Tag Archive: humanities

Scientism: slavishly aping a myth

But I should go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’: of trying to copy the method of natural science, not as it actually is, but as it is wrongly alleged to be. This alleged but non-existent method is that of collecting observations and then ‘drawing conclusions’ from them. It is slavishly aped by some historians who believe that they can collect documentary evidence which, corresponding to the observations of natural science, forms the ’empirical basis’ for their conclusions. …

Worse even than the attempt to apply an inapplicable method is the worship of the idol of certain or infallible or authoritative knowledge which these historians mistake for the ideal of science. Admittedly, we all try hard to avoid error; and we ought to be sad if we have made a mistake. Yet to avoid error is a poor ideal: if we do not dare to tackle problems which are so difficult that error is almost unavoidable, then there will be no growth of knowledge. In fact, it is from our boldest theories, including those which are erroneous, that we learn most. Nobody is exempt from making mistakes; the great thing is to learn from them. [186]

Scientism, backatcha!

Thus I oppose the attempt to proclaim the method of understanding as the characterisitic of the humanities, the mark by which we may distinguish them from the natural sciences. And when its supporters denounce a view like mine as ‘positivistic’ or ‘scientistic’,* then I may perhaps answer that they themselves seem to accept, implicitly and uncritically, that positivism or scientism is the only philosophy appropriate to the natural sciences. [185]

* The term ‘scientism’ meant originally ‘the slavish imitation of the method and language of [natural] science’, especially by social scientists; it was introduced in this sense by Hayek in his ‘Scientism in the Study of Society’, now in his The Counter-Revolution of Science, 1962. In The Poverty of Historicism, p. 105, I suggested its use as a name for the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science; and Hayek now agrees (in his Preface to his Studies in Philo­sophy, Politics and Economics, which contains a very generous acknowledgement) that the methods actually practised by natural scientists are different from ‘what most of them told us … and urged the representatives of other disciplines to imitate’.