On the Genealogy of “Scientism” (Part I)

Last Monday I flew back from two weeks in Spain, where I interrupted my research on Pintxospintxos long enough to attend the Sixteenth International Conference on the History of Concepts. On Tuesday, I staggered into my first class, which — as chance would have it — was also the day when Jon Stewart ended his hiatus from The Daily Show. As chance would also have it, a few days later Leon Wieseltier published a response on the New Republic website to the rejoinder that Steven Pinker had written, about a month earlier, to the series of attacks on “scientism” that had been appearing in the New Republic.  Among their number was the commencement address Wieseltier delivered at Brandeis University back in May.

Earlier in the summer, when I was laboring under the illusion that the fool’s paradise in which we academics reside during those months that Daniel Bell once named as the three most compelling reasons for becoming an academic would last forever and I could waste my time dealing with such matters, I posted a few unpleasant comments on Wieseltier’s commencement address, which struck me as (shall we say?) not without its shortcomings. I also read Pinker’s response, but since it was already August and the intimations of the morality of my summer hiatus were already knocking at my door, I figured I should let this all slide and spend my time thinking about Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas. It helped that the New Republic website directed readers of Pinker’s article to a discussion of these matters by Philip Kitcher dating from March 4, 2012, “The Trouble with Scientism: Why History and the Humanities are Also a Form of Knowledge.” Kitcher’s article struck me as far more lucid, temperate, and sensible than Wieselteir’s Brandeis address, but I may have been biased in favor of Kitcher’s discussion because (a) it recognized that historians were also part of “the humanities” and (b) it began with a discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (and I’m a sucker for discussions of the War Requiem).

That Pinker’s piece was almost immediately followed by (of all things) a video of Leon leonwieseltierWieseltier explaining why science “doesn’t have all the answers” was enough to suggest that this discussion was spiraling downward into the sort of Public Intellectual death matches that those of us who aspire to the role of peaceful members of the Freemasonry of Useless Erudition would be well-advised to avoid. I feared that the next step would be for Pinker and Wieseltier to pitch PBS a pilot in which they would host a sort of upmarket version of Crossfire with Pinker playing the role of Paul Begala — albeit a Paul Begala who had somehow gotten hold of Peter Frampton’s now-departed hair (for reasons that should be obvious, I think Mr. Frampton looks much better without it) — and Wieseltier as a Tucker Carlson with a better vocabulary and worse tailor. All of this would have been reason enough, were further reasons needed, for me to head for Spain and begin my pursuit of pintxos.

Now that Jon Stewart is back on the job we can hope that he will find his way to the offices of the New Republic, take these quarrelsome fellows  aside, and tell them to stop hurting America. Until then, the rest of us can marvel at the fact that (as Patchen Markell has noted elsewhere), with the publication of Wieseltier’s “Crimes Against the Humanities: Now Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts” the New Republic has finally found an invasion that it can’t support.

But though I know I should simply write this odd little dustup off as something that happens when A-List Public Intellectuals find themselves with more time on their hands than they should, I find that I can’t. What keeps me coming back to it is the word “scientism” itself.  It’s a term that I recall hearing tossed around back during my graduate school days and encountered more recently in certain of Karl Popper’s letters to Isaiah Berlin (though Popper tended to prefer “scientivism”), but which I assumed had long ago faded from usage. When I mentioned this to a younger colleague, she recalled that the term had some currency during her graduate school days. This suggests that getting worked up about scientism may be one of those things that a fair number of us did when we were in graduate school, but got over once we became well-functioning cogs in the machinery of the higher education branch of the culture industry. This might explain why I found the return of the word to be (as my colleagues in Comp Lit like to say) Unheimlich.

So, I thought I’d devote a couple of posts to exorcising this unwelcome ghost. This installment will focus on the provenance of the term. Next week I’ll take a look at how it works. And then, if all goes well, I will never think about this ugly, stupid word again.

A Note on Usage:  Science, Scientists, and Scientism

We might begin by noting that the word itself has an inherent shortcoming:  it is not clear how we go about designating those who engage in “scientism.” If an atheist is someone who embraces the doctrine of atheism and an onanist is someone who …  well, never mind … then wouldn’t someone who champions the cause of scientism have to be a scientist? Of course not. For, as we shall see, critics of “scientism” regularly insist that “scientism” is not equivalent to “science” and science is what real scientists do.  This would seem to suggest that, since science is done by scientists,  scientism must be the activity in which “scientistists” are engaged. All it takes but one attempt to utter the word “scientistists” and the problem should be clear.

