I’ve received some emails from Dr. William Widdowson, a reader of this website and an emeritus professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Cincinnati. (The diversity of my readers always amazes me.) Anyway, Bill had some things to say about the history of the term “scientism,” a word so often used by the faithful to tar atheists and rationalists. Since I thought his comments would be of interest, I’m reproducing them here with his permission.
This is a follow-up on a previous e-mail (14 Nov) in which I suggested that a good way to get into the topic of “scientism” would be to look at Hayek and Popper. I have given the matter a bit more thought and would like to offer the following expansion because there was an issue that I felt needed to be highlighted, i.e., how the use of the term has changed as it’s been expropriated.
Scientism (sensu stricto) began as a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome. This doctrine was rejected by a particular group of philosophers of science belonging to a tradition pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th c., carried forward by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in the early 20th c. and later by Fredrick Hayek, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn during the mid-20th c.
Key documents in the history of this tradition would be the essays by Peirce published in Popular Science in the 1890’s and “The Quest for Certainty” by John Dewey. Also important would be essays by, and correspondence between, Hayek and Popper in the 1950’s, for this is when the term was coined (by Hayek) and clarified (by Popper) to their mutual satisfaction.
“Scientism (lite)” has become a label for the doctrine that science is the only way to the truth, a doctrine rejected by theist apologists, accommodationists, and NOMAtics of all stripes because they are committed to the proposition that there are:
1. many other ways of knowing, or
2. many other kinds of truths, or
3. some combination of 1. and 2.
Briefly then, my point is that challenging science’s claim to exclusivity by labeling it Scientism (lite) is very different from using the same label to challenge science’s claim to certainty (Scientism-sensu strictu). If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.