Susan Haack’s “Scientism and its Discontents,” Part 1 of 3.

APP Editors’ Note: Susan Haack’s “Scientism and its Discontents” was originally published by Rounded Globe in 2017, here.

With the permission of the author, APP is hereby re-posting/re-publishing it in three parts.

The full bibliography will appear at the end of the third part.

Clicking on the hot links in the Table of Contents, directly below, will also take you to the corresponding parts of the Rounded Globe version.

About the Author

Susan Haack is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami.

Her work ranges from philosophy of logic and language, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, pragmatism—both philosophical and legal—and the law of evidence, especially scientific evidence, to social philosophy, feminism, and philosophy of literature.

Her books include Philosophy of Logics; Deviant Logic, Fuzzy Logic: Beyond the Formalism; Evidence and Inquiry; Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate; Defending Science—Within Reason; Pragmatism, Old and New; Putting Philosophy to Work; Ciencia, Sociedad y Cultura; Evidence Matters: Science, Proof, and Truth in the Law; and (in 2015) Perspectivas Pragmatistas da Filosofia do Direito (São Leopoldo, Brazil: Editora UNISINOS) and Legalizarre l’epistemologia (Milan, Italy: Università Bocconi).

Haack’s work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Croatian, Danish, Swedish, Romanian, Korean, and Chinese; and she is invited to lecture around the world.

Haack was included in Peter J. King’s One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers and in the Sunday Independent’s list, based on a BBC poll, of the ten most important women philosophers of all time. Haack’s work has been celebrated in two volumes of essays, Susan Haack: A Lady of Distinctions (2007) and Susan Haack: Reintegrating Philosophy (2016). In 2011 Haack was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by Petri Andreis University, and in 2016 the Ulysses Medal, the highest honor given by University College, Dublin.


Introduction: Scientism and Its Discontents

Science is neither sacred nor a confidence trick. How, you might wonder, could anyone possibly think otherwise? Isn’t it just obvious that the work of the sciences has advanced our knowledge of the world immeasurably—and no less obvious that, nevertheless, science is imperfect and limited, as all human enterprises are? The fact is, however, that many people have thought, and do think, otherwise.

“Ours is an age in which partial truths are tirelessly transformed into total falsehoods, and then acclaimed as revolutionary revelations,” wrote Thomas Szasz in 1973;1 and this shrewd observation is certainly no less true now than it was then, perhaps even more so. Anti-scientific cynicism, focusing on the fallibility and limitations of science, transforms one part of the truth—that science is neither infallible nor omnicompetent—into something revolutionary-sounding but dangerously false: that what scientific theories are accepted really depends on nothing but power, politics, rhetoric, negotiation, so that the claim of the sciences to give us knowledge of the world is bogus. And scientism, focusing on the achievements of the sciences, transforms another part of the truth—that over the last several hundred years the sciences have made many remarkable discoveries—into something equally revolutionary-sounding but no less dangerously false: that only science can give us real knowledge, so that non-scientific fields are either ripe for colonization by the sciences or else are illegitimate, best abandoned altogether.

* * *

In Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism (2003), I proposed an understanding of the scientific enterprise that did justice both to its strengths and to its limitations. At the time, anti-scientific cynicism—in the form of postmodernist, feminist, and post-colonialist “science criticism” and of radically dismissive styles of history, sociology, and rhetoric of science—was the height of intellectual fashion; so my critical efforts were largely focused on exposing anti-scientific misunderstandings of science. Before long, however, the tide had turned: encouraged by the boom in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, energized by a newly-aggressive atheism, scientism was on the rise both in the academy and in our culture more generally; and so, in “Six Signs of Scientism” (2010) I proposed some ways to identify when the line between appropriate respect for the achievements of the sciences and the inappropriate deference to science characteristic of scientism has been crossed.

At the time, I thought that was that. But no: a 2014 conference at the Free University of Amsterdam brought home to me not only that scientism was already much more pervasive and deeply-entrenched in my own discipline, philosophy, than I had realized, but also that the disturbing idea was gaining currency that anyone reluctant to ride the new scientistic wave must have a religious agenda, overt or covert. What was needed, I concluded, was to expose the misunderstandings of science on which scientism rests as thoroughly and as carefully as I had previously exposed the misunderstandings on which anti-science rests.

Happily, an invitation to give the 2016 Agnes Cuming lectures at University College, Dublin provided the incentive to get on with the job of charting the myriad varieties of scientism, figuring out more exactly where they go wrong, and articulating the reasons for avoiding scientism—whatever your religious views, or lack of them. As so often, however, I soon discovered that these seemingly straightforward tasks were larger, more complex, and more challenging than I imagined at the outset; but for that very reason also more rewarding, leading me to unanticipated questions and unexpected insights about the place of science in society, the stresses and strains that threaten its integrity, the rich variety of human cultures, the complexities of the human mind, and even the ethos of the academy and the character, scope, and methods of philosophy itself. The result was the two lectures presented here.

The first lecture, “Science, Yes; Scientism, No,” begins by building on, amplifying, and deepening the account of scientific inquiry developed in Defending Science. After exploring shifts and changes in the scope of the word “science,” I suggest how science as we now know it emerged from everyday forms of inquiry; how we came to classify certain disciplines as sciences but to exclude others; how, over centuries of work, generations of scientists have gradually developed special methods, tools, and techniques for obtaining more evidence and better assessing its worth; why progress in the sciences is uneven and unpredictable; and why, today, the integrity of science is under serious threat from political, commercial, and institutional pressures. The next step is to get some grip on the manifold manifestations of scientism, from simple credulity about anything and everything bearing the label, “scientific,” through the honorific use of “science” and its cognates and preoccupation with the “problem of demarcation,” the “scientific method,” etc., to dismissing non-scientific work as inherently inferior or repudiating it altogether as simply spurious. And then I can show in some detail that every one of these manifestations of scientism betrays a significant misunderstanding of what the sciences do, and how they do it.

