The Ultimate Crisis of Civilization: Why Turn to Philosophy?, #3–The Two Cultures and the Triumph of Scientism.

By Arran Gare



This is the third installment.

But you can also read or download a .pdf of the complete essay HERE.

Arran Gare is an Australian philosopher known mainly for his work in environmental philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of culture, and the metaphysics of process philosophy.

He currently holds the position of Associate Professor in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and is the co-founder and editor of the journal Cosmos and History.

You can read more about him and his work HERE and HERE.



The Crisis of Philosophy and the Humanities

The Two Cultures and the Triumph of Scientism

Continuing the Struggle Against Nihilism

Castoriadis and the Challenge of the Radical Enlightenment

Reconfiguring the History of Philosophy After Kant

Speculative Naturalism, the Radical Enlightenment and Ecological Civilization


The Two Cultures and the Triumph of Scientism

The outcome of the struggle between these polar oppositions has been the triumph of mainstream reductionist science over the humanities, particularly in Anglophone countries. This is evident in the virtual self-destruction of the humanities in these Anglophone countries in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, legitimated and helped along by both proponents of the American form of analytic philosophy and of French structuralism and post-structuralism. In all cases, despite the differences between them, these developments were really the triumph of scientism. The triumph of analytical and structuralist Marxism over humanist Marxism was also a triumph of scientism over the humanities. While the humanities have not been so completely defeated in France, Germany, Italy and other European countries as in North America, Britain and Australia, the trend towards marginalization of the humanities is clear in these countries also, a situation well analysed by Jerome Kagan (2009). The consequence has been the collapse of career prospects for those educated in the humanities in the civil service, institutions of education, media and politics. The marginalization of the humanities has been associated with the almost complete triumph in status accorded to algorithmic thinking (which can be performed by computers) along with claims to specialist expertise, particularly in economics, over imagination, understanding, insight, comprehension, wisdom and good judgment and the education required to foster these. The breaking up of non-analytic philosophy into multiple schools and directions characterized by a rapid succession of fashions is really a manifestation of its marginalization. This is also evident in the dissolution of the Humboldtian model of the university where the Arts and Science faculties were regarded as central because of their commitment to truth, the transformation of science into nothing but techno-science, the decline of democracy, the rise of managerialism, the unprecedented authority of neo-classical economists and the revival of social Darwinism.

To reveal what is tacitly assumed, how these oppositions have played out and why, and how these assumptions have structured culture and society and have influenced the trajectory of civilization, it is necessary to provide a schematic historical perspective on how they originated and co-evolved. To do so, it is first necessary to examine the form of analytic philosophy and scientism that triumphed in USA. It is here that the influence of this philosophy with its destructive impact on the humanities has taken its most extreme form. At the same time, this has revealed most clearly the threat posed by this trivialization of philosophy. Alasdair MacIntyre (1977) in an address to the American Philosophical Association noted that philosophy is now seen to be:

… a harmless, decorative activity, education in which is widely believed to benefit by exercising and extending the capacities for orderly argument, so qualifying those who study it to join the line of lemmings entering law school or business school. The professor of philosophy, on this view, stands to the contemporary bourgeoisie much as the dancing master stood to the nobility of the ancien regime. The dancing master taught the eighteenth-century expensively brought up young how to have supple limbs, the philosophy professor teaches their twentieth-century successors how to have supple minds. (p.85)

John McCumber published an account of the development of philosophy in USA, titled Time in the Ditch (2001), in which he tried to account for the apparent marginalization of philosophy. It is almost universally accepted that philosophy has been marginalized in USA and is of little significance in the modern world.

While this is true if one considers philosophy as originally understood, in another sense, nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, as Paul Livingston (2012) pointed out, the form of life in the modern world is the outcome of ‘the technicization of information made possible by the logical-mathematical formalization of language’ achieved by philosophers. The consequences of ‘the material and technological realization of some of these very same formal structures on the actual organization of contemporary politics’ have been enormous. ‘This includes, for instance, the actual communicational and computational technologies that today increasingly determine social, political, and economic institutions and modes of action around the globe.’ (p.4) This has not brought about a diminution of the role of intellectuals in society, but a massive expansion of their role, but in a completely new form. This has been well described by Carl Boggs who also pointed out the effects of this on universities:

The ideological influence of intellectuals has grown enormously during the past century, especially in the industrialized world, where modernity has meant the eclipse of isolated strata of traditional elites and the rise of an expanding stratum of rationalizing intellectuals attached to Enlightenment values of reason, secularism, scientific and technological progress, and control of nature. … [N]owhere has the impact of modernization been felt more than in the structure of higher education, where the traditional intellectual as classical scholar, philosopher, cleric, or literary figure has been replaced by the technocratic intellectual whose work is organically connected to the knowledge industry, to the economy, state, and military. (Boggs 1993, p.97)

This transformation is carried out under the banner of scientism, claiming that only scientific knowledge based on empirical evidence and deductive logic deserves to be taken seriously as knowledge.

