On Wieseltier on Pinker: How to misunderstand scientism in one easy step

One theme runs through most discussions of scientism: two sides are talking past each other because they have very different conceptions of science and interpret the word very differently. Never has this been so exemplified as by Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s widely discussed piece “Science is not your enemy”.

Those defending scientism conceive of science broadly. They see the universe as a unified whole and take an overview of our attempts to gain knowledge of this whole. They see a separation into different disciplines as a useful labelling, but not as reflecting any underlying rifts or divisions in how the world actually is, or in our knowledge about it. Between any arbitrarily defined academic disciplines there always lies a seamless transition of inter-disciplinary learning.

The essential commitment of scientism is the attitude that the same underlying rules of evidence and logic and reason apply everywhere, across all academic disciplines. Thus the different disciplines differ not in fundamentals, but in the subject matter and in the practicalities of investigating different topics.

Further, a scientist sees humans as very much a product of the natural world, as one species that has evolved among millions of others over eons of time, and very much bearing the stamp of our origins. To those espousing scientism, learning about social interactions among humans is just as much a science as learning about social interactions among chimpanzees or zebra. Studying humans as they are now or as they were one thousand years ago transitions seamlessly into studying humans as they were a hundred thousand years ago, or how their ancestors were ten million years ago.

All biological processes are continua, and to set a rigid date and declare that investigation of humans as they were earlier than (say) 6000 years ago is “science” but that investigations of humans more recently is not a science, but instead an arts/humanities subject, is utterly arbitrary and alien to how scientists think.

Further, to pick one species out of the 30 million extant species and to declare that studying that one is not a science, whereas studying any of the other 30 million would be, is contrary to our whole scientific understanding of humans as a natural part of the natural world.

Thus, to a scientist, it is natural to think of the study of humans (history, economics, politics, and the study of the literature and art that humans create) as a branch of anthropology, the study of ourselves. This isn’t just semantics, it’s the way that evidence has led scientists to think about humans.

What do we call this unified and seamless realm of enquiry into the natural world, including humans? The word “science” derives from the Latin for “knowledge” and it is tempting to use it for this whole realm of knowledge.

But this causes problems among those who are opposed to or who misunderstand scientism, because that is not how they interpret the word. To such critics “science” is what is done in the university buildings grouped under the “science faculty”, but not what is done in the arts and humanities faculties. This “narrow” definition of science is a valid use of the word, but is not what “science” means to those espousing scientism. And thence, alas, two sides talking past each other. Perhaps we need a new word for the consilience of knowledge into one ensemble, but lacking one the scientism-ists use the word “science” (and speaking of new words, one for “scientism-ist” would also be useful!).

So to the article by Leon Wieseltier — literary editor of The New Republic and very much not a scientist — as a prime example of where the failure to appreciate this misunderstanding leads.

Wieseltier starts with some grand declarations:

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy …

At no point does Wieseltier tell us what he understands by “science”, he doesn’t define his terms and shows no inkling that how one conceives of science might be at the core of the issue. He just takes the narrow view that science is what comes out of the science-faculty buildings. Nor, it is worth remarking, does Wieseltier argue for any to the dozen declarations in his opening, he just declares them.

He then makes what seems to me a rather odd suggestion. He says that:

Certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe … feel oddly besieged … they claim that science is under attack … the scientizers claim to have fallen victim … some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose.

“Scientizers”, maybe that’s the word! But feeling “besieged” and “under attack”? “Self-pitying” about having “fallen victim” to the humanities? Really? Quite the reverse, Mr Wieseltier, we “scientizers” are self-confident and cocky and on the offensive!

While on the topic of rather odd suggestions, Wieseltier also says:

Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.

There ought to be a law requiring that anyone making such claims about the “new atheists” must provide at least one quote from at least one notable “new atheist”. The idea that atheists think that refuting scriptural literalism or the extremes of religion amounts to refuting religion is just false. No “new atheist” has ever thought or said that (though you wouldn’t guess that from the frequency of such claims).

But let’s return to the main point, to scientism. Wieseltier addresses Pinker’s suggestion that science is characterised by two ideals:

The first of those ideals is that “the world is intelligible.” The second of those ideals is that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science? This is either ignorant or tendentious.

