Desperately Seeking Scientism

Upon surveying the American landscape these days, it’s hard to believe that an over-reliance on science is something we need to worry about. That hasn’t stopped some in the humanities from manufacturing the entirely fictitious threat of “scientism.” It’s a hard term to pin down, since it is seldom defined the same way twice, but mostly it just means that someone is whining about the lack of respect accorded to his discipline. Theologians and philosophers seem especially keen on leveling the charge.

It certainly happens occasionally that someone writing in the name of science intrudes into the humanities and makes a hash of things. That’s hardly evidence that the writer is in thrall to a blinkered ideology that blinds him to the value of anything that isn’t science. When confronting such things, just say he made a bad argument and move on. After all, humanities professors routinely say dumb things about science, but no one rails against humanitism.

I think, though, that I might now have found the silliest invocation of “scientism” to date. It is in this book review, written by William Deresiewicz and published in The New Republic. The book under review is Jane Austen: Game Theorist, written by Mark Suk-Young Chwe, who is a political scientist at UCLA. Chwe’s argument, apparently, is that Jane Austen anticipated significant ideas in game theory.

Deresiewicz did not like the book. He seems to think it is a terrible insult to suggest that the great writers not only had insight into human behavior, but might also have anticipated developments in science as well. He opens with:

Proust was a neuroscientist. Jane Austen was a game theorist. Dickens was a gastroenterologist. That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.

There is only one problem with this approach: it is intellectually bankrupt. Actually, there are a lot of problems, as Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s abominable volume shows. If this is the sort of thing that we have to look forward to, as science undertakes to tutor the humanities, the prospect isn’t bright.

Chwe’s book might be as bad as Deresiewicz suggests. I have no opinion on that. What is interesting is that Deresiewicz did not feel it was sufficient simply to criticize the book. Instead he tries desperately to present Chwe’s book as emblematic of a broader, insidious movement to have science devour the humanities. He would have a stronger case if, in the course of a lengthy article, he had managed to produce more than two examples, one published six years ago. (That book being Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist.) When you’re out of gas by the third sentence, you might want to reconsider your argument.

Chwe is the author of this essay, titled “Scientific Pride and Prejudice,” in The New York Times. He writes:

Science is in crisis, just when we need it most. Two years ago, C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis reported in Nature that they were able to replicate only six out of 53 “landmark” cancer studies. Scientists now worry that many published scientific results are simply not true. The natural sciences often offer themselves as a model to other disciplines. But this time science might look for help to the humanities, and to literary criticism in particular.

I think it’s safe to say that a person who would write that is not someone who thinks that the humanities have no value in an age of science. I don’t think Chwe really needs to have this explained to him:

Though really, of course, [Shakespeare] was none of these. He was a dramatist, just as Austen was a novelist. She didn’t write textbooks, she had no use for concepts, and she wasn’t interested in making arguments. If she had a research program, as Chwe insists, it was into the techniques of fiction and the possibilities of the English language. She was no more a social theorist than Marx or Weber was a novelist.

Deresiewicz spent so much time being snarky and derisive that he forgot to support his assertions with evidence. I’d like to see the quote from Chwe’s book that provoked this little outburst, since there is simply nothing in the review to suggest that Chwe was confused about Austen being a novelist, or to suggest that he thinks that her (alleged) insight into game theory is the only thing you need to know about her. The subhead of the online version of Deresiewicz’s essay is “Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both,” but he presents absolutely nothing to show that Chwe was doing any such thing. Chwe’s argument is that Austen anticipated major ideas in game theory. How does that constitute using science to explain art?

(As an aside, the print version of Deresiewicz’s essay had the subtitle, “The traduction of literature by scientism.”)

The humanities are genuinely under attack nowadays. Shrinking budgets and an increasingly corporate mindset in higher education have everyone trying to justify themselves on the grounds of immediate practical usefulness, which is not an easy argument for the humanities to make. But it hardly helps matters when folks in the humanities start railing haplessly at imaginary threats. People like Deresiewicz are not the solution to any problem the humanities are facing. They are part of the problem.

Comments

  1. #1 proximity1
    February 27, 2014

    Bravo for posting this thread. It raises issues just as important as, and maybe even more interesting than, the well-trod terrain of creationists’ and ID-ers’ criticisms of science.

    If and when I want to construct a case concerning an alleged problem of “scientism” *, I find all I need in support from very reputable scientists themselves, since, to their credit, there are those who quite clearly recognize and discuss the issue.

    * “Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

    ” 1) To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.[16] This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,[17] such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counterargument to appeals to scientific authority.

    ” 2) To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,”[18] or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective”[12] with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

    The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

    Wikipedia / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism

    I do emphatically agree that not just some but far, far too many in the humanities have committed the sins that are on display in the infamous episode of the wacky journal, Social Text‘s publication of Alan Sokal’s spoof, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity and, in doing so, have brought on themselves a general disrespect for and suspicion of the quality of humanist studies. For me, the weirdest part of the shameful practice of humanists trying to make their studies conform to ideals of scientific-methodology’s empiricism is that they imply the foolish view that the humanities don’t have enough merit on their own without trying to ape science’s prestige.

  2. #2 Verbose Stoic
    February 27, 2014

    Well, to get this out of the way, on scientism itself I have a sort of series on my blog about scientism, arguing clearly (I think, anyway [grin]) about what it is and why some people do indeed act scientistically: http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/tag/scientism-101/

    On this post, Deresiewicz’s article, to me, hit a lot of issues that I’ve come across in multiple places when science tries to analyze art, and ends up either saying things that the humanities figured out long ago as if it’s a new discovery (or, less charitably, that at times saying it as if it’s now justified because, hey, science says so) or, worse, ending up saying things that are completely inaccurate just because it fits into a nice, reductive scientific paradigm even though it contradicts, say, the history of art. Chwe definitely seems to hit that, and Lehrer is about as bad. But on to specific points:

    I’d like to see the quote from Chwe’s book that provoked this little outburst, since there is simply nothing in the review to suggest that Chwe was confused about Austen being a novelist, or to suggest that he thinks that her (alleged) insight into game theory is the only thing you need to know about her.

    Interestingly, a good quote of it is in the essay of Chwe’s you provide:

    When I began to read the novels of Jane Austen, I became convinced that Austen, by placing sophisticated characters in challenging, complex situations, was trying to explicitly analyze how people acted strategically. There was no fancy name for this kind of analysis in Austen’s time, but today we call it game theory. I believe that Austen anticipated the main ideas of game theory by more than a century.

    Deresiewicz’s point here, it seems to me, is that Chwe is holding her and her novels up as some kind of explicit research project into what we now call “game theory”, when that’s almost certainly not true. As Deresiewicz says about it:

    But neither Homer, nor Shakespeare, nor Austen, nor any other writer worth their salt believed that people think only strategically. You see, it is not enough for game theory to analyze strategic thought; at least in Chwe’s account, it regards such thinking as the exclusive explanation of human behavior. Chwe runs through a series of alternatives—emotions, instincts, habits, rules, social factors, ideology, intoxication (not being in your right mind), the constraints of circumstance—claiming to show that Austen rejects them as possible sources of action. But Austen wasn’t dumb enough to think that people never act out of habit or instinct or sudden emotion. All Chwe really shows is that she thought they shouldn’t.

