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.

Discussion with Mervyn Hartwig and Dan Little on historical ontology

Mervyn Hartwig is an important exponent of the classic version of Roy Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism. He has contributed a great deal to the interpretation of Bhaskar’s thinking through a number of publications, including The Formation of Critical Realism: A Personal Perspective and Dictionary of Critical Realism, and he is the founding editor of the Journal of Critical RealismHartwig raises a series of criticisms of some of the claims offered in my recent book, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History, and I find these very interesting and revealing. The exchange reproduced here is interesting in its own right, in that it highlights some important disagreements between us about the way that historical ontology ought to be formulated, and it problematizes the status of large entities like capitalism or the French Revolution. Hartwig wants to treat these entities and events realistically, whereas I want to treat them as particular and contingently constituted ensembles. Mervyn, thank you for engaging in this dialogue.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Dan, although you reject transcendental arguments in theory, it would seem you sometimes accept them in practice:

This chapter takes up a specific task: to identify and analyze some of the ontological and conceptual conditions that must be satisfied in order for historical analysis and inquiry to be feasible. (New Contributions to the Philosophy of History 41, my emphasis)

Daniel Chernilo has recently argued, very persuasively I think, that the transcendental is indispensable to modern social theory in practice, if not always in theory. See his The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory: A Quest for Universalism (New York: CUP 2013). But it’s precisely the universal that Daniel Little’s ‘methodological localism’ tends to leave out, in theory.

There’s a review of Chernilo coming up in Journal of Critical Realism.

Notwithstanding my sharp disagreement, I do very much appreciate that this issue is being aired. It is ‘out there’ and should be discussed. I look forward to your next post. Also, I should perhaps say there’s much I can agree with in New Contributions.

Dan Little:

This is very helpful, Mervyn; thank you. You are right that I do myself admire the type of philosophical reasoning that is associated with transcendental arguments, and I use this style of argument in my philosophy of history. I regard it as an exploratory tool that is useful for uncovering the presuppositions of certain kinds of intellectual activities. But of course I don’t regard it as an “infallible” avenue towards discovering truths about history. (My reason for citing Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense is that Strawson takes transcendental arguments into unexpected directions.) But your several comments have made it clear that you believe that “fallibilism” is a deep and essential component of the spirit of critical realism in any case; so in this my approach is perhaps similar to that of critical realism and Bhaskar.

For myself I think it is possible that Bhaskar’s philosophical jargon is part of the problem of interpretation for me; I “hear” many of his stretches of argument as building up a system of philosophical thought. So perhaps I need to dig deeper and find the underlying fallibilism in his thinking.

I’m not sure that methodological localism leaves out the universal so much as the actually existing global.

Mervyn Hartwig:

The charge of infallibilism doesn’t stick, but now you make another one that could also have the effect of discouraging people from reading Bhaskar: he uses “jargon” and is “building up a system of thought”. What’s wrong with systems of thought? Despite claims to the contrary, there are very few neologisms in Bhaskar. He uses words that are already in currency, in rigorously defined ways. What’s wrong with conceptual precision?

The “actually existing global” is currently dominated, I’d say, by the deep structures of capitalism. You say that capitalism doesn’t exist. Like feudalism etc., it’s just a construct, a ‘nominalist grouping’, an ideal type rather than a real one. I don’t find your localism coherent here. Why can structures exist and causally affect people only at a more or less local level? It seems arbitrary to restrict their scope a priori – especially when you yourself claim to avoid “the hazard of a uselessly a priori approach” (New Contributions, p. 4). On a CR account all philosophy can demonstrate is that social totalities are real. Which ones actually exist in the world can only be revealed a posteriori by empirically based research, and a lot of that will tell you that capitalism exists all right and has a global dynamic that is only too real and profoundly affects all of us locals.

Other than that, I find your emphasis on the historically specific, the local and the grassroots important and refreshing.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, my view that “capitalism doesn’t exist” is actually a view about social kinds, not about concrete particular structures. I do believe that high-level social and economic structures exist, though they are embodied through processes that comply with the idea of social action at the level of methodological localism. What I don’t think exists is a “kind” that is “capitalism in general”, essentially similar across 18th century Britain, 19th century Germany, and 20th century Japan. I like the idea of “assemblage” as a way of capturing the reality of higher-level bundles of institutions and structures that constitute “actually existing 21st-century capitalist global economy”. So I think what you are expressing here as “capitalism and its global dynamic” can be equally expressed in terms of the concrete institutions of trade, regulation, population movements, information flows, etc., that in the aggregate make up that big social whole you mean to refer to. I just don’t want to reify the large social structure as a social entity with an essence. Current capitalism is an amalgam of institutions, practices, and structures that shifts over time.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Many thanks for explaining this. I think that wherever you have economic life arranged on the basis of private ownership of the means of production and generalized production for the market, certain deep tendencies are set up, such as the increasing commodification of everything commodifiable, and the generation of power, winning and instrumental rationality as supreme values; and so I think capitalism is a social kind in the sense you mention. Deep structural continuity is perfectly compatible with far-reaching change and regional differentiation. But this view stems from empirically based research programmes rather than philosophy as such. My essential point is that, although you started out with a complaint about Bhaskar’s apriorism, when it comes to specifying which structured social wholes there are in the world you are more apriorist than Bhaskar because you rule out the existence of wholes that are kinds a priori, whereas he thinks that only empirically based research can settle the matter.

It’s not clear to me whether the (current) capitalism that you do allow to exist – as an amalgam, bundle, agglommerate or assemblage – exerts, at the level of the whole, constraining and enabling power on people. If it doesn’t, it actually doesn’t exist on a causal criterion and we’re back with a nominalistic grouping and the problem of arbitrariness: explaining why it is that structures, although real at other levels, can’t be real at the level of the global.

Dan Little:

Thanks for your thoughts about this. Interesting turn of events — I’m more aprioristic that Roy Bhaskar!

I think my view that there is no “social kind” of capitalism or liberal democratic state is in fact an empirically based view, not the result of an apriori argument. I think we can observe the causally important differences that exist between the various “capitalisms” I mentioned and we can identify the differences in historical and agentic change that they stimulate; so we can observe that there is a lot of variation within the nominalistic category “capitalism.”

As for whether the large structures that constitute big social realities like the world trading system or capitalism have causal powers — on my view, they do; and part of the task of sociology is to show how these work through what kinds of pathways to influence actors in various nodes of the system. That’s the purpose of my notion of methodological localism — it is an important task of social science to work out those causal pathways through which causation influences the actors.

Mervyn Hartwig:

You also say that large-scale events such as the French Revolution weren’t real/didn’t happen, they’re an intellectual construction of historians. I’d say that that the French Revolution happened qua large-scale event is a pretty well attested finding of the historical sciences. As you know, some empirically based work agrees with you that it’s a construction, quite a bit doesn’t. From a CR perspective, the made-by-historians view is very Kantian, involuting the real structured processes of history at the level of the large-scale inside the heads of historians. It collapses the distinction at this level between epistemology (TD) and ontology (ID). I think this view is less empirically based than driven by methodological localism, underpinned by an implicit (postmodernist rather than realist) ontological localism that proclaims that events cannot occur at the level of the large-scale and that large-scale strutures have a very tenuous existence, and social kinds none, so they must be human constructs. That is what I mean by apriorism. It has its source I think in an implicit underlying philosophical ontology.

I agree with William Sewell Jr. (Logics of History, Ch. 8) that the French Revolution was a ‘transformational event’ (ID), a very significant and large-scale one because it transformed, rather than reproduced, key structures of the old order. (Of course, I should probably say ‘is’ to leave open the possibility that the Revolution is still going on).

Doubtless we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m writing an introduction to The Possibility of Naturalism at the moment and have found the discussion particularly useful in conveying a sense of the kinds of issue (out of the many possible) I should comment on.

Dan Little:

I am very pleased to have your feedback. It demonstrates to me the value of having serious exchange with people about big ideas — there is a lot to discuss on each of the points you’ve raised. This is true of your comment about large-scale events like the French Revolution. SOMETHING happened in the eighth decade of the eighteenth century; and I don’t have a problem with calling that complex, geographically and temporally extended set of events a “revolution”. But I do have a caution about reifying these multivaried events into a “kind” — a social revolution. This leads us to want to say a number of erroneous things — that this mega-event was unified; had typical causal characteristics (upstream and downstream); had a role in history that can be accommodated to Marxism or Hegelianism or liberalism. And yet I don’t think any of these impulses is a good one, from a comparative historical sociology point of view. Better is to look at the French Revolution (or the Chinese or the Russian or the Iranian) as a mixture of different confluences, motives, organizations, contingencies, groups, and meanings that don’t add up to a simple “entity”. And this is a point of view that isn’t unique to me; it is the view that Tilly, McAdam, and Tarrow take in Dynamics of Contention, that Simon Schama takes in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and lots of others I could mention. I do see the relevance of this topic (and your parallel question about my doubt that capitalism exists as a transhistorical, transcontextual phenomenon) to critical realism. It is certainly an ontological position — one that I refer to as the unavoidable contingency, compositionality, and heterogeneity of complex social phenomena like structures, classes, or revolutions. I also draw an ontological maxim from these points — one that stands as a heuristic rather than a firm metaphysical finding: that we are better off looking to the heterogeneity and contingency of large phenomena, and better off looking for the complicated ways in which these singular events and structures are composed at various points in time.

