Scientism and Marxism

Robert Peter Burns rburns at
Sun Nov 26 16:22:08 MST 1995

UticaRose at asks "what is scientism?"

This is a good question that should be of considerable interest to
marxists.  I'll try to show why that is so later, but first I need to say
something about the question as it stands.  As a first approximation let's
try a couple of definitions:

Strong Scientism: "All knowledge is necessarily scientific knowledge" <To
this is normally added a gloss to the effect that scientific knowledge is
that knowledge yielded by "scientific methods". What these are is a matter
of some dispute.  In particular, must there be an essential continuity
between the methods of natural science and those used in "social"
sciences?  And just what *is* distinctive about the *methods* of natural
science--as against, say, its objects?  Note that these are questions
discussed by philosophers of science, and it is not at all clear that the
answers to them can be provided by science itself.  More on this point

Weak scientism: "All knowledge is necessarily a subset of our empirical,
factual beliefs"  <Empirical factual belief is a broader category than
beliefs about the results of natural science, and is usually intended to
include some common sense beliefs ("there are cars and people") as well as
beliefs about history, and more controversially, our mathematical and
logical beliefs, which on some versions of this view, just are beliefs we
are psychologically predisposed to have, probably on account of some
genetic hard-wiring.  <Cf. Quine and his followers.>  This part of weak
scientism is also shared by the strong version.  I have used the modal
quantifier "necessarily" in both definitions on the grounds that it is
necessary (no pun) for either claim to be particularly interesting and

Both strong and weak scientism are meant to exclude, roughly, all a priori
knowledge--where this is understood as a type of knowledge in which reason
as such, rather than empirically/scientifically verifiable facts, plays
the central and essential justificatory role; in particular scientism
seeks to exclude the possibility of any genuine knowledge that can only be
yielded <justified> by philosophical reflection. Thus scientism seeks to
exclude from cognitive respectability irreducibly philosophical
knowledge-claims, as well as ethical, aesthetic and religious claims.
These are interpreted as non-cognitive <lacking in truth-value>, and
merely expressive of preferences.  Both strong and weak scientism aim to
dissolve the traditional problems of philosophy, and replace the
traditional methods of philosophic inquiry with supposedly scientific or
purely empirical methods.

A third sense of "scientism" is a normative sense: "We should aspire to
have all our knowledge claims fit the paradigm of belief-formation
methods and evaluative criteria appropriate to those of the natural
sciences/ empirical factual belief".  Among social scientists, economists
are particularly prone to "science-envy", with physics being especially
admired in this context.

Scientism should not be confused with being scientific or with admiration
for science, either in the sense of respecting the results of natural and
social sciences and making our beliefs consistent with those results, nor
with being in favor of rigorous standards of intellectual inquiry
generally, or simply with favoring rationality over irrationality. One can
respect the findings of scientists and one can favor rationality over
irrationality without succumbing to scientism.  <Note also, that the
German word "wissenschaftlich", usually translated as "scientific", has
connotations of scholarliness and rational rigor in intellectual inquiry
in a general sense, whereas the English word "scientific" often connotes
the specific practices and standards of inquiry appropriate to the natural
sciences in particular.  In the sense of "wissenschaftlich", then, being
scientific just means being committed to the norms of rational inquiry,
without making any claims of exclusivity for the natural or would-be
natural sciences.>

Scientism whether weak or strong should be distinguished from empiricism.
Empiricists take a particular view of what counts as scientific method and
of what counts as appropriate belief-formation mechanisms <they typically
see a foundational justificatory role for the deliverances of
sense-perception, though some recent empiricists have rejected
foundationalism in favor of a pragmatic empiricism.  This is probably
because it is hard to see how the deliverances of sense-perception all by
themselves can coherently be thought of as playing an essential
*justificatory* role, for the latter notion doesn't itself appear to be
obviously an empirical or sense-perceptual one.>