    At BEST, she was identifying a set of behaviours that she thought people OUGHT to emulate, not studying what people really do. And at this point, we start getting into the conclusions as either being true but banal or interesting but almost certainly false. Presuming that people do make a lot of their choices based on game theory, and that novelists aim a lot of the time at reflecting, analysing and representing human expereince, it’s no surprise that they’d come up with excellent insights on human experience. It’s only if you don’t think those methods worthy of finding out true things that it might surprise you that they get those right answers, and that you’d feel better if science chimed in to confirm it. Most of those who study art, however, are unsuprised that it discovers these truths about human experience and don’t feel the need to have science provide a checkmark beside it to make the insights, well, insightful … and may even doubt that science CAN get all of those right. So that novelists provide insight into human nature is something we already knew, so Chwe didn’t need to push that. But he goes further, and suggests that she somehow was trying to push a fledgling scientific research project … instead of simply trying to produce great art. To produce great art requires insight into human experience, but that doesn’t mean that her REAL purpose was to simply gain insight into human experience instead rather than producing great art or, instead, ADVOCATING for a certain way of life. Chwe leans towards an idea that if she was trying to do science, then it was interesting, but other than that, well, it’s just art (the essay champions all of the “scientific” aspects of art, not its more artistic nature). Which follows on to what Lehrer, at least, seems to be saying:

    Before the middle of the nineteenth century, Lehrer believes, the arts were merely “pretty or entertaining.” (You know—Goya, Beethoven, Swift.) Then came modernism, inspired by the science of its time (a claim he never supports and, in seeking to align his subjects with the science of our time, frequently contradicts).

    The attitude that, unless inspired or linked to the science of the time, art is just “pretty or entertaining” but not insightful or meaningful would indeed be a scientistic claim by any reasonable definition … and both might, at least, make that claim. I’d have to read the books to say for certain, but it’s not an invalid complaint.

    To give another example, I took a Cognitive Science and Aesthetics course (graduate level philosophy), and into numerous cases where someone did some studies, came up with a scientific explanation, applied it to art history … and had all of those who really studied art in the course point out that art history didn’t go that way. That is indeed scientists making a hash out of going into the fields, but those were probably the BEST examples, and ended up that way mostly because the scientists just completely ignored what the actual fields that studied it had to say, which happens less when the humanities talk about science (they tend to not understand it, but don’t ignore it. Especially philosophy).

  3. #3 Kenny A. Chaffin
    February 27, 2014

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve been fighting this idiocy almost daily in a couple of discussion forums!

  4. #4 MNb
    February 27, 2014

    “to have science devour the humanities.”
    This seems to be an Anglo-Saxon issue largely. On the European continent most humanities are considered branches of science; not philosophy and theology though, even if philosophers and theologians can do science on occasion. Not that the continentals are entirely consistent. Strictly speaking we should not consider math a science either. Indeed when I was a teenager my teacher math told me math is a language. Back then I didn’t understand him; now I do.
    Anyhow, I prefer to define scientism as the idea that science provides the best if not the only form of knowledge. Like I wrote in that other thread science is characterized by using both induction and deduction. Most humanities totally do.
    In fact as a teacher math and physics I’m willing to argue that historical research gives us harder theories than even physics. We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that something will upward iso downward next month. But I don’t see how we reasonably can doubt that Octavianus was the first Emperor of Rome – or the age of the Universe.
    So hereby I proudly declare myself a scientismist.

  5. #5 MNb
    February 27, 2014

    will fall upward

  6. #6 eric
    February 27, 2014

    The attitude that, unless inspired or linked to the science of the time, art is just “pretty or entertaining” but not insightful or meaningful would indeed be a scientistic claim by any reasonable definition

    Well, let’s take Swift. I say he mixed political commentary with fiction. If I say this, am I practicing “politicism” because I’m not letting the value of his fiction stand on its literary own? Well, no. One can recognize that his purpose and product is more than just literature without insulting literature or being accused of trying to co-opt Swift away from literature and into political science.

    The same is true for Austin. Now I have no idea whether Austin wrote game theoretic concepts into her novels. Seems pretty farfetched to me; Chwe may just be flat wrong. But right or wrong, I don’t think his thesis is an attempt to steal her for science, co-opt her, or downplay the value of literature as a discipline any more than the thesis that Swift wrote political commentary is an attempt to steal him for political analysis, co-opt ihm, or downplay the value of his literature.

  7. #7 Verbose Stoic
    February 27, 2014

    eric,

    Lehrer’s comment is what I was referring to directly there, and he says exactly what I said, so your reply misses the point on that one, unless you deny that Lehrer did, in fact, really mean the strong point that it was the link to science that made it more than just pretty or entertaining. For Chwe, the problem is more that he — for no good reason — interprets Austin as explicitly DOING a fledgling game theory scientific analysis/explanation, and that’s what he focuses on in the essay Jason linked and what I think Deresiewicz calls him out on, which could imply that he sees the VALUE of her work and of art in general as providing that, at least in the sense of providing something insightful or meaningful. Lehrer, again, if that quote is at all right seems to be saying that, and Chwe might well be thinking that, in the sense that if it isn’t useful to or based on science, then it might be pleasant, but not really meaningful … and the artworld will disagree with that strongly.

    Again, I’m not going to say that they really are; I’d have to read the books for that. But to turn to your, do you agree that it would seem a bit problematic if someone insisted that Swift was “really” doing political science explicitly, especially if they made that a massive positive in their assessment of the work? Wouldn’t it imply that Swift couldn’t do political commentary as part of literature, but only as part of political science, and thus that literature couldn’t do insightful, meaningful, or perhaps “proper” political commentary? Again, the claim I’m working against is not that Austim wrote certain concepts INTO the works, but that the PURPOSE of the works was to do game theory.

  8. #8 Jim Harrison
    San Francisco
    February 27, 2014

    The votaries of scientific imperialism are folks who live at the bottom of a well and are sure that the sky is five feet across.
    The people who understand what’s going on aren’t the theologians, however, since the theologians are just guys in a different well. To get a better idea of the situation, you need to practice something like anthropological field work and look at what actual scientists actually do as opposed to what the ideologists of science say they do. Theorists of language can also help by pointing out that the universe of rational discourse has more dimensions than just saying x about y.

  9. #9 eric
    February 27, 2014

    Lehrer’s comment is what I was referring to directly there, and he says exactly what I said

    Yes but as far as I can tell, Chwe makes no such claim. He’s not saying that Austin’s novels would merely be pretty and entertaining if they weren’t linked to game theory.

    This is all getting very derivative. Deresiewicz is commenting on a book by Chwe. In the review, he goes on a tirade about Lehrer. Verbose Stoic then says that Deresiewicz’s quote of Lehrer, if accurate, is a good example of scientism. And this means Chwe is expressing scientism…how?

    Let’s bring this back to Chwe. Chwe is saying there is more than just literary meaning in Austin’s books, there is also game theory. Now Chwe might be wrong, but how does his claim detract or steal from Austin’s literary value? Its not like a book’s value is a fixed sum thing, where it only gets 10 points, the arts have claimed those 10 points up until now but science is trying to claim 5 of them so the arts can only get 5. Whatever new scientific value someone may discover in Austin’s books, their place in literature and their social value as literature will not be affected.

  10. #10 JimV
    February 27, 2014

    Yes, some scientists have said ridiculous things about art and philosophy, and some philosophers have, in recent memory, said ridiculous things about the mathematics of rational numbers. Or in general, creatures made by evolution tend to flail somewhat randomly in an environment which is new to them until they stumble onto less erroneous paths. Anyway, that is what science would predict.

    Hmmm, principles of game theory illustrated by the plots of Jane Austen novels – sounds like it could be an interesting read, if true.

    Proust as a neuroscientist also appeals to me, since the most direct observation one can make of how thinking works is by examining oneself. My self-examination in that regard (as for instance, in what I did to find a certain mathematical proof) has semi-convinced me that brains think using evolutionary algorithms.

    Here we are not talking about gaining useful insights about art from science but the reverse, obtaining insights about science from art, it seems to me. I can’t see anything bad in that attempt, but then I am not a philosophismist.

  11. #11 Another Matt
    February 27, 2014

    Though really, of course, [Shakespeare] was none of these. He was a dramatist, just as Austen was a novelist. She didn’t write textbooks, she had no use for concepts, and she wasn’t interested in making arguments. If she had a research program, as Chwe insists, it was into the techniques of fiction and the possibilities of the English language. She was no more a social theorist than Marx or Weber was a novelist.

