Moral progress and critical realism

Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality — and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to “moral realism” as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that holds that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of “moral facts” that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one’s own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that drives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no “moral facts” consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls’s moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:

In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)

This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism — an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls’s own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Moral Epistemology” is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Time for a critical-realist epistemology

The critical realism network in North America is currently convened in Montreal in a three-day intensive workshop (link). In attendance are many of the sociologists and philosophers who have an active interest in critical realism, and the talks are of genuine interest. A session this morning on pragmatist threads of potential interest to critical realists, including Mead, Abbott, and Elias, was highly stimulating. And there are 29 sessions altogether — roughly 85 papers. This is an amazing wealth of sociological research.

Perhaps a third of the papers are presentations of original sociological research from a CR point of view. This is very encouraging because it demonstrates that CR is moving beyond the philosophy of social science to the concrete practice of social science. Researchers are working hard to develop research methods in the context of CR that permit concrete investigation of particular social and historical phenomena. And this implies as well that there is a growing body of thinking about methodology within the field of CR.

CR theorists began with ontology, and a great deal of the existing literature takes the form of theoretical expositions of various ontological theses. And this was deliberate; following Bhaskar, theorists have argued that we need better ontology before science can progress. (This seems particularly true in the social realm; link.) So ontology needs to come first, then epistemology.

I believe the time has come when CR needs to give more explicit and extended attention to epistemology.

What is epistemology? It is an organized effort to answer the question, what is (scientific) knowledge? It attempts to provide a justified theory of empirical justification. Epistemology is an attempt to articulate the desired relationship between evidence and assertion; more specifically, it is an attempt to uncover the nuances of the domain of “evidence” across the realm of social research. Most fundamentally, it is an attempt to articulate how the practices of science are “truth-enhancing”: a given set of epistemic practices (methodologies) are hoped to result in a higher level of veridicality over time.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement’s visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take. For example, The two following statements sound very similar:

A “Sociological claims must be evaluated on the basis of objective empirical evidence”

B “Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified”

And so the CR theorist is inclined to reject A as well as B. But this is a philosophical misstep caused by fear of the blind side. A is actually a perfectly valid requirement of epistemological rationality.

So what do we need from a developed epistemology for CR? Essentially we need three things.

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

Second, we need a nuanced discussion of the complications involved in identifying “empirical evidence” in social research; for example, the impossibility of theory-independent or perspective-independent social data, the constructive nature of most historical and social observation, and the problem of selectivity in the collection of evidence.

Third, we need a discussion of the modes of inference — deductive, inductive, statistical, causal, and Bayesian — on the basis of which social scientists can arrive at an estimate of likelihood for a statement given a set of evidence statements.

Finally, our CR epistemology needs to give an appropriate discussion of the fallibility of all scientific research.

The epistemological frame that I currently favor is the coherence methodology described by philosophers like Quine and Goodman. The social sciences constitute a web of belief, and provisional conclusions in one area may serve to establish a method or valuation for findings in another area of the web. both ontological positions and epistemological maxims may require adjustment in light of future empirical and theoretical findings. Rawls’s conception of reflective equilibrium illustrates this epistemology in the moral field. This approach has an unexpected affinity for CR, because there is an emerging interest in the pragmatist philosophy from which this approach derives.

Epistemology allows us to place various specific methodological approaches into context. So we can locate the method of process tracing into the context of justification, and therefore into epistemology. It also validates the idea of methodological pluralism: there are multiple avenues through which researchers can create evidence through which to prove and evaluate a variety of sociological claims.

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

Guest post by Guus Duindam

Guus Duindam is a J.D./Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Michigan. His primary areas of interest are Ethics and Kant. Thanks, Guus, for providing this rigorous treatment of Bhaskar’s philosophical argument for critical realism.

Bhaskar contra Kant: Why Critical Realism is not Transcendental Realism

Let me start by thanking Dan Little for inviting me to write this guest-post. I’d like to take the opportunity to examine Roy Bhaskar’s arguments for critical realism, in particular those presented in his A Realist Theory of Science (RTS). The aim of that work is remarkable: to establish by transcendental argument the mind-independence and structured nature of the objects of science.

Bhaskar’s views are explicitly grounded in Kantian arguments. But the rejection of Kantian transcendental idealism is a central feature of Bhaskar’s critical realism. For Bhaskar, critical realism is also transcendental realism, a position he posits as an alternative to both Kantian and (neo-)Humean philosophy of science.

Transcendental idealism is, at minimum, the idea that the conditions on human cognition – especially space and time, the forms of human intuition – in part determine the objects of knowledge. According to transcendental idealism, we cannot know things as they are ‘in themselves’, but rather only as they appear to beings like us. Kant thus distinguishes between things-in-themselves, the epistemically inaccessible noumena, and phenomena, things as they appear to us given the conditions on human cognition. The former are transcendentally real – unknowable but entirely mind-independent. The latter are empirically real – knowable, but in part dependent on the conditions on cognition. For Kant, science can study only the empirically real: to study the transcendentally real would require that we transcend the conditions on our own cognition – that we erase the distinction between the knower and the object of knowledge – a mystical feat of which we are evidently incapable.

Bhaskar makes a different distinction, between the intransitive and the transitive. Intransitive objects do not depend on human activity; they are entirely mind-independent (RTS 21). To say that some object is intransitive is therefore equivalent to saying that it is transcendentally real (this is clear throughout RTS; see also The Possibility of Naturalism 6). Hence, it is Bhaskar’s aim to prove the transcendental reality (intransitivity) of the objects of science and perception. According to Bhaskar, we can know the objects of science as they are in themselves.

Bhaskar defends this ambitious thesis by means of transcendental arguments. An argument is transcendental insofar as it shows that some commonly accepted claim x necessarily presupposes a controversial claim y; where y is the conclusion of the argument. Thus, a transcendental argument claims that its conclusion is the only possible way to account for the uncontroversial phenomenon which it takes as its premise. Unlike other arguments for scientific realism, then, Bhaskar’s make a claim to necessity.

Bhaskar’s analysis of perception contains the first of his transcendental arguments: call it the argument from perception. It has roughly the following form: multiple agents can, at the same time, perceive the same object in different ways (x). This could be possible only given the mind-independence of the object (y). Therefore, given the occurrence of differential perception, the objects of perception must be transcendentally real.

Here’s Bhaskar himself making the argument:

If changing experience of objects is to be possible, objects must have a distinct being in space and time from the experience of which they are the objects. For Kepler to see the rim of the earth drop away, while Tycho Brahe watches the sun rise, we must suppose that there is something they both see. (RTS, 31)

Earlier, he appears to be making the even stronger claim that perception simpliciter presupposes the intransitivity of the perceived:

The intelligibility of sense-perception presupposes the intransitivity of the object perceived. For it is in the independent occurrence or existence of such objects that the meaning of ‘perception’, and the epistemic significance of perception, lies. (Ibid.)

Let’s take the argument from perception to involve the weaker claim that differential experience by different agents necessarily presupposes the intransitive nature of the object perceived. If the argument fails to ground this claim, we know a fortiori that it fails to ground the stronger conclusion.

If it is possible for Brahe and Kepler to have different perceptions of the same object, there must be an object which they both see: this much seems clear. But the inference from this to the object’s intransitivity is fallacious, for the presupposition that the objects of sense-perception are empirically real is sufficient to explain differential perception. For the transcendental idealist, there is something which Brahe and Kepler both see: they both see the sun. The sun is empirically real, i.e., it partially depends on the conditions on human cognition. But Brahe and Kepler, being human, share the conditions on cognition and interact with the same mind-independent reality. Thus, there is nothing unintelligible about their different perceptions under the assumption that what they perceive is empirically real (partially mind-dependent). Bhaskar supposes that we must assume it is also transcendentally real (i.e., that Brahe and Kepler see the sun ‘as it is in-itself’) but does nothing to establish this. The argument from perception does not show that the objects of knowledge must be intransitive given the occurrence of (differential) perception. It fails as a transcendental argument for critical realism.

Bhaskar’s second argument is much more central to the critical realist endeavor, and it is presented in his analysis of experimental activity. Call it the argument from experimentation. For Bhaskar, “two essential functions” are involved in an experiment:

First, [the experimental scientist] must trigger the mechanism under study to ensure that it is active; and secondly he must prevent any interference with the operation of the mechanism. […] Both involve changing or being prepared to change the ‘course of nature’, i.e. the sequence of events that would otherwise have occurred. […] Only if the mechanism is active and the system in which it operates is closed can scientists in general record a unique relationship between the antecedent and consequent of a lawlike statement. (RTS, 53)

Bhaskar notes that the experimenter who sets up a causally closed system thereby becomes causally responsible for a constant conjunction of events, but not for the underlying causal mechanism. Contra Humean accounts of law, Bhaskar’s account of experimentation entails an ontological distinction between constant conjunctions and causal mechanisms.

For Bhaskar, the intelligibility of such experimental activity can be used to transcendentally establish the intransitivity of the objects of science. “As a piece of philosophy,” he claims, “we can say (given that science occurs) that some real things and generative mechanisms must exist (and act),” where by ‘real’ Bhaskar means ‘intransitive’ (RTS 52). In “Transcendental Realisms in the Philosophy of Science: On Bhaskar and Cartwright,” Stephen Clarke provides the following helpful gloss on the argument:

Premise 1: Scientific explanatory practice (in particular the practice of exporting explanations from laboratory circumstances to general circumstances) is experienced by us as intelligible.

 

Premise 2: Scientific explanatory practice could not be experienced by us as intelligible unless causal powers exist and those causal powers are governed by universal laws of nature.

______________________________________________________

 

Conclusion: causal powers exist and are governed by universal laws of nature.

(Clarke 302)

Clarke calls this an “attack on idealism” (303) but Bhaskar explicitly frames it as an attack on transcendental idealism (RTS 27). Clarke’s gloss is telling, for it is indeed unclear how the argument could work as an attack on the latter view.

Bhaskar argues that we must suppose the world to be intransitively ordered if scientific explanatory practice is to be intelligible. But, he claims, “transcendental idealism maintains that this order is actually imposed by men in their cognitive activity” (RTS 27). And if order were imposed in cognitive activity, all experience would be ordered, eliminating the need for explanatory export from the closed causal systems of experimentation to the open causal systems of uncontrolled experience (RTS 27, Clarke 303).

This argument is invalid. It does not follow from the premise that all experience is ordered that there is no need for explanatory export from closed to open causal systems. To the contrary: the very occurrence of such export presupposes that experience is ordered. After all, the aim of experimentation is to discover causal mechanisms and universal laws of nature. But to suppose that the causal mechanism discovered in a replicable scientific experiment generalizes to open causal systems is to suppose that the same laws operate in open causal systems, even if other mechanisms sometimes obscure them. And to presuppose that there are such things as knowable universal laws of nature – operative in closed and open causal systems alike – just is to presuppose that all experience is ordered. The ordered nature of experience is, therefore, a necessary presupposition for experimentation.

Now there are at least two ways in which experience could be thus ordered: because order is imposed on it in cognitive activity, or because the order is intransitive. Bhaskar supposes the former would render experimentation superfluous. This is a flummoxing claim to make. Surely Bhaskar does not mean to accuse the transcendental idealist of the view that the projection of order onto the world is somehow a conscious activity – that we already know every scientific truth. That would render experimentation superfluous, but I don’t think it is a view anybody defends. Science is as much a process of gradual discovery for the Kantian as it is for everyone else.

Maybe confusion arises from the fact that for Kantians genuinely universal scientific laws must be synthetic a-priori. Perhaps Bhaskar supposes that, because positing a universal law involves making a claim to synthetic a-priori knowledge, we should be able to derive the laws of nature by a-priori deduction, rendering experimentation superfluous. But this would be a misunderstanding of transcendental idealism. Suppose that because my perceptions of sparks and wood are frequently followed by perceptions of conflagration, I come to associate sparks and wood with fire. I can ask whether this association is subjective or objective. To claim that it is objective is, for the Kantian, to apply one of the Categories. For instance, one way of taking my association of sparks and dry wood with fire to be objective is to make a claim like “sparks and wood cause fire,” applying the Category of causation. This claim is a-priori insofar as it involves the application of an a-priori (pure) concept, a-posteriori insofar as it is about the objects of experience.

Transcendental idealism entails we are entitled to make causal claims, but it does not entail the empirical truth of our claims. Experimentation with sparks and wood may lead me to modify my claim. For instance, I may discover that sparks and wet wood do not jointly give rise to fire, and adjust my claim to “sparks and dry wood cause fire.” Further experimentation may lead to further refinements. I could not have deduced any of these conclusions about sparks and wood a-priori. The thesis that scientific claims have an a-priori component does not render experimentation either superfluous or unintelligible.

As it turns out, Bhaskar supposes that, for the Kantian, causal mechanisms are mere “figment[s] of the imagination” (RTS 45). If true, this would provide an independent argument against the intelligibility of experimentation on a transcendentally idealist account. But, as should by now be clear, this is an incorrect characterization of transcendental idealism. It is only for skeptics and solipsistic idealists that causal mechanisms are figments of the imagination. Kantians and transcendental realists agree causal mechanisms exist: they disagree only about whether they are transcendentally or empirically real.

Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments for critical realism fail, and the Kantian view to which Bhaskar opposes his own is frequently misinterpreted. Most problematically, the meaning of the Kantian distinction between the transcendentally and empirically real is ignored, and the latter category is treated as if it contained only figments of our imagination. Bhaskar maintains that epistemic access to the transcendentally real is a necessary condition for science and perception. But, as we have seen, it is merely epistemic access to the empirically real that is necessary. Bhaskar does not prove that we have knowledge of things as they are in-themselves. Critical realism is not transcendental realism.

The soft side of critical realism

Critical realism has appealed to a range of sociologists and political scientists, in part because of the legitimacy it renders for the study of social structures and organizations. However, many of the things sociologists study are not “things” at all, but rather subjective features of social experience — mental frameworks, identities, ideologies, value systems, knowledge frameworks. Is it possible to be a critical realist about “subjective” social experience and formations of consciousness? Here I want to argue in favor of a CR treatment of subjective experience and thought.

