Two leading exponents of critical realism, Dave Elder-Vass (The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency) and Mervyn Hartwig (Dictionary of Critical Realism), have offered critical replies to my post presenting some of Justin Cruickshank’s criticisms of CR and indirectly to my own post on “Bhaskar’s Core Ideas.” I have invited them to amend and extend their comments and to publish them here to facilitate a coherent reading and continuing discussion. Ruth Groff also replied, and her comments can be read here. Thank you, Dave, Mervyn, and Ruth, for contributing to this discussion!
Replies to Cruickshank/Little on critical realism
From Dave Elder-Vass:
Cruickshank’s argument might have some merit if it was true that Bhaskar is committed to an a priori understanding of metaphysics and denies the possibility that his transcendental arguments could possibly be wrong. But it just isn’t so, and Cruickshank willfully ignores statements that make this clear. Perhaps the clearest I’m aware of is this: “It is important to remember that all cognitive claims, including claims to knowledge of necessities in any mode (whether logical, mathematical, transcendental, conceptual, natural, conventional, psychological, historical, etc.) are fallible; and that discourse, and perhaps especially philosophical discourse… is typically dialogical or conversational in structure” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 15).
And this isn’t an isolated quote, by the way: Bhaskar is thoroughly committed to the fallibility of all knowledge claims and even cites ‘epistemological relativism’ as one of the three cornerstones of critical realism (though ‘epistemological fallibilism’ might describe his position more accurately).
This interpretation might seem to be undermined by one of the quotes from Bhaskar included by Daniel in his earlier post. Bhaskar does say “It is not necessary that science occurs. But given that it does, it is necessary that the world is a certain way”. But I think we have to be careful about what it is that he is ascribing necessity to here. What is necessary is that IF science occurs THEN the world must be such that science is possible and/or intelligible. This seems uncontroversial. But Cruickshank seems to read him as saying that IF science occurs THEN Bhaskar’s own specific account of what is entailed by science must be true — in other words, that the world consists of things with powers arising from mechanisms. Bhaskar certainly asserts that the world does consist of such things, but he does not assert that this is necessarily the case, or even that it necessarily follows from the existence of science. There is scope for error in claims about the specific features of the world that make science possible, and it is quite clear from Bhaskar’s other statements that he accepts this.
From Mervyn Hartwig:
I agree. It’s Cruickshank who makes dogmatic and quite false claims about Bhaskar not regarding his philosophical ontology as fallible. Bhaskar does of course make a priori arguments, but they’re a conditional and relative, situated to a particular historical context. The reasoning could be faulty, the premises might change, or they can be disputed, so the conclusions are revisable and historically relative.
From Dan Little:
Hi, Dave, and greetings, Mervyn, thanks for your comments. This is all worth discussing carefully!
Dave quotes a relevant passage from RTS (cited in my earlier post):
“But given that science does or could occur, the world must be a certain way. Thus, the transcendental realist asserts, that the world is structured and differentiated can be established by philosophical argument; though the particular structures it contains and the ways in which it is differentiated are matters for substantive scientific investigation.”
Do you feel that this is not in fact representative of RB’s philosophical reasoning?
The quote Daniel gives is a bald summary of the transcendental realist position. If you read the detail you will find that ‘established’ means ‘corrigibly’, ‘conditionally’, ‘relatively’, ‘provisionally’ etc. The conclusion of a transcendental argument follows with logical necessity from the major and minor premises (hence ‘must’), but only if the premises are sound! The analysis establishing the major premises could be faulty and the minor premise might be disputed or change. Here is a quote from The Possibility of Naturalism that runs completely counter to Cruickshank’s (and Daniel’s) attempt to assimilate Bhaskar’s position to that of old-style metaphysics:
“According to [transcendental realism], there is no connection between (a) what lies beyond sense‑experience and (b) some special sphere of philosophy. For at least once a non‑reductionist account of science is accepted then some ‘transcendent’ entities, such as magnetic fields, may quite properly be regarded as objects of scientific investigation. But their ‘transcendence’ is a contingent fact about the world, and philosophy speaks with no special authority about it. The familiar conflation of (a) and (b) in a unitary concept of metaphysics must be assiduously avoided. It has proved a prop for a positivism that has systematically scouted the cognitive potential of both philosophy and science. Secondly, by making the possibility of philosophical discourse contingent upon the actuality of particular social practices it provides … a way of reconciling transcendental and sociological analyses of social activities such as science ‑ and philosophy”. (p. 7)
There are many passages to similar effect throughout Bhaskar’s oeuvre.
There is nothing wrong with conditional and relative transcendental arguments! Science itself uses them, or a retroductive-analogical procedure that belongs to the same family, centrally. What must be the case to render these and these well attested results intelligible, e.g. Darwin.
Dustin McWherter, The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar Contra Kant, has recently made a very good effort at defending a reconstructed version of Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism in RTS. He stresses its historical and provisional nature. He doesn’t even mention Cruickshank, quite rightly too: as Dave implies, Cruickshank’s ‘critique’ either willfully misrepresents Bhaskar or is ignorant.
A transcendental argument, on Bhaskar’s account (RTS 257), has the following logical form:
- Major premise: Only if Q, then P
- Minor premise: P
- Conclusion: Therefore, Q
Here is McWherter’s reconstruction of the basic form of the argument from experimental activity in RTS (The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar Contra Kant, 115).
- Major premise(s): Only if extra-experimental reality is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), and causal laws are the transcendentally real tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), then experimental activity is intelligible (P)
- Minor premise: Experimental activity is intelligible (P)
- Conclusion(s): Therefore, extra-experimental reality is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), and causal laws are the transcendentally real tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3)
My main points are that (1) the argument is contextual and polemical – directed against a specific philosophical theory, the Humean account of a causal law, that it seeks to replace. It seeks to demonstrate that it offers, not the only possible theory consistent with (P), but ‘the only theory at present known to us’ that is consistent with it (RTS 260). It anticipates its own supersession in due course. (2) The conclusions only follow if the minor premise is acceptable and accepted by Bhaskar’s interlocutors. (3) Both experimental activity and our understanding of it may change. Indeed, experimental science may cease to exist. Philosophy is in history, and critical realist philosophy is not a traditional philosophy. In sum, the argument is geo-historically relative and conditional.
Building on McWherter, the main argument of PON, the founding philosophical text of critical realist social theory and social science, establishing the possibility of a non-positivist naturalism may be reconstructed as follows. The same kind of considerations apply.
- Major premises: Only if the world, including the social world, is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), causal laws are the transcendentally real powers or tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), society is a structure or ensemble of powers irreducible to people (Q4) and people’s intentionality is irreducible and causally efficacious (mind is an emergent power of matter and reasons when acted on are causes) (Q5), then human intentional activity is intelligible (P)
- Minor premise: Human intentional activity is intelligible (P)
- Conclusion(s): Therefore, the world, including the social world, is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), causal laws are the transcendentally real powers or tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), society is a structure or ensemble of powers irreducible to people (Q4) and people’s intentionality is irreducible and causally efficacious (mind is an emergent power of matter and reasons when acted on are causes) (Q5)
Elder-Vass and Hartwig reject the core claims that I have attributed to Cruickshank in his critique of Bhaskar’s philosophical method: that Bhaskar pursues an aprioristic philosophical method in arriving at the fundamental ideas of critical realism, and that he regards these ideas as having been established with some kind of certainty by this method. (I should make it clear, of course, that this is my interpretation of Cruickshank; I hope I have not mis-represented him.) Against this aprioristic and infallibilist reading, Elder-Vass and Hartwig argue that Bhaskar’s reasoning is not aprioristic and that he regards his conclusions as being fallible and historically conditioned.
I believe that both E-V and Hartwig concede that there are important passages in Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science that give an impression of aprioricity and infallibility in Bhaskar (for example, the passage I quote above), but they maintain that a fuller reading of Bhaskar’s texts demonstrates that these passages should not be taken at face value. This introductory statement is a “bald” statement, in Hartwig’s word. Both E-V and Hartwig assert that other formulations in Bhaskar’s corpus serve to amend the “bald” statement and make clear that Bhaskar’s final opinion on method is not dogmatic, aprioristic, or infallibilist. And they also assert that later versions of Bhaskar’s theories demonstrate these non-dogmatic features of philosophical method as well. So to make out the claim that Bhaskar’s method is philosophical, apriori, and prone to asserting the necessity of the conclusions reached, we are obliged to consider all of Bhaskar’s comments about method, not just his summary comments, and consider them throughout the fullness of his development of the theory, not just in RTS.
This seems to concede the point that it is not wholly unreasonable to observe that Bhaskar does sometimes assert the features of certainty that Cruickshank attributes to him. The remaining question is whether that adequately represents his mature and complete view, and these critics are adamant that it does not.
Dave and Mervyn make a number of very important points here, and I expect to respond in greater detail in an upcoming post. Thanks to both of them for helping to push this inquiry forward!