Is Bhaskar philosophically uncareful?

fellini at keynes.econ.utah.edu fellini at keynes.econ.utah.edu
Thu Feb 23 16:39:18 MST 1995



Since I am partly responsible for the idea that Bhaskar is a little bit
uncareful philosophically (an idea that arose from our reading of
Bhaskar), I would like to state my problems about Bhaskar's Realist
Theory of Science. This post is mostly a rejoinder to Despain's.

On Wed, 22 Feb 1995, Hans Ehrbar wrote:

> Bhaskar starts with one empirical observation: that science
> is possible, i.e., that those procedures which are commonly called
> "science" are in fact able to increase knowledge about the world
> and therefore expand the range of waht humans can do.  Is this
> philosophically uncareful?  In my view it is very defensible.
>

I too think it a very defensible position. But I am not very comfortable
with this 'transcendental argument'. Bhaskar's question is "what is the
world like for science to be possible"; it is not something "if P then Q"
but "it is Q then it must be P", that is, we know that science is
possible (empirical observation), then the world must be like how Bhaskar
characterizes it. Then, first problem is how do we know that science is
possible? One might argue that, especially in social science, science is
not that possible at all (even in the natural science we could argue that
what we call sicence is nothing but a social institution, which has
nothing or little to do with the knowability of the 'essences' of things).
But I am not going to defend this. My main problem is that the answer
given by Bhaskar is not that clear to me. My reason is very simple: if
there is one empirical observation there might be more than one, even
infinite number of, explanations compatible  with this observation. In
other words, on the basis of scientific practice we need not to derive
the conclusion that this practice is a "transcendental realist" one
(though I must admit that his account for science is consistent with his
own "RRRE model of explanation).

After all, every philosphers of science uses the same history of natural
sciences (especially physics) to support their accounts, from
positivists to Kuhn and Feyerabend. I agree with Bhaskar
that the spontaneous practice of the scientists and their reflections
upon this practice need not be the same. But still, I couldn't get a
clear answer from my reading of Bhaskar. In this regard, for example,
many examples used by Bhaskar to show that scientists are
transcendental realists could also be used to defend an atomistic
conception of science.

I am not saying that Bhaskar's account of reality does not make sense to
me, it does a lot. But it seems to me that Bhaskar is not very careful
about this transcendental argument. Maybe this is the problem of Bhaskar
in general: he tries to solve too many problems, or Gordion knots, at
once. For example, he claims to have reached a synthesis between
anti-monistic (a tradition from Popper to Feyerabend, in their criticisms
of positivist claim that science develops in a ministic fashion) and
anti-deductivist (a tradition opposing to the idea that science is
deductivist in its structure, like Popper-Hempel's nomological-deductive
model of explanation) traditions in philosophy of science. On the other
hand, he also tries to resolve body-mind problem, and in social sphere
the problem of individual vs. social (and even in his last book, Plato
etc., he tries to resolve all philosophical problems, so far
unresolved). Maybe he is right about these, but still all the solutions
of these Gordion knots are based on that  \transcendental argument. So I
would like to ask: how strong is this argument to carry all the burden
that Bhaskar puts on it? I don't have an answer for this question, if
anyone has, I would be grateful.

For example, Despain mentions Putnam as a realist whose position is quite
different from Bhaskar's. I would also like to mention philosopher Rom
Harre, who was Bhaskar's mentor and whom Bhaskar places within the
anti-deductivist tradition. In a book written by Harre and Madden, (Causal
Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity, 1973) Bhaskar's critique of Humean
view of causality as constant conjunctions and even implicitly Bhaskar's
distinction between experiences, events and structures/generative
mechanisms has been put forward. However, as far as I know, Harre is more
sceptical than Bhaskar about the knowability of the 'real essences' that
things have, as distinct from their manifestations, namely causal powers
or dispositions of these things (In this regard, Harre's and Putnam's
positions are parallel). Bhaskar's position is that these
essences can be known, because scientists, in their actual practice, do
this. I think this may be a little bit optimistic position, maybe there
is no way to know these.

To repeat, I am not suggesting that Bhaskar is wrong, for I believe
that he is right, but I only want to say that perhaps he should have
been a little careful in the eloboration of the transcendental argument.

Any comments?

Regards

Fellini


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