First, let’s recall what it means to be realist about something. It means to take a cognitive stance towards the formation that treats it as being independent from the concepts we use to categorize it. It is to postulate that there are facts about the formation that are independent from our perceptions of it or the ways we conceptualize it. It is to attribute to the formation a degree of solidity in the world, a set of characteristics that can be empirically investigated and that have causal powers in the world. It is to negate the slogan, “all that is solid melts into air” with regard to these kinds of formations. “Real” does not mean “tangible” or “material”; it means independent, persistent, and causal.

So to be realist about values, cognitive frameworks, practices, or paradigms is to assert that these assemblages of mental attitudes and features have social instantiation, that they persist over time, and that they have causal powers within the social realm. By this definition, mental frameworks are perfectly real. They have visible social foundations — concrete institutions and practices through which they are transmitted and reproduced. And they have clear causal powers within the social realm.

A few examples will help make this clear.

Consider first the assemblage of beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral repertoires that constitute the race regime in a particular time and place. Children and adults from different racial groups in a region have internalized a set of ideas and behaviors about each other that are inflected by race and gender. These beliefs, norms, and attitudes can be investigated through a variety of means, including surveys and ethnographic observation. Through their behaviors and interactions with each other they gain practice in their mastery of the regime, and they influence outcomes and future behaviors. They transmit and reproduce features of the race regime to peers and children. There is a self-reinforcing discipline to such an assemblage of attitudes and behaviors which shapes the behaviors and expectations of others, both internally and coercively. This formation has causal effects on the local society in which it exists, and it is independent from the ideas we have about it. It is by this set of factors, a real part of local society. (If is also a variable and heterogeneous reality, across time and space.) We can trace the sociological foundations of the formation within the population, the institutional arrangements through which minds and behaviors are shaped. And we can identify many social effects of specific features of regimes like this. (Here is an earlier post on the race regime of Jim Crow; link, link.)

Here is a second useful example — a knowledge and practice system like Six Sigma. This is a bundle of ideas about business management. It involves some fairly specific doctrines and technical practices. There are training institutions through which individuals become expert at Six Sigma. And there is a distributed group of expert practitioners across a number of companies, consulting firms, and universities who possess highly similar sets of knowledge, judgment, and perception.  This is a knowledge and practice community, with specific and identifiable causal consequences.

These are two concrete examples. Many others could be offered — workingclass solidarity, bourgeois modes of dress and manners, the social attitudes and behaviors of French businessmen, the norms of Islamic charity, the Protestant Ethic, Midwestern modesty.

So, indeed, it is entirely legitimate to be a critical realist about mental frameworks. More, the realist who abjures study of such frameworks as social realities is doomed to offer explanations with mysterious gaps. He or she will find large historical anomalies, where available structural causes fail to account for important historical outcomes.

Consider Marx and Engels’ words in the Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This is an interesting riff on social reality, capturing both change and persistence, appearance and reality. A similar point of view is expressed in Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities: beliefs exist, they have social origins, and it is possible to demystify them on occasion by uncovering the distortions they convey of real underlying social relations.

There is one more perplexing twist here for realists. Both structures and features of consciousness are real in their social manifestations. However, one goal of critical philosophy is to show how the mental structures of a given class or gender are in fact false consciousness. It is a true fact that British citizens in 1871 had certain ideas about the workings of contemporary capitalism. But it is an important function of critical theory to demonstrate that those beliefs were wrong, and to more accurately account for the underlying social relations they attempt to describe. And it is important to discover the mechanisms through which those false beliefs came into existence.

So critical realism must both identify real structures of thought in society and demystify these thought systems when they systematically falsify the underlying social reality. Decoding the social realities of patriarchy, racism, and religious bigotry is itself a key task for a critical social sciences.

Dave Elder-Vass is one of the few critical realists who have devoted attention to the reality of a subjective social thing, a system of norms. In The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency he tries to show how the ideas of a “norm circle” helps explicate the objectivity, persistence, and reality of a socially embodied norm system. Here’s is an earlier post on E-V’s work (link).

A new exposition of assemblage theory

Manuel DeLanda has been a prominent exponent of the theory of assemblage for English-speaking readers for at least ten years. His 2006 book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity has been discussed numerous times in this blog (link, link, link). DeLanda has now published a new treatment of the subject, Assemblage Theory. As I’ve pointed out in the earlier discussions, I find assemblage theory to be helpful for sociology and the philosophy of social science because it provides a very appropriate way of conceptualizing the heterogeneity of the social world. The book is well worth discussing.

To start, DeLanda insists that the French term “agencement” has greater semantic depth than its English translation, assemblage. “Assemblage” picks up one part of the meaning of agencement — the product of putting together a set of heterogeneous parts — but it loses altogether the implications of process and activity in the French term. He quotes a passage in which Deleuze and Parnet explain part of the meaning of assemblage (agencement) (1):

What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns — different natures. This, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Dialogues II, 69)

This passage from Deleuze and Parnet highlights the core idea of an assemblage bringing together heterogeneous pieces into a new whole. It also signals the important distinction for Deleuze between interiority and exteriority. DeLanda explicates this distinction as indicating the nature of the relations among the elements. “Interior” relations among things are essential, logical, or semantic; whereas exterior relations are contingent and non-essential. Identifying a pair as husband and wife is to identify an interior relation; identifying a pair as a female architect and a male night club bouncer is an exterior relation. This is what Deleuze and Parnet refer to when they refer to alliances, alloys, contagions, epidemics: conjunctions of otherwise independent things or processes.

Let’s look at some of the high-level concepts that play an important role in DeLanda’s exposition.

Individuals

DeLanda makes the important ontological point that assemblages are individuals: historically unique persistent configurations. “Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is therefore an individual entity: an individual person, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city” (19).

All assemblages should be considered unique historical entities, singular in their individuality, not as particular members of a general category. But if this is so, then we should be able to specify the individuation process that gave birth to them. (6)

In other words, the whole [assemblage] is immanent, not transcendent. Communities or organizations are historically individuated entities, as much so as the persons that compose them…. It is not incoherent to speak of individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities, or individual countries. The term ‘individual’ has no preferential affinity for a particular scale (persons or organisms) but refers to any entity that  is historically unique. (13)

These passages make it clear that the idea of an individual is not restricted to one ontological level (biological human organism), but is rather available at all levels (individual, labor union, farmers’ cooperative, city, corporation, army).

Parameters

Several important meta-level distinctions about relations among components of an assemblage arise in DeLanda’s exposition. The distinction between relational interiority and exteriority is familiar from his earlier exposition in New Philosophy. Interior relations are conceptual or intrinsic — uncle to nephew. Exterior relations are contingent — street vendor to policeman. A second distinction that DeLanda discusses is coded/decoded. This distinction too is developed extensively in New Philosophy. Relations that are substantially fixed by a code — a grammar, a specific set of rules of behavior, a genetic program — are said to be coded; relations that are substantially indeterminate and left to the choices of the participants are decoded. A third distinction that DeLanda discusses in Assemblage Theory is that between stratum and assemblage. An assemblage is a concrete particular consisting of heterogeneous parts; a stratum is a more or less uniform group of things (organisms, institutions).

