Moral progress and critical realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a critical-realist epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B “Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified”

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

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

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morphogenesis and social norms

Critical realism pays particular attention to the enduring structures that underlie various social orders and processes. But as argued in an earlier post, CR also needs to be able to provide a vocabulary for describing the “subjective” and normative aspects of the social order. Margaret Archer’s evolving theory of morphogenesis provides resources for discussing precisely this dimension of the social world. The most recent volume of collaborative research emerging from Archer’s morphogenesis research project, Morphogenesis and the Crisis of Normativity (2016), is highly relevant to the ontology of normative features of the social world. The book focuses on the stability of legal systems in changing societies; but it is relevant to broader issues of normative coherence as well. The book includes contributions from a dozen contributors, and there is an admirable degree of focus and coherence across the chapters. Particularly interesting to me were chapters by Doug Porpora, Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Emmanuel Lazega, and Mark Carrigan; but every essay is excellent. The volume provides the basis for a very important conversation about the nature of norms and laws in the context of rapid social change.

Here is how Archer frames the central issue in this volume:

Do shared values promote social stability and social integration, or is it the other way round? Is it rather that social stability fosters normative consensus about the legitimacy of the rule of law, the appropriateness of prevailing rules and attachment to existing conventions? This question has a long history in the philosophy of law and the sociology of development, whose respective thinkers often took different positions during the twentieth century. (1)

Archer and her colleagues introduce a new circuit of social interaction for this set of topics: social normativity, social integration, and social regulation (NIR) (1). In a thumbnail, the central insight of the volume is that much writing on the sociology of law has assumed a setting of morphostasis; but this leaves entirely open the question of the role and stability of legal and normative systems during periods of morphogenesis. The presumption has been that periods of significant, rapid social change are entirely destabilizing for legal and normative structures. And the project of the volume is to show how legal and normative structures can persist, evolve, or emerge within a period of morphogenesis. In other words, the collaborators here are interested in the topic of “normativity in changing times” (5).

One way of construing the puzzle under consideration here is the status of the “bindingness” of a normative or legal system. What circumstances or forces lead participants of a given society to internalize the prescriptions of a given set of norms or laws? And in particular, what could create this fact of norm internalization in a period of substantial and rapid social change?

There are a few features of normativity in society that are reasonably self-evident. One is a point that Archer herself emphasizes (8) and attributes as well to Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: the fact that there are almost always multiple normative systems at work in a given society, rather than a single overarching and universal normative system. This point refutes key assumptions of both Durkheim and Parsons — the assumption that a social order requires a fundamental and universal set of norms if it is to function coherently at all. This observation is implicit in Elder-Vass’s idea of norm circles; but it is also quite visible through even cursory study of the norms of family, gender, fairness, etiquette, or life-aspiration that are current across different groups in one’s own society. Archer makes a similar point here:

The hallmark of cultural relations in modernity was one of ‘competitive contradictions’ between the respective corpuses of ideas activated critically and conflictually by opposed groups for purposes of legitimation. (16)

But the idea that these normative conflicts must or will be resolved or eliminated in a period of greater stability is mistaken.

It is also unpersuasive to insist that a group (ethnic, racial, gender) only exists if it possesses a universal and common set of norms defining behavior for members of the group. (This appears to be the view of various theorists of “we” identities.) The same point about heterogeneity of the whole of society applies equally to groups within society. Protestants, Muslims, mid-westerners, or surfers can all construe their identities in terms of affinities with these various constructions, without being subject to a single and uniform normative code. Norms are more like strands within a woven fabric than like essential features of a group’s identity. (Here is an earlier post that makes this point; link.)

Archer closes her introduction by highlighting three emerging hypotheses about morphogenesis and normativity:

  1. Where (N) is concerned, intensified morphogenesis has entailed a retreat from public, deontic normativity in the developed world.
  2. Where (I) is concerned, the increase in accessible cultural variety serves to decrease social uniformity and in consequence, social integration.
  3. Where (R) is concerned, social regulation becomes increasingly preoccupied with coordination and attends to fostering co-operation and redistribution only in so far as these are needful for coordinating different societal sectors.

