Friday, December 19, 2014

'Scientism' 4

Fourth in a series of four posts (1, 2, & 3).

I've found more mid-20th-Century uses of 'scientism'.

First, there is this passage from Emil Brunner's Gifford Lectures (1947-48):
Science and art serve men best if they remain true to their own laws. They must be 'autonomous'. But if this autonomy is ultimately final it cannot but degenerate into sterile inhuman intellectualist 'scientism' and into l’art pour l’art aestheticism. If however their autonomy is understood as theonomy they keep their independence and yet are united to natural life and ethical principles by a unity standing above all of them.
It looks like Brunner dropped 'scientism' from the book that was drawn from his Gifford Lectures. The book in question is Christianity and Civilisation (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948). Interestingly, the latter portions (at least) of that book (beginning at p. 85) echo some of the themes connected with other mid-20-Century uses of 'scientism'. For instance, Brunner mentions Comte and Spencer several times and says that liberalism degenerates and leads to collectivist tyranny (pp. 139-140). Brunner discusses fascist and communist forms of totalitarianism and sees both as threats to individualism and freedom. It was in that context that he had (in his lectures) used the word 'scientism'.

'Scientism' appears once in C. Wright Mills' 1959 book The Sociological Imagination:
In the meantime, philosophers who speak in the name of science often transform it into ‘scientism,’ making out its experience to be identical to human experience, and claiming that only by its method can the problems of life be solved. With all this cultural workmen have come to feel that ‘science’ is a false and pretentious Messiah. (Mills, The Sociological Imagination [Oxford University Press,1959], p. 16)
Finally, the mid-20th-Century, Cold War linkage of scientism and Marxism resurfaces in this 1992 piece by Vaclav Havel. In it, Havel says,
The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief, expressed in different forms, that the world -- and Being as such -- is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct for his own benefit. This era, beginning in the Renaissance and developing from the Enlightenment to socialism, from positivism to scientism, from the Industrial Revolution to the information revolution, was .... an era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages. It was an era of ideologies, doctrines, interpretations of reality, an era in which the goal was to find a universal theory of the world, and thus a universal key to unlock its prosperity. Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend. (Havel, New York Times [March 1, 1992])

Thursday, December 18, 2014

'Scientism' 3

Third in a series of four posts (1, 2, & 4).

Some quick observations about the mid-20th-Century use of 'scientism':
  • It was used in a more overtly political way by both religious and non-religious authors who tended towards the right end of the political spectrum. 
  • The term was generally used to brand its target as a Faustian, secular religion, implying that adherents of the targeted view, though they pretended to superior rationality, had in fact made their own leap of faith. 
  • The destination of this leap of faith was a 'liberal' ideology, in which a Whiggish belief in progress and an overly rosy view of human nature figured prominently.
  • The phrase was rhetorically convenient for right-wing authors, since it assimilated secular liberalism with Marxism (a more obvious secular religion that was optimistic about history and human nature and that made a great show of being a purely rational science).
The overtones of imputed religiosity are especially clear in the quotations of Foerster ('devotion'), Morgenthau ('dogmatic'), and Voegelin ('creed' and 'dogmas').

Some of the quoted passages seem haunted by a fear of Marxist communism, which is more pronounced in the passage by Polanyi ('soul-destroying tyrrany'). The fear also comes through as a concern about loss of freedom (esp. in the passages from Lewis and Polanyi), with the suggestion in Hayek's 1942 statement that there's something 'slavish' about scientism.

It's interesting to see how the French 'scientisme', originally directed against Saint-Simon and Comte (who really did envision secular institutions that mimicked religion), morphed into the English 'scientism', which was used just before and during the Cold War as an epithet for a broader array of secular views.

My sense is that today, 'scientism' has largely shed its overtly political connotations and is more often used simply to imply that someone has illegitimately applied phsyical-scientific method beyond its proper domain.

'Scientism' 2

Second in a series of four posts (1, 3, & 4).

