Discussion with Mervyn Hartwig and Dan Little on historical ontology

Mervyn Hartwig is an important exponent of the classic version of Roy Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism. He has contributed a great deal to the interpretation of Bhaskar’s thinking through a number of publications, including The Formation of Critical Realism: A Personal Perspective and Dictionary of Critical Realism, and he is the founding editor of the Journal of Critical RealismHartwig raises a series of criticisms of some of the claims offered in my recent book, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History, and I find these very interesting and revealing. The exchange reproduced here is interesting in its own right, in that it highlights some important disagreements between us about the way that historical ontology ought to be formulated, and it problematizes the status of large entities like capitalism or the French Revolution. Hartwig wants to treat these entities and events realistically, whereas I want to treat them as particular and contingently constituted ensembles. Mervyn, thank you for engaging in this dialogue. Mervyn Hartwig:

Dan, although you reject transcendental arguments in theory, it would seem you sometimes accept them in practice:

This chapter takes up a specific task: to identify and analyze some of the ontological and conceptual conditions that must be satisfied in order for historical analysis and inquiry to be feasible. (New Contributions to the Philosophy of History41, my emphasis)

Daniel Chernilo has recently argued, very persuasively I think, that the transcendental is indispensable to modern social theory in practice, if not always in theory. See his The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory: A Quest for Universalism (New York: CUP 2013). But it’s precisely the universal that Daniel Little’s ‘methodological localism’ tends to leave out, in theory.

There’s a review of Chernilo coming up in Journal of Critical Realism.

Notwithstanding my sharp disagreement, I do very much appreciate that this issue is being aired. It is ‘out there’ and should be discussed. I look forward to your next post. Also, I should perhaps say there’s much I can agree with in New Contributions.

Dan Little:

This is very helpful, Mervyn; thank you. You are right that I do myself admire the type of philosophical reasoning that is associated with transcendental arguments, and I use this style of argument in my philosophy of history. I regard it as an exploratory tool that is useful for uncovering the presuppositions of certain kinds of intellectual activities. But of course I don’t regard it as an “infallible” avenue towards discovering truths about history. (My reason for citing Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense is that Strawson takes transcendental arguments into unexpected directions.) But your several comments have made it clear that you believe that “fallibilism” is a deep and essential component of the spirit of critical realism in any case; so in this my approach is perhaps similar to that of critical realism and Bhaskar.

For myself I think it is possible that Bhaskar’s philosophical jargon is part of the problem of interpretation for me; I “hear” many of his stretches of argument as building up a system of philosophical thought. So perhaps I need to dig deeper and find the underlying fallibilism in his thinking.

I’m not sure that methodological localism leaves out the universal so much as the actually existing global.

Mervyn Hartwig:

The charge of infallibilism doesn’t stick, but now you make another one that could also have the effect of discouraging people from reading Bhaskar: he uses “jargon” and is “building up a system of thought”. What’s wrong with systems of thought? Despite claims to the contrary, there are very few neologisms in Bhaskar. He uses words that are already in currency, in rigorously defined ways. What’s wrong with conceptual precision?

The “actually existing global” is currently dominated, I’d say, by the deep structures of capitalism. You say that capitalism doesn’t exist. Like feudalism etc., it’s just a construct, a ‘nominalist grouping’, an ideal type rather than a real one. I don’t find your localism coherent here. Why can structures exist and causally affect people only at a more or less local level? It seems arbitrary to restrict their scope a priori – especially when you yourself claim to avoid “the hazard of a uselessly a priori approach” (New Contributions, p. 4). On a CR account all philosophy can demonstrate is that social totalities are real. Which ones actually exist in the world can only be revealed a posteriori by empirically based research, and a lot of that will tell you that capitalism exists all right and has a global dynamic that is only too real and profoundly affects all of us locals.

