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Critical Theory and EpistemologyThe Politics of Modern Thought and Science$

Anastasia Marinopoulou

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781526105370

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9781526105370.001.0001

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Critical realism

Critical realism

(p.139) 5 Critical realism
Critical Theory and Epistemology

Anastasia Marinopoulou

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Critical realism attempted to ground dialectics in realism.Roy Bhaskar insisted on presenting the epistemological validity of mechanisms which, as he maintains, encompass both perception and the laws that guide science towards predictability. Bhaskar’s conception of dialectics is already apparent in his A Realist Theory of Science, and it governs all his work until his Dialectic, which is probably one of his final contributions to the issue of science and epistemology. In the present chapter I argue that his idea of predictability in science through mechanisms is of a pre-critical character and that he fails to acknowledge that norms generate rationality.Although Bhaskar claims to place dialectics within reality, he fails to grasp that his claim is not enough for an ‘other’ epistemology over which he also claims jurisdiction. He grounds an epistemological ontology that renders dialectics testable but not accountable, which leads him to form more an epistemological methodology and less an ontology of science, as he initially wished. My critique focuses on the issue that while his dialectics might generate a methodological testability, it neither signifies a commitment for science to theorize and act rationally, nor renders it accountable to the consequences of science within social conditions.

Keywords:   Realism, Bhaskar, Dialectics, Accountability, Transfactuality, Negation, Identity, Totality, Praxis, Actualism

SCIENCE, that is, knowledge of consequences; which is called also PHILOSOPHY.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan1

Without contraries is no progression.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell2


Critical realism: the painted veil of dialectics3

Critical realism attempted to ground dialectics in realism. Roy Bhaskar dealt extensively with the issue, and challenged Kant’s critique of science, empiricism and positivism throughout his work. He insisted on presenting the epistemological validity of structures or mechanisms which, as he maintains, encompass both perception and the laws that guide science towards predictability. Bhaskar’s conception of dialectics is already apparent in his A Realist Theory of Science,4 and it governs all his work until his Dialectic, which is probably one of his final contributions to the issue of science and epistemology. In the present chapter, I argue that his idea of predictability in science through mechanisms is of a pre-critical character and that he fails to acknowledge that norms generate rationality.

Bhaskar’s counter-enlightenment epistemology, which asserts to reclaim reality, is not as explicit as Luhmann’s, but his main epistemological deficit lies in his conception of dialectics as being testable within reality. Although Bhaskar claims to place dialectics within reality, he fails to grasp that his claim is not enough for an ‘other’ epistemology over which he also claims jurisdiction. He grounds an epistemological ontology that renders dialectics testable (p.140) but not accountable, which leads him to form more an epistemological methodology and less an ontology of science, as he initially wished. My critique focuses on the issue that although his dialectics might generate a methodological testability, it neither signifies a commitment for science to theorize and act rationally, nor renders it accountable to the consequences of science within social conditions.

Although Luhmann will endure in epistemological history for formulating systems’ theory and exorcizing his fear for dialectics, Bhaskar is part of modern epistemology because of his appreciation of dialectics, which converged with Luhmann’s fear. Bhaskar joined Luhmann in tackling similar concerns of both a methodological and an epistemological character. They both deal extensively with systems, systems’ complexity and reductionism. Bhaskar especially reconfigures ideas and ideals of positivism, the consideration of open and closed systems, and replaces Luhmann’s systems’ performativity with the notion of applicability of the scientific along with a clear focus on the nature of practice.

The present chapter explores and analyses critical realism as formed and explained by Roy Bhaskar, and criticizes his conception of dialectics as being reduced to the achievement of scientific totality. It also enquires into whether there are methodological consequences of critical realism in relation to science, or whether there are social or political stakes within critical realists’ argumentation. Without opposing critical theory to critical realism, in the following sections of this chapter I develop the epistemological prospects of dialectics as providing an open field of opposing or inter-negating arguments.

The idea that the conditions of knowledge form the social theory of knowledge or, more precisely, modernize a political theory of knowledge and a critical science, serves as a stepping stone for the transition of modern epistemology to critical realism. Critical realism could be characterized as anti-Kantian and counter-empiricist epistemology. It is the first of its kind insofar as it attempts to transcend the a priori realization of knowledge; it is also counter-empiricist to the extent that it rejects the affiliation of knowledge with empirical law statements, which are neither confirmed nor falsified by the succession of their instances.

This chapter examines critical realism through the work of Roy Bhaskar, in conjunction with the work of other major critical theorists, such as William Outhwaite,5 Andrew Collier and Margaret Archer. There is no convergence into a single epistemological thought that can be definitively called ‘the epistemology of critical realism’ of all the previous thinkers. However, they make significant contributions towards the idea that science is not a second-order observation, as proposed by Luhmann and presented in the previous chapter, but rather can trace counter-empiricist laws as major tendencies, whereas not (p.141) all entities are observable. Moreover, causal mechanisms and structures are not imagined but dialectically conceived, and by means of social necessity they are perceived by social and scientific agents within reality.

In this chapter, I present a comparative critique: I show that critical realism, on the one hand, attempts to formulate a concrete argument of political epistemology, while, on the other hand, it places emphasis on issues that contradict the political character of epistemology in practice, in its presuppositions as well as in its consequences. Besides often being exhausted in Bhaskar’s work in complicated methodological issues, as Norman Stockman rightly notes, critical realism also regularly culminates in pre-critical positions, despite its initial intentions.

In its attempt to differentiate between ontology and methodology, critical realist science considered that not all is method, and methodology is not all epistemology; structures relate to methodology to the same extent that action is central to critical realist ontology, whereas the normic condition is identified within transfactual statements. The realization that action is produced within structures immediately generates for epistemologists a dual concern: first, that we have to reveal the methodology that decodes structures; and second, that action is the royal path to ontology that epistemology seeks to describe and evaluate. Moreover, if there is any normativity governing the sciences, this can be identified in transfactuality which entails the structural relations among facts and which is elaborated in the following sections of this chapter.

The notions of realism and applicability of the sciences, which critical realism used as the Ariadne’s thread that may lead the sciences to an unconditional universal statement through the labyrinth of positivism and empiricism, refer to three main scientific concerns: (a) the tracing of social conditions; (b) the consequences of the scientific within the social process; and (c) the condition of time. Under such an understanding, critical realism presupposes the multiplicity of the conditional in order to reveal the totality of the social scope that gains a universal perspective in and on the sciences and their potential. In its negating critique, Bhaskar’s critical realism acted against positivism in its causal point of view, and against empiricism and the stifling of experience by redefining freedom by means of dialectics in order to disclose the differentiated element of science.

What is scientifically differentiated, for Bhaskar, holds three alternatives: (a) the classical empiricist, which is defined through regularities; (b) the transcendental idealist, which aims at formulating explanations; and (c) the transcendental realist, which occupies its problematics with mechanisms and structures. What science can do is sketch the elements of a social process, examine the constituent parts of a mechanism, explain the totality of structures, and articulate arguments. Science for critical realism is about structures (p.142) as an open system of change, and is also about transcendental explanations of the social, thus forming its own ontological critique within epistemology. Bhaskar’s critique then becomes more comprehensible: his focus on ontology articulates a counter-attack on positivism and renders ontology an essential concern for the sciences. His critique is neither purely transcendental nor empiricist, but a comparative study of the scientific, through both transcendentalism and the potential for the reality of practice. The means to accomplish transcendental realism become both causal intentionality of the sciences and the methodological freedom of dialectics.

In particular, Bhaskar attempted a regeneration of transcendental explanations by means of facts. He adapted explanations to social facts, and claimed that by means of explanations being related to facts, transcendentalism becomes socially productive, and is transformed within the aims of critical realism. At this point, Norman Stockman’s critique of critical realism was concisely accurate: the applicability that Bhaskar claims becomes a performativity criterion, which regresses into scientific traditionalism. In the present chapter, I attempt to elucidate that the eclipse of any normativity criterion, along with the concern for applicability of the sciences, signifies a pre-critical judgement on the part of Bhaskar’s critical realism.

In A Realist Theory of Science, Bhaskar describes the methodology of systems from a critical realist perspective. Instead of positivism imposing the method of the natural sciences on the humanities, things ought to be the other way around – namely, the dialectical method of the humanities has to indicate to all other scientific spheres their method as well as their aim. I maintain that the method that Bhaskar utilized is dialectics, and his aim is to refer to the formulation of a political epistemology, which entails neither the colonization of the sciences, nor the dictation of scientific aims by politics. The epistemological aim of critical realism calls for a philosophical critique of the sciences: if the laws that govern them are true and applicable, then sciences consummate a criterion of testability towards their scientific scope and object of reference, as well as towards the social (although both the scientific and the social are interrelated and interact with one another). When referring to laws in sciences, Bhaskar neither implicated nor explicated laws as promoting the functionalism of decision rules, but instead focused on mechanisms or structures that include perception and produce scientific laws.

On the other side of critical epistemology, which I challenge in its political substance and significance, the accountability (and not the testability) criterion both of and for the sciences is critical, and thus scientifically progressive because it encompasses the normative in more precise terms. Such normativity derives from the sciences themselves as an innate process, but it also (p.143) stems from philosophy, which bears the potential to criticize science in its social and political stance and decision-making procedures. Under such an understanding, Stockman was probably wrong. There are scientific universals, and they are attributed to dialectics not only in its methodological dynamic according to the realists, but also in its socially and politically transformative character within science.

In order to keep anti-positivism within the range of epistemology, I argue that modern science needs the following: (a) objective theories on what the scientific consists of; (b) knowing subjects willing to inquire into the latter; and (c) the variability of scientific methodology. Although critical realism ignored the importance of extending its scope to the knowing subject, it emphasized the methodological output of dialectics for modern epistemology. Nevertheless, critical realism, particularly as presented by Bhaskar, failed to take advantage of the normative validity that dialectics offers to the object of science. As such, it deprived modern epistemology of the solid accountability criterion of critical theory that would be based and consummated on social normativity. The following sections of this chapter attempt to elaborate on these criticisms and explain the normativity deficit of critical realism, despite its initially critical as well as performative epistemological intentions.

The trickle-down theory of dialectics

This section aims to theorize the basic positions in Bhaskar’s critical realism in relation to dialectics, and show that his version of dialectics fails to recognize the accountability of science that dialectics generates owing to its facilitation of the public use of reason by science. As for the conception that dialectics is also a method, it entails that because of dialectics’ exchange of conflicting arguments, dialectics generates scientific and social rationality through the use of norms. In other words, the core argument of dialectics is that norms matter, both scientifically and socially, and, therefore, interrelatedly. Otherwise, rationality is rendered ambiguous and the social function of science, which so occupied Bhaskar’s problematics, turns out to reproduce pre-critical schemata of thought and pre-modern positions on what constitutes the rational. This point develops into Bhaskar’s epistemological aporia. Normativity and what constitutes the ought to for science is not a guide for the perplexed scientist, but it can serve as an accountability criterion for society and also as a principle condition for the advance of a modern science. Such an ought to answers to modern questions on what science is and how it relates to society, but mainly it derives from uncoerced dialogical processes and therefore claims validity and applicability.

(p.144) In Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s theoretical development, there is a moment that is especially promising and epistemologically prominent: they are credited with placing science within society. Bhaskar’s critical realism reaches three main epistemological outcomes: (a) the transfactual law of science, which is owing to its own character considered as universal law; (b) the multiplicity of method, which reaches scientific tendencies of transduction beyond the moments of induction and abduction; and (c) dialectics, which is maintained as a manifestation of the potential for scientific ontology.

Bhaskar’s ontology reforms Heidegger’s ontology and Luhmann’s systems’ theory, where Bhaskar defines das Bestehende as bearing the prospective of change through dialectics. Although Bhaskar rejects the anthropocentric idea of science, he acknowledges Heidegger’s non-anthropic world of science, as studied in the everyday. It is at this point that Bhaskar misses the epistemological and social perils of the Heideggerian understanding regarding science and subjectivity, as explained in the first chapter.

Bhaskar’s epistemological focus, however, remains anti-Kantian and normatively insufficient, and in this sense develops in close proximity to Luhmann’s norm-free arguments. Critical realism turns its perspective from tendencies to mechanisms, and where philosophy asks the questions, science promotes the answers. Where philosophy uncovers the tendency of science, science per se reveals the mechanism of ontology of knowledge. If science, then, is the revelation of mechanisms that are indicated by tendencies in philosophy, the array of analyses with which critical realism provides us is exhausted in tracing the methodology of the science, or it merely limits science to its methodology. Bhaskar considered society a condition of knowledge, but we tend to form the impression in his work that the societal is more than a condition. In Outhwaite’s terms, ‘Given that we have scientific theories and that on the whole they seem to work remarkably well as an explanation of the world, what must the world be like in order for science to be possible?’6

One of Bhaskar’s main arguments holds that even if dialectics is not mentioned in epistemology, this does not mean that it does not exist or, more importantly, that it is not applied. As with many cases elaborated in previous chapters, epistemology or science itself did not deliberately ignore dialectics but the concept of dialectics. I argue that dialectics is neither a method, nor a way of thinking or acting. In Bhaskar’s elaboration of dialectics in A Realist Theory of Science,7 dialectics is a consequential or even deterministic process including three instrumental phases of specific means that would bring about particular epistemological results: the first phase is the identification of a regularity; the second is the plausible explanation of the previous phase (but again, one should ask plausible to whom and by what means?); and the third is the corroboration or rejection of the second. In the schema following the (p.145) previous analysis, Bhaskar associates the second phase with transcendental realism and, thus, the invention of explanation and testing through empirical procedures.

Moreover, in his definition of critical realism,8 Bhaskar attempts mainly to get rid of positivism once and for all, and at the same time to rejuvenate transcendentalism. The objects of knowledge are notably structures and the object of the social activity of science. Thus he absolves positivism from its sophisticated empiricism, and turns attention to the idealism that obviously this time necessitates neither phenomena nor noumena, but real structures that are accessed, though not necessarily perceived or studied. The new idealist model that Bhaskar suggested was a substantial divergence from idealism but also a significant critique of what idealism was missing and an attempt to reclaim its validity both epistemologically and socially.

Bhaskar brings forward a second problematic divergence from existing epistemology with his notion of reflexivity. For Bhaskar, dialectics is an open process of change and appears situationally to incur changes in both ontology and epistemology. However, reflexivity in Bhaskar, despite being affiliated with dialectics, is a closed system of evolution of the self or of the structure; as such, I understand reflexivity not as counter-dialectical but un-dialectical. Both notions of dialectics and reflexivity are critical and ‘critical’ in the sense that means ‘crucial’, but still divergent and perhaps opposing: when we identify the one, we expect the other to decline or to be merely excluded from the scientific and social sphere. Reflexivity appears in Bhaskar as an excluded function of the structure, whereas dialectics is an inclusive process of science that can innovate the structure of science because of its openness to allow negations and changes.

The focus of epistemological and scientific critique in Bhaskar’s critical realism remains on dialectics, for it appears to provide the exit from the methodological as well as the social monovalence: dialectics offers the sciences a political opening to society, and simultaneously allows the scientific to avoid determinism and methodological blindness. Dialectics is again an option, but at the same time it is a necessity too. It is a double opening on behalf of critical realism’s epistemology: it clarifies its critical intentions by becoming a dialectical explanation, and also provides a methodological polyvalence to both sciences and society by declaring totality to be the epistemological aim of modern science. Totality is regarded, then, as a structure or system that thematizes the idea of scientific process, namely the perennial process by means of dialectics.

There are, in essence, three notions that are important for the understanding of science in Bhaskar: dialectics, totality, and universalizability. Dialectics occupies and is occupied by self-consciousness, or in more precise terms, (p.146) it sets questions concerning method, thought, and consciousness, as well as concerning the quest for truth as the major objective of the sciences. Particularly for the latter, the dialectical element becomes the conceptual centrepiece for tracing theory along with practice, that is, both theoretical and practical reason, and it also provides claims of universal validity of all previous considerations in order not to devalue its political validity within social life.

In the following sections of this chapter, the concepts of totality and universalizability are the subject matter of analysis, but by linking dialectics with critique Bhaskar unfolds the argument that the dialectic is the element that produces critique and extends into the critique of actions. In parallel, despite the majority of desubjectivized epistemologies in modernity, as noted in previous chapters, Bhaskar’s argument remains that the agent is the subject of dialectics and action. Moreover, the notion of absence is based on the idea of negation in dialectics, and action is part of the process in a praxis-generating dialectical science within society.

Bhaskar’s divergence from Habermas’ ‘force of the better argument’ indicates a major disagreement between critical realism and second generation critical theory. Habermas had tried to show that the argument is better because it comprises the reality principle that Bhaskar considers lacking in Habermas’ thought. Therefore, the force of the better argument convinces people on intentions and interests, and refers not to some form of directional action, but to the account of the consequences that falls within not mere apologetics of the science, but in its capacity to form theoretical and practical reason.

Throughout the present chapter I argue that due to philosophy’s essentially twofold position – that is, methodological and social-historical – it appears that philosophical arguments entail by necessity political positions. Methodological critique necessitates contradictions and negations or denials, and thus involves subjects who are accustomed to expressing negative arguments, whereas social-historical positions are never found outside of the social. They derive from and address the social. Hence, Bhaskar’s critical realism formulates a dual philosophical fallacy, which it attempted to avoid even by insisting on the epistemological primacy of emancipation without ever explaining or providing a plausible analysis to define the subjects claiming emancipation and the object of their emancipatory denial.

Instead of accepting the simplified versions of either a priori or a posteriori critiques, criticism throughout modern epistemology appears to be a far more complicated process, with no easily accessible functions and consequences (especially in relation to the a priori version). Scientific criticism divides into the following three divergent processes that define negation of the existent conditions and lead to action.

  1. (p.147) (a) It is a priori in character, thus accepting the object of analysis beyond experience and the existent epistemological ontology. Here criticism becomes submissive and limited to intentionality and methodology itself.

  2. (b) It focuses on the a posteriori understanding of the established conditions and, therefore, negates what is existent. It articulates the denial of the ontological object whereby what the subject experiences ‘does not fit well’ or simply ‘does not work’.

  3. (c) It formulates the negation of the existent through the a priori. It also negates the experience, which might provide a limited and, thus far, partly distorted vision or understanding of the totality of conceiving and acting.

Furthermore, he identifies two major points for epistemological critique: (a) the epistemic fallacy of reducing being to knowledge; and (b) the speculative illusion of the reduction of science to philosophy. Both points shall be explained in the following pages in this section. Bhaskar’s conception of science is based on perceptual data. It identifies causal laws in science that involve noticing mechanisms and tendencies for their development, where such tendencies are internal to the scientific structure. Scientific laws are anti-empirical, but at the same time they reduce philosophy to the role of mediating between reality and the scientific. Bhaskar associates mechanisms and structures with the transition from the second phase of a posteriori understanding to the third phase of a priori negation. But he fails to explain why transcendentalism generates structures owing to the invention of imagined criteria. The elaboration seems weak or merely asymmetrical to what transcendental idealism is. He reduces the a priori to invented, but still plausible, elucidations, which entail empirical testing, although they have derived from the a priori conception of what science is. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding lies mainly in the identification of the second phase as being invented and imaginary.

The introduction of dialectics into critical realists’ concerns brought forward their methodological and ontological mishaps. Bhaskar was right that even when we prioritize theory over social action, it is still the case that not all objects are observable. However, Kant’s preposterous answer remains that critical realism appears to be characterized less by transcendental realist concerns and more by empirical idealist perspectives.9 Critical realists attempt to formulate realist arguments, but fail to see that the notion of dialectics remains a priori in its formation and brings with it, in use, the gifts of social and political rationalism and normativity. Critical realism’s position is that rationalism or transcendentalism present merely (!) imagined views. However, Bhaskar attempts to redefine realist arguments in A Realist Theory of Science, when distinguishing between the two: they are neither imagined nor imaginary.

(p.148) My position towards critical realism is that the a priori understanding of the scientific is dialectically perceived. It precisely contradicts the imaginary for its un-dialectical nature. The imaginary appears an insufficient misunderstanding taking into consideration that Kant’s transcendental perception of science develops according to the criterion of the rational and the normative as being both historically and socially situated. It is the dialectical and not the supposed imaginary essence of the a priori that provides science with discursively produced criteria. Such criteria of deliberation, accountability and social applicability generate theory that is not one of unobservable facts, but of processes in which humans participate socially. In such a sense, science is neither a pre-theoretical sequencing of cumulative knowledge, nor simply the secondary factor or observer of the social, but the critical and ‘critical’ (again, meaning ‘crucial’) agent or subject of the social sphere. The combination of dialectics with realist concerns would bring to the fore an epistemological critique of discursive essence along with normative consequences for the sciences, thus attempting to achieve the formation of social and scientific rationality.

Critical realism reduces the dialectical to a mechanism produced by experience. The flaw lies in reducing dialectics to a mechanism while overlooking the experience of action. Although throughout his work dialectic appears to trickle down to epistemology and ontology, Bhaskar situates epistemology constellationally within ontology, leaving neither intact for two crucial reasons. First, he questions how dialectics affects both spheres, and he answers by defining dialectical reason, which creates political decisions. Second, he questions where dialectics occurs. It is at this point that Bhaskar situates both ontology and epistemology within politics, and maintains that very few things are outside of politics. Bhaskar’s main contribution to epistemology was that he affiliated epistemology with science, dialectics, society and politics, thus creating a critique of realism that had a transcendental intent.

The trickle-down understanding of dialectics presupposes categorizing the notions of structure and action, with the first referring to methodology, the second to ontology. When Bhaskar wrote that it was his intention ‘to furnish the new philosophy of science with an ontology’,10 he failed to see that dialectics permeates both the structural as well as the sphere of action; it therefore incurs changes and innovations both in the methodology of science and in its ontic scope. Nevertheless, in his obituary of Bhaskar in 2014, William Outhwaite presented the double criticism that Bhaskar’s concerns were, first, empiricist, and second, pre-critical (the second point finding support in Stockman). This chapter claims that Bhaskar’s concerns also carried pre-modern consequences. Bhaskar seemed to avoid postmodernism, but in doing so he retreated into a pre-modern epistemology.

(p.149) Relatedly, the trickle-down potential of dialectics becomes clearer at the latter (c) point mentioned previously: my position is that it is not individualism that achieves dialectics or even opposition or negation. It is rather vice versa. Dialectics generates individuation or the individual attitude without becoming an instrumental process for the sake of individuation. Dialectics rather allows the potential for individualism to ‘happen’. It leaves it open and unlimited. The scientific is not the sphere of the individual potential, but is also as such, along with being a sphere conditioned within the social, and promoted by its political prospects. Otherwise, it becomes autonomized from the social and the political, where at first glance it seems free and uncoerced, but on closer inspection is punctuated with ideological concerns, and confused with provocation for its own sake. Under such an understanding of the dialectical trickle-down potential, the scientific reveals the objective reality of the subject along with the objective reality of the object as such.

Outhwaite was right when he focused on Bhaskar’s question: ‘how is science possible?’11 Bhaskar sought to achieve a presentation as well as a critique of transcendental realism through dialectics, but missed the essential wholeness of both methodology and theory, where the latter asserts a priori truth, accountability and applicability; otherwise, the scientific dogma lies in the details of empiricism, claims to reality, and the relativism of no-one-true-theory. On the contrary, I hold that there is no hypothetical one-true-theory. When a theory maintains social accountability and political interests of applicability by means of dialectics, it can then provide the foundation for arguments of essential epistemological wholeness and social acceptance.

There is an element of predictability that governs scientific structures and mechanisms in Bhaskar’s problematics, which the following sections of this chapter attempt to explain. Such predictability contributes to the formulation of scientific theology rather than realist epistemology, as proclaimed by critical realism. By no mere coincidence, Bhaskar turned critical realism into a religious understanding of the world in his later work. Small wonder, again, that he reverted to theology. Outhwaite was right again when, at the close of New Philosophies of Social Science, he wrote as follows: ‘For all its elitism, conservatism and political irresponsibility, modern science, in the broadest sense of systematic study, and a politics informed by that study, is the only way we can hope to understand and retain some influence over the development of our societies.’ The following sections will attempt to trace the pre-modern in critical realism, as well as the study and politics of modern science.

(p.150) The double negation of dialectics

Bhaskar’s work, at least in his early writings, is mainly an account of scientific activities; it is not necessarily a critique of them and it is definitely not a critique of science along Kantian lines. The next section of this chapter deals with the four phases of the dialectical process, as articulated by critical realism. The four-phase dialectical process in Bhaskar remains open to change and innovation throughout its epistemological and social course. Moreover, although Bhaskar might have disagreed, his main epistemological contribution was the concept of totality, deriving from Adorno’s theorization but revived in Bhaskar’s work with the emphasis on its rough edges and its negating character.

On closer inspection, totality for Bhaskar entailed the alterity or differentiation that leads to potential, but not indispensable negation. Such a negation constitutes the element of dialectics that traces the character of critical realism in being critical by incorporating the negation and being ‘critical’, namely crucial, owing to its capacity to generate the totality of negations. If the previous analysis is applied to science, it seems that dialectics is the potential for negation that science bears. Dialectics incorporates a dynamic of innovation for science and for society, in which the scientific sphere develops.

While in Hegel, dialectics proceeds from the necessary components of thesis and antithesis to a prospective or at least latent synthesis that could evolve into a consensus in Habermasian terms, in Bhaskar dialectics follows a different course. Figure 5.1 displays the basic points.

Critical realism

Figure 5.1 The dialectical process in Hegel and Bhaskar

(p.151) Thus in Bhaskar we acknowledge a double negation in points (1) and (2), and a four-phase dialectical process, instead of a tripartite one as in Hegel. The double negation that Bhaskar offers declines the positivity of identity, and brings negativity to the point or edge of becoming a result, if not a deterministic evolution, of non-identity. However, the significant point in Bhaskarian dialectics is in (4), which introduces the transformation of dialectics through praxis. It constitutes a double transcendence of both Hegel and Kant. In the first place, praxis fills the gap left by the acting subject, and is itself subjectivized by Bhaskar providing critical realism with the task of formulating the aporia of a desubjectivized ontology for the sciences. In his words, ‘we must see the agency as a radically transformed transformative praxis, oriented to rationably groundable projects’.12

Bhaskar’s perception of dialectics transcended Hegel in terms of its double negation schema whereby the negation of identity functions as the presupposition of the dialectical negativity. Moreover, it was anti-Kantian in its essence. It declined the commitment to act and replaced it with what dialectics claimed to bring forward to society and science. According to Bhaskar and most notably to the majority of critical realists, dialectics claimed the transition to praxis in order to transform both the science and social concerns. The negation of identity formations seemed to be a transition beyond Kantian normativity or normative commitments, but in essence it was a transition to non-normativity. In departing from Kantian normativity, critical realists (particularly Bhaskar) present not an anti-Kantian view of epistemology, but a post-positivist analysis of theory as meaning and of knowledge as a commonsensical realization of ontology. In this way, the understanding and realization of practice is filtered through an instrumental control of predictability, where sciences play a leading role. Such a post-positivism functioned to the best advantage of positivism by rearticulating basic notions of positivism and by embellishing positivism with dialectical concerns of epistemology. Bhaskar’s post-positivism marked also the (perhaps decisive) exclusive epistemological nature of normativity versus ontology, where the one develops, the other appears to be declining and falling into disuse. Normativity brings dialectics with it, whereas ontology is static scientifically and perhaps even stifling for social processes.

At this point, the reader of both Luhmann and Bhaskar could trace the spheres in which both thinkers converge, and those in which Bhaskar attempts to distinguish his own position.13 They both consider society to be the totality of structures, in which science constitutes and articulates a significant mechanism. Such mechanisms, in order to exist, necessitate explanatory data, which they then reproduce by the totality of acts that the subjects (ignored in Luhmann’s work) carry out. Subjects considered as agents, in Bhaskar, produce the social and scientific system, and at the same time transform it by the (p.152) totality of acts they realize. The production of acts in Bhaskar is reminiscent of the autopoietic production of the system in Luhmann. Furthermore, Bhaskar’s open or closed systems are in line with Luhmann’s systems theory: events lead to a predictable or unpredictable series of other events, and regularity determinism is an advantage of causality as a form of studying intentions.

The double negation of dialectics as presented by Bhaskar, and his causality considerations, lead to a theory of dialectical totality, where dialectics is both a general critique of negations and a causal explanation of scientific intentions. The further stage of considering systems in Bhaskar and Luhmann refers to the plausibility that Bhaskar finds essential in judging the eventfulness of concepts. In his words, the concept of generative mechanism provides interpretations of the world, and ‘[t]he possibility of such an interpretation supplements internal consistency and contextual plausibility as a constraint on the possible forms of theoretical advance; it constitutes the ultimate goal of all theory construction’.14 The abstract focusing on contextual plausibility bears notional similarities to Luhmann’s performativity criterion.

Both Bhaskar and Luhmann replace the truth condition in science with plausibility and performativity, respectively, despite Bhaskar’s declaration that ‘the transcendental realist will demand that models be tested not just for plausibility but for truth’.15 It is consistent with their mode of thought: for Bhaskar, the plausibility criterion emphasizes the theoretical burden that science has to bear, despite being insufficient or even unnecessary; for Luhmann, performativity brings systems to an end that is compatible with the scientific process of constructing systems of causes and effects. Moreover, it grounds both thinkers’ epistemological arguments within the sphere of the measurable (note: the measurable, not the rationally accountable).

