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June 9, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

The Critique of Scientism in Higher Education from Alysdair McIntyre

For each of the academic disciplines teaches us something significant about some aspect of human nature and the human condition. Physics tells us which particles and forces compose the body as a material object, while chemistry and biochemistry examine it as the site of various exchanges and reactions. What the functioning structures of complex living organisms, such as ourselves, are and how they have evolved we learn from biology, while sociology, anthropology, economics, and history make human beings intelligible in and through their changing cultural and social relationships. Philosophy-together with the history of inquiry-shows us how and why we are able to move toward a more and more adequate understanding of ourselves and our environments, from time to time transcending the limitations of previous modes of understanding. That human beings are also in key part what they imagine themselves to be, and how, without works of imagination, human life is diminished, we can only learn from literary and other aesthetic studies. Yet, when we have learned what all these different types of discipline have to teach-and the catalogue is far from complete-we confront questions that have so far gone unasked, just because they are not questions answerable from within any one discipline.

McIntype continues:

Is physics the fundamental discipline, so that everything else, including not only plant and nonhuman animal life, but also human actions and passions, is reducible to or determined by or explicable in terms of the fundamental laws of physics? Or is it instead the case that living organisms have properties that cannot be so explained and that human beings transcend the limitations of other living organisms, so that their thought-informed actions are directed toward ends of which no naturalistic account can be given? On how we answer these and kindred questions much turns for our characterization of the human situation. So it is too with a second set of questions. We are both products and heirs of a complex past, and on key issues we have to define our relationship to various aspects of that past, identifying what it is that we may have lost, either by rejecting this or by remaining too closely tied to that. Do we still need to understand and come to terms with Athenian democracy and the Peloponnesian War? the Middle Ages? the Enlightenment? the French Revolution? Romanticism? the rise of capitalism? the history of Marxism?

These are questions that need to be answered if we are to understand who we are here and now, if we are to understand what makes the way of life of advanced modernity distinctive. The first set can be posed adequately only by those who have acquired some understanding, not only of contemporary physical theory and of the mathematical equations which inform and structure that theory, but also of parts of molecular and evolutionary biology, not to speak of the relevant debates in the philosophy of mind from Plotinus to the present.

The second set can only be posed adequately by those who have been educated in the history of their own and its predecessor cultures. And the asking of a third set of urgent questions also requires a good deal of preliminary groundwork. These concern how we can come to terms with cultures radically different from our own, so that not only, both intellectually and imaginatively, we learn, as far as we can, to speak as their inhabitants speak, to see as they see, and to think as they think. Such learning involves coming to understand ourselves, not as we customarily do, but as they understand us. And it at once raises the question of how we are to decide between their understanding of us and our own understanding of us, between their evaluations and ours, in all those cases where there are conflicting and incompatible claims. Yet this question cannot be fruitfully formulated or seriously asked until we have assimilated, to some significant degree, the language, the way of life and thought, the works of literature and other arts, of some one particular alien culture. So we have to begin by learning, say, Mandarin or Japanese or Arabic.

From these three sets of questions a tripartite curriculum emerges. One element is mathematical and scientific, extending beyond physics to the chemistry and neurophysiology needed to understand recent discoveries about the brain. Another is historical, situating the history of ideas in their social, political, and economic contexts. And a third consists in linguistic and literary studies. All three have a philosophical component….

The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University (link)

For more critiques of scientism from Compassion in Politics you can read the list of titles here and click through to read the critique.

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