    AAAAUGGH. This is just as bad, and insultingly romantic, in the other direction. Austen had no use for concepts? Really? And not interested in making arguments? Does one have to be a professional social theorist to have an understanding of the way a society is put together and how people behave in it? Is it not really social commentary and criticism (and I’m not sure how else you could read Austen!) unless it’s from someone who writes it up formally? I don’t understand why there’s so much turf-defending here.

    I’m a composer, and I often teach music theory. One thing that keeps popping up in class is this notion that an artist’s work just flows through them without them “really” understanding how it worked — “Beethoven just wrote what sounded good to him; he didn’t need to care about all these chords and functions and key relationships and…” Well, of course he had to think (profoundly) about these things to do what he did, but he may not have structured the data in the same way we do in a modern theory class. And on the other hand, someone who has no training in music, but who sits at the piano and plays “by ear,” still has an implicit theory constraining their playing, as surely as an illiterate person speaks using grammatical rules.

    “Intent” in art is another famous problem, and that’s what this disagreement seems to come down to. Let’s assume for the moment that what he says above is accurate — that Austen had no use for concepts or argumentation. Hell, let’s go even further and say “Austen was just trying to write good stories.” Does it matter at all whether she intended to illustrate something in game theory if it happens to be the case that her novels do in fact create constraints for her characters to interact in which have some similarity to ideas in game theory in order for us to validly point to that similarity?

    Sometimes I look at pieces of music I wrote 10-15 years ago and find things in my music I couldn’t possibly have intended, but which nevertheless operated according to pretty strict musical principles I now know about explicitly. Does the fact that my immediate interests and thoughts were elsewhere mean that I hadn’t “discovered” and employed those musical principles? I never was simply trying to “write what sounds good,” but it turns out to be the case that thinking about one dimension of something has non-random consequences in another dimension. I don’t see why there should be turf to defend when this happens.

  12. #12 eric
    February 27, 2014

    Does it matter at all whether she intended to illustrate something in game theory if it happens to be the case that her novels do in fact create constraints for her characters to interact in which have some similarity to ideas in game theory in order for us to validly point to that similarity?

    Sometimes I look at pieces of music I wrote 10-15 years ago and find things in my music I couldn’t possibly have intended,

    Indeed. It’s been a while since I played, but IIRC, Bach base lines often make for excellent blues. Oh, the horror of my Bluesism!!!

  13. #13 jane
    February 27, 2014

    MNb – “But I don’t see how we reasonably can doubt that Octavianus was the first Emperor of Rome … So hereby I proudly declare myself a scientismist.”

    But now you’re defining any aspect of life that involves knowledge of facts – let us not digress into the question of who decides what statements are facts! – as part of “science.” If that were true, every functioning human, as well as other intelligent animals, would have been doing “science” on a daily basis for millions of years, and it would be hard to dispute the primacy of science in [almost every aspect of life. You’ve learned what plants are best to eat or the best way to hunt rhino? – that’s science!

    But most people who display the attitudes that others call scientism may not even agree that a professional historian of the Roman era today is practicing science, much less that a Roman-era historian of the Roman republic would have been. Even the most perspicacious physicians of the Roman era, the ones who thoughtfully experimented with medicinal plants and invented a type of cataract surgery, were in these people’s eyes “pre-scientific” ignoramuses who possessed literally no knowledge of any value. (And the writings of the Roman philosophers do not get an obvious pass; there’s a strong hint that with modern reductionist neuropsychology we don’t need any of that silly old stuff.)

  14. #14 Michael Fugate
    February 27, 2014

    This seems to be one of those cases where someone complains that knowing a rainbow is due to the interaction of light and water droplets spoils somehow its beauty. How could a study of game theory in Austen’s novel do the same? Unless Chwe is claiming that his view is the only true view of Austen, then this is just idle whingeing. If Chwe’s book gets some scientists to read Austen so much the better. If a scientific analysis confirms an analysis by another method, then where is the harm? Have we discredited literary analysis or art criticism?

  15. #15 eric
    February 27, 2014

    Jane

    But most people who display the attitudes that others call scientism may not even agree that a professional historian of the Roman era today is practicing science, much less that a Roman-era historian of the Roman republic would have been. Even the most perspicacious physicians of the Roman era, the ones who thoughtfully experimented with medicinal plants and invented a type of cataract surgery, were in these people’s eyes “pre-scientific” ignoramuses who possessed literally no knowledge of any value.

    I would be interested to know what scientist thinks that a perspciacious physician of the Roman era possessed literally no knowledge of any value. If this is scientism, its likely a very empty set.

  16. #16 Ruese
    February 27, 2014

    [The humanities are genuinely under attack nowadays. Shrinking budgets and an increasingly corporate mindset in higher education have everyone trying to justify themselves on the grounds of immediate practical usefulness, which is not an easy argument for the humanities to make.]

    Human primates have reached the level of intellectual progress where they do not necessarily need a reward for their efforts. Humanities can persist despite financial oppression in the US and limiting restrictive budget. Higher education, if it falls short of standards, can be simply ignored instead of being voraciously absorbed. Humans have a choice. May be people should take on a greater view of things for once. It’s sickening to writhe on the bacterial level like this while getting victimized and rendered hapless.

  17. #17 jane
    February 27, 2014

    eric – Maybe you don’t hang out over at Respectful Insolence, where some denizens assert baldly that science is the only way to know anything at all – Verbose Stoic’s link above goes to some essays that nicely debunk that, in my view – and where it is also fashionable to dismiss all traditional medicine and the knowledge of professional physicians in past civilizations with the single utterance that these were “prescientific”, ergo worthless. Ignore the question of whether you like or hate herbal medicine; this is epistemologically problematic in a much broader sense. If cultures other than the recent West did not possess Science, and Science is the only route to knowledge, how did they manage to survive in the wild, much less develop sometimes elaborate technologies?

    The logical implication that past and non-Western people possessed no knowledge is both imbecilic and a bit sinister. So – as one of Verbose Stoic’s essays nicely notes – the defense against charges of scientism based on this contradiction is to waffle like mad about the definition of science. Oh, maybe every time a human – though not, gawd forbid, a parrot – engages in sensory perception and active contemplation of something in nature, he/she is doing science! (VS objects to that definition for what seem to me cogent reasons.) But this ultra-broad definition is virtually never applied consistently; next time a specific issue on which people disagree is discussed, almost certainly it will be only the credentialed experts who are considered to be “doing Science”.

  18. #18 jane
    February 27, 2014

    By the way, regarding “what scientist thinks that…” – it is an error to conflate “scientists” with “true believers in scientism” or vice versa. Most scientists – defined as people professionally doing science-as-process – are not so arrogant as to claim they have the sole route to any knowledge of value, and conversely you need not be a scientist to preach scientism. We need a different word o describe those who don’t do research but think only those who do – and get the “right” results – should be opinion molders; perhaps “sciencists”?

  19. #19 MNb
    February 27, 2014

    @13 Jane: “You’ve learned what plants are best to eat or the best way to hunt rhino? – that’s science!”
    As long as you have a testable theory why, yes. What’s the problem? Scientific thinking is something about every human can learn. What do you think I’m doing while teaching math and physics?
    @17: “some denizens assert baldly that science is the only way to know anything at all”
    I’m one of these, though I’ve never heard of Respectful Insolence. It’s essentially a tautology – any other definition of knowledge is just obfuscating iso clarifying.
    Science uses two objective methods (deduction and induction); any activity using those two objective methods is science; I define knowledge in terms of the results of these two objective methods. The only way to escape this is developing a third objective method. I’m not aware of any but would gladly welcome it – and I trust the vast majority of scientists would.

    “how did they manage to survive in the wild”
    Silly question. Before Homo Sapiens gazillions of other species managed to survive in the wild. Who ever claimed that science is a necessary condition for survival? Not me.

