Scientism is a Non-Threat: Considering Susan Haack and the Role of Philosophy

Posted on October 16, 2017 by

“The school is in financial crisis,” reports a friend and emeritus professor as I take my seat at the table in the back corner of a campus coffee shop and bookstore. We meet monthly with the frequency and punctuality expected from five philosophers: every six weeks, 15 minutes late.

Professor Haack greets readers with just this same cheery demeanor in her recent article for Free Inquiry, and topic of a latest Daily Nous post, “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved?” There Professor Haack writes straightforwardly, “academic philosophy is in bad shape.” Professor Haack suggests that a growing body of scientistic philosophy is advancing a culture war in our profession. Fitting, then, that the above-mentioned post on Daily Nous where Professor Haack’s article is discussed is called “Scientism’s Threat to Philosophy.”

Professor Haack points to further factors contributing to the discipline’s “nose-dive”: university bureaucracy, increasing stress on productivity, predatory presses, corrupt peer-review policies, over production of PhDs, and so forth. This circumstantial evidence fails to convince Professor Haack that there is not something more fundamental at the heart the decline of academic philosophy, which is the trend toward naturalizing philosophy and with it ushering in the “specter of scientism,” that is, “inappropriate, uncritical deference to the sciences.”

Certainly, there is at least some reason to nod along with Professor Haack. Nothing is so obviously wrong with her claim that deference to the sciences dulls the sharpness of at least some philosophical theses that we should immediately reject her position, yet as a threat to academic philosophy writ large? It strikes me as a bold assertion that, “the rising tide of scientistic philosophy… spells shipwreck for philosophy itself.”

We may wonder, just what is the nature of philosophy that is at risk? According to Professor Haack, “good intellectual work, and perhaps especially good philosophical work, [requires] patience, intellectual honesty, realism, courage, humility, independent judgment, etc.” Professor Haack continues later in this same article, “serious philosophical work, like any serious intellectual work, means making a genuine effort to discover the truth of some question, whatever that truth may be” (emphasis in original). I repeat these remarks to sketch a portrait of Professor Haack’s virtues and aims for philosophical inquiry. Perhaps we take Professor Haack to be highlighting the seeming tension between, on the one hand, philosophy, ostensibly, “serious intelleuctal work,” and science, an empirical pursuit, on the other, but as for the scope of her philosophical inquiry, Professor Haack claims, “I think philosophy is about the world, not just about our concepts or our language.” This is enough to resolve the false dichotomy of philosophy and science as utterly distinct enterprises. Meanwhile, to paint a portrait of science that fails to acknowledge its serious intellectual aims, which lie at the heart of Professor Haack’s portrayal of philosophy, is terribly uncharitable to science. I would be surprised if such an obvious assertion about science should find me to be perniciously scientistic. Yet the discussion of Professor Haack’s article appearing in Daily Nous highlights “Scientism’s Threat to Philosophy,” as so titled. This is in contrast with what I have said here. So what gives?

The Daily Nous response invites discussion, and so I am pursuing just that, and my extended rehearsal of Professor Haack’s article is to welcome others to the discussion that I now aim to further.

In “Scientism’s Threat to Philosophy,” the reader finds reason to doubt that there is the rising tide of scientistic philosophy that Professor Haack worries will sink our discipline. Further, there is an invitation to the reader to respond whether they agree with Professor Haack’s characterization of scientistic philosophy?

If not tacitly clear by now, let me be explicit: I disagree with Professor Haack’s characterization of scientistic philosophy, as it appears in her recent article in Free Inquiry! It is no doubt mistaken to draw sweeping inferences from a short article that frames a discussion of scientism within the context of a book review, namely, Alex Rosenberg’s, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Indeed, Professor Haack is worried about scientistic philosophy, and she raises Professor Rosenberg’s book as indicative of this growing gulf between the intellectual pursuits of philosophy, as classically practiced, and recent attempts to naturalize philosophy to its own detriment, but Professor Haack would be wrongheaded to claim this thesis for the discipline, without further argument, and neither should the reader of Free Inquiry be persuaded that she has made this claim in that particular article, nor that she has defended it successfully. In fact, Professor Haack raised a flag for academic philosophers to note, but I read her to be arguing for a measured reaction whereby neither the armchair nor the bench is the only avenue to pursue the truth. Further answers might be found in her own cited work appearing in the article under discussion.

For my part, I am especially close to this issue for at least two reasons: first, I am a philosopher of science by training—now practicing as an independent scholar for reasons that will soon become clear. Second, my own approach to philosophy is potentially fraught with scientism. To speak to the former of my reasons, I share the experience of many whom, having departed a talk given at some philosophy of science conference session, feel as though they attended a lecture in the physics classroom. I rarely conclude that a philosophy paper buttressed with mathematical equations strengthens the philosophical thesis advanced in the paper.

To speak to the latter of my reasons to find interest in the discussion invited by Daily Nous, I share with you my diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly brain cancer with a dismal five-year survival rate of roughly 5%. I am currently one year out from my diagnosis, brain surgery, chemo, and radiation. A standard of care protocol familiar to some as, “slash, burn, and poison.” The standard of care presupposes many claims involving the life sciences, not least of which is the view that cancer primarily is a disease of unchecked cellular growth, or proliferation. Hence, cytotoxic (cell killing) therapies shape research oncology. Researchers at Tufts University, Drs. Ana M Soto and Carlos Sonnencshein, argue that the evolutionary history of multicellular organisms suggest that seeking explanations for the origin of cancer in the cellular and sub-cellular (genetic) levels of biological complexity mistakenly mirrors the reductionism that is prevalent in physics. Instead, say Drs. Soto and Sonnenschein, cancer is a disease of aberrant tissue organization that is better understood with respect to other domains within the life sciences such as histology, which investigates the development of tissues and organs.

I share my own diagnosis and my own interest in cancer research to make the point that setting forth desiderata for an acceptable scientific explanation is replete with philosophical presuppositions, even when the data informing that explanation are empirically informed.

As a person living with incurable brain cancer, my philosophy is a matter of life or death, as I agree to treatment or decline, when I seek cooperation with my medical team or disengage—because these decisions are influenced by the bench, I resist the suggestion that we are experiencing a deterioration of intellectual vigor,” feared by Professor Haack. The “real question” for me is not whether philosophy can be saved, but whether I can be saved,” and I affirm a role for philosophy in that pursuit.


You can find Adam on twitter  @adamhayden



Haack, Susan, (2017). The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved? Free Inquiry: 40-43.

Soto, Ana M. & Sonnenschein, Carlos (2011). The tissue organization field theory of cancer: a testable replacement for the somatic mutation theory. Bioessays 33 (5):332-340.