of scientism. For instance, Michael Dummett, in the course of reviewing Noam Chomsky's Rules and Representations, observes that Chomsky's attitude 'contrasts not only with the widespread irrationalism of our day but with the equally repellent scientism usually opposed to it' (London Review of Books1981). In The Nature and Future of Philosophy (2010), Dummett says that scientism involves regarding the 'natural sciences as the only true channel of knowledge' (p. 35). That's from a chapter called 'Psychology and Scientism'.

Here's John McDowell in 1978:
But the notion of the world, or how things are, which is appropriate in this context is a metaphysical notion, not a scientific one: world views richer than that of science are not scientific, but not on that account unscientific (a term of opprobrium for answers other than those of science to science's questions). To query their status as world views on the ground of their not being scientific is to be motivated not by science but by scientism. (McDowell, 'Are Moral Imperative Hypothetical Imperatives?' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 52 [1978]: at 19)
In his View From Nowhere (1986), Thomas Nagel says:
Philosophy is also infected by a broader tendency of contemporary intellectual life; scientism. Scientism is actually a special form of idealism, for it puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date—physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigm—as if the present age were not just one in the series. (Nagel, View from Nowhere [1986], p. 9)
Here's Hilary Putnam in his 1990 Gifford Lectures, which were published as Renewing Philosophy (1993):
Analytic philosophy has become increasingly dominated by the idea that science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective. To be sure, there are within analytic philosophy important figures who combat this scientism. Nevertheless, the idea that science leaves no room for an independent philosophical enterprise has reached the point at which leading practitioners sometimes suggest that all that is left for philosophy is to try to anticipate what the presumed scientific solutions to all metaphysical problems will eventually look like. (Putnam, Renewing Philosophy [1993], p. x)
In the Annual Lecture of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (Feb., 2000), which was published under the title 'Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline' (2000), Bernard Williams says, 'Scientism is, rather, a misunderstanding of the relations between philosophy and the natural sciences which tends to assimilate philosophy to the aims, or at least the manners, of the sciences.' In the Abstract for this paper, Williams wrote, 'Scientism stems from the false assumption that a representation of the world minimally based on local perspectives is what best serves self-understanding'.

In a metaphysics textbook, E. J. Lowe defined scientism as 'the doctrine that such legitimate metaphysical questions as there are belong to the province of the empirical sciences' (The Possibility of Metaphysics: Substance, Identity, and Time, p. 5).

These philosophers take scientism to include a metaphysical project in which metaphysical questions will be answered by the modern, natural sciences. The metaphysical impulse thus survives in scientism at least insofar as the old metaphysical questions are still treated as well-formed foci for inquiry. Critics of scientism then divide into, on the one hand, those philosophers (e.g., Wellmuth and Lowe) who accept the metaphysical questions as legitimate but seek the answers outside the natural sciences and, on the other hand, those (e.g., Wittgensteinians) who reject the metaphysical questions themselves as involving conceptual confusions.

The analytic philosophers' use of 'scientism' seems more in accord with the 1870s use than the cold-war use. As noted, the cold-war use implied nefarious social and political agendas, such as Soviet communism. I conjecture that this use was more influenced by the French 'scientisme', which appeared often in critiques of positivism. French positivism incorporated a radical program for reforming society on purely scientific grounds. Its French critics meant to neutralize this agenda in their critiques of scientism. So, it's plausible that the cold-war use of 'scientism', with its dark foreboding about radical ideologies, developed partly from these French debates. By contrast, the 1870s use of 'scientism' indicated (explicitly) few, if any, fears about radical social upheaval. Instead, the focus of that use was squarely on the notion that old metaphysical methods were being displaced by the modern natural sciences, a shift that was thought to lead to some sort of materialism.

In post 9 of this series, I expressed surprise at the discovery that in the anglo-sphere, the 1870s accusations of 'scientism' were directed chiefly at members of the X Club and not so much at positivists. After all, consistent positivists should presumably take towards metaphysics the same approach as Wittgensteinians by exposing the illegitimacy of metaphysical questions and then ceasing to  engage in metaphysics. Weren't there any inconsistent positivists around at the time, positivists who could be 'caught out' in surreptitious metaphysical flights? Perhaps 19th-Century, anglo-critics of scientism didn't think so, taking the positivists to have succeeded in eschewing metaphysics; or perhaps these critics saw no point in accusing positivists of inconsistently harboring metaphysical commitments, preferring, instead, to direct their fire at the more influential X-Clubbers, some of whom clearly did tout metaphysical doctrines (materialism) that were allegedly based on the natural sciences. If so, then these 19th-Century critics seem to have been making an argument very similar to those advanced by Wellmuth and Lowe, the point of which was not to catch out positivists but was, instead, to take on the metaphysical scientists, the scientists who drew metaphysical results from natural-scientific evidence.

