This means that it was a mistake to infer from the spectacular success of the corpuscular physics developed by Galileo and Newton that a body of science is successful only when it comes up with universal laws. Galileo and Newton did, indeed, discover some nice, succinct formulas for predicting the behavior of ideal corpuscles in a vacuum. Many equally elegant laws of the behavior of some equally boring objects have been discovered since. But it was a great mistake to infer from the existence of Newton's Laws that the discovery of Law is the proper business of scientific inquiry. Making this mistake produces the idea that we must not give up until we find Laws of Biology, Laws of Psychology, Laws of Linguistics, Laws of Society, and Laws of History. That sort of physics-envy encourages the fantasy that the point of science is to recapture the entire text of a great corpus juris, one that will manifest the deep purposes of a pantheistically pictured Lawgiver.
-- Richard Rorty on the modern science of linguistics
"Physics Envy" is the term that "neo-pragmatist" philosopher Richard Rorty coined to talk about the sometimes pernicious and sometimes laughable aping the other sciences and liberal arts make towards the absolutism of physics. The most recent and high-profile demonstration of this is when the grand dame of postmodern studies Social Text was left holding the bag after the Transgressing the Boundaries fiasco.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could all deal with the absolute nature of reality? If you could tell people over cocktails that your job was to determine the fundamental properties of matter, and that mere mortals, laymen, had little chance of understanding even a watered-down version of your work? I think it haunts people in the liberal arts sometimes, particularly in the more obscurant and obtuse fields of endeavor.
God knows it bugged me in grad school. Writing a paper about the Battletech wargaming system as an instrument of social instruction was a kind of odd fun, but an odd fun that absorbed untold hours of time, and was read by only the minutest of audiences. It sounds right and strong, talking about pop culture's work as a instrument of education, keeping the engineers engineering, even in their off hours. sound absolute, like gravity or the gas laws. In the end, though, where does it leave you? A strange member of a strange club, with a years long initiation process. The scientists all laugh at you, the tradionalists brand you as the barbarian at the gate in a quest to destroy all beauty and meaning, and your friends can't understand a fucking thing you're talking about.
It's as though the simple (mis)appropriation of the terminology and concepts of science can somehow alloy cultural criticism with the vital strength of scientific endeavor. Undoubtedly, science provides a massively rich seam of metaphor - available for mapping to the foibles of the human spirit, new ways of looking at the same old problem of being human. But there is an adamantine wall between metaphor and reality, or at least a functional model of reality. Physicists smash atoms and determine the age of the universe. Geneticists point to sequences of proteins and say "that's where your vital neurotransmitters come from." Engineers build computers, bridges, and artificial eyes. Cultural critics pile on the jargon and come up with... what? There seems a kind of noble (and Nobel) purpose inherent to good science - deeping the human understanding of the universe. The liberal arts have a purpose too, but it isn't served by vainly mimicking the exactitude and ultimate goals of science.
There is another universe that cannot be placed in a protein sequencer, which cannot be bombarded with a particle accelerator - that *thing* going on inside the cubic foot or so of the human skull. That thing is not amenable to reduction, assignation, quantification down to scalar values. Telling a suicidal man that he feels the way he does because his serum load of serotonin is low is cold comfort - what he needs is a functional model for the darkness inside the human soul. The soul is a made up thing, a fiction that is as real to its possessor as the force of gravity as he falls down a well to his death. There exists a massive body of work on this functional model, it fills libraries - plays, novels, poerty... It's what a lot of the scientists read when they come home from the lab at night, and it as an inestimable value of its own. It does not need to borrow credit it does not deserve.