Guest post by Ruth Groff on causal powers

Ruth Groff is Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Louis University. She specializes in the philosophical underpinnings of Western social and political thought. She is author of Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (2012, with John Greco), Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy (Ontological Explorations) (2012), and Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science (2007). Here is her webpage at SLU. This contribution is a response to my prior post on her views of the status of causal powers in Ontology Revisited and to my post treating causality and metaphysics. Thanks for contributing, Ruth.

Do You Have to Be an Aristotelian to Believe in Powers?
By Ruth Groff

Dan Little asked me recently if I think that one has to be an Aristotelian in order to believe in powers. The question could be posed the other way around, too: Does believing in causal powers automatically make one be an Aristotelian? I think that the answer is probably “No,” but I also think that it might not be quite as clear-cut as it might seem. I’d like to use this guest blog post to set out the longer version of the response.Before I do, though, let me say, especially for those readers who may be versed in contemporary analytic metaphysics, that the question that I took Dan to be asking is about real, live powers. Do you have to be an Aristotelian to believe that the world is full of activity, of dynamism – that it contains things (“things” broadly construed) that can engage in all manner of doing? By “power” I don’t mean “the fact of constant conjunction, plus a feeling of expectation,” as Hume explicitly said that he did.[i] Nor do I mean “counterfactual dependency.” Or “a sparse property equivalent to a neo-Humean disposition, except that it has a fixed identity (such that it is necessarily related to other such properties),” as my friend Alexander Bird means.[ii]  

One can attach the term “power” to anything, really, and then claim a belief in the existence of powers (as one has defined them) in virtue of one’s belief in the stipulated referent, or truth-maker. But the issue is not whether passivists are prepared to re-brand. The issue is what the world is like.

Arbitrarily, even, if need be, we can stipulate for the purposes of discussion that the term “power” denotes what it does for a competent English speaker. Nothing hangs upon the definition being correct, though it may well be; we just need one that’s fixed, relative to which we can locate different positions. A power, then, let’s say, is an ability to do. Passivists, Humean or otherwise, contend that there are no such things as powers construed in this normal, every-day way. (Hume actually says that the concept is meaningless.) It follows that the question that Dan Little posed cannot be whether or not a non-Aristotelian passivist is entitled to believe in powers conceived as an ability to do. (Though, for the record: no. One cannot both deny and affirm the existence of real causal powers. Also, counterfactual dependency is a particular sort of necessary relation. It is not any type of “doing.”) Rather, the question – and it’s an interesting one – is whether or not one is necessarily an Aristotelian if one is an anti-passivist.

Since Aristotle himself believed in powers, one way to think about the question might be to ask how much overlap one should have with Aristotle period, before one is either permitted or obliged to label oneself an Aristotelian. In my own case, I would want to agree with Aristotle on the following five points, at an absolute minimum, before counting myself an Aristotelian: (1) materialism; (2) potentiality; (3) the idea that things have essential properties; (4) emergence; and (5) the existence of powers. I think that if I were committed only to any one of these points, it would be inaccurate to describe me as an Aristotelian. Others might have a longer or more fine-grained list. That’s fine. I’m happy to consider these five points necessary but not sufficient for counting as an Aristotelian. Next we will need to know if these commitments come as a package deal. If it’s all or nothing, then it does look as though believing in powers is going to get one at least a good bit of the way towards being an Aristotelian. And here too let me be as clear as possible about how I am understanding the key ideas, since philosophers do often attach terms that they want to retain to unlikely referents, or truth-makers. (John Stuart Mill, for example, says that if by “matter” what we mean is “the permanent possibility of sensation” – as we should, he thinks – then yes, by all means, he believes in the existence of matter.[iii]  

But that’s not likely to be what his interlocutor would have meant.) What I mean by (1) materialism is the view that that which exists is not exhausted by (or reducible to), the abstract, the conceptual or the perceptual. By belief in (2) potentiality, I mean a belief in existent but unexpressed phenomena (including but not necessarily limited to existent but unexpressed properties). By (3) an essence (or essential property or set of properties), I mean those ways that a thing is, in virtue of which it is the particular that it is and/or the kind of thing that it is, and not something else and/or of a different kind. By (4) emergence I mean the view that wholes exist, and that, unlike pluralities, they are more than the sum of their parts. (5) powers, finally, I have already defined in terms of capacities for doing.

So the question is whether or not (5) brings (1)-(4) along with it necessarily. One might think that the answer is an obvious no, rather than more careful one. Locke certainly seems to have powers in his ontology, and Locke isn’t an Aristotelian. Leibniz too. But simply pointing to people who assert (5), while denying (1) – (4) won’t be enough to decide the issue, since the mere fact that someone could or does hold that combination of beliefs doesn’t render the combination coherent. It will be better to assume (5), and then look to see what the situation is with each of (1) – (4).

(1) Materialism

It’s tricky, but I think that one can indeed believe in the existence of powers but not be a materialist. What one can’t do (for the record) is deny materialism and believe: (a) that powers exist; (b) that causation is the expression or display thereof; (c) that what we normally think of as material objects behave as we normally think they do – i.e., differently, as a kind, than non-material objects behave. If one believes (a) – (c), then the kind of objects that can bruise one’s shin (sticks and stones, for instance), can’t be impressions or possible sensations or abstract particulars or any other entity the being of which is entirely conceptual or internal to the experience of the subject. The reason for this is that the bar for being the cause of something physical goes up if causes have to actually do something, rather than just be what does or must regularly come first.

