Kaidesoja’s naturalistic social ontology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

into the following steps:

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

And here is the naturalistic argument form that Kaidesoja prefers:

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

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

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

A better social ontology


I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions – states, for example, or labor unions. (W. V. O. Quine’s metaphor of the bushes shaped to look like elephants comes to mind here; Word and Object.)

So the rule for the social world is – heterogeneity, contingency, and plasticity. And the metaphysics associated with classical thinking about the natural world – laws of nature, common, unchanging structures, and predictable processes of change – do not provide appropriate metaphors for our understandings and expectations of the social world. Nor do they suggest the right kinds of social science theories and constructs.

Instead of naturalism, I suggest an approach to social science theorizing that emphasizes agency, contingency, and plasticity in the makeup of social facts. It recognizes that there is a degree of pattern in social life – but emphasizes that these patterns fall far short of the regularities associated with laws of nature. It emphasizes contingency of social processes and outcomes. It insists upon the importance and legitimacy of eclectic use of social theories: the processes are heterogeneous, and therefore it is appropriate to appeal to different types of social theories as we explain social processes. It emphasizes the importance of path-dependence in social outcomes. It suggests that the most valid scientific statements in the social sciences have to do with the discovery of concrete social-causal mechanisms, through which some types of social outcomes come about.

And finally, this approach highlights what I call “methodological localism”: the view that the foundation of social action and outcome is the local, socially-located and socially constructed individual person. The individual is socially constructed, in that her modes of behavior, thought, and reasoning are created through a specific set of prior social interactions. And her actions are socially situated, in the sense that they are responsive to the institutional setting in which she chooses to act. Purposive individuals, embodied with powers and constraints, pursue their goals in specific institutional settings; and regularities of social outcome often result.

How does this perspective fit with current work in the social sciences? There are several current fields of social research that are particularly well suited to this approach. One is the field of comparative historical sociology, in its use of fairly detailed studies of similar cases in order to identify common causal mechanisms. Kathleen Thelen’s astute studies of different institutions of skill formation in Germany, UK, US, and Japan are an excellent case in point; she asks the twin questions, what causal processes give stability to a set of institutions? And what causal processes lead to a process of transformation in those institutions? The research methods of comparative historical sociology, then, are particularly well suited to the ontology of contingency, plasticity, and causal mechanisms (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan).

Ethnography gives us a different angle on this same ontology. Ethnographers can give us insight into culturally specific mentalities—the “socially constructed individuals”. And they can give concrete analysis of the institutions that both shape individuals and are in turn shaped by them. More generally, qualitative research methods can offer a basis for discovery of some of the features of agency, mentality, and culture within the context of which important social processes take place. A good current example is Leslie Salzinger’s Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, a study of the social construction of femininity in the factories of the maquiladoras. C. K. Lee’s sociology of Chinese factory protests is also a model of a study that combines qualitative and quantitative methods; Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

The new institutionalism is a third theoretical perspective on social analysis and explanation. This approach postulates the causal reality of institutions; it highlights the point that differences across institutions lead to substantial differences in behavior; and it provides a basis for explanations of various social outcomes. The rules of liability governing the predations of cattle in East Africa or Shasta County, California, create very different patterns of behavior in cattle owners and other land owners in the various settings. (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, The New Institutionalism in Sociology; Jean Ensminger, Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.) It is characteristic of the new institutionalism that researchers in this tradition generally avoid reifying large social institutions and look instead at the more proximate and variable institutions within which people live and act.

What kind of social science research and theory corresponds to these assumptions about social ontology? Here are some chief features–

  • They make use of eclectic multiple theories and don’t expect a unified social theory that explains everything
  • They are modest in their expectations about social generalizations
  • They look for causal mechanisms as a basis for social explanation
  • They anticipate heterogeneity and plasticity of social entities
  • They are prepared to use eclectic methodologies — quantitative, comparative, case-study, ethnographic — to discover the mechanisms and mentalities that underlie social change

We need a better sociology for the twenty-first century. If social scientists continue to be captivated by the scientific prestige of positivism and quantitative social science to the exclusion of other perspectives, they will be led to social science research that looks quite different from what would result from a view that emphasizes contingency and causal mechanisms. And if there are strong, engaging, and empirically rigorous examples of other ways of conducting social research that can come into broad exposure in the social sciences—then there is a greater probability of emergence of a genuinely innovative and imaginative approach to the problem of social knowledge.

Social "laws" and causal mechanisms

Are there social regularities? Is there anything like a “law of nature” that governs or describes social phenomena?