Update (Jan. 25): Here's another example of 'scientism' being used by an analytic philosopher. In a 1994 paper, Mark Johnston wrote:
Just as there is a certain kind of materialism which lives off the Cartesian legacy by taking over the Cartesian idea of the body as dumb matter, there is a certain kind of scientism which lives off the legacy of medieval theology by taking over the idea of the world's having a structure privileged independently of our cognitive activity, a structure which any able cognizer should want to know. (Johnston, 'Objectivity Refigured:Pragmatism Without Verificationism' in Reality, Representation, and Projection [Oxford University Press, 1994], p. 86)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Great moments in the history of the University of Toronto

In 1853, Toronto's University College (the oldest part of the University of Toronto) invited applications for a new professorship in natural philosophy. Among the applicants were such future luminaries as John Tyndall (discoverer of the greenhouse effect) and T. H. Huxley. Charles Darwin was just one of the leading scientists of the day who wrote letters in support of Huxley's candidacy.

Huxley didn't get the job and Tyndall didn't even make the shortlist of candidates. Instead of them, the Toronto school hired William Hincks. Toronto was then in the united Province of Canada, whose Premier in 1853 was Sir Francis Hincks, William Hincks' younger brother. For more about the whole sordid affair, see p. 49 of Martin L. Friedland's The University of Toronto: a History (2nd ed.)

'Scientism' 10 - Wellmuth and Owen

Tenth in a series of fourteen posts (12345678, 911, 12, 13, & 14).

I've found two definitions of 'scientism' by clerics in the mid-20th Century.

In my previous post on this topic, I said that some of the early, 19th-Century adopters of the term linked it to a hubristic view of modern science as holding the promise of a complete knowledge of reality.

Here's a passage that makes this hubristic sense explicit. It's from D. R. G. Owen's 1952 book, Scientism, Man, and Religion:
We may call it scientism or scientolatry. This peculiarly modern form of idolatry refuses to recognize the limitations of science and claims that its working principles can be used as universal principles, in terms of which the whole of reality can be explained and controlled. ... Scientolatry, therefore, claims that it can solve all problems 'scientifically.' (Owen, Scientism,Man, and Religion [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952], pp. 20-21)
Owen was an Anglican clergyman and Provost of Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He has here built a straw-man. Who ever claimed for science a capacity to give us the ability to 'control' everything?

Here's a better definition, which avoids imputing dreams of sweeping, comprehensive knowledge (let alone power) to those who stand for scientism. It was presented by John Wellmuth (S.J.) in his 1944 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University:
The word 'scientism', as used in this lecture, is to be understood as meaning the belief that science, in the modern sense of that term, and the scientific method as described by modern scientists, afford the only reliable natural means of acquiring such knowledge as may be available about whatever is real. (Wellmuth, S. J., The Nature and Origins of Scientism [Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1944], p. 5)
This is not the hubristic version of scientism, for supporters of scientism are being taken to be confident about science only as the royal road to 'such knowledge as may be available' and not to an exhaustive knowledge of all reality.

The appearance in Wellmuth's definition of 'natural' is intriguing. Wouldn't the definition be better without it? Perhaps Wellmuth wanted a conception of scientism that could be applied to those religious people who allowed for divine revelation but who relied solely upon modern scientific methods for all other knowledge. If so, Wellmuth's conception of scientism positions it as a foe not so much of religion but, rather, of metaphysics.

Added (Jan. 16): I should add that my speculation re. Wellmuth's intended target was partly suggested by the focus of his Aquinas Lecture. He concentrates on medieval philosophers, esp. late medieval ones (inc. Scotus) and argues that the trend towards scientism was already under way before Descartes. It was initiated by medieval, Christian thinkers who accepted divine revelation but curtailed the prospects for metaphysical knowledge.