Thursday, December 19, 2013

Response by Mervyn Hartwig to Little on critical realism

 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 Realism. These comments are in response to my post responding to him, Elder-Vass, and Groff. Mervyn, thank you for engaging in this dialogue.


(1)   You’ve moved the goal posts re infallibilism, which as normally understood admits of no degree. You now speak of Bhaskar as only “very confident” etc. about his philosophical conclusions. But so are you, at least sometimes. I take this as an admission that the charge of infallibilism is quite inappropriate. If Bhaskar sometimes speaks of the conclusions of his transcendental arguments as apodictic, that’s because they do actually follow with logical necessity from the premises – if the premises are accepted, if they don’t change etc. (as you say).

(2)   You misconstrue the intent of Bhaskar’s arguments. Thus the passage you cite from RTS does not purport to “establish the necessity of the anti-Humean position” but the impossibility of the Humean one on its own criteria, i.e. immanently.

(3)   The same consideration applies to what you say about the difficulty of providing a uniqueness proof. PON and the Postscript to RTS explicitly face up to this challenge, i.e. that “there is no way of demonstrating the uniqueness of [the major premises] in advance of every conceivable philosophical theory about [the minor premise]” (PON 6). Bhaskar’s happy to concede this, because he’s not trying to demonstrate that the arguments afford the only possible theory consistent with the minor premise, but “the only theory at present kown to us” (RTS 260) that is consistent with it.

(4)   Little: “nothing in RTS makes me think that Bhaskar believes this particular form of corrigibility” [i.e. that his whole theory may be in error]

RTS: “the transcendental consideration is not deployed in a philosophical vacuum: it is designed to replace or situate an existing theory; and may come, in time, to suffer a similar fate.” (p. 260)

Bhaskar’s pretty confident he’s got the best available theory, just as you yourself are pretty confident that scientific realism without the transcendental is the way to go -- but to hold that it may one day be replaced falls rather short of infallibilism! Of course his sequence of inferences can be questioned, yours too; the debate goes on:

"although every philosophical discussion must take some specific social form (a scientific practice, philosophical theory, cultural tradition, etc.) for its topic, there is no particular topic, at which philosophy, so to speak, stops. And because there is no topic immune from the possibility of further philosophical analysis, this convers-contestation is in principle an open-ended one. Philosophical argumentation thus assumes the logical aspect of an endlessly recursive unbounded step-function, such that, as new premises (forms of social practice) arise, new modes of philosophical reflection become possible (and necessary); at the same time it acquires the historical meaning of a particular conjunctural intervention. This rooted recursivity which organises it, combines and unites, in binomial form, dialogue and self-reflection, reflexivity and critique." (SRHE 13-14)

(5)   Little: “Does Bhaskar attribute rational credibility to philosophical arguments in arriving at substantive claims about the world? Unmistakably he does”.

PON: “It is important to stress that the upshot of the analyses of Chapters 2 and 3 [re human society and agency, respectively] will not be a substantive sociology and psychology, but formal or a priori conditions for them.”

As Bhaskar goes on to suggest, these a priori conditions may prove to be “practically indispensable conditions” for (emancipatory) social science – a view that Daniel Chernilo’s recent book strongly supports. (You should invite Daniel on, or Dustin McWherter if you’d prefer a philosopher who knows his Kant and Bhaskar, or Jamie Morgan if you want a polymath familiar with Tuuka’s position on Bhaskar’s transendental arguments; it would even up the guest list of mainstream vs transcendental scientific realists too). But this point of Bhaskar’s is a suggestion, not an apodictic conclusion, and it’s up to social scientists to discover whether the transcendental is practically indispensable to their substantive work. (The situation is more complex in DCR but we haven’t gone there).

(6)   You cite with apparent approval Goodman, Quine and Kaidesoja to the effect that “ultimately there is only one kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge at various levels of abstraction”. What hubris! This rules out (how?) not only philosophy but art, love and politics (to name the other three of Badiou’s ‘truth conditions’, which correspond to Bhaskar’s MELD).

(7)   You keep implying that Bhaskar believes that “pure” philosophy or logic can shed light on the world by itself, ignoring his real position: “Philosophy, then, operates by the use of pure reason. But not by the use of pure reason alone. For it always exercises that reason on the basis of prior conceptualizations of historical practice, of some more or less determinate social form.” (PON 5, also in RTS)

(8)   You say that we should be talking less about philosophical method and more about how CR metatheory can inform substantive scientific work. I couldn’t agree more. But it’s you who’ve taken us down the former route with your charges of infallibilism and excessive a priorism, and your talk with Tuukka Kaidesoja of “eliminating” the transcendental.