Since the next post will look at the way the term scientism works in more detail it will be enough, for now, to note that scientism would seem to be one of those terms that refer to doctrines that  other people hold (it might be noted that “deism” would appear to have started out this way as well, though — since the word “deist” rolls of the tongue more easily than “scientistist” those who accused others of engaging in “deism” also had a convenient name for those who embraced the doctrine). The fact that those who are concerned about “scientism” have no name to designate those who engage in this practice seems to have provided Pinker with the opening that he tried to exploit in his rejoinder to Wieselthier: since Pinker, of course, is a “scientist” (and Wieseltier, of course, is not), he suggests that he and his fellow scientists should try to reclaim the much-abused term “scientism” as a description of their general standpoint.

But this, of course, is not the way in which “scientism” has tended to be used.  Wieseltier may criticize scientism, but he insists that he has nothing but love for science. In his response to Pinker he stresses:

Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise.

That’s right: so deep is Wieseltier’s love for science that he tells us, first in Roman, then in Italic, that humanists would be deranged not to view science as “a regular source of awe and betterment” (we can assume that Wieseltier also believes that no humanist in her right mind would believe otherwise and we can delay a consideration of  the weasel word “regular” until next time).

Wieseltier made the same point back in May when he insisted:

Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic question.

There is little in this quotation is particularly novel: as we shall see, the appeal of the term “scientism” has long resided in its enabling those who deploy it to distinguish what they see as a set of practices (“science”) that pose no particular threat to that set of practices whose integrity they seek to defend (in Wieseltier’s case, “the humanities”) from another set of practices (“scientism”) that do.  The difference between “science” and “scientism” is sometimes underlined by preceding “science” with adjectives such as “true” or “real.”  For Wieseltier (but, as we shall see, not just for Wieseltier) the metaphors that characterize the difference tend to be framed in terms of  a violation of boundaries: “science” knows its place, but “scientism” doesn’t.

How Long Has This “Scientism” Business Been Going On?

A quick, and admittedly dirty, sense of how long people have been tossing this term around can be gotten by constructing an Ngram and poking around a bit in the samples that Google allows us to read. Here’s an unsmoothed Ngram, which also serves as a cautionary lesson in trusting what the Ngram tells us about words like “scientism”:


Obviously, something rather odd seems to be happening around 1920.  With the smoothing turned back on, this peculiar spike is suppressed and we have a more or less steady rise in the term across the next several decades.  But we should resist that temptation: it is better to be clear that Ngrams are doing strange things than to pretend that they aren’t (and note that pointing out the limits of using the Ngram is a cheap and easy way of inoculating oneself against the charge of creeping “scientism”). The lesson to be drawn from this exercise is that “scientism” is a rather rare word and, as a result, subject to wild vacillations. Here (and in many other cases), it might be best to regard the Ngram as a sort of visual finding aid for the archive of volumes that Google scanned: it suggests which parts of the archive might be worth investigating, but to make any sense of what is happening, we will need to poke around in the examples and see what it is that is producing these erratic peaks.

Once we do, it becomes a bit clear what was going on. In 1919 the American theologian Charles Gray Shaw’s The Ground and Goal of Human Life was published by New York University Press.1 The word “scientism” appears in it at least 100 times. Given the relative rarity of the word “scientism” this will be more than enough to make the Ngram resemble the price chart for a stock that a hedge fund’s computer program has decided to purchase, perhaps for reasons that are known only to the now-retired programmer. At around the same time, Charles Cestre used the word in a somewhat different sense in an article on the labor situation in the American Review of Reviews 61 (1920) p. 55:

Cestre Scientism

The American Review of Reviews added a few more hits by subsequently republishing Cestre’s article in some sort of annual collection that they produce. Finally, there are a few other uses of the word around this time (which need not detain us). The result of this sudden convergence of texts invoking the term “scientism” is a wave so massive that, if you look closely at the Ngram, you will see George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg drowning in it.

Were further lessons needed as to why, despite its charms, one should be very suspicious about what the Ngram viewer is serving up can be learned by looking a snippet (Google does not let us see the entire text) from The Dublin Review (Vol. 204, p. 189) that, according to Google, dates from 1836:

… be tempted to call it scientism, if it were not for the fact that its first result is to destroy, together with the rationality of science, its very possibility.

