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)

No comments: