against scientism

Do we see signs of Austrianism in Egyptology and marketing?

I don’t think Barbara Mertz is a praxeologist, by which I mean that I don’t assume she would accept the claims of a priori laws concerning social phenomena, but she certainly shares Mises’s methodological dualism.

After a discussion of some standard causal theories about the rise and decline of civilization, Mertz concludes,

This has been a very superficial, limited probing of some of the types of problems we encounter when we talk about causes in history. We have not even settled the important question of whether there are causes. Yet we will probably go right on looking for them, and talking about them. The intellectual climate of our own era asks for explanations. We would like, if we could, to reduce all phenomena to systems of logical sequence. In part this is the effect of the prestige of the physical sciences, and this effect is not always for the good. History may be “scientific” in its approach, and the social studies may be “social sciences” in the sense that they apply dispassionate, critical, and rigorously logical analyses to the subjects of their discourse. But the disciplines that deal with man and his peculiar affairs cannot expect to use the methods, or anticipate the results, of the physical sciences. The human experiment will not reproduce itself under laboratory conditions; we can never control our specimens to such a degree that we can isolate a pertinent stimulus or determine a specific conclusion. My personal antipathy toward the use of the term “scientific” in the humanistic disciplines is that the very application of the word sometimes suggests to the user that such isolation and such determination are possible. Sometimes I wish they were.

We have a more personal need, in our time, to dissect the past in search of its pathology, for according to some historians our own culture is showing disturbing signs of disease. However you define the developmental stages of civilization, and upon what ever step you put us here, in this twenty-first century of the Christian Era, it seems unlikely that we are at the beginning of a process. This leaves us with the dismal possibility that we may be nearing the end. If so, it behooves us to discover, insofar as we are able, where we are, and why. If there are universal causes, and if we are able to see them plainly, we may learn how to avoid their more disastrous consequences.

That is one of the reasons why we look for reasons. Whether we have any grounds for supposing that we will find them is another question. At the moment, it appears that our only recourse, if we are about to fall, is to go down gracefully.

Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt

While Barbara Mertz’s may or may not agree with Ludwig von Mises’s approach to theory and history, ad man Rory Sutherland is openly Austrian, at least enough to give a marketing presentation called “Praxeology: Time to Rediscover a Lost Science”:

Jeffrey Tucker says, “This is, very truly, one of the most interesting lectures I’ve ever heard.” I have to agree.

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2 Responses to against scientism

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    Good on Barbara Mertz (aka novelists Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels), who I see “earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s famed Oriental Institute”, for the passage above on the separation of the church of scientism from the states of the humanities and the human sciences. Two Egyptian artifacts therein, both given to me by a friend amid the pharaonic dust of my own excavations in the ancient … Virginia of the early 1990s, for which I have long recommend watching the skies of the online second-hand markets: the postcard book, published in 1993 and now available for a song, and the 1994 calendar, harder to find, entitled Sifting the Sands of Time: Historic Photographs from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, fruits of a year-long 1992 exhibit therein. From the annual report for 1992-1993 of the Oriental Institute Museum: “The calendar and postcards … feature historic photographs of Oriental Institute excavations and projects from the turn of the century to the 1940s. The images represent, among others, the Breasted expedition to Nubia in 1905-7; photographing the coffin texts in the Egyptian Museum in 1923; and the excavations at Persepolis, Khorsabad, Jerwan, and in the Diyala region. Selection of the images proved to be difficult, for as the project progressed we were reminded of how rich the resources of the museum photographic archives are.” I memorialized the calendar, and many another among the dazzling eye-candied immortals of their kind, here.

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