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)


Anonymous said...

if James was indeed a monist, and I think he was, than doesn't this lend itself to a kind of scientific worldview?

Paul Raymont said...

Perhaps. James certainly respected scientific method and pursued it in some of his own work. However, he also argued against W. K. Clifford (in 'The Will to Believe'), contending that in some domains one is entitled to form a belief (in fact, can't avoid doing so) in the absence of sufficient evidence of the sort that scientists might seek.

Badlapur said...
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