Critical realism and social heterogeneity

Is the metaphysics of critical realism compatible with the idea of a highly heterogeneous social world?

Here is what I mean by heterogeneity in this context. First social causation is inherently multiple, with many kinds and tempos of social causation at work. It is therefore crucial that we avoid the impulse to reduce social change to a single set of underlying causal factors. The occurrence of a race riot at a time and place is partly caused by the instigating incident, partly caused by the long-simmering background conditions, partly caused by the physical geography of the city in question and partly caused by a legal and political context far from the site of rioting. We sometimes describe this fact as the conjunctural nature of social causation. Second, social events, changes, and forms of stability depend on contingent alignments of forces and causes, which do not recur in regular sequences of Humean causation. Third, social causes are generally historically conditioned, with the result that we do not have a general statement of, same cause, same effect. I characterize these points by saying that social causation is contingent, contextual, and conjunctural.

Another important aspect of heterogeneity in the social world has to do with the status of social kinds or social types. I take the view that social entities do not constitute social kinds, in that there is substantial and deep variation across the instances of items which we classify under riot, revolution, or state. Another way to put this point is to observe that social things do not have essential natures. Being Muslim is not an essential social or cultural or religious identity. Being a late industrial city is not an essential characteristic of a group of cities. Being a social revolution is not an essential underlying set of characteristics of the Chinese, French, and Russian episodes. Rather, in each of these examples there is broad variation across the instances that are embraced by the term.

So my question here is a simple one. Is Bhaskar’s version of realism consistent with this treatment of heterogeneous social entities and heterogeneous social causes, or does Bhaskar presuppose social essences and universal causes in ways that are inconsistent with heterogeneity?

There are elements Bhaskar’s theory that point in both directions on this question.

His emphasis on the logic of experimentation is key to his transcendental argument for realism. But oddly enough, this analysis cuts against the premise of heterogeneity because it emphasizes exceptionless causal factors. He emphasizes the necessity of postulating underlying causal laws, which are themselves supported by generative causal mechanisms, and the implication is that the natural world unfolds as the expression of these generative mechanisms. Here is a clear statement from The Possibility of Naturalism:

Once made, however, the ontological distinction between causal laws and patterns of events allows us to sustain the universality of the former in the face of the non-invariance of the latter. Moreover, the actualist analysis of laws now loses all plausibility. For the non-invariance of conjunctions is a condition of an empirical science and the non-empirical nature of laws a condition of an applied one. (PON p. 11)

And his account sometimes seems to rest upon a kind of “mechanism fundamentalism” — the idea that there is a finite set of non-reducible mechanisms with essential properties:

On the transcendental realist system a sequence A, B is necessary if and only if there is a natural mechanism M such that when stimulated by A, B tends to be produced. (PON p. 11)

Concerns about mechanisms fundamentalism are allayed, however, because Bhaskar notes that it is always open to the scientist to ask the new question, how does this mechanism work? (PON 13) So mechanisms are not irreducible.

These are a few indications that Bhaskar’s realism might be uncongenial to the idea of social heterogeneity.

More compelling considerations are to be found on the other side of the issue, however. First, his introduction of the idea of the social world as an “open” system of causation leaves space for causal heterogeneity. Here is a relevant passage from A Realist Theory of Science, deriving from an example of historical explanation:

In general as a complex event it will require a degree of what might be called ‘causal analysis’, i.e. the resolution of the event into its components (as in the case above). (RTS kl 2605)

For the different levels that mesh together in the generation of an event need not, and will not normally, be typologically locatable within the structures of a single theory. In general the normic statements of several distinct sciences, speaking perhaps of radically different kinds of generative mechanism, may be involved in the explanation of the event. This does not reflect any failure of science, but the complexity of things and the multiplicity of forms of determination found in the world. (RTS kl 2613)

Here is how Bhaskar conceives of social and historical things in The Possibility of Naturalism:

From this perspective, then, things are viewed as individuals possessing powers (and as agents as well as patients). And actions are the realization of their potentialities. Historical things are structured and differentiated (more or less unique) ensembles of tendencies, liabilities and powers; and historical events are their transformations. (PON 20)

The phrase “more or less unique” is crucial. It implies the kind of heterogeneity postulated here, reflecting the ideas of contingency and heterogeneity mentioned above.

Another reason for thinking Bhaskar is open to heterogeneity in the social realm is his position on reductionism.