Other than that, I find your emphasis on the historically specific, the local and the grassroots important and refreshing.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, my view that “capitalism doesn’t exist” is actually a view about social kinds, not about concrete particular structures. I do believe that high-level social and economic structures exist, though they are embodied through processes that comply with the idea of social action at the level of methodological localism. What I don’t think exists is a “kind” that is “capitalism in general”, essentially similar across 18th century Britain, 19th century Germany, and 20th century Japan. I like the idea of “assemblage” as a way of capturing the reality of higher-level bundles of institutions and structures that constitute “actually existing 21st-century capitalist global economy”. So I think what you are expressing here as “capitalism and its global dynamic” can be equally expressed in terms of the concrete institutions of trade, regulation, population movements, information flows, etc., that in the aggregate make up that big social whole you mean to refer to. I just don’t want to reify the large social structure as a social entity with an essence. Current capitalism is an amalgam of institutions, practices, and structures that shifts over time.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Many thanks for explaining this. I think that wherever you have economic life arranged on the basis of private ownership of the means of production and generalized production for the market, certain deep tendencies are set up, such as the increasing commodification of everything commodifiable, and the generation of power, winning and instrumental rationality as supreme values; and so I think capitalism is a social kind in the sense you mention. Deep structural continuity is perfectly compatible with far-reaching change and regional differentiation. But this view stems from empirically based research programmes rather than philosophy as such. My essential point is that, although you started out with a complaint about Bhaskar’s apriorism, when it comes to specifying which structured social wholes there are in the world you are more apriorist than Bhaskar because you rule out the existence of wholes that are kinds a priori, whereas he thinks that only empirically based research can settle the matter.

It’s not clear to me whether the (current) capitalism that you do allow to exist – as an amalgam, bundle, agglommerate or assemblage – exerts, at the level of the whole, constraining and enabling power on people. If it doesn’t, it actually doesn’t exist on a causal criterion and we’re back with a nominalistic grouping and the problem of arbitrariness: explaining why it is that structures, although real at other levels, can’t be real at the level of the global.

Dan Little:

Thanks for your thoughts about this. Interesting turn of events — I’m more aprioristic that Roy Bhaskar!

I think my view that there is no “social kind” of capitalism or liberal democratic state is in fact an empirically based view, not the result of an apriori argument. I think we can observe the causally important differences that exist between the various “capitalisms” I mentioned and we can identify the differences in historical and agentic change that they stimulate; so we can observe that there is a lot of variation within the nominalistic category “capitalism.”

As for whether the large structures that constitute big social realities like the world trading system or capitalism have causal powers — on my view, they do; and part of the task of sociology is to show how these work through what kinds of pathways to influence actors in various nodes of the system. That’s the purpose of my notion of methodological localism — it is an important task of social science to work out those causal pathways through which causation influences the actors.

Mervyn Hartwig:

You also say that large-scale events such as the French Revolution weren’t real/didn’t happen, they’re an intellectual construction of historians. I’d say that that the French Revolution happened qua large-scale event is a pretty well attested finding of the historical sciences. As you know, some empirically based work agrees with you that it’s a construction, quite a bit doesn’t. From a CR perspective, the made-by-historians view is very Kantian, involuting the real structured processes of history at the level of the large-scale inside the heads of historians. It collapses the distinction at this level between epistemology (TD) and ontology (ID). I think this view is less empirically based than driven by methodological localism, underpinned by an implicit (postmodernist rather than realist) ontological localism that proclaims that events cannot occur at the level of the large-scale and that large-scale strutures have a very tenuous existence, and social kinds none, so they must be human constructs. That is what I mean by apriorism. It has its source I think in an implicit underlying philosophical ontology.

I agree with William Sewell Jr. (Logics of History, Ch. 8) that the French Revolution was a ‘transformational event’ (ID), a very significant and large-scale one because it transformed, rather than reproduced, key structures of the old order. (Of course, I should probably say ‘is’ to leave open the possibility that the Revolution is still going on).

Doubtless we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m writing an introduction to The Possibility of Naturalism at the moment and have found the discussion particularly useful in conveying a sense of the kinds of issue (out of the many possible) I should comment on.

