Introduction: Bhaskarian dialectics

fellini at fellini at
Wed Feb 22 11:19:31 MST 1995


I am new to this list (not so new however). I am a graduate student
at the dept. of economics at the U. of Utah. I am especially
interested in the social thery of Marx(ism). I also belong to the
discussion group about Bhaskar (formed in our department) that Hans
Despain mentioned (unfortunately it is a very small group; Bhaskar is
not a 'hero' in our department). Since Bhaskar and dialectics is being
discussed, I couldn't refrain from jumping into this, for I have many
problems about both Bhaskar and dialectics in Marxism. Therefore, I
am going to make some comments, and I am very eager to be corrected.

My general problem is with the question of what dialectics is. I don't
think many people takes the idea of dialectics as the triad of
'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' serious; but I also don't think that
many people takes Engels' definition of dialectics as "the science of
the general laws of motion --both of the external world and of human
thought" serious either. But this leaves a problem of
characterization of dialectics. For example, in Ollman's Dialectical
Investigations (DI) he sees dialectics as "a way of thinking that
brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that
occur in the real world." (p. 10) But as T. Smith (in his
review of DI) correctly observes, Ollman tends to identify dialectics
as a general principle of methodological flexibility; that is, if
we accept Ollman's account, we should regard many diverse philosophers
as 'dialecticians'. So, I guess we should wait Ollman's other
books for a less generic characterization. But even one can argue
that T. Smith's own characterization is not immune to this
very criticism; especially his account of syllogisms in Hegel and his
emphasis on the three moments, namely individual, particular and
universal, in any inquiry (which is a very good critique of
reductionism) does not sustain a 'demarcation' criterion for
diverse philosophers; many thinkers (with the possible exception
of methodological individualists) uses this principle in their actual
practices. For example, at a more concrete level, Smith's
'dialectical social theory' can be questioned as a too general
account of a social inquiry, for it cannot tell the difference
between, say, Max Weber and Marx (actually to me, it is not a social
theory at all. I mean by social theory something like Bhaskar's
'transformational model of social activity' or A. Giddens's
'structuration theory', though these two can be argued as instances
of 'dialectical social theories'. No, my aim is not to criticize
Smith or Ollman who, I believe, make extremely important jobs in the
clarification of the idea of dialectics. I only would like to point
out the ambiguity of dialectics in Marxism. (Ollman is probably right
when he is saying that dialectics is the most abused category in
Marxism; it can be used to defend incompatible accounts).

In my understanding of dialectics, the concept of contradiction, as
distinct from simply 'conflict' or 'real oppositions', is essential,
as was already pointed out by Howie and Dumain:

> >the working hypothesis I favour would be that dialectics covers
> >situations where two mutually irreducible categories are the
> >conditions for each other's existence
> I struggled (when I had time) for years on the proper way of
> putting what dialectics is about.  Coincidentally, nowadays I put
> it in almost the exact same terms as you do.

But I think, this is another way to argue for the idea of
'emergence', the irreducibility of categories in any totality; in this
regard, Bhaskar's account of 'stratification' and differentiation of
reality is extremely important. It seems to me that any discussion of
dialectics cannot be independent of a proper account of philosophy of
(or for) science, which in turn requires a sound ontological
perspective. I think this the greatest merit of Bhaskar (though I
still have problems with his 'transcendental argument'). As far as I
am concerned, what Bhaskar does is to clarify dialectics or even to
save it from Hegelian (and even some marxian) interpretation. I
especially think that his critique of what he calls "ontological
monovalance" or the "positive" ontology, in which there
is no place for negativity and "absences" is of great importance.
In other words, in dialectics the 'existence of absences' and the
necessity of absences for 'being' should be concentrated upon. I think
this is Ehrbar's (and Despain's) understanding of dialectics
(unfortunately I am still extremely vague about what it means, but it
seems to me that this is one of the best possible ways to argue against
Colletti's position).

BTW, I think some of the criticisms directed to Despain's distinction
between ontological and epistemological dialectics do not seem to me
fair. This distiction is not to deny the fact that ontology and
epistemology are overlapping, it only tells about the irreducibility
of these categories, which is the basic premise of Bhaskar's realism.
In this regard, we may approach to the problem of dialectics,
following Bhaskar (Reclaiming Reality, p. 115), from three
angles. First, we may have epistemological dialectics, or dialectics
as a (scientific) method, a view exemplified by Marx's comments on
method in Capital, which provides a conception of Marxist social
science. Second, we can conceive dialectics as a set of laws or
principles governing some sector of the reality (e.g., social) or the
whole of it (both nature and society), a position which may be called
ontological dialectics, as in Engels's "dialectical materialism". As
a third category, we may have a relational dialectics, which explains
the movement of history, characterized by the attempt of Lukacs, in
his History and Class Consciousness, to explain history on the
basis of the class consciousness of proletariat as an "identical

For example, for Engels, dialectics is also a methodological category,
but it receives its potency from just its being a universal principle
characterizing the reality itself. For Lukacs, on the other hand,
dialectics, as an ontological category governing history, only
applies to human sphere, and therefore, it is the only legitimate
method for Marxist social science; whereas for Colletti, even if
dialectical contradictions have ontological status in capitalism,
it has no merit as a scientific method because it violates the
principle of non-contradiction, the most important principle in
any scientific inquiry.

In other words, I find this distinction is a useful way of
classification of different positions in the debate over dialectics.

I also have other problems about dialectics, especially in its use in
social theory, but I think I should finish my post. If anyone is
interested, I can have another post.



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