What is somewhat surprising to me in these conclusions is the underlying sense of discomfort that Archer conveys with the conditions of change and transformation that they imply. The conservative critique of modernity is that the old normative foundations of social solidarity are disappearing, and chaos is the result. Archer seems almost to agree with some version of this critique; she seems to accept that morphogenesis leads to “disorderliness, destructiveness, unfairness, inhumaneness, and other iniquities” (26). This same discontent seems to underlie her critique of Bauman’s view of “liquid modernity” (link). In this volume she introduces the idea of “anormative social regulation” as an alternative to norm-based social cohesion:

In forging the link between anormative bureaucratic regulation and the intensification of morphogeneisis one socio-political characteristic of regulations is crucial. Regulations themselves can be innovatory, independent of any previous precedent and faster to to introduce than legislation. Since they do not rely upon consensus among or consultation with the public affected, neither are they dependent upon the relatively slow development, typical of social conventions and of norms. This feature recommends their suitability for ready response to the novel changes introduced through morphogenesis and its generic tendency for new variety to generate more variety. (149)

This is not Archer’s whole answer to the question of the role of norms within a society undergoing morphogenesis; but it is the most concrete idea she advances. And it is a very limited conception of the ways in which a society might seek to preserve and promote the common good.

What seems much more promising is a view of transformation and social change that permits constant “morphogenesis” and yet witnesses a reasonably stable patchwork of continuing normative communities that permit new solutions to the constant challenges created by rapid change. Perhaps surprisingly, John Rawls’s conception of a “liberal society” with a constantly shifting set of ideas across society about justice and the common good seems more suitable to the conditions of change that Archer herself is most concerned with (Political Liberalismlink). We are indeed passengers on Neurath’s raft riding on currents of “liquid modernity”; but we have the ability to continually recreate the conditions of a humane and just social order around us. Critical realism and the theory of morphogenesis can perhaps help us make greater progress in formulating an ontology of “progress and stability through ongoing change”.

Guest post by Guus Duindam

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

Bhaskar contra Kant: Why Critical Realism is not Transcendental Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Bhaskar himself making the argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

______________________________________________________

 

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

(Clarke 302)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explanation and critical realism

 

To explain something is to provide a true account of the causes and circumstances that brought it about. There is of course more to say on the subject, but this is the essential part of the story. And this normative account of explanation should work as well for investigations created within the framework of critical realism as any other scientific framework. 

Moreover, CR is well equipped with intellectual resources to produce explanations of social outcomes based on this understanding. In particular, CR emphasizes the reality of causal mechanisms in the social world. To explain a social outcome, then — perhaps the rise of Trumpism — we are instructed to identify the causal mechanisms and conditions that were in play such that a novice from reality television would gain the support of millions of voters and win the presidency. So far, so good. 

But a good explanation of an outcome is not just a story about mechanisms that might have produced the outcome; instead, we need a true story: these mechanisms existed and occurred, they brought about the outcome, and the outcome would not have occurred in the absence of this combination of mechanisms. Therefore we need to have empirical methods to allow us to evaluate the truth of these hypotheses.

There is also the important and interesting point that Bhaskar makes to the effect that the social world involves open causal configurations, not closed causal configurations. This appears to me to be an important insight into the social world; but it makes the problem of validating causal explanations even more challenging. 

This brings us to a point of contact with the theme of much current work in critical realism: a firm opposition to positivism and an allegiance to post-positivism. Because a central thrust of positivism was the demand for substantive empirical confirmation or verification of substantive claims; and that is precisely where we have arrived in this rapid analysis of explanation as well. In fact, it is quite obvious that CR theories and explanations require empirical validation no less than positivistic theories. We cannot dispense with empirical validation and continue to believe we are involved in science. 

Put the point another way: there is no possible avenue of validation of substantive explanatory hypotheses that proceeds through purely intuitive or theoretical avenues. At some point a good explanation requires empirical assessment. 

