Thursday, August 15, 2013

Scientism: Threat or Menace?

The word “scientism:” has become a battlefield, with the pot most recently stirred by an essay by Steven Pinker in the New Republic and responses made by cosmologist Sean Carroll and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.  My two cents:

Reading John Haffenden's monster biography of William Empson, I learned that "scientism" was a term of debate back at Cambridge in the 1920s at a time when very serious folks were trying to figure out what could and could not be meaningfully talked about. Both ordinary language philosophy and the New Criticism (among other things) came out of this conversation. In that context, "scientism" referred to a narrow version of licit universe of discourse. It was a philosophical position, not a term of abuse, though the people who supported it most often called themselves positivists.

I've tried to swear off using the word "scientism" myself, but when I've succumbed to temptation and used it in ill-tempered modern arguments, I've meant by it something like vulgar positivism just as one used to talk about vulgar Marxism. This scientism is a largely unreflective pop version of a philosophy that is or at least once was defensible. Like the earlier philosophical version, it asserts or implies a metaphysics in which reality is a large room with objects in it and an epistemology in which rational discourse consists in making factual assertions on the basis of observations when it isn’t bookkeeping. Where the original philosophy made these claims with its eyes open and on the basis of arguments, contemporary scientism does so as if they were commonsense and out of a lack of imagination. My own view is that what the scientists study is an infinitesimal fraction of the volume of the world and the ways they talk about it are a vanishingly small proportion of meaningful ways of speaking. Which doesn't imply that chemistry isn't the best way to do chemistry, it simply reflects my perception of the scope of things.

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