Dan Little:

I am very pleased to have your feedback. It demonstrates to me the value of having serious exchange with people about big ideas — there is a lot to discuss on each of the points you’ve raised. This is true of your comment about large-scale events like the French Revolution. SOMETHING happened in the eighth decade of the eighteenth century; and I don’t have a problem with calling that complex, geographically and temporally extended set of events a “revolution”. But I do have a caution about reifying these multivaried events into a “kind” — a social revolution. This leads us to want to say a number of erroneous things — that this mega-event was unified; had typical causal characteristics (upstream and downstream); had a role in history that can be accommodated to Marxism or Hegelianism or liberalism. And yet I don’t think any of these impulses is a good one, from a comparative historical sociology point of view. Better is to look at the French Revolution (or the Chinese or the Russian or the Iranian) as a mixture of different confluences, motives, organizations, contingencies, groups, and meanings that don’t add up to a simple “entity”. And this is a point of view that isn’t unique to me; it is the view that Tilly, McAdam, and Tarrow take in Dynamics of Contention, that Simon Schama takes in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and lots of others I could mention. I do see the relevance of this topic (and your parallel question about my doubt that capitalism exists as a transhistorical, transcontextual phenomenon) to critical realism. It is certainly an ontological position — one that I refer to as the unavoidable contingency, compositionality, and heterogeneity of complex social phenomena like structures, classes, or revolutions. I also draw an ontological maxim from these points — one that stands as a heuristic rather than a firm metaphysical finding: that we are better off looking to the heterogeneity and contingency of large phenomena, and better off looking for the complicated ways in which these singular events and structures are composed at various points in time.

Do you think anything important turns on the question of whether we look at the Revolution as one large event or a composition of a number of sub-processes and uprisings? Sewell is one of the people who demonstrated, after all, that the Revolution had different characteristics in Marseilles than Paris; and Tilly who demonstrated that the political dynamics in the Vendee were very different from those in Ile de France! It would appear to me that anything that can be said about the Revolution writ large can also be said about the somewhat separate processes that unfolded in the Vendee, Burgundy, and Marseilles, and that interacted and aggregated in often surprising ways.

And, by the way, I don’t look at either of the views you question (“capitalism is a construct”, “the French Revolution is a construct”) as being anti-realistic. I am perfectly realist about the various dynamics of contention that were involved in the two decades leading up to the sometimes bizarre events of 1789; perfectly realist about the structures of fiscal limitation that forced crisis on the French monarchy; perfectly realist about the long structures of trade between England and India that constituted some of the sinews of the “modern world system”; and perfectly realist about the socio-economic realities that created the Manchester that Engels analyzed and described so well; etc. A realist of any stripe — critical or scientific or historical — needs to be discriminating about what gets included in the ontology. I might include water droplets but not clouds, and I might have excellent reasons for thinking that clouds lack the persistence of traits that is needed for an object to count as such. That doesn’t mean I’m not a realist, does it?

Mervyn Hartwig:

OK, but now you’re speaking as a historical sociologist rather than a philosopher. My main concern here has been to defend Bhaskar the philosopher against a charge of infallibilism and excessive a priorism, because I think he’s a really important thinker and I’m in the business of encouraging people to read and engage him. He makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. It doesn’t tell them what their more concrete ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies can and cannot be. So sociology is mainly concerned with internally related and irreducible social practices, but nothing is said about specific practices (other than to illustrate a point), which are explanatorily the most important, etc. And it doesn’t say whether these constitute social kinds, only that kinds can’t be ruled out a priori – it’s down to social science to reveal any social kinds there may be in the world.

When you say the French Revolution isn’t a kind or real type, I guess you’re speaking as a sociologist or philosophically minded sociologist, and it’s fine to make that argument. A key difference between you and Bhaskar may be that you don’t distinguish clearly between philosophical and scientific ontologies. I think you say in your philosophy of history book that you’re operating as a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences. I’m sure much useful work can be done there, but it seems to me to run the risk of dissolving philosophy into science and leaving the business of critiquing bad science exclusively to science itself. For Bhaskar, philosophy is relatively autonomous from science, and may fallibly discover conditional synthetic a priori truths – but only relatively autonomous, because if over the longer run its discoveries were not borne out by science, it would have to look again at the arguments.

