I always assumed that Scientism was just the layman's version of Logical Positivism. Scientism is the view that the natural sciences are the only source of factual knowledge about the world, dismissing social sciences and other fields of inquiry such as philosophy as useless. Logical Positivism holds that statements of empirical fact and/or deductive logic are the only meaningful statements - i.e. statements that can't be reduced to an empirical observation or a logical proposition are literally meaningless.

Now I am wondering if this assumption is correct?

So my questions:

  • Is Scientism indeed just a laymen's version of Logical Positivism?
  • If not, what is the relation between the two?

2 Answers 2


1) Concerning Logical Positivism see Audi, Robert (Ed.): The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy:

“logical positivism, also called positivism, a philosophical movement inspired by empiricism and verificationism. … The driving force of positivism may well have been adherence to the verifiability criterion for the meaningfulness of cognitive statements. Acceptance of this principle led positivists to reject as problematic many assertion of religion, morality, and the kind of philosophy they described as metaphysics.”

Concerning the verifiability criterion of meaning: “they [all positivists] were convinced that a genuine contingent assertion about the world must be verifiable through experience or observation.” Concerning necessary truths: “Another central tenet of logical positivism is that all meaningful statements fall into two categories: necessary truths that are analytic and knowbale a priori, and contingent truths that are syntheric and knowable only a posteriori.”

2) Conversely, Scientism is a term with no sharp boundaries. It comprises a much broader spectrum of meanings than the term Logical Positivism.

In addition scientism is often used as a fighting word against any attempt to transfer the methodological ideal of natural sciences to the humanities and to sociology.

  • E.g., “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” (ascribed to Tom Sorel) or
  • “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” (ascribed to Ian Hutchinson)

see http://www.aaas.org/page/what-scientism

In the 1960th the term was used by members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Habermas) as an accusation against the Critical School (Popper, Albert). The former critized the concept of freedom from value judgement (Wertfreiheit) of science as well as the scientific concepts of judgement and truth.

Apparently, scientism is compatible with Logical Positivism.


The two capture much of the same spirit, but neither contains or implies the other.

Scientism seems far more restrictive than logical positivism in one sense. To point to a place between them, we can look at the younger Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus lay quite close to logical positivism, and by many estimations is the source of its original motivation. But throughout his life he always disdained scientism, clinging in his youth to the form of religion despite incompatibility with its content, and insisting later "People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them." (Quoted from his personal notes in "Culture and Value" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_and_Value)

There is a difference between declaring a thing not to be clearly perceived or described, or even to lack 'cognitive meaning' and declaring it to consequently have little or no value. There is space for someone who values groundedness in argumentation and is not a Philistine.

In another sense, Scientism survives the death of Logical Positivism by being less specific. Given the logic of Quine, etc. and the deconstruction of much of the program of positivism, many who only wish to value what is statistically or methodologically validated do not have to adopt any specific underlying philosophy. Values need not be logical.

To me, that means they differ in kind. Scientism is a simple religious position, reflecting values and not facts, and not based on any deduction or observation, but only on our cultural bias. Logical Positivism is an exploration of meaning in a constrained and disciplined way, which ultimately fails, but provides value of its own.

  • Why do you name scientism a "religious" position?
    – Jo Wehler
    May 28, 2016 at 8:16
  • @JoWehler It 1) captures a set of values, dismissing those who do not hold them 2) relies upon false history to make those values seem to proceed from facts 3) provides a stable basis from which to proceed without questioning oneself deeply on a regular basis 4) comes out of the successful tradition of a culture, and survives on the basis of that success, rather than its own validity 5) is often held by it adherents with strong emotional attachment 6) selects a group of people who take part in a given set of rituals as the proper arbiters of cultural decision making...
    – user9166
    May 28, 2016 at 16:54
  • Many would choose 'ideology' for something with those traits, but I reserve 'ideology' for planned theories. Scientism is not theoretically based, it arose naturally, instead of springing from a single experiment or theory and I think it has always had adherents, even when 'science' meant something less precise.
    – user9166
    May 28, 2016 at 16:58
  • You state a series of substantial claims about religion. I am sure that several of these claims will be assessed differently by the participants of this blog. What about posting some of your statements as separate questions from the sociology of religion? - I myself would not name scientism a religion. Because scientism lacks the the reference to a supernatural power which I consider a necesary presupposition of religion.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 28, 2016 at 17:43
  • @JoWehler Confucianism identifies worship as a process having no supernatural components, only social effects. Is it not a religion? Most Buddhists are atheists, and disavow the supernatural. Toaists identify power and nature as the same thing, so they cannot logically believe any power is supernatural. A post-Christian notion that religion and supernaturalism have something in common is simply bias. I have posted this several times as an answer, often to questions where this is the main question.
    – user9166
    May 28, 2016 at 17:49

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