What appeared as the course of action of dialectics in Bhaskar, and the construction of systems in Luhmann, also bore some problematic perceptions. The a priori potential of perception for sciences, people and societies shows that people, sciences or scientists transform sciences and societies without any prior experience because science and society, apart from being the necessary grouping of intentional acts, are also the totality of unintentional acts. The latter understanding of totality means not an unconscious but still not an instrumental totality of acts bearing predefined means leading to specific ends.

To all intents and purposes, critical realism was and remains practice-sensitive and not commitment-sensitive. Realist epistemology is served not by the a priori intentions that form scientific thought and knowledge, but by the a posteriori of ontology. In this respect, dialectics as utilized by critical realists became the transcendental saviour of their epistemology. Contrary to previous epistemologies that needed empirical grounding and sought confirmation (p.153) in the ontological, critical realism sought theoretical bases in transcendentalism and attempted to combine the critique generated by dialectics, a transcendental trait per se, with the realism of the ontological. In Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science, the nature of science concerns the nature of the world, and more precisely such considerations form epistemological statements within open systems, which ‘situate the possibility of two kinds of possibility statements: epistemic and natural’.16 Therefore, critical realism merged both tendencies of transcendentalism and realism, and although it continued to be occupied with epistemological agents, it focused on the structures and continuities of mechanisms within the sciences.

The pursuit of practice included the identification of actors who determine scientific and social conflicts. Social theory and perspectives generated through the interplay of structures and agents gives shape to norms as stocks of knowledge, which are universally available but at the same time maintain a temporal continuity which forms practices that accord with the social whole. Bhaskar maintains that either theory alone or practice alone is epistemologically and socially unfruitful, but in later writings he holds that practice has a degree of autonomy from theory. It appears to me that the degree of autonomy is a vague epistemological zone, which remains uncharted and undefined. Furthermore, unmediated practice, where theory is to a certain extent considered superfluous, can become a scientifically precarious condition, as well as a socially risky argument or choice.

Bhaskar posits the question: what makes a scientist, is it data or theory? The transcendentalists would argue for neither alternative. It is dialectics that makes a scientist and science as well, and Bhaskar appears explicit but cursory when he states: ‘There is something like a logic of scientific discovery, which I am calling the epistemological dialectic.’17 Critical realism did not deny that dialectics is charged with the job of discovering and foregrounding alethic or dialectical reason, as Bhaskar cites in his Dialectic.18 Such an alethic reason contributes to or binds the realm of scientific structures, which is understood as a totality of scientific discoveries on both the theoretical and the practical level. The totality of scientific structures, mechanisms and systems of knowledge allows the potential of scientific polyvalence to be conceptualized and realized within the system of science.

If polyvalence, in Bhaskar’s epistemological system, is identified with the totality of dialectical arguments, then such a meaning-attributing position reduces dialectics to an all-inclusive schema,19 where, as Bhaskar puts it, ‘in the domain of totality we need to conceptualize entity relationism’.20 In his recent interview with me, William Outhwaite reconsidered dialectics within the framework of relationism by referring to common-sense ontology. He suggested that ‘we don’t really need arguments for a realist position (p.154) which is shared by common sense and the practice of working scientists. Philosophical realism … aims to be continuous … with the sciences – complementary rather than competitive with them’.21 In both thinkers, the relationism approach signified a ‘relationalization’ or relativization of dialectics for the sake of polyvalence and inclusivity. It abrogates the negating potential of dialectics, which is elaborated in the next section of this chapter. By rendering realism a complementary approach towards science, critical realism abolishes its critical power to negate and thereby to exert innovative critique of unconventional intentions.

Totality in critical realism is relationism within structures, where dialectics facilitates their reflective relations. I argue above (and in previous chapters) that dialectics is neither the exclusive reflection of a subject, nor the relations among systems. Bhaskar breaks from Kant in the search for dialectical limits, and acknowledges that dialectics in Kant is categorized as the limit of knowledge, or as the search for reason. On this point, he accuses Kant of ignoring the totality of dialectical polyvalence and throwing dialectics into the antinomic cul-de-sac. However, it appears to me that such polyvalence is the axiological reduction of dialectics to a normative silence where anything goes, whereas the Kantian perspective of tracing antinomies provides science with the normative criterion of dialectical critique.

Bhaskar attempted to ground the distinction between ontology and methodology, and emphasize ontology, but he lost sight of the perspective that it is not an ‘either/or’ schema that promises their epistemological realization. Epistemology cannot render the one its focal point without marginalizing the other. Since dialectics considers both ontology and methodology as the conditions of truth, it is precisely such a dual criterion for validity of truth borne by dialectics that Bhaskar fails to acknowledge. He appears to ignore one main argument: namely, that even when scientific ontology has discovered truth, this is not enough to become certain. Ontology has to be accompanied by validity, and science by accountability criteria, so as to vindicate the formation of social rationality. Otherwise, the case of scientific dialectics is lost, and science reverts to ambiguous empiricism and positivistic prejudice. Bhaskar does not avoid the latter fate, despite employing the concept of dialectics. It is a noble epistemological cause for Bhaskar to win the ontological justification of his theory, but it is not necessarily a dialectical or critical one. Science needs norms that have validity and applicability within society.

Science is normative, and despite Bhaskar’s further theorization that dialectics is a process of regularities’ identification transmitted to plausible explanations and realities of entities, dialectics is more than a method or description of epistemological steps based on realities. It is what binds sciences into a science, not as a mediating link between them or with society, but as the (p.155) criterion that differentiates the hypothetical or the mythic from scientific argumentation and open learning processes of a systematic character. The first stage of dialectics is neither the regular nor the eventful scientific result of a mechanism or structure that ‘involves experimental production and control, in which the reality of the mechanisms postulated in the model are subjected to empirical scrutiny’.22 The task of science is not to discriminate between the imaginary and real mechanisms. Nor is it to produce an account of them. The task of science is to produce dialectics that would allow not testing but accountability criteria, both for itself per se as well as for the social in toto. The task of science is to exert elenchus on the hypothetical or the mythical, the building of rationality, and the way in which a critical science becomes the aim and the initial rationale for scientists.

The above topics do not prompt an ‘either/or’ dilemma, but rather provoke the following question: how is theory accomplished? There lies also the uncomfortable realization on the part of the scientist that the answer depends on what theory means and entails. Bhaskar avoided focusing on theory due to his eagerness to ground science and epistemology on praxis, thus redefining the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. It was and remains a noble epistemological cause for the sake of the social objective of science. Nonetheless, it remains insufficient to discriminate between the dialectics that critical realists so keenly used and examined, and the positivistic perils of causality that render individualized aims and instrumental means and ends the overarching aims of the sciences. Bhaskar’s notion of causality, though, bears some similarities with phenomenological intentionality. It is an abstract tendency or manifestation of human deliberation or consciousness in order for the latter to ground its epistemological concerns on the social and, therefore, to act. In Bhaskar’s words, ‘there could be no knowledge without the social activity of science’.23

Science is political. It is not political ex post because of the results it incurs on societies. It involves collectively binding decisions and acts. There is no ‘individual science’; rather it is part of a whole, or, in Bhaskarian terms, a social totality. However, it is also a whole in itself, and forms the public sphere of sciences or, in other words, the totality of science that acts and interacts according to rules, relationships and interests set and pursued by participants within a public sphere. When the scientist attempts to redefine the notions of scientific results, pre-existing ends or rational-choice actions, she honours the very object that she endeavours to innovate or epistemologically negate, and declines positivism transformed into neo-positivism or post-positivism. The identification of causalities dressed as intentions and the combination of absolute means, resulting in absolute ends, simulates epistemological theology and, as I stated above, it is no mere coincidence that Bhaskar reverted to theology in his late work. What makes societies? People or mechanisms (p.156) and structures? Both Bhaskar and Luhmann opted for the second alternative: structures. In Bhaskar’s words,

Societies, people and machines are not collectivities, wholes or aggregates of simpler or smaller constituents (just as intentionality is not an inner urge or push) … In the classical world view … all ‘things’ properly so-called were just more or less highly differentiated aggregates of matter, and so could be viewed either as wholes or parts (or as both).24

This was a monumental statement equalling Luhmann’s considerations on the social set out in the previous chapter.

Nevertheless, people and societies are collectivities, since they identify themselves as such and not as structures; they form multiple wholes, which become coherent on account of deliberate actions based on consciousness or the intentional (in phenomenological terms). Societies are generated by conscious individuals performing intentional or unintentional acts within spheres of science, politics or culture. These are totalities in the Adornian sense: formed by conscious subjects who coordinate their actions as a result of conscious deliberation, and apply dialectics in all social spheres that entail political commitment.

The unity of theory and practice in practice

Shifting the epistemological attention from the knowing subject to the law-like structure of facts, as attempted by the critical realists, renders epistemology accommodatable to methodology and objectivism. As such, it moves science into pre-critical positions by leaving the a priori beyond the sphere of dialectical critique. In the previous section of this chapter, I examined the notion of the double negation that dialectics presents by challenging identity and relocating knowledge within a dialectical critical realist’s explanation. That was the alterity that critical realism introduced to epistemology. However, it was a unification of ‘unhappily married’ elements, which amounted to a theory that included a phenomenological method and ignored the subjective component of knowledge that ‘could not solve the problems of solipsism’.25

By considering the subject as creating solipsistic problematics, critical realism charged dialectics with an epistemological inability to treat knowledge as an accomplishment of societies or collectivities. It certainly theorized that a running start for science, developing into a concrete transformative negation, was the concept of absence meaning negation, but despite placing absence (p.157) within ontology, critical realism failed to relate this to thinking and acting subjects. It was just mechanisms and structures that did all the work for sciences and societies. Thus, dialectics is neither a real nor a radical negation, as critical realism would have intended. Critical realists’ perspective on what the dialectical is constitutes an uncritical critique that does not incorporate the interests of the knowing subjects who act because of such a dialectical negation, and absent the sequence of constraints, whether in science or society.

It was not a simple problem of epistemological dialectics, as Bhaskar set out in Dialectic. However, our beliefs and a priori certainties about the world are not shaped by the imaginary, nor are they left without criteria. Praxis is not the sole criterion of a theory. The criterion of the validity of a theory is mostly dialectics. The dialectical element renders science both critical and modern on account of the accountability potential which dialectics transmits to science. Under the accountability elenchus, science checks the consequences of both theory and praxis. It is not merely the dynamics of a transformative praxis that innovates and brings changes to societies; it is also the dialectical moment of negation, shaped by the a priori of consciousness.

Critical realism reduces dialectics to a critique of the supposedly objective, and ignores the fact that even the objective is conceived a priori. Despite the initial declarations of loyalty to critical reason, such a view of knowledge and science leaves the door open to social engineering and political manipulation. By limiting dialectics within what is supposedly objective, critical realism abandons the critical perspective of the scientific borne by social agents, where knowledge serves not the objectivism of facts, but the conceptual accomplishments of the knowing subjects. Although critical realists sought to avoid reducing subject to object, their perception of objectivity was in no sense a totalizing critique of the insufficient world of scientific subjectivity; on the contrary, it was a transposition of scientific dialectics from the sphere of the know-that to the know-how, from the axiological (either in terms of praxis or conscious deliberation) to the actualism of criticizing actions of oppression, not the oppressor as an acting subject.

If universality sets a limit to empirical regularity, I consider that theoretical reason implies a commitment to act, not praxis in itself. Thus, such a form of commitment is not a mere evasion of praxis, but allows practical reason to presuppose, without any trace of determinism, an elaboration of theory in order to accept or negate it within social conditions. What Bourdieu and Foucault attempted appears to be taken up and developed by Bhaskar’s critical realism, namely that all scientific failures are attributed to the sciences’ incapacity or even unwillingness to reflect upon the social and the political. In particular, scientific structures may have non-enduring universal validity for (p.158) critical realists. However, what becomes universal for scientific mechanisms is that they are universal in their consequences for their agents as bearers of scientific praxis.

Bhaskar identifies two criteria of universalizability: first, the universal property of the scientific has to be theoretically grounded; and second, a reality principle governs its application by setting the cornerstone for acknowledging the real interests of the sciences instead of perceived interests. It then appears as natural that two forms of dialectical universalizability emerge, giving us the outline of Bhaskar’s epistemological transition from critical theory to critical realism. The first form refers to critical reason, and the second to explanatory or totalizing critical reason. The development is not telic; rather change occurs under the guidance of the trickle-down perception of dialectics, which influences and forms both ontology and epistemology.

The epistemological discussion of multiple causations leading to multiple effects, which Bhaskar introduces in A Realist Theory of Science, serves to define the regularity that determinism includes and which appeals to universal epistemological intentions. His argument is directed not to realizing the universalizability of scientific validity, but rather to configuring the predictability conditions of closed systems of action according to the Luhmannian way of systems’ performativity.

Although Bhaskar admits that ‘Consistency with the facts is neither necessary nor sufficient for a theory’,26 the predictability criterion acts as a shield for the ambiguity of effects caused by the openness of the scientific system, which can bear enduring results of the dialectical and critical kind only under the condition of openness. In his interview with me, William Outhwaite correctly emphasized that ‘systems theory moved if anything away from realism towards a more virtual and conventional understanding of systems, for good reasons within that framework’.27

Although drawing a parallel with Luhmann’s performativity criterion is for me rather unavoidable, what becomes more impressive is the function of contingency as applied to systems perspective (just as predictability or even plausibility acts for scientific structures later in Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science). As predictability saves the lost honour of the openness of the scientific system, similarly contingency prompts epistemological solutions in order to provide epistemology with a way out from the closed systems of Luhmann. Although Bhaskar professes to decline the predictability of the sciences, he gravitates towards the admission that ‘Social structures, unlike natural structures, cannot exist independently of their effects.’28 The problematic component within this statement lay not in the idea of effects, but in the consideration of structures as socially and scientifically measurable according to effects. The (in)effective character of structures fits appropriately with (p.159) critical realism’s epistemological anxieties, and struggles to find a methodological basis, but disagrees with the social essence of the scientific sphere to the point where it is not assessable according to causes and effects.

In order to quantify the intangible and render the unpredictable intelligible, Bhaskar slipped to acknowledging the operative identity of the science that he persistently attempted to avoid when presenting the double negation of the dialectical critique (as analysed in the previous section). Bhaskar’s notion of universality resides in the totality of the sciences performed by causalities, applicability prospects, the plurivalence of dialectical critical reason and their ontology within the social.

