Monday, December 29, 2014

'Scientism' 8 - Early uses (1870s)

Eighth in a series of fourteen posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 910111213, & 14).

The English word 'scientism' came to be used in its modern sense in the 1870s. In these early uses, those who are said to be guilty of scientism are not positivists. Instead, the guilty parties are the supposed materialists, T. H. Huxley and John Tyndall. Huxley and Tyndall were not, strictly speaking, materialists. Still, they did take the position that states of matter determine mental states and that the latter appear to be entirely dependent upon the former (so that there can be no independent mental substance). This stance sufficed at that time to secure the designation 'materialist'. Of course, Huxley and Tyndall were closely associated with Darwin's evolutionary theory, a theory which was taken by Huxley and Tyndall to imply a wholly physical origin of animal minds.

Some quick observations about these early uses:
  • While the English word 'scientism' may yet have a French origin, its 1870s uses give no indication of a French source. 
  • 'Scientism' was at first used primarily to signify a metaphysical doctrine (materialism); its epistemological dimension, the connotations that would implicate the positivists (and which are implied in the passage from Canon Barry [below]), came to the fore later in the 1870s. (The epistemological sense of 'scientism' is prominent in Dawson's 1877 attack on W. K. Clifford.)
  • The following passages appeared in semi-popular magazines. Huxley and Tyndall, in addition to being scientists, were populizers of science. 'Scientism', then, was first used in pop-science contexts.
  • In 1870, Huxley published Lay Sermons: Addresses and Reviews. I wonder if that title suggested to critics the idea that Huxley championed an alternative religion, which they then called scientism. The positioning of scientism as a religion is evident in the following quotations of Frothingham ('credo of a new religion') and Hecker ('votaries'). [Added, Jan. 10, 2015: Interestingly, in January of 1870, R. H. Hutton published a piece in the Spectator called 'Pope Huxley'.]
In 1871, D. R. Goodwin (a professor in Philadelphia's Episcopal Theological Seminary) published an article called 'Huxley's Writings' in The American Presbyterian Review. On its last page, we find this passage:
If, in the face of the increasingly triumphant exultations of modern scientism, in the face of its sneering sarcasms and insolent taunts, strangely mingled with insinuating appeals to a friendly and charitable judgment, any of the friends of Christian philosophy, morality and religion, are dismayed and despondent, let them be reassured by the patent fact, that with all its boasted progress towards the annihilation of the Christian Faith, modern speculation has not yet got one step beyond the positions of Benedict Spinoza and David Hume. (Goodwin, 'Huxley's Writings' American Presbyterian Review New Series, v. 3 [1871]: 302-333, at 333)
Here, 'scientism' needn't be given its more recent interpretation. Indeed, Goodwin might have taken the term's meaning, strictly speaking, to be no different from that of 'science'. Still, he at least associates the word with its more recent anti-religious implications.

'Scientism' next appears up in an 1872 book review in the Methodist Quarterly Review (Fourth Series, v. 24 [1872]: 339-342). The review is of Martyn Paine's Physiology of the Soul and Instinct, as distinguished from Materialism. The anonymous reviewer remarks that 'with modern scientism the problem is how to account for the system of things without a God' (p. 340). Here, the author seems to take atheism (or at least agnosticism) to be part of the meaning of 'scientism'.

In 1876, Frederick Frothingham used 'scientism' in his contribution to a Unitarian magazine. He asks,
Is it not so plain as to be well-nigh self-evident that the true Radicalism can have no sympathy with that spirit which, however it may claim the name of Radicalism, is not radical, and though boasting of scientism is not scientific,—which identifies itself with, and declares as scientific truths, what are yet, and perhaps for ages, if not always, must remain surmises, and proclaims these as the credo of a new religion?' (Frothingham, 'Our Work in the Light of Some Present Demands' The Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine 6 [1876]: 117-133, at 128) 
Also in 1876, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker uses 'scientism' three times in his review of St. George Jackson Mivart's book Lessons from Nature as manifested in Mind & Matter. The word appears twice on the first page and once on the final page of the review.

On the first page, Hecker writes, 'Yet it is sadly true that the votaries of scientism are on the increase, and that Huxley, Spencer, Darwin, and Tyndall usurp ... a place lately held by Mill, Renan, Strauss, and Hegel' (Hecker, 'Mivart's "Lessons from Nature"' The Catholic World, 24 [1876]: 1-13, at 1). Hecker then dismisses the view that matter harbors the 'promise and potency of every form and quality of life'. (The quoted phrase [unattributed by Hecker] is from John Tyndall's 'Apology for the Belfast Address', Tyndall's defense of a very influential talk given in 1874 [which was ridiculed by James Clerk Maxwell in some poems].) Hecker then says, 'It is evident that scientism is more rigorously skeptical than rationalism or the materialism of the eighteenth century -- in a word, that it is supremely nihilistic' (Ibid.).

Finally, in 1877 Canon Barry rejects the 'scientism' of T. H. Huxley. Barry uses the term on p. 114 of A modern symposium. Subjects: The soul and future life, by Frederic Harrison [and others] and, The influence upon morality of a decline in religious belief, by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen [and others]. Interestingly, Barry applies the label not to the Comtean positivist Frederic Harrison but, instead, to the supposed materialist Huxley:
Mr. Harrison's earnest and eloquent plea against the materialism which virtually, if not theoretically, makes all that we call spirit a mere function of material organization ..., and against the exclusive 'scientism' which, because it cannot find certain entities along its line of investigation, asserts loudly that they are either non-existent or 'unknowable,' is strong, and (pace Prof. Huxley) needful. (Barrry, A Modern Symposium [1877], p. 114)
Incidentally, the first use that I've found of 'scientism' in a literary context is in George Bernard Shaw's marathon 1921 play (90 000 words long), Back to Methuselha, which includes this line: 'On the contrary, the iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid.'


Gabriel Finkelstein said...

Thank you for the link to my essay on Emil du Bois-Reymond's view of consciousness. A slightly fuller treatment can be found in the last chapter of my biography of du Bois-Reymond:

which I am very proud to say was nominated for the 2014 Pickstone Prize, awarded by the British Society for the History of Science to the best work in the field.

I am tweeting a link to your whole series of blog postings from my handle @gabridli.

Let me finally recommend these three histories of philosophy (which I'm sure you know):

Antonio Aliotta, The Idealist Reaction Against Science, tr. Agnes McCaskill (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914);

Leszek Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, tr. Norbert Guterman (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968);

Frederick C. Beiser, After Hegel: German Philosophy 1840-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University, 2014).

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks, Professor Finkelstein, for those references. I like your book -- I have a copy of it. I first heard of du Bois-Reymond when Manfred Frank (in 1995) translated a couple of paragraphs from his 1872 paper on the limits of natural knowledge. I wish I could read more of du Bois-Reymond but my German isn't very good.