Did Pinker actually say they were the “exclusive teachings of science”? No, indeed be explicitly said the opposite: missing from Wieseltier’s quotes is Pinker’s preceding sentence: “In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism”.

Again, this is a broad conception of “science” as unified with all knowledge. The fact that ideas of the “intelligibility” of the world are common across disciplines is exactly Pinker’s point! Pinker is pointing out the underlying consilience between disciplines.

Wieseltier has gone horribly wrong because he has made no attempt to understand what Pinker is actually saying, no attempt to understand the viewpoint of scientism. No philosopher would have got that far into the essay without attempting to define the terms under discussion, and Wieseltier’s failure to do that is striking. On the narrow conception of science that I think Wieseltier assumes he may well be right in most of his article, but it is arguing against a strawman, not against scientism as anyone espouses it.

Wieselter sort of gets Pinker’s drift, but just ridicules and dismisses it:

In [Pinker’s] view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist. It does not matter that they approached the phenomena with different methods and different vocabularies. If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists avant la lettre. Pinker’s essay opens with the absurd, but immensely revealing, contention that Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith were scientists. […]

Kant’s significant contributions to our understanding of mind and morality were plainly philosophical, and philosophy is not, and was certainly not for Kant, a science. Perhaps one can be a scientist without being aware that one is a scientist. What else could these thinkers have been, for Pinker? If they contributed to knowledge, then they must have been scientists, because what other type of knowledge is there?

Exactly. What other type of knowledge is there? If our universe is a unified whole and thus our attempts to gain knowledge about it should be aiming at a unified whole, then all knowledge is one type. If this is not the case, if there are uncrossable demarcations, different and incompatible types of knowledge, and “other ways of knowing”, then it is up to those arguing for such to demonstrate it. So far they haven’t.

Maybe Wieseltier does think like this, perhaps he is a dualist, considering mind and matter to be fundamentally different, with mind perhaps being supernatural “soul”, beyond what science can study. Afterall, Wieseltier is religious, and many religious people think that way. The following passage suggests that he does:

The translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central objective of scientism. It is also the source of its intellectual perfunctoriness. Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting — a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.

This is revealing. According to Wieseltier a “scientific” account of the beauty of a painting would consist of an analysis of the paint — and then stop there. Wieseltier doesn’t even conceive that the human brain is also a natural and material object, also a subject for scientific study. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; beauty is all about the response of the human brain, about the pattern of electrical activity firing up and down neural dendrites and across synapses, and about the mood and emotion conjured by that neural firing pattern.

A scientific account of the beauty of a painting would of course have to include all of this, and such an account (which, in the infancy of neuroscience, is beyond current scientific capability) would explain “what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting”. Wieseltier’s religious dualism causes him to totally underestimate science and its scope — of course it encompasses ourselves and our brains, and of course it doesn’t stop at the painting!

Wieseltier’s rejection of this is explicit:

With his uniform notion of intelligibility, Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world […] Here is Dilthey, in 1883: “The impossibility of deriving mental or spiritual facts from those of the mechanical order of nature -— an impossibility based on the difference of their sources -— does not preclude their inclusion within the system of nature. But there comes a point where the relations among the facts of the world of human spirit show themselves to be incommensurate with the uniformities of natural processes in that the facts of the human world cannot be subordinated to those established by the mechanistic conception of nature. Only then do we witness … the boundary where knowledge of nature ends and an independent human science, shaped by its own central concerns, begins.”

Science has moved on since 1883, the human brain does not come from a source different from the natural world, it is a product of the natural world and just as much the subject of scientific enquiry as any other natural and material object.

It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.

Well sorry, Mr Wieseltier, science can study the insides of things as much as their outsides! The “inner” domain of our mental life is the product of our material brain, of the electrical and chemical signals whizzing around our network of neurons. Yes, this will be rejected by a vitalist or a dualist, but vitalism and dualism are intellectual dead ends (ones that died over a century ago); Pinker is right that the humanities need to ditch them in the same way that science already has.

Update: See responses to Wieseltier by Jerry Coyne, Dan Dennett and Pinker himself (with a reply to that by Wieseltier).