Scientism is also not the same as physicalism--roughly, the view that only
physical entities exist <often physicalists will allow in their ontology
"functional properties", but they define these in terms of the causal
properties of physical systems>.  Physicalism is a view about ontology,
while the scientism is a view about epistemology.  But in practice they
often go together.  Scientism, empiricism, and physicalism should all in
turn be distinguished from "naturalism", which can be very broad and
tolerant, epistemologically and ontologically--are you paying attention,
Lorenzo Penya?> or very narrow and reductionistic <see P. Strawson, THE
VARIETIES OF NATURALISM>. That is, we can view reason, mind, and value as
"built-in" to the very structure of the world, and for that reason, as
"natural" <albeit not explicable purely in terms of the natural sciences>;
the idea being that they are at least "built-in" to human beings, and
human beings may well be thought of as eminently natural and continuous
with the rest of the world. <Additional reasons may be derivable from
versions of the anthropic cosmological principle favored by a number of
cosmologists and physicists>. But in any case, whether we think of reason,
mind and value as "natural" is largely a matter of how broadly we define

Now there are difficulties with scientism. One obvious one concerns
whether the proposition that all knowledge is scientific knowledge/
knowledge of empirical fact is itself one that can be derived from science
or is itself a proposition about an empirical matter of fact.  <Logical
positivism got into fatal difficulties for analogous sorts of reason to do
with its attempts to find criteria for verifiability/cognitive
meaningfulness>.  Another difficulty is whether scientism can adequately
account for the normativity that we take to attach to, and seek to find in
various rational inquiries, since normativity does not itself appear to be
a possible object of natural or social scientific inquiry in such a way as
to preserve what is essential to it--namely its obligatory, noncontingent
character.  Rather, such inquiry seems to presuppose normativity.

Associated with this problem are similar problems with physicalism.  For
example, Hartry Field tries in his book Science Without Numbers to
eliminate numbers <interpreted in the standard set-theoretic way> from our
ontology, while showing that science would not thereby be adversely
affected.  Now this is controversial anyway.  But even Field ends up
having to rely on a primitive notion of derivability, and it is hard to
see--very hard--to see how to interpret the associated modal notions
<notions of necessity and possibility> while still preserving a purely
physicalist ontology. Conversely, that great would-be scientistic
physicalist, Quine, rejects modal notions, but has to find irreducible
room in his ontology for sets <which are not in any clear uncontroversial
sense, physical entities.> One heroic attempt to preserve physicalism is
that of David Lewis.  He allows modal notions alright, but he interprets
them as literally implying the existence of countless literally physical
worlds--possible worlds that really exist, and that differ from the actual
world only in that they do not contain us.  Since these other worlds are
not causally accessible to us, Lewis's physicalism is bought at the price
of giving up purely empirical/scientific criteria of knowledge, and
generating a vast ontology <vast at least in quantity of objects, if not
in ontological categories>.

So strong scientism is problematic because it has difficulties in
accounting for the normativity of reason upon which science, especially
physics, is predicated <as well as explaining normativity in the areas of
mind and value>.  Weak scientism is also problematic because, as
philosophers from Hume to Russell have pointed out, common sense beliefs
are packed with metaphysical assumptions.  And both are problematic
because they have difficulty in showing how they themselves can be
supported as items of knowledge in virtue of their own internal criteria
of what knowledge is <and must be>.

