There is a lot for reasonable people to agree with and disagree with in Philip Kitcher's recent essay in The New Republic, "The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". This being Language Log, however, I can only urge readers of Kitcher's essay to take the following linguistic claim with a healthy dose of skepticism:
In English we speak about science in the singular, but both French and German wisely retain the plural.
Kitcher's point in making this claim — and the actual, reasonable argument that follows it — is that "science" is hardly a singular thing:
The enterprises that we [English speakers–EB] lump together [with the singular word "science"–EB] are remarkably various in their methods, and also in the extent of their successes. The achievements of molecular engineering or of measurements derived from quantum theory do not hold across all of biology, or chemistry, or even physics.
This argument is a key part of the larger (and again, reasonable) argument laid bare in the essay's subtitle: that "history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". Anyone interested in this kind of topic (as I am) is encouraged to read this essay, followed by the other links further above, and perhaps counterbalanced by this NYT Opinionator blog post. (And don't forget to squeeze the comments.)
So what about the linguistic claim? Unfortunately for Kitcher, it's complete hogwash.
Well, OK, let me soften that: as stated, at least, it seems to me to be complete hogwash. As a native English speaker who "speaks about science" with some regularity, I can attest that I also speak about "the sciences" with some regularity. And I'm not a native speaker of French or German, but I have passing knowledge of both (four years of grade school French and two years of college German); I'm fairly certain that French speakers speak about "la science" (feminine singular) as well as "les sciences" (plural) and that German speakers speak about "die Wissenschaft" (feminine singular) as well as "die Wissenschaften" (plural).
So what is Kitcher on about? It may be the case (and I stress that it is far from obvious) that the plural forms predominate in French-language and German-language academic discourses on the topic, and that the singular form predominates in English-language academic discourse — but why would anyone want to elevate such an (entirely hypothetical) asymmetry to the level of facts about the languages themselves? [ Update: see the discussion in this comment below. — EB ]
I'll end this post with a bit of a cheap shot: searching the text of Kitcher's own (English-language) essay, there are 37 instances of the string "science", 20 (more than half!) of which are embedded in the larger string "sciences". Now to be fair, Kitcher is specifically interested in talking about "sciences" as opposed to "science", but I honestly don't think any English speakers would bat an eye at his "overuse" of "sciences". Kitcher could easily have made his point without making a factually incorrect linguistic claim.