My view is that this is a question that needs to be approached very carefully. As a bottom line, I take the view that there are no “social laws” analogous to “laws of nature”, even though there are some mid-level regularities that can be discovered across a variety of kinds of social phenomena. But care is needed because of the constant temptation of naturalism — the idea that the social world should be understood in strong analogy with the natural world. If natural phenomena are governed by laws of nature, then social phenomena should be governed by “laws of society.” But the analogy is false.

Of course there are observable regularities among social phenomena. Urban geographers have noticed a similar mathematical relationship in the size distribution of cities in a wide range of countries. Durkheim noticed similar suicide rates among Catholic countries — rates that differ consistently from those found in Protestant countries. Political economists notice that there is a negative correlation between state spending on social goods and the infant mortality rate. And we could extend the list indefinitely.

But what does this fact demonstrate? Not, I want to argue, that social phenomena are “law-governed”. Instead, it results from two related facts. First, there are social-causal mechanisms; and second, there is some recurrence of common causes across social settings.
Take the mechanism of “collective action failures in the presence of public goods.” Here the heart of the mechanism is the analytical point that rationally self-interested decision-makers will take account of private goods but not public goods; so they will tend to avoid investments in activities that produce public goods. They will tend to become “free riders” or “easy riders.” The social regularity that corresponds to this mechanism is a “soft” generalization — that situations that involve a strong component of collective opportunities for creating public goods will tend to demonstrate low contribution levels from members of affected groups. So public radio fundraising will receive contributions only from a small minority of listeners; boycotts and strikes will be difficult to maintain over time; fishing resources will tend to be over-fished. And in fact, these regularities can be identified in a range of historical and social settings.

However, the “free rider” mechanism is only one of several that affect collective action. There are other social mechanisms that have the effect of enhancing collective action rather than undermining it. For example, the presence of competent organizations makes a big difference in eliciting voluntary contributions to public goods; the fact that many decision-makers appear to be “conditional altruists” rather than “rationally self-interested maximizers” makes a difference; and the fact that people can be mobilized to exercise sanctions against free riders affects the level of contribution to public goods. (If your neighbors complain bitterly about your smoky fireplace, you may be incentivized to purchase a cleaner-burning wood or coal.) The result is that the free-rider mechanism rarely operates by itself — so the expected regularities may be diminished or even extinguished.

What I draw from this is pretty simple. It is that social regularities are “phenomenal” rather than “governing”: they emerge as the result of the workings of common social-causal mechanisms, and social causation is generally conjunctural and contingent. So the regularities that become manifest are weak and exception-laden — and they are descriptive of outcomes rather than expressive of underlying “laws of motion” of social circumstances.

And there is a research heuristic that emerges from this discussion as well. This is the importance of searching out the concrete social-causal mechanisms through which social phenomena take shape. We do a poor job of understanding industrial strikes if we simply collect a thousand instances and perform statistical analysis on the features we’ve measured against the outcome variables. We do a much better job of understanding them if we put together a set of theories about the features of structure and agency through which a strike emerges and through which individuals make decisions about participation. Analysis of the common “agent/structure” factors that are relevant to mobilization will permit us to understand individual instances of mobilization, explain the soft regularities that we discover, and account for the negative instances as well.

A non-naturalistic approach to social science

The most basic error that is conveyed by the naturalist framework into the premises of sociology—the folk epistemology—that was shared by Durkheim, Mill, and Comte, is the assumption that all phenomena are subject to laws; that the relevant laws are abstract and obscure; and that there is an orderly relationship between gross phenomena and a rising level of natural laws that embrace those observable phenomena. The task of scientific study is to discover this rising pyramid of regularities and laws (motions of planets ENCOMPASSED BY elliptical orbits ENCOMPASSED BY gravitational attraction ENCOMPASSING other phenomena such as tides). This model is then used to frame the sociologist’s expectations of the orderliness of sociological observations and regularities. The social world is assumed to be a system of phenomena governed by hidden regularities and causal laws; the task of social science research is to discover these governing regularities and laws. . However, this conception of the world does not fit the domain of the social at all.

We can provide an alternative social ontology—a better grounding for sociological research. The social sciences could have begun with a greater degree of agnosticism about the orderliness of social phenomena. We could have started with the observations that—

  • Social phenomena are created by human beings (deliberately, intentionally, or unknowingly)
  • Human beings behave as a result of their socially constructed beliefs, values, goals, attitudes, modes of reasoning, emotions, …
  • There is a wide range of variation that is visible among social arrangements and institutions, across cultures, across space, and across time (long duration and short duration)
  • Social institutions, organizations, and structures have a degree of observable stability across cohorts and generations of the human beings who make them up
  • There are social causes, and they are ordinary, observable, and mundane. They are variants of the agent-structure nexus.