    “The logical implication that past and non-Western people …..”
    is not logical at all, but a non-sequitur.

    “though not, gawd forbid, a parrot ”
    I don’t know about you, but I don’t underestimate the intelligence of crows.
    Btw are you aware that for instance the Romans did a lot of active contemplation but were very lacklustre in the department of sensory perception? To give an even more extreme example: if Aristoteles had taken the effort to ask his wife to open her mouth he might have learned that his active contemplations on the amount of teeth in women’s mouths were actually wrong.

    @15 Eric: “If this is scientism, its likely a very empty set.”
    Indeed. This is why I formulated my defintion of scientism in the first place – to show that the way the word is used mostly is meaningless.

  20. #20 Lenoxus
    February 27, 2014

    jane:

    Maybe you don’t hang out over at Respectful Insolence, where some denizens assert baldly that science is the only way to know anything at all – Verbose Stoic’s link above goes to some essays that nicely debunk that, in my view – and where it is also fashionable to dismiss all traditional medicine and the knowledge of professional physicians in past civilizations with the single utterance that these were “prescientific”, ergo worthless. Ignore the question of whether you like or hate herbal medicine; this is epistemologically problematic in a much broader sense.”

    It may be exaggeration on their part, but I think it’s an understandable reaction to the thousands of people who work every day to convince desperate and/or sick people that they should use things like homeopathy (which is of entirely “Western” origin), or reiki, or herbs, or prayer, and should avoid things like vaccines, chemotherapy, or “chemicals” (good luck with the last one).

    Western folks can get silly about this stuff, I admit. We often think of the development of modern science in terms of its place in the history of “the West”. But science as understood by sciencists (to use your term) is by no means “Western”. Many would agree that the first real scientists were the contributors to the Islamic Golden age, people like Alhazen. (A Golden Age which coincided with the Western “dark ages”.)

    I don’t think that, say, Japan had to sit and wait for enlightened Europeans to bring it real science. The process of science’s development has always been global and multicultural, eg, ancient Greek manuscripts being translated by Christians in the Middle East, Arabs building upon some Greek ideas and fixing the mistakes while creating whole new worlds in math, astronomy, engineering, then some of that stuff making its way to Europe in time for the Renaissance, and so forth. I would assume that Asia had more of a role in all that than my blinkered American education let on.

    Anyway, a lot of fields weren’t really thoroughly scientific until quite recently, especially medicine. (Four-humors thinking is no more scientific than the Eastern counterparts.) Of course there were valuable medical discoveries before the late 1800s, but I would say that modern scientific practices are indeed the only worthy sieve to separate the wheat from the chaff, and these practices are done worldwide. We shouldn’t get too worked up up an idea’s origin, except insofar as we may be wasting our time testing something we shouldn’t expect to work (especially something chemically absurd like homeopathy, less so when it comes to herbal remedies).

    Of course a society can can lack rigorous science but still have enough true and valuable knowledge to be a civilization; I don’t personally define science and worthy knowledge as synonymous.

  21. #21 Jr
    February 27, 2014

    I did not have your reaction when reading the essay. As for “over-reliance” on science not being a problem in America, that is simply besides the point.

    It is still possible that there are some scientists that try to take over the humanities using stupid arguments. And if you think the reputation of science is too low, you should note that humanities get even less respect.

    As for the book in question, already the title sounds cringe-worthy. For one thing, game theory is something pretty specific, not just the realization that people act strategically sometimes. I do not remember Austen discussing Nash equilibria or mixed strategies.

    For another, it seems to confuse what science is about. Maybe Austen had some sort of implicit understanding of game theory, but that does not make her a game theorist anymore than the fact that she knew English grammar makes her a linguist or a baseball play a physicist because they can compute where a ball will end up. Science somehow has to involve making knowledge explicit and systematized.

  22. #22 jane
    February 27, 2014

    MNb – Not a “silly” question by my values. Which plants are good foods vs. which are drugs, poisons or just unpalatable is, unquestionably, knowledge. If knowledge comes only from science, then any animal that must learn skills and knowledge to survive is doing science. This makes the concept of science so broad as to be totally meaningless, so I reject it – as do most of those who proffer it in this type of argument, outside of the specific context of that argument.

    Not a non sequitur either. Let me spell out the implied argument for you: Premise 1: Knowledge can be gained only from Science. Premise 2: The !Kung San have no Science. Conclusion: The !Kung San possess no knowledge. That’s both loony and ugly, which is why the same people may espouse both Premises 1 and 2, but almost never openly espouse both at the same time. Instead, when they’re defending Premise 1 they come up with definitions of “science” that would have given Noah Webster an apoplectic fit.

    Verbose Stoic disagrees with you that any mental activity using induction and deduction is science, by the way. Among other things, he says that common reasoning includes both induction and deduction but lacks the formal skepticism of science. If I understand correctly, in science you may often say that no hypothesis about a particular subject is adequately proven so you refuse to accept any of them – “sciencists” occasionally treat this as a reason for fervent belief in the culturally preferable option – whereas in ordinary life, you often have to tentatively believe something in order to function at all, even if supporting evidence for any of the possible choices is imperfect. (Right? VS, you still around?)

    Lenozus – I agree with you about the greatly underestimated value of medieval Arab science, which by any non-cultural definition was science in the strict sense, though the word was not used. You favor a much stricter definition of science than Mnb is for the moment proffering, yet you also acknowledge that knowledge does not come only from formal science; therefore, you’re not promoting a scientistic view. Most of those who do would reject work by medieval Arab scientists out of hand.

  23. #23 Verbose Stoic
    February 27, 2014

    eric,

    Yes but as far as I can tell, Chwe makes no such claim. He’s not saying that Austin’s novels would merely be pretty and entertaining if they weren’t linked to game theory.

    Not explicitly, no, but no one said he was saying so explicitly. But both Deresiewicz and myself are not, in fact, saying that about Chwe. My explicit quote of a problem in Chwe was in my original comment and was from the essay Jason cited:

    When I began to read the novels of Jane Austen, I became convinced that Austen, by placing sophisticated characters in challenging, complex situations, was trying to explicitly analyze how people acted strategically. There was no fancy name for this kind of analysis in Austen’s time, but today we call it game theory. I believe that Austen anticipated the main ideas of game theory by more than a century.

    This quote seems to suggest that what Austen was REALLY doing in her novels was game theory analysis, presumably as opposed to at least “mere” literature. THAT’S what Deresiewicz and myself are saying — well, I’m hinting, really — is scientistic, as I, at least, say that it can easily IMPLY that the REAL worth in Austen is from her attempt to actually do game theory, as opposed to her attempt to, say, produce good works of literature that reflect human nature. If all Chwe is trying to say is that she found and expressed things about human nature that line up with modern game theory, then that’s banal and uninteresting, as no one should be surprised that artists find and express interesting things about human experience, and to be surprised at that seems rather odd. On the other hand, if he’s trying to say something stronger then he’s almost certainly wrong.

    Another Matt #11:

    Sometimes I look at pieces of music I wrote 10-15 years ago and find things in my music I couldn’t possibly have intended, but which nevertheless operated according to pretty strict musical principles I now know about explicitly. Does the fact that my immediate interests and thoughts were elsewhere mean that I hadn’t “discovered” and employed those musical principles? I never was simply trying to “write what sounds good,” but it turns out to be the case that thinking about one dimension of something has non-random consequences in another dimension. I don’t see why there should be turf to defend when this happens.

    The problem here would be if you were just trying to make music that sounded good, hit on certain harmonic properties, and someone came along and said that your PURPOSE was to find and study those harmonic properties, and thus at some level that you were really trying to do science and not create art. Surely even you’d bristle a bit at someone who said that you weren’t trying to create art …

    jane,

    I’m glad you enjoyed my serieson Scientism.

