Science, Scientism and the Ideological Production of the Social Subject: Re-considering Interdisciplinarity

Subhro Saha

Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India

Volume VII, Number 3, 2015 I Download PDF Version


The paper attempts to reach at an understanding of the concepts of ‘science’ and ‘scientism’ as constructed and ideological concepts and how they contribute in shaping our commonsensical understanding of the body in terms of its relation to social identity and role. While attempting to expose modern science as a “constructed” discipline and ideology operating in tandem with the dominant hegemonic structures, the paper also attempts to briefly throw light on the limits of the current trend of interdisciplinary approach(es) and the concepts of “agency” and “critique” as well. Using a post-structuralist approach the paper therefore attempts not only to open-up the closed structures of both “science” and “scientism” but also to reach at an understanding how it goes on to affect questions of representation, reality, social and the body itself.

Keywords: science, scientism, ideology, body, subject, representation, interdisciplinarity, intra-action, agency, critique.

“The historically pervasive association between masculine and objective, more specifically between masculine and scientific, is a topic that academic critics resist talking seriously. Why is that?”

                        ? Evelyn Fox Keller, “Gender and Science”

“What desire is at play for him or her when they do or make science, what other desire is at play when they make love: is it individualized or social?”

                        ? Luce Irrigaray, “Is the Subject of Science Sexed”

The question of the “subject” had always been central, be it directly or indirectly, to the concepts of “epistemology”, “knowledge”, “truth”, “representation”, and the category of the “social” itself. Similarly, “science”, both as a concept and practice, also emerges out, on closer analysis, to be linked inextricably with these concepts in terms of its functioning. But the question is, how? In other words, how is it that a branch of knowledge can contribute in regulating bodies, society and reality itself? Is it possible today really to claim a voice of one’s own independent of the influence of science in everyday life? Is it possible really to go beyond the limits of disciplinary boundaries? Can the concept of interdisciplinarity really succeed in breaking the disciplinary borders? Are there any dangers or limitations even within such approaches? Searching answers to these questions therefore call for an opening up and re-consideration not only of the structure of ‘science’ and how it operates but also of the concepts of “knowledge”, “truth”, “reality” and the category of the “social” itself.

Opening up the structures: what is ‘science’ and ‘scientism’

To begin with, one needs to realize that ‘science’ as a disciplinary subject? that seems to enjoy today a certain degree of autonomy, distinctness and superiority over other disciplines (especially humanities, which it casts as dealing with metaphysical illusions compared to science’s promise of dealing with the “truths” of reality) in terms of its claim to certain values such as objectivity, authenticity, legitimacy, truthfulness, righteousness and exactness ? can be historicized whereby its earliest roots can be traced back to what is ‘marked’ today as humanities (especially philosophy, literature, arts and aesthetics). To trace one small example, among many others, one can go back to the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle which stressed, though in a different style and manner, on distinguishing the forms of approximate and exact reasoning and set out a threefold scheme of abductive, deductive and inductive reasoning but simultaneously relied heavily on metaphysics. The word “science” (from French ‘scientia’ meaning ‘knowledge’) was used before 19thC in a general sense to mean ‘knowledge’, as for example can be found in Shakespeare: “…hath not in natures mysterie more science/ Then I have in this Ring” (All’s Well That Ends Well, Act-V,scene-iii). It was also distinguished from conscience in relation to knowing something theoretically (science) and knowing it with conviction and commitment (conscience). However, it was from 17thC onwards that there developed a tendency to separate it from what was called ‘art’ and the word ‘science’ came to be applied to a whole body of regular and methodological observations and propositions concerning any subject of speculation. Therefore the concept of ‘speculation’ was added with the general concept of ‘knowledge’ (i.e., ‘science’). In the 18thC the crucial distinction was brought, within the general concept of ‘knowledge’, between experience and experiment, and between theoretical and practical knowledge, whereby the concept of ‘theory’ was now used not simply to mean ‘speculation’ but rather implied a specific type of knowledge gained through certain methodological demonstrations. Added to these, changes in ideas of nature also encouraged the further specialization of ideas of method and demonstration towards the ‘external world’, and the conditions for the emergence of science as the theoretical and methodological study of ‘nature’ was then complete. This marks the moment when science started claiming its autonomous identity and separated itself from other disciplines of knowledge. It is based on this logic of a specific and specialized methodological approach of observation and calculation that science went on to draw a line of demarcation between “natural science” and “natural philosophy”, where despite having the common adjectives “natural” it was the concept of what it means to be “scientific” (in relation to “scientific method” and “scientific truth”) that differentiated the disciplines. Similarly, at the turn of the 20thC, there emerged a school of scientists who introduced the concept of ‘logical positivism’ by means of which the reality of ‘real’ objects was to be judged in terms of its ‘verifiability” (Wittgenstein especially) and the “context” of discovery now fades away giving way to the “justification” of discovery as the central focus. Although certain scientists, such as Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Quine to name but only a few, have attempted repeatedly to expose the constructed character of science as a discipline, but still even today ‘science’ continues to hold a privileged position that not only dominates the questions of representation and reality but our thinking itself. I have attempted briefly to give an overview of how the concept of ‘science’ came to acquire its autonomy and privileged position despite its overlapping associations with humanities and metaphysics; however, with the awareness that a brief summary I have attempted to trace and the points that I am going to develop regarding the development of modern science are only partial perspectives, that there may be and are many other perspectives, other genealogies whereby the structure of the science can be questioned and problematized.

It becomes clear that the very concept of ‘knowledge’ becomes a problematic and always shifting concept, and it is these shifts in the conceptual understanding of ‘knowledge’ that contributed in the shifting development of the concept of ‘science’. The question that emerges then is: What is ‘scientism’ and how is it different from ‘science’? Though there is no such complete definition, nor can be, of what is ‘scientism’, it can be said to be a certain type of attitude, a particularly problematic way of understanding ‘science’, a view which sees ‘science’ as the only true and real knowledge, and an enframing of life and world itself based on such views. In other words, “scientism” can be defined as a tendency to see certifiably scientific knowledge as the only “real” knowledge and all else as mere illusions or nonsense (for the concept, domain and boundary of sense, sensible and sensibility is decided and legitimized by science and its own judgemental parameters). Some sophisticated purveyors of scientism even hold that there is not a single scientific method but nevertheless there can be found a common core at the heart of all surface-level methods that constitute science. It should be noted here that underlying this claim about “scientific method” there is another assumption—that the world just is (metaphysically) of a nature that yields itself to such methods and not to others, thus making scientific methods not only legitimate, but necessary for real knowledge. Such tendencies therefore call for to celebrate science as a superior discipline in terms of representing questions of ‘reality’ (the concept and limits of which it decides and legitimizes itself) by comparatively presenting other disciplines as less equipped in the task…Full Text PDF

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