(2) Potentiality

I suppose that it is possible to distinguish the idea of activity from the idea of potentiality. One could imagine the world to be an environment in which all powers are “on” at all times, and only appear to be latent, in virtue of being cancelled out by other powers. Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum sometimes talk this way.[iv] Still, it seems to me that both dynamism and the possibility of being unexpressed are essential to the concept of a power. A world in which all powers are “on” at all times, I want to say, is not just a world of powers, but a world of universally actualized powers. The fact that powers are the kind of thing (“thing”) that might not be expressed is what led Roy Bhaskar to describe them as tendencies. (With Mumford and Anjum, by contrast, it seems as though powers are tendencies only in that expected effects might be cancelled out by other actualized powers.) If this is right, then a belief in powers will indeed commit one to a belief in potentiality. But note: it won’t commit one to the idea (a) that it is good for things to express or actualize their powers, or (b) that doing so excellently is things’ ultimate purpose, or (c) that things in any sense “want” to do this.

(3) Essential properties

If one believes in powers, then one will think that what things can do is a function of what powers they (and other things) have, not a function of laws of nature that dictate their behavior. (Nor will it do to simply push the nomological story back a frame: which powers a thing has will not be a fact that is itself dictated by laws.) But I don’t know that one would have to think that the properties of things are essential to them just because one believes that at least some of the properties had by things are powers to do. It seems more likely that it is the regularity of behavior (conceived as powers-based activity) and/or the sheer inescapability of differentiation, that leads to the idea that there are ways that something can and cannot be and still be a thing of a given kind.

(4) I don’t see that a belief in powers entails a belief in emergence, though one who believes in both is likely to argue that emergent entities have powers not had by their parts or by pluralities of their parts.

So what should we conclude? Does one have to be an Aristotelian to believe in the existence of real causal powers? As I’ve said, my view is that the answer is a qualified “No.” Even if we make it very easy to count as an Aristotelian, it looks as though one doesn’t have to be one, in virtue of accepting (5). And the more restrictive the criteria, or course, the less qualified the answer will be. This said, I suspect that the closer one is to being an Aristotelian in the loose sense that I’ve defined here, the more coherent one’s position will be, if one does believe in powers.

I would imagine that for sociologists a ready concern about Aristotelianism might be the worry that a belief in essential properties entails errors of naturalization and universalization vis-à-vis particular, historically contingent sociological phenomena. While understandable, I think that the worry is a needless one. Aristotle himself, for example, thinks that the polis (as a representative sociological entity) is an essentially different kind of thing than the family, say. But this does not mean that all poleis are just the same. Not even all proper, non-perverted poleis need be the same, kind membership notwithstanding. Admittedly, Aristotle thinks that the polis is a natural phenomenon, in the sense that he thinks that, by nature, human beings need to be involved in such forms of association in order to flourish. The polis is both the expression of our essential powers, and the venue in which such powers can be fully actualized. This is not a type of naturalizing that does away with the social, but still, one might object. As Charlotte Witt has suggested, a good way to conceptualize sociological formations in Aristotelian terms is to think of them as being similar to artifacts.[v] Artifacts (i.e., entities made by human beings) do not lack essential properties in virtue of which they are what they are and not something else, just because they are made by us. And yet – shared essential properties notwithstanding – knives, to use Aristotle’s example, do not all look the same. Nor do all tools stay around forever. I haven’t smelled mimeograph ink since I was a kid. It is true that it’s not until Marx that we get a fully historicized, fully materialist Aristotelian apparatus. But – or perhaps I should say “and” – the reality of reified, alienated distinctively human powers is at the absolute core of Marx’s social science.

Go ahead and believe in the existence of real causal powers. You don’t have to be an Aristotelian. And even if it turns out that you do a little bit, it’ll be okay.Notes

[i] David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals; Reprinted from the 1777 edition, with Inroduction and Analytical Index by L. A. Selby-Bigge; 3rd edition, with text revised and notes by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1975), esp. Sections IV and VII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

[ii] For fuller discussion, see my “Whose Powers? Which Agency?” in (eds., Ruth Groff and John Greco) Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (New York: Routledge, 2012).
[iii] John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1872), Chapter XI and “Appendix to the Two Preceding Chapters.”
[iv] See, e.g., Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[v] Personal conversation, April 2013.  In addition to her work on Aristotle, readers might be interested in Witt’s recent The Metaphysics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2011.

What kind of realist?

I’ve always felt that scientific realism is almost self-evidently true. Scientific theories and hypotheses put forward ideas that go beyond the evidence of direct experience. They postulate the existence of entities and forces that cannot be directly observed but whose effects can be teased out through the assumptions we have made about their characteristics. And when we have a theory that “succeeds” in explaining a domain of observation and experimentation, we have reason to believe that its hypothetical entities and forces actually exist. The existence of the hypothetical entities is the “best explanation” for the success of the theory or hypothesis.

This is not, of course, a deductively certain inference from the success of the theory to the reality of the unseen entities. There may be other explanations for the observational and experimental success of the theory. And the history of science in fact offers plenty of examples where this has turned out to be the case. Reality sometimes turns out to be more complicated, and structured differently, than our theories postulate.

This is the position that I would describe as “scientific realism”. It represents a garden-variety ontology; it simply holds that the entities postulated by successful scientific theories are likely to exist in approximately the form they are postulated to possess.