Here is a passage from New Philosophy on the concept of coded relations:

[Organizations] do involve rules, such as those governing turn-taking. The more formal and rigid the rules, the more these social encounters may be said to be coded. But in some circumstances these rules may be weakened giving rise to assemblages in which the participants have more room to express their convictions and their own personal styles. (16)

And in Assemblage Theory:

The coding parameter is one of the knobs we must build into the concept [of assemblage], the other being territorialisation, a parameter measuring the degree to which the components of the assemblage have been subjected to a process of homogenisation, and the extent to which its defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable. (3)

(In a later post I will discuss DeLanda’s effort to subsume each of these distinctions under the idea of a parameter or “knob” inflecting a particular concept of assemblage (city, linguistic practice). Also of interest there will be DeLanda’s effort to understand the ontology of assemblage and stratum in analogy with the idea in physics of a phase space (gas, liquid, solid).)

Emergence

DeLanda believes that assemblage theory depends on the idea of emergence for macro-level properties:

The very first step in this task is to devise a means to block micro-reductionism, a step usually achieved by the concept of emergent properties, the properties of a whole caused by the interactions between its parts. If a social whole has novel properties that emerge from interactions between people, its reduction to a mere aggregate of many rational decision-makers or many phenomenological experiences is effectively blocked. (9)

Notice that this is a weak conception of emergence; the emergent property is distinguished simply by the fact that it is not an aggregation of the properties of the individual components. This does not imply that the property is not derivable from a theory of the properties of the parts and the causal interactions among them. (Several earlier posts have raised questions about the validity of the idea of emergence; link.)

And in fact DeLanda shortly says some surprising things about emergence and the relations between higher-level and lower-level properties:

The property of density, and the capacity to store reputations and enforce norms, are non-reducible properties and capacities of the entire community, but neither involves thinking of it as a seamless totality in which the very personal identity of the members is created by their relations. (11)

Up to the level of national markets the main emergent property of these increasingly larger trading areas is synchronized price movements. Braudel uncovers evidence that average wholesale prices (determined mostly by demand and supply) move up and down in unison within urban regions, provinces, or entire countries. (15)

These are surprising claims as illustrations of emergence, because all of the properties mentioned here are in fact reducible to facts about the properties of individuals and their relations. Density is obviously so; we can derive density by measuring the number of individuals per unit of space. The capacity of a group to store reputations is also a direct consequence of individuals’ ability to remember facts about other individuals and communicate their memories to others. The community’s representation of “reputation” is nothing over and above this distributed set of beliefs and interactions. And the fact of synchronized price movements over an extended trading area likewise has perfectly visible microfoundations at the individual level: communications and transportation technologies permit traders to take advantage of momentary price differentials in different places, leading to a tendency for all accessible points within the region to reveal prices that are synchronized with each other (modulo the transportation costs that exist between points).

These observations lead me to suspect that the concept of emergence is not doing much real work here. The paraphrase that DeLanda offers as a summary conclusion is correct:

Thus, both ‘the Market’ and ‘the State’ can be eliminated from a realist ontology by a nested set of individual emergent wholes operating at different scales. (16)

But this observation does not imply or presuppose the idea of strong emergence.

It seems, then, that we could put aside the language of emergence and rest on the claim that assemblages at various levels have stable properties that can be investigated empirically and historically; there is no need for reduction to a more fundamental level. So assemblage theory is anti-reductionist and is eclectic with regard to the question of levels of the social world. We can formulate concepts of social entities at a wide range of levels and accommodate those concepts to the basic idea of assemblage, and there is no need for seeking out inter-level reductions. But likewise there is no need to insist on the obscure idea of strong emergence.

Assemblage theory and social realism

This treatment of social theory from the point of view of assemblage theory is distinctly friendly to the language of realism. DeLanda argues that assemblages are real, mind-independent, and ontologically stable. Assemblages are in the world and can be treated as independent individual things. Here is a representative statement:

The distinction between a concept and its cases also has an ontological aspect. The concept itself is a product of our minds and would not exist without them, but concrete assemblages must be considered to be fully independent of our minds. This statement must be qualified, because in the case of social assemblages like communities, organizations, and cities, the assemblages would cease to exist if our minds disappeared. So in this case we should say that social assemblages are independent of the content of our minds, that is, independent of the way in which communities, organizations, and cities are conceived. This is just another way of saying that assemblage theory operates within a realist ontology. (138)

The most important transcendent entity that we must confront and eliminate is the one postulated to explain the existence and endurance of autonomous entities: essences. (139)

Both points are crucial. DeLanda emphasizes that social entities (assemblages) are real items in the social world, with a temporally and causally persistent reality; and he denies that the ideas of “essence”, “kind”, or “inner nature” have a role in science. This is an anti-essentialist realism, and it is a highly appropriate basis for social ontology.

Appraisal

There is much more to discuss in DeLanda’s current treatment of assemblage, and I expect to return to other issues in later posts. What I find particularly interesting about DeLanda’s current book are the substantive observations DeLanda makes about various historical formations — cities, governments, modes of production, capitalism. Assemblage theory is of real value for social scientists only if it provides a better vocabulary for describing social entities and causes. And DeLanda’s illustrations make a persuasive case for this conclusion.

For example, in discussing Braudel on the difference between markets and capitalism he writes:

These are powerful words. But how can anyone dare to suggest that we must distinguish capitalism from the market economy? These two terms are, for both the left and the right, strictly synonymous. However, a close examination of the history of commercial, financial, and industrial organizations shows that there is indeed a crucial difference, and that ignoring it leads to a distortion of our historical explanations. (41)

This discussion has some significant parallels with the treatment of the modern economy offered by Dave Elder-Vass discussed earlier (link). And DeLanda’s closing observation in chapter 1 is quite insightful:

Much of the academic left today has become prey to the double danger of politically targeting reified generalities (Power, Resistance, Capital, Labour) while at the same time abandoning realism. A new left may yet emerge from these ashes but only if it recovers its footing on a mind-independent reality and if it focuses its efforts at the right social scale, that is, if it leaves behind the dream of a Revolution that changes the entire system. This is where assemblage theory may one day make a real difference. (48)

More than the logical exposition of various esoteric concepts associated with assemblage, it is DeLanda’s intelligent characterization of various concrete social and historical processes (for example, his extensive discussion of Braudel in chapter 1) that cements the intellectual importance of assemblage theory for historical and social scientific thinking.

Another important virtue of the treatment here is that DeLanda makes a strong case for a social ontology that is both anti-reductionist and anti-essentialist. Social things have properties that we don’t need to attempt to reduce to properties of ensembles of components; but social things are not transcendent, essential wholes whose behavior is independent from the activities of the individuals and lower-level configurations of which they consist. Further, this view of social ontology has an important implication that DeLanda explicitly calls out: we need to recognize the fact of downward causation from social configurations (individual assemblages) to the actions of the individuals and lesser configurations of which they consist. A community embodying a set of norms about deference and respectful behavior in fact elicits these forms of behavior in the individuals who make up the community. This is so through the very ordinary fact that individuals monitor each others’ behavior and sometimes retaliate when norms are breached. (This was the view of community social power developed several decades ago by Michael Taylor; Community, Anarchy and Liberty.)