8 thoughts on “On Wieseltier on Pinker: How to misunderstand scientism in one easy step

  1. keithnoback

    Though I’m not on board with the whole re-defining science thing, I think you’ve caught the error in this sort of response to Pinker. He’s not saying that science supplants philosophy, just that a philosophy which does not account for science and its implications for empiricism is necessarily incomplete. In other words, just the sort of thing Wieseltier does by implying that some things are simply unintelligible in the way that Pinker would like. When ideas like vitalism retained some vitality, such assertions could stand on their own. Now Wieseltier must say why he thinks it must be that those things remain unintelligible, and in what ways.


    This is a clear and pertinent analysis of Wieseltier’s position on the question of science versus the speculative assumption that mental manifestations are irreducible to the scientific project.
And Coel puts his finger on the latent difference between both positions, which boils down to two different concepts of “science”.
 This, to me, is very reminiscent of the debate between the British historian Colingwood and George A. Wells, head of the British Rationalist Press Association, presented in Wells’s book “Religious Postures” (1988), in Ch. 5, “Disparagement of ‘Scientific Truth’: Collingwood (p. 93 – 101).

I have prepared my own critical review of Wieseltier’s article, basically with the same arguments and conclusions as Coel’s But, being more interested in the history of ideas, I could not resist injecting some historical remarks to give more body to our critique.

    Accustomed as I am to reading texts of writers trying to demonstrate things, present ideas, analyze trends, and telling us the whats and the whys, I am skeptical of the value of Leon Wieseltier’s prose in his response to Steven Pinker’s article on Scientism. It is, for all to see, an example of Pinker’s derided class of “literary intellectuals”, a product of the “old, wearyingly traditional” culture.

    In this long production of sonorous sentences, never is mentioned the etymology of “science” derived from Latin “scientia”, “knowledge, expertise”, from “sciens”, “knowing, skilled”, from “scire” “to know”, assumed to have meant “to separate, to distinguish” (things from oen another) — the opposite of confusion — related to “scindere” “to cut, to divide”, close to Greek “skhizein” “to split, rend, cleave”, (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “science”, n.)
 The idea developed in “science” was not the image of laboratory searchers in white coats, which is the contemporary popular image, but being in the know, of what is what, not confusing things, thanks to a strict application of critical reasoning to facts.
Science = Expertise, skill, cleverness, craftiness. Science was the art of applying reason to experience. The Encyclopedists of the 18th c. called “philosophy” the body of observations collected and analyzed, by “critical examination” — which is the fundamental attitude of the “science” project.

    As Stephen Gould explained: “Science is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.” 
(Stephen Jay Gould, introduction to “The Mismeasure of Man,” 1981)

    So science has been a special skill of distinguishing things, making observations that are observable by others, sharable, verifiable, and finally communicated by language, symbols, and pictures. 
Science is not a definite technical skill, that can be applied blindly like a mental tool taken off the shelf. In each given field of interest, it is learnt by instruction from a master, practiced, and developed by personal talent and genius. There’s no real “scientific method” applicable to all fields of study. Each area of study develops its own method and technology. But the meta principles remain the same: observation, discussion, critical reasoning, sharing, verifiability, communication through language, symbols, pictures.

    The art of writing was the first technique used in recording and communicating “science”. Printing was the new technology that revolutionized knowledge and science. Now computers and Internet are doing the same.

    The distinction arts/sciences did not exist for a long time. “Liberal arts” were the studies expected from a free citizen both in Greece and Rome (“liber” meant “free”) by opposition to the techniques learnt by slaves. Writers benefited from their liberal education, but often the writing and copying was done by scribes, who were slaves. 
“Science: was a component of “liberal arts”, which concept dates from the 14th c. Cf the early Italian humanists of the 14th-15th c. 
European universities in the Middle Ages studied 7 liberal arts, the “trivium” of language, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the “quadrivium” related to geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (which included astrology). 
Lorenzo Valla made history when he proclaimed against Poggio Bracciolini that the principles of grammar, rhetoric, and logic could be applied to the holy texts of the Church as they were to the ancient secular Roman and Greek texts. Erasmus supported this modern assertion of scholarship, to the deep discontent of Luther, for whom texts were inviolable objects of absolute veneration.

    The confusing opposition of “science” to liberal arts and “humanities” is a modern product of the division of labor in universities in two departments “Arts” and “Sciences”. The administrative separation and present conflict do not reflect an existing separation in the mind of interests and of brain functions. Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Franklin, had brains interested in what is now called “scientific” matters and “humanities”.

