Scientism’s Forefathers

Logan Paul Gage

Have you ever spent time pondering the intellectual pedigree of scientism–say, of the Dawkins variety? It would be nice if folly really were an orphan, but unfortunately he is not. And Herbert Spencer was only one link, though an important one, in a long chain of Western scientism.
Consider this Spencerian quote from Steven Shapin’s recent New Yorker article “Man with a Plan: Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Everything“:

What knowledge is of most worth?–the uniform reply is–Science. This is the verdict on all the counts. . . . Alike for the most perfect production and highest enjoyment of art in all its forms, the needful preparation is still–Science. And for purposes of discipline–intellectual, moral, religious–the most efficient study is, once more–Science.

Now this is very interesting. One wonders which method of inquiry Spencer used to arrive at his conclusion that Science (with a capital “S,” no less) is the most valuable form of knowledge. Certainly he performed no scientific experiments. Perhaps his own statement is not of much worth then?
Now before you write to complain, no one is bashing science. What we object to is this self-contradictory statement that science is the most valuable source of knowledge when that piece of knowledge itself is not scientific. This is still heard today. It is a leftover from the failed, philosophically discredited worldview of materialism. This nonsense should have ended with the collapse verificationism (which is only one example of how scientific materialism led a discipline astray for the better part of a century).
One would do well to keep in mind that Spencer was feted, as Dawkins is now, by the intellectual elites of his day despite his transparently flawed worldview. As Shapin recounts one dinner in Spencer’s honor in New York, 1882:

Senators, captains of industry, and professors were there in force, vying with each other in the fulsomeness of their praise. The former Secretary of State William Evarts said that Spencer was the smartest man in the world: “We recognize in the breadth of your knowledge, such knowledge as is useful to your race, a greater comprehension than any living man has presented to our generation.” The Union Army general Carl Schurz declared that there would have been no Civil War if the South had been adequately instructed in Spencer’s principles of individual liberty. And the president of Columbia, Frederick Barnard, announced that Herbert Spencer was “not only the profoundest thinker of our time, but the most capacious and most powerful intellect of all time.”

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.