But, it might be objected, is not the universe in the end nothing but a giant machine with inexorable laws of motion governing everything that happens within it? I want to say three things: First, that the various sciences treat the world as a network of ‘machines’, of various shapes and sizes and degrees of complexity, whose proper principles of explanation are not all of the same kind as, let alone reducible to, those of classical mechanics. Secondly, that the behaviour of ‘machines’, including classical mechanical ones, cannot be adequately described, let alone understood, in terms of the ‘whenever x, then y’ formula of regularity determinism. Thirdly, that even if the world were a single ‘machine’ this would still provide no grounds for the constant conjunction idea, or a fortiori any of the theories of science that depend upon it. Regularity determinism is a mistake, which has been disastrous for our understanding of science. (RTS kl 1590)

Here Bhaskar is explicit in referring to multiple kinds of causal processes (“machines”). And, indeed, Bhaskar affirms the conjunctural nature of social causation:

Now most social phenomena, like most natural events, are conjuncturally determined. And as such in general have to be explained in terms of a multiplicity of causes. (PON p. 54)

Similar ideas are expressed in Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:

Social phenomena must be seen, in general, as the product of a multiplicity of causes, i.e. social events as ‘conjunctures’ and social things as (metaphysically) ‘compounds’. (107)

Finally, his discussion of social structures in PON as the social equivalent of natural mechanisms also implies heterogeneity over time:

(3) Social structures, unlike natural structures, may be only relatively enduring (so that the tendencies they ground may not be universal in the sense of space-time invariant). (PON 49)

So on balance, I am inclined to think that Bhaskar’s philosophy of social science is indeed receptive to social heterogeneity. And this in turn makes it a substantially more compelling contribution to the philosophy of social science than it would otherwise be, and superior to many of the positivist variants of philosophy of science that he criticizes.

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.

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.

Bhaskar’s core ideas


Critical realism has become an important topic within sociological theory, and several prior (and upcoming) posts have addressed the theory. As a point of reference for this ongoing discussion, consider a few key statements by Roy Bhaskar about transcendental [critical] realism in A Realist Theory of Science. Here is a simple and clear definition of Bhaskar’s theory of realism:

The third position, which is advanced here, may be characterized as transcendental realism. It regards the objects of knowledge as the structures and mechanisms that generate phenomena; and the knowledge as produced in the social activity of science. These objects are neither phenomena (empiricism) nor human constructs imposed upon the phenomena (idealism), but real structures which endure and operate independently of our knowledge, our experience and the conditions which allow us access to them. Against empiricism, the objects of knowledge are structures, not events; against idealism, they are intransitive (in the sense defined). (p. 15)

And here is Bhaskar’s statement of how he views the cognitive status of the theory of transcendental realism:

It is not necessary that science occurs. But given that it does, it is necessary that the world is a certain way. It is contingent that the world is such that science is possible. And, given that it is possible, it is contingent upon the satisfaction of certain social conditions that science in fact occurs. But given that science does or could occur, the world must be a certain way. Thus, the transcendental realist asserts, that the world is structured and differentiated can be established by philosophical argument; though the particular structures it contains and the ways in which it is differentiated are matters for substantive scientific investigation. (p. 19)

This passage makes it clear that Bhaskar believes the statements of ontology are philosophical statements, and they are established with a kind of necessity that differentiates them from ordinary empirical statements. This indicates Bhaskar’s adherence to a philosophical method of discovery, inquiry, and justification.

Here is an example of Bhaskar’s transcendental reasoning, applied to the analysis of experimentation.

The intelligibility of experimental activity presupposes not just the intransitivity but the structured character of the objects investigated under experimental conditions. Let me once again focus on the empiricist’s favourite case, viz. causal laws, leaving aside for the moment such other objects of investigation as structures and atomic constitutions. A causal law is analysed in empiricist ontology as a constant conjunction of events perceived (or perceptions). Now an experiment is necessary precisely to the extent that the pattern of events forthcoming under experimental conditions would not be forthcoming without it. Thus in an experiment we are a causal agent of the sequence of events, but not of the causal law which the sequence of events, because it has been produced under experimental conditions, enables us to identify. (p. 23) (italics mine)

Essentially Bhaskar is making a classic Kantian move here: he is arguing that we cannot make intellectual sense of a scientist’s use of experiment without presupposing that there are underlying objects and causal laws governing them which are the subject of the experiment. The phrase in italics identifies the necessary presupposition of the experiment: the presence of objective, theory-independent causal laws governing the objects of the experiment. And, as the subsequent sentence in the text makes clear, the causal laws in question are of a different ontological order than the events that manifest them. Here is how Derk Pereboom summarizes Kant’s transcendental argument against Hume in his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link):

In the Metaphysical Deduction (A66–83, B92–116) Kant intends to derive the categories [including causation] from the specific modes or forms of any human thought about the world, the logical forms of judgment. The Metaphysical Deduction has an essential role to play in the Transcendental Deduction, and we will discuss this argument at an appropriate juncture (when we reach §19 of the B-Deduction).

