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[The following review, which was originally published in Green Left Weekly 190 (June 7, 1995), is archived here with the permission of the publisher and the author, Neville Spencer, who retains the copyright. For details regarding subscriptions to Green Left Weekly, please click here or contact]

The Rediscovery of Reality


Review of Andrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Roy Bhaskar (London: Verso, 1994), and Roy Bhaskar, Plato Etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (London: Verso, 1994).

The philosophical school which has been dubbed "critical realism" emerged during the 1970s and has since become a central reference point in the discussion of philosophical issues, especially amongst the left. Its central figure is the English Philosopher Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar's previous works--which include A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation--are increasingly widely read and mark him as one of the most important and original of contemporary Marxist philosophers.

Bhaskar's writing is not always very accessible, however. His dense use of technical terms along with his own considerable vocabulary of neologisms and acronyms mean that his works need to be read at a rather gradual pace in order to be absorbed. Hence Andrew Collier's Critical Realism should play an important role in popularising the work of Bhaskar to the wider audience it deserves. Though not aimed at the complete philosophical novice, its style is very readable and enjoyable.

In many respects Bhaskar can be seen as a defendant of fairly orthodox Marxist views. At the same time, his work is remarkably original. What makes it seem fresh is the insight and thoroughness of his analytical distinctions, which develop previously existing concepts more rigorously and lucidly and develop new concepts which give a greater depth to Marxist philosophy. His neologisms do actually serve to illuminate new concepts rather than obscure old ones (deliberate obscurity is popular amongst some contemporary philosophers).

His primary field of investigation is the philosophy of science. He is concerned to produce a philosophy which takes on not only the traditional foes of Marx and Engels, the idealists, but tackles the much more pervasive influence of positivism.

Bhaskar sees that the events we observe (and those we don't) are caused by a variety of mechanisms--physical, biological, social etc. In normal situations a whole number of different and conflicting mechanisms determine what will happen in any particular situation, making it difficult to see what exactly is the cause of any event. This problem is overcome in science by setting up artificial situations (experiments) which will isolate particular mechanisms from the interference of others.


In normal situations, even if a mechanism of nature exists, there may be others which counteract its influence so that it isn't effective. Apples don't always fall toward the earth--in fact for the most part they remain stationary (hanging in trees for instance). Does gravity exist during the majority periods when it has no observable effect? The critical realist answer is yes, the (consistent) positivist answer is no.

Critical realism views reality as much deeper than what we can observe or what happens. Positivism on the other hand recognises only the events which actually occur as exhausting the entirety of what is real. It does not accept that there are such mechanisms really existing behind events.

Critical realism points out that, as a consequence, positivism cannot explain why experiments can be useful to science. If the mechanisms isolated and studied by experimentation existed only by virtue of the experiment itself and not in the complex world of nature, then experiments could not further our knowledge of the world. That science can expand our knowledge of the world, even those parts of the world which lie outside the laboratory, contradicts the positivist point of view.

Social sciences

Although the philosophy of science is a starting point, the scope of Bhaskar's work extends far beyond it. His influence is and will probably continue to be greater in the social sciences. From his starting point, he develops a theory