Tuukka Kaidesoja’s recent book Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology devotes a chapter to the topic of emergence as it is treated within critical realism. Roy Bhaskar insisted that the assumption of emergence was crucial to the theory of critical realism. Kaidesoja sorts out what Bhaskar means by emergence, which turns out to be ambiguous and inconsistent, and offers his own position on the concept.
Kaidesoja quotes an important passage from Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation) (1986):
It is only if social phenomena are genuinely emergent [. . .] that realist explanations in the human sciences are justified; and it is only if these conditions are satisfied that there is any possibility of human self-emancipation worthy of the name. But, conversely, emergent phenomena require realist explanation and realist explanations possess emancipatory implications. Emancipation depends upon explanation depends upon emergence. Given the phenomena of emergence, an emancipatory politics (or more generally transformative or therapeutic practice) depends upon a realist science. But, if and only if emergence is real, the development of both science and politics are up to us. [quoted by TK, 178]
Kaidesoja invokes a very basic issue about emergence by asking whether a claim of emergence for a given property is a claim about epistemology or about ontology. Is the phenomenon emergent because, given our current state of knowledge it is impossible to derive the property from the properties of the lower level constituents; or do we mean that the property is really (ontologically) independent from the features of the lower level? Kaidesoja makes it clear that Bhaskar and the critical realists have the stronger ontological thesis in mind when they assert that social entities are emergent or have emergent properties. The emergent feature is ontologically irreducible to the composing elements. But it is really unclear what this means.
TK argues that Bhaskar intertwines three different kinds of emergence without clearly distinguishing them: compositional, transcendentally realist, and global-level (179).
- Compositional emergence: A particular complex whole sometimes has properties that are not properties of any of its parts and not merely “aggregative” effects of the ensemble of parts (179-180).
- Transcendentally realist emergence: Abstract social structures, as distinct from social particulars, have properties that cannot be derived from the activities of individuals. “Transcendentally real emergent powers of social structures differ from the causal powers of concrete social systems composed of interacting persons” (182).
- Global-level emergence: Levels of reality (e.g. society, mind, matter) have emergent properties not derivable from the properties of lower levels of reality. “Each emergent level has its own synchronically emergent properties which are autonomous with respect to those of other levels (186).
The three sets of ideas are successively more demanding, and TK finds that they are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, there is a crucial complication: within the compositional version (but not within the other two versions) Bhaskar allows that the emergent factor is amenable to “micro-reductive explanation”. This is essentially the position taken by Herbert Simon (link) and Mario Bunge (link), and it appears to be consistent with Dave Elder-Vass’s position in The Causal Power of Social Structures (link) as well. It is a reasonable position. The other two versions, by contrast, are explicitly not compatible with micro-reductive explanation, and do not appear reasonable.
In fact, Kaidesoja finds that there are insolvable problems with the “transcendentally realist” and “global-level” versions of the theory of emergence, and he concludes that they are unsupportable. Kaidesoja therefore focuses his attention on the compositional version as the sole version of emergence that can be coherently asserted within critical realism.
Since Bhaskar and his followers deny the possibility of analysing emergent powers of social structures in compositional terms, their notion of transcendentally realist emergent powers of social structures is incompatible with the compositional account of emergent powers. (184)
I further tried to show that the attribution of transcendentally real emergent powers to social structures is problematic, since it leaves the ontological relation between social structures and concrete social systems (composed of interacting people and their artifacts) obscure and/or construes social structures as abstract entities. (187)
This discussion has an important consequence within TK’s naturalizing strategy. It implies that a naturalized critical realism will need to surrender the two more extensive versions of emergence and make do with the compositional form. And that would bring a naturalized critical realism into closer alignment with mainstream thinking about the relation between higher-level and lower-level systems than this framework is usually thought to be.
So the argument TK has constructed in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology does not limit itself to criticizing the scheme of philosophical reasoning that Bhaskar and other CR theorists have pursued, but also extends to some of the substantive conclusions they have sought to derive.