Norman Foerster (1937):
By a belief in scientism I mean a more or less exclusive devotion to the methods, mental attitudes, and doctrines appropriate to science, ordinarily culminating in some form of naturalistic speculation. (Foerster, The American State University: Its Relation to Democracy [University of North Carolina Press, 1937], p.116)
Hans Morgenthau (1946):
The failure of the dogmatic scientism of our age to explain the social and, more particularly, political problems of this age and to give guidance for successful action calls for a re-examination of these problems in the light of the prerationalist Western tradition [p. 9]. ... Scientism assumes that the significance of nature and society for man exhausts itself in isolated sequences of causes and effects [p. 124] .... The quest for the technical mastery of social life, comparable to his mastery over nature, did not find scientism at a loss for an answer: the fundamental identity under reason of physical nature and social life suggested identical methods for their domination. ... There is only one truth, the truth of science, and by knowing it man would know all [pp. 125-6]. (Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics, [University of Chicago Press, 1946])

Eric Voegelin (1948):
The scientistic creed ... is characterized by three principal dogmas: (1) the assumption that the mathematized science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform; (2) that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena; and (3) that all reality which is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary. (Voegelin, 'The Origins of Scientism', Social Research 15 [1948]: 462)

Michael Polanyi (1958):
Modern scientism fetters thought as cruelly as ever the churches had done. It offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and it forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms. Ideologies framed in these terms have enlisted man's highest aspirations in the service of soul-destroying tyrannies. (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge [University of Chicago Press, 1958], p. 279)
C. S. Lewis (some time between 1946 & 1963):
'Scientism'—a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers.  It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom. (Lewis, 'A Reply to Professor Haldane' in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories [Mariner Books, 2002]. at pp. 76-77; Lewis's 'Reply' was first published in 1966; posthumous)

'Scientism' 1

First in a series of four posts (2, 3, & 4).

The use of the English term 'scientism' echoes that of the French 'scientisme'. Both words have primarily been terms of abuse, implying the application of scientific methods beyond their proper domain. Peter Schöttler has traced the French phrase back to the 1840s. It seems to have arisen from disputes between Comtean positivists and more conservative, religious authors. Some of the Comteans embraced the label. Here, for instance, is Felix le Dantec in 1911:
I believe that science ... alone can solve all the issues that have meaning ... and I think it will penetrate to the mysteries of our emotional life and explain to me even the origin and structure of hereditary anti-scientific mysticism cohabiting with the most absolute scientism. But I am also convinced that men posed many questions that mean nothing."  (le Dantec, Le chaos et l'harmonie universelle [F. Alcan, 1911])
[Please excuse my linguistic feebleness, but the above rendering is my Google-assisted translation of le Dantec's French.]

Aided by Google's Ngram, James Schmidt has charted the early development of the English 'scientism', noting a spike in its use around 1920. Schmidt identifies two sources of this increase. One was a 1919 theological book by Charles Gray Shaw’s (The Ground and Goal of Human Life). Shaw takes Comte and Spencer to be paradigms of scientism (Comte's name appears more than twenty times in the index of Shaw's book). Here's Shaw: 'The attempt to socialize science or to make sociality scientific has been the undoing of scientism; so that who can deny that Comte and Spencer have made scientism appear silly?' (p. 177) Shaw regarded scientism as being inimical to 'individualism'. In one of his earliest uses of 'scientism' in the above-linked book, Shaw says,
The scientism which now attempts to interpret the world for man had its beginning with the inception of modern thought; but it was not until the science of the organic world advanced beyond the study of the inorganic that scientism gained the upper hand and drove the self from the world of things. How such scientism arose and how it achieved its victory over the self, must now become the subject of analytical investigation
Shaw's writing abounds in ill-defined abstractions, including not only scientism but, also, its putative contraries (among which are 'aestheticism' and the 'spiritual').

Schmidt says that the other source of 'scientism's' 1920 spike was an article by Charles Cestre on the plight of labourers. Cestre's use seems idiosyncratic, though he, too, sees a tension between scientism and individualism. (Here's Part II of Schmidt's history of 'scientism'.)

Among the most prominent uses of 'scientism' before 1950 was that of Friedrich von Hayek. In his 1942 paper, 'Scientism and the Study of Society. Part I', Hayek introduced the term as follows:
To preclude any misunderstanding on this point we shall, wherever we are concerned, not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with that slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of 'scientism' or the 'scientistic' prejudice. Although these terms are not completely unknown in English, they are actually borrowed from the French, where in recent years they have come to be generally used in very much the same sense in which they will be used here. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. (Hayek, 'Scientism and the Study of Society. Part I' Economica 9 [1942]: 269 [italics added])
I've omitted Hayek's three footnotes from the above passage. In one of them, he cites two French sources re. the use of 'scientisme'. One of them is J. Fiolle's Scientisme et Science (Paris, 1936). The other one is André Lalande's Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (4th ed.).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November philosophy links

Marilynne Robinson on 'Jonathan Edwards in a New Light: Remembered for Preaching Fire and Brimstone, He Was Actually One of the Great Intellectuals of His Era'.

