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Roy Bhaskar’s Theory of Critical Realism

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Published: Thu, 26 Jul 2018

How to Change Reality: Story vs. Structure – Debate between Rom Harre and Roy Bhaskar

Roy Bhaskar (15 May 1944 – 19 November 2014) was a British philosopher, renowned as the initiator of the philosophical movement of Critical Realism. He was a World Scholar at the Institute of Education, University College London. Critical Realism (CR) is an integrative metatheory founded in the 1970s by Roy Bhaskar with the publication of seminal works in the philosophy of science and social science, such as A Realist Theory of Science, The Plausibility of Naturalism, and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. Bhaskar’s consideration of the philosophies of science and social science resulted in the development of Critical Realism. The term Critical Realism was not initially used by Bhaskar. The philosophy began life as what Bhaskar called ‘Transcendental Realism’ in A Realist Theory of Science (1975), which he extended into the social sciences as ‘Critical Naturalism’ in The Possibility of Naturalism (1978). The term ‘Critical Realism’ is an elision of Transcendental Realism and Critical Naturalism, that has been subsequently accepted by Bhaskar after being proposed by others, partly because of its appropriate connotations; Critical Realism shares certain dimensions with German Critical Theory.

In this essay Roy Bhaskar distinguish post modernism, social constructionism, Critical Realism and Dialectical Critical Realism. He has discussed Rom and Charlie’s point of view on Social Constructionism and Critical Realism in a dialectical context.

The first thing Bhaskar discussed, is how Rom and Charlie defended post modernization and social constructionism. Further, Bhaskar gave a dialectical context on Rom’s work, stating that his all works ends in some kind of reductionism, but before giving dialect on Rom’s point. Bhaskar gives a prolonged explanation to postmodernist’s saying that ‘reality is a social construct’. Bhaskar started elucidating postmodernism. According to Bhaskar, “Reality is a construct of discourse, the text, the conversation, or if you like, people or even power relations”. Bhaskar further criticized Rom’s dual aspect philosophy of social reality. In which he stated how Rom gives two different statements in different modes. According to Bhaskar, when Rom is in Vygotskian mode he says that ‘social reality is a construct of conversation’. That is because Rom’s ideas are closest as to Lev Vygotsky. Bhaskar further added that when Rom is in humanist mode, he says it is a ‘construct of people’. Both postmodernist and Rom agreed that social reality is conceptual, to which Bhaskar also agreed and proclaimed further that is it not exhaustive of anything, whether its people, powerful particulars, discourse or text.

According to Bhaskar, interesting thing about dialectical critical realism is that it takes the dialectic a stage further. Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism rejects any sort of reductionism. He asserted that there is no equation between social and the conceptual or social and the humans. He then gave prolonged description about conceptual moment in human life. He then discussed the connection to human freedom and they have a dialectical universalisabilty of forming a judgement. According to Bhaskar, humans have a vision of good society in which the free development of one is the condition for free development of all, by this statement free development (- – -), he is asserting that human wants a classless society, the free development of each, the individual liberty and freedom to work of each individual allows for the building of a better society. He further asserted that being humans, we are more concerned about the factors that affects our freedom and we should get rid of those factors such as Nazism (The ideology and practice of the Nazis, especially the policy of racist nationalism, national expansion, and state control of the economy), bureaucracy and capitalism. He said that we should rescue our situation by considering our being and existence in a more serious manner and it is because we want to save the situation and have to take ontological (nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations) question significantly of whether structures, whether unconscious or social, are real.

Bhaskar describes from a critical realist standpoint that how postmodernist deny existence of direct object to being. Bhaskar asserted that postmodernist normally says that they are not denying that things exist but they merely assert and says that they can’t say anything about these things. But Critical Realism has shown philosophical position, or scientific position, or social position, all require a certain general shape of the world. He added that if we are restricted human knowledge to that which can be perceived by the senses, we will believe that social forms and social structures are immutable but if we are like Habermas (German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism.) in his account of nature that we will set up false resistance between nature and society. Bhaskar asserted nature is a very special thing, which is not governed by laws, mechanism or structures and he agreed with Rom’s words on nature that “we are free to reinvent it very morning”.Bhaskar added that Rom and Charles are not postmodernist; they do not believe reality, as such, is a social construct. But in their Social Constructivism , their views on social existence reduces to conversation or people. They have given example that one thing can be dependent on multiple factors i.e. Does the food depend just on cook? No. It depends on various factors like utensils, ingredients, resources that he/she is given by the authorities, to which Bhaskar added that the cook must have made more tastier food if there would have been more budget. Here, Bhaskar wanted to prove a point that we are constrained by various factor and we can do better without constraints. Bhaskar then dialect Rom and Charles idea of reinventing society. He criticized that “why Rom and Charles do not reinvent a better kind of society if it’s so easy?” He then further explained with an example of Oxford College, that how fellows can decide how much wine they can drink and how much to store for the next year. By this he means how fellows can change rules time to time. But then an Oxford college is subject to government finance, if privately endowed, to stock market fluctuations. By this example Bhaskar describes how things can be controlled using constraints and how things would act as a very powerful constraint.

Bhaskar further explains social structure and causal powers. He explains how agent, factor or vehicle, anything that influences the course of events in some way, is the criteria for causality. He added the people are very special but what people can do in a particular social context must be examined scientifically. He says we should accept the constraining structures if we want human freedom and we should not deny it. To this, Bhaskar dialect Rom’s statement that ‘social structures cannot be reproduced except by human activity’. He further asserted what Rom has said is a fundamental principal and is common to both his(Bhaskar’s) transformational model of social activity and Gidden’s theory of structuration. But there is an important difference between the two models in morality of which cannot be equated, which Maggie Archer in particular has pointed out. Bhaskar, regarding his transformational model asserts how we, humans are shackled of doing anything new and are beset by the preexisting structures, that restrain us. He asserted that fundamental Aristotelian model of society is correct. Efficient causality presupposes material causality; it presupposes a pre-existing material cause. And how we are heavily burdened by cruel presence of the past in this social world. He then talks about the one which validates Rom and Charles’s model, is, the birth of a baby, coming out of the womb, but that too, pre-existing life in the womb and out of the womb as well, pre-exiting thing are ready, fixed, pre-given. Bhaskar’s statement that at any moment of time we are heavily constrained by preexisting structures is a right theory

From Bhaskar’s point of view, Charles account of relationship between people and organism lacks the concept of emergence. He stated, people are organism, but there is one thing that differentiate people from being an organism only, emergent powers. In Bhaskar’s word ‘People are organism, but they are organism with emergent powers. He added that our society too, have emergent powers of human behavior to understand the society better but then everything eventually ends up with his former notion, everything is pre-existing human behavior.

In this para, Bhaskar explains how humans are emergent from the animal world and human power are the ingredients in the animal world, that’s what make us human, that’s why we are humans. Bhaskar describes that there is a plausibility of good society, we have to strive and fight for making one.

Bhaskar concluded that they might come to agree upon in terms of substantive proposals. But Rom and Charlie thinks that we have already achieved social construct but they do not know how we did it. Whereas Bhaskar thinks that there is a lot more hard work to do. And it is something humanity may or may not obtain contingently. But it is there as a task and moral imperative.


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