Securing the Borders: On the Genealogy of Scientism (Part II)

Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s rejoinder to Wieseltier’s earlier attempt to defend the humanities from the depredations of what he terms “scientism” prompted me, in my previous post, to offer a few thoughts on the history of this peculiar concept. My intent had been to devote this post to a discussion how the term functions and then get back to the normal business of this blog, which — as the tagline in the upper right hand corner explains — is concerned with the Enlightenment “as historical period and continuing project.” But, as it turns out, I seem to have gotten myself into deeper waters than I’d expected, in part because the history of discussions of the difference between “science” and “scientism” turns out to be more complicated and of greater relevance for my own work than I’d initially assumed.

Over the last week I have received a number of helpful comments, both on and off this blog, which persuaded me that it might be worth saying a bit more about the history of “scientism” before pressing onward to explore how the term functions. I suspect that this may not be the last thing I will have to say about these matters (there are some interesting articles from the 1940s by Friedrich von Hayek and Eric Voegelin that are worth discussing) though it will (I hope) be my final comments on the exchange between Wieseltier and Pinker.  They get enough attention without my help.

Yet More on the History of “Scientism”

Last week’s discussion was confined to what I had gleaned from a few of the examples turned up in an Ngram that, in response to Wieseltier’s discussion of these matters during his commencement address at Brandeis, I’d thrown together earlier in the summer. In the interest of brevity (which, I’m afraid, has not been one of the virtues displayed in my posts), I’d confined my examples to usages of the term in English. But, as Dan Edelstein kindly pointed out, the ARTFL database turns up a few intriguing French examples. Here’s the list Dan sent me:

  1. Fourier, Charles, 1772-1837. Théorie des quatre mouvements (1808)
  2. Bergson, Henri Louis, 1859-1941, La pensée et le mouvant (1903)
  3. Sorel, Georges, 1847-1922, Matériaux d’une théorie du prolétariat (1914)
  4. Bouglé, Célestin, 1870-1940, Leçons de sociologie sur l’évolution des valeurs (1922)
  5. Massis, Henri, 1886-1970. Jugements. T. 1 (1923)
  6. Massis, Henri, 1886-1970, Jugements. T. 2 (1924.)
  7. Bourget, Paul, 1852-1935, Nos actes nous suivent (1926)
  8. Du Bos, Charles, 1882-1939, Journal. Tome III, 1926-1927 (1927)
  9. Maritain, Jacques, 1882-1973, Primauté du spirituel (1927).
  10. Febvre, Lucien, 1878-1956, Civilisation – Le mot et l’idée (1929)
  11. Ruyer, Raymond, 1902-1987, Esquisse d’une philosophie de la structure (1930.)
  12. Maritain, Jacques, 1882-1973, Humanisme intégral: problèmes temporels et spirituels d’une nouvelle chrétienté (1936)
  13. Mounier, Emmanuel, 1905-1950, Manifeste au service du personalisme (1936)
  14. Duhamel, Georges, 1884-1966, Les maîtres 1937)
  15. Weil, Simone, 1909-1943, L’enracinement (1951)

The appearance of the term in the texts by Bourget, Maritain, Mounier, and Weil is not entirely surprising: my quick and dirty survey of the English usage indicated that a fair number of the early uses of the term occurred in clerical and theological critiques of Darwin.  In these discussions “scientism” denoted an advance of scientific forms of reasoning (as we shall see, defining what exactly this means is no small matter) beyond their proper limits (as we shall also see, determining these “proper limits” is no walk in the park either). The relevant passage from Bergson conforms to this general pattern of usage:

Nous avons seulement demandé à la science de rester scientifique, et de ne pas se doubler d’une métaphysique inconsciente, qui se présente alors aux ignorants, ou aux demi-savants, sous le masque de la science. Pendant plus d’un demi-siècle, ce « scientisme» s’était mis en travers de la métaphysique. Tout effort d’intuition était découragé par avance : il se brisait contre des négations qu’on croyait scientifiques. Il est vrai que, dans plus d’un cas, elles émanaient de vrais savants. Ceux-ci étaient dupes, en effet, de la mauvaise métaphysique qu’on avait prétendu tirer de la science et qui, revenant à la science par ricochet, faussait la science sur bien des points. Elle allait jusqu’à fausser l’observation, s’interposant dans certains cas entre l’observateur et les faits. C’est de quoi nous crûmes jadis pouvoir donner la démonstration sur des exemples précis, celui des aphasies en particulier, pour le plus grand bien de la science en même temps que de la philosophie.

