More on Kitcher and Scientism

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Philip Kitcher defends his essay (which I talked about here) against the criticisms it received from people like Jerry Coyne.  One of the criticisms is that he’s attacking a straw man — no one would claim that the study of history (let’s say) isn’t scientific in some meaningful way.  He claims there are such people.  I haven’t read the ones he mentions, so I can’t say.  He also reiterates his belief that the arts make a contribution to knowledge:

Knowledge is sometimes advanced not by arriving at some new true statement, but by reframing concepts.   As my essay argues, particular kinds of history and anthropology are very good at generating this sort of cognitive advance (besides the people I mention, think of Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carlo Ginzburg). The same can be said for poetry, drama, fiction, visual art, and music. The great artists teach us to see the world differently, to divide it up in new ways.  That sometimes has profound consequences for our ways of living (witness my opening example) – and it sometimes affects the ways in which the sciences are practiced.

His “opening example” is about Britten’s War Requiem and our understanding of the bombing of Dresden.  But, honestly, I still don’t get it, and neither does Coyne, although he is more interested in religion and how it relates to charges of scientism (not that Kitcher claims religion to be a source of truth).  I suppose you could say we understand something about the horrors of war from reading the poems of Wilfred Owen, and we feel this understanding more deeply because his poems are so powerful.  Maybe Catch-22 helped us to see war differently, to reframe the concept of what it means to be a soldier.  Maybe this has consequences for our ways of living.  But, you know, big deal.  We’ve known about war since the Iliad.  What matters is the  aesthetic experience itself, which to me just isn’t particularly related to understanding or truth or knowledge.  What have I learned from listening to Beethoven’s Ninth?  Beats me.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

I think Kitcher needs to write another essay so I can be convinced otherwise.

1 thought on “More on Kitcher and Scientism

  1. Read The Trouble with Scientism, Philip Kitcher, May 4 2012 The New Republic…
    I agree with Kitcher that philosophy and ethics should underpin the quantifiable sciences…

    It comes as no surprise that the objectifiable sciences are increasingly gutted of philosophical perspective and questioning [The Trouble with Scientism, Philip Kitcher, May 4th 2012] when humanities training is becoming so endangered. Today’s competitive and frenetic world is enamoured of quantifiable outcomes; with escalating economic and employment uncertainty, living a life of the mind and learning to discern meaning in the scientific enquiry and lives led appears fraught with risk. With humanities graduates facing dismal job prospects and the professions (medical, law, engineering and the sciences) established as reliable paths to security and status, is it any wonder that history and the humanities face grave threat? No matter how adaptable, transferable and potentially competent across jobs humanities training confers, the reality remains that of a cut-throat race for suitable jobs within academia. Although history and the humanities are incontestably a form of knowledge, declining job security will consign them to burgeoning irrelevance.


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