Do you think anything important turns on the question of whether we look at the Revolution as one large event or a composition of a number of sub-processes and uprisings? Sewell is one of the people who demonstrated, after all, that the Revolution had different characteristics in Marseilles than Paris; and Tilly who demonstrated that the political dynamics in the Vendee were very different from those in Ile de France! It would appear to me that anything that can be said about the Revolution writ large can also be said about the somewhat separate processes that unfolded in the Vendee, Burgundy, and Marseilles, and that interacted and aggregated in often surprising ways.

And, by the way, I don’t look at either of the views you question (“capitalism is a construct”, “the French Revolution is a construct”) as being anti-realistic. I am perfectly realist about the various dynamics of contention that were involved in the two decades leading up to the sometimes bizarre events of 1789; perfectly realist about the structures of fiscal limitation that forced crisis on the French monarchy; perfectly realist about the long structures of trade between England and India that constituted some of the sinews of the “modern world system”; and perfectly realist about the socio-economic realities that created the Manchester that Engels analyzed and described so well; etc. A realist of any stripe — critical or scientific or historical — needs to be discriminating about what gets included in the ontology. I might include water droplets but not clouds, and I might have excellent reasons for thinking that clouds lack the persistence of traits that is needed for an object to count as such. That doesn’t mean I’m not a realist, does it?

Mervyn Hartwig:

OK, but now you’re speaking as a historical sociologist rather than a philosopher. My main concern here has been to defend Bhaskar the philosopher against a charge of infallibilism and excessive a priorism, because I think he’s a really important thinker and I’m in the business of encouraging people to read and engage him. He makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. It doesn’t tell them what their more concrete ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies can and cannot be. So sociology is mainly concerned with internally related and irreducible social practices, but nothing is said about specific practices (other than to illustrate a point), which are explanatorily the most important, etc. And it doesn’t say whether these constitute social kinds, only that kinds can’t be ruled out a priori – it’s down to social science to reveal any social kinds there may be in the world.

When you say the French Revolution isn’t a kind or real type, I guess you’re speaking as a sociologist or philosophically minded sociologist, and it’s fine to make that argument. A key difference between you and Bhaskar may be that you don’t distinguish clearly between philosophical and scientific ontologies. I think you say in your philosophy of history book that you’re operating as a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences. I’m sure much useful work can be done there, but it seems to me to run the risk of dissolving philosophy into science and leaving the business of critiquing bad science exclusively to science itself. For Bhaskar, philosophy is relatively autonomous from science, and may fallibly discover conditional synthetic a priori truths – but only relatively autonomous, because if over the longer run its discoveries were not borne out by science, it would have to look again at the arguments.

I’m not wanting to say you’re anti-realist or not a realist, only that you’re not a realist about some things. I’m not a realist about unicorns (other than at the level of discourse), you’re not a realist about social kinds and types. I do think that methodological localism has probably been significantly influenced by postmodernism with it’s emphasis on difference etc., and that’s fine and healthy, but it does seem to bias you towards scepticism about the reality of higher-level social entities and processes. These are real for you in some sense (though you do urge a nominalist approach), but it seems to me that your larger social whole always reduces causally to its ‘component’ parts – the whole is in effect nothing more than the sum – or you come very close to such a position. I think the whole question of social kinds is an open one and I don’t think your arguments against their possibility stack up – they’ve not derived from a consensus in the social sciences and the only more philosophical argument I can detect is that human agency necessarily brings change. True, but we know from history that this is quite consistent with the stability of social structures over long periods – there’s change, but it may be only very slow.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, thanks!

I think you have expressed very clearly the feature of Bhaskar’s method that Cruickshank and Kaidesoja are most concerned about:

“[Bhaskar] makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. “

And you correctly note that my own efforts at historical ontology reject this distinction between philosophical and scientific ontology. Instead, I want to engage in ontological discovery within the intellectual space of the social and historical sciences — to be “a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences,” not a philosopher outside the domain of scientific thinking altogether. The critique we have been discussing expresses doubts that there is a substantive field of ontological discovery outside of the domain of scientific reasoning and fully within the field of philosophical theorizing; or in other words this critique would reject the rigorous distinction to which you refer.

