“Scientism” is not a word I like to use.

brainnetworkThere’s a part in The Being of Analogy where I claim I don’t really know what “scientism” is supposed to mean.  That was a bit of disingenuous rhetorical flourish used to distance myself from the term, and I probably shouldn’t have said it.  I know perfectly well what it means and why it exists, but I’m still uncomfortable with it.  I’ve been uncomfortable with “scientism” ever since I made the transition in graduate school from physical anthropology to English studies, which is when I first encountered the term.  I identified then as a lone scientist besieged by an army of deconstructionists, and, as such, “scientism” smacked of glib, kneejerk anti-intellectualism.  It still feels pretty kneejerk to me, but I no longer see it as glib or anti-intellectual.  My beef with it now is that it’s too ambiguous and it’s often a gateway to either hypocrisy or disengagement with science.

If we are to believe Wikipedia, “scientism” has been in use at least since the days of Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper.  But it really came into its own in the 1980s and 90s when the poststructuralist brand of the hermeneutics of suspicion found its footing in the Anglo-American academy.  As a pejorative, “scientism” served as a more precise companion to the larger critique of “grand narratives,” which was introduced in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition.  The concept of grand narrative was itself an unoriginal (in the best sense of the word) but highly digestible package that, among other things, removed the invisibility-universality cloak from European male identity.  Progress and freedom, once terms of youth and vigor, then stood before us naked, riddled with ambiguities and contradictions like liver spots.  And it was good to see the Enlightenment like this: neither inevitable nor immortal.  And I happen to be pretty devoted to The Postmodern Condition, even if Lyotard came to despise it.  I’ve read it cover to cover several times, and have found myself quoting it in many of my published works.  Yet, I’ve never come across the gleeful rout of the Enlightenment that the little book supposedly contains.  The Postmodern Condition is much more of a requiem than it is a victory lap.  To cheer on the demise of the Enlightenment in Lyotard’s story is like celebrating the death of Arthur at the hands of Mordred.  The Enlightenment too was betrayed and killed by its own incestuous progeny.  The drive to evaluate everything in the world according to the valueless principles of economy and scientific method transmogrified the Enlightenment’s own values into costs, costs that no longer seemed worth the benefits. (In case it’s unclear, neoliberal capitalism is the Mordred in this tale.)

postmodern condition

Science was understood to be the driver of enlightenment, but the capital “E” Enlightenment is over.  And still there is science.  Now more than ever.  Ask Al-Kindi or Roger Bacon, and they would of course assure you that real science was around long before the Enlightenment anyway.  So yes, when we talk about science and the Enlightenment, we are talking about science as totem rather than science as practice.  Science as ideology.  Science as scientism.  But since we are dealing with a historically situated ideology, we’d do well to consider historical situation before speaking “scientism.” We might even bifurcate the term into Enlightenment scientism and neoliberal scientism.  Enlightenment scientism stands accused of masking European male interests as universal interests, as well as making fetishes out of facts (or “factishes,” as Latour puts it).  Guilty on all charges.  Enlightenment scientism offered us freedom from the superstitions that sponsored aristocratic power, which was the best version of freedom men of the European bourgeoisie were capable of imagining.  Neoliberalism writ large offers us nothing but the freedom of choices.  Each link on the chains we wear is forged by an exigent choice.  Choose your health insurance provider.  Choose your child’s primary school.  Choose your future profession…Now!  Neoliberal scientism, on the other hand, offers us freedom from freedom, at least as it pertains to philosophical speculation.  We needn’t waste our time exploring the many splendored caverns of phenomenal experience—there will come a molecular map and it will pose and answer all relevant questions.

The digital humanities is, for the moment, a blessedly disputed program.  Actually, I’m convinced that the digital humanities doesn’t really exist yet, despite the growing number of programs taking on the name.  Right now, it feels like a Schrödinger’s cat, existing—virtually—in two different versions of itself.  In the first version, digital humanity is a whole phrase, stated as a question (And there are several promising leads in this direction, my current favorite being critical code studies (about which I know almost nothing (admittedly))).  In the second version, humanity is the question and digital is the method.  The problem with the second version is not that it points to some academic dystopia in which the answers to all the great questions in the humanities get answered in varying series of 1s and 0s, and that those answers will be tragically wrong.  Eventually, you get the right answer to any question you ask.  The problems come when the methods constrain the questions.  Look, critical identity theories are great for literary studies until they become the only entry point for literary studies.  At which point, literary studies becomes a half-baked anthropology.  Similarly, data mining is great until it turns the humanities into a half-baked quantitative sociology.  So, perhaps the most pernicious effect of neoliberal scientism is not so much a forced commitment to a particular ontology, but an overcommitment to a particular set of methods.  This seems to be true from standardized testing in primary school to a possible future for the humanities.