  24. #24 Verbose Stoic
    February 27, 2014

    jane,

    Verbose Stoic disagrees with you that any mental activity using induction and deduction is science, by the way. Among other things, he says that common reasoning includes both induction and deduction but lacks the formal skepticism of science. If I understand correctly, in science you may often say that no hypothesis about a particular subject is adequately proven so you refuse to accept any of them – “sciencists” occasionally treat this as a reason for fervent belief in the culturally preferable option – whereas in ordinary life, you often have to tentatively believe something in order to function at all, even if supporting evidence for any of the possible choices is imperfect. (Right? VS, you still around?)

    Pretty much. The key is that just because you use induction/deduction or reason/empirical data doesn’t suddenly make you science, because there are other factors that make science what it is, and successful at what it does. It’s reasonable to suggest — and Larry Moran is explicit about this — that skepticism is an important part of science. Everyday reasoning is a way of knowing and is not skeptical. But that skepticism is what makes science good at what it does; it tends to not accept things until it’s really pretty convinced they’re true (even as it doesn’t require deductive certainty). But that’s slow; it can take a long time to accept a proposition, which doesn’t work when you have to deal with a lot of propositions in a short amount of time. Hence, everyday reasoning drops that, while accepting that that will mean that we’ll adopt more propositions that are false. As for philosophy, it drops the empirical focus of both science and everyday reasoning, but that’s really important when deal with concepts and normative claims that are about how things might possibly or ought to be, not about how things really are.

  25. #25 Ruese
    February 27, 2014

    [Upon surveying the American landscape these days, it’s hard to believe that an over-reliance on science is something we need to worry about.]

    On the contrary…To be precise, it’s actually really frightening to realize what science does to the people in the US, and on top of all, how eugenicist American scientists are, even though most of them try to convince you that no knowledge accumulated by your direct ancestors gets recorded in your DNA and gets passed on from one generation to the next. This should precisely mean that each human baby is born free of all the knowledge accumulated by humanity as well as abilities and predispositions towards abilities, and needs to be educated, taught, trained and developed from scratch in order to be able to become… eh… whatever they must become.

    However, if you take a look at the amount of knowledge American scientists force into humans, while convincing them that they are only primates…very closely related to chimpanzees…can be quantified as nothing but pure cruelty considering that that’s what it is when it comes to other primates. If these scientists do the same to another life form, a chimpanzee, for instance, this will be quantified as extreme cruelty. How do American scientists reconcile these contradictions, and what makes them think that they have the right to perform such manipulations on human life form? Were they, perhaps, done the same to before they acquired at least some self-awareness, if at all?

    I think these scientists must really think of themselves as gods created… So much for the efficacy of psych meds… Scientific approach to biolife is, by far, more religious than any other form of organized religion exploits.

  26. #26 Lenoxus
    February 27, 2014

    Jr:

    I do not remember Austen discussing Nash equilibria or mixed strategies.

    I suddenly crave for a Kate Beaton comic to portray this.

  27. #27 MNb
    February 27, 2014

    @Jane: Let me grant you, at least temporarily, that using deduction and induction provide necessary conditions for calling an activity science, but not sufficient ones, not even together. Then which proposals do you have to narrow the definition of science further?

  28. #28 J. R. "Bob" Dobbs
    February 27, 2014

    @25

    Hopefully you have a drool cover over your keyboard

  29. #29 eric
    February 27, 2014

    Jane @17 and @18,
    If accusations of scientism are limited to Respectful Insolence lurkers who claim Hippocrates knew literally nothing of value, I’d be inclined to agree with you.

    But consider the main topic of the post. Chwe is being accused of scientism for suggesting that Austin’s Pride and Prejudice talks about game theory. Do you think that’s a valid accusation? I don’t.

  30. #30 eric
    February 27, 2014

    If I understand correctly, in science you may often say that no hypothesis about a particular subject is adequately proven so you refuse to accept any of them – “sciencists” occasionally treat this as a reason for fervent belief in the culturally preferable option

    Scientists use hypotheses to help them design experiments. In that respect, it is pretty much impossible to reject *all of them* because you need an hypothesis to help you figure out what data is most likely to help you discover something you’re interested in. What typically happens if there is no commonly accepted one is that a lot of different scientists explore different hypotheses, until one starts being the clear winner in terms of being useful, fruitful, and successful at prediction.

    It may be biased if, when there is no clear frontrunner, a scientist picks some hypothesis because it conforms to some culturally acceptable notion. But they gotta pick something, and frankly I think it would do far more damage to science to police what they pick than it would be just to let them pick it. These are hypotheses, after all, not theories. If someone picks wrong, that doesn’t change what kids learn in school or what we teach as scientific truth. What happens when a scientist picks the wrong hypothesis to investigate is that their experiment fails to pan out. That’s it. They waste some time and money, and hopefully they learned something, but investigating a bad hypothesis is not a scientific sin. Its pretty much inevitable over the course of ones’ career.

    VS @23:

    This quote seems to suggest that what Austen was REALLY doing in her novels was game theory analysis, presumably as opposed to at least “mere” literature. THAT’S what Deresiewicz and myself are saying — well, I’m hinting, really — is scientistic,

    OKay, so Chwe stated he thinks Austin was “really” doing something that the rest of us don’t think she was doing. Why is this not standard, classic literary criticism? Are the folks who claim Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare scientistic? Shakespeareistic?

    It seems to me that claiming authors really meant something that most people don’t think they mean fits very well within the subject of literature. Can you explain to me why we should throw up our arms and get offended when someone claims an author really meant something sciency, but accept it as legitimate literary examination when someone claims an author really meant something historic or political or poetic or whatever?

  31. #31 Blaine
    February 28, 2014

    One definition of scientism is the position that science is the only way of obtaining knowledge. Other than the basic truths one obtains by living such as the grass is green, my children love me, if I plant seeds in the spring, I can harvest in the fall, I can construct a roof with the proportions 3-4-5, etc, I have never once been given an example of ‘another way of knowing’. What are these other ways of knowing the scientism critics believe exist?

  32. #32 Another Matt
    February 28, 2014

    The problem here would be if you were just trying to make music that sounded good, hit on certain harmonic properties, and someone came along and said that your PURPOSE was to find and study those harmonic properties, and thus at some level that you were really trying to do science and not create art. Surely even you’d bristle a bit at someone who said that you weren’t trying to create art …

    That’s kind of my point — “purpose” is something of a red herring. Chwe’s mistake is to indicate that Austen was “trying to do” game theory (that’s actually not quite what he said), not because it wasn’t Austen’s purpose in writing, but because her intent is not all that relevant to whether or not it’s valid to read her novels from a game theory perspective.

    A composer has to have thick skin — I don’t think I’d bristle at anyone saying much of anything about my work or what I was trying to do. I suppose I do go about it somewhat “scientifically,” in that I tend to work out compositional models and then “test” them in compositions, I try not to rely on my intuitions too heavily when I’m making decisions, and I have a process that involves a lot of deductive and inductive reasoning. But whether or not it really is art isn’t a question I ask myself very often, and I don’t think the answer matters all that much. I don’t think it belongs in science class, though.

  33. #33 Another Matt
    February 28, 2014

    Blaine’s question is a very good one, and I think the answer depends a lot on how conservative you want to be with what you think “knowledge” is. In German, there are two verbs “to know” — wissen (to know, as in a fact — propositional knowledge) and kennen (to know, as in “I know Jason” — familiarity). Do both count? There’s a lot of “kennen” that may or may not count as knowledge.

    Or imagine someone says, “I learned a lot about religious belief by reading Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor Parable from The Brothers Karamazov.” Do you take them to mean that they gained propositional knowledge about religious belief, that they couldn’t have possibly learned without doing the proper study, so they are mistaken? Do you take them to mean that they learned a new way of thinking about or interpreting the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels that they hadn’t thought of before? If it’s the latter, is it knowledge, or if not, can it be cashed out in terms of propositional knowledge, e.g. “I learned what Dostoevsky thought Ivan would have written about Christianity had he been a real person”? Would this latter statement be missing something in its understanding of the parable, in that the actual content of the passage seems to be left out?