There are coherent alternatives to scientific realism. Phenomenalism and instrumentalism are coherent interpretations of the success of scientific theories that do not postulate the real existence of unseen entities. Milton Friedman’s instrumentalist treatment of economic theory is a case in point. However, instrumentalists have a hard time accounting for the success of scientific theories in the absence of a realist interpretation of the theoretical premises. Why should cloud chambers show the specific arcs and tracks that are predicted by theory if the underlying model of the mechanisms is not correct?

So how does all of this play out for the social sciences? In my view, the social sciences are substantially different from physics when it comes to hypothetical entities and theoretical hypotheses. The entities and forces to which we want to refer in the social world are not highly theoretical; rather, we can probe our concrete assumptions about these social entities and forces fairly directly. We don’t need to turn to the Duhemian deductivism and theoretical holism that physics largely forces us into. Instead, we can devise strategies for probing them piecemeal.

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  • I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  • I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  • I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  • I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  • I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  • I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  • I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  • I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  • I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, or a scientific realism.

“Critical realism” is a term of art; it refers to a very specific bundle of philosophical and ontological ideas that have been developed by Roy Bhaskar and his followers. It makes substantive philosophical claims about how the social world works, and it depends resolutely on a philosophical method of discovery and justification. And this means that the reasons we have for embracing realism of a more general kind do not necessarily extend to support for critical realism. One can be realist about the social world without accepting the assumptions and doctrines of critical realism. In fact, I suspect that the kind of realism I advocate here would be criticized as “empiricist” and “not truly realist” by the CR world.

There is much to admire in the literature of critical realism, both in the writings of Bhaskar and those who continue the research in this tradition. But it remains just one approach out of a spectrum of possible realist positions.

Invited response by Tuukka Kaidesoja on naturalized critical realism

[Tuukka Kaidesoja accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion (link) of his book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Currently Kaidesoja works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Academy Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.  Thanks, Tuukka!]

Thanks, Dan, for writing a thoughtful post about my book! I think that your description of my position is largely accurate. I especially appreciate your point that “Kaidesoja´s naturalistic alternative permits a very smooth respecification of the status and content of critical realism”. I would say that this sentence nicely summarizes one of the aims of my book.
Nevertheless, there are two points that I would like to comment on. I hope that these remarks may also clarify some issues that pertain to the critical evaluation of the critical realist ontology.
First, you write that: “The naturalistic argument consistently replaces ‘reasoning derived from transcendental necessity’ by ‘reasoning within the general framework of what we know about the world’, but leaves the deductive flow of the argument unchanged.”

According to my interpretation, Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments are not best described as strictly deductive arguments (in the sense that their inferential structure would consists of the steps that strictly follow the rules of deductive logic). Though there are sections in his early work where he describes transcendental arguments as a kind of deductive arguments (these were cited by Mervyn Hartwig in an earlier post), I nevertheless think that this construal of transcendental arguments tends to trivialize them. From this viewpoint, the whole debate would be about the justification of the premises of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments, not about their inferential form. In my book, I argue instead that both the epistemic status (or justification) of the premises and the inferential structure of Bhaskar’s transcendental are problematic.

There are at least two observations that speak against the strictly deductive interpretation of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments. First, in his later works, Bhaskar (e.g. 1986, 11; 1993, 405) suggests that his transcendental arguments are instances of retroductive arguments rather than deductive arguments. In this context, he also insists (as doesHartwig) that transcendental arguments are used in empirical sciences. In my book, however, I try to show that this is not the case unless transcendental arguments are identified with inferences to the best explanation. The problem with this latter interpretation in turn is that transcendental arguments lose their status as specifically philosophical arguments, and, therefore, this interpretation would question Bhaskar’s strict distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontologies.
Second, the Kantian language used by Bhaskar suggests that his arguments are rather “transcendental deductions” in a Kantian sense than deductive arguments in the sense of deductive logic. This was also one of the reasons why I did not formulated them as deductive arguments in my book. I would accordingly argue that Kant´s transcendental deduction of the pure categories of understanding is not best described as a deductive argument in the above sense. Though I am not a Kant scholar, I nevertheless think that interpretations of this kind are historically inadequate and lack textual evidence. I also argue in the book that Bhaskar’s (e.g. 1978, 259)  employment of Kantian terminology creates tensions to his philosophical position: He wants to defend transcendental realism by using Kantian transcendental arguments while these arguments are tightly connected to the doctrine of transcendental idealism (at least in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). In addition, transcendental realism was the position that was firmly rejected by Kant. Hence, to say the least, I think that Bhaskar owes us an explanation of what exactly is the purpose (and meaning) of the Kantian terms like “pure reason” and “synthetic a priori truth” in his philosophy of science. Anyway, it is these Kantian inspired transcendental arguments that I reject. Though I admit that there are some social theorists that still utilize Kantian transcendental arguments, I would claim that these arguments are not used in the best practices of empirical social research.

