A Short Note on Scientific Thought

12 May 2010


Yesterday in Negative Organicism I referred to the weakening of compassion by immersion in a social whole as a “moral mechanism.” I acknowledged there that it probably sounds odd to speak of a “mechanism” in this case. What do I mean by this?

Ever since Western civilization was transformed by the scientifically-driven Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, philosophers have wanted to emulate the practical success and efficacy of science. In the ancient world, societies were built on the basis of philosophical ideas. But in the modern world, societies came to be based on scientific ideas. So philosophers wanted to make philosophy scientific. Husserl said that philosophy should be practiced as rigorous science. But there were problems with this, not least that few today would think of Husserl’s phenomenology as a rigorous science. The two greatest exemplars of scientific philosophy of the twentieth century — Bertrand Russell and John Dewey — disagreed profoundly on their approach and produced very different scientific philosophies.

So I have my own take on what constitutes scientific philosophy, and it is not likely to agree with what any other philosopher has to say on the subject. But, for me, scientific philosophy means searching for an explanatory mechanism. How is this distinct from science sensu stricto? I do not insist that mechanisms be embodied in a physical process. I take it that one can approach philosophy in a scientific spirit that scientists would nevertheless not recognize as science in the way that they practice it. For me, there are ontological mechanisms, epistemological mechanisms, axiological mechanisms, and, yes, moral mechanisms. In so far as we can explain our world — including the world of ontology, of epistemology, of axiology, and of morality — by an impersonal mechanism we are thinking scientifically. Philosophy is, in this way, scientific thought without being science simpliciter. It is scientific thought about objects that cannot be made the object of science sensu stricto.

Given the conception of scientific philosophy outlined above (perhaps idiosyncratic to myself alone), we could say that philosophy is science in an extended sense, not unlike my recent attempts to define history in an extended sense, which I called integral history. Thus philosophy is integral science. In turn, the conceptual resources of integral science turned upon the subject matter of history, both humanistic and natural, begets integral history.

This is an admittedly inadequate formulation of an inchoate conception of scientific philosophy. Perhaps, fate willing, I can clarify this in the coming years. That is the best that I can do for now.

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