Realism and the Human Sciences Conference, Oxford, 24-26 July 1992
Roy Bhaskar’s opening paper indicated concerns which were to
characterise the conference as a whole. He argued that Critical
Realism needs to take on Hegelian concepts to bolster its existing
epistemic mapping of the world. The notion of totality, for
example, could provide a deep structure of non-objectified reality. This sense of a need to rethink was reflected in Manicas’ s
discussion of intersubjectivity as a naturalistic phenomenon, in
Soper’s account of gender, nature and constructivism and in
Hilary Wainwright’s comments on the workers’ movement as an
enduring, sedimented structure within a culture.
Bhaskar’s new preoccupation with non-objectified reality
was echoed in Yilmaz Oner’s paper on ‘virtual’ (possible) realities in particle physics. However, Oner’ s views on real possibility
also incorporated the idea that agency structured particle ontology, thus cutting across the domains of Critical Realism.
Papers by Judit Kiss and Alex Callinicos stressed the nonprogressive character of the developments in East Europe, the
stranglehold still maintained by bureaucratic layers, and the
‘sideways’ character of change. Gregory Elliott defended the
value of labourism in exposing the excesses of capitalism in the
The eclecticism of the conference revealed tensions in the
project of Critical Realism. Participants seemed to be demanding
from it a more ‘naturalised’ social world and a more ‘socialised’
nature than it was prepared to deliver.
Dear Radical Philosophy,
Wal Suchting’s paper ‘Reflections upon Roy Bhaskar’s
“Critical Realism”- (RP 61) makes a number of serious
criticisms of Bhaskar’s philosophy. I shall focus here on one of
them only, though a central one: I feel that it cannot be allowed
to pass without immediate comment, since it attributes to
Bhaskar views that he rejects.
The criticism that I want to take issue with is that Bhaskar’s
philosophy is a new version of foundationalism. Suchting does
not register the fact that Bhaskar repeatedly rejects
foundationalism and argues for such rejection (see, for
example, the postscript to The Possibility of Naturalism).
Granted, it is one thing to reject a position as erroneous,
another to avoid falling into that error oneself. I would argue,
for instance, that Wittgensteinian philosophy, which purports
to be anti-foundationalist, falls into a foundationalist trap by its
assertion that philosophy is not about truth and falsehood but
about sense and nonsense; this lets the old foundationalist
concern with certainty and dubitability in by the back door
(one might call it ‘negative foundationalism’), for that of
which the contradiction is nonsense, appears as indubitable.
However, if I were writing a critique of Wittgensteinian
philosophy I would have to show how this happened despite
the Wittgensteinians’ intentions. To allege foundationalism
without such a reservation strongly insinuates either explicit
commitment to it, or at least unawareness of its dangers.
In fact, Bhaskar’s philosophy does not seek to assign
certainty and dubitability, nor yet sense and nonsense, but
contingent truth and falsehood. Why then does Suchting regard
it as foundationalist? The charge arises out of a discussion of
transcendental arguments, which ask what must be so in order
for some cognitive activity to be possible. For of course Kant
did use such arguments in a foundationalist way, to establish
synthetic a priori truths. So if Bhaskar’s transcendental realism
is just a realist inversion of Kant’ s transcendental idealism,
must not his transcendental arguments do the same? For
anyone familiar with Althusser’s work on Hegel and Marx, this
question gives a sense of deja vu: if Marx’ s dialectic is just a
materialist inversion of Hegel’ s, must not Marx’ s totalities
express their economic essence just as Hegel’ s expressed their
ideal essence? No indeed, they must not, for material totalities
must be structured quite unlike ideal ones. Likewise, once
transcendental arguments are transposed into a realist context,
they become unlike idealist ones. (On the relation of Bhaskar’s
views to Kant’s, see Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism and Human
Emancipation, Chapter One, and also Chapter One of my
forthcoming Critical Realism: an Introduction to Roy
In fact, Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments differ from
Kant’s in at least the following ways:
1. They take as their premises, not knowledge in general, but
specific, historically actualised scientific practices.
2. Their conclusions are about features that the world contingently has, not about features that our minds necessarily
impose on it.
3. Their conclusions are not a priori in the absolute sense,
though they are relatively a priori in that they explain the
possibility of some other knowledge.
4. Since they are not, as Kant’s are, about something that
‘reason produces entirely out of itself’, they are fallible.
5. They are vulnerable to the competition of alternative
transcendental arguments based on the same premises.
While it may be possible to refute all but one extant account
of how something is possible, new accounts may always be
discovered. Hence the conclusions of Bhaskar’s
transcendental arguments share with science a provisional
character. They do not claim (as I take it Kant’s do) to be
Such transcendental arguments are surely not guilty of
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993