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Fri Aug 25 20:53:59 MDT 1995


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Title: The rediscovery of reality

Critical Realism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Roy Bhaskar
By Andrew Collier
Verso, 1994
Plato Etc: The Problems of Philosophy and their Resolution
By Roy Bhaskar
Verso, 1994
Reviewed by Neville Spencer

The philosophical school which has been dubbed ``critical realism'' emerged
during the 1970s and has since become a central reference point in the
discussion of philosophical issues, especially amongst the left. Its central
figure is the English Philosopher Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar's previous works -
which include A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism and
Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation - are increasingly widely read and
mark him as one of the most important and original of contemporary Marxist

Bhaskar's writing is not always very accessible, however. His dense use of
technical terms along with his own considerable vocabulary of neologisms and
acronyms mean that his works need to be read at a rather gradual pace in
order to be absorbed. Hence Andrew Collier's Critical Realism should play an
important role in popularising the work of Bhaskar to the wider audience it
deserves. Though not aimed at the complete philosophical novice, its style
is very readable and enjoyable.

In many respects Bhaskar can be seen as a defendant of fairly orthodox
Marxist views. At the same time, his work is remarkably original. What makes
it seem fresh is the insight and thoroughness of his analytical
distinctions, which develop previously existing concepts more rigorously and
lucidly and develop new concepts which give a greater depth to Marxist
philosophy. His neologisms do actually serve to illuminate new concepts
rather than obscure old ones (deliberate obscurity is popular amongst some
contemporary philosophers).

His primary field of investigation is the philosophy of science. He is
concerned to produce a philosophy which takes on not only the traditional
foes of Marx and Engels, the idealists, but tackles the much more pervasive
influence of positivism.

Bhaskar sees that the events we observe (and those we don't) are caused by a
variety of mechanisms - physical, biological, social etc. In normal
situations a whole number of different and conflicting mechanisms determine
what will happen in any particular situation, making it difficult to see
what exactly is the cause of any event. This problem is overcome in science
by setting up artificial situations (experiments) which will isolate
particular mechanisms from the interference of others.


In normal situations, even if a mechanism of nature exists, there may be
others which counteract its influence so that it isn't effective. Apples
don't always fall toward the earth - in fact for the most part they remain
stationary (hanging in trees for instance). Does gravity exist during the
majority periods when it has no observable effect? The critical realist
answer is yes, the (consistent) positivist answer is no.

Critical realism views reality as much deeper than what we can observe or
what happens. Positivism on the other hand recognises only the events which
actually occur as exhausting the entirety of what is real. It does not
accept that there are such mechanisms really existing behind events.

Critical realism points out that, as a consequence, positivism cannot
explain why experiments can be useful to science. If the mechanisms isolated
and studied by experimentation existed only by virtue of the experiment
itself and not in the complex world of nature, then experiments could not
further our knowledge of the world. That science can expand our knowledge of
the world, even those parts of the world which lie outside the laboratory,
contradicts the positivist point of view.

Social sciences

Although the philosophy of science is a starting point, the scope of
Bhaskar's work extends far beyond it. His influence is and will probably
continue to be greater in the social sciences. From his starting point, he
develops a theory of the differences and similarities between the natural
and social sciences and what this means for the project of human

The possibility of understanding the social world in the same manner we can
understand the natural world has been rejected in many quarters. Marxists
have often found themselves alone defending the idea that there do exist
laws of the social world which can be discovered and understood in a manner
similar to that by which the natural sciences render the natural world

Bhaskar points out that those who oppose this view do so because their
understanding of the nature of the natural sciences is incorrect in the
first place; their attempt to apply that misunderstanding to social sciences
serves only to throw their original confusion into sharp relief.

It is the acceptance of an essentially positivist understanding of science
which has led to the rejection of science as a means to understand society.
If instead we accept a plausible view of natural science, then the dilemma
of similarly understanding society disappears.

As well as providing a lucid introduction to Bhaskar's work, Collier (also a
key figure in the critical realist camp) voices several criticisms. In
particular, he expresses greater scepticism than Bhaskar over the
possibility of scientifically understanding the social world. This is
certainly the most contested aspect of critical realism and has been the
site of previous debates within the school.

Collier's suggestion that psychoanalysis should be the paradigm of the
social sciences seems difficult to accept, however. Social science, even
lacking the assistance of a critical realist perspective, has made great
progress without resort to the fairly arbitrary and speculative reasoning
which psychoanalysis employs.

None the less, Collier's book is on balance a very valuable one. It serves
well as an introduction to the work of the critical realist school, and even
for anyone not intending to delve deeper it will clarify and deepen the
understanding of philosophy. There is no other source which offers the
insights of critical realism in such an accessible form.

A hopeless project?

For anyone who does want to read further, Bhaskar's most recent book, Plato
Etc, is one of his more accessible. It is also his broadest in scope and

In his previous Dialectic, he developed a critical realist view of
dialectics, which had been an obvious lack for a school which situates
itself so closely to the philosophical legacy of Marx and Engels. In Plato
Etc a more developed philosophy is explained, and its critical power is
brought to bear on the central problems which have plagued philosophy since
ancient Greek times.

A.F. Whitehead once characterised Western philosophy as a series of
footnotes on Plato. Bhaskar convincingly argues that the contradictions
which Plato tried and largely failed to resolve are in essential respects
the same contradictions which philosophy up to the present day has tried and
similarly failed to resolve.

Philosophy's inability to settle the same problems with which it started out
two and a half thousand years ago has produced understandable pessimism
about the entire philosophical project. Its distance from reality (or its
assertion that there is no reality) and its frequent employment to justify
assertions patently ridiculous to common sense have done nothing to
challenge such pessimism. Bertrand Russell even declared that the problems
of philosophy were simply not possible to resolve.

The subtitle of Plato Etc is an assertion to the contrary. Identifying the
commonalities which have been shared from Plato to Hume, Kant and Hegel and
through to post-structuralism demonstrates their common errors rather than
their insoluble problems. In particular their error is their common lack of
conception of a type of realism with enough depth to avoid the persistent
dilemma of philosophy. Those who have adhered to some form of realism have
run into contradictions. Those who have taken anti-realist positions have
had the prevalent shallow conception of realism with which to sustain their
rejection of it.

With this critique Bhaskar traverses almost all the main areas of the
philosophical discipline - from theory of knowledge, philosophy of science
and causality through to ethics, politics and the sociology of philosophy.
The importance of critical realism is vindicated in Plato Etc by its ability
to deal with such a broad range of issues and to bring coherence to such a
complex history of ideas.

First posted on the Pegasus conference by
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