So critical realism naturalized (as Kaidesoja advocates) would eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR while preserving many (all) of the ontological conclusions; but it appears that you (and Bhaskar) are opposed to that strategy. This also makes me think that Bhaskar’s original phrase, “transcendental realism”, perhaps better described the theory than “critical realism” does. And the version of realism that I would associate myself with is best described as “scientific realism.”

Again, thanks so much for spending the effort to think these issues through together with me.

Mervyn Hartwig:
Well, many thanks to you too Dan. It has really helped to clarify some key issues, I think.

You now introduce Tuukka Kaidesoja as an interlocutor of Bhaskar. I think his book has several Achilles’ heels. First, the very science with which he casts his lot deploys transcendental reasoning centrally (as do you), so how can he reject transcendental arguments without rejecting science? His position that science proceeds entirely a posteriori is false – an empiricist illusion. And if you accept the conclusions…

Replies by Elder-Vass and Hartwig to Cruickshank/Little

Two leading exponents of critical realism, Dave Elder-Vass (The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency) and Mervyn Hartwig (Dictionary of Critical Realism), have offered critical replies to my post presenting some of Justin Cruickshank’s criticisms of CR and indirectly to my own post on “Bhaskar’s Core Ideas.” I have invited them to amend and extend their comments and to publish them here to facilitate a coherent reading and continuing discussion. Ruth Groff also replied, and her comments can be read hereThank you, Dave, Mervyn, and Ruth, for contributing to this discussion! 

Replies to Cruickshank/Little on critical realism

From Dave Elder-Vass:

Cruickshank’s argument might have some merit if it was true that Bhaskar is committed to an a priori understanding of metaphysics and denies the possibility that his transcendental arguments could possibly be wrong. But it just isn’t so, and Cruickshank willfully ignores statements that make this clear. Perhaps the clearest I’m aware of is this: “It is important to remember that all cognitive claims, including claims to knowledge of necessities in any mode (whether logical, mathematical, transcendental, conceptual, natural, conventional, psychological, historical, etc.) are fallible; and that discourse, and perhaps especially philosophical discourse… is typically dialogical or conversational in structure” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 15).

And this isn’t an isolated quote, by the way: Bhaskar is thoroughly committed to the fallibility of all knowledge claims and even cites ‘epistemological relativism’ as one of the three cornerstones of critical realism (though ‘epistemological fallibilism’ might describe his position more accurately).

This interpretation might seem to be undermined by one of the quotes from Bhaskar included by Daniel in his earlier post. Bhaskar does say “It is not necessary that science occurs. But given that it does, it is necessary that the world is a certain way”. But I think we have to be careful about what it is that he is ascribing necessity to here. What is necessary is that IF science occurs THEN the world must be such that science is possible and/or intelligible. This seems uncontroversial. But Cruickshank seems to read him as saying that IF science occurs THEN Bhaskar’s own specific account of what is entailed by science must be true — in other words, that the world consists of things with powers arising from mechanisms. Bhaskar certainly asserts that the world does consist of such things, but he does not assert that this is necessarily the case, or even that it necessarily follows from the existence of science. There is scope for error in claims about the specific features of the world that make science possible, and it is quite clear from Bhaskar’s other statements that he accepts this.

From Mervyn Hartwig:

I agree. It’s Cruickshank who makes dogmatic and quite false claims about Bhaskar not regarding his philosophical ontology as fallible. Bhaskar does of course make a priori arguments, but they’re a conditional and relative, situated to a particular historical context. The reasoning could be faulty, the premises might change, or they can be disputed, so the conclusions are revisable and historically relative.

From Dan Little:

Hi, Dave, and greetings, Mervyn, thanks for your comments. This is all worth discussing carefully!
Dave quotes a relevant passage from RTS (cited in my earlier post):

“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.”

Do you feel that this is not in fact representative of RB’s philosophical reasoning?

Mervyn Hartwig:

The quote Daniel gives is a bald summary of the transcendental realist position. If you read the detail you will find that ‘established’ means ‘corrigibly’, ‘conditionally’, ‘relatively’, ‘provisionally’ etc. The conclusion of a transcendental argument follows with logical necessity from the major and minor premises (hence ‘must’), but only if the premises are sound! The analysis establishing the major premises could  be faulty and the minor premise might be disputed or change. Here is a quote from The Possibility of Naturalism that runs completely counter to Cruickshank’s (and Daniel’s) attempt to assimilate Bhaskar’s position to that of old-style metaphysics:

“According to [transcendental realism], there is no connection between (a) what lies beyond sense‑experience and (b) some special sphere of philosophy. For at least once a non‑reductionist account of science is accepted then some ‘transcendent’ entities, such as magnetic fields, may quite properly be regarded as objects of scientific investigation. But their ‘transcendence’ is a contingent fact about the world, and philosophy speaks with no special authority about it. The familiar conflation of (a) and (b) in a unitary concept of metaphysics must be assiduously avoided. It has proved a prop for a positivism that has systematically scouted the cognitive potential of both philosophy and science. Secondly, by making the possibility of philosophical discourse contingent upon the actuality of particular social practices it provides … a way of reconciling transcendental and sociological analyses of social activities such as science ‑ and philosophy”. (p. 7)

There are many passages to similar effect throughout Bhaskar’s oeuvre.

There is nothing wrong with conditional and relative transcendental arguments! Science itself uses them, or a retroductive-analogical procedure that belongs to the same family, centrally. What must be the case to render these and these well attested results intelligible, e.g. Darwin.

Dustin McWherter, The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar Contra Kant, has recently made a very good effort at defending a reconstructed version of Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism in RTS. He stresses its historical and provisional nature. He doesn’t even mention Cruickshank, quite rightly too: as Dave implies, Cruickshank’s ‘critique’ either willfully misrepresents Bhaskar or is ignorant.

A transcendental argument, on Bhaskar’s account (RTS 257), has the following logical form:

  • Major premise: Only if Q, then P
  • Minor premise: P
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Q

Here is McWherter’s reconstruction of the basic form of the argument from experimental activity in RTS (The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar Contra Kant, 115).

  • Major premise(s): Only if extra-experimental reality is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), and causal laws are the transcendentally real tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), then experimental activity is intelligible (P)
  • Minor premise: Experimental activity is intelligible (P)
  • Conclusion(s): Therefore, extra-experimental reality is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), and causal laws are the transcendentally real tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3)

My main points are that (1) the argument is contextual and polemical – directed against a specific philosophical theory, the Humean account of a causal law, that it seeks to replace. It seeks to demonstrate that it offers, not the only possible theory consistent with (P), but ‘the only theory at present known to us’ that is consistent with it (RTS 260).  It anticipates its own supersession in due course. (2) The conclusions only follow if the minor premise is acceptable and accepted by Bhaskar’s interlocutors. (3) Both experimental activity and our understanding of it may change. Indeed, experimental science may cease to exist. Philosophy is in history, and critical realist philosophy is not a traditional philosophy. In sum, the argument is geo-historically relative and conditional.

Building on McWherter, the main argument of PON, the founding philosophical text of critical realist social theory and social science, establishing the possibility of a non-positivist naturalism may be reconstructed as follows. The same kind of considerations apply.

  • Major premises: Only if the world, including the social world, is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), causal laws are the transcendentally real powers or tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), society is a structure or ensemble of powers irreducible to people (Q4) and people’s intentionality  is irreducible and causally efficacious (mind is an emergent power of matter and reasons when acted on are causes) (Q5), then human intentional activity is intelligible (P)
  • Minor premise: Human intentional activity is intelligible (P)
  • Conclusion(s): Therefore, the world, including the social world, is an open system (Q1), causal laws are not constant conjunctions of events (Q2), causal laws are the transcendentally real powers or tendencies of generative mechanisms (Q3), society is a structure or ensemble of powers irreducible to people (Q4) and people’s intentionality is irreducible and causally efficacious (mind is an emergent power of matter and reasons when acted on are causes) (Q5)

Dan Little:

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

I believe that both E-V and Hartwig concede that there are important passages in Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science that give an impression of aprioricity and infallibility in Bhaskar (for example, the passage I quote above), but they maintain that a fuller reading of Bhaskar’s texts demonstrates that these passages should not be taken at face value. This introductory statement is a “bald” statement, in Hartwig’s word. Both E-V and Hartwig assert that other formulations in Bhaskar’s corpus serve to amend the “bald” statement and make clear that Bhaskar’s final opinion on method is not dogmatic, aprioristic, or infallibilist. And they also assert that later versions of Bhaskar’s theories demonstrate these non-dogmatic features of philosophical method as well. So to make out the claim that Bhaskar’s method is philosophical, apriori, and prone to asserting the necessity of the conclusions reached, we are obliged to consider all of Bhaskar’s comments about method, not just his summary comments, and consider them throughout the fullness of his development of the theory, not just in RTS.

This seems to concede the point that it is not wholly unreasonable to observe that Bhaskar does sometimes assert the features of certainty that Cruickshank attributes to him. The remaining question is whether that adequately represents his mature and complete view, and these critics are adamant that it does not.