For example, it is appealing in the case of Trumpism to attribute Trump’s rise to the latent xenophobia of the disaffected lower working class. But is this true? And if true, is it critical as a causal factor in his rise? How would we confirm or disconfirm this hypothetical mechanism? Once again, this brings us into proximity to a few core commitments of empiricism and positivism — confirmation theory and falsifiability. And yet, a rational adherence to the importance of empirical validation takes us in this direction ineluctably. 

It is worth pointing out that the social and historical sciences have indeed developed empirical methods that are both rigorous and distinctive to the domain of the social: process tracing, single-case and small-N studies, comparative analysis, paired comparisons, and the like. So the demand for empirical methods does not imply standard (and simplistic) models of confirmation like the H-D model. What it does imply is that it is imperative to use careful reasoning, detailed observation, and discovery of obscure historical facts to validate one’s hypotheses and claims. 

Bhaskar addresses these issues in his appendix on the philosophy of science in RTS. He clearly presupposes two things: that rigorous evidence must be used in assessment of explanatory hypotheses in social science; and flat-footed positivism fails in providing an appropriate account of what that empirical reasoning ought to look like. And, as indicated above, the open character of social causation presents the greatest barrier to the positivist approach. Positivism assets that the task of confirmation and refutation concerns only the empirical correspondence between hypothesis and observation. 

Elsewhere I have argued for the piecemeal validation of social theories and hypotheses (link). This is possible because we are not forced to adopt the assumption of holism that generally guides philosophy in the consideration of physical theory. Instead, hypotheses about mechanisms and processes can be evaluated and confirmed through numerous independent lines of investigation. Duhem may have been right about physics, but he is not right about our knowledge of the social world.

Critical realism meets peasant studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a morphogenic society?

diagram: Erik Olin Wright, The Value Controversy and Social Research (link)

Margaret Archer’s research collaboration on topics concerning the theory of morphogenesis continues with the publication of the third volume in the Social Morphogenesis series, Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order. (The first two volumes have been treated in earlier posts; linklink.) Like the earlier volumes, this volume offers a highly stimulating treatment of issues that are prominent in the branch of the critical realism research community that Archer has defined. The focus here is upon the idea of “generative mechanisms,” which allows for a very interesting set of connections to other segments of the philosophy of social science field. Contributors to this volume include Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Pierpaolo Donati, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Andrea Maccarini, Doug Porpora, Tony Lawson, and Ismael Al-Amoudi and John Latsis, as well as Archer herself.

Archer puts the guiding question of the research collaboration in these terms:

We are seeking a causal explanation of what could … lead the social formation of late modernity to change into a one that is very different in kind precisely in terms of its relational organization. (1-2)

In other words, it is change in the relational structure of modern society that is the object here; and the search for generative mechanisms is a search for the processes internal to late modernity that bring this structural change about. Put in these terms, the objective is reminiscent of Marx’s goal in Capital: to discover the internal dynamics within the capitalist mode of production that were likely to lead to fundamental structural change within the mode of production and the birth of a successor mode of production. Here is a typical formulation, offered in the preface to the first edition of Capital: “Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” Marx believes the key mechanism driving change within capitalism is the “social antagonisms” of the defining property system. And he believes that this mechanism will lead ultimately to fundamental change in the structure of the mode of production. Where Archer refers to a system of social relations, Marx refers to the system of relations of property and power. But both seem to be asking the same kind of question: what are the causes of fundamental structural change in a society?

Archer and her collaborators continue to employ what they call the “S-A-C” framework: structure-action-culture. The fundamental idea here is that social processes and the mechanisms of social transformation almost always involve each of the axes of this framework. So it is important to pay attention to the structured environments in which social action takes place; the embodied schemata of action in which actors act and interact; and the elements of culture and value that refract action within contingent structures. This way of framing the social world and its dynamics has the consequence of discouraging reductionist and single-factor accounts of change. Rather, morphogenetic mechanisms are heterogeneous.