However, while crippling the humanities in the name of scientism, this is not the triumph of science. What we are seeing is nothing like the science of the past in which great scientists challenged received assumptions to advance whole new ways of understanding the world, revealing unity in diversity and enabling people to better understand themselves and their place in the cosmos. What we now have is ‘techno-science’, science as portrayed and defended by analytic philosophers and directed by markets and human resource managers. It is the form of science that Norbert Wiener (1993) warned would be the outcome of ‘Megabuck Science’ dominated by people with well-defined missions, ultra-specialisation, short-term perspectives and indifference to science for its own sake. What has been the outcome of this? Bruce Charlton, a medical researcher, recently published a book Not Even Trying: The Corruption of Real Science (2012)decrying the current state of scientific research. He compared it to a factory in Poland before the collapse of communism: ’The factory was producing vast quantities of defective drinking glasses which nobody wanted. Nobody wanted to even use them. So the glasses were simply piling-up in gigantic stacks around the factory building — using-up resources, getting in everybody’s way, and taking-up all the useful space’ (p.14). Evidence in support of this claim is provided by Philip Mirowski in Science-Mart: Privatising American Science (2011). Charlton suggested that science now is so bad it would be better to pay researchers to do nothing than to continue with what they are doing. This is not the worst of it. Publishers Springer and IEEE have removed more than 120 refereed papers from their subscription services after it was discovered that they were computer generated nonsense by SCIgen (Noorden, 2014). Such science has not produced any deeper understanding of the world but the mass production of fragmented knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, providing corporations with the means to make profits, governments with the means to make weapons, and power elites generally with the means to control or confuse people. It has been complemented by the almost complete domination of public policy by the revived pre-Keynesian form of neo-classical economics that has been used to justify imposing markets on every facet of life. Science that implies limits to the quest for domination and profits, such as ecology, human ecology, climate science, institutional and ecological economics, has been undermined and marginalized.

As Boggs argued in a later work, The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere (2000)this new techno-science has facilitated corporate colonization that ‘has achieved qualitatively new levels of power, accelerated by growing economies of scale, mergers among corporations, the great resilience of the permanent war economy, massive corporate entry into media and popular culture, and … the process of globalization’ (p.68). At the same time, this technology has created a media centred world with its decentred subjects, fragmented culture, the transformation of everything possible into commodified spectacles, an increasingly fragmented public life, fragmentation of the public sphere, depoliticization and paralysis of transformative politics, and the hollowing out of democracy. In short, ‘[g]rowing corporate power has been accompanied (and legitimated) by a return to Nineteenth Century laissez-faire principles of material self-interest, extreme individualism, and social Darwinism’ (p.257) and ‘[t]he sad reality is that progressive movements in the United States have been able to sustain only the most feeble ideological and organizational presence … [and] no national coalition or party has emerged that is capable of making political inroads or framing durable visions or strategies of change’ (p.256). Boggs summed up the consequence of this:

As the world system becomes more rationalized at the top owing to the enhanced fluidity and mobility of capital — and to the integrative power of the technological and informational revolutions — transforming it seems more and more impossible. The centers of power have become more remote and inaccessible, seemingly beyond the scope of tangible political opposition. The splintering of meaning, so celebrated in the postmodern age, is also splintering the public sphere, and only serves to aggravate this historical impasse, helping to account for deep cynicism and pessimism among intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike. (Boggs 2000, p.212).

What Boggs is describing is the triumph of neoliberalism with its agenda of creating one global market, or One Market Under God (2000) as Thomas Frank described it, dominated by transnational corporations and their managers, the corporatocracy, most importantly, the financial sector of this, defining the rest of the population as consumers rather than citizens of democratically organized communities. They have succeeded by manufacturing consent, eliminating the economic security required for citizenship, while subverting by coöpting potential opposition and marginalizing and undermining those who they have not been able to coöpt. That is, they have embraced the arguments of Walter Lippmann from 1920s who argued, in opposition to John Dewey, that democracy is impossible and that ruling elites must ‘manufacture consent’ of the masses through public relations while disempowering them.

This points to a second way in which philosophy is far from a harmless activity. By withdrawing from the quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world (which is essential to the quest for wisdom) and censuring philosophers who still strive for this, philosophers have left the broader population without the means to orient themselves in this new world order, to identify the agenda of those in the centres of power, to resist and overcome the splintering of meaning or to work towards the creation of a better future, and to govern themselves. While overtly postmodernist cultural theorists promoting bowdlerized versions of French philosophy are the visible defenders of this splintering of meaning and of the public sphere, a far more potent force has been Anglophone analytic philosophy. Philosophers have left people powerless in the face of the mind-control industries of advertising and public relations, and effectively rendered democracy impossible.

While in reality, neoliberalism, along with neoliberal strategies, are complex with many divisions and conflicts, only the willfully blind cannot see that this has been the most powerful driving ideological force in the world since the 1970s (Plehwe et al. 2006). The ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ proclaimed by postmodernists is an expression of the defeat of any alternative hegemonic discourse. Without a new master discourse opposing neoliberalism able to replace those that have lost their credibility, a discourse which can unite people into a major political force, opposing actions fizzle out without having any lasting effect. Examining one oppositional event, Boggs noted it resulted in ‘nothing of a political legacy — “politics” referring here to far more than simple electoral activity. With no articulated vision or program, no organizational strategy, no perspective on issues of power or governance, the catharsis of rebellion quickly vanished’ (Boggs 2000). The only real challenge to all this, Boggs observes, is the Green movement. As he noted in Ecology and Revolution:

[T]he Greens have for three decades embodied the closest thing the world has seen to a mature, strategically defined ecological radicalism. Despite limits and flaws, they seem to constitute the only political force, with some global presence, dedicated to reversing the modern crisis — and the only force with a coherent strategy for change. (Boggs 2012, p.149)

In fact, though, Green activists attempting to grapple with global ecological destruction wrought by this global neoliberal regime and corporate power have been almost totally ineffectual, as Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in The Death of Environmentalism (2004), Christine MacDonald in Green, Inc. and myself in ‘Colliding with Reality’ (Gare 2014a) have argued.


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