I’m not wanting to say you’re anti-realist or not a realist, only that you’re not a realist about some things. I’m not a realist about unicorns (other than at the level of discourse), you’re not a realist about social kinds and types. I do think that methodological localism has probably been significantly influenced by postmodernism with it’s emphasis on difference etc., and that’s fine and healthy, but it does seem to bias you towards scepticism about the reality of higher-level social entities and processes. These are real for you in some sense (though you do urge a nominalist approach), but it seems to me that your larger social whole always reduces causally to its ‘component’ parts – the whole is in effect nothing more than the sum – or you come very close to such a position. I think the whole question of social kinds is an open one and I don’t think your arguments against their possibility stack up – they’ve not derived from a consensus in the social sciences and the only more philosophical argument I can detect is that human agency necessarily brings change. True, but we know from history that this is quite consistent with the stability of social structures over long periods – there’s change, but it may be only very slow.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, thanks!

I think you have expressed very clearly the feature of Bhaskar’s method that Cruickshank and Kaidesoja are most concerned about:

“[Bhaskar] makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. “

And you correctly note that my own efforts at historical ontology reject this distinction between philosophical and scientific ontology. Instead, I want to engage in ontological discovery within the intellectual space of the social and historical sciences — to be “a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences,” not a philosopher outside the domain of scientific thinking altogether. The critique we have been discussing expresses doubts that there is a substantive field of ontological discovery outside of the domain of scientific reasoning and fully within the field of philosophical theorizing; or in other words this critique would reject the rigorous distinction to which you refer.

So critical realism naturalized (as Kaidesoja advocates) would eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR while preserving many (all) of the ontological conclusions; but it appears that you (and Bhaskar) are opposed to that strategy. This also makes me think that Bhaskar’s original phrase, “transcendental realism”, perhaps better described the theory than “critical realism” does. And the version of realism that I would associate myself with is best described as “scientific realism.”

Again, thanks so much for spending the effort to think these issues through together with me.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Well, many thanks to you too Dan. It has really helped to clarify some key issues, I think.

You now introduce Tuuka Kaidesoja as an interlocutor of Bhaskar. I think his book has several Achilles’ heels. First, the very science with which he casts his lot deploys transcendental reasoning centrally (as do you), so how can he reject transcendental arguments without rejecting science? His position that science proceeds entirely a posteriori is false – an empiricist illusion. And if you accept the conclusions of transcendental realism, doesn’t that suggest that it isn’t likely that there’s a great deal wrong with the method and arguments?  Second, Kaidesoja, like you and Cruickshank, misidentifies Bhaskar as a traditional philosopher, as someone who holds, as you put it, that “there is a substantive field of ontological discovery outside of the domain of scientific reasoning and fully within the field of philosophical theorizing” (my emphasis). That is not what I’ve argued Bhaskar’s position to be. Philosophy is both relatively autonomous (distinct from) and internally related to science. It takes as its subject matter the same world as science, and its fallible findings must in the long run be compatible with science. This is a radically novel, dialectical conception, and you don’t begin to get to grips with it by approaching it as old-style metaphysics. There’s a review of Kaidesoja by Dustin McWherter coming up in Journal of Critical Realism. If Kaidesoja comments that could make for an interesting exchange.

Scientific realism is fine, providing it’s not positivist and (like science itself) doesn’t reject transcendental arguments. Critical realist scientific realism is already ‘naturalized’, espousing the possibility of  non-positivist naturalism. It doesn’t need empiricist-minded mainstream scientific realism, as we see in Kaidesoja, to naturalize it. You don’t say on what basis you now also want to reject the “critical” in “critical realism”. Bhaskar argues that science in the social domain is necessarily critical both of its own theories and of its subject matter, just as natural science is necessarily critical of existing theories; and further that explanatory critique can effect a transition from facts to values. But the CR understanding of critique in its various forms isn’t something we’ve discussed. There’s far more to critical realism than a (per impossibile) detranscendentalized scientific realism! I take heart from the fact that your own scientific realism is not in practice detranscendentalized, whatever you say in theory.

%d bloggers like this: