Saturday, December 28, 2013

What kind of realist?

I've always felt that scientific realism is almost self-evidently true. Scientific theories and hypotheses put forward ideas that go beyond the evidence of direct experience. They postulate the existence of entities and forces that cannot be directly observed but whose effects can be teased out through the assumptions we have made about their characteristics. And when we have a theory that "succeeds" in explaining a domain of observation and experimentation, we have reason to believe that its hypothetical entities and forces actually exist. The existence of the hypothetical entities is the "best explanation" for the success of the theory or hypothesis.

This is not, of course, a deductively certain inference from the success of the theory to the reality of the unseen entities. There may be other explanations for the observational and experimental success of the theory. And the history of science in fact offers plenty of examples where this has turned out to be the case. Reality sometimes turns out to be more complicated, and structured differently, than our theories postulate.

This is the position that I would describe as "scientific realism". It represents a garden-variety ontology; it simply holds that the entities postulated by successful scientific theories are likely to exist in approximately the form they are postulated to possess.

There are coherent alternatives to scientific realism. Phenomenalism and instrumentalism are coherent interpretations of the success of scientific theories that do not postulate the real existence of unseen entities. Milton Friedman's instrumentalist treatment of economic theory is a case in point. However, instrumentalists have a hard time accounting for the success of scientific theories in the absence of a realist interpretation of the theoretical premises. Why should cloud chambers show the specific arcs and tracks that are predicted by theory if the underlying model of the mechanisms is not correct?

So how does all of this play out for the social sciences? In my view, the social sciences are substantially different from physics when it comes to hypothetical entities and theoretical hypotheses. The entities and forces to which we want to refer in the social world are not highly theoretical; rather, we can probe our concrete assumptions about these social entities and forces fairly directly. We don't need to turn to the Duhemian deductivism and theoretical holism that physics largely forces us into. Instead, we can devise strategies for probing them piecemeal.

So when we postulate that "class" is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term "class structure". To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example -- what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:
  • I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no "best" method or "most fundamental" theory.
  • I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  • I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened "empiricist" about social and historical knowledge.
  • I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be "theories of the middle range."
  • I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  • I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  • I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  • I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities -- structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  • I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.
These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn't critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe -- a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.

"Critical realism" is a term of art; it refers to a very specific bundle of philosophical and ontological ideas that have been developed by Roy Bhaskar and his followers. It makes substantive philosophical assumptions about how the social world works, and it depends resolutely on a philosophical method of discovery and justification.  And this means that the reasons we have for embracing realism of a more general kind do not necessarily extend to support for critical realism. One can be realist about the social world without accepting the assumptions and doctrines of critical realism. In fact, I suspect that the kind of realism I advocate here would be criticized as "empiricist" and "not truly realist" by the CR world.

There is much to admire in the literature of critical realism, both in the writings of Bhaskar and those who continue the research in this tradition. But it remains just one approach out of a spectrum of possible realist positions.

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.

Invited response by Tuukka Kaidesoja on naturalized critical realism

[Tuukka Kaidesoja accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion (link) of his book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Currently Kaidesoja works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Academy Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.  Thanks, Tuukka!]

Thanks, Dan, for writing a thoughtful post about my book! I think that your description of my position is largely accurate. I especially appreciate your point that “Kaidesoja´s naturalistic alternative permits a very smooth respecification of the status and content of critical realism”. I would say that this sentence nicely summarizes one of the aims of my book.

Nevertheless, there are two points that I would like to comment on. I hope that these remarks may also clarify some issues that pertain to the critical evaluation of the critical realist ontology.

First, you write that: "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."

According to my interpretation, Bhaskar's transcendental arguments are not best described as strictly deductive arguments (in the sense that their inferential structure would consists of the steps that strictly follow the rules of deductive logic). Though there are sections in his early work where he describes transcendental arguments as a kind of deductive arguments (these were cited by Mervyn Hartwig in an earlier post), I nevertheless think that this construal of transcendental arguments tends to trivialize them. From this viewpoint, the whole debate would be about the justification of the premises of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments, not about their inferential form. In my book, I argue instead that both the epistemic status (or justification) of the premises and the inferential structure of Bhaskar’s transcendental are problematic.

There are at least two observations that speak against the strictly deductive interpretation of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments. First, in his later works, Bhaskar (e.g. 1986, 11; 1993, 405) suggests that his transcendental arguments are instances of retroductive arguments rather than deductive arguments. In this context, he also insists (as doesHartwig) that transcendental arguments are used in empirical sciences. In my book, however, I try to show that this is not the case unless transcendental arguments are identified with inferences to the best explanation. The problem with this latter interpretation in turn is that transcendental arguments lose their status as specifically philosophical arguments, and, therefore, this interpretation would question Bhaskar’s strict distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontologies.

Second, the Kantian language used by Bhaskar suggests that his arguments are rather “transcendental deductions” in a Kantian sense than deductive arguments in the sense of deductive logic. This was also one of the reasons why I did not formulated them as deductive arguments in my book. I would accordingly argue that Kant´s transcendental deduction of the pure categories of understanding is not best described as a deductive argument in the above sense. Though I am not a Kant scholar, I nevertheless think that interpretations of this kind are historically inadequate and lack textual evidence. I also argue in the book that Bhaskar’s (e.g. 1978, 259)  employment of Kantian terminology creates tensions to his philosophical position: He wants to defend transcendental realism by using Kantian transcendental arguments while these arguments are tightly connected to the doctrine of transcendental idealism (at least in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). In addition, transcendental realism was the position that was firmly rejected by Kant. Hence, to say the least, I think that Bhaskar owes us an explanation of what exactly is the purpose (and meaning) of the Kantian terms like “pure reason” and “synthetic a priori truth” in his philosophy of science. Anyway, it is these Kantian inspired transcendental arguments that I reject. Though I admit that there are some social theorists that still utilize Kantian transcendental arguments, I would claim that these arguments are not used in the best practices of empirical social research.

In addition, as you mention in the post, the inferential form of my naturalist arguments can be understood in terms of inference to the best explanation. This makes them inductive rather than deductive arguments.

For these reasons, I would say that your point about "the deductive flow of the argument" is not exactly right. This was my first point.

In your interesting discussion with Merwyn Hartwig, you write that: critical realism naturalized (as Kaidesoja advocates) would eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR while preserving many (all) of the ontological conclusions”.

I just want to note that, in addition to providing a critique of Bhaskar’s transcendental arguments and outlining a naturalist alternative to them, my book also contains series of critiques about the core concepts and doctrines of the critical realist ontology (including social ontology). For example, it is argued that Bhaskar’s accounts of the concepts of causal power and emergence are not only ambiguous, but also contain problematic anti-naturalist assumptions. These assumptions are related to Bhaskar’s tendency to detach causal powers from the concretely existing powerful particulars in HarrĂ© and Madden’s (1975) sense. I especially argue that this view is involved in his conception of thetranscendentally real nature of causal powers, including the emergent causal powers of minds and social structures.

Furthermore, I try to argue that a non-transcendental realist (or naturalized) interpretationof the concepts of causal power and emergent property (that can be justified by considering the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of the epistemically successful scientific practices and theories) allows the development of the naturalized (in the broad sense of the term) version of critical realist social ontology. These hypothetical ontological views imply, among other things, that causal powers are properties of concrete entities that may, but need not, be their essential properties in the sense that they would fix the membership of the concrete entity in a natural kind consisting of the collection of entities with identical essences. They also entail that emergent properties of concrete entities can often be reductively explained in terms of their underlying mechanisms though reductive explanations of this kind do not eliminate emergent properties from the scientific ontology nor do they require conceptual reductions. I also suggest that Mario Bunge’s (e.g. 2003, 35-36) CESM (Composition, Environment, Structure, Mechanisms) model of concrete social systems and William Wimsatt’s (e.g. 2007, chap. 12) notions of emergence in terms of failure of aggregativity and mechanism-based reductive explanation can be used in specifying the above views. In addition, the book also discusses how the theories of action and culture may be naturalized by employing the ideas developed in recent cognitive science, including the perspectives of embodied, situated and distributed cognition.