Dave and Mervyn make a number of very important points here, and I expect to respond in greater detail in an upcoming post. Thanks to both of them for helping to push this inquiry forward!

Is ontology an apriori field of knowledge?


The critical realists — Roy Bhaskar in particular — attach a great deal of importance to the question of ontology. A theory of ontology should describe the kinds of things, relations, and forces that exist in a realm. So the pre-Socratic philosophers were engaging in ontological theorizing when they asked the question, what does matter consist of — atoms or a plenum?

The question I am raising here is one of philosophical methodology: what kind of epistemic basis is available for formulating and defending a theory of ontology? How can we claim to know various truths about the nature of reality?

There seem to be three possibilities.

  • Apriori philosophical argument: derive conclusions about the necessary structure of the world from apriori philosophical principles. This is traditional metaphysics, and few philosophers would advocate for it today. (foundationalist theory)
  • Transcendental philosophical argument: arrive at conclusions about what the world must consist of, in order to make sense of our cognitive abilities. This is Kantian metaphysics, which attempts to do without foundational assumptions and to derive conclusions from the prerequisites of epistemic achievements we are known to have. (internalist theory)
  • Generalized empirical theorizing: all substantive representations of the world are hypothetical, justified by the contribution they make to our ability to formulate good, empirically supported scientific theories. This is the approach taken by naturalistic philosophers, who maintain that there are no apriori truths and the only vehicle we have for discovering the nature of the world is through scientific imagination and observation. (coherence theory)

Ontology appears to be about the world; but equally it might be considered to be about a set of particularly fundamental concepts and conceptual structures.  The question, “What does the world consist of?” can also be presented as the question, “What concepts serve best to represent the hypothetical structure of the world underlying observations?” Concepts are the intellectual tools or schemes through which we analyze the world; and if they refer to unobservable entities, they are unavoidably hypothetical constructs. As “knowing beings”, it has been necessary for human beings to use their imaginations to come up with concepts in terms of which to analyze the world. Some conceptual systems are defective because they lead to expectations about the world that are not born out; other systems are more complex than necessary; yet others postulate entities or processes that we may have reason to want to avoid: magical forces, divine intervention, action-at-a-distance. And when we arrive at a conceptual scheme that appears to serve well as a durable basis for a range of scientific theories, we may want to conclude that the world actually has the properties attributed to it by the scheme.

Nelson Goodman takes a fairly radical view on this question in Ways of Worldmaking. He takes the example of two apparently inconsistent statements about the world: “The sun always moves” and “The sun never moves.” And he points out that the statements must be framed within one or another frame of reference; they are not absolutely true or false, but rather true or false with respect to a frame.

Frames of reference, though, belong less to what is described than to systems of description; and each of the two statements relates what is described to such a system. If I ask about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds. (58)

Here is the conclusion that Goodman reaches that is most relevant to the topic of realism:

Many different world-versions are of independent interest and importance, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base. The pluralist, far from being anti-scientific, accepts the sciences at full value. His typical adversary is the monopolistic materialist or physicalist who maintains that one system, physics, is preeminent and all-inclusive, such that every other version must eventually be reduced to it or rejected as false or meaningless. If all right versions could somehow be reduced to one and only one, that one might with some semblance of plausibility be regarded as the only truth about the only world. But the evidence for such reducibility is negligible, and even the claim is nebulous since physics itself is fragmentary and unstable and the kind and consequences of reduction envisaged are vague. (59-60)

The philosophical position I am invoking here is also a key part of W.V.O. Quine’s approach to empirical knowledge in Word and Object. His phrase, the “web of belief”, captures the idea well. All real knowledge falls within that web, and it is held together only by observation (when statements have implications for outcomes that can be observed) and logic. The premises of quantum mechanics are some distance from the observational and experimental sentences that can be examined in the lab; and the premises of metaphysical theory are even more distant. But they are all dependent on the same kinds of requirements: simplicity, coherence, and (when possible), empirical observation. Quine referred to “Neurath’s boat” as a way of describing the state of our knowledge of the world — from the observable properties of coal to the fundamentals of time and space:

Neurath has likened science to a boat which, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat. If we improve our understanding of ordinary talk of physical things, it will not be by reducing that talk to a more familiar idiom; there is none. It will be by clarifying the connections, causal or otherwise, between ordinary talk of physical things and various further matters which in turn we grasp with help of ordinary talk of physical things. (3)

Analyze theory-building how we will, we all must start in the middle. Our conceptual firsts are middle-sized, middle-distanced objects, and our introduction to them and to everything comes midway in the cultural evolution of the race…. We cannot strip away the conceptual trappings sentence by sentence and leave a description of the objective world; but we can investigate the world, and man as a part of it, and thus find out what cues he could have of what goes on around him. (4-5)

(Quine’s participation in the Boolos panel above is a very good exposure to some of his thinking about meaning and concepts.)

