Joining up some Dots of the Day on “Scientism”

One way or another “scientism” is at the core of many of my conversations in recent years, and in fact several in recent days too. In the last decade and a half I’ve also become quite a fan of Wittgenstein; initially suggested by Sam Norton a theologian-philosopher on a discussion-board we both frequented in the early 2000’s. As well as reading his Tractatus and Investigations, obviously Wittgenstein – the person and his writings – turned up in many other philosophical readings too, particularly in Vienna-Circle, Gödel & Einstein contexts but that’s another story.

The only book I’d read specifically about Wittgenstein was Edmonds & Eidinow Wittgenstein’s Poker. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein scholar and author of The Duty of Genius (which I’ve not read, yet!) is a considerable source and reference in the Edmonds & Eidinow work. So much so that I’d mentally pigeonholed Wittgenstein’s Poker as Ray’s work – until I pulled it off the shelf this morning.

Yesterday, or maybe the day before, someone tweeted a link to Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson written by Ray as a piece in Prospect Magazine back in 1999. Tweets being the ephemeral things that they are, I can no longer easily see that tweet or its context, but I had opened the link and it sat on my desktop. When I read it this morning, I remembered having read it before, but relatively recently, back in 2014, though the link I blogged then is only a brief holding reference for future follow-up.

The reason I read the Forgotten Lesson, and picked the Poker off the bookshelf when I did this morning was a little synchronicity that Ray and I both tweeted positively on Frankie Boyle’s latest Grauniad piece (on the UK junior doctors’ strike) and in a self-admitted kill-joy way, so did the excellent Tom Chivers – pointing out mis-represented “facts” in Frankie’s piece.

Now, I’m a serious fan of Frankie, our best and archetypal “Court Jester”. In a world where there are so many “bad things” to speak-freely about, limits to free-speech generally and limits to mockery specifically matter a great deal. The recognised court-jester(s) have the greatest license to mock – and even mis-represent to the point of being false, irrational, politically incorrect, disrespectfully ironic and downright offensively sarcastic – that’s the point of The Fool. We may all have the same “right” but that doesn’t mean we should all do it. As Stephen Fry reminds us, we can ruthlessly mock any problematic aspect of British freedom and democracy in practice, provided we love British freedom and democracy. We just can’t all be as good as Frankie at doing it.

Now Tom’s kill-joy pointing out that the “facts” about the weekend working issue in the NHS dispute (*), he justified because the Grauniad’s Comment is Free columns are generally seen as a politically editorial part of the Grauniad’s output – and should meet those standards of responsible journalism, when it comes to representing facts. I begged to differ where it’s clear the writer holds our official court-jester license. For the fool, this is a free-pass, a license who’s only rule is there are no rules – strictly only the kinds of rules that wise-men and fools can interpret. Of course gratuitous offence and not being funny can lose you your free-pass license, but until then Frankie’s doing fine.

Good satirical writing is more an art than a science. The same way a natural language sentence is more like a piece of music than an logical assertion. It is scientism to expect the rules of logic to apply to factual objects anywhere other than science. Man! Wittgenstein had that one nailed, even if Russell and the logical positivists never got the jokes in Tractatus.


(*) PS – To be clear on the subject of the dispute itself. It’s complicated and needs proper, mediated negotiation, like any real dispute. Hunt’s track record means his motives are rightly suspect, but whatever the 24/7 shift-working contractual rates and terms, (a) the mythical “weekend effect” is irrelevant, weekend days should carry no special premium in the 21st century, and (b) employees can take or leave any contract offered. End of. Now, go negotiate and take a Parker-Follett-ian mediator with you.

4 thoughts on “Joining up some Dots of the Day on “Scientism””

  1. You are that man. Will add you specifically, just didn’t want to confuse the three people I’d already been talking with this morning.

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