In an attempt to ground the applicability of the universal within the empirical, Bhaskar withdrew to the empirical, and tried to combine it with the universal within the epistemological safe haven of actualism (or the actual, as he would have preferred), implicitly including the consequences of the potential applicability of universal laws. In his words, ‘the satisfaction of the CP [ceteris paribus] clause cannot normally be verified independently of the actualization of the consequent: hence to make it a condition for the applicability of the law is circular’.29 To make matters simpler, Bhaskar articulated a whole series of arguments against positivism and opposed the potentiality of a normic form of scientific explanations where science becomes possible simply by acknowledging that laws of universal validity can exist ‘quite independent of our knowledge of them’.30

Hence, Bhaskar’s identification of laws makes them factors in acknowledging tendencies, causalities and intentions within the open system of science. Particularly, by virtue of being an open system, science incorporates theory, applications and ontological explanations of the domains of the real and the actual. But it is exactly at this point that Bhaskar renders the open system of science the experimental field of structures above the axiological meaning of the identification of events. Yet, as I tried to show previously, if the study of science is to be epistemologically and, moreover, practically rewarding, then it has to include the normic universalization of a dialectical critique and not the methodological orthodoxy of structures’ identification.

Moreover, the dialectics of co-inclusion in the name of plurivalence, advocated by critical realists, stretched to the temporality of an episode from the past to the present, and also included the future as a promissory note. In Bhaskar’s words, ‘Dialectic depends upon the art of thinking the coincidence of distinctions and connections.31 It is a confession of an a priori dialectical intentionality, but maintains a sketch or description of dialectical endeavour that remains uncharted in critical realism. It is important here to give coherent and articulate explanations of how, by Bhaskar’s own admission, ‘dialectic is not only about change or even negation … [but also] is concerned with (p.160) presence, and the co-presence of the absent and the present … and with alterity, [and] sheer difference’.32

My argument is that co-inclusion and polyvalence allowed politics to configure scientific temporality instead of tolerating dialectics to engage in the unmediated past and future of the sciences. Such an all-inclusive presumption of dialectics, situated within the multiplicity of causes of an open scientific system that excludes the ‘there is no alternative’ formative consents, becomes then the all-inclusive theory of scientific relativism and social compromise of ‘anything goes’. Regardless of the methodological paradox that Bhaskar presents, his all-inclusive dialectics neglects its negativity competence, the innovative character of dialectics does not lie in its capacity to consent but to negate, not to include but to exclude and get rid of the traditional and the dogmatic and replace them with the critical and the rational.

In the Hegelian sense, the dialectical negation is simultaneously theoretical and practical, and entails change and novelty of a transformative kind. Dialectics is the critique of myth and ideology in either the scientific or the social sphere and, according to the latter’s logic, it also becomes the negation of the denial of reality and is, therefore, of a critical as well as a realistic character; otherwise, thereafter science or dialectics cannot invoke reality. It appears to me that Bhaskar focuses on the critical and renders the rational extraneous to dialectics. The double negation of dialectics maintains that being critical for theory involves negating the negative or, in Bhaskar’s terms, absenting absence. He considers the Hegelian unification of theory and practice to take place not in reason but in the negativity that dialectics transfers. Nevertheless, the ‘unwelcome questions’ of dialectics are not by necessity situated within ontological dialectics but within epistemological dialectics, since the latter matches the desire for change within the sciences and poses questions addressing the public sphere or systems’ Umwelt (in Luhmannian terms).

However, the Bhaskarian admission that science creates an ontology of the real and the dialectical was no mere coincidence and no small thing for a critical epistemology. Hence, science reveals itself as the dividing line between rational and irrational things, which Bhaskar names ‘essential and nonessential’, and as the bearer of dialectical reason, which might forget what is entailed in the need for ontology and realism. Although unfair in his critique of the essential and essentiality in science, by Bhaskar’s own admission

we must have a creature capable of dividing the world into essential and non-essential attributes, and of appreciating that the former do not always manifest themselves in actuality. With the first referential detachment of structures and the transfactual efficacy it affords, we get (p.161) the first taste of alethic truth, the dialectical reason or ground for things. And now we are doing science, from a position in which the primordial activities of referential detachment and the necessity for ontology may be readily forgotten. But also, insofar as differentiation is itself a causal act and causation is absenting, we are on the terrain of dialectic, upon which … non-identity and transfactuality can thus retrospectively be seen to depend.33

Bhaskar’s position crystallizes at this decisive moment when he absolves reason and de-rationalizes epistemological dialectics, thus averting its normative character and rendering it pre-critical and pre-modern. He presents a divergence of ontological and epistemological dialectics as if they were not just differentiated but opposed spheres due to their incorporation (or not) of critical reason.

Nonetheless, I argue that for critical theory and epistemology, epistemological dialectics is not a hypothetical construction of the sciences; nor is it an abrogation of ontology and realism. On the contrary, it meets accountability criteria by incorporating practice potentials of theory and a totalizing critique of the argumentation on truth presented by the sciences. Bhaskar was right when he elaborated on theoretical reason that it is the sphere that presupposes a ‘criterion of actionability’ that ‘has a theoretico-practical duality built into it … [and] says the world is so-and-so … [that] still implies a commitment to act on it’.34

Absence is the traditional view of science that Bhaskar deconstructs. But he falls back on ‘a systematic intermingling of categories, concepts, critiques and figures rather than a unilinear procession’.35 He sketches the contours of dialectical critique but leaves normativity outside of its scope, although he claims an intermingling of arguments by avoiding the unilinearity. It is precisely such a unilinearity that renders dialectics critical and rational, and thus modern: the unilinear aim of negation and rationality. In his urge to prescribe a course of action that totalizes praxis, Bhaskar moves from what he considers as dialectical form to a theorization of dialectics. He diminishes dialectics’ social status by rendering it a form of praxis and not a form of consciousness that moves sciences and societies towards the rationality of performing reason.

However, my thesis towards critical realism is as follows: during the twentieth century, the revelation of modern epistemology, which was based on social and political interests, needs and agents’ wants, was that to the extent that theory imposes praxis, so too praxis entails a commitment to theory. This revelation has put an end to complacent ontological claims on the indispensability of praxis. Praxis is scientifically, socially or politically crucial, but the (p.162) human agents it involves want and have to know by their own admission why it takes place, what it does, and in so doing they revert to theoretical explanations to sustain the practical manifestations of their a priori concerns.

Dialectics does engage in both theory and praxis, but it does not necessitate the normativity of the rational and, therefore, it runs the risk of entangling itself in irrational considerations if it does not designate a concrete a priori accountability criterion, which signifies its intentionality towards social practice. Negation is the moment of the ‘no-further’, but it is also the moment when the potentiality of rationality becomes praxis by means of dialectics.

Dialectical negation leaves sciences with a void. Dialectics allows and furthers negation, but it also leaves sciences to hover over the social sphere without the perspective of forming rationality, either social or scientific. Both social and scientific rationality do not instantly and self-evidently derive from the dialectical process. Dialectics is indeed a process, and may remain so if not affiliated with the political perspective of normativity that shapes both the scientific and the social. Bhaskar was right: ‘Universalizability functions as both a test for consistency/sincerity and a criterion of truth.’36 Nonetheless, dialectical universalizability is the aim of the modern world, and particularly modern science, to come to social terms with critique, norms and innovation.


It was not a matter of philosophical orthodoxy, as Bhaskar claimed in his introduction to Critical Realism, that provoked dichotomies in reasoning. Nonetheless, he admitted that they were radical dichotomies. In his critique of Kant, in the same introduction, he presents Kant as defending transcendentalism for reasons of philosophical methodology, whereas critical realism deploys three moments of the realist argument: (a) historically transient social activities; (b) human beings as material objects (!); and (c) human beings as causal agents. The devil is in the detail again. Bhaskar rejected the Kantian notion of human beings as ‘merely’37 (!) thinkers and perceivers, and presented them first as material objects and second as causal agents.

For critical realism, dialectics included the universalizability alternative, and a totalizing praxis based on the moral imagination of reflexivity without excluding differentiation and the diversity of unity. It was a dialectical constellationality reverting to relativism, the teleology of the structural understanding of the sciences, and the lush diversity of all-inclusive dialectics deprived of its (p.163) negativity and critical element. Bhaskar reconciles (albeit vaguely) the tension between theory and praxis. He presents an implicit assumption that

T/P [theory/practice] consistency is a matter of praxis (in a process), which should be practical, progressive and theoretically grounded; and that both praxis and grounding should be universalizable in the sense that they be transfactual, concrete, actionable … and transformative, i.e. oriented to the objective(s) of the praxis, which, in the field of practical reasoning, will be ultimately grounded in a theory.

But then a contradictory interpretation is also evident, when he writes: ‘The simplest way of introducing the logic of consistency and universalizability is to register that you cannot say “you ought to ø” and not ø in materially the same circumstances without committing a practical or performative contradiction, i.e. being guilty of T/P inconsistency.’38 As elaborated in the previous pages, the statement of negation of the negativity potential of dialectics, through the negation of the ‘ought to’, rendered dialectics uncritical and, therefore, insufficient. However, it emphasized praxis, but the uncritical character of dialectics was alone incapable of producing any normative order.

The logic of dialectical universalizability oriented towards praxis intended to correspond to the level of explanatory critical reason, which counters the consequences of irrealism for philosophy. It was a typical Bhaskarian type of dialectics – descriptive and didactic instead of providing a normative or norm-aiming description. It prioritized a commitment to praxis by intending to ground it on theory, which was again rather dispensable for the sake of praxis. Instead of a praxis-committed theory, Bhaskar provided critical realism with a theory-committed praxis, which, although claiming exclusive explanatory and non-predictive criteria for the rational assessment of theories, was situated within the causality and predictability of social and scientific reasons within structures and mechanisms.

Philosophy depends, then, upon the form of scientific practices, while eschewing ambiguities and relativism – which were not avoided after all in critical realism. Philosophical arguments are accomplished, according to critical realism, through the scientific focus on accounts of activities, not intentions or commitments to theory and practice. The accountability criterion of the sciences that influences all modern epistemology was no small issue in critical realism. Where philosophy appears to set the questions, science attempts to give the answers for critical realists. But that does not eliminate the fact that the point of epistemological as well as social concern is equally questions, answers, and to whom the latter are accountable. It is the moment of crucial divergence from Kantian epistemology and critical theory: for critical realists, (p.164) the criterion of accountability was practice, whereas for critical theorists it was theory and the knowing subject that both accomplish knowledge and exert criticism on what is known through dialectics. For both epistemological tendencies, the criterion was not a solid form of epistemological concern that remains unchanged and restrictive for both science and societies. Rather, it was the base of modern science, as well as of useful theory and practice that derives from theory. Meanwhile, with critical realism, the scientific criterion reshuffled the dialectical process so that it no longer includes the formation of scientific and social rationality.

In Bhaskar’s words, ‘To explain a human action by reference to its rationality is like explaining some natural event by reference to its being caused. Rationality then appears as an a priori presupposition of investigation, devoid of explanatory content and almost certainly false.’s39 Such a position constituted an understatement of the scientific and social potentialities that dialectical rationality bears under the auspices of a priori reasoning. The problem with such an argument was that, although it seems to argue for a plausible anti-positivism that maintains dialectics as a transformative scenario for science and society, it rescues positivism from its aporias by reclaiming determinism and teleology. Bhaskar writes as follows: ‘People and society are not … related “dialectically” … Society stands to individuals … as something that they never make, but that exists only in virtue of their activity.’ He goes onto explain that science and society do not necessitate intentionality and self-consciousness, but constructed forms and structures that exist independently of their agents, whereby ‘it is no longer true to say that agents create [them]’.40

My question remains the following: it is true that there is prior existence of social forms, but who can deny that people still act and mostly react to either social forms, mechanisms or structures as part of their conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, social being and dialectical interaction? What Bhaskar fails to take into consideration is that when considering either science or society, or both simultaneously, as parts of a dialectical process, we tend to realize that human reaction to existing forms is not necessarily controllable and is certainly not predictable or predetermined. Despite Luhmannian and Bhaskarian considerations that converge to the point that ‘people do not create society’41 and attempt to remove voluntaristic misunderstandings, no one – neither individual nor scientific subject – can imagine or perceive society as a mere pre-existing condition in which people do not consciously participate dialectically, by accepting or negating the existent and by forming their conditions of social being.

Critical realism marked the transition to political epistemology of the twenty-first century, but it failed to realize that societies, and science in (p.165) particular, undergo changes not through systems or structures, but through the contemplation of someone on the existent and coercive systems and structures. The concluding remarks that follow attempt to clarify the transition to political epistemology through critical theory and the arguments on rational theory and normative praxis.


(1) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 56.

(2) William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [1790], available at www.bartleby.com/235/253.html (accessed 9 September 2016).

(3) For reasons of consistency, I shall be using the term ‘dialectics’ throughout the chapter, as I have done for the whole book, although critical realists and particularly Roy Bhaskar used the term ‘dialectic’. When the latter is used in this chapter, it refers to Bhaskar’s phrasing that could not be substituted for the former for reasons of clarity and terminological accuracy.

(4) See, in particular, the first pages of the book, where he states: ‘In science there is a kind of dialectic in which a regularity is identified, a plausible explanation for it is invented, and the reality of the entities and processes postulated in the explanation is then checked’, Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (London: Verso, 2008), 14ff.

(5) William Outhwaite kindly answered my questions in an interview, conducted in 2015, parts of which shall be included in the text.

(6) William Outhwaite, New Philosophies of Social Science (London: Macmillan Press, 1993), 18.

(7) Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, particularly 14–15.

(9) As is excellently elaborated in Outhwaite, New Philosophies, 37.

(12) Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (London: Routledge, 2008), 9.

(13) Although it is not possible to examine here, the importance of the notions of time and contingency, particularly influential in their epistemological concerns and of increasing significance in the course of their work, would be another interesting point to raise in both Luhmann and Bhaskar.

(19) Again, it would be interesting to note how dialectics becomes an all-inclusive theory in Bhaskar due to the inescapable conditions of time and contingency. In his words, ‘The dialectics of co-inclusion is made possible by the necessary but indefinite temporal stretching of an episode, event, or period. It lies either in the past or in the present. And in the latter case it defines a boundary state between what is determined and determinate and what is, even if it is practically inevitable, not yet’, Bhaskar, Dialectic, 143.

(21) William Outhwaite, ‘Interview on Critical Realism’, forthcoming in 2017.

(27) Outhwaite, ‘Interview on Critical Realism’, forthcoming in 2017.

(37) Margaret Archer et al., Critical Realism (London: Routledge, 2007), 4.

(38) Both cited in Bhaskar, Dialectic, 284.

(39) Roy Bhaskar, ‘Societies’, in Archer et al., Critical Realism, 210.