Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What the 20th century's most influential philosopher thought about scientism

Ludwig Wittgenstein
There have been a number of recent skirmishes on the issue of scientism in the last couple of years. In most of these altercations, critics of scientism offer a clear and meaningful definition of the term and then apply to people who practice it, who, in their turn, either question the term 'scientism' altogether, ignoring the clear definitions and claim that it doesn't mean anything, or who deny that their positions fit the meaning despite the fact that they do.

And then there are a few, like the philosophically-challenged Jerry Coyne, who alternatively deny they are practitioners of scientism and engage in it depending on the issue and the day of the week.

Raymond Monk authored one of if not the best biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher whom Monk, among others, considers the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. I think by "greatest," Monk means "most influential," but I may be wrong about that. In any case, I'm closing in on the end of the book and it is truly fantastic.

Monk weighs in on the scientism issue by pointing out Wittgenstein's view of it, which could be summarized as "dim." Wittgenstein helped to spawn, unintentionally and ironically, logical positivism, a scientist school of philosophy that proposed the verification principle of truth. Wittgenstein influenced the Vienna Circle, the group of intellectuals who birthed it, but was never a part of it, and never really endorsed the program, although there are parts of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the reader can be excused for interpreting as scientistic.

But Wittgenstein was never really a positivist. Partly this is because he was a mystic as well as a philosopher. he believed you couldn't say anything meaningful about God or the transcendental, but he never made the leap to the belief that, because of this, they don't therefore exist.

There are a number of interesting points in Monk's article in the recent issue of Prospect Magazine, but the most basic is just the description of what scientism and why it is fundamentally flawed:
Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.
There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. 
Read the rest here.

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