Critical realism meets peasant studies

Critical realism is a philosophical theory of social ontology and social science knowledge. This philosophy has been expressed through the writings of systematic thinkers such as Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer, and other philosophers and sociologists over the past 40 years. Most of the leaders have emphasized the systematic nature of the theory of critical realism. It builds on a philosophical base, the application of the transcendental method of philosophy, developed by Roy Bhaskar. The theory is now being recommended within sociology as a better way of thinking about sociological method and theory.

Critical realism has a number of very positive aspects for consideration by social scientists. It is inspired by a deep critique of the philosophy of science associated with logical positivism, it offers a clear defense of the idea that there is a social and natural reality which it is the task of scientific inquiry to learn about, and it gives valuable attention and priority to the challenge of discovering concrete causal mechanisms which lead to real outcomes in the natural and social world. There is, however, some tendency for this tradition to express itself in an inward-looking and even dogmatic fashion.

So how can the fields of sociological method and critical realism progress today? One thing is clear: the value and relevance of critical realism is not to provide a template for scientific research or the form that a good scientific research project should take. There are no such templates. Mechanical application of any philosophy, whether critical realism, positivism, or any other theory of science, is not a fruitful way of proceeding as a scientist. However, with this point understood, it is in fact valuable for sociologists and other social scientists to think reflectively and seriously about some of the assumptions about the social world and the nature of social explanation which are involved in critical realism. The advice to look for real and persistent structures and processes underlying observable phenomena, the idea that “generative causal mechanisms” are crucial to processes of change and stability, the ideas associated with morphogenesis, and the idea that causation is not simply a summary of constant conjunction — these are valuable contributions to social science thinking.

This answers one half of the question raised here: sociological method can benefit from involvement in some open-minded debates inspired by the field of critical realism.

But what about the field of critical realism itself? How can this research community move forward? It would seem that the process involved in textual argumentation–“what would Roy say about this question or that question?”–is not a good way of making progress in critical or any other field of philosophy of science. More constructive would be for philosophers and social scientists within the field of critical realism to think open-mindedly about some of the shortcomings and blind spots of this field. And an open-minded consideration of some complementary or competing visions of the social world would strengthen the field as well — the ideas of heterogeneity, plasticity, the social construction of the self, and assemblage, for example.

I think that one good way of posing this challenge to critical realism might be to undertake a careful, rigorous study of very strong examples of social research that involves good inquiry and good theoretical models. The field of critical realism has tended to be to self-contained, with the result that debates are increasingly hermetically separated from actual research problems in the social sciences. Careful and non-dogmatic study of extended, clear examples of social inquiry would be very productive.

As a first step, it would be very stimulating to identify the empirical and explanatory work of a genuinely innovative social scientist like James Scott, and do a careful, reflective, and serious investigation of the definition of research problem, the research methods which were used, the central theoretical or explanatory ideas which were introduced, and the overall trajectory and development of this thinker’s thought.

Scott’s key ideas include moral economy, hidden transcripts, Zomia, weapons of the weak, seeing like a state, and the social reality of anarchism. And Scott attempts to explain social phenomena as diverse as peasant rebellion, resistance to agricultural modernization, the ways in which English novelists represent class conflict, the strategies of the state and its elusive opponents in southeast Asia, and many other topics of rural society. Many of Scott’s narratives can be analyzed in terms of the discovery of novel social mechanisms, strategies of resistance and domination, and embodied large social forces like taxation and conscription. Scott’s social worlds are populated by real social actors engaged in concrete social mechanisms and processes which can be known through research. Scott is a realist, but realist in his own terms: he discovers real social relations, social mechanisms and processes, and modes of social change at the local level and the national level and he puts substantial empirical detail on these things. His way of thinking about peasant society is relational–he pays close attention to the relationships that exist within a village, across lines of property and kinship, in cooperation towards collective action. He gives a role to the important powers of the state, but always with an understanding that the power of the state must be conveyed through a set of capillaries of agents in positions extending down to the village level. And in fact, his treatment in anarchy and seeing like a state is a summing up of many of the mechanisms of control and supervision which traditional states have used to control rural populations. (Scott’s work has been discussed frequently in earlier posts.)

In fact, I could imagine a series of carefully chosen case studies of innovative, insightful social researchers who have changed the terms of debate and understanding in a particular field. Other examples might include researchers such as Robert Putnam, Robert Axelrod, Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, Clifford Geertz, Albert Soboul, Simon Schama, Bin Wong, Robert Darnton, and Benedict Anderson.

Studies like these would have the potential for significantly broadening the terms of discussion and debate within the field of CR and help it engage more deeply with social scientists in several disciplines. This kind of inquiry might help open up some of the blind spots as well. These kinds of discussions might give greater importance to processes leading to the social construction of the self, greater awareness of the heterogeneity of social processes, and a bit more openness to philosophical ideas outside the corpus. No philosophy can proceed solely on the basis of its own premises; interaction with the practices of innovative scientists can significantly broaden the approach in a positive way.

Niiniluoto on scientific realism

Debates over realism have been at the center of the philosophy of science for at least seventy-five years. The fundamental question is this: what exists in the world? And how do we best gain knowledge about the nature and properties of these real things? The first question is metaphysical, while the second is epistemic.

Scientific realism is the view that “mature” areas of science offer theories of the nature of real things and their properties, and that the theories of well-confirmed areas of science are most likely approximately true. So science provides knowledge about reality independent from our ideas; and the methods of science justify our belief in these representations of the real world. Scientific methods are superior to other forms of belief acquisition when it comes to successful discovery of the entities and properties of the world in which we live.

But this statement conceals a number of difficult issues. What is involved in asserting that a theory is true? We have the correspondence theory of truth on the one hand — the idea that the key concepts of the theory succeed in referring to real entities in the world independent of the theory. And on the other hand, we have the pragmatist theory of truth — the idea that “truth” means “well confirmed”. A further difficulty arises from the indisputable fallibility of science; we know that many well confirmed scientific theories have turned out to be false. Finally, the idea of “approximate truth” is problematic, since it seems to imply “not exactly true,” which in turn implies “false”. Hilary Putnam distinguished two kinds of realism based on the polarity of correspondence and justification, metaphysical realism and internal realism; and it seems plain enough that “internal realism” is not a variety of realism at all.

Another central issue in the metatheory of realism is the question, what kinds of considerations are available to permit us to justify or refute various claims of realism? Why should we believe that the contents of current scientific theories succeed in accurately describing unobservable but fundamental features of an independent world? And the strongest argument the literature has produced is that offered by Putnam and Boyd in the 1970s: the best explanation of the practical and predictive successes of the sciences is the truth of the theoretical assumptions on which they rest.

Ilkka Niiniluoto’s 1999 Critical Scientific Realism proceeds from the general orientation of Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism. But it is not a synthesis of the philosophy of critical realism as much as it is an analytical dissection of the logic and plausibility of various claims of scientific realism. As such it is an excellent and rigorous introduction to the topic of scientific realism for current discussions. Niiniluoto analyzes the metatheory of realism into six areas of questions: ontological, semantical, epistemological, axiological, methodological, and ethical (2). And he provides careful and extensive discussions of the issues that arise under each topic. Here is a useful taxonomy that he provides for the many variants of realism (11):

Here is how Niiniluoto distinguishes “critical scientific realism” from other varieties of realism:

  • R0: At least part of reality is ontologically independent of human minds.
  • R1: Truth is a semantical relation between language and reality (correspondence theory).
  • R2: Truth and falsity are in principle applicable to all linguistic products of scientific enquiry.
  • R3: Truth is an essential aim of science.
  • R4: Truth is not easily accessible or recognizable, and even our best theories can fail to be true.
  • R5: The best explanation for the practical success of science is the assumption that scientific theories in fact are approximately true.

These are credible and appealing premises. And they serve to distinguish this version of realism from other important alternatives — for example, Putnam’s internal realism. But it is evident that Niiniluoto’s “critical scientific realism” is not simply a further expression of “critical realism” in the system of Bhaskar. It is a distinctive and plausible version of scientific realism; but its premises equally capture the realisms of other philosophers of science whose work is not within the paradigm of standard critical realism. As the diagram indicates, other philosophers who embrace R0-R5 include Popper, Sellars, Bunge, Boyd, and Nowak, as well as Niiniluoto himself. (It is noteworthy that Bhaskar’s name does not appear on this list!)

So how much of a contribution does Critical Scientific Realism represent in the evolving theory of scientific realism within philosophy of science? In my reading this is an important step in the evolution of the arguments for and against realism. Niiniluoto’s contribution is a synthetic one. He does an excellent job of tracing down the various assumptions and disagreements that exist within the field of realism and anti-realism debates, and the route that he traces through these debates under the banner of “critical scientific realism” represents (for me, anyway) a particularly plausible combination of answers to these various questions. So one might say that the position that Niiniluoto endorses is a high point in the theory of scientific realism — the most intellectually and practically compelling combination of positions from metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, and methodology that are available in the assessment of the truthiness of science.

What it is not, however, is the apotheosis of “critical realism” in the sense intended by the literature extending from Bhaskar to the current generation of critical realist thinkers. Niiniluoto’s approach is appealingly eclectic; he follows the logic of the arguments he entertains, rather than seeking to validate or extend a particular view within this complicated field of realist arguments. And this is a good thing if our interest is in making the most sense possible of the idea of scientific realism as an interpretation of the significance of science in face of the challenges of constructivism, conceptual and theoretical underdetermination, and relativism.

Gorski on critical realism

Earlier posts have considered the reception of critical realism by two major historical sociologists, Peggy Somers and George Steinmetz (link, link). These researchers believe that the philosophical issues and positions raised by Roy Bhaskar in his evolving theory of critical realism are insightful and useful for the conduct of post-positivist sociology. Philip Gorski is a third contemporary sociologist who has weighed in on the relevance of critical realism for the practice of sociology. Gorski’s primary research divides between sociological theory and comparative historical sociology, and he is the most explicit of the three in his advocacy for the philosophy of science associated with critical realism. Several articles are particularly direct in this regard, including What is critical realism? (2013) in Contemporary Sociology, The poverty of deductivism (2004) in Sociological Methodology, and the concluding chapter in his recently edited and very interesting volume, Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (2013) (discussed earlier here).

The 2013 article offers both exposition and polemic. Gorski wants to make the case that sociologists benefit from the philosophy of science because it serves as an intellectual support for research and theory — there is a reason for sociologists to be concerned about debates in the philosophy of science; and that the alternatives on offer are woefully inadequate (positivism, interpretivism, constructivism).

Gorski makes the important point that sociological research needs to be pluralistic when it comes to methodology. Interpretation requires contextualization (662); causal hypotheses are often supported by statistical evidence; it is reasonable for realists about structures to look for the constitutive actions of lower-level powers that make them up. There isn’t a primary method of inquiry or empirical reasoning that works best for all social research; instead, sociologists need to define significant research topics and then craft methods of inquiry and inference that are best suited to those topics. Quantitative, interpretive, comparative, deductive, inductive, abductive, descriptive, and explanatory approaches are all appropriate methods for some problems of social research. So it is important for sociologists to “unlearn” some of the dogmas of positivist methodology that have often thought to be constitutive of the scientific warrant of sociology.

Against the dominant philosophies of social science of positivism, interpretivism, and constructivism, Gorski argues that there is only one credible alternative, the philosophical theory of critical realism. And this means, largely, the writings of Roy Bhaskar. So the bulk of this piece is an exposition of Bhaskar’s central ideas. Gorski provides a precis of Bhaskar’s thoughts in three stages of his work, A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. And he argues that the ontological framework embodied in these aspects of a specific philosophy of science — realism about underlying structures, powers, and processes — is the best available as a general starting point for the sciences.

Other philosophies of social science place epistemology or methodology at the center of what a philosophy of the sciences should resolve. Gorski, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of the ontology of critical realism — what CR conveys about the nature and stratification of the social world.

Crucial within that ontology is the notion of the reality of social structures and the idea that social properties are emergent. Here are a few comments about emergence:

[CR] does not deny that reduction can sometimes be illuminating, but it insists that the social is an emergent reality with its own specific powers and properties. (659)

The genesis of the social sciences hinged on the discovery of emergence, and major advances in them have typically involved the discovery of emergent proper- ties (e.g., of economic markets, social classes, collective conscience, value spheres, social fields, and so on). (662)

But they invariably fall short of their epistemic goals: to explain one strata of reality in terms of a lower-order one. Why? Because of ‘‘emergence.’’ The combination and inter- action of entities and properties at one level of reality generates ‘‘emergent’’ entities and properties at others. (664)

As I’ve observed elsewhere here (link, link, link), the concept of emergence is elusive, and it seems to shift back and forth between “fundamentally independent of lower level phenomena” and “dependent upon but autonomous from lower level phenomena”. The latter is the version that I favor with the concept of “relative explanatory autonomy”; link). Like Tuukka Kaidesoja, I’m not yet satisfied with the treatment of emergence that is associated with critical realism (link).

A related and more novel idea about social ontology employed by Gorski is the concept of “lamination” first introduced in Bhaskar’s Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom to describe the nature of the social world and the relations among levels of social action and structure:

Because there are multiple layers of agents and powers, moreover, observable events will have a “laminated” character; they are simultaneously governed by normic laws at various levels. This has important consequences for causal inference…. It is simultaneously and jointly determined by all of them. It is a “laminated” process. (665)

This is a vivid metaphor to use in conveying the idea of the “levels” of the social. But it has implications that may be unintended. For example, the idea of lamination suggests a sharp separation between layers; whereas many social domains seem to be better described as a continuous flow from lower to higher levels (and from higher to lower levels).