    The artifice in Wieseltier’s style is to use only abstract words as leitmotifs, repeated in a multitude of variations, but never precisely defined, freely associated with all kinds of connotations. “Science” remains a mysterious concept. A flowering of little sentences is sprinkled to create a general impression. The effect wants to be “literary” in the most insubstantial manner. To me the impression is symphonic. Little accents here, suddenly the brief emergence of the main motif, immediately submerged by a wave of new little phrases to add color and feeling to the underlying main theme, rarely expressed in the fore.
 Very artistic, very creative, but also very unclear.

    Not only there’s no identification of what “science” means to the writer, but there’s no review of the historic emergence of the word, and its use through the archives of recorded texts.
From the start, the title wants to go counter to the accepted meaning of established words. “Crimes against Humanities” to echo the “crimes against humanity” prevalent in modern armed conflicts, and most likely the use of chemical weapons in Syria. 
Then “Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.” No suggestion that “liberal arts” historically used to include “science”. Science is now depicted as an “invader”, in the spirit of the comparison to the international crisis. And then a call to arms similar to the one our Secretary of State is making to oppose the “crime against humanity” in Syria.

    “Science” seems to be presented by Wieseltier as the corpus of disciplines studied in universities’ departments of “science”, but also as a methodology, albeit vaguely defined, seen as a tool that can be taken off the shelf and applied to any kind of study.
Which is totally untrue, as every field of research or study defines its own parameters of legitimate method. The overall meta principles of methodology being to collect and examine “evidence”, “data”, “facts” and discuss them under the light of critical reasoning – rationality versus superstitions and imaginations. But this is a mental attitude of the mind, the brain, to produce a discourse that seems to be intelligible in a given “Sitz im Leben” environment of knowledge and technological means of observation.

    Look at the initial sentences. “The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life”. What is this “science”? A corpus of knowledge, a method, the activity of university employees called “scientists”? Mystery. And what does “a place of science in society” mean? And “a place of science in life”? All the connotations of “science” are lumped together and left unscrambled in this avalanche of little questions.
Then “Science confers no special authority”. A grand-sounding statement. Is this a comparison to the ten commandments of Moses? The pronouncements of the pope in the Vatican? “It confers no authority at all”, in fact a repeat of the previous sentence, with a slight modification, like an instrument in the orchestra echoing a phrase launched by the first violins, without bringing any new musical idea.

    This practice is repeated all through Wieselter’s piece. He mentions: “For the attempt to answer a non-scientific question…”. But why would “science” attempt to tackle a “non-scientific question?” Where is this phantomatic “science” residing and what does it do or “attempt”? The abstract word is used in complete vagueness and is a toy in the writer’s love of his clever sentences. It can be used any way he likes. And then “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art”. So “science” is an oracle that cannot pronounce on itself, especially in meta questions.
 Finally a semblance of characterization of what science is not: “Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy,” We still don’t know what “science” is, and the vagueness will be maintained until the end. The text seems to assume at all instants that the reader already knows what “science” is, in the author’s view.

    The text goes on in this manner, an avalanche of little precious sentences, each one a gem that seems to reflect a bit of the brilliance of the preceding ones, but with no visible line of thought proceeding towards a clear goal. 
Some scientists are named, giving a face to an anonymous occupation: physicists, biologists, economists. “Certain scientizers, or propagandists for science” are introduced. Allusion is made to the attack of “the scientific worldview” by religion, i.e. Christianity.
And also an attack by the “humanities”, involving the “humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose”. And what is it? The answer: “thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding”.

    Pinker is taken to task for his “defense of scientism … a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones”. The attempt “to export to the rest of intellectual life” the two “ideals that … are the hallmarks of science: 1) “the world is intelligible,” 2) “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.”
Religions and cultures “are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value.” “Values often survive the facts.” 
But neither are humanities clearly defined. Some examples of their domain:
- “the beauty of ancient art”;
- the values of “Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare”;
- “painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries”;
- the poetry of Rilke;
- the incommensurability, the radical particularity, of individual experiences, like Anna Karenina’s marriage, irreducible to the sociology of Jared Diamond; 
- experiencing “a quickening in our blood” when reading the great authors (Sophocles, Tacitus, Augustine, Milton, Gibbon, Keats, Tocqueville, Emerson, Mill, Dickens, Mann, Stevens, Auerbach, Camus, Panofsky, Miłosz).