It is perhaps surprising to invoke Goodman and Quine in the context of reflections on critical realism, since their philosophies are anti-realistic (or at least agnostic between realism and anti-realism), and the logical-positivist background of much their thinking is anathema to the critical realists. Moreover, both lend support to a certain kind of conceptual relativism: Quine through his arguments about the indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity (Ontological Relativity), and Goodman through his view of “many worlds” in Ways of Worldmaking. This perspective doesn’t necessarily commit one to anti-realism; in fact, Hilary Putnam’s effort to create a defensible formulation of “internal realism” indicates one possible direction of argument towards realism from these premises. (Maria Baghramian’s discussion in “From Realism Back to Realism” of Putnam’s various positions on realism is very good; link.) But it is difficult to see how one could arrive at a strong philosophical realism within these epistemic constraints.

However, if these arguments on the limits of metaphysical reasoning are valid, then we need to acknowledge these limits and move forward. Fundamentally, the core of their position seems unassailable: there is no epistemic foundation possible outside the loose constraints of empirical observation and logic that can justify a set of beliefs about the fundamental structure of the world. There is no secret recipe for arriving at metaphysical knowledge through purely philosophical pathways.

The statement of realism in which I have the greatest confidence is this: we are justified in acknowledging the reality in the world of the things, processes, structures, and forces that are postulated or implied by the best scientific theories we have to date. And we acknowledge that these beliefs, like all scientific and empirical beliefs, are fallible and correctable.

(An upcoming post will discuss Tuukka Kaidesoja’s very interesting critique of critical realism and his advocacy of “naturalized critical realism” in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology.)

Cruickshank’s central critique


Justin Cruickshank is a friendly critic to critical realism, not a hostile one. He criticizes the philosophical method but supports many of the substantive conclusions about realism. (Here is a prior post on the gist of Cruickshank’s criticisms.) Cruickshank provides a useful analysis of critical realism and its anti-matter double, social constructivism, in “Positive and Negative,” a working paper at the International Migration Institute in 2011 (link).

It seems that Cruickshank’s most basic concern in “Positive and Negative” is that CR posits a particular ontology as the unique precondition of all science (a move familiar from transcendental metaphysics), and that philosophical reasoning can tell us what that ontology involves. So Bhaskar places excessive reliance on an apriori method of philosophical reasoning in constructing his metaphysical ideas. By contrast, in “Positive and Negative” Cruickshank favors a more malleable and fallibilist stance on ontology.  Here is one fairly clear statement of his view of the central shortcoming of CR:

Finally it is suggested that the correct way to construe the post-positivist problem-situation is to focus on the fallibility of knowledge, as critical realism does and, unlike critical realism, argue that fallible knowledge claims should be revised and replaced through criticism, with the focus being on theories’ ability to solve explanatory problems rather than their adherence to a set of ontological assumptions that are posited as the condition of possibility of the social sciences. (4)

What is implied here is the view that all knowledge — both ordinary scientific knowledge and ontological knowledge — is fallible and revisable. This means that ontology should not be treated as part of a priori philosophy but rather as the more abstract end of the spectrum of scientific theorizing about the world. Bhaskar errs, then, in asserting that ontological knowledge is different in kind from ordinary scientific knowledge; it is transcendental knowledge — knowledge based on rigorous analysis of the necessary preconditions of ordinary scientific knowledge.

This is a serious criticism of the method that Bhaskar uses in developing his theory of critical realism; but it does not imply disagreement with the key substantive conclusions of Bhaskar’s developed theory. Cruickshank remains a realist, and leaves it open that we can coherently maintain the key substantive ideas of critical realism: Ontology is important, bad assumptions about ontology can lead to bad scientific theory, and we can indeed regard the statements of an ontological theory as being referential to the “real” structure of the world. (In Bhaskar’s terminology, we can look at ontology as being and account of non-transitive knowledge.) Here is the brief summary that Cruickshank offers in his introduction to CRITICAL REALISM: THE DIFFERENCE THAT IT MAKES:

Critical realism is realist because it holds, contra postmodernism and social constructionism, that research is about gaining knowledge of a reality that exists independently of our representations of it…. Critical realism is critical, as regards methodology, because it holds that the concepts which inform the meta-theory that defines structure and agency can only be developed via a critical dialogue with alternative social ontologies. (kl 568)