I find Gorski’s exposition of critical realism to be useful and clear. However, there is a large omission in Gorski’s account of the philosophical grounds of realism: Gorski assumes that there is no other serious tradition of post-positivist realism that serves as an alternative to critical realism. He dismisses what he calls the “conventional” realism of analytical sociology (659). He faults this version for its commitment to a form of individualism, structural individualism. Gorski insists on the “emergent” character of social structures and properties. And he presumes that there is no other viable form of realism available to the philosophy of science.

This binary and exclusive opposition between empiricism and critical realism as the only possibilities is misleading. There is a very substantial literature in the philosophy of science that rejects positivism; that maintains that theories are potentially good guides to the real “ontological” properties of the world; and that does not share the particular philosophical assumptions that Bhaskar brings into critical realism. I am thinking of Hilary Putnam, Dick Boyd, and Jarrett Leplin in particular. But there are dozens of other examples that could be considered.

A particularly clear exposition of this other tradition of post-positivist realism can be found in Richard Boyd’s 1990 contribution in Wade Savage’s Scientific Theories, “Realism, Approximate Truth, and Philosophical Method” (link). Here is how Boyd opens this piece:

Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. The characteristic philosophical arguments for scientific realism embody the claim that certain central principles of scientific methodology require a realist explication. In its most completely developed form, this sort of abductive argument embodies the claim that a realist conception of scientific inquiry is required in order to justify, or to explain the reliability with respect to instrumental knowledge of, all of the basic methodological principles of mature scientific inquiry. (355)

This is a form of realism that reaches similar conclusions to those advocated by Bhaskar, but derives from an independent path of philosophical investigation following the collapse of positivist philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s. And this version of realism makes substantially fewer philosophical assumptions than Bhaskar’s system puts forward.

(See also Jarrett Leplin, A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism.)

A short course in critical causality

For anyone interested in getting a deep exposure to current thinking about causation within the critical realist tradition, Ruth Groff’s 2008 collection Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science is a very good place to start. It begins with classic essays by Roy Wood Sellars from 1929 and 1943 — long before the formulations of critical realism in Roy Bhaskar’s writings — and ends with essays by Robert Albritton and Howard Engelskirchen on the role of causal ideas in Marx’s Capital. In between are articles by Christopher Norris, Charlotte Witt, Stephen Mumford, Anjan Chakravartty, Alexander Bird, and Rachel Cooper on various Aristotelian questions arising within the theory of causation, as well as articles by Douglas Porpora and Andrew Bennett on the applicability of causal realism to the social sciences.

Groff’s introduction does a good job of setting the context for the volume. She defines the unifying thread of the volume as the underlying and somewhat independent efforts to make sense of a neo-Aristotelian understanding of causation that will work for contemporary science. And the emerging theory is a realist theory of causation.

That philosophers engaged in argument about the nature of dispositions, and social scientists trying to determine the causal properties of macro-level phenomena such as vale, are working within and upon the same emerging neo-Aristotelian framework may not be readily apparent, given the normal configuration of conferences, journals, and disciplinary associations. Nonetheless it is so. (2)

Here are a few key themes and issues that readers will take away: causes are real; causal relations depend on real causal powers of active particulars; the theory of causation requires new (and old) thinking about metaphysics; things have essences; causal necessity is real; there are emergent causal powers.

Here is Roy Wood Sellars’ definition of realism:

As a physical realist I believe in physical systems (ordinarily called things) which exist independently of our knowing them and which have specific characteristics. (13)

And Sellars argues that realism requires a different ontology from that associated with empiricism — not “object with properties” but a “determinate object”:

Now if this basic reality of a determinate object, a that-what, is once granted, we can reject at once the scheme which dominated representative realism of the Lockian type and animated Berkeley’s dialectic. ‘Support’ and ‘inhere in’ and ‘spread under’ are clearly totally misleading metaphors for this basic unity. The determinate nature of an object is not something distinct in any fashion from the object. The object and its nature, or characteristics, are intrinsically one. (16)

A key question running through most of the contributions is the status of the idea of causal necessity. The authors share an anti-Humean point of view on causation — the idea that all there is to causation is constant conjunction — but they recognize that this creates an obligation to interpret the idea of causal necessity in a comprehensible way.

Harré and Madden offer their theory of natural necessity in “Conceptual and natural necessity”, drawn from Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. They note an intriguing parallel between conceptual and natural necessity and they offer a specific interpretation of the evolution of scientific vocabulary that allows a closer parallel between the two kinds of necessity than either Kant or Quine would countenance:

We have argued that in the two contexts of natural necessity, the inherence of essential properties in a thing or substance and causal production, a posteriori discoveries about the natures of things and the means of causal production are in certain conditions reflected in the establishment of meaning relations between the corresponding predicates. (72)

In their very interesting treatment of the development of the scientific concept of copper, they find that:

There are thus a multiplicity of explications of the concept ‘copper’: as a red, easily worked metal; a mixture of sulphur, mercury and salt; a collection of atoms each sixty-three and a half times the weight of a hydrogen atom; and finally a collection of atoms each with a definite and identical internal structure. It is our view that these explications disclose substantially different meanings of the concept, limited by a core of identity in the nominal essence, and the changes so disclosed are the product of a posteriori discoveries as to the nature of copper. (75)

And it is the “essential” nature of copper that gives rise to its causal properties.

Another idea, linked to the first, that comes in for a fair amount of attention is the idea of a natural kind (or a social kind). This idea is deployed to support the first issue of natural necessity, in that it invokes the idea that things have essential natures that give rise to their causal properties. A natural kind is a group of things that share an essential nature, and these things can be counted on to display similar causal properties.

Brian Ellis’s arguments for this perspective in his The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism are represented here.

A natural kind of process that is a display of a given dispositional property has a real essence. In the case of any simple causal process, this real essence will be a dispositional property, and the scientific problem will be to specify precisely what this property is. (90)

And, like Harré and Madden, Ellis regards the description of the essential properties of a natural thing to be the work of aposteriori investigation:

An attractive feature of this analysis is that it leaves dispositional properties to be identified and explicated rather than defined operationally. And the processes of explication is not philosophic, linguistic or lexicographic. It is a posteriori and scientific. (92)

Several other pieces are also noteworthy. Stephen Mumford further develops the ontology of powerful particulars in his contribution, “Powers, dispositions, properties or a causal realist manifesto”, with a view that seems to me to be consistent with R. W. Sellars’ insistence above on the primacy of the “determinate object”. And Alexander Bird takes up the question of emergent properties and their possible causal roles. “Genuinely natural, causally efficacious higher level properties that are not identical nor reducible to lower level properties are emergent properties” (168). He focuses particularly on “evolved” properties, including particularly the functional characteristics of species.

One thing I admire about the volume is that it is focused on the philosophical and substantive issues, not points of doctrine within the literature of critical realism since Bhaskar’s original formulations. Groff draws attention to this fact at the end of her introduction.

I have shaped the collection in this way because I believe that as interest in critical realism continues to grow internationally, the approach ought to be brought into closer contact with — and ideally integrated into — larger, directly relevant neo-Aristotelian currents within metaphysics and the philosophy of science. (8)

Readers will likely take issue with one or more of these premises; and the value of the volume is precisely that its contributors have made the issues clear enough to support fruitful debate.