This example would appear to have a surprising resemblance to current conventions of usage but, as it turns out, Google’s metadata is wrong: the proper date for the text is 1939, not 1836.2 Indeed, as far as I have been able to determine, all of the usages of the term “scientism” prior to 1850 turn out to be in Latin.

There are, however, a few legitimate appearances of the word during the latter part of the nineteenth century. We find a bit of Enlightenment bashing in the editors’ introduction to an 1868 edition of Bishop Thomas Percy’s naughtier writings: “The middle of the 18th century was a time of mechanistic, factitious scientism that infected even poetry ….”3 It turns up again in the concluding paragraph of the translation of Karl Rosenkranz’s discussion for Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that appeared in an 1872 issue of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.4 The term also appears with some frequency in religious writings, particularly in the context of arguments against Darwin. Indeed, it seems to have been so popular in this context that Christian Evidences, a thematically-organized 1889 compendium of short extracts from various texts, devoted a section to “Scientism”, which included the following passage:

Scientism is pedantry. Science itself is modest and intelligent, and amongst other points of knowledge knows its place and keeps it.5

And with this, we have  arrived at a usage that looks rather like Wieselthier’s.

One of the more extended treatments of the notion can be found in James John Garth Wilkinson — a “Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society” — who offered a discussion of the “Plagues of Scientism” in his The New Jerusalem and the Old Jerusalem: The Place and Service of the Jewish Church among the Aeons of Revelation, with Other Essays(London: James Speirs 1894) p. 291.6  It begins this way:


The countries described in the Word are as we have seen in the internal sense spiritual countries, distinct regions or faculties of the human mind, which itself in the spiritual world is the only map that is known. Regarded in this light it is simply on the one hand an ouranography of goodness and truth, and on the other a genennagraphy of evil and falsity.

The text goes on like this for several more pages before Wilkinson finally clarifies what he means by “scientism”:

It may further be said that modern scientism, — I use the term to distinguish it from true science, — also has its abundant rituals, but which belong to the egotistical intellect, and to no church. (294)

It would seem, then, that by the close of the nineteenth century, the paradigm for contrasting “science” and “scientism” was more or less set. Ever since then, those who positioned themselves as critics of “scientism” have been able to stress that they have no objection to what they take to be “true science” but are concerned only to resist those false forms of science that do not know their proper place.

In the next (and, I hope, the final) installment on these matters, we will take a closer look at how the particular rhetorical advantages that those who employ the term “scientism” derive from its use.  I trust that by then my longing for pintxos may finally have faded.

Pintxos 2

  1. I spent an afternoon earlier this summer skimming Shaw’s book and reading a few of his articles. He seems to have been a well-respected and quite competent theologian, who published widely in the major theological journals. But I have no competence in the history of twentieth-century American theology and have no way of evaluating the significance of his work.  
  2. Fortunately, this error was flagged by a helpful user.
  3. J. W. Hales and F. J. Furnivall, eds. Thomas Percy, Loose and Humorous Songs (London, 1868) v.
  4. Karl Rosenkranz, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 6:1 (1872), pp. 53-82
  5. Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones, Charles Neil, and Joseph Samuel Exell, Christian Evidences. The Holy Spirit. The Beatitudes. The Lord’s Prayer. Man, and His Traits of Character (Funk & Wagnalls, 1889) 197
  6. Wilkinson employed the term in other works as well, though listing them all here would be too pedantic even for me.  As Clint Eastwood once advised, “A man must know his limits” (advice which, as his encounter with that empty chair demonstrated, he found himself unable to follow).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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8 Responses to On the Genealogy of “Scientism” (Part I)

  1. Pingback: “Counter-Enlightenment” in English (1908-1942) (Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” Part III) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: Securing the Borders: On the Genealogy of Scientism (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Will Thomas says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue. Far from being a curiosity embraced by grad students and public intellectuals, “scientism” and related entities like “technological enthusiasm” or various forms of “determinism” associated with what has sometimes been called an “ideology of science” are still widely considered useful terms of analysis in the history of science and science studies. It is something we can’t — and most of us don’t want to — avoid. Just now I coincidentally ran into the following essay by someone trained in the field, which nicely ticks your boxes: http://biologos.org/blog/what-is-scientism.

    • It would appear that (with apologies to Michael Corleone) just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me back in.

      Thanks for the link. It would be good to read something sensible on this.

