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Between Scientism and Conversationalism

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 455-474 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0070

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 455-474

Of late, two contrasting departures from the analytic mainstream have become fashionable: the displacement of philosophy by the natural sciences, epitomized by the Churchlands' theme of "neurophilosophy," and the displacement of philosophy by the literary, epitomized by Rorty's theme of philosophy as "just a kind of writing," as "carrying on the conversation" of Western culture. Both are disastrous. My purpose here is to articulate a metaphilosophy which, avoiding both scientism and literary dilettantism, allows a more robustly plausible account of the relation of philosophy to the sciences, and of its relation to literature, than either.

In this enterprise, my starting point will be the work of C. S. Peirce. This may come as something as a surprise; for Peirce's avowed aspiration "to rescue the good ship Philosophy for the service of Science from the lawless rovers of the sea of literature" (5.449, 1902), not to mention his unkind remarks about "studying in a literary spirit" (1.33, 1869), might suggest that he is as scientistic, and as hostile to literature, as Rorty is dilettantish, and hostile to science. But, as I shall show, far from being a precursor of those "lawless rovers of the sea of science" among our contemporaries, Peirce points the way to just such a sober account of the relation of philosophy to the sciences, and to literature, as I am seeking.


When Peirce says he wants to "rescue the good ship Philosophy for the service of Science," he is not suggesting that philosophy is parasitic on, or that it could be replaced by, the natural sciences. His point is, rather, that philosophy should become scientific. And this means not only that it should use the method of science, but also, even more importantly, that it should be undertaken with "the scientific attitude."

"Scientific," here, needs careful handling; neither the scientific attitude nor the scientific method, as Peirce conceives them, is the exclusive prerogative of scientists, in the ordinary sense in which that term includes, inter alia, physicists and chemists, and excludes, inter alia, detectives, investigative journalists, historians -- and philosophers. Part of the point of Peirce's insistence that philosophy should become scientific is, precisely, that there is an attitude of mind and a method of inquiry, manifested not invariably or exclusively, but primarily, by natural scientists, which all inquirers can and should adopt. His observation that science "embodies the epitome of man's intellectual development," must be read in the light of passages like: science "does not so much consist in knowing, not even in 'organized knowledge,' as it does in diligent inquiry into truth for truth's sake, without any sort of axe to grind . . . from an impulse to penetrate into the reason of things" (7.49, n.d., and 1.44, c.1896).

Peirce believes it is this attitude, the "craving to know how things really are" (1.34, 1869), the "passion to learn" (1.47, c.1896), "an intense desire to find things out" (1.14, c.1897), "a great desire to learn the truth" (1.235, 1902), the "Will to Learn" (5.583, 1898), that has made the natural sciences possible; and philosophy should be conducted in the same spirit. It should be genuine truth-seeking, a good-faith effort to discover the truth of some question ("whatever the color of that truth may be," 7.605, 1903), and it should be disinterested truth-seeking, pursued for its own sake, not for some adventitious purpose.

As "without any sort of axe to grind" prefigures, Peirce contrasts "the scientific attitude" with "sham reasoning," meaning efforts to make a case for some proposition one's commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof. And he complains that when, as in his day, philosophy is largely in the hands of theologians, sham reasoning -- in the form of elaborate attempts to devise metaphysical systems to support theological principles which nothing would induce the reasoner to give up -- is only to be expected. Hence his contrast of "laboratory" with "seminary" philosophy: "In my opinion the present infantile condition of philosophy . . . is due to the fact that in this century it has chiefly been pursued...

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