In addition, as you mention in the post, the inferential form of my naturalist arguments can be understood in terms of inference to the best explanation. This makes them inductive rather than deductive arguments.
For these reasons, I would say that your point about “the deductive flow of the argument” is not exactly right. This was my first point.
In your interesting discussion with Merwyn Hartwig, you write that: critical realism naturalized (as Kaidesoja advocates) would eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR while preserving many (all) of the ontological conclusions”.
I just want to note that, in addition to providing a critique of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments and outlining a naturalist alternative to them, my book also contains series of critiques about the core concepts and doctrines of the critical realist ontology (including social ontology). For example, it is argued that Bhaskar’s accounts of the concepts of causal power and emergence are not only ambiguous, but also contain problematic anti-naturalist assumptions. These assumptions are related to Bhaskar’s tendency to detach causal powers from the concretely existing powerful particulars in Harré and Madden’s (1975) sense. I especially argue that this view is involved in his conception of thetranscendentally real nature of causal powers, including the emergent causal powers of minds and social structures.
Furthermore, I try to argue that a non-transcendental realist (or naturalized) interpretationof the concepts of causal power and emergent property (that can be justified by considering the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of the epistemically successful scientific practices and theories) allows the development of the naturalized (in the broad sense of the term) version of critical realist social ontology. These hypothetical ontological views imply, among other things, that causal powers are properties of concrete entities that may, but need not, be their essential properties in the sense that they would fix the membership of the concrete entity in a natural kind consisting of the collection of entities with identical essences. They also entail that emergent properties of concrete entities can often be reductively explained in terms of their underlying mechanisms though reductive explanations of this kind do not eliminate emergent properties from the scientific ontology nor do they require conceptual reductions. I also suggest that Mario Bunge’s (e.g. 2003, 35-36) CESM (Composition, Environment, Structure, Mechanisms) model of concrete social systems and William Wimsatt’s (e.g. 2007, chap. 12) notions of emergence in terms of failure of aggregativity and mechanism-based reductive explanation can be used in specifying the above views. In addition, the book also discusses how the theories of action and culture may be naturalized by employing the ideas developed in recent cognitive science, including the perspectives of embodied, situated and distributed cognition.
For these reasons, critical realism naturalized would not only eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR. It will also suggest major revisions to the original critical realist ontology developed by Bhaskar and others while still preserving many of its core ideas in an elaborated form.
Bhaskar, Roy (1978) A Realist Theory of Science. 2nd edition. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Bhaskar, Roy (1986) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London and New York: Verso.
Bhaskar, Roy (1993) Dialectics: The Pulse of Freedom. London and New York: Verso.
Bunge, Mario (2003) Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Harré, Rom & Madden, Edward (1975) Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Wimsatt, William (2007) Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Guest post by Justin Cruickshank on critical realism

Justin Cruickshank is senior lecturer in Sociology in the School of Govt and Society at the University of Birmingham. He researches and teaches in the areas of classical and contemporary social and sociological theory as well as the philosophy of the social sciences. His books include Critical Realism: The Difference That It Makes (edited 2004) and Realism and Sociology: Anti-Foundationalism, Ontology and Social Research (2003), as well as many articles and chapters on critical realism. Here is his profile at UB. This contribution is a response to a lively recent discussion here over the status of transcendental ontology in critical realism, including two posts on Cruickshank’s critique of Bhaskar (link, link) and comments and criticisms offered by Dave Elder-Vass, Mervyn Hartwig, and Ruth Groff (link, link). My own contributions to the debate include (link, link). Thanks for contributing, Justin.

Reply to Hartwig and Elder-Vass

By Justin Cruickshank

I would like to thank Daniel Little for inviting me to contribute to this dialogue about the fallibility of critical realism. I’d like to start by quickly considering the philosopher who foregrounded the importance of fallibilism.

Popper counseled against asking ‘what’ questions, in favour of asking ‘how’ questions. For Popper, questions about how phenomena interact were subject to a critical dialogue, whereby fallible categories could be revised through the course of problem-solving. With this approach the recognition of fallibilism led to the claim that justification had to be eschewed and replaced with criticism. As regards ‘what’ questions, which required a definition of reality, Popper objected that such questions return us to the search for justification (contrary to the emphasis on criticism required by the recognition of fallibilism) and did so in a way that ultimately entailed dogmatic metaphysical speculation.

One could argue that Bhaskar’s critical realism avoids being a form of dogmatic metaphysical speculation because, having assumed that science worked, Bhaskar drew out the ontological assumptions from within science. The knowledge produced by science was referred to as a transitive dimension because it, like all knowledge, was held to be fallible, whereas reality itself was referred to as the intransitive dimension. Ontological definitions would therefore not be based on dogmatic metaphysical speculation about the intransitive dimension. Instead the role of philosophy was to render explicit the implicit ontological assumptions within the transitive dimension. In doing this, philosophy would use science to furnish the condition of possibility of science: philosophy would set up a transcendental question and answer that using the ontological assumptions implicit within scientific knowledge. This is the basis of the claims by Elder-Vass and Hartwig that the transcendental argument put forward by Bhaskar is not dogmatic ‘old style’ metaphysics but ‘conditional’, ‘relative’, ‘corrigible’, based on a dialogic approach, etc. In place of dogmatic certainty there would be a recognition of fallibilism. The problem, though, is that the recognition of fallibilism becomes redundant because critical realists are concerned with justification. We can explore this in the three points below.

First, the act of rendering the ontological assumptions explicit would be a fallible interpretive act and so other philosophers influenced by realism may interpret the transitive domain differently. Bhaskar (The Possibility of Naturalism, 3rd edition, p. 170), stated that his ontology ‘at present’ is ‘uniquely consistent’ with the ontological assumptions within science. This raised the question as to how to judge between competing interpretations of the ontological assumptions within science so that one may be in a position to know that a particular philosophy is uniquely consistent with the ontological assumptions of science. For just as different philosophers of science have re-read the history of science to discover that their methodological prescription was implicitly adhered to, so different realist philosophers could read the practice of science in such a way as to read in the ontological assumptions that they took to obtain within science. As those assumptions are metaphysical, specific empirical theories can be read to fit the postulated assumptions.