What we have here is a proposal for an entente cordiale between science and the discipline into which it is seen as encroaching (i.e., metaphysics). The terms of the proposed treaty request that science remain content to be science, rather than dabbling in a “métaphysique inconsciente” that Bergson — like others before him — dubs “scientism” (the presence of the scare quotes around the term may suggest that Bergson has a certain discomfort with this neologism, a discomfort that unfortunately began to wear off as the century advanced).

It shames me to say that I am not particularly well-acquainted with Sorel’s work (which is a cumbersome way of saying that the books are on my shelf but I’ve done little more than turn the pages and come away perplexed). To the extent that I can make sense of what he is arguing, what we are seeing here is the same sort of demarcation between a science that is going about its proper business and a science that, in its haste to annex new territory, plunges into “scientism”:

La saine interprétation des symboles que nous examinons ici, se heurte aux illusions acceptées par un très grand nombre de nos contemporains, auxquels on a persuadé qu’il est possible de se rendre compte scientifiquement de la marche générale des choses qui intéressent au plus haut degré la civilisation ; ils admettent qu’il serait fort téméraire d’annoncer l’arrivée prochaine d’un événement politique, attendu que l’on cite de fort nombreuses erreurs, parfois énormes ou même cocasses, commises par d’illustres hommes d’État, qu’avait égarés la malencontreuse ambition de faire de telles prophéties ; mais ils croient fermement qu’une bonne connaissance des ensembles du passé permettrait à des sociologues d’obtenir des aperçus très vraisemblables d’ensembles futurs. Nos symboles possèdent une clarté plus grande que celle d’aucune autre des expressions susceptibles d’entrer dans une description schématique d’une masse de siècles ; c’est pourquoi les professionnels du scientisme historique s’emparent d’eux avec avidité, sans se demander quelle est la cause de cette bienfaisante clarté; tout critique ayant l’habitude de considérations pragmatiques, observera qu’il est absurde de vouloir profiter de la diremption pour obtenir de la clarté et d’oublier ce qu’est la diremption quand on se sert de ce qu’elle a produit.

I trust that readers who know more about Sorel than I do will advise me if I’ve missed his point.

The most intriguing occurrence flagged by ARTFL are two passages from Fourier. Unfortunately, they are spurious. The passages come from Simone Debout-Oleszkiewicz’s introduction to Fourier’s collected works (my guess is that the introduction dates from the 1960s), rather than Fourier’s text itself. It would seem that there might have been some legitimate nineteenth-century French uses of the term, if only because Friedrich von Hayek’s influential discussion of the concept traced the origins of the “scientistic hubris” to the founding of the École polytechnique at the close of the eighteenth century.1 But since, as I noted last time, “scientism” is a term that (at least until recently) is typically used to describe something that other people do, the figures that Hayek saw as laying the foundations for “scientism” understood themselves as engaged in science. Hayek was, however, curious enough about earlier usages of the term to attempt a brief discussion of it (drawing, in part, on J. Fiolle’s 1936 Scientisme et Science — a book that, if WorldCat is right, is in the collections of only two North American libraries).

Fortunately, Peter Schöttler has recently provided a helpful survey of the history of this “difficult concept.”2 He argues that the English use of the term was the result of an appropriation of French debates on the role of science in modern society, with a particular focus on theological matters, including controversies over the “historical Jesus” (250).3 Discussions of social organization by disciples of Saint-Simon provided an additional pathway for the term into English;  the Ngram I discussed last time may have picked up a later echo of this in the article by Charles Cestre that helped to drive the sudden spike in usage around 1920.