    This amounts to claiming that:
- “the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final”;
- “the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world” is incontrovertible;
- the existence of a “cartography of knowledge, and the principles that justify its demarcations” controls our style of inquiry;
- “the facts of the world of human spirit show themselves to be incommensurate with the uniformities of natural processes” (Dilthey), these facts including the sphere of meanings, intentions, and actions“;
- the “irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding” are paramount.
    Pinker: “Our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” Science, by contrast, teaches “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.”

    Wieseltier: “Reason is larger than science. Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship” also are; same with ” literature and the arts”. They offer, not argument, but imagination: “What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge”, as it is “working towards truths”. This is the big assumption: there are many ways towards “truths”.

    Pinker: We are suffering from “suffocating political correctness”.

    Wieseltier: Humanities are a chronicle of traditions. “The chronicle of the humanities is the chronicle of different techniques for interpreting the humanities” with “internecine tensions” which “provide many of the thrills of humanistic learning”.

    Pinker: Science offers the humanities “innovation in understanding.” neuroscience, since “art, culture, and society are products of human brains”; linguistics, cognitive psychology, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology; data science, or “big data.”

    Wieseltier: Great books offer a “ real challenge …the exploration of subjectivity and what is lived. What makes “conflicts and confluences” interesting in a work of art is that they are intentions formed by values and desires, not outcomes fixed by chromosomes.”

Pinker: The power of the new technology of computers and internet offers new vistas to “an expansive new ‘digital humanities.”
    Wieseltier: “The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations. But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities.”
But how so? This revolution is similar to the extraordinary impact of printing after 1452 on knowledge and scholarship. Imagine: people (at least wealthy scholars and patrons) had access to the Bible! Everybody could study the word of God! The impoverishment was for the Church and its priests.

    Pinker shows his “enthusiasm”, his “inebriation”, his “dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, his sunny scientizing” that “blurs distinctions and buries problems” (Which ones?). Pinker is ebullient: “this is an extraordinary time” because “powerful tools have been developed”.

    But Wieseltier sounds so blasé, so unimpressed. “The magnitude of the changes wrought by the new machines calls for the revival of a critical temper”. (What does he exactly mean by “critical temper”?)

    And then Wieseltier concludes with a paeon to old-fashioned humanities which “could be counted on…to introduce us also to the darkness and prepare us also for the worst.” What darkness? The worst of what? Grand-sounding, but probably empty of substance.
The vacuity of meaningless sentences offered by Wieseltier is discouraging.

  3. Al_de_Baran

    It would be amusing to turn Wieseltier loose on this fatuous tirade, but I am sure that he has better things to do with his time than to swat gnats. So do I, and therefore will be brief:

    1. Wieseltier makes clear that his objection to Scientism is its claim to be the master perspective to which all others must bow. Nowhere does he claim that any subject is off limits to science; merely that, once science enters the picture, it does not necessarily preempt the field.

    2. However mightily you struggle to elevate science to the Master Perspective of all perspectives, you will ever overcome the obstacles of anti-foundationism and self-refutation.

    3. Most proponents of Scientism, including Pinker, seem to have no idea that the word Scientism already has a long and rich history. That fact rather complicates his, and this blogger’s, attempts to re-define the term as they wish to see it defined. Below is the evidence, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which ought to settle the debate about the meaning of the term, if nothing else.

    [f. scient- (see scientist) + -ism.]



    [f. scient- (see scientist) + -ism.]

    1. The habit and mode of expression of a man of science.

       1877 Fraser’s Mag. XVI. 274 Its dogmatism on the one hand,‥and its ‘scientism’ on the other, even when most atheistic, are tempered with mutual civility.    1895 Daily News 14 Nov. 6/5 By scientism he meant to express that change which had come over the thought of the world in consequence of the wonderful additions to the common stock of knowledge.    1903 Contemp. Rev. May 727 What modern Scientism knows as the Supersensuous Consciousness.