Okay, now what has all this stuff to do with Marx and marxism?  Well,
first off, I don't think that Marx was at all scientistic in either the
weak or strong senses <some of his formulations however suggest that he
may have suffered from bouts of "science-envy".> I think this is obvious,
for example, from Marx's discussion of concepts like "value", which just
doesn't crop up as an object of natural science or indeed in social
science taken as reducible to natural science.  I do think Marx aspired to
being scientific in the non-scientistic sense of being "wissenschaftlich".
Now most marxists will accept this as far as it goes--they'll agree that
Marx was not scientistic.  They will accept the notion that Marx's
philosophy cannot be reduced to the terms of natural science.  Some will
identify Marx's philosophy as "scientific" in the sense of the social
sciences, but deny <for "dialectical" reasons> that the latter can be
reduced to the terms of the natural sciences.  Others will not even accept
this identification of Marx's philosophy with social science.  BUT: one
often finds that when the subjects of reason, mind, and
<ethical/aesthetic, etc> value come up <of which the God issue is, I
think, more a symptom than a central topic in itself>, a goodly number of
marxists, though by no means all, fall into scientistic modes of response.
They are tempted to adopt the language of materialist reductionism,
<though again, "dialectics"  complicates the ontology>, and they
unwittingly adopt scientistic epistemology.  This leads to confusion.  On
the one hand they want to adopt "dialectical materialism" as a general
account of nature, and so they are often prepared to listen more to what
people like Engels have to say about physical reality than to physicists
and other scientists.  That is, they are prepared to tolerate a priori
philosophizing <a phrase which, of course, given my own anti-scientism, I
am not intending in any necessarily pejorative sense> about the
fundamental nature of physical reality as providing genuine knowledge
about that reality.  In this they are far from scientism.  On the other
hand, when they have to deal with issues of mind, value, and reason, when
issues of ethics and normativity come up, they look to the natural
sciences to dissolve these problems in precisely the spirit of scientistic
thinkers.  They invoke science on their side when it comes to, say,
positing matter as the ontologically ultimate reality, dismissing all else
as "metaphysics". They look to objective material causes <often forgetting
in the process just how philosophically problematic is the notion of
"cause"--problems given their first modern formulation by Hume and still
the topic of hot controversy to this day>, and ignore the host of
seemingly non-causal but rational relations invoked in actual scientific
practice.  Their arguments are really scientistic at this point.  When
some actual scientists suggest that at best, this picture is incomplete,
that even matter in its essential nature exhibits a profound and
apparently intrinsic rational structure--a "built-in logic" to coin a
phrase <:)>, they revert to a priori philosophizing, and denounce the
scientists concerned as indulging in mysticism.  Something similar occurs
in some marxists' discussion of ethics.  They will adopt scientistic
language to dismiss autonomous moral motivations and beliefs, but then,
come the advent of true communism, these same previously dismissed
motivations are mysteriously declared able wholly to supplant material
motivations when it comes to organizing a global marketless economy.  At
this point scientism is shoved back once again into the background, and
scholastic employment of the dialectic is returned to the forefront.

Apart from the unclarity inherent in these types of responses, there are
other more fundamental problems.  One is that of finding in some
pseudo-marxist versions of "the materialist world-view" an adequate
account of what Aristotle called "form".  Matter, scientists in increasing
numbers are now telling us, is never just matter. It always exhibits an
intrinsically intelligible structure, a fundamental and inherent
amenability to mind.  This intelligibility, this fitness for being an
object of mind, goes all the way down to quarks, superstrings, etc, as
well as obviously all the way up to mathematical thoughts about quarks and
superstrings, etc.  To say that this intelligibility is simply the product
of our minds is highly problematic.  For one thing, it smacks of idealism,
which Marxists are supposed to reject.  For another, it is unclear, if
there is no real, irreducible, intrinsic intelligibility "out there", how
matter is ultimately supposed to produce it.  Saying that matter is not
intrinsically intelligible, but that it somehow "dialectically"  or
whatever produces mind; and that in the process it produces the very
intelligibility which mind then projects back onto matter, but which is
not really there to begin with, is to say several very mysterious things.
Better, I say, to put rational intelligibility in the picture right from the
start.  But some marxists seem to want to get away with saying just the
opposite, thus leaving it a mystery how reason and intelligibility come
to be.  It remains a mystery because they leave out the details, and
resort to hand-waving and dutiful nods in the direction of dialectics.

I say keep dialectics, not as in scholastic diamat, but as a notion that
allows us to employ reason with its full normative potential as an
*irreducible* source of knowledge, and as deriving from the "built-in
logic" of the world.  But in this role it cannot supplant, and must
respect, the empirical findings of the natural and social sciences, all
the while avoiding the exclusive claims of scientism.  That way we avoid
reducing Marx's philosophy to the findings and methods of natural and
social <where this means "would-be natural"> sciences, while allowing it
to say something autonomous and distinctive about both the material world
and the place of reason, mind and value in it.

rburns at
PS--for a useful, up-to-date treatment of epistemology with special
attention to scientism and its problems <though without special reference
to Marx>, see Susan Haack, EVIDENCE AND INQUIRY, Blackwell, 1993.

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