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  • Challengers of Scientism Past and Present:William James and Marilynne Robinson
  • James Woelfel (bio)


Writing more than a century apart, William James and Marilynne Robinson are allies in forcefully and eloquently challenging the claims and widespread appeal of scientism or positivism: the belief that scientific knowledge provides a necessary and sufficient worldview and entails the reduction of all reality, including the world of human subjects, to physical processes. Both James and Robinson are particularly concerned with and critical of the efforts of scientistic reductionism to describe the human life-world entirely in terms of the prevailing science. Both distinguish sharply between scientific inquiry, an essential and crucially valuable human activity, and scientism, the promotion of a metaphysical agenda under the guise of science. Scientism has become widely influential because of its dissemination in books, articles, and other media by leading scientists who explain science to a general audience.

Over a hundred years after his death, William James remains a fresh and timely voice on a range of contemporary issues. James, whose entire postsecondary education was in the natural sciences—his only degree was an MD from Harvard—was of course a pathbreaking psychologist and philosopher who moved beyond and vigorously criticized many scientists of his day for their narrow and dogmatic positivism. As a philosophical pragmatist and "radical empiricist," he argued for an open-ended attentiveness to the richly nuanced concreteness and complexity of experience that refuses to reduce either the human phenomenon or the universe itself to the boundaries set by the sciences. Unfortunately, after a century of scientific development since James, scientism or positivism is alive and well among some of the leading scientists and scientific public intellectuals of our time.

Among my contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson will be my companion as a writer who has independently come to similar conclusions about the stubborn persistence of scientistic reductionism. In Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, her 2010 Terry Lectures at Yale, she exposes with insight, sophistication, and eloquence the presumptions and simplifications of influential scientific popularizers past and present—above [End Page 175] all when they discuss human nature and behavior.1 By a happy coincidence, Robinson, like me, has found in William James a kindred spirit and an important resource in addressing the issue.

With James's and Robinson's help, I want to suggest that, after a century of remarkable scientific developments, the spirit of positivism remains far from dead among scientists, as seen quite specifically among those who interpret the sciences for the rest of us. Indeed, it seems to have been reinvigorated by the advances of the past thirty years or so in evolutionary, genetic, and neuroscientific study of human beings. James's humanistic critical perspective—which he articulated repeatedly throughout his writings—is as current and as needed as it was in his own time. Robinson, influenced by James, renews James's critique of scientism and call for a humanism that takes with full seriousness the world of human subjects.

William James: The Pragmatist-Radical Empiricist Rejection of Scientism

In 1874, Will James was thirty-two and had been a member of the Harvard faculty for only two years after a long, painful, and circuitous period of education and career indecision. He wrote a Letter to the Editor of The Nation in reply to an article the editor wrote in response to a letter from someone who called himself "Scientist." (James signs his letter "Ignoramus.") In this early, witty critique of scientism, James articulated a viewpoint that he would maintain and elaborate throughout his career and in many of his writings. He begins by characterizing the methods of the sciences and why they have achieved such prestige:

Physical science has well earned the great authority she enjoys for solidity of premiss and certainty of conclusion. But how has she earned it? By the modesty of her aims and the excellence of her method, and by these alone. By her method of verification she has racked and riddled and cross-examined every theory and every detail of fact, before letting it pass muster; and where the subject was too vague quantitatively for such control to be...


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