    I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. This conversation never gets anywhere because everyone comes to it with different ideas about what they think counts as knowledge, what counts as science, and so forth, but we keep trying to use the two words as though everyone agrees.

  34. #34 MNb
    February 28, 2014

    @Blaine: “What are these other ways of knowing the scientism critics believe exist?”
    And these ways must be objective ones, like induction and deduction. So not faith and revelation.

  35. #35 Frank Wappler
    http://as.you.wish
    February 28, 2014

    jrosenhouse wrote (February 27, 2014):
    > [...] The subhead of the online version of Deresiewicz’s essay is “Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both,” [...]

    Well — is there some general measure of “Intricacy” (for lack of knowing any more appropriate technical term), to characterize, compare, measure(!)

    – social situations, screen plays, …
    – business models, criminal schemes, …
    – chemical, biological, ecological, or administrative “control structures” …
    – chess positions, …

    ?

  36. #36 Verbose Stoic
    February 28, 2014

    eric,

    Scientists use hypotheses to help them design experiments. In that respect, it is pretty much impossible to reject *all of them* because you need an hypothesis to help you figure out what data is most likely to help you discover something you’re interested in. What typically happens if there is no commonly accepted one is that a lot of different scientists explore different hypotheses, until one starts being the clear winner in terms of being useful, fruitful, and successful at prediction.

    And it’s only once it gets to be that clear winner — meaning is confirmed to an acceptable degree — that science will indeed claim to know it. Science — and even scientists — will not claim to KNOW that something that its only a hypothesis is true, even if they, at some level, believe it to be. And when talking about ways of knowing, we really want to focus on when science considers it knowledge.

    OKay, so Chwe stated he thinks Austin was “really” doing something that the rest of us don’t think she was doing. Why is this not standard, classic literary criticism? Are the folks who claim Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare scientistic? Shakespeareistic?

    Because if he was just doing that, he’d claim that the purpose of her novels is to explore and represent strategic relationships, and point to how it aligns to game theory as simply evidence of that. He wouldn’t say that she was really DOING what we call game theory today. She’s not. She’s doing literature, and literature explores and represents human experience and relationships. You still seem to be missing the idea that he’s saying — we claim — that her PURPOSE in writing the novels was essentially to experiment in game theory — ie do science — instead of to explore and represent human experience, which is doing art.

    Blaine @31,

    What are these other ways of knowing the scientism critics believe exist?

    My series explored that, but I assert that there are at least three ways of knowing: science, everyday reasoning, and philosophy. All of them reliably produce true beliefs, but do so in ways that are incompatible with each other, such that if you lumped them all into one category you’d STILL have to treat them differently. For example, science seems committed to skepticism, but everyday reasoning isn’t, and while science and everyday reasoning generally require empirical validation for all knowledge, philosophy does not (for VERY good reason; see positivism).

    So far, I don’t consider mathematics itself a way of knowing, because I don’t see any major difference in its method from, say, philosophy. But I could be wrong about that.

    Another Matt @33:

    Chwe’s mistake is to indicate that Austen was “trying to do” game theory (that’s actually not quite what he said), not because it wasn’t Austen’s purpose in writing, but because her intent is not all that relevant to whether or not it’s valid to read her novels from a game theory perspective.

    If all he was saying was that you can use game theory to analyze the interactions between her characters, or even that she was trying to highlight that in her works, or even that she was advocating that people act strategically — ie in line with game theory — rather than emotionally, no one would have batted an eye. Although, even in that case, his seeming surprise is problematic. After all, if he’s right you can analyze the behaviour of people using game theoretical concepts. Art is about representing and commenting on the behaviour of people. Why, then, is he so surprised that Austen represents human behaviour right? Shouldn’t we EXPECT great artists to get it right? So, then ,is his surprise only because he thinks that only real scientific study can get such accurate answers?

    Yes, that’s very much running through implications, so I wouldn’t hold that as truth, but only as a possibility that I wouldn’t raise outside of a discussion on what he means. But how impressed he is is definitely a point against him in the scientism debate.

    Another Matt @33:

    In some sense here, it’s the people accused of scientism who need to define knowledge, and not those doing the accusation, because a lot of those accused of scientism are the ones who insist on talking about ways of knowing. But I think in these discussions pretty much everyone is using the propositional definition, not the familiarity one. What some proponents of the arts as giving knowledge in a different way get wrong is to count transmission of knowledge as the same think as generation of knowledge, because you end up with new knowledge at the end of both processes, but they miss out the key part of knowledge, which is justification. Taking your example, reading that book doesn’t JUSTIFY a claim that I know those things; if I made the claim, and someone challenged it, it would not justify saying that the proposition must be true because I read it in that book. It’s only transmitted by the book, not justified by it. But the book might itself be justified by something else that we can appeal to.

  37. #37 Verbose Stoic
    February 28, 2014

    Forgot to close the first blockquote; the first paragraph is eric’s …

  38. #38 eric
    February 28, 2014

    VS:

    Because if he [Chwe] was just doing that, he’d claim that the purpose of her novels is to explore and represent strategic relationships, and point to how it aligns to game theory as simply evidence of that. He wouldn’t say that she was really DOING what we call game theory today. She’s not. She’s doing literature

    I say Swift was DOING political science. Does this make me a politicist?
    And why can’t he – and Chwe – do both simultaneously? Your whole argument seems to be based on the assumption that someone can’t DO do two things with one story. That seems to be a bit blinkered, given all the things we DO with stories.

  39. #39 eric
    February 28, 2014

    MNb:

    @Blaine: “What are these other ways of knowing the scientism critics believe exist?”
    And these ways must be objective ones, like induction and deduction. So not faith and revelation.

    Its a good question. I also think a fruitful discussion with theists, postmodernists etc can be had by having thme describe what they consider knowledge and then methods to get that, without necessarily making judgement about whether science agrees with their definitions. This has the advantage of allowing for conditional conclusions (“If knowledge is defined as X, then ways A, B, and C can give it). But more importantly, it prevents prevarication and dodging, and lays open that the only way things like revelation can be considered a “ways of knowing” is if someone has a fairly radical definition of knowing.

  40. #40 musical beef
    February 28, 2014

    @Another Matt:

    I agree with what you’ve written up at 11. If there are aspects of Austen’s writing that are describable in terms of game theory, then there are aspects of her writing that are describable in terms of game theory, whether she intended it or not. I remember we had a similar conversation some time ago about describing certain portions of Schubert’s music as octatonic. Perhaps certain portions of it can be described that way.

    But I think Verbose Stoic’s concern is a legitimate one, and invoking the intentional fallacy doesn’t quite deal with it. I don’t recall who made the claim (Taruskin?) but calling Schubert’s music “octatonic” when the very phenomena in question also have traditional tonal explanations, and which explanations Schubert himself would’ve used, is unnecessary at best, disingenuous at worst. It kind of strikes me as numerology. I’m sure there are passages in the works of many even earlier composers that might admit of similar such retrofitting.

    I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the importance of intent. Can something interesting result from the hunting and pecking of an amateur musician? Sure. Should we give this person a Pulitzer? I don’t think so. This is another problem with the intentional fallacy. It gives primacy to the wrong res artis (to coin a term). When I listen to, say, Brahms, I am not only listening to pitches and timbres. These are simply (well, perhaps not “simply”) the media with which Brahms conveys ideas and logic and relationships; ie, things that require us to recognize his intent. And it’s the intent that we celebrate, or rather, it’s his ability to intend those things that we celebrate. The intentional fallacy encourages us to concentrate on the medium rather than the message.