'The Jewish Exiles Return to Germany -- Jürgen Habermas recalls philosophers and sociologists of Jewish background as returnees in the early Federal Republic Of Germany'.

Philip Bricker's new SEP entry on ontological commitment.

'John Stewart Bell: the nature of reality'. Bell's bio.
Debunking pop-science bogosity about Aristotle.

Interesting issue of Historical Reflections (on religion and the French Enlightenment).

At Philosopher's Zone, John Sellars and Kerry Sanders on the 'Return of the Stoics'.

'Remembering Derrida: A Forum by Peggy Kamuf, Gil Anidjar, Elisabeth Weber, Michael Marder and Luce Irigaray'.
The Dictionary of Untranslatables assumes the task of providing a comprehensive discussion of words significant in European philosophy whose "translation, into one language or another, creates a problem" (in the words of Barbara Cassin, its editor). In this it is astonishingly successful: comprehensive entries on hundreds of words, running to 1400 dense pages in the English edition, incorporating the work of 150 scholars in the original French and dozens more in the English translation.
'The most troublesome case is that of the expression “the priority of the right over the good,” which is untranslatable into French, and not solely because French lacks an equivalent for “right,” but also because of English’s lack of rigor.' (Translation by Jacques Lezra)

Added (Nov. 18): From the Partially Examined Life, 'Kant: What is Beauty?'

'Grace Notes: Eriugena and the Predestination Controversy'.

Siris has just posted a list of links: 'Links of Note, Noted'. [end of Nov. 18 addition]

Stellar performance of 'School Days' on YouTube (not a good video though).

Emmylou singing a Neil Young tune:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Philosophy links

Kadri Vihvelin and Terrance Tomkow didn't like Dennett's review of Mele's book on freedom: 'It is disgraceful because Dennett is coyly, with nodding winks and cunning smiles, inviting the reader to commit the ad hominem fallacy.'

Jerry Coyne didn't like John Gray's review of Dawkins' autobiography.

Michael Rosen reviews The Impact of Idealism: The legacy of post-Kantian German thought (four volumes).

'"Blind" to the obvious: Wittgenstein and Köhler on the obvious and the hidden' (by Janette Dinishak).

Sarah Bakewell's review of The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (by Armand Marie Leroi). Also reviewed by Patricia Fara.

Frank Freeman reviews Emily Wilson's The Greatest Empire: a Life of Seneca.

Peter Thonemann reviews books on Thucydides by Neville Morley and Geoffrey Hawthorn. Morley's book is Thucydides and the Idea of History.

From Morley's post on the death of German novelist Siegfried Lenz:
It is the task of the novelist, as it is of the historian, to represent the complexity and ambiguity of life, against the tendency of politicians and businessmen to seek simple answers based on a limited number of suppositions and ends.
Baroness Onora O’Neill's Hansard Lecture: ‘Can Human Rights Be Justified?’

Cass Sunstein reviews Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (by Richard J. Evans).

Russ Roberts interviewed about his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.

Benjamin Bilski reviews Vincent Azoulay's newly translated Pericles of Athens:
Writing with precision and avoiding clichés and anachronisms, Azoulay carefully balances the credibility of classical sources. He presents a convincing account of the stratēgos in the Athens that emerged from the Persian Wars as a fragile democracy in which Pericles played a central role as the city further democratised its public institutions and increased its power until defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Martin Woessner reviews two books on philosophy and film.

'Under the tutelage of [Wilhelm] Herrmann, [Karl] Barth was from the beginning suspicious of metaphysics and its impact upon Christian doctrine.'

Richard Waters reviews Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators (on the post-war pioneers who laid the groundwork for Silicon Valley):
Unlike Jobs, who was in equal parts brilliant and obnoxious, those singled out for special mention by Isaacson freely share both ideas and credit for their discoveries. The writer is at pains to stress that innovation often works best when combined with a selfless, highly collaborative approach.
From BBC Radio3, Andrew Hussey on Camus.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Some resources on sci-fi & philosophy

Eric Schwitzgebel has invited several philosophers and sci-fi authors to post lists of their favourite philosophical sci-fi stories. He's posted four batches so far (batch 1, batch 2, batch 3, and batch 4).

Schwitzgebel's inspiring effort got me thinking about other sources that may be relevant to the topic. Here's what I've found so far.

