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Defending the Humanities

Job one is outing scientism.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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The most controversial claim for the humanities Wieseltier makes is that it’s the job of philosophy to determine the limits of science in any particular society. The place of natural science in human existence​—​in who we are​—​is not a question our natural scientists are competent to address. The relationship between science and the humanities is a humanists’ question, a question that has to be answered by determining the true place of the various forms of human knowing. Philosophers have to stop tinkering and fiddling with tiny questions and assume their proper role in a full articulation of what it means to be a reasonable, self-interpreting being born to die.

Many humanists today use “relativism” of some sort or another to counter scientism and technologism. They say that all human claims for “truth” should be placed in quotation marks, and that modern natural science is nothing but an ideology of logocentric domination. But the attempt to relativize science doesn’t really challenge working scientists. They know what they know and have no respect for relativistic drivel. 

For the humanities to reassert themselves, they have to reasonably be able to distinguish between what scientists know and what they don’t. The distinction between science and scientism turns out to be indispensable for reinvigorating liberal education as a genuine​—​meaning truthful and responsible​—​counterculture to rein in the twin ideologies of technologism and scientism. Humanists should never miss an opportunity to out scientism for the ideology it is.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana professor in the department of government and international studies at Berry College.

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