A key question for this programme of research is that of the meaning of “morphogenic” society. What precisely is a morphogenic society? The contrast between morphogenesis and morphostasis is a reasonably clear one.  Borrowing from Walter Buckley, Archer defines morphogenesis as “those processes which tend to elaborate or change a system’s given form, structure or state” (1). Analogously, morphostasis can be defined as “those processes which tend to stabilize and recreate a system’s given form, structure or state”. As Archer and many of her collaborators emphasize, both dynamic processes of change and corrective processes of stability require social explanation, and both kinds of processes are underway in virtually any social order. Moreover, it is possible to identify concrete social mechanisms that contribute to both higher-level characteristics: mechanisms that bring about systemic change and mechanisms that tend to reinforce existing structures.

So morphogenesis and morphostasis are reasonably clear as analytical concepts. But what is a morphogenic society? One possible reading is that a morphogenic society is one in which the change-driving (morphogenetic) characteristics of the society are substantially more dominant than the stability-enhancing (morphostatic) characteristics; so a morphogenic society is one that tends to undergo rapid and non-convergent change. Archer doesn’t give a definition of the meaning of this concept in this volume (though the second volume of this series is also primarily focused on the idea of a morphogenic society). But Andrea Maccarini provides a brief and useable definition in her contribution to the current volume.

I will use the word ‘morphogenetic’ to refer to the intrinsic tendency of all human societies to generate and change (social) forms, while I call ‘morphogenic’ the specific societal syndrome characterized by the situational logic of opportunity, stemming from ‘unbound morphogenesis’ (signifying one unfettered from morphostasis) and leading to a wholly novel societal formation. (159)

This definition is consistent with the reading offered here. A morphogenic society is one that is largely characterized by morphogenetic mechanisms with a relative lack of morphostatic mechanisms, with the result that this society experiences large structural change and does not converge upon a subsequent stable (morphostatic) eqilibrium.

What is the medium-term result of a complex system like society which undergoes constant and non-convergent change? This is a critical and difficult question. Once again, Maccarini is the researcher who addresses it most directly:

The issue concerning the social quality of a morphogenic societal formation – the crucial question about what social life will be like if the MS finally becomes our social universe – must remain as uncertain as all statements about the future do. But the practical answer is already unfolding before our eyes. (172)

She hypothesizes a process of social change that leads to heterogeneity and change but also permits of a degree of local stability:

The march toward a societal formation we can call ‘morphogenic’ can be conceived of as a stepwise process, whereby mechanisms produce emergent properties and entities, and these gradually coalesce to generate new ‘environments’, i.e. ‘parts’ or ‘islands’ of society (organizational sectors, inter-institutional complexes, regions, etc.) that are in tune with the morphogenic logic. The scale of such innovations tends to increase, as well as do further links among them, and the eventual outcome would be a whole ‘society’ in which all the main processes finally work according to that logic. The argument I am presenting builds a gradual path to the characterization of a whole societal formation, and could be outlined as follows. (165)

I’m not sure this description is coherent, however, with the idea of a morphogenic society. The problem is that it envisions an eventual equilibrium — a new set of social arrangements that maintain their characteristics over time. These are new “environments … that are in tune with the morphogenic logic.” But this implies a new form of stasis — structural stability over time — and therefore a society that is no longer “morphogenic”. There is a suggestion in Maccarini’s argument that she is aware of this tension, and she highlights the idea that the new emergent formations are not exactly forms of “morphostasis”. Instead, to capture the idea that these new stabilities are contingent and subject to future change she refers to them as enclaves and vortices (167) — temporary and local forms of stability within a larger process of change. Vortices may persist even under environments that embody a great deal of turbulence.

This implies a worldview that is indeed different from both Heraclitean flux (or liquid modernity; link) and Platonic stability — a view of the social world in which persistence is bounded and embedded within larger fields of change. She writes:

Such studies allow us to model morphogenetic / morphostatic cycles, comprising gradual change, catastrophes and sudden collapses, social de-generation and re-generation. In other words, they describe and model the possible ‘rhythm’ of social morphogenesis within particular time spans, characterized by given conditions and structures, in concrete case studies. The pivotal concept of the whole argument is that of turbulence. (167)

These topics just scratch the surface of Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order, and a subsequent post will pick up several other important threads of the research presented here.

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.