    Can we set a Shakespeare play in the future? Can we perform orchestral Bach transcriptions? Can we get aesthetic satisfaction from giving old works an interpretation not intended by their author? Sure. But I don’t think the intentional fallacy has much to say beyond this. I don’t think it really has anything to say about judging the merit of a given piece or the skill of its author – and discerning intent is key in doing this.

  41. #41 jane
    February 28, 2014

    MNb – Well, some philosophers include in “science” the concept of deliberate skepticism. I would settle for applying a dictionary definition. Not all learning and all thinking about material things can be “science”, or “science” becomes virtually meaningless. And those who most strongly favor the primacy of Science do not in most contexts think that what non-experts learn from personal experience qualifies.

    Eric – I’m not getting into the “game theory” argument. It seems to me silly, more than scientistic, to say that Jane Austen was “really doing game theory.” OTOH, it would be scientism to feel that the insights of writers, humanists and philosophers into human nature were valid, interesting or important only to the extent that they jibed with currently fashionable scientific views.

    You confuse “not accepting a hypothesis” with “rejecting” it. What you explain in your first paragraph is true in many scientific fields – as a professional scientist, I’m familiar with the approach – but if you had accepted one of those hypotheses and presumed it to be true, you’d proceed differently or at least think differently. Constantly in daily life we are confronted with physical events and human behaviors that have multiple possible causes, and we don’t have enough evidence to be adequately confident which is true. But we simply have to tentatively presume that the best-seeming one of them is true in order to respond appropriately. When you’re dealing with an abstruse lab question, you have the luxury of not presuming any to be true or false. Scientism to me includes using the mantle of Science in such situations to justify demands for belief in the uncertain hypothesis that the speaker favors for cultural or ideological reasons, or to reject everyday-reasoning choices that he similarly dislikes.

    Blaine and MNb – Blaine seems first to deny the complaint that science is being presented as the only way to know anything, then to say that it is true – except for the vast array of facts we acquire just by living and paying attention. To me those are important facts. MNb then adds the dictate that other ways of knowing must be “objective”, though he has not provided objective proof that this must be so. I suggest that you do follow Verbose Stoic’s link and scan down the page to one of his posts that has a nice discussion of ways of knowing. They include science, everyday reasoning (how you learn that the grass is green, etc.), mathematics (not the same as science), and philosophy, as well as some other things you will consider mushy. He does not consider “faith” to be a way of knowing, by the way, rather a prescription for belief in some set of hypotheses that are supposed to be “known” by other means.

    Eric says we should try to define knowledge. That would be helpful, but it’s tricky. Someone on one of these blogs a few weeks ago tried giving the three-part philosophical definition and was heaped with abuse because it stated “the person believes X” BEFORE stating “X is true”, quel horreur. We can’t say that only things that are certainly true are known, because practically nothing is certainly true. Philosophical reasoning can lead to wrong answers and disagreement, but so can science. If we reject the former way of knowing, we throw up our hands and say we can have no ethical principles, because contra the ethically repulsive Sam Harris, Science is not able to provide them.

  42. #42 Another Matt
    February 28, 2014

    I don’t recall who made the claim (Taruskin?) but calling Schubert’s music “octatonic” when the very phenomena in question also have traditional tonal explanations, and which explanations Schubert himself would’ve used, is unnecessary at best, disingenuous at worst.

    Yeah, it’s just a problem with terminology being already laden by associations. When we say “octatonic” in a 20th-century context, we’re usually talking about passages of music — in Bartók or Stravinsky, say — which use octatonic scales as the basis both of melody and harmony, and the harmony is not necessarily triadic. And a lot of time it fits the data better than the various polytonalities one might posit.

    On the other hand, in Neo-Riemannian theory (this is Hugo Riemann, not Bernhard), “octatonic progression” is just a shorthand for a triadic passage with minor-third relations, because if you progress via minor third, an octatonic collection pops out. Same with “hexatonic progression” and major-third progressions. It seems clear that at least Wagner and Brahms were aware of these collections; for instance one could infer from the opening of Brahms’s second string sextet, in G, that the most simple explanation for what is going on there is deliberate exploitation of the hexatonic collection in the context of major-third progressions. But whether or not he knew about it doesn’t matter that much, because there are hundreds of ways into a piece like that, and none of them stand or fall based on what Brahms would have thought about it. Which is why I disagree a bit with this:

    I don’t think it really has anything to say about judging the merit of a given piece or the skill of its author – and discerning intent is key in doing this.

    I think you can infer an author’s skill regardless of what you think his intent is, but our problem is that it’s extremely difficult to approach art without some kind of (at least implicit) perceiving theory in play. Something interesting could certainly result from the hunting and pecking of an amateur, but it’s extremely unlikely to be anything like the utterly ramified harmonic, contrapuntal, and motivic structure of a Brahms intermezzo, but we don’t, as I think you’d point out, look at Brahms’s music as though we were totally unfamiliar with any music and grasp the relationships from a “blank slate.” To some extent we are making assumptions about Brahms’s intent — to work within a tradition, to extend tonality, etc. But just as much it is about accepting his music as part of a milieu which operates along some of the same principles as other music from his century. I think we’re more comparing his output with an artistic norm induced from the canon at large, than we are judging his music on his intent to match or subvert those norms. The intentional fallacy works because we’re not in a cultural vacuum, not in spite of that fact.

  43. #43 Michael Fugate
    February 28, 2014

    @36

    there are at least three ways of knowing: science, everyday reasoning, and philosophy.

    So where does that put art, literature, history and theology?

  44. #44 eric
    February 28, 2014

    Jane:

    Eric – I’m not getting into the “game theory” argument. It seems to me silly, more than scientistic, to say that Jane Austen was “really doing game theory.” OTOH, it would be scientism to feel that the insights of writers, humanists and philosophers into human nature were valid, interesting or important only to the extent that they jibed with currently fashionable scientific views.

    I agree. Chwe’s work may be silly but it’s not scientism. And what you proffer is a reasonable way of describing scientism.

  45. #45 Verbose Stoic
    February 28, 2014

    eric,

    And why can’t he – and Chwe – do both simultaneously?

    First, we aren’t convinced at all that Chwe is claiming that she did both instead of saying that she was really doing game theoretical analysis.

    Second, even if that’s what Chwe is saying, it’s better, but still problematic, since the traits he’s pointing to demonstrate that she was doing game theoretical analysis are things you would expect to see if she was only doing literature. The only reason to even consider her to be doing game theoretical analysis there is to — consciously or unconsciously — doubt that just doing literature would get those traits, which she’d have to be certainly doing under the “she’s doing both’ interpretation. That’s what ties it back to Lehrer, who explicitly says that art was merely entertainment until it started bringing in science. Chwe, here, would seem to be implying the opposite: that there are insights of a certain kind, and therefore she couldn’t be MERELY doing literature. And that’s if we aren’t just willing to say that he has no idea what he’s talking about, which does not bode well for someone who wrote an entire book on the subject.

    Michael Fugate,

    So where does that put art, literature, history and theology?

    Note that I said “At least” there, but I didn’t comment explicitly on theology in my series: to the extent that it is philosophical, it can produce knowledge, but it uses the philosophical method and so comes under philosophy. For the others, you’d have to demonstrate that it can produce/justify knowledge claims and doesn’t merely transmit knowledge, and that it has a method that is substantively different from the other three. Here I said that I doubted that mathematics fit that, but in my original series I said that it clearly did. In thinking about it, it’s because of its reliance on AXIOMS to demonstrate everything, and thus the lack of any need to justify its claims empirically at all. Science and everyday reasoning reject that, and philosophy rejects starting from axioms. History likely is as well; it can’t be skeptical like science, but has to strongly systematic which everyday reasoning rejects, but needs an empirical basis which philosophy rejects, and isn’t about concepts. Whether we have a “history” way of knowing or instead a “social science” way of knowing is open to debate (I think the latter is more likely).