Underpinning this is the problematic attempt to link a commitment to fallibilism with the attempt to justify a philosophical position. The attempt to justify the position will lead to a monologic exchange because there would be no basis for a critical dialogue. That is, there would be no common framing of the problem or the criteria for its solution. A commitment to justification would lead to different metaphysical schemes being justified by being read into the practice and history of science, with there being no empirical test to decide between them and no logical test (if they were all internally coherent). Consequently the commitment to fallibilism would be rendered redundant, in terms of any critical dialogue over the ontological assumptions taken to obtain in the transitive domain. To be sure, claims to infallibility may clearly be eschewed. Thus Bhaskar holds that ‘at present’ his reading happens to be the superior one. However, there is a difference between not endorsing infallibilism and putting any recognition of fallibilism to work.

Second, if we assume for the sake of argument that the ontological assumptions rendered explicit by Bhaskar were uniquely consistent with those that obtain within the transitive dimension, then the question arises as to what philosophy could do with those assumptions. Scientific theories would produce explanations based on a set of ontological assumptions that were implicit within the practice of science, with those assumptions being the condition of possibility of science. Therefore it is hard to see how the philosophy of science could become more than the history of science, tracking the development of those assumptions, because it would lack any normative force motivated by extra-scientific criteria.

It could be countered that philosophy did have a normative role to play, which was to ensure that science did not err by turning to the wrong ontological assumptions. However, as it is conceded that science is fallible and its ontological assumptions are fallible, then a change in itself does not necessarily mean error. Instead, in order for philosophy to act as an underlabourer, it would need to distinguish correct from incorrect ontological assumptions independently of their manifestation in science. In this case, fallibilism would be eschewed for old style metaphysics in order for the underlabouring claims to be justified. So, if we accept that science furnishes its own conditions of possibility, then philosophy becomes redundant, and if philosophy is to avoid this, the justifications for its prescriptions would avoid any recognition of fallibilism. One could counter and argue that if science was influenced by the outmoded positivist conception of science then philosophy could intervene. However, if a practice was based on incorrect ontological assumptions then it would fail to be science, and science would be self-regulating by eschewing approaches based on ontological assumptions deemed incorrect.

Third, standard transcendental arguments are universalist, and Elder-Vass and Hartwig clearly reject any notion of Bhaskar’s transcendentalist position being universalist, because it would lead, in this case, to old style metaphysical dogmatism. However, the alternative approach to transcendental arguments, which holds that the current and fallible ontological assumptions furnish the current condition of possibility of current science, leads to a Kuhnian conception of science. Here the ontological assumptions would define a period of science in a fashion analogous to Kuhn’s paradigms, with empirical work based on those assumptions being a matter of puzzle-solving. That is, the empirical explanations would be justified by being in conformity with the ontological assumptions, with those assumptions delimiting the range of acceptable explanations. Whereas a problem-solving approach may allow for the revision of implicit ontological assumptions, this puzzle-solving approach would be narrower in scope.

The recognition of fallibilism here would amount to the rejection of infallibilism in the form of dogmatic metaphysical speculation, whereby the assumptions were taken to be definitely correct. However, the recognition of fallibilism would do no more than that. After that the emphasis would be on regarding current empirical explanations as being justified by being in conformity with the current prevailing ontological assumptions. Given this approach to justification, the concept of epistemic progress becomes problematic. Under paradigm A, empirical claims would be justified by being in conformity with the ontological assumptions that furnished the condition of possibility of paradigm A. Under paradigm B, empirical claims would be justified if they were in conformity with the ontological assumptions that furnished the condition of possibility of paradigm B. Fallibilism could be appealed to as a denial of infallibilism with the ontological assumptions not being taken to be definitively correct definitions of reality; but it would do no work after that, with the emphasis being on justification. Dogmatic ‘external’ justification, in the form of an appeal to a definitively correct definition of reality would be replaced by ‘internal’ justification, in the form of an appeal to the current assumptions that justified the current phase of science.

Not only does this make fallibilism redundant, but it also makes any notion of progress problematic, given the emphasis on internal justification. In other words, there are no philosophical or extra-scientific criteria to appeal to, in the attempt to judge one paradigm as better than another. Such an approach also returns us to the problem of dogmatism, because as there are no philosophical / extra-scientific criteria to appeal to, each phase of science would have to rely on conservative justification – conformity to the assumptions would lead to justification and conversely a lack of conformity would negate any justification for an explanation. It may be pointed out that explanations which conform to the ontological assumptions may fail. This is true, but Kuhn recognised this too, and the issue would be that empirical explanations which were taken to be successful would be deemed justified because of their conformity to the current assumptions that defined current science.

In order for critical realist philosophy to do any work in this context it would have to make an appeal to some form of extra-scientific criteria, by turning to universalism, and holding that a set of ontological definitions did correspond to the defining features of the intransitive domain. As has been noted in the posts already, there are places where Bhaskar makes such claims. Like most philosophies there is the place where it is asserted and the place where it is retracted. Bhaskar does engage in old style metaphysics, but his rowing back does not save his philosophy. Accepting the fallibilist reading of his ontology shows that fallibilism becomes redundant because the emphasis swings to justification and, in the process, Bhaskar’s philosophy becomes redundant.

Applying this to the social sciences, there could be a post-Marxist science of structures which was taken to be justified because its explanations were taken to be based on a definitively correct ontology of social structures; or a Kuhnian conservative approach that made social science scientific by supplying some fundamental assumptions to agree upon. The forms of justification would be quite different in both, but in neither case would fallibilism do any work. A problem-solving approach to the sciences may be a better way to go.