Well, almost every one of them. But in the first lecture all I can say in response to the radically scientistic idea that there simply is no legitimate inquiry outside the sciences is that, on the contrary, there are obviously large classes of perfectly legitimate questions—questions of history, law, literary scholarship, mathematics, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., questions of policy, and everyday questions about where I left the car keys, how to get to the post office, and so on—that not even the most sophisticated future science imaginable could answer. But this, though true enough, isn’t really response enough. Only in the second lecture, where I turn my attention to scientism in philosophy specifically, can I take the first steps towards a fuller and more satisfying answer.

This second lecture, “Scientific Philosophy, Yes; Scientistic Philosophy, No,” begins by looking briefly at some twentieth-century precursors of the scientistic philosophies in vogue today, and then turns to a closer examination of these recent manifestations—“experimental philosophy,” “naturalized metaphysics,” self-styled “scientism”, and the like. None, I argue, is capable of dealing with key questions about how the world must be, and how we must be, if the scientific enterprise is to be possible; in particular, all duck, fudge, or flub crucial questions about the human mind and our capacity to figure out something of how the world is. And this is no accident.

These crucial questions about the mind are, to be sure, empirical; but they can’t possibly be handed over to the sciences to answer, because all scientific work presupposes that they have been satisfactorily answered. They are, by my lights, distinctively philosophical questions. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are purely conceptual. No: however widely it’s taken for granted, it’s just not true that philosophy must either be entirely a priori, or else must look to the sciences to answer its questions; nor, therefore, that we are obliged to choose either the old analytic paradigm of philosophy as pure conceptual analysis or else scientism of one or another stripe. Philosophical questions are neither purely conceptual nor resoluble by the sciences. Philosophy is about the world, and so requires experience; not, however, the recherché experience needed by the sciences, but the familiar, everyday experience of our interactions with the world and with others.

Close attention to that everyday experience reveals a distinctive kind of human mindedness; and getting this in focus reveals that while, to be sure, we wouldn’t have this distinctive mindedness but for our big brains, the brain is by no means the whole story. There’s something deeply social about human mental powers—a kind of virtuous spiral in which culture enables mindedness even as mindedness enables culture. Much of the second lecture is devoted to articulating what this idea amounts to in the specific; and to showing that, if it’s even roughly on the right lines, it was only to be expected that the key questions about human mindedness would prove beyond the reach of scientistic philosophies. No wonder, then, that some scientistic philosophers—apparently not noticing that they’re sawing off the branch they’re sitting on—have gone so far as to claim that there are no beliefs, or even that “the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all.”2

All this, naturally, leaves me wondering why—when it is, in the end, nothing but a confession of philosophical failure—scientistic philosophy should have been so warmly embraced by so many in our profession today. Vaguely sensing that academic philosophy is in bad shape, I suggest, many are bored and restless, casting around for something new and different. And their sense that something’s rotten in the state of philosophy, that we can’t just go on with philosophical business-as-usual is, I’m afraid, well-founded; but the idea that the cause is simply that the analytic paradigm is nearing exhaustion, and the hope that scientism will cure our ills, are way off the mark.

I suggest a very different kind of diagnosis, beginning with the changes in the management of universities that have led to a near-universal reliance on badly flawed surrogate measures of the quality of intellectual work, creating incentives to bustle, boosterism, busywork, and boasting—in short, a focus on the appearance of progress, rather than the real thing. In the sciences themselves, these perverse incentives have contributed to the rise of salami publishing, misleading multiple attributions of authorship, corruption of the peer-review process, an obsession with grant-writing, and a burgeoning scientific bureaucracy, and have encouraged haste, carelessness, and even fraud. And in philosophy they have made the idea that important results can be readily achieved by means of simple surveys, by looking to recent papers in the psychology journals, or by getting your hands on an MRI machine almost irresistibly attractive—especially if you can land grant money for your project, which these days seems to get you more credit than results do. There’s a real irony here: scientistic philosophy is on the rise just as the integrity of science itself is under threat, and for some of the same reasons.

But, as the saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”; there really is no such thing as a free philosophical lunch. Making real progress in philosophy will take the same kind of patient, painstaking hard work that enabled the sciences to extend their reach and deepen their theoretical understanding, and the same honesty and humility that all serious inquiry, whatever its subject-matter, requires. There are no shortcuts. The way forward is philosophical inquiry undertaken in the right spirit, from a genuine desire to figure things out, and using the right tools, experiential as well as conceptual.

* * *

I am grateful to the department of philosophy at University College, Dublin not only for the invitation that provided the spur to this work, but also for their comments and suggestions after my lectures; to Mark Migotti, my faithful and always-helpful first reader; to Pamela Lucken and Barbara Cuadras, in the law library at the University of Miami, and to Alina Hernandez, my Law School assistant, for their skilful and cheerful support; to Devon Coleman for intelligent and eagle-eyed volunteer assistance with proof-reading; and to Howard Burdick, my sterling But-For-Whom, who helps me keep my head even when, as now, I begin to fear that all about me really are losing theirs.3


1. Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 26-27.

2. This is the title of chapter 8 of Rosenberg, The Atheist’s View of Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (2011).

3. I echo Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (1910): “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you, …, you’ll be a Man, my son.”