  46. #46 Verbose Stoic
    February 28, 2014

    jane,

    Someone on one of these blogs a few weeks ago tried giving the three-part philosophical definition and was heaped with abuse because it stated “the person believes X” BEFORE stating “X is true”, quel horreur.

    Obviously, whoever did that is unaware that ALL of those conditions have to be met before it’s knowledge; there’s no prioritization in the statements, and you could put them in in any order and the meaning would be the same.

    We can’t say that only things that are certainly true are known, because practically nothing is certainly true.

    I always hate seeing this statement, because the field whose sole job it is to try to figure out what knowledge really is — epistemology — rejected certainty a long, long time ago. And yet so many people still seem to think that to know something means you have to be certain, or even have no doubts about it. That just ain’t so.

  47. #47 musical beef
    February 28, 2014

    @Another Matt

    I found the reference. It was Taruskin. He seems to be claiming that the way Stravinsky used the octatonic collection was handed down by a chain of composers including Liszt and Schubert. He also acknowledges that you can dig up octatonic collections almost anywhere if you really want to, so it’s not quite as eyebrow-raising a claim as I remembered. I wish the hyperlink in Schubert’s name wasn’t broken because I’d love to see exactly what in his music was being claimed for Stravinsky-style octatonicism.

    I’m aware of how those collections can emerge when composers exploit certain relationships, even if the composers aren’t using the collection as source material. And I don’t think this is an uninteresting type of thing to note, as I may have implied above. Just as I wouldn’t think it uninteresting to note aspects of game theory that may have emerged from Austen’s writing. I just think it’s a mistake to claim that those observations necessarily have anything to do with why the composer put that pitch in that spot, to bring this back to the issue of intent. You can find vertical simultaneities in Bach that some people describe as clusters. Perhaps on one level it’s ok to use that description. But I think it’s a mistake to *explain* those simultaneities as clusters, given that Bach had other reasons for lining up the pitches in question.

    I think we may be at cross-purposes regarding the intentional fallacy. I don’t think anything I wrote assumes that we evaluate art in a vacuum. I agree with you, I don’t think that would even be possible. Perhaps you’re thinking of “intent” more as “the correct interpretation”, and I’m using “intent” to mean almost “responsible for”. If I were dodging a car, I might accidentally perform some intricate gymnastics maneuver, but I would not be responsible for doing so, and I wouldn’t deserve a gold medal. The intentional fallacy puts all the emphasis on the maneuver, as if it has some intrinsic, Platonic wonderfulness. I think the emphasis belongs on the ability of the gymnasts to do those maneuvers repeatedly. If you’re not judging what someone intended to do, but an accident, then what’s the point?

  48. #48 jane
    February 28, 2014

    You know that, I know that…

    I guess I don’t mean to claim that anything is certain – though there are certain blogs around here where you’ll be savaged for saying otherwise. What I do mean is that there is no way to distinguish between the situation where someone believes X and has adequate [who decides??] reason to believe it, and it is true, vs. the situation where someone believes X and has adequate reason to believe it, but it is not true. If to preserve the use of the useful verb “know” we have to always interpret it as meaning “know beyond a reasonable doubt” or where appropriate, as in everyday reasoning, “know by a preponderance of the evidence”, I’m happy with that.

  49. #49 Michael Fugate
    February 28, 2014

    @45 – that theology has no empirical component would be rejected by many people. Ian Barbour, for instance, would claim that transcendent experiences are the basis of theological knowledge.

  50. #50 Verbose Stoic
    February 28, 2014

    @45 – that theology has no empirical component would be rejected by many people. Ian Barbour, for instance, would claim that transcendent experiences are the basis of theological knowledge.

    Philosophy doesn’t refuse to use empirical data or investigations, but just denies that all knowledge claims have to be justified by empirical data. That would definitely still fit with the theology you describe.

  51. #51 Michael Fugate
    February 28, 2014

    What you mean is that you think philosophy can justify knowledge claims without empirical data? It doesn’t do it with empirical data or else it would be one of the other two methods? Barbour would appear to believe that theology justified by transcendent experiences to be science? everyday reasoning? Or how does philosophy based on empirical data differ from science?

  52. #52 eric
    February 28, 2014

    VS:

    First, we aren’t convinced at all that Chwe is claiming that she did both instead of saying that she was really doing game theoretical analysis.

    Well that’s extremely uncharitable. Neither of us has read his book, yet you’re going to accuse the man of scientism because it’s possible that he is claiming Jane freakin’ Austin’s work is not literature???

    even if that’s what Chwe is saying, it’s better, but still problematic, since the traits he’s pointing to demonstrate that she was doing game theoretical analysis are things you would expect to see if she was only doing literature.

    If the traits hes pointing to are things you would expect from literature, then he’s doing standard literary analysis. He may be wrong about the game theory stuff, but I fail to see how you can accuse him of scientism if you are going to say that the points he’s making are literary points!!!

  53. […] book review I discussed in Wednesday’s post is an example of a “hatchet job.” This is a literary form in which the goal is not merely to […]

  54. #54 Verbose Stoic
    March 2, 2014

    eric,

    Well that’s extremely uncharitable. Neither of us has read his book, yet you’re going to accuse the man of scientism because it’s possible that he is claiming Jane freakin’ Austin’s work is not literature???

    This objection would have more force if:

    1) The one person in this whole thread — including Jason — who has actually read the book — Deresiewicz — wasn’t saying that that is exactly what Chwe is saying (he even contrasts that with Lehrer).

    2) I hadn’t provided the quote from the essay Jason provided that does seem to say that.

    3) I hadn’t said in I think at least two places that I’d need to read the book to know for certain.

    Which, on re-reading, is clearly where the whole post goes off the rails, as Jason says this:

    Chwe’s argument, apparently, is that Jane Austen anticipated significant ideas in game theory.

    Deresiewicz did not like the book. He seems to think it is a terrible insult to suggest that the great writers not only had insight into human behavior, but might also have anticipated developments in science as well.

    The problem is, of course, that Deresiewicz doesn’t think that. In relation to Chwe, he really seems to think that the great writers could do that without having someone say that they are actually DOING science, either in whole or in part.

    Which covers your second complaint. Remember that that was in relation to your claim that maybe Chwe was just suggesting that she was going literature AND game theoretical analysis. My reply to that is that he points to the things you’d see if she was JUST doing literature; on what grounds, then, would he assert that she was also doing game theoretical analysis?

    Michael Fugate,

    My point is this: philosophy says that you may be able to have a knowledge claim that is in no way justified by empirical data. Science and everyday reasoning seem to think that you can never make a knowledge claim — under their ways of knowing — without at least one piece of empirical data justifying it. If this still confuses you, can you provide more details and examples of what you think I’m saying or not saying? I have no idea what confuses you here.

  55. #55 Michael Fugate
    March 2, 2014

    I am not confused and I gave you an example – I am trying to get you to distinguish between philosophy and not philosophy. If philosophy justifies knowledge claims both with and without empirical data, then isn’t science just a subset of philosophy?

  56. #56 Verbose Stoic
    March 2, 2014

    Well, in theory it could be– and since science started from natural philosophy it might make sense — but no because SCIENCE limits itself only to those claims that have empirical data. Thus, science doesn’t follow the philosophical method anymore, which doesn’t so limit itself. And this limit is actually good for science wrt its field of study, narrowing down solutions and avoiding some arguments.

  57. #57 jane
    March 2, 2014

    Since philosophy doesn’t limit itself to thinking about objectively perceptible and preferably quantifiable things, if “philosophy” was so defined as to include science it could potentially end up meaning “all knowing or reasoning of any kind about anything whatsoever,” which is even worse than the overbroad definition of science used only to refute charges of scientism. There’s no point in using a category so broad that it does not suffice to distinguish some exemplars from others. I like philosophy, but I am not a philosopher.

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