Cruickshank situates critical realism and its opposite, social constructivism, in terms of their different efforts to reject “positivism”. So positivism is the foil against which critical realism is unfolded. (Ruth Groff makes a slightly different choice in her choice of Humean causation theory is the foil. Humeanism and positivism have various similarities, but they are not identical doctrines.) According to Cruickshank, Bhaskar rejects positivism for several reasons; but its commitment to the idea of unified deductive theories underlying the full range of empirical observations is at the top of the list. He characterizes this approach to the relation of science to the world as one involving a “closed systems ontology” (7); whereas he believes an ontology that looks at the world as a “stratified open system” is preferable. The “stratified” part of the concept refers to the idea that causal mechanisms are “emergent” from the lower-level things of which they are composed; and the “open” part of the concept refers to the idea that there are substantial dimensions of contingency involved in any complicated social process. “The ontology [of a stratified open system] is held to be one of open systems because the underlying causal laws interact in contingent ways to produce change at the level of observable events” (7).

Cruickshank believes that this distinction between open and closed systems leads eventually to Margaret Archer’s concept of “morphogenesis” (8); link.

JC also offers an answer to a question posed in an earlier post: what is “critical” about critical realism (link)? Here is the heart of his answer:

For those critical realists who regard critical realism as a form of neo-Marxism, the task of social science is not just that of explaining how structures and agents interact but also that of criticism (see Bhaskar 1998 and Collier 1998). Their argument runs thus. Any scientific account of how the capitalist structure works will show how it is oppressive and exploitative. It will also show how this structure needs to generate ideological beliefs to mask its nefarious character. Ideological beliefs here are defined as beliefs which are not only false but caused by a structural need for obfuscation and which serve the interests of the capitalist class by obfuscating oppression and inequality.  (10)

So “critical” here has two meanings: exposing of undesirable characteristics of some social entities and exposing how certain formulations of ordinary belief have the effect of concealing those characteristics.

(Incidentally, Cruickshank explains one of Bhaskar’s most basic ideas, the notion of an “intransitive domain of reality”, in terms that suggest the terminology itself is misleading. Theory is transitive because “fallible theories are open to change” (8). This sounds like a definition of “transitory” or “changing” rather than “transitive” (“allowing inference from one proposition to another: if A is longer than B and B is longer than C then A is longer than C”). Here is the place where Bhaskar introduces the distinction in A Realist Theory of Science:

Any adequate philosophy of science must find a way of grappling with this central paradox of science: that men in their social activity produce knowledge which is a social product much like any other, which is no more independent of its production and the men who produce it than motor cars, armchairs or books, which has its own craftsmen, technicians, publicists, standards and skills and which is no less subject to change than any other commodity. This is one side of ‘knowledge’. The other is that knowledge is ‘of’ things which are not produced by men at all: the specific gravity of mercury, the process of electrolysis, the mechanism of light propagation. None of these ‘objects of knowledge’ depend upon human activity. If men ceased to exist sound would continue to travel and heavy bodies fall to the earth in exactly the same way, though ex hypothesi there would be no-one to know it. Let us call these, in an unavoidable technical neologism, the intransitive objects of knowledge. The transitive objects of knowledge are Aristotelian material causes. They are the raw materials of science—the artificial objects fashioned into items of knowledge by the science of the day. They include the antecedently established facts and theories, paradigms and models, methods and techniques of inquiry available to a particular scientific school or worker. The material cause, in this sense, of Darwin’s theory of natural selection consisted of the ingredients out of which he fashioned his theory. Among these were the facts of natural variation, the theory of domestic selection and Malthus’ theory of population. Darwin worked these into a knowledge of a process, too slow and complex to be perceived, which had been going on for millions of years before him. But he could not, at least if his theory is correct, have produced the process he described, the intransitive object of the knowledge he had produced: the mechanism of natural selection…. In short, the intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. (Kindle Locations 749-764) (italics mine)

It would appear that Cruickshank’s interpretation is consistent with these remarks by Bhaskar.)

Cruickshank also edited a useful volume, CRITICAL REALISM: THE DIFFERENCE THAT IT MAKES, to which he contributed a useful introduction and an applied article, “Underlabouring and unemployment: Notes for developing a critical realist approach to the agency of the chronically unemployed”. Another very useful collection edited by Margaret Archer, Roy Bhaskar, Andrew Collier, Tony Lawson, and Alan Norrie, Critical Realism: Essential Readings (1998), provides an excellent selection of readings on critical realism.


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