Roy Bhaskar: Transcendental Realism and the Transitive and the Intransitive
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
As a result of recommendations from both Nick (in his thesis) and Graham, I have been reading Roy Bhaskar’s remarkable Realist Theory of Science over the last couple of weeks. I am still trying to fully understand Bhaskar’s position and arguments, so if I misconstrue it in what follows I would greatly appreciate the input and clarification of those more familiar with his work.
Bhaskar attempts to develop a position he refers to as “transcendental realism”, where it is argued that the entities and mechanisms discovered by science are not simply beings as they are for us or beings in terms of our access to these beings, but rather where these mechanisms or beings exist as they are regardless of human access to them.
In a manner very similar to Meillassoux’s argument from the “Arche-Fossil”, Bhaskar argues that the intelligibility of science requires that mechanisms or entities discovered by science must be thought as belonging to a world without humans. In other words, according to Bhaskar, the existence of objects that are as they are independent of humans is a transcendental condition for the possibility of science. Just as Kant argued that we cannot account for how synthetic a priori judgments are possible unless we begin from the thesis that the mind imposes a priori forms of intuition and categories of the understanding on the manifold of sensibility, Bhaskar argues that objects completely independent of humans are a necessary condition for the intelligibility of scientific practice.
Bhaskar’s thesis is thus three-fold: First, Bhaskar is committed to the thesis that objects exist completely independent of humans. So far, with this first thesis, Bhaskar does not depart from the tradition of epistemological correlationism. The linguistic, social, or cognitive correlationist does not deny the existence of independent objects, only that we can have any direct or non-discursively mediated access to these objects. [...]
Second, and here Bhaskar really shines, is actualism or positive in fact reflective of the nature of claims about causality? Put differently, is it true that when making causal claims we are making claims about regular or lawful conjunctions of impressions? Are we claiming that given impression x, impression y always follows? Here Bhaskar argues in the negative. In a surprising move that resurrects the concept of cause so derided by Molière, Bhaskar argues that causes are not constant conjunctions of actual impressions in which one event invariably follows another, but rather that talk of causes refers to powers, mechanisms, or structures by which objects are capable of acting. A cause is thus to be understood not as a conjunction of actual events, but as a power belonging to a thing.
Here I have to quibble with Graham a bit for, in correspondence, Graham has taken Bhaskar to task for championing potentiality and rejecting actualism. However, it seems to me that for Bhaskar causes are fully actual and acting at the ontological level, and are said to be potential only in terms of sense-experience which he equates with actualism, i.e., the idea that actual impressions have to be present to talk about a cause and effect relation.
Indeed, argues Bhaskar, were we to treat causes as constant conjunctions of events, our experience of the world as well as scientific practice would be rendered unintelligible. At the level of experience, actualism or positivism renders the notion of causality unintelligible because constant conjunctions of events between sense-impressions is the exception rather than the rule. That is, there are numerous occasions where the antecedent of a causal claim is present at the level of sensations and the consequent fails to follow.
Yet, contrary to Popper, we do not say that this falsifies the causal claim, but rather that there must have been some other intervening cause that prevented the consequent from manifesting itself. Likewise, the thesis of actualism renders actual scientific practice unintelligible, for if causal claims were genuinely about constant conjunctions of impressions rather than powers, we would be unable to understand 1) why scientists put such immense effort into creating closed laboratory environments where the mechanisms or powers belonging to things can be triggered, and 2) why, despite the fact that mechanisms seldom behave in this way in open environments, scientists nonetheless conclude that the mechanisms discovered in the artificial and constructed environment of the laboratory are operative in these environments. [...]
Bhaskar’s distinction between open and closed systems also allows us to see why Popper’s criterion of science as falsifiability fares so poorly. On the one hand, causal statements are falsified every day without undermining the legitimacy of these claims. Objects never fall as Newton describes them because there is friction and Newton’s laws apply only to ideal frictionless environments. Oxygen, under certain circumstances, fails to combust when we would expect it to, etc. These things occur because the object-ile in question is functioning, according to Bhaskar, in an open environment where other mechanisms or powers are at work as well.
On the other hand, the crucial question to ask with respect to causal claims is whether we’re dealing with closed or open systems. If mechanisms investigated in fields like psychoanalysis, economics, sociology, etc., fail to provide us with lawful regularities, then this is because the systems or assemblages investigated by these fields are open by nature, such that powers can said to be operative while nonetheless not invariably manifesting a hypothesized effect. In short, one of Bhaskar’s most significant contributions to our understanding of causality is that of powers that operate without producing a particular effect. [...]
The transcendental realist does not deny the functioning of the transitive dimension or the social, but instead argues that the relationship between this transitive dimension and the intransitive dimension of natural powers is one of assemblic relations rather than system based relations. That is, it is not, for example, the Kuhnian paradigm or the Foucaultian episteme that makes Copernicus “right” or Freud “true”. If there is truth in these theories it is a real that operates regardless of whether any humans conceive it or conceptualize it.
Rather, the movement of the planets, gravity, libido, etc., enter into an assemblage with human actors, human history, human concepts, human language, etc., in such a way that the intransitive nonetheless maintains its separation and independence. Such would be the beginnings of a non-naive realist conception of being that was also able to take the best from the social sciences.