Kaidesoja’s naturalistic social ontology

Tuukka Kaidesoja provides an important analysis and critique of Roy Bhaskar’s philosophical method in his theory of critical realism in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. This work provides a careful and detailed account of the content of Bhaskar’s central ideas, as well as the relation those ideas have to other positions within and adjacent to critical realism. For Kaidesoja, the hope of discovering fundamental truths through transcendental reasoning is unpersuasive, and he advocates instead for a strategy of “naturalizing” the arguments for critical realism.

TK agrees with Bhaskar about the importance of ontological theory, and he thinks these topics are important for practitioners of the social sciences as well as philosophers. Here are some of the ways in which he characterizes the role of an ontological theory:

[Ontology is important] because specific research practices in social sciences as well as the theories and methods used in these practices always contain ontological assumptions and presuppositions no matter whether the practising social scientists and philosophers of social sciences acknowledge or discuss them. These assumptions and presuppositions concern, for example, the basic ontological categories of which the entities studied belong; the relationships between different kinds of entities studied; between them and those studied in the other social sciences and non-social sciences; and the causal structure of the social world (or the lack of such structure). In addition, ontological assumptions and presuppositions of this kind are not inconsequential in empirical research. Rather, they affect what are considered as proper social phenomena to be explained; what methods are thought to be suitable for studying different types of social phenomena; what are regarded as the sound explanations of these phenomena; and what are considered as possible factors in those explanations. Differences in opinion as to how to answer questions like these are reflected, for example, in the debates between the proponents of various forms of individualism (or microfoundationalism) and collectivism (or holism); and between the advocates of statistical causal modelling, the mechanism-based model of explanation and interpretative methods. (1-2)

So what is the ontology that Bhaskar articulates? According to Kaidesoja, it comes down to a fairly simple set of ideas:

The main ontological point in RTS then is that structures, or rather structured things (e.g. atoms, molecules, chemical substances and living organisms), possess causal powers by virtue of which they are able to generate empirically observable effects. (56)

Bhaskar describes the relationship between the structure of a thing and its power by using the concept of natural necessity. The essential structure of a thing both determines its causal powers — or at least those powers that are explanatorily the most fundamental — and constitutes its identity by fixing its membership in a natural kind. (57)

(These passages make clear the direct lineage from critical realism to causal powers theory.)

So how should we go about arriving at a defensible ontology for scientific knowledge? Bhaskar’s answer is, through the philosophical strategy of transcendental argument. He wants to argue that certain ontological premises are the necessary precondition to the intelligibility of some aspect of the enterprise of science. Like Cruickshank, Kaidesoja attributes a philosophical apriorism to Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism (5), and he holds that Bhaskar’s method of argument is one grounded in apriori transcendental reasoning (82).

Kaidesoja argues against this aprioristic strategy and puts forward an alternative: “naturalized critical realist social ontology”. Here is his preliminary description of this alternative:

In very rough terms, naturalists contend that theories in social ontology should be built by studying (1) the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of the epistemically successful practices of empirical social research (including well-confirmed theories produced in them); and (2) the well-established ontological assumptions advanced in other sciences, including natural sciences. This procedure is needed because naturalists hold that ontological theories cannot be justified by means of philosophical arguments that rely on a priori forms of conceptual analysis and reasoning. (2; italics mine)

So the heart of the approach that Kaidesoja advocates is the idea that the activity of formulating and evaluating scientific theories through empirical research is the only avenue we have for arriving at justified ideas about the world, including our most basic ontological beliefs. We might refer to this as a “boot-strapping” approach to ontology: we discover the more fundamental aspects of the world by constructing and evaluating scientific theories in various areas of phenomena, and then extracting the “ontological assumptions” these theories make.

This position makes a difference in the status of the resulting claims about ontology, according to Kaidesoja. Bhaskar wants to hold that the ontological claims established by transcendental arguments are different in kind from the claims about the physical or social world made by ordinary scientific theories (5). For Kaidesoja, by contrast, all ontological claims are on the same footing; they are part of the empirical scientific enterprise.

This means that all naturalist ontological theories should be understood as knowledge a posteriori which is always hypothetical, because, as will be later argued, there is no specifically philosophical or transcendental (as distinct from empirical) warrant for any philosophical ontology. (5)

Here is how Kaidesoja summarizes Bhaskar’s typical transcendental argument:

In order to discuss them in detail, Bhaskar’s arguments in RTS can be analysed 

into the following steps:

  1. X is generally recognized natural scientific practice.
  2. It is a necessary condition of the possibility (or intelligibility) of X that the world is P1,. . ., Pn.
  3. X is possible because it is real.
  4. If the world were Q1, . . . , Qn, as is presupposed in competing philosophies of science, then X would be impossible or unintelligible.
  5. Therefore, it is conditionally (i.e. given that X exists) necessary that the world is P1, . . . , Pn. (88)

And here is the naturalistic argument form that Kaidesoja prefers:

