IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part III: The Philosophy of metaReality?

The lopsidedness of the postconference brings me to the question of the “spiritual turn.” Critical realism supposedly endured a break between the “original critical realism” of A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism and related texts, and the dialectical critical realism announced by Dialectic. I suspect the severity of the break has been greatly overstated – most practical applications of critical realism need few dialectical concepts, if any, and so attitudes toward DCR may lean more toward indifference than opposition. And what defines rejection of DCR? Some of Bhaskar’s notions are keenly debated on philosophical grounds, most notably “alethic truth” (a category error in my view), and his view that there’s indeterminate non-being, not just determinate absence (I’m undecided on this score, and I doubt it has much practical or even theoretical purchase). However, it doesn’t seem to me that disputing these two ideas necessarily constitutes a break from DCR; nor do I see why they should stop one from using the firmer parts of Dialectic, as I do myself. On the whole I think there’s less of a problem here than some have asserted.

However, it’s news to nobody that Bhaskar’s philosophy of metaReality and the “spiritual turn” in critical realism are far more controversial. I can only offer a few brief comments here. There are two main concerns. The first is whether these ideas represent a continuation of critical realism, or a fundamental departure from it. The second is whether it poses any particular problem for the acceptability of critical realism within scholarship more broadly. The two issues are independent.

I’m certainly not the first to say that PMR appears to make several arguments that seem implausible on logical grounds and inconsistent with OCR. Despite Mervyn Hartwig’s protests in the Dictionary, and presumably Bhaskar’s as well, PMR appears incompatible with the materialist philosophies (marxist, feminist, and otherwise) that have grounded the work of many critical realists until now, myself included. Thus PMR seems to have parted ways from critical realism. The claim that it continues and succeeds (“preservatively sublates”) critical realism isn’t very persuasive; to draw a slightly rude but pointed analogy, it looks similar to the way Christianity claims to continue and succeed Judaism.

That said, turning to the second concern, on one level it doesn’t particularly bother me if some people support PMR. On the whole I believe in the “big tent” view of critical realism – although at some point the tent ends. But on another level, I worry that for scholars outside the existing ambit of critical realism, PMR will further muddy the waters regarding what critical realism is all about, exacerbating the accusations that it’s a cult. It may even muddy the waters within critical realist circles themselves, by upping the ante on what it means to be a critical realist.

It might be healthiest for everyone, then, to straightforwardly refer to the adherents of PMR as “metaRealists” while continuing to call the advocates of OCR and DCR “critical realists,” acknowledging that there’s a historical relationship between them, but they’re philosophically distinctive. PMR neither subsumes critical realism nor is utterly alien to it. That may have implications for how we think about the conferences and IACR, but that’s manageable.

The conference in Cardiff will certainly have a different flavor: there will be more people with more extensive and varied experience with critical realism, and more time will have passed for us to think about critical realism post-Bhaskar. That last I’d say is the most important: critical realism should now become a leaderless movement, and attend more closely to expanding into other areas of scholarship, particularly through its conferences.


    1. Thanks, Günter! Shamefacedly, I confess (pardon the pun) that I haven’t read your work — but may more of us history-types stand up and be counted!

  1. Good news for me that the next IACR will be just sixty miles away in Cardiff. The bias in IACR towards philosophers and the social sciences has been problematic for me too, for CR is addressing recruits drawn from a subconsciously Humean philosophical and scientific culture (RTS p.12) in which the nature and dynamics of communication and hence the science of them (where I am coming from) are claimed to be irrelevant.

    How to discuss this briefly is a problem. One has to get through the formation of three subatomic particles from non-material (spiritual: the word meaning ‘wind’) energy, which together form an atom which can be influenced as a whole, but can also join up with others to form chains, tubes and skins enclosing three-dimensional spaces within which chains, tubes and three-dimensional organs can form cells. From these develop light-sensitive linear plants, active animals and thinking humans who in turn can go on to develop conceptual and technological structures in one, two and three dimensions. Hence Bhaskar’s CR starting from three levels and DCR adding the fourth to account for emergence of both material diversity and the new level of meanings conveyed in spiritual communication. Having already seen this in my own technical work I recognise it in Bhaskar’s – though my recognition process is more like understanding poetry than following an explanation.

    Anyway, I can understand people, brought up in the tradition of linear thinking, baulking at going beyond RTS. With my communications background the subject came to life for me with DCR. Hearing Bhaskar say his books formed a series, I’ve understood PMR as a adding the physical wave carriers of meaning and FEW as the information science problem of finding the spiritual keys enabling the decoding of and communication between the languages of different cultures. It is in that sort of way I think that Christianity has moved on from Judaism: Christ’s life and death being the key to understanding the Creator as a Father whose spirit of love is intended to live on in his children, rather than an angry King heaping retribution on those who break the letter of his Law.

    Apologies for the price of brevity being inadequacy.

