More on Bhaskar and dialectics

Howie Chodos howie at
Tue Feb 21 13:07:12 MST 1995

Hans Despain responded to my post as follows:

>Chodos also makes a point about his resistence to a sharp distinction
>bewteen ontological and epistemological dialectic.  I am not sure
>what he as in mind with "sharp," but the distinction between ontology
>and epistemology is central to Bhaskar argument and critique of
>empirical realism, positivism, empiricism, and rationalism.  However,
>I don't necessarily believe that this distinction has to be sharp by
>any means.  There must, however, be a congitive effort to distingish
>between them.
>It seems to me that Bhaskar is committed to both epistemtic
>relativism and an ontological relativism, therefore I believe
>that I might agree with Chodos that there is no "sharp" distinction
>between ontology and epistemology (dialectics).

I would just like to add a few points of clarification (besides correcting
the typo in the first paragraph: I meant "hermetic", not a new hybrid of
hermetic and hermeneutic). First as regards Bhaskar's own position. I have
heard him say (though I cannot refer to a written version of this offhand)
that he subscribes to ontological realism, epistemological relativism, and
judgmental rationalism. So I wonder about Despain's characterisation of
Bhaskar as an ontological relativist. More detail on this might help me here.

The epistemological relativism has to do with the fact that there is no
escaping language, history and so on in thinking about the world. And the
judgmental relativism is his way of avoiding a complete relativism: there
are some positions which are truer than others. I must admit that I find
this triad quite congenial as a definition of my own philosophical biases as

Now while there must be a distinction between ontology and epistemology in
Bhaskar as elsewhere, I'm not sure we need to distinguish between two
separate "dialectics". What I was struggling to articulate was the idea that
the very nature of the dialectic is to straddle the two categories, to
provide us with a way of thinking about how things that exist independently
of us become part of what we are, just as we are able to transform our
surroundings according to a preconceived plan.

Because of this overlap I am wary of a "dialectic of nature" that unfolds
according to its inherent contradictions independently of our awareness or
intervention. Similarly, my intuition (and I really cannot go much further
that that) is to be equally suspicious of "dialectic as methodology",
Marxist, Hegelian or otherwise. This tends to pose dialectics in opposition
to "formal logic" and has in the past been used to erect it, dogmatically,
into the sole possible Marxist philosophy.

My problem is that this leaves me unclear as to what dialectics is. Because
of the widely varying and often confusing ways in which it is used, this has
led me to avoid, till now, trying to explicitly come to terms with it. I
confess that I have been unable to penetrate Bhaskar's recent book on the
subject, so I do not know if he provides a satisfactory approach.

Nonetheless, the working hypothesis I favour would be that dialectics covers
situations where two mutually irreducible categories are the conditions for
each other's existence (eg. physical and mental capacities, individual and
society). What worries me about this formulation is that it too straddles
the domains of epistemology (categories) and ontology (existence). This is
either legitimate because of the nature of dialectics, or a hopeless muddle.

I just want to say that it was nice to get a quick response to my earlier
post, so thanks Hans.


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