  1. X is an epistemically successful scientific practice described on the basis of empirical analysis of the practice. 
  2. It is hypothetically (and in the explanatorily sense) a necessary condition of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description that the ontological structure of the world (or some of its aspects) really is as described in propositions P1, . . ., Pn. 
  3. Propositions P1, . . . , Pn are compatible with the ontological commitments of current scientific theories which have stood the test of critical evaluation by the relevant scientific community. 
  4. The explicit ontological propositions or implicit ontological presuppositions of competing philosophical positions,  say Q . . . ,  Qn, are incompatible with propositions P1, . . . , Pn and the epistemic successfulness of X under our description remains impossible or unintelligible from the point of view of Q1, . . ., Qn. 
  5. The best explanation of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description currently is that (a certain aspect or region of) the world is as described in propositions P1, . . . ,  Pn. (98)

It seems to me that Kaidesoja’s naturalistic alternative permits a very smooth respecification of the status and content of critical realism. Instead of arriving at conclusions that have philosophical certainty (philosophical transcendental ontology), we arrive at potentially the same conclusions based on reasoning to the best explanation. This was Richard Boyd’s best argument for realism in the 1970s (what he called “methodological realism”), and it provides a philosophically modest way of giving rational credibility to the ontological conclusions critical realism wants to reach without presupposing the validity of philosophical transcendental arguments.

Since defenders of critical realism like Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff have emphatically insisted that Bhaskar does not aspire to philosophical certainty with his scheme of argumentation, it may be that Kaidesoja’s account will be understood as a clarification rather than an objection to the approach. The difference between the two argument forms here comes down to this: The naturalistic argument consistently replaces “reasoning derived from transcendental necessity” by “reasoning within the general framework of what we know about the world”, but leaves the deductive flow of the argument unchanged. And this might be a reasonable way of accounting for the defenders’ view that Bhaskar’s philosophy has been fundamentally fallibilistic all along.

Reply to Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff on critical realism


Critical realism is a hot topic now in sociological theory and philosophy of social science. It turns out that there are some pretty strong disagreements about the foundations of the theory. Recent posts here have highlighted my own (admittedly non-expert) reading of Bhaskar’s assumptions about ontology (link), my discussion of the limited and friendly critique of Bhaskar’s assumptions offered by Justin Cruickshank (link, link), and a preliminary view of the “naturalized critical realism” advocated by Tuukka Kaidesoja (link). (There is more to come on Kaidesoja’s work.) These posts — particularly those highlighting Cruickshank — have elicited strong rebuttals from Ruth Groff, Dave Elder-Vass, and Mervyn Hartwig (link, link). Here I would like to respond to some of the views advanced in the rebuttals by these experts from within critical realism.

Elder-Vass and Hartwig reject the core claims that I have attributed to Cruickshank in his critique of Bhaskar’s philosophical method: that Bhaskar pursues an aprioristic philosophical method in arriving at the fundamental ideas of critical realism, and that he regards these ideas as having been established with  some kind of certainty by this method. (I should make it clear, of course, that this is my interpretation of Cruickshank; I hope I have not mis-represented him.) Against this aprioristic and infallibilist reading, Elder-Vass and Hartwig argue that Bhaskar’s reasoning is not aprioristic and that he regards his conclusions as being fallible and historically conditioned.

Elder-Vass believes there are ample places in Bhaskar’s work where he asserts the fallibilism of his conclusions. But the particular passage that E-V quotes from Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation seems to prove less than E-V supposes. Moreover, it seems to detract from intellectual virtues that Bhaskar himself wanted to assert: that there are good philosophical (i.e. non-empirical) reasons for accepting certain ontological statements. Does Bhaskar attribute rational credibility to philosophical arguments in arriving at substantive claims about the world? Unmistakably he does; his whole method is philosophical! And he seems to have quite a bit of confidence in the conclusions that he reaches when it comes to the fundamentals of ontology. Or in other words: he assigns a high level of justificatory weight to the philosophical arguments he offers for specific conclusions about ontology.

In fact, general statements about the fallibility of human knowledge don’t help very much with the problem Cruickshank is raising. How fallible and for what reasons? For example, if the claims of critical-realist ontology are only “as fallible as” the claims of mathematics and logic, that is indeed to attribute a high degree of certainty to those ontological claims. On the other hand, if they are “as fallible as” statements about the virtues of the gods, then they are highly fallible indeed. So the general statement “all assertions are fallible” is too general to help very much. We want to know what the conditions of knowledge are for different kinds of assertions, and how confident we can be, give available reasons and evidence, that the given assertion is true. “Wood is made mostly of carbon and water,” “electrons have negative charge of 1.6 * 10^-19 coulombs,” “physical objects are located in three-dimensional space,” and “a triangle encloses 180 degrees” are all statements that are in some sense fallible; but the ways in which they might go wrong are quite different from one to the next. Some are more empirical, some more theoretical, and some are metaphysical or mathematical. And the kind of justification or proof that is given for each is different. As a non-committed reader of Bhaskar, it does appear to me that Bhaskar relies on abstract philosophical arguments to reach ontological conclusions, and that he attributes a fairly high degree of confidence to those lines of reasoning.

So how fallible does Bhaskar think his theory of ontology is, and for what reasons, according to E-V and Hartwig? Does Bhaskar believe, for example, that perhaps experimentation could after all be coherently understood against a background of Humean regularity assumptions? Plainly not; that is the whole point of his argument, to rule out that possibility. And he seeks to rule it out by offering philosophical arguments to establish the point. To take a fairly random example from RTS:

However if deducibility is the only criterion for explanation and the source of the surplus-element is its explanation there will be an infinite number of surplus-elements for any statement. Hence any statement can be said to be law-like on an infinite number of grounds. Deducibility alone cannot explicate the distinction between necessary and accidental or nomic and non-nomic universals. (kl 3018)

This is plainly a purely philosophical (logical) argument; it is reductio ad adsurdum. And Bhaskar plainly believes it presents an insurmountable barrier to the Humean; or in other words, it establishes the necessity of the anti-Humean position on this particular point. So the idea that Bhaskar applies a warning label at various points (“knowledge is fallible”) doesn’t resolve the issue of whether he attributes too much weight to the power of philosophical arguments to resolve ontological issues.

