Bhaskar and dialectics

Howie Chodos howie at
Tue Feb 21 09:30:21 MST 1995

I have found the discussion of Bhaskar and dialectics to date of great
interest, though it is also marked by some of the frustrations I have
experienced in trying to come to terms with his work in general. For the
past five years, I have felt that he is on to some very important things,
but that there is also a side to his writing that is not hermenetic from
profundity but from some other unexplained (and possibly unjustifiable) reason.

I can honestly say that reading chapter five of Reclaiming Reality was
something of an epiphany for me (despite the description of this book
earlier in the discussion as a "failure") and that I continue to believe
that his analysis of the relationship between individual and society
provides a foundation for making progress on the thorny issue of structure
and agency. His insistence that individual and society constitute
ontologically distinct entities, that cannot be reduced one to the other,
was an insight that cut a Gordian knot of confusion for me. But I have also
found it necessary to go beyond his initial formulations in order to
establish a workable social ontology.

I also take his point about the ontological distinctness of individuals and
social structures as being somehow connected to what I would want to call
"dialectics", though I am much less clear on this. My current best guess as
to the nature of dialectics would be that it refers to that area that is
almost caught between the ontological and the epistemological, where the one
shifts into the other.

I think Evald Ilyenkov, the non-conformist Soviet philosopher writing in the
sixties, was on to a similar point with his notion of "ideality", and that
other examples of similar concepts can also be found. One that Bhaskar
himself refers to occasionally (but only in that off-hand, yet totally
self-assured, manner of his that can be so frustrating) is that of
"affordances" elaborated by the cognitive psychologist James J. Gibson. An
affordance is that which a given environment offers to a particular subject,
so that it is neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective, but either
a bit of both, or neither, depending on one's perspective. So I would be
inclined to resist any sharp distinctions between ontological and
epistemological dialectics. This is all very tentative in my mind, but I
would be interested in knowing if any thinks this makes sense, or if anyone
else has followed up on Bhaskar's references to Gibson.

One final point on Hegel and Marx. An article that I found interesting
comparing them is Allen Wood's "Hegel and Marxism" in "The Cambridge
Companion to Hegel". He argues that they are more alike than many
commentators would hold, but that what distinguishes them is the extent to
which they believe in the possibility of acquiring knowledge of our social
environment. Marx thought that ultimately social relations could become
transparent and this fuelled his conviction that we can transform them
successfully, while for Hegel there would always be a residual opacity that
prevented conscious intervention.

Wood writes, for example, that: "Neither Hegel nor Marx believe that
self-transparency is available to people under all historical conditions.
Both, in fact, seem to regard humankind as doomed to social self-opacity
through much of its history. The basic differences that separate the two
thinkers, I want to suggest, arise from their differing conceptions of how
and when self-transparency becomes historically possible." This seems to me
at least to be a plausible way to look at some of the differences between
the two, but I mainly know Hegel through the Philosophy of Right, so this
may be a limited view. Someone I respect once referred to Hegel as "the
Gramsci of the bourgeoisie" in that he sought to anchor the hegemony of
bourgeois rule in the consent of the ruled. I also think that there is much
to this, and because of it there is much to be learnt from a careful study
of Hegel.

I hope this discussion continues and manages to look not only at the
historical connections between Marx and Hegel but at the implications for
social theory today.

Howie Chodos

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