A short course in critical causality

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

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

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

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

Here is Roy Wood Sellars’ definition of realism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaidesoja on emergence

Tuukka Kaidesoja’s recent book Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology devotes a chapter to the topic of emergence as it is treated within critical realism. Roy Bhaskar insisted that the assumption of emergence was crucial to the theory of critical realism. Kaidesoja sorts out what Bhaskar means by emergence, which turns out to be ambiguous and inconsistent, and offers his own position on the concept.

Kaidesoja quotes an important passage from Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation) (1986):

It is only if social phenomena are genuinely emergent [. . .] that realist explanations in the human sciences are justified; and it is only if these conditions are satisfied that there is any possibility of human self-emancipation worthy of the name. But, conversely, emergent phenomena require realist explanation and realist explanations possess emancipatory implications. Emancipation depends upon explanation depends upon emergence. Given the phenomena of emergence, an emancipatory politics (or more generally transformative or therapeutic practice) depends upon a realist science. But, if and only if emergence is real, the development of both science and politics are up to us. [quoted by TK, 178]

Kaidesoja invokes a very basic issue about emergence by asking whether a claim of emergence for a given property is a claim about epistemology or about ontology. Is the phenomenon emergent because, given our current state of knowledge it is impossible to derive the property from the properties of the lower level constituents; or do we mean that the property is really (ontologically) independent from the features of the lower level? Kaidesoja makes it clear that Bhaskar and the critical realists have the stronger ontological thesis in mind when they assert that social entities are emergent or have emergent properties. The emergent feature is ontologically irreducible to the composing elements. But it is really unclear what this means.

TK argues that Bhaskar intertwines three different kinds of emergence without clearly distinguishing them: compositional, transcendentally realist, and global-level (179).

  • Compositional emergence: A particular complex whole sometimes has properties that are not properties of any of its parts and not merely “aggregative” effects of the ensemble of parts (179-180).
  • Transcendentally realist emergence: Abstract social structures, as distinct from social particulars, have properties that cannot be derived from the activities of individuals. “Transcendentally real emergent powers of social structures differ from the causal powers of concrete social systems composed of interacting persons” (182).
  • Global-level emergence: Levels of reality (e.g. society, mind, matter) have emergent properties not derivable from the properties of lower levels of reality. “Each emergent level has its own synchronically emergent properties which are autonomous with respect to those of other levels (186).

The three sets of ideas are successively more demanding, and TK finds that they are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, there is a crucial complication: within the compositional version (but not within the other two versions) Bhaskar allows that the emergent factor is amenable to “micro-reductive explanation”. This is essentially the position taken by Herbert Simon (link) and Mario Bunge (link), and  it appears to be consistent with Dave Elder-Vass’s position in The Causal Power of Social Structures (link) as well. It is a reasonable position. The other two versions, by contrast, are explicitly not compatible with micro-reductive explanation, and do not appear reasonable.

In fact, Kaidesoja finds that there are insolvable problems with the “transcendentally realist” and “global-level” versions of the theory of emergence, and he concludes that they are unsupportable. Kaidesoja therefore focuses his attention on the compositional version as the sole version of emergence that can be coherently asserted within critical realism.

Since Bhaskar and his followers deny the possibility of analysing emergent powers of social structures in compositional terms, their notion of transcendentally realist emergent powers of social structures is incompatible with the compositional account of emergent powers. (184)

I further tried to show that the attribution of transcendentally real emergent powers to social structures is problematic, since it leaves the ontological relation between social structures and concrete social systems (composed of interacting people and their artifacts) obscure and/or construes social structures as abstract entities. (187)

This discussion has an important consequence within TK’s naturalizing strategy. It implies that a naturalized critical realism will need to surrender the two more extensive versions of emergence and make do with the compositional form. And that would bring a naturalized critical realism into closer alignment with mainstream thinking about the relation between higher-level and lower-level systems than this framework is usually thought to be.

So the argument TK has constructed in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology does not limit itself to criticizing the scheme of philosophical reasoning that Bhaskar and other CR theorists have pursued, but also extends to some of the substantive conclusions they have sought to derive.

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