Hartwig provides useful clarification by summarizing the logic of a transcendental argument. The argument form itself is deductively valid and trivial, essentially modus ponens.  So we can be completely certain that if the premises are true then the conclusion is true. That is not where the philosophy comes in. Rather, the heavy lifting for the transcendental argument is in establishing the major premise. What kind of argument is needed in order to establish an “only-if” statement? Take the Kantian version: [only if the world is spatio-temporally-causally structured] then [empirical experience is possible]. We can offer strong philosophical reasons for believing that empirical experience is possible. But how do we get the “only-if” assertion? How do we know that there is no other form of structure that could give unity to empirical experience? How do we know that a degraded spatio-temporal-causal ordering would not nonetheless admit of empirical experience? (Things sometimes result from anomaly and show up discontinuously in unexpected places; how do we know that such a slightly disorderly world could not support empirical experience?) In other words, why should we have confidence in Kant’s (or Bhaskar’s) assertion of the major premise: [only if X] then Y?

In fact, Strawson’s critique of Kant’s argument in The Bounds of Sense is precisely that Kant errs in maintaining that spatiotemporal order is necessary for the possibility of empirical experience; he constructs a hypothetical world in which experience is ordered auditorially but not spatially ordered and argues that this is a perfectly coherent basis for ordinary empirical experience.

And this is where the Cruickshank-like argument comes in strongly: Bhaskar’s arguments for the “only-if” statements upon which critical realism depends are: interesting, skillful, determined — and far short of deductively or rationally conclusive.

If Bhaskar is thought to embrace fallibilism to this extent: that his whole construction of the ontological prerequisites of experimentation may be in error; then indeed he is a fallibilist theorist. Ruth Groff indicates that in her opinion this is a possibility: “Bhaskar may or may not be correct, either about what the implicit ontology of the activity of experimentation is, or about whether or not it is consistent with the explicit ontology of Humeanism and Kantianism.” But nothing in RTS makes me think that Bhaskar believes this particular form of corrigibility. E-V raises that possibility above (“What is necessary is that IF science occurs THEN the world must be such that science is possible and/or intelligible”). But this is virtually vacuous; it only becomes an ontological statement when one gives arguments about how the world must be. E-V, Hartwig, and Groff are the experts; but when I pick up the thread of A Realist Theory of Science at almost any point, I find Bhaskar making very confident statements about how the world must be, based on the philosophical arguments that he constructs.

Groff seems to slide over the place where some would say that Bhaskar does in fact over-reach philosophically: the complicated reasoning he provides to go from “we acknowledge the overall rationality of the enterprise of science” to “the world must have certain fairly abstract attributes”. We don’t have to say that “science is irrational” or “experimentation is unintelligible” in order to question Bhaskar’s conclusions about ontology; rather, we can question the sequence of inferences he makes from the one “fact” to the other. These inferential steps take place within a philosophical argument, and they are questionable.

This shouldn’t be thought to imply that I (or Cruickshank or Kaidesoja, for that matter) doubt that philosophical arguments have any justificatory or clarificatory weight; philosophy is simply careful reasoning and clear analytical thinking, and of course good philosophy can help illuminate how science works. What I do think some of us want to maintain is pretty much what Kant held as well: we can’t derive substantive conclusions about the structure of the real world from purely philosophical reasoning. There are no rabbits in that hat!

So it still seems to me — and now it’s me speaking, not Cruickshank — that Bhaskar relies too heavily and confidently on philosophical methods to arrive at ontological conclusions. Perhaps it is true, as E-V and Hartwig assert, that he also duct-tapes onto his construction some warnings about the overall fallibility of all human knowledge. But I’m still not seeing that this corrigibility extends very deeply when he is actually trying to reach conclusions about ontology. And yet this is precisely where the corrigibility/fallibility warning is most needed: the philosophical arguments offered for the “only-if” statements (the heart and substance of critical realism) fall far short of any kind of certainty. They are suggestive, but they are not rationally compelling. And Bhaskar does not appear to highlight this fact.

In short, Bhaskar does appear to believe that we can arrive at philosophically compelling conclusions about ontology; and those conclusions are drawn through recourse to philosophical arguments. And this does seem to distinguish his general theory of knowledge from coherence theorists (Goodman and Quine) and naturalists (Kaidesoja), who believe that ultimately there is only one kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge at various levels of abstraction.

But it also seems to me that this debate is in some ways missing the most important point: how good is critical realism as a meta-theory of the situation of material human beings acquiring knowledge of the world?  Putting aside the question of whether philosophical theory can shed light by itself on the structure of the world, what should we actually think about the latter topic? Is realism a good way of thinking about the knowledge enterprise? Is the kind of back-and-forth that Bhaskar is so good at, from existing scientific practice to apparent presuppositions about how things work, a good way of leveraging some new thinking about the way the world works? The most interesting thing about critical realism is surely not its philosophical method; it is the set of ideas it brings forward about how science and knowledge progress in giving material human beings a better notion of how the world works. Philosophy is a part of that process, but only a part. And the realist ontology is an important construction no matter what its argumentative origins are.