Frédéric Vandenberghe’s social theory

Frédéric Vandenberghe is an important contributor to the philosophy of critical realism. His interesting book A Philosophical History of German Sociology appeared in 2008, which started life as his PhD thesis in 1994. Like an earlier tradition of historians of sociology (e.g. Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, de Tocqueville, Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848 and Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition), Vandenberghe traces the origins of sociology to the origins of modernity — in his chronology, the mid-nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth century.

Despite the quite understandable tendency of historians of ideas to trace the origins of sociology as far back as possible, returning to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, there is now a general acknowledgement that sociology emerged as a relatively autonomous discipline, distinct from economics and political science, in the nineteenth century. Sociology cannot be separated from the discovery of the relative autonomy of society, which is linked to the advent of modernity: right from the start, the new discipline expressed the self- reflexive attitude of modern societies towards themselves, and to what eludes them. As a sub-system of science, which is a sub-system of society, sociology can be viewed as a kind of large-scale psychoanalysis that seeks to reveal the historicity and facticity of functionally differentiated modern societies. (kl 169)

But unlike Aron and Nisbet, his account highlights the critical aspects of the sociological tradition. His key figures are Marx, Simmel, Weber, Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, and a persistent theme is that of criticism and demystification. This leaves him perfectly positioned to interpret and contribute to the philosophical corpus of critical realism.

What does he mean by the “autonomization” of society? It is the emergence in the modern world of a separation between social causation and the individuals who make up society; the development of a social environment in which individuals are “subject” to the constraints of society; a separation between society and the individual. Vandenberghe explicitly draws the connection between this concept and Marx’s conception of alienation: “human products are objectified, dehumanized, and eventually turn against their creators” kl 200). But he also suggests that this concept is inherently linked to the idea of reification — the mental creation of social entities independent of subjective individuals; the “hypostasis of concepts” (kl 428). “Whether in Marx, Weber, Simmel and Lukacs, or Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, in every instance we encounter the dual question of the reification of the world and the alienation of the human being as the central theme that forms and informs their work” (kl 248).

Throughout I’ve argued for the idea of the need for microfoundations for largescale social structures and forces. Does V’s version of social theory contradict that premise? There is a tension, to be sure. But nothing that I read here is inconsistent with the notion that the causal powers of the social world are made up of the actions and states of mind of the individuals who compose society. V’s point seems to be a different one: these congealed patterns of action and thought create constraints that are coercive for everyone in society — even though they are embodied in the actions of individuals. He writes:

In fact, the thesis about the

sui generis

existence of society is simultaneously an expression of the fundamental experience of modernity and a constitutive a priori of sociology. By definition, a sociologist accepts that “society” exists, distinct from the economy and the polity, and essentially irreducible to the psyche (or biology or chemistry). It does not mean, as Durkheim (1968) claimed, that social facts must always be explained by social facts, but rather that social facts – that is, social entities, relations and representations – exist, and that they cannot be reduced to psychological facts (or biological, chemical, neurological facts). The two fundamental claims that the sociologist should not question are that society is relatively autonomous in regard to individuals and that sociology makes a transcendental presupposition regarding the existence of this sphere. (kl 248)

This passage denies the possibility of reducibility. But it does not deny — explicitly, anyway — the ontological premise that social facts are constituted by the actions, thoughts, and dispositions of socially situated actors; and that is fundamentally what is required by the requirement of microfoundations.

The 2014 volume What’s Critical About Critical Realism?: Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory is an excellent treatment of contemporary social theory, grounded in critical realism but extending to theorists as diverse as Bourdieu, Habermas, and Boltanski. he describes this book as being “five books in one” — substantial essays on the pragmatics of internal conversations, the structuration of collective subjectivities, Bourdieu’s rationalist social theory, and “post humanism”, as well as his own developed concept of metacritical realism.

I understand metacritique as a critique of the metatheoretical foundations of sociology that takes its cues from Talcott Parsons, Jeffrey Alexander and Jurgen Habermas and have used it to systematically reconstruct the theories of alienation, rationalisation and reification in German sociology.

Vandenberghe offers an intellectual geography of Bhaskar’s influence:

Bhaskar may be a professional philosopher, but he has mainly been read by social theorists, first in the UK and then all over the world. Apart from a few incursions beyond the Anglo-Saxon world (like in Italy or Québec, for instance), French, German or Latin-American philosophers generally ignore his work, not because they disagree, but simply because it has not reached them. Unlike their colleagues from the philosophy department, sociologists, geographers, political economists and social psychologists with a Marxist background and a keen interest in social theory quickly realised the import of critical realism for the social sciences. By the mid-1980s, the first wave of critical realism had received a very favourable reception. High-quality books with a realist imprint were published by Ted Benton (1977), Russell Keat and John Urry (1982), William Outhwaite (1987), Derek Layder (1990) and Andrew Sayer (1992). At the intersection of philosophy, sociology and politics, social theorists were probing the philosophical foundations of sociology and cognate disciplines, assailing the ‘orthodox consensus’ (evolutionism + functionalism + positivism) of post-war sociology and reassessing the merits of structuration theory. Thanks to the good services of Anthony Giddens, social theory had meanwhile emerged as a relatively autonomous subfield within British sociology, while elsewhere, galvanised by ethnomethodology, structuralism and systems theory, new ambitious theoretical syntheses were published almost simultaneously. By now the story of the ‘new theoretical movement’ (Alexander, 1988) and its attempt to overcome the opposition of agency and structure has become a hackneyed one, but back in the 1980s when Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann were writing their main works, sociology was ebullient. (kl 449)

Vandenberghe analyzes Bhaskar’s theories into a series of nested stages: 

  1. Critical realism
    1. transcendental realism
    2. critical realism
    3. explanatory critique
  2. Dialectical critical realism
  3. The philosophy of meta-Reality
And he pays most attention to the first stage, the classical formulation of critical realism. Since this is the most impactful part of Bhaskar’s writings within sociological theory, V’s analysis is a valuable one.



These are just a few glimpses of Vandenberghe’s contributions to a better understanding of critical realism in its intellectual and ontological context. But perhaps they are enough to lead readers to take on both books to find the lucid and broad-ranging interpretations that Vandenberghe offers of the intellectual terrain of contemporary social theory and critical realism.

***
 

As a side note, Vandenberghe captures the aspect of Bhaskar’s writings that trouble some readers the most — his philosophical obscurity.

His trajectory reminds me somehow of the one of Auguste Comte and Charles Sanders Peirce. Like Comte, he started out with a strong belief in science and ended up in the mystical waters beyond religion. Like Peirce, he is a bit of a genius (he wrote his first book when he was 20), but as he advanced in his reflections and deepened his ideas, his writings and his language became more and more idiosyncratic, obscure and esoteric. He abuses neologisms, TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and semi-formalised arguments with N dimensional graphic representations, which may well constitute, as in the case of Peirce, his ‘natural language of self- communication’ (

apud

Colapietro, 1989, xiv). Aware of the problem, he has added glossaries to his books, but as they are packed with internal references they are not always very helpful to make full sense of Bhaskarese. (kl 359)

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