A comparison of the various English, German, and French terms is not particularly informative, but it does suggest that English usage is consistently less common than the French and the German (though I suspect that I am probably missing an embarrassingly obvious explanation for this) and that the spike in English usage around 1920 — while exaggerated for reasons that I explained last time — was preceded by similar upticks in German and French (can we attribute this to the Great War?).

Scientism c20

An Ngram of nineteenth-century appearances of the term is even less informative, but does confirm (if further confirmation was needed) that, whatever its origins, this peculiar pejorative would not enter into general usage until the next century (note that the alleged “English” uses of the term prior to 1850 are, as I noted last time, actually from Latin texts).

Scientism c19

And with this, my crude attempts at tracing the history of this concept cease (for now, anyway).

How “Scientism” Works

The rules that would appear to govern the use of the term have changed very little since it first began to be used in the nineteenth century. To employ the term is to draw a boundary between a set of practices (“science”) that, when properly conducted, are worthy of praise and a set of practices that, because they have crossed this boundary, are viewed as problematic. The use of the term “scientism” implies that those who employ it:

  1. possess, and are able to articulate, a conception of the essential features of “real science”
  2. can provide an account of what it is about the set of practices that are criticized as “scientistic” that distinguishes them from the set of practices that constitutes legitimate “science”
  3. can provide an account of the various harms that follow as a consequence of “scientism”

What is perhaps most immediately striking about most uses of the term is that the focus falls on item #3 and that the account of item #2 tends to be quite hasty and generally cast in the form of metaphors involving boundary violations. See for example, the example I offered last time from the 1889 compendium Christian Evidences: “Science itself is modest and intelligent, and amongst other points of knowledge knows its place and keeps it.” The same concern with boundaries and locations can be found at the start of Weiseltier’s rejoinder to Pinker:

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, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate.

The title of Wieseltier’s article — “Crimes Against the Humanities. Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen” — speaks of “crimes” in the plural, but the charge he files against scientism is always the same: trespassing.

The first item on my list tends to receive the least attention. While lamentable, this is hardly surprising. Since invocations of “scientism” tend to occur in response to a perceived threat, the argument always focuses on item #3: nineteenth-century clergy were disturbed by Darwin, Wieseltier is bothered by Michael Chwe’s application of game theoretic approaches to Jane Austin’s works, Jonah Lehrer’s drawing of analogies between Proust and neuroscience, Richard von Mises’ attempt to subject Rilke’s poetry to “logical analysis,” Jared Diamond’s account of the domestication of animals (specifically, his invocation of what he terms the Anna Karenina principle), and Roman Jakobson’s analysis of consonant placement in Baudelaire’s “Le Chat.” What would appear to lie behind these particular concerns is a more general anxiety about the precarious state of what Wieseltier understands as “the humanities.” Item #2 typically receives considerably less attention. Those concerned with the harm done by “scientism” are content to emphasize that they welcome and, indeed, even cherish the achievements of “true science” and are critical only of the illegitimate extension of the methods of science beyond its proper domain, which (as the critic of “scientism” sometimes stresses) is something no true scientist would ever do. The rhetorical advantages of this profession of respect for the work of “true scientists” should be obvious: (1) it allows the critic to focus on particular boundary violations (i.e., item #3) rather than raising broader issues about the place of science in society (e.g., Wieseltier tells us that this is a “philosophical question,” but avoids offering much in the way of an answer) and (2) it frees the critic from having to discuss item #1 (in part, because it is simply assumed that “real scientists” know their place and would never extend their methods beyond their proper domain — whatever that might be — and, in part, because those whose do focus on such questions — e.g., philosophers and historians of science — produce works that do not seem to have much appeal to literary humanists like Wieseltier).

While the critic of scientism may be making the best of a bad situation, this strategy has one obvious weakness: it leaves an opening for a scientist who is bent on going rogue to offer an account of item #1 that includes, as a central feature of science, a readiness to extend the boundaries of the sciences into new domains. This is more or less Pinker’s strategy in his response to Wieseltier’s initial article. At this point, the critic of scientism is faced with a limited set of moves:

  1. The critic can dispute the scientist’s account of what scientists do by offering an elaboration of item #1 that explains why this particular extension of the methods of the sciences represents scientism rather than science.
  2. The critic can argue that the scientist’s account of item #1 is itself an example of “scientism” since such an account already trespasses into domains that lie outside science (e.g., it is a matter that should be decided by the philosophers).