These initial ontological observations would have led us to some framing expectations about the social and about the likely results of social science inquiry:

  • contingency of social outcomes
  • Variation of social trajectory
  • Plasticity of social institutions
  • Heterogeneity among instances of a “type” of social thing
  • No “laws of motion” for development or modernization

And we might have set several research objectives for the social sciences:

  • To study in some detail how various institutions work in different social settings (empirical, fact-driven observation and analysis)
  • To study human behavior, motivation, and action – again, with sensibility to variation, without the assumption that there is one ultimate human nature or governing mode of behavior.
  • To be as aware of variation and plasticity as we are attentive to the discovery of social regularities
  • To discover and theorize some of the causal mechanisms that can be observed within social processes
  • To identify weak regularities of behavior and institution through observation
  • To theorize these regularities in terms of agent-structure dynamics; aggregation of features of decision-making; unintended consequences. For example, free rider phenomena (economists) and self-regulating commons (common-property resource institutions)

We then might have arrived at a different conception of what a “finished” social science might involve: not a deductive theory with a few high-level generalizations and laws, but rather an “agent-based simulation” that embodies as many of the characteristics and varieties of behavior as possible into the simulation, and then projects different possible scenarios. The ideal might have been “sim-society” rather than deductive-nomological theory.

How does philosophy help guide the sciences?

Philosophy observes the sciences. But it has also played a role in the formation of the sciences. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

The idea here is an elusive one. It is that the founders of the social sciences – perhaps similar to all intellectual or creative founders – possessed framing assumptions, presuppositions, or intuitions about what their eventual product ought to look like. Various ideas capture some of this: presupposition, paradigm, guiding framework, tacit knowledge, or “style”. A style of technology or architecture is a “mindset” that guides the creator into affirming one set of choices and denying another; ruling out certain solutions to a problem while favoring others. And many of these ideas derived from philosophy — for example, empiricism, rationalism, deductivism, atomism, or reductionism.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century founders of the social sciences had a set of intellectual interests that led them to ask questions about the way that society works. They were led to engage in careful, disciplined study of social phenomena. But how to proceed? What should the results look like? What modes of explanation should be pursued? What should they expect to find? None of the founders proceeded with a “blank slate”. Instead, they were guided by specific intellectual hunches and presuppositions about what a scientific treatment of a subject ought to involve. The histories of physics, chemistry, and biology were very well known to the founders, and the chief logical characteristics of the science of these domains were also well understood. The “stylized facts” about what a domain of inquiry is and what a scientific study of a domain involves were fairly specific. It turns out that these facts were misleading in deep and broad ways when applied to the social world. And contemporary sociology continues to bear the imprint of these early presuppositions.

We might be tempted to call these assumptions about domain, method, and theory a “paradigm”, but it is better to think of them as constituting a “proto-paradigm”. “Paradigm” describes a more advanced stage of the formation of a field of knowledge. The framing ideas that guided the founders were less specific; they represented high-level, abstract presuppositions about the nature of science and the nature of any subject matter that is amenable to scientific study and explanation. They constitute a framework of advanced commonsense about the subject matter. We might describe this framework as a “folk philosophy of knowledge” that is to some extent unexamined but that guides the pursuit of knowledge, the form that it takes, and the ways in which it is evaluated.

Given these historical circumstances, naturalism as a “proto-paradigm” for the social sciences is unsurprising—even though it is profoundly misleading. The strongest — really, the only — examples of scientific achievement in the nineteenth century were in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and biology. There was a developed “proto-theory” of nature that was the object of scientific study (the characteristics and metaphysics of law-governed natural phenomena). The natural world was conceived of as a system of law-governed events and processes. And the logical characteristics of natural science theory were reasonably well understood as well: induction, discovery of laws and regularities, explanation through assimilation within a set of natural laws, confirmation.

There is a fundamental problem with this set of “naturalistic” presuppositions: social phenomena are constituted by a fundamentally different ontology. “Agents in structures” are the fundamental “molecules” of social life — and this ontology should not be expected to give rise to strong regularities. Instead, we should expect a substantial amount of heterogeneity and plasticity among social entities and processes, and we should expect contingency and path-dependency in the unfolding of social phenomena.

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