“Blinded by Scientism” by Edward Feser

Edward Feser is in the first rank of philosophers working in field of Hayek studies today.  He has an excellent new essay titled “Blinded by Scientism” in Public Discourse and republished as “Hayek and Scientism” in The City in flash and PDF versions.   A bit of Feser:

Conservatives, more than anyone else, should be wary of the pretensions of scientism, a Procrustean ideology whose pretensions were exposed with particular insight by F. A. Hayek, one of the great heroes of contemporary conservatives (including, perhaps especially, secular conservatives—Hayek himself was an agnostic with no religious ax to grind). In his three-part essay “Scientism and the Study of Society” (reprinted in his book The Counter-Revolution of Science) and his book The Sensory Order, Hayek shows that the project of re-conceiving human nature in particular entirely in terms of the categories of natural science is impossible in principle.

The reason has to do with what Hayek calls the “objectivism” inherent in scientism. Modern science arose in large part out of a practical, political concern—to make men “masters and possessors of nature” (as Descartes put it), and enhance “human utility and power” through the “mechanical arts” or technology (in the words of Francis Bacon). This goal could be realized only by focusing on those aspects of the natural world susceptible of strict prediction and control, and this in turn required a quantitative methodology, so that mathematics would come to be regarded as the language in which the “book of nature” was written (in Galileo’s well-known phrase). And yet our ordinary, everyday experience of the world is qualitative through and through—we perceive colors, sounds, warmth and coolness, purposes and meanings.

How are we to reconcile this commonsense “manifest image” of the world with the quantitative “scientific image” (to borrow philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ famous distinction)?  The answer is that they cannot be reconciled ..

A minor caveat: It was Hayek who coined the term “scientism”, but the word quickly took on a life of its own. As Hayek first used the term, “scientism” was defined as the confused adoption of a false understanding of the actual methods and nature of science, a false picture taken from a defective understanding of the example of “science” provided by the most simple causal and mathematical relations in physics and chemistry (even simple phenomena are falsely characterized by this defective conception of “science”) and extended in pathological fashion to complex phenomena involving the domains of the human, the social, and the biological.  Feser’s account of “scientism” is closer to that of Hayek’s friend Eric Voegelin, who borrowed the term, but not the definition, from Hayek.  Hayek can be understood as more of a “non-reductive” spontaneous order / human order naturalist in the tradition of Galileo, Smith, Darwin and Wittgenstein than is either Feser or Voegelin.  (Popper popularized yet a different definition of “scientism” — also borrowing the word but not exactly the definition from Hayek).

Ed is a terrific writer and I recommend any one of the following:

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