Wieseltier makes gestures in both of these directions, but my chief concern lies less with what he does than with what this may have to do with what I have been trying to do on this blog: explore disputes about enlightenment.

Humanists in Jeopardy

What interests me about these otherwise tired arguments about “scientism” is the way in which they echo certain features of disputes about the concept of “enlightenment.” Indeed, it’s tempting to see the opposition between “science” and “scientism” as a continuation of the contrast between “true” and “false” enlightenment. That opposition, as I’ve suggested in earlier posts and summarized in the paper I gave in Bilbao when I wasn’t hunting pintxos, began to fade by the close of the nineteenth century with the recognition, among those had been trying to defend a “true enlightenment” that remained grounded in religious truth, that “enlightenment” was now firmly in the grip of what would eventually come to be known as “the Enlightenment.” But it would appear that the struggle was prolonged by the emerging contrast between “science” and “scientism.” Purged of its overt theological content, this contrast would drag on into the next century, becoming increasingly heated  around the time when two German exiles living in Los Angeles explored these and related matters in a book called Dialectic of Enlightenment. I hope, in a later post, to contrast their account with the discussions of scientism that were being offered, around this same time, by von Hayek and Voegelin.

The rules for these contests were nicely summarized by Albert O. Hirschman in his discussion of what he termed the “jeopardy thesis.” He explained the peculiar appeal of this form of “reactionary” rhetoric (which he distinguished from the “perversity” and “futility” theses) as follows:

The arguments of the perverse effect and of the futility thesis proceed along very different lines, but they have something in common: both are remarkably simple and bald — therein, of course, lies much of their appeal. In both cases it is shown how actions undertaken to achieve a certain purpose fail miserably to do so. Either no change at all occurs or the action yields an outcome that is the opposite of the one that was intended. … there is a third, more commonsensical and moderate way of arguing against a change which, because of the prevailing state of public opinion, one does not care to attack head-on …: it asserts that the proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another.4

Among the appeals of the jeopardy thesis is that it allows the critic to accept past reforms while arguing that further steps in the same direction will only serve to undermine what has already been accomplished: to modify Wieseltier’s claim slightly, it is to argue that, while science has been a blessing, “scientism” (i.e., a science that does not stay within its proper boundaries) will be a curse.

But as Hirschman also stressed, his three forms of “reactionary” rhetoric have “progressive” equivalents. The progressive version of “jeopardy” thesis takes the form of the argument that — because “all good things go together” — the further pursuit of certain policies will secure, rather than jeopardize, past achievements (151). Viewed in this light, Pinker might be seen as answering Wieseltier’s reactionary jeopardy argument with its “progressive” variant. Central to Pinker’s proposed rehabilitation of the term “scientism” is a conviction that what has worked before is bound to work again: the achievements of the sciences in enlightening us about past problems provide a warrant for applying the same general approach in other disciplines.

So we wind up with a situation where Pinker has every incentive to transform “scientism” into a badge of honor, arguing that scientists are engaged in scientism and, hence, have no need to stop at the border that Wieseltier is so intent on policing. This allows him to go on to describe (admittedly, rather breathlessly and not entirely clearly) all the fruitful work that humanists can do once the scientists have finished colonizing those backward parts of the academy where the humanists reside. Unable to offer any compelling reasons for scientists to stay on the other side of the border that marks the point where science falls into scientism, Wieseltier is left with only bad moves. In hopes of securing an enclave where his sort of humanists can be left in peace to read their books and impart their thoughts on the Big Questions, he concocts a fantastic image of demure, self-effacing scientists who scrupulously observe a boundary between science and scientism that he is  unwilling and, presumably, unable to clarify.

At best, we have an argument that will persuade no one but which does hold out the promise of yet more exchanges in the New Republic.  At worst, the result is a sort of humanist version of Stand Your Ground laws: since no real scientist would ever think of straying into their territory, literary humanists are free to regard any interlopers as frauds or worse (where “worse” includes that dreadful creature called “postmodernism”). Among other things, this would suggest that, should Michael Chwe or Jonah Lehrer ever find themselves wandering near the gated community policed by the literary editor of the New Republic, they would be well-advised to watch their step.

  1. F. A. v. Hayek, “The Counter-Revolution of Science,” Economica 8, no. 29 (February 1, 1941): 9–36.
  2. Peter Schöttler, “Szientismus: Zur Geschichte Eines Schwierigen Begriffs,” NTM Zeitschrift Für Geschichte Der Wissenschaften, Technik Und Medizin 20,:4 (2012): 245–269.
  3. English (and, as Schöttler notes) German usage was further complicated by the appearance of “Christian Science” and the related formulation “Christian Scientism” around this same time (which was yet another of the problems in my Ngram, but one which I didn’t bother to discuss last time).
  4. Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction : Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1991) 81

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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8 Responses to Securing the Borders: On the Genealogy of Scientism (Part II)

  1. Pingback: The Thin Reed of Humanism - Notes from Mere O

  2. praymont says:

    Re. the spike in use just after the Great War: The war induced a lot of bitterness in George Bernard Shaw, in the grip of which he wrote his marathon play Back to Methuselha. It contains this line: ‘On the contrary, the iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid.’

    • Thanks for the Shaw quote. I really should take a more careful look at what is going on in the immediate wake of the Great War.

      And I really need to read the extensive discussion of these matters on your blog!

  3. Pingback: Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part II: German Uses 1875 – 1925 | Persistent Enlightenment

  4. Will Thomas says:

    More dispatches from the history of science/science studies.

    You’re right to sense a relationship between the “scientism” issue and the history of the Enlightenment and of critical reflection on the “Enlightenment project”. Here is science studies luminary (if I may) Bruno Latour in his manifesto, We Have Never Been Modern (p. 5):

    …we have created, in a single movement, politics on one side and science or technoscience on the other. The Enlightenment is about extending these clearings until they cover the world…. Within these enlightened clearings we have seen developing the whole arsenal of argumentation, violence, and politics. Instead of diminishing, this arsenal has been vastly enlarged. Wars of science, coming on top of wars of religion, are now the rage…. Few people still believe in the advent of the Enlightenment, but nobody has yet recovered from this loss of faith. Not to believe in it is to feel that we have been thrown back into the Dark Ages.

    Although the term “scientism” isn’t used, it could be. The Enlightenment is fundamentally about a “faith” in (rather than a seasoned appreciation of) “science”; it is also, as you point out, about extension of a line of argument beyond its legitimate bounds. I think it is also important to connect this discourse to the discourse about “ideology”. Scientism is generally portrayed as an ideology that insists on denying its ideological character in favor of pretensions to universalism. It is, for this reason, hegemonic in nature.

    On the Enlightenment itself, I have also just been reading the highly regarded historian Simon Schaffer’s article, “The Show That Never Ends” on perpetual motion machines. According to him, for the 18th-century “enlightened historiography [constructing a history of the folly of perpetual motion machines], the story of perpetual motion was a mere illustration of the inevitable and principled establishment of the equipoise of social prudence against popular delusion and baroque fantasy” (160). I agree with this analysis of history-building and polemics. However, it is clear that Schaffer regards it as part of a broader Enlightenment project, which sees the hegemonic extension of scientific “authority” over all society (188):

    “This history is indeed a history of mentalities, just as the Enlightenment supposed, but it is also social history of the process through which the apparently self-evident grounds of belief were set up. In market societies self-evidence [such as the self-evident impossibility of perpetual motion] was the result of exclusion…. [Much later on the page] This set of [experimental] performances has often been seen as part of the formation of the balanced world of civil society, but it was at least as significantly an aggressive, if fragile,, attempt to monopolize authority over nature and art.” Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere gets a footnote here, by the way.