It is evident that Bhaskar’s style of argument here parallels that of Kant. However, Kant’s transcendental method is not in fact satisfactory. We have the example of non-Euclidean geometries to provide a reminder that Kant’s reasoning fails. Kant used the same kind of transcendental argument from the possibility of experience to arrive at the conclusion that space is necessarily Euclidean, but the discoveries of the consistency of non-Euclidean geometry (and the physical geometry of general relativity theory) show that this conclusion is incorrect. This example reminds us that transcendental reasoning is not truth-preserving; we can proceed from a transcendental argument to a false conclusion.

Now back to Bhaskar and the transcendental conclusion that he draws from the argument concerning experimentation:

The intelligibility of experimental activity presupposes then the intransitive and structured character of the objects of scientific knowledge, at least in so far as these are causal laws. And this presupposes in turn the possibility of a non-human world, i.e. causal laws without invariances and experiences, and in particular of a non-empirical world, i.e. causal laws and events without experiences; and the possibility of open systems, i.e. causal laws out of phase with patterns of events and experiences, and more generally of epistemically insignificant experiences, i.e. experiences out of phase with events and/or causal laws. In saying that the objects of scientific discovery and investigation are ‘intransitive’ I mean to indicate therefore that they exist independently of all human activity; and in saying that they are ‘structured’ that they are distinct from the patterns of events that occur. The causal laws of nature are not empirical statements, i.e. statements about experiences; nor are they statements about events; nor are they synthetic a priori statements. (pp. 25-26)

So here Bhaskar pulls the rabbit from the hat: he argues that we can conclude that we must presuppose intransitive and structured objects subject to causal laws if we are to make sense of the intelligibility of experimentation. Here he repeats the finding:

In §3 I argued that only if causal laws are not the patterns of events that enable us to identify them can the intelligibility of experimental activity be sustained. But causal laws are, or have seemed to philosophers to be, pretty mysterious entities. What can it mean to say that they have a real basis independent of events? The answer to this question will be seen to necessitate the development of a non-anthropocentric ontology of structures, generative mechanisms and active things. (p. 35)

So philosophy allows us to conclude something substantive about metaphysics, according to Bhaskar: (if science exists) that there are real independent causal laws. Science does in fact exist; therefore there are real independent causal laws.

Finally consider Bhaskar’s notion of things and powers:

The world consists of things, not events. Most things are complex objects, in virtue of which they possess an ensemble of tendencies, liabilities and powers. It is by reference to the exercise of their tendencies, liabilities and powers that the phenomena of the world are explained. Such continuing activity is in turn referred back for explanation to the essential nature of things. On this conception of science it is concerned essentially with what kinds of things they are and with what they tend to do; it is only derivatively concerned with predicting what is actually going to happen. It is only rarely, and normally under conditions which are artificially produced and controlled, that scientists can do the latter. And, when they do, its significance lies precisely in the light that it casts on the enduring natures and ways of acting of independently existing and transfactually active things. (p. 41)

So things (objects) possess powers, and we explain the behavior of objects (and ensembles) as a consequence of the operation of their powers. And powers and causal laws are linked; powers generate laws:

There is nothing esoteric or mysterious about the concept of the generative mechanisms of nature, which provide the real basis of causal laws. For a generative mechanism is nothing other than a way of acting of a thing. It endures, and under appropriate circumstances is exercised, as long as the properties that account for it persist. Laws then are neither empirical statements (statements about experiences) nor statements about events. Rather they are statements about the ways of acting of independently existing and transfactually active things. (pp. 41-42)

These statements and assumptions by Bhaskar illustrate a fairly clear philosophical methodology. It is a method that derives from Kant’s transcendental metaphysics. And Bhaskar seems to be confident in arriving at definite and assertoric conclusions based on this method. Ontology is not an empirical discipline, according to Bhaskar; instead, it is a philosophical reflection on the preconditions of science, and it is grounded in philosophical arguments rather than empirical, scientific, or experimental arguments.

This implies that Bhaskar adheres to the idea that there are at least two kinds of knowledge that we can be interested in — philosophical and empirical-scientific. He therefore plainly rejects the coherentist and general scientific view (espoused by W.V.O. Quine and the pragmatists) that all defensible beliefs are eventually empirical, whether more directly connected to experience or more distantly so.

This feature of Bhaskar’s method lays him open to the kind of criticism that is offered by Justin Cruickshank and others.