General scientism seems to hold that due to the predictive powers of our scientific methods, such methods are preferred to other methods of knowledge, such as metaphysics (radical scientism claiming that metaphysics is by and large simply irrelevant to actual knowledge). The metaphysician then claims that this claim of scientism is itself not a scientific claim, but rather a metaphysical claim, and so it is self-refuting. This metaphysical nature can be seen even in the claim's most primary assumptions, including its primary assumption that a method is 'good' so as to be preferred over another thing simply because it is predictive of events (for it can and must be asked what makes the 'quality of being predictive' to be 'good').

Quine differs from many scientism proponents however in his understanding of the nature of what constitues a method as 'scientific'. My question is about the way in which Quine regards any justification of scientism as a 'scientific' claim, which would be apparently necessary in order to avoid self-refutation. In short, how does Quine respond to the metaphysician's refutation that scientism is itself not a scientific claim, but rather a metaphysical claim?


Quine does not subscribe to scientism, i.e. the epistemological primacy of the scientific method, but he is often taken to because his repudiation of scientism is non-traditional. Quine does consign epistemology to a "chapter of psychology", which would be scientism if he also preserved the traditional understanding of epistemology, as scientism does. But naturalizing epistemology means that he does not. For Quine there is no ultimate grounding of knowledge, even in a predefined organon such as the scientific method. All parts of our knowledge are subject to testing and revision in view of contrary evidence, including methodological parts such as naturalized epistemology itself. There are no assumptions, the preference for scientific method is not a metaphysical claim, it is a provisional surmise of the current state of affairs.

This is characteristic of naturalized epistemology's response to meta-objections in general. In contrast to apriorism or scientism there is no meta, no presupposed justification principles that are independently validated. In Epistemology Naturalized Quine writes "if the epistemologist's goal is to validate empirical science he defeats his purpose by using psychology or other empirical science in the validation. However, such scruples against circularity have little point once we have stopped dreaming about deducing science from observations. If we are to simply understand the link between observation and science we are well advised to use any available information, including that provided by the very science whose link with observation we are seeking to understand".

But Quine does not dismiss metaphysics as such, he credits it as a useful tool for organizing our knowledge conceptually. For example, in On What There Is he writes that "physical conceptual scheme simplifies our account of experience because of the way myriad scattered sense events come to be associated with single so-called objects". However, it is the "phenomenalistic" scheme that "claims epistemological priority. Viewed from within the phenomenalistic conceptual scheme, the ontologies of physical objects and mathematical objects are myths. The quality of myth, however, is relative; relative, in this case, to the epistemological point of view".

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    Quine does subscribe to scientism, or methodological naturalism if you prefer. The following quote from 'Epistemology Naturalized' makes it very clear: "Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject." (Quine 1969, 82) Quine explicitly argues for leaving the traditional epistemological project to psychology and science in general. It's the standard and correct interpretation of Quine. Naturalizing epistemology implies leaving epistemology to science. – PVJ Oct 3 '15 at 11:52
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    As PVJ says, I think this answer is somewhat misleading and a little bit of clarification would be appreciated. So far I don't really see how nor where Quine has made any actual reply to the objection that science is contextualized by more primary principles that simply cannot be coherently rejected (though it seems for Quine they can be ignored). – Jecko Oct 3 '15 at 16:16
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    @PVJ I think the difference is terminological, it depends on how one differentiates between scientism and naturalism. For Quine epistemology is reduced to a chapter of psychology, but psychology, and science in general, is not thereby elevated to the pedestal of old epistemology. In Two Dogmas he subjects not only scientific organon but even laws of logic to the "tribunal of experience". Such empirical holism is inconsistent with scientism as "belief in universal applicability of the scientific method and approach" since it contemplates their potential discarding. – Conifold Oct 4 '15 at 21:58
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    @Jecko "Can be ignored" is about right, more precisely the metabasis and circularity objections remain valid but lose their relevance. This is because their relevance rests on the old assumption that acquisition of knowledge uses or needs contextualizing principles, which Quine rejects:"The old tendency was due to the drive to base science on something firmer and prior to the subject's experience, but we dropped that project". There is no point to scruples about an organon if it is subject to revision like everything else. – Conifold Oct 4 '15 at 21:58
  • The pragmatic argument in EN is that the old epistemology failed anyway, and science is the best remaining option. I added a clarification on scientism at the beginning of the answer. – Conifold Oct 4 '15 at 21:59

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