First, there are five six anthologies:

1. Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), its table of contents, a teacher's guide; it was reviewed by Matthew Cheney;

2. Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, by retired philosophy prof Steven M. Sanders;

3. Philosophy Through Science Fiction: A Coursebook with Readings, by Ryan Nichols, Nicholas D. Smith, Fred Miller. (It's an update of Thought probes: philosophy through science fiction literature.) Reviewed by Liz Stillwaggon Swan;

these two collections from Prometheus Books:

4. Philosophy and Science Fiction, ed. Michael Phillips;

5. Feminist Philosophy And Science Fiction: Utopias And Dystopias, ed. Judith A. Little; and...

Added (Oct. 13): 6. Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence, ed. Susan Schneider.

Next, there are several items by David Auerbach on his great Waggish blog (inc. 'SciFi novels for liberals' as well as posts on the Gollancz SF list, Olaf Stapledon's Flames, exceptional science fiction, and Gene Wolf).

Auerbach wrote an article about Thomas Disch at The Millions: 'The Prescient Science Fiction of Thomas M. Disch' (followed by an Appendix and a note on Disch's death at Waggish).

Here are two more especially apt items by Auerbach: one on Joanna Russ' 'We Who Are About To…'; the other on Robert Sheckley's 'Warm' (which Auerbach relates to P. F. Strawson's 'Freedom and Resentment'). 'Warm' is on Gutenberg.

Re. Sheckley, there is also this WaPo piece by Michael Dirda, as well as an item by Steve Danziger. One of Sheckley's stories, 'The Seventh Victim' (pdf), was the basis of The 10th Victim (with Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress).

There's some relevant material at Science Fiction Studies (here are some abstracts from a recent issue). This journal has made available the full texts of some old volumes; e.g., the Le Guin issue from 1975 and, from the same year, the Philip Dick volume (with contributions by Lem, Aldiss, and Fredric Jameson).

Also at Science Fiction Studies, one can find Roy Arthur Swanson's paper 'The True, the False, and the Truly False: Lucian’s Philosophical Science Fiction' (1976). Swanson was Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

There's some relevant material at Matthew Cheney's Mumpsimus. Cheney's an English professor who sometimes makes use of continental philosophy, as in this post about novels by M. John Harrison (which inc. references to Derrida and Deleuze).

At io9, there's a post by Charlie Jane Anders on 'The Philosophical Roots of Science Fiction'.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

C. E. Montague on working out a spice of ultimate good

I blogged about C. E. Montague last spring. Here's a passage from one of his books:
People whose work is the making of calculations or the manipulation of thoughts have been known to find a curiously restful pleasure in chopping firewood or painting tool-sheds till their backs ache. It soothes them with a flattering sense of getting something useful done straight off. So much of their "real" work is a taking of some minute or indirect means to some end remote, dimly and doubtfully visible, possibly — for the dread thought will intrude — not worth attaining. The pile of chopped wood is at least a spice of the ultimate good: visible, palpable, it is success. [pp.6-7] - C. E. Montague (Disenchantment, 1922)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sundry items of philosophy (in the loose & popular sense)

Lives of famous Scottish philosophers.

Carrie Figdor interviews Richard Fumerton about his book Knowledge, Thought, and the Case for Dualism. Fumerton mentions a course that he took as an undergrad at Victoria University in the University of Toronto, where he took philosophy courses with Francis Sparshott and Peter Hess. I attended Vic in the late 80's and took several courses with Hess, who completed his doctoral work at Brown under Roderick Chisholm (who supervised a lot of good philosophers).

From 2009: 'Moral and political philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, honoured at [University College Dublin]' (inc. a 50-minute talk by MacIntryre).

Michael Rosen reviews Onora O'Neill's Acting on Principle: an Essay on Kantian Ethics.

From the Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Hans-Johann Glock's paper 'Reasons for Action:Wittgensteinian and Davidsonian Perspectives in Historical and Meta-Philosophical Context'.

Here's a bio of mathematician Karl Menger, son of economist Carl Menger

Dale DeBakcsy on Ludwig Feuerbach.

From last July, Habermas interviewed about the 'Internet and Public Sphere: What the Web Can't Do'.

Edith Ackermann interviewed by Urs Hirschberg on 'Talent, intuition, creativity: on the limits of digital technologies'.
Ancient commentators on Aristotle.

Parts 1 and 2 of  Mohammed Hashas' reflections on Islamic philosophy.

Richard J. Bernstein on 'The Pragmatic Roots of Cultural Pluralism'.

Seyla Benhabib in the NY Times: 'Who’s On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?'

