Tuukka Kaidesoja provides an important analysis and critique of Roy Bhaskar’s philosophical method in his theory of critical realism in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. This work provides a careful and detailed account of the content of Bhaskar’s central ideas, as well as the relation those ideas have to other positions within and adjacent to critical realism. For Kaidesoja, the hope of discovering fundamental truths through transcendental reasoning is unpersuasive, and he advocates instead for a strategy of “naturalizing” the arguments for critical realism.
TK agrees with Bhaskar about the importance of ontological theory, and he thinks these topics are important for practitioners of the social sciences as well as philosophers. Here are some of the ways in which he characterizes the role of an ontological theory:
[Ontology is important] because specific research practices in social sciences as well as the theories and methods used in these practices always contain ontological assumptions and presuppositions no matter whether the practising social scientists and philosophers of social sciences acknowledge or discuss them. These assumptions and presuppositions concern, for example, the basic ontological categories of which the entities studied belong; the relationships between different kinds of entities studied; between them and those studied in the other social sciences and non-social sciences; and the causal structure of the social world (or the lack of such structure). In addition, ontological assumptions and presuppositions of this kind are not inconsequential in empirical research. Rather, they affect what are considered as proper social phenomena to be explained; what methods are thought to be suitable for studying different types of social phenomena; what are regarded as the sound explanations of these phenomena; and what are considered as possible factors in those explanations. Differences in opinion as to how to answer questions like these are reflected, for example, in the debates between the proponents of various forms of individualism (or microfoundationalism) and collectivism (or holism); and between the advocates of statistical causal modelling, the mechanism-based model of explanation and interpretative methods. (1-2)
So what is the ontology that Bhaskar articulates? According to Kaidesoja, it comes down to a fairly simple set of ideas:
The main ontological point in RTS then is that structures, or rather structured things (e.g. atoms, molecules, chemical substances and living organisms), possess causal powers by virtue of which they are able to generate empirically observable effects. (56)
Bhaskar describes the relationship between the structure of a thing and its power by using the concept of natural necessity. The essential structure of a thing both determines its causal powers — or at least those powers that are explanatorily the most fundamental — and constitutes its identity by fixing its membership in a natural kind. (57)
(These passages make clear the direct lineage from critical realism to causal powers theory.)
So how should we go about arriving at a defensible ontology for scientific knowledge? Bhaskar’s answer is, through the philosophical strategy of transcendental argument. He wants to argue that certain ontological premises are the necessary precondition to the intelligibility of some aspect of the enterprise of science. Like Cruickshank, Kaidesoja attributes a philosophical apriorism to Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism (5), and he holds that Bhaskar’s method of argument is one grounded in apriori transcendental reasoning (82).
Kaidesoja argues against this aprioristic strategy and puts forward an alternative: “naturalized critical realist social ontology”. Here is his preliminary description of this alternative:
In very rough terms, naturalists contend that theories in social ontology should be built by studying (1) the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of the epistemically successful practices of empirical social research (including well-confirmed theories produced in them); and (2) the well-established ontological assumptions advanced in other sciences, including natural sciences. This procedure is needed because naturalists hold that ontological theories cannot be justified by means of philosophical arguments that rely on a priori forms of conceptual analysis and reasoning. (2; italics mine)
So the heart of the approach that Kaidesoja advocates is the idea that the activity of formulating and evaluating scientific theories through empirical research is the only avenue we have for arriving at justified ideas about the world, including our most basic ontological beliefs. We might refer to this as a “boot-strapping” approach to ontology: we discover the more fundamental aspects of the world by constructing and evaluating scientific theories in various areas of phenomena, and then extracting the “ontological assumptions” these theories make.
This position makes a difference in the status of the resulting claims about ontology, according to Kaidesoja. Bhaskar wants to hold that the ontological claims established by transcendental arguments are different in kind from the claims about the physical or social world made by ordinary scientific theories (5). For Kaidesoja, by contrast, all ontological claims are on the same footing; they are part of the empirical scientific enterprise.
This means that all naturalist ontological theories should be understood as knowledge a posteriori which is always hypothetical, because, as will be later argued, there is no specifically philosophical or transcendental (as distinct from empirical) warrant for any philosophical ontology. (5)
Here is how Kaidesoja summarizes Bhaskar’s typical transcendental argument:
In order to discuss them in detail, Bhaskar’s arguments in RTS can be analysed into the following steps:
- X is generally recognized natural scientific practice.
- It is a necessary condition of the possibility (or intelligibility) of X that the world is P1,. . ., Pn.
- X is possible because it is real.
- If the world were Q1, . . . , Qn, as is presupposed in competing philosophies of science, then X would be impossible or unintelligible.
- Therefore, it is conditionally (i.e. given that X exists) necessary that the world is P1, . . . , Pn. (88)
And here is the naturalistic argument form that Kaidesoja prefers:
- X is an epistemically successful scientific practice described on the basis of empirical analysis of the practice.
- It is hypothetically (and in the explanatorily sense) a necessary condition of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description that the ontological structure of the world (or some of its aspects) really is as described in propositions P1, . . ., Pn.
- Propositions P1, . . . , Pn are compatible with the ontological commitments of current scientific theories which have stood the test of critical evaluation by the relevant scientific community.
- The explicit ontological propositions or implicit ontological presuppositions of competing philosophical positions, say Q . . . , Qn, are incompatible with propositions P1, . . . , Pn and the epistemic successfulness of X under our description remains impossible or unintelligible from the point of view of Q1, . . ., Qn.
- The best explanation of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description currently is that (a certain aspect or region of) the world is as described in propositions P1, . . . , Pn. (98)
It seems to me that Kaidesoja’s naturalistic alternative permits a very smooth respecification of the status and content of critical realism. Instead of arriving at conclusions that have philosophical certainty (philosophical transcendental ontology), we arrive at potentially the same conclusions based on reasoning to the best explanation. This was Richard Boyd’s best argument for realism in the 1970s (what he called “methodological realism”), and it provides a philosophically modest way of giving rational credibility to the ontological conclusions critical realism wants to reach without presupposing the validity of philosophical transcendental arguments.
Since defenders of critical realism like Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff have emphatically insisted that Bhaskar does not aspire to philosophical certainty with his scheme of argumentation, it may be that Kaidesoja’s account will be understood as a clarification rather than an objection to the approach. The difference between the two argument forms here comes down to this: The naturalistic argument consistently replaces “reasoning derived from transcendental necessity” by “reasoning within the general framework of what we know about the world”, but leaves the deductive flow of the argument unchanged. And this might be a reasonable way of accounting for the defenders’ view that Bhaskar’s philosophy has been fundamentally fallibilistic all along.