Philosophy’s alternative for scientism seems to consist in an indulgence in conceptual analysis, either quasi-scientific, as in much of contemporary analytic philosophy, or quasi-profound, as in much post-modernistic philosophy (especially when used in other humanities disciplines than philosophy itself).
Scientism is insincere and a mark of narrow mindedness; and the alternatives testify to inability and unwillingness. Inability and unwillingness to realise that on the one hand there is indeed a lot that science is not and will not be able to do, and on the other hand that the territory that it leaves uncharted can only be entered with modesty and in full realisation of the limitedness of human rationality.
If there is a place, a role for philosophy with regard to that territory, it needs to be a ‘philosophie pauvre’: a modest, hesitating, critically self-reflecting philosophy, one that suggests, asks, observes; not a philosophy that states claims, defends theses, projects visions.
Scientism is the extrapolation of optimism, or rather, of the combination of optimism with curiosity. There is nothing wrong with either, as long as it is acknowledged that each has boundaries that are not their own. Transcending boundaries is what can, and should, happen within the domain of science. But it does not apply to the limits of science. That is what scientism loses track of, the distinction between boundary and limit, between the boundaries of what we currently know and understand, and the limits of understanding itself.
One area where what is at stake here becomes very clear is when we ponder the possible expansion of human life beyond our planet. The excitement that the very contemplation of that possibility creates (let alone the actual realisation of it) is deeply rooted in this optimism, in the longing for control and in the trust in our ability to gain that control. ‘Determining one’s own destiny’, ‘being the master of one’s fate’, the ideal applies to the human species as much as it does to the human individual.
‘Philosophie pauvre’ opposes that. It counters the optimistic projections about the future with simple observations about actuality: the human condition, the constant failure of humans to live up to their ideals, to conquer their weaknesses, their inability to make sense of their own lives. And their never failing urge to do so, to keep trying to do so.