  4. dyssebeia says:

    I want to commend you for writing the first thing I’ve ever read that both (1) includes the word “scientism” and (2) doesn’t either (a) make me eternally hate the author or (b) use the word in a cursory and totally unhelpful way (it doesn’t matter what side the person is on).

    I used to try to write down my own definitions of the term, to try and give it some precision, but now I think it’s probably better off left for dead. I’m very much looking forward to the second part of this post. Based on your tempting description of that future post, I think you’re looking at the word in the right way: it’s used to gain some rhetorical advantage, and I’d add usually in a way that lets the person avoid doing the relevant intellectual hard work. However, much I might disagree with some of the positions of Alex Rosenberg or James Ladyman and the like, I think they have exactly the right rhetorical counter-strategy in adopting the term “scientism” as a badge of honor. So I’m very much looking forward to seeing your analysis of its rhetorical use, since it’s something I’ve noticed but not thought about extensively.

  5. terenceblake says:

    I think in a very refined and sophisticated way Wieseltier is doing something like what the fundamentalists are doing in their more mundane way. Both are maintaining, as you indicate, a criterion of demarcation that was never true, but was once thought to be so. Policing of borders and protectionism go with such demarcation. He’s on the obverse side of the same coin as Richard Dawkins.

  6. terenceblake says:

    I think the term “scientism” gained a new lease of life as a criical term as a replacement for “positivism” in the late 60s and on into the 70s. It was a time when there were people who attributed, or presupposed, supreme authority on matters of knowledge to science and who, purely by chance, claimed scientific status for themselves. They had developped slightly more sophisticated epistemologies than the old-style positivists, by appealing to such figures as Bachelard, Popper or Kuhn. So they could plausibly claim that they were quite critical of positivism, and at the same time try to benefit from the aura of authority that was attached to science. The strange thing is that the same people felt the need both to bolster the authority of science and to rely on its authority to gain credibility for their ideas. I remember starting University in 1972 and suddenly being exposed to a host of ideas that called into question every institution and iideology, only to find myself surrounded a couple of years later by a set of earnest believers in science, making use of Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Semiotics to promote their pretention to being both more critical than the “naïve” “Romantic” counter-cultural figures and more grounded in science. For me they represented a regression, sealing an incapacity to deal with the change in the status of science that was going on under their noses; The science studies people were just getting underway, and certainly did not need such new hindrances to taking a fresh and impartial look at science. Science itself was changing and had become more philosophically savvy in its need to examine and revise its own most foundational concepts. And the whole set of environmental concerns raised by the increasing interpenetration of science and technology with ensuing problems of pollution and global warning were beginning to impact public consciousness more forcefully. So that’s when I started using the s-word (not just “scientism”, but also “scientistic”, which is uglier), not as cover for a defence of old values, but as an attempt to mark an allegiance towards more complex thinking about knowledge and its role in the world. Probably, if the context had been more favorable, if I had not been vastly outnumbered, instead of exclaiming “scientistic” I would have been happy enough with “pseudo-scientific”, and it would have been clearer for all concerned (if clarity was what they wanted). Being anti-scientistic can easily be confused with, or slide over into, being anti-scientific. Anyhow, times have changed and these debates have lost all relevance with the rise of creationism, Intelligent Design, and climate denialism. These movements use “scientistic” arguments against the institution of science itself, claiming that it is not scientific, measured in terms of a naïve model of science that would in fact make all knowledge impossible. So where “scientism”, or a pseudo-scientific image of science, was once the implicit basis for including one’s own pet theories inside the precincts of science it has now become the support-system for an attack on the validity of scientific pronouncements in general. As it would sound contradictory to call the enemies of science “scientistic”, it is clear that the term is pretty useless nowadays, and other critical vocabularies must be dusted off or invented.

    • Thanks! Your comment has been a great help in reminding me how the term was being used when I first ran into it back in the 1970s. What I need to clarify (and I suspect that I probably won’t get this quite right in the sequel) is the peculiar way in which literary humanists like Wieseltier (assuming, for the moment, that his usage is not idiosyncratic) are using the term.

      The implicit offer that he seems to be making to the “real scientists” is that he will keep “the humanities” free of scientistic impostors (a service which, of course, is of little interest to them) if the real scientists will recognize the rights of humanists to their own secure enclave. Wieseltier’s prime enemy would seem to be anyone who would think of approaching literary texts with anything other than total reverence. It’s as if his mission was to put the cult back into culture. Whoops. I’m ranting again.

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