    • Thanks for the reference to the Schaffer article, which I’ll be interested in reading. I should confess, though, that I get a little uncomfortable whenever I read a sentence in which “the Enlightenment” begins to start doing things like “supposing” or “monopolizing” and that, whenever I see the circumlocution “the Enlightenment project”, I take out my pencil and start making question marks in the margin. What we’ve called “the Enlightenment” was many things and while, in some cases, those involved in it may manifested a “faith in science” that looked uncomfortably like the various forms of religious faith that it hoped to supplant, it is not clear (pace Carl Becker) that this is the norm. This, I realize, is my own particular hobby-horse, but I may as well ride it as long as I can.

  5. dyssebeia says:

    Thank you for this post. I think it captures what is going on very clearly. There is something quite defensive and reactionary in the normal use of the word “scientism” that what you’ve written brings out. One uses it because they feel threatened—it really strikes me almost as if it were a confession of holding the weaker ground more than anything else. (I think I mentioned in my comment on part I that I was once tempted to try and salvage the term. But in hindsight I can say that the specific contexts in which I was drawn to it were precisely those in which I was at my weakest, most vulnerable, and most unarmed. It was a defensive reaction, never a proud one. And while I don’t want to project my pathologies on everyone who uses the term, I do not at all think I was an exception.)

    It’s also bizarrely a priori and un-pragmatic. We should welcome scientific incursions into new areas as interesting and possibly fruitful experiments. Should there be game theoretic analyses of Jane Austin? Well, do some and see what you get? Is it illuminating? Is it interesting? Then it should be valued. If it’s not, then is it really a threat? (Politically, maybe.) This is why #1 of the three implications of the use of the term (ugh, sorry about that phrasing) is so hard to fulfill: it requires saying in advance of any actual attempt that the attempt will produce nothing of value.

    Why make such a claim? I think the felt worry is that the incursion of scientific reasoning into the humanities will end up displacing all non-scientific reasoning from them. But again, this threat is either political (where it might be a real worry, but I’m politically illiterate so I have no idea) or it is the threat that these methods will be better, more fruitful, and so push out the old methods on the basis of merit. The best defense against this second sort of threat is not to cut off the experiments, however, but to defend the merits of other ways of thinking within the humanities. If such a defense can be mounted, what threat (of the second sort) could scientific incursions pose? And if, instead of making such a defense, you resort to leveling the charge of “scientism”, perhaps then it’s time to worry that you in fact cannot offer such a defense.

    I’ve been wandering increasingly away from your post, so I’ll stop here. I hope at least these meandering musings provide some evidence that your post has helped to clarify my thinking.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Regarding “item #1” on my list: it is a priori in the sense that it involves a judgment, prior to the actual conduct of research, about the worth of the research that will result and I’m inclined to agree with your suggestion that the best way to decide whether the application of game theoretic approaches to Jane Austen is worth doing would be to apply them and see what happens (Jane won’t mind). Since I haven’t read it, I can’t really say anything about the value of Chwe’s book, but there would seem to be no reason to suppose that an attempt to reconstruct the way in which characters in Austen’s novels arrive at decisions or negotiate relationships would necessarily produce worthless results. If Wieseltier has offered an account, elsewhere, of what is wrong-headed about Chwe’s work, it would have been helpful for him to mention it. If he’s simply decided, on the basis of the book’s title, that the book is worthless, then the least he owes his readers (and, I suppose, Chwe) is an explanation of why the application of game theoretic approaches to a corpus of texts that, at least in part, deals with individuals who are making choices about courses of action, is destined to be a non-starter (and saying that there is “much more” to Austen’s works than what Chwe’s analysis might capture does not amount to an answer: there’s always something more that can be said about literary texts, and humanists ought to be grateful for that).

      There is, as you suggest, a “political” dimension to this spat. For a variety of reasons, humanists feel that they are under siege: enrollments are seen as dropping (which, depending on which date one picks as one’s starting point, might be true), there is a fear in some quarters that the works that humanists do is not valued, Pinker’s breezy confidence is a bit hard to take, and so on. While I share some of these concerns, I don’t see Wieseltier’s articles as contributing much to this discussion.

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