Few contemporary thinkers are on the receiving end of the “scientism” charge more than Steven Pinker.  And this is largely deserved.  Even so, I’ve always been attracted to him, and anyway, he’s not to be dismissed.  I remember listening to him a few years back on Melvyn Bragg’s show, where he made this wonderfully self-depreciating observation about scientists.  It was something like “Scientists take up the questions that philosophers are already bored with.” Perhaps if Pinker had read more contemporary philosophy—particularly in the analytical vein—he wouldn’t have thought that.  But at least he was wrong for all the right reasons.  Pinker’s view more or less encapsulates the Enlightenment ideal of the university, which we can see in the writings of Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  There, philosophy was the heliocenter of all other fields of inquiry. (This translates into the broader category of the humanities in the American research university.) And it’s where I turn small “c” conservative because, for the life of me, I can’t think of a better model.  Despite mounting pressure to turn degrees into certificates, the Humboldtian flavored general education model remains the gold standard in higher education.  But, of course, this matriculation program is no longer reflected in the relationship between working philosophers and scientists.  Popular currents in analytical philosophy, such as neurophilosophy, ontic structural realism, and all manner of ethical schools, shelter themselves in the legitimacy of science.  That’s a criminally broad brush stroke, I know; and there are some truly fantastic thinkers in these fields (Christian Wüthrich immediately comes to mind), but the relationship between science and philosophy in these currents is largely periphrastic.  In other words, philosophy often becomes an exercise in circumlocution.  The problems, theories, and findings in physics and neuroscience are restated (and sometimes brilliantly elevated) for a philosophical audience.  True, scientists and ethicists sometimes talk to each other (usually under the conditions of a grant), but it’s largely a one-way street.  Again, this periphrastic relationship to science is usually associated with analytical philosophy, but it can sometimes be seen in contemporary continental work as well.  I gladly place my own work these days alongside continental currents such as object-oriented ontology, new materialism, and even social epistemology.  And as happy as I am to be in that company, I’m also uncomfortable with how liberally “scientism” gets thrown around in the discourse.  Although I now have a better and more sympathetic understanding of the term’s context, I’m still transported back to that indignant (if insecure) physical anthropology student when I hear it.

But when I shudder at the word, I don’t shudder for science’s sake.  Science needs a full throated defense against the Texas Board of Education, conservative legislators, and religious fundamentalists of all stripes, but let’s not forget that them lot represent an even greater existential threat to the humanities.  And anyway, “scientism” hasn’t really made its way into the rightwing, anti-intellectual lexicon yet, so there’s little risk of rhetorical conflation.  I suppose I shudder because it’s often used by the very same people who are all too happy to bludgeon others with a particular scientific theory or finding when it happens to suit their own ontological or political positions.  Accusing others of scientism while cherry-picking science for your own arguments is gross hypocrisy, but what’s the alternative?  A disengagement with science altogether?  Hypocrisy is bad, but disengagement with science is worse.  Hypocrisy is a personal failure, but disengagement with science is a historical failure.

It’s not that “scientism” should be erased from our vocabulary.  It’s still a useful charge against STEM crazy politicians and administrators who think the best way to compete with China and Singapore is to become more like them, even as those nations are beginning to recognize the shortcomings of a STEM-centric education. “Scientism” is a vulgarity, and so it should be reserved for the vulgar and the venal.  But as for lobbing the term at other philosophers, perhaps a little noblesse oblige is in order.  Have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste.  Try as it might, modern science cannot escape its roots in metaphysics.  That means philosophy bears a historical responsibility to engage with science.  It’s only a question of how.  The most common type of engagement seems to be periphrastic.  And yes, when it’s done badly, it’s more parasitical than periphrastic, but that’s something that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  There is nothing fundamentally wrong or unproductive about the approach itself.  But there’s another way to engage, one at which thinkers under the speculative realism umbrella often excel (standouts include Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman, and Jane Bennett).  It’s what I’d call an ekphrastic engagement.  Here, philosophy is to science as poetry is to painting.  I see Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour as the first practitioners of ekphrasitc philosophy, and it preserves their erudition and playfulness.  You put DeLanda, Harman, and Bennett in a room together, and they’re going to have some serious disagreements on substance and, well, substance.  Ditto for Deleuze and Latour.  So again, what I’m identifying here is not a philosophical school but an approach to making philosophy, one that need not stretch any further than those moments in which its practitioners are engaged with science.


There are plenty of examples in philosophy of more traditional ekphrasis, the stuff that pertains to art.  I’m thinking here of Lessing’s Laocoön and Foucault’s This is Not a Pipe.  When Lessing writes about the Laocoön sculpture, he’s not really concerned with who Laocoön and his sons are or what a snake is.  His meditation begins from the artifact and its aesthetic presence.  This seems to me analogous to what Latour did with Pasteur’s laboratory.  Although he made darn sure he learned everything he could about the microbes with which Pasteur was concerned, what Latour really did was to turn Pasteur’s practice, findings, and influences into artifacts themselves.  In other words, he turned scientific epiphenomena into philosophical phenomena.  A microbiologist is not going to gain very much insight into the nature of P. multocida by reading Latour’s book, but she’s likely to find troves of meaning just beyond the primary phenomenon.

I know what you’re thinking: “Congratulations, Roderick.  You’ve just discovered science studies.” Except, except!  Science studies is heavy on history, ethnology, and epistemology, whereas the sort of ekphrastic writing I have in mind is rich in ontology and aesthetics.  What’s more, the ekphrastic engagement allows itself more engagement with the primary objects of science themselves, letting those things be their own vehicles for significance.  To see what I’m talking about, check out Harman’s lecture on black holes. And yes, you can do meditations on all sorts of objects in a field like OOO, and that’s why OOO has such a cozy relationship with art.  But an ekphrastic engagement with science needs a special sort of object, something that still registers epistemic awe for scientist and lay folk alike.

Abrupt ending.  I’ll return to this idea of ekphrastic engagement when my thoughts come into a bit more focus.




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