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.

IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part II: The “New Conversations in Science and Religion” Conference

It occurred to me that Religious Studies is a field within the humanities, so I decided to pay attention to the postconference.  Of course it’s not surprising that the chosen humanities field was Religious Studies, given the (to me, surprising) surge of critical realists revealing the importance of religion in their lives.  I would have preferred something like history, however.

My responses to the postconference were naturally shaped by my own religious background and views.  I am culturally Jewish: I don’t practice, yet it is part of how I identify myself, how I think about the world, and (I would say) my general style of action.  For all intents and purposes I’m an atheist, but as a good fallibilist I officially describe myself as an agnostic.

I have long been struck by the fact that critical realists, as best as I can tell, include very few fellow Jews.  It’s odd.  We’re widespread in scholarship, both historically and in the present.  Now, I don’t go around checking people’s religious affiliations, but it’s not unusual for us to suss each other out.  Of course, maybe my impression is simply wrong.  In any case, we seem rare within critical realism.  I can’t help but wonder why, but I don’t have any answers.

However, a distinctly Christian element within critical realism began to declare itself with Bhaskar’s From East to West.  As almost everyone admits, it’s a highly problematic book, but I found the chapter “To the Promised Land” (in which Bhaskar recounts his soul’s supposed Jewish phase) particularly off-putting.  Who are the “twelve disciples” (p. 74)?  What’s the holy grail doing here, and why is it given him at age 33-4 (p. 75)?  Why is his late teacher resurrected (p. 76)?  What exactly are these dilemmas of Judaism that somehow need to be resolved (pp. 77-78)?  Can the claim that they have been resolved mean anything other than a belief that Judaism has been surmounted by something better, and now can safely be dispensed with?  It seems like the basic function of this chapter is to presage the coming of Christianity, and covers a phase to be passed over as soon as possible (pun intended).

Now that a range of people within CR have declared their religious feelings, the “Science and Religion” postconference (which had very little science) was predictably oriented toward Christianity, and – not quite as predictably – blinkered about it.  Only Kevin Schilbrack, who gave the day’s best paper, made a substantive effort to include other religions in his compass.  (To be completely accurate, I don’t know for certain about one plenary talk because after 10-15 minutes of exasperation I quietly left.)  There are many things you can discuss while considering only one religion.  You can study its sociology in connection to, say, labor history or gender relations.  You can analyze how one religion adjusted its theology in response to scientific discoveries.  You can explore how a religion’s institutions interacted with state institutions.  Etc.  But you can’t analyze religion per se by looking at only one religion.  You can only do that by considering numerous religions.  The situation is the same in my own work: if I were to use predominantly realistic plays like those of Anton Chekhov or Tennessee Williams as my models for conceptualizing theater, my theory would go far astray, not even capturing Shakespeare.  And so it is for religion.

For example, Christianity in all its variants is essentially a religion of beliefs.  But the same cannot be said of Judaism: it’s principally a tradition of practices and orientations.  Although there are differences among the various branches of Judaism regarding the interpretation of the sacred texts and some doctrinal matters, what distinguishes them most are their attitudes about adapting the traditional practices and laws to the times.  Under Orthodox Judaism, one keeps kosher, prays only in groups of at least ten people, and observes a wide number of holidays, including the Sabbath; under Reform Judaism (in the UK, called Liberal Judaism) many such practices go by the wayside.  But respect for the Torah and the highest holidays, and for education generally (whether religious or secular) remain central to both.  Faith isn’t obligatory: one can be both an Orthodox Jew and an atheist.  Conversely, one can follow none of Judaism’s traditional religious practices, yet still share its orientations and relationship with history and knowledge, and thus consider oneself Jewish.  A Christian concept of religion as a faith cannot accommodate these possibilities.  Indeed, the very notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” is objectionable, since it exaggerates the continuity between the two and implies that Christianity has superseded Judaism.  Somewhat in the way Bhaskar does it in From East to West.

In short, important as it is to understand one’s own religion, it’s important to understand others’ as well, and to do so in relation to each other – both Self and Other, or perhaps better, Martin Buber’s I and Thou.  So a critical realist discussion of religious ideas faces two imperatives: one is to pursue truth, e.g., to develop an accurate and comprehensive definition of religion, which requires a comparative and nondenominational approach; the other is to seek what Bhaskar called “eudaimonia,” a society of universal flourishing, which entails equity – a policy which in these times of intense religious conflict is in terribly short supply.

[Next: The Philosophy of metaReality?]

IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part I: The Main Conference

The following are a few comments on the 2015 IACR conference at the University of Notre Dame and the “New Conversations in Science and Religion” one-day conference that followed.  I am by no means attempting to provide a full survey or review, but some of my interactions and responses to the conference raised thoughts about the state of critical realism generally; and as the point of this blog is to work out my thoughts, there is a necessary personal element here. I’ve broken up my discussion into three parts: the main conference, the “Science and Religion” postconference, and issues raised for CR as a project by the rise of the “philosophy of metaReality.”

I turn first, then, to the main conference.  The majority of IACR members are in the social sciences, with a smattering of philosophers, whereas scholars of culture and the arts like me are few and far between (although I’ll somewhat modify that statement later).  This is a continuing problem in CR: even after 18 years of conferences, their attendees are still in a narrow range of scholarly fields, encouraged by themes usually tailored mainly if not strictly for social scientists.  (This is on top of the sharp demographic disparities in gender and race: it’s still mainly a meeting of middle-aged white guys.)  Particularly astonishing is the paucity of historians.  Historiography is the humanities field with the most kinship to the social sciences, so one would expect historians to be at least as populous as the philosophers.  That said, the “Science and Religion” postconference can be seen as an effort to open up to other fields (in this case, religious studies) – a problematic effort, but an effort nonetheless.

One thing conferences are good for is running ideas past colleagues, and discovering what concepts one’s readers might have difficulty with (perhaps more urgent but also more difficult for a disciplinary interloper like me).  For these reasons I wanted to talk with Margaret Archer about my paper-in-progress on embodied collective reflexivity, which naturally draws upon her work.  In considering the possibility of an embodied form, I am thinking of communication – and thus the possibility of reflexivity – that is not simply about the body, but through it.  Unfortunately I was thoroughly inarticulate when I talked with Maggie, so it was difficult to tell whether her response reflected my lack of clarity or her unfamiliarity with the concept of embodiment I work with. Thus when I was in a more lucid state (i.e., I’d had a beer) I approached her to see if she could catch on to it by quoting a line that I felt captured the idea: “Sex is a promise you make with your body.”  (This was a slight misquotation of from the movie Vanilla Sky, which I haven’t seen so I’m not sure where I heard it.)  Her look betrayed utter bafflement, and after I returned to my chair, she repeated the sentence to Alan Norrie (seated next to her) with an expression that said “WTF?!”  Her reaction was perhaps surprising, given some of her arguments in Being Human; but perhaps not, as her discussions of embodiment are somehow disembodied, and there is a distinct rationalist streak in her work. For me, the sentence is completely comprehensible – whether one agrees or disagrees is beside the point. The gestures and interactions and intertwinings of our bodies are intrinsically meaningful. (It seems my unconscious was working overtime, as I kept trying to remember the English for Brecht’s plumpes Denken, “coarse thinking,” which is gritty with the material world.) I ran the phrase by a few other people; some shared Maggie’s reaction, some got it right away.  I suspect that most people in theater studies would have understood it immediately. So it’s clear that I’ll have to pay a little more attention to explaining the concept in my forthcoming article.

I tend to think that the most important aspects of a conference aren’t the plenaries and panels.  That said, for my money the best plenary was easily Ruth Groff’s, which is now available on her blog.  The panels were the usual mix of good and not so much, but it was striking how many of the speakers were relatively new to CR.

It was also striking how many speakers appeared more than once.  I raised this matter at the Annual General Meeting because I think it’s bad practice, and I proposed a policy that conference presenters should only appear once.  Christian Smith (the conference organizer) informed me that few papers were submitted, so no one was excluded as a result of the multiple presentations.  I was startled that the submission numbers were so low, but there you have it.  That surely won’t be the case next year in Cardiff, however.  The organizer for that conference (Ismael Al-Emodi?), while sympathetic, wants to keep the option of multiple presentations open, which I think is unwise.  As far as I’m concerned, between allowing someone to present two papers at the cost of someone’s ability to attend, and enabling one more person to attend at the cost of forcing someone to make a choice, it’s not even a question.  (Besides, one more attendee is one more registration being paid.)

Attendees of the Annual General Meeting also witnessed Maggie threatening to quit the organization over some language in the proposed amendment regarding diversity in IACR.  It’s true that the language was problematic, but frankly Maggie’s vehemence was over the top.  And the implied assumption that we would all leap to make sure she stayed appeared rather presumptuous.

Organization members really should attend Annual General Meetings.  I know they sound boring, but I’ve been involved in several organizations and seen them do (or attempt to do) some incredibly stupid things, plus the meetings provide an opportunity to discuss problems and propose improvements.  The quality of the conferences does have an influence on critical realism’s intellectual development.

[Next: The Postconference]