For these reasons, critical realism naturalized would not only eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR. It will also suggest major revisions to the original critical realist ontology developed by Bhaskar and others while still preserving many of its core ideas in an elaborated form.

Bhaskar, Roy (1978) A Realist Theory of Science. 2nd edition. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Bhaskar, Roy (1986) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London and New York: Verso.
Bhaskar, Roy (1993) Dialectics: The Pulse of Freedom. London and New York: Verso.
Bunge, Mario (2003) Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Harré, Rom & Madden, Edward (1975) Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Wimsatt, William (2007) Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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 Tuuka 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 of transcendental realism, doesn’t that suggest that it isn’t likely that there’s a great deal wrong with the method and arguments?  Second, Kaidesoja, like you and Cruickshank, misidentifies Bhaskar as a traditional philosopher, as someone who holds, as you put it, that “there is a substantive field of ontological discovery outside of the domain of scientific reasoning and fully within the field of philosophical theorizing” (my emphasis). That is not what I’ve argued Bhaskar’s position to be. Philosophy is both relatively autonomous (distinct from) and internally related to science. It takes as its subject matter the same world as science, and its fallible findings must in the long run be compatible with science. This is a radically novel, dialectical conception, and you don’t begin to get to grips with it by approaching it as old-style metaphysics. There's a review of Kaidesoja by Dustin McWherter coming up in Journal of Critical Realism. If Kaidesoja comments that could make for an interesting exchange.
Scientific realism is fine, providing it’s not positivist and (like science itself) doesn’t reject transcendental arguments. Critical realist scientific realism is already ‘naturalized’, espousing the possibility of  non-positivist naturalism. It doesn’t need empiricist-minded mainstream scientific realism, as we see in Kaidesoja, to naturalize it. You don’t say on what basis you now also want to reject the “critical” in “critical realism”. Bhaskar argues that science in the social domain is necessarily critical both of its own theories and of its subject matter, just as natural science is necessarily critical of existing theories; and further that explanatory critique can effect a transition from facts to values. But the CR understanding of critique in its various forms isn’t something we’ve discussed. There’s far more to critical realism than a (per impossibile) detranscendentalized scientific realism! I take heart from the fact that your own scientific realism is not in practice detranscendentalized, whatever you say in theory.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Guest post by Justin Cruickshank on critical realism

Justin Cruickshank is senior lecturer in Sociology in the School of Govt and Society at the University of Birmingham. He researches and teaches in the areas of classical and contemporary social and sociological theory as well as the philosophy of the social sciences. His books include Critical Realism: The Difference That It Makes (edited 2004) and Realism and Sociology: Anti-Foundationalism, Ontology and Social Research (2003), as well as many articles and chapters on critical realism. Here is his profile at UB. This contribution is a response to a lively recent discussion here over the status of transcendental ontology in critical realism, including two posts on Cruickshank's critique of Bhaskar (link, link) and comments and criticisms offered by Dave Elder-Vass, Mervyn Hartwig, and Ruth Groff (link, link). My own contributions to the debate include (link, link). Thanks for contributing, Justin.

Reply to Hartwig and Elder-Vass

By Justin Cruickshank

I would like to thank Daniel Little for inviting me to contribute to this dialogue about the fallibility of critical realism. I’d like to start by quickly considering the philosopher who foregrounded the importance of fallibilism.

Popper counseled against asking ‘what’ questions, in favour of asking ‘how’ questions. For Popper, questions about how phenomena interact were subject to a critical dialogue, whereby fallible categories could be revised through the course of problem-solving. With this approach the recognition of fallibilism led to the claim that justification had to be eschewed and replaced with criticism. As regards ‘what’ questions, which required a definition of reality, Popper objected that such questions return us to the search for justification (contrary to the emphasis on criticism required by the recognition of fallibilism) and did so in a way that ultimately entailed dogmatic metaphysical speculation.

One could argue that Bhaskar’s critical realism avoids being a form of dogmatic metaphysical speculation because, having assumed that science worked, Bhaskar drew out the ontological assumptions from within science. The knowledge produced by science was referred to as a transitive dimension because it, like all knowledge, was held to be fallible, whereas reality itself was referred to as the intransitive dimension. Ontological definitions would therefore not be based on dogmatic metaphysical speculation about the intransitive dimension. Instead the role of philosophy was to render explicit the implicit ontological assumptions within the transitive dimension. In doing this, philosophy would use science to furnish the condition of possibility of science: philosophy would set up a transcendental question and answer that using the ontological assumptions implicit within scientific knowledge. This is the basis of the claims by Elder-Vass and Hartwig that the transcendental argument put forward by Bhaskar is not dogmatic ‘old style’ metaphysics but ‘conditional’, ‘relative’, ‘corrigible’, based on a dialogic approach, etc. In place of dogmatic certainty there would be a recognition of fallibilism. The problem, though, is that the recognition of fallibilism becomes redundant because critical realists are concerned with justification. We can explore this in the three points below.

First, the act of rendering the ontological assumptions explicit would be a fallible interpretive act and so other philosophers influenced by realism may interpret the transitive domain differently. Bhaskar (The Possibility of Naturalism, 3rd edition, p. 170), stated that his ontology ‘at present’ is ‘uniquely consistent’ with the ontological assumptions within science. This raised the question as to how to judge between competing interpretations of the ontological assumptions within science so that one may be in a position to know that a particular philosophy is uniquely consistent with the ontological assumptions of science. For just as different philosophers of science have re-read the history of science to discover that their methodological prescription was implicitly adhered to, so different realist philosophers could read the practice of science in such a way as to read in the ontological assumptions that they took to obtain within science. As those assumptions are metaphysical, specific empirical theories can be read to fit the postulated assumptions.

Underpinning this is the problematic attempt to link a commitment to fallibilism with the attempt to justify a philosophical position. The attempt to justify the position will lead to a monologic exchange because there would be no basis for a critical dialogue. That is, there would be no common framing of the problem or the criteria for its solution. A commitment to justification would lead to different metaphysical schemes being justified by being read into the practice and history of science, with there being no empirical test to decide between them and no logical test (if they were all internally coherent). Consequently the commitment to fallibilism would be rendered redundant, in terms of any critical dialogue over the ontological assumptions taken to obtain in the transitive domain. To be sure, claims to infallibility may clearly be eschewed. Thus Bhaskar holds that ‘at present’ his reading happens to be the superior one. However, there is a difference between not endorsing infallibilism and putting any recognition of fallibilism to work.

Second, if we assume for the sake of argument that the ontological assumptions rendered explicit by Bhaskar were uniquely consistent with those that obtain within the transitive dimension, then the question arises as to what philosophy could do with those assumptions. Scientific theories would produce explanations based on a set of ontological assumptions that were implicit within the practice of science, with those assumptions being the condition of possibility of science. Therefore it is hard to see how the philosophy of science could become more than the history of science, tracking the development of those assumptions, because it would lack any normative force motivated by extra-scientific criteria.

It could be countered that philosophy did have a normative role to play, which was to ensure that science did not err by turning to the wrong ontological assumptions. However, as it is conceded that science is fallible and its ontological assumptions are fallible, then a change in itself does not necessarily mean error. Instead, in order for philosophy to act as an underlabourer, it would need to distinguish correct from incorrect ontological assumptions independently of their manifestation in science. In this case, fallibilism would be eschewed for old style metaphysics in order for the underlabouring claims to be justified. So, if we accept that science furnishes its own conditions of possibility, then philosophy becomes redundant, and if philosophy is to avoid this, the justifications for its prescriptions would avoid any recognition of fallibilism. One could counter and argue that if science was influenced by the outmoded positivist conception of science then philosophy could intervene. However, if a practice was based on incorrect ontological assumptions then it would fail to be science, and science would be self-regulating by eschewing approaches based on ontological assumptions deemed incorrect.

Third, standard transcendental arguments are universalist, and Elder-Vass and Hartwig clearly reject any notion of Bhaskar’s transcendentalist position being universalist, because it would lead, in this case, to old style metaphysical dogmatism. However, the alternative approach to transcendental arguments, which holds that the current and fallible ontological assumptions furnish the current condition of possibility of current science, leads to a Kuhnian conception of science. Here the ontological assumptions would define a period of science in a fashion analogous to Kuhn’s paradigms, with empirical work based on those assumptions being a matter of puzzle-solving. That is, the empirical explanations would be justified by being in conformity with the ontological assumptions, with those assumptions delimiting the range of acceptable explanations. Whereas a problem-solving approach may allow for the revision of implicit ontological assumptions, this puzzle-solving approach would be narrower in scope.

The recognition of fallibilism here would amount to the rejection of infallibilism in the form of dogmatic metaphysical speculation, whereby the assumptions were taken to be definitely correct. However, the recognition of fallibilism would do no more than that. After that the emphasis would be on regarding current empirical explanations as being justified by being in conformity with the current prevailing ontological assumptions. Given this approach to justification, the concept of epistemic progress becomes problematic. Under paradigm A, empirical claims would be justified by being in conformity with the ontological assumptions that furnished the condition of possibility of paradigm A. Under paradigm B, empirical claims would be justified if they were in conformity with the ontological assumptions that furnished the condition of possibility of paradigm B. Fallibilism could be appealed to as a denial of infallibilism with the ontological assumptions not being taken to be definitively correct definitions of reality; but it would do no work after that, with the emphasis being on justification. Dogmatic ‘external’ justification, in the form of an appeal to a definitively correct definition of reality would be replaced by ‘internal’ justification, in the form of an appeal to the current assumptions that justified the current phase of science.

Not only does this make fallibilism redundant, but it also makes any notion of progress problematic, given the emphasis on internal justification. In other words, there are no philosophical or extra-scientific criteria to appeal to, in the attempt to judge one paradigm as better than another. Such an approach also returns us to the problem of dogmatism, because as there are no philosophical / extra-scientific criteria to appeal to, each phase of science would have to rely on conservative justification – conformity to the assumptions would lead to justification and conversely a lack of conformity would negate any justification for an explanation. It may be pointed out that explanations which conform to the ontological assumptions may fail. This is true, but Kuhn recognised this too, and the issue would be that empirical explanations which were taken to be successful would be deemed justified because of their conformity to the current assumptions that defined current science.

In order for critical realist philosophy to do any work in this context it would have to make an appeal to some form of extra-scientific criteria, by turning to universalism, and holding that a set of ontological definitions did correspond to the defining features of the intransitive domain. As has been noted in the posts already, there are places where Bhaskar makes such claims. Like most philosophies there is the place where it is asserted and the place where it is retracted. Bhaskar does engage in old style metaphysics, but his rowing back does not save his philosophy. Accepting the fallibilist reading of his ontology shows that fallibilism becomes redundant because the emphasis swings to justification and, in the process, Bhaskar’s philosophy becomes redundant.

Applying this to the social sciences, there could be a post-Marxist science of structures which was taken to be justified because its explanations were taken to be based on a definitively correct ontology of social structures; or a Kuhnian conservative approach that made social science scientific by supplying some fundamental assumptions to agree upon. The forms of justification would be quite different in both, but in neither case would fallibilism do any work. A problem-solving approach to the sciences may be a better way to go.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

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 

a generally recognized 



  2. It is a 


condition of 


possibility (or 


 of X 

that the world is P1, . . . , Pn. 
  3. X 






  4. If 



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 










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 
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 Q1, . . . , 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.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reply to Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff on critical realism

Critical realism is a hot topic now in sociological theory and philosophy of social science. It turns out that there are some pretty strong disagreements about the foundations of the theory. Recent posts here have highlighted my own (admittedly non-expert) reading of Bhaskar’s assumptions about ontology (link), my discussion of the limited and friendly critique of Bhaskar’s assumptions offered by Justin Cruickshank (link, link), and a preliminary view of the “naturalized critical realism” advocated by Tuukka Kaidesoja (link). (There is more to come on Kaidesoja’s work.) These posts — particularly those highlighting Cruickshank — have elicited strong rebuttals from Ruth Groff, Dave Elder-Vass, and Mervyn Hartwig (link, link). Here I would like to respond to some of the views advanced in the rebuttals by these experts from within critical realism.

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.

Elder-Vass believes there are ample places in Bhaskar's work where he asserts the fallibilism of his conclusions. But the particular passage that E-V quotes from Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation seems to prove less than E-V supposes. Moreover, it seems to detract from intellectual virtues that Bhaskar himself wanted to assert: that there are good philosophical (i.e. non-empirical) reasons for accepting certain ontological statements. Does Bhaskar attribute rational credibility to philosophical arguments in arriving at substantive claims about the world? Unmistakably he does; his whole method is philosophical! And he seems to have quite a bit of confidence in the conclusions that he reaches when it comes to the fundamentals of ontology. Or in other words: he assigns a high level of justificatory weight to the philosophical arguments he offers for specific conclusions about ontology.

In fact, general statements about the fallibility of human knowledge don't help very much with the problem Cruickshank is raising. How fallible and for what reasons? For example, if the claims of critical-realist ontology are only "as fallible as" the claims of mathematics and logic, that is indeed to attribute a high degree of certainty to those ontological claims. On the other hand, if they are "as fallible as" statements about the virtues of the gods, then they are highly fallible indeed. So the general statement "all assertions are fallible" is too general to help very much. We want to know what the conditions of knowledge are for different kinds of assertions, and how confident we can be, give available reasons and evidence, that the given assertion is true. "Wood is made mostly of carbon and water," "electrons have negative charge of 1.6 * 10^-19 coulombs," "physical objects are located in three-dimensional space," and "a triangle encloses 180 degrees" are all statements that are in some sense fallible; but the ways in which they might go wrong are quite different from one to the next. Some are more empirical, some more theoretical, and some are metaphysical or mathematical. And the kind of justification or proof that is given for each is different. As a non-committed reader of Bhaskar, it does appear to me that Bhaskar relies on abstract philosophical arguments to reach ontological conclusions, and that he attributes a fairly high degree of confidence to those lines of reasoning.

So how fallible does Bhaskar think his theory of ontology is, and for what reasons, according to E-V and Hartwig? Does Bhaskar believe, for example, that perhaps experimentation could after all be coherently understood against a background of Humean regularity assumptions? Plainly not; that is the whole point of his argument, to rule out that possibility. And he seeks to rule it out by offering philosophical arguments to establish the point. To take a fairly random example from RTS:
However if deducibility is the only criterion for explanation and the source of the surplus-element is its explanation there will be an infinite number of surplus-elements for any statement. Hence any statement can be said to be law-like on an infinite number of grounds. Deducibility alone cannot explicate the distinction between necessary and accidental or nomic and non-nomic universals. (kl 3018)
This is plainly a purely philosophical (logical) argument; it is reductio ad adsurdum. And Bhaskar plainly believes it presents an insurmountable barrier to the Humean; or in other words, it establishes the necessity of the anti-Humean position on this particular point. So the idea that Bhaskar applies a warning label at various points (“knowledge is fallible”) doesn’t resolve the issue of whether he attributes too much weight to the power of philosophical arguments to resolve ontological issues.

Hartwig provides useful clarification by summarizing the logic of a transcendental argument. The argument form itself is deductively valid and trivial, essentially modus ponens.  So we can be completely certain that if the premises are true then the conclusion is true. That is not where the philosophy comes in. Rather, the heavy lifting for the transcendental argument is in establishing the major premise. What kind of argument is needed in order to establish an "only-if" statement? Take the Kantian version: [only if the world is spatio-temporally-causally structured] then [empirical experience is possible]. We can offer strong philosophical reasons for believing that empirical experience is possible. But how do we get the "only-if" assertion? How do we know that there is no other form of structure that could give unity to empirical experience? How do we know that a degraded spatio-temporal-causal ordering would not nonetheless admit of empirical experience? (Things sometimes result from anomaly and show up discontinuously in unexpected places; how do we know that such a slightly disorderly world could not support empirical experience?) In other words, why should we have confidence in Kant's (or Bhaskar's) assertion of the major premise: [only if X] then Y?

In fact, Strawson's critique of Kant's argument in The Bounds of Sense is precisely that Kant errs in maintaining that spatiotemporal order is necessary for the possibility of empirical experience; he constructs a hypothetical world in which experience is ordered auditorially but not spatially ordered and argues that this is a perfectly coherent basis for ordinary empirical experience.

And this is where the Cruickshank-like argument comes in strongly: Bhaskar’s arguments for the “only-if” statements upon which critical realism depends are: interesting, skillful, determined — and far short of deductively or rationally conclusive.

If Bhaskar is thought to embrace fallibilism to this extent: that his whole construction of the ontological prerequisites of experimentation may be in error; then indeed he is a fallibilist theorist. Ruth Groff indicates that in her opinion this is a possibility: "Bhaskar may or may not be correct, either about what the implicit ontology of the activity of experimentation is, or about whether or not it is consistent with the explicit ontology of Humeanism and Kantianism." But nothing in RTS makes me think that Bhaskar believes this particular form of corrigibility. E-V raises that possibility above ("What is necessary is that IF science occurs THEN the world must be such that science is possible and/or intelligible"). But this is virtually vacuous; it only becomes an ontological statement when one gives arguments about how the world must be. E-V, Hartwig, and Groff are the experts; but when I pick up the thread of A Realist Theory of Science at almost any point, I find Bhaskar making very confident statements about how the world must be, based on the philosophical arguments that he constructs.

Groff seems to slide over the place where some would say that Bhaskar does in fact over-reach philosophically: the complicated reasoning he provides to go from "we acknowledge the overall rationality of the enterprise of science" to "the world must have certain fairly abstract attributes". We don't have to say that "science is irrational" or "experimentation is unintelligible" in order to question Bhaskar's conclusions about ontology; rather, we can question the sequence of inferences he makes from the one "fact" to the other. These inferential steps take place within a philosophical argument, and they are questionable.

This shouldn't be thought to imply that I (or Cruickshank or Kaidesoja, for that matter) doubt that philosophical arguments have any justificatory or clarificatory weight; philosophy is simply careful reasoning and clear analytical thinking, and of course good philosophy can help illuminate how science works. What I do think some of us want to maintain is pretty much what Kant held as well: we can't derive substantive conclusions about the structure of the real world from purely philosophical reasoning. There are no rabbits in that hat!

So it still seems to me -- and now it's me speaking, not Cruickshank -- that Bhaskar relies too heavily and confidently on philosophical methods to arrive at ontological conclusions. Perhaps it is true, as E-V and Hartwig assert, that he also duct-tapes onto his construction some warnings about the overall fallibility of all human knowledge. But I'm still not seeing that this corrigibility extends very deeply when he is actually trying to reach conclusions about ontology. And yet this is precisely where the corrigibility/fallibility warning is most needed: the philosophical arguments offered for the “only-if” statements (the heart and substance of critical realism) fall far short of any kind of certainty. They are suggestive, but they are not rationally compelling. And Bhaskar does not appear to highlight this fact.

In short, Bhaskar does appear to believe that we can arrive at philosophically compelling conclusions about ontology; and those conclusions are drawn through recourse to philosophical arguments. And this does seem to distinguish his general theory of knowledge from coherence theorists (Goodman and Quine) and naturalists (Kaidesoja), who believe that ultimately there is only one kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge at various levels of abstraction.

But it also seems to me that this debate is in some ways missing the most important point: how good is critical realism as a meta-theory of the situation of material human beings acquiring knowledge of the world?  Putting aside the question of whether philosophical theory can shed light by itself on the structure of the world, what should we actually think about the latter topic? Is realism a good way of thinking about the knowledge enterprise? Is the kind of back-and-forth that Bhaskar is so good at, from existing scientific practice to apparent presuppositions about how things work, a good way of leveraging some new thinking about the way the world works? The most interesting thing about critical realism is surely not its philosophical method; it is the set of ideas it brings forward about how science and knowledge progress in giving material human beings a better notion of how the world works. Philosophy is a part of that process, but only a part. And the realist ontology is an important construction no matter what its argumentative origins are.