  2. Hi Tobin

    Right to the end Roy regarded himself as espousing (including as a metaRealist) epistemological materialism (transcendental or scientific realism), ontological materialism (synchronic emergent powers materialism) and practical materialism (the TMSA). This is reiterated in the MSS he left for *Critical Realism in a Nutshell*. I find it helpful to reread and reflect on what he says about materialism in *The Formation of CR*, pp. 60-61, 82-86. The possibility of consciousness, meaning etc. must have been implicit at the beginning. If materialism can’t allow that it can’t account for mind and intentionality. As I see it, Roy rethinks the meaning of materialism and the natural world for our times in keeping with his account of emergence and modern science. The cosmos is an open, exponentially expanding and developing implicitly conscious (or, if you prefer, informational) physical system. So I don’t see the inconsistency (it’s rather the materialists who can’t take this on board who are inconsistent). And it has the advantage of being maximally inclusive, expanding the big tent, because it can appeal to people of all faiths and no faith. You can regard the universe’s fundamental structure of possibility as God’s immanence in the world or just as amazing or whatever — all that’s ruled out is its reduction to ‘dead matter’.

    1. Hi Mervyn,

      I thought you might reply 🙂 Thanks for the comments; I’ll try to get around to reading The Formation of CR sometime, although who knows when – the bibliography for my current project (or rather, the project I was starting when I hit a problem that led to the article I’m working on now) is well over 1000 titles. I now suspect that the makers of Zotero are terrorists.

      I realize that right to the end Bhaskar believed he was still espousing materialism, and I do respect that belief. However, it isn’t evidence that he actually was espousing materialism. We have to evaluate that for ourselves.

      I have no objection to the argument that the possibility of consciousness had to exist ever since the Big Bang. That’s obvious. The question is, so what? So too was the possibility of cockroaches, fur balls, and the utter and final destruction of Earth’s habitable environment. For that matter, it was also possible for me to become King of the North. The problem is, all of that’s contingent; a “possibility” is no more than conjectural unless there is a concrete, actualized basis for it to occur. Which is why I’m not, never have been, and never will be the King of the North. Not even on TV. The only way the argument can be significant is if one also argues that either (1) the universe actually was conscious from the start, which if memory serves (the exact passage isn’t coming to hand) at some point Bhaskar claimed; and/or (2) there is a telos such that the manifestation of consciousness is inevitable, which he definitely claimed. Both of these assertions are pretty darn idealist-looking. It’s a pity the discussion list archives aren’t searchable, because we (mainly you on one side, Ruth and I on the other) had an extensive debate about the issue long ago.

      Obviously we’re not going to settle the question in this blog or perhaps ever. I have my view, you have your view, and although I disagree with your view I respect that you and other rational people hold it; I think you feel likewise. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll be persuaded toward your view (or vice versa). The point I was trying to make is elsewhere: I suspect it may be healthiest for CR, both for its internal intellectual growth and for its ability to broaden its scholarly reach, for us to explicitly and more or less publicly acknowledge that there is an important divergence within our community, and to do so in a way that maintains mutual respect and circumvents the possibility of an ugly schism. Of course, my concern may be unfounded or misconceived, and if so, great. Or I might be getting into a self-fulfilling prophecy by raising the question at all. But I’m raising it anyway, because I think it’s worth thinking about.

  3. Right from the outset some critical realists have been atheists, others have been religious and yet others (including myself) spiritual but not necessarily religious. This has surely been public knowledge. However, until Roy’s spiritual turn the religious and spiritual critical realists were in the closet about their beliefs. They would not, and felt they could not, discuss their religious and spiritual beliefs in their work or in public, and so they were damagingly split between (private) practice and (public) theory. Outside theology departments and the like the default position in the academy was atheism. In sociology and social theory in particular there was and still is a taboo on discussing the truth claims of religion and spirituality known as ‘methodological atheism’, which often translates into actual hostility to religion and spirituality (see Doug Porpora’s 2006 article ‘Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience’). As a result of Roy challenging this taboo, there is now a flourishing critical realist literature devoted to constructive discussion and debate of matters religious and spiritual – surely a healthy development. On the atheist side, a model for participating in this debate is available in the work of Jamie Morgan, who has been sharply critical of the claims of both religion and metaRealism but on the basis of deep immanent understanding. As a result everyone loves Jamie, including the religious and spiritual people. A model for how not to conduct it (self-righteous indignation and intolerance) is provided by e.g. Colin Wight’s chapter in Kathryn Dean, Jonathan Joseph, John Michael Roberts and Colin Wight, Realism, Philosophy and Social Science (2006). It should be noted that all talk of nasty schisms and orientalist nonsense about CR being a cult (no-one has ever identified any cultists!) has come from the atheist side. Until recently, in Jamie’s great phrase, ‘alienated hostility’ has been dominant in the reception of the spiritual turn, one very material consequence of which was that Roy – the most brilliant of critical realists – couldn’t even get a proper academic job when he really needed one in the last twelve years or so of his life. So Tobin, it’s great to come across another atheist proposing tolerance and respect. I’m all in favour of that, so long as it doesn’t of course preclude mutual haverim critique – which I’m sure you’ll agree is the lifeblood of CR.

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