    2. A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences.

       1921 G. B. Shaw Back to Methuselah p. lxxviii, The iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid.    1937 J. Laver French Painting in Nineteenth Cent. i. 73 It really appeared to many educated people that at last all the secrets of the universe would be discovered and all the problems of human life solved. This superstition‥we may call ‘Scientism’.    1938 G. Reavey tr. Berdyaev’s Solitude & Society i. 12 Science has not only progressively reduced the competence of philosophy, but it has also attempted to suppress it altogether and to replace it by its own claim to universality. This process is generally known as ‘scientism’.    1942 F. A. von Hayek in Economica IX. 269 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.    1953 A. H. Hobbs Social Problems & Scientism ii. 17 Scientism, as a belief that science can furnish answers to all human problems, makes science a substitute for philosophy, religion, manners, and morals.‥ It is a pattern of beliefs‥a creed that shapes thinking and affects behavior.    1956 E. H. Hutten Lang. Mod. Physics vi. 273 This belief in the omnipotence of science is‥making a mockery of science: for this scientism represents the same, superstitious, attitude which, in previous times, ascribed such power to a supernatural agency.    1957 W. H. Whyte Organization Man iii. 23 Scientism,‥the promise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man.    1969 Encounter Jan. 23/2 There is an aberration of science‥which has come to be known as ‘scientism’.‥ It stands for the belief that science knows or will soon know all the answers.    1972 K. R. Popper Objective Knowl. iv. 185 The term ‘scientism’ meant originally ‘the slavish imitation of the method and language of (natural) science’, especially by social scientists.    Ibid. 186 But I would go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’.    1977 A. Sheridan tr. J. Lacan’s Écrits iii. 76 The early development of psychoanalysis‥expresses‥nothing less than the re-creation of human meaning in an arid period of scientism.    1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 26 Sept. 1072/2 Naturalism, in David Thomas’s usage, is equivalent to what many know as scientism: the doctrine that there is no reason to think that the study of human agents, and the study of the social systems to which human agents give rise, cannot be pursued according to a methodology drawn from natural science.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Al,

      1. Whether science preempts the field depends mostly on how one defines “science”, which is the whole issue under dispute. If you define science as using reason and evidence, then in my opinion it does preempt the field.

      2. I think that anti-foundationism and self-refutation are relatively easy to overcome here, though that is a big enough topic to be left for another post.

      3. Yes, the word “scientism” has a long history, mostly by critics, who have not always been consistent in what they mean by it. Since people are now adopting and word and defending scientism, it seems fair that they get a say in how it is defined.

  4. Kevin Henderson

    Wieseltier is confused, fearful, and insecure about the notion of scientific methods encroaching on liberal arts. Professionals in the humanities have long adopted scientific methods to innovate their respective fields.

    Great artists and composers are not afraid of science, neither are pioneering art historians or psychologist or philosophers.

    Christopher Hitchens is excellent example of someone, not trained as a scientist, but who employed scientific methods of formulating ethical and aesthetic conclusions about the universe that we live.

  5. Shawn Brooks

    In all this talk of definitions, I have yet to hear a compelling argument why a reductionistic definition of science – which would include only the “process” and “methodology” piece – is not sufficient.

    In my thinking on this, a narrow a definition is the best.

    Scientist: someone who practices science as a day-job.
    (Scientific) knowledge: Knowledge acquired through the careful practices of science.
    Science: The best way we have devised of investigating everything because it effectively struggles to remove bias.
    What a scientist says in a TV interview, or an individual scientific paper, or a chemistry faculty, are not examples of “science”.
    They are simply “What a scientist says in a TV interview” and “an individual scientific paper ” and “a chemistry faculty”.

    Thoughts… ?
    I think far too many people overuse “science” as a large umbrella noun, when I think it is exclusively a verb (or a collection of helpful techniques).

  6. Richard Wein

    Wieseltier: “Interpretation is what ensues when a literal meaning conflicts with what is known to be true from other sources of knowledge.”

    I think Wieseltier is confusing “interpretation” with “explaining away”. Our interpretation of a text should be based on what we can reasonably infer about the authors and their beliefs, not on our latest scientific knowledge. The authors didn’t have access to that knowledge, and so it couldn’t have influenced their meaning. If our best explanation is that the text was meant literally, then when scientific discovery proves the literal meaning to be false, we should simply accept that. Reinterpreting the text to fit our new scientific knowledge is just an exercise in protecting scripture from being found errant.


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