From last July, Benhabib on 'Human Rights and the Critique of “Humanitarian Reason”':
This prevalent mood of disillusionment and cynicism among many concerning human rights and humanitarian politics is understandable; but it is not defensible. Developments in international law since 1948 have tried to give new legal meaning to "human dignity" and "human rights". Admittedly, these developments have in turn generated the paradoxes of "humanitarian reason"....
Eric Posner's Twilight of Human Rights Law will be released in October. 

Margaret Somers and Fred Block on 'The Return of Karl Polanyi'. Karl Polanyi had a home in Pickering, the suburb of Toronto in which I was raised. Karl taught in the USA, but his wife Ilona Duczynska (more here) wasn't allowed to live there due to her socialist past. Karl Polanyi's daughter Kari Levitt was an economics professor at McGill University. Karl's nephew John won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and taught at the University of Toronto. John's father (and Karl's brother) Michael Polanyi was an accomplished philosopher who anticipated some of Thomas Kuhn's ideas. There needs to be an at least three-volume work of historical fiction about this family.

'David Flusfeder’s novel John the Pupil follows three students of the medieval philosopher-savant Roger Bacon who make a secretive journey from England to the seat of the papacy at Viterbo'.

Jonathan Israel and Lynn Hunt trade blows over her review of his book Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre:'Hunt roundly berates me for the significance I attribute to Diderot, d’Holbach, and Helvétius, making one mistake after another.'

Marcus du Sautoy on Borges' appeal to mathematicians. Includes a mention of Cantor and a clip of Borges being interviewed in 1971. Borges 'read all Bertrand Russell's books on logic and maths'. Rebecca DeWald reviews a couple of companions to Borges.

From a thought-provoking post by sociologist Thomas Sheff:
The discipline of psychology, for example, has become Brahean, committed to systematic studies, even if they don’t work. One example: more than twenty thousand studies using self-esteem scales. These studies are systematic, but they don’t predict behavior and are therefore useless.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister tackles one of the biggest pseudo-scientific frauds of our day, the unsupported rhetoric about the importance of self-esteem.

From last June, 'A Philosopher Refutes the "Stuck in Time" Hypothesis of Amnesia' (about a paper by Carl F. Craver).

Here's a short poem by Edgar Lee Masters -- 'Imanuel Ehrenhardt' -- that manages to fit mentions of philosophers Sir William Hamilton, Dugald Stewart, Locke, Descartes, Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Schopenhauer into its first five lines. Masters sets aside these philosophers in favour of John Muir.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Philosophy in the wider world

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a site devoted to theories of causal history. The site has entries for many ancient and early modern philosophers as well as for Russell, Schlick, Popper, Reichenbach, Hempel, Mackie, Suppes, David Lewis, Marjorie Grene, Paul Humphreys, Nancy Cartwright, James Woodward, and Christopher Hitchcock.

It's always interesting to find philosophers being cited in the medical sciences literature. Last July, I noted Carl Hempel's influence on the DSM. There is also Karl Popper's impact in epidemiology. For instance, Mervyn Susser and his partner, Zena Stein, made use of Popper's work. Susser also made reference to the work of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Mario Bunge (among other philosophers).

The journal History of Psychiatry has an article on 'Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and its impact on the theory of psychopathology' by Norbert Andersch and John Cutting.

The same journal also has published 'Karl Jaspers on the disease entity: Kantian ideas and Weberian ideal types' by Chris Walker.

Blossom Dearie:

I posted last June about Berkeley's popularity among the poets. Peter Brooke reviews a book from 2010 called ‘We Irish’ in Europe: Yeats, Berkeley and Joseph Hone by W. J. McCormack. According to the book, somehow the Italian fascists (esp. Giovanni Gentile) co-opted Berkeley for their awful ideology. McCormack's book is also reviewed in Berkeley Studies by Tom Jones.

Wuthering Expectations has a post about Schopenhauer's influence on the French Decadents (something to which I alluded in a couple of posts). If I ever get the time, I'd like to look more closely at Schopenhauer's influence on Anna Karenina.

From the Huffington Post: 'The Unexpected Way Philosophy Majors Are Changing The World Of Business'.

The BBC Radio 4 has a series called Baldi, which is about a 'Franciscan priest and philosophy lecturer [who] turns amateur sleuth to solve murder mysteries'.

BBC Radio 3's series 'Wagner's Philosophers' (with broadcasts on Adorno, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the German idealists).

Blossom Dearie performed the Adjectives song ('Unpack Your Adjectives' -- it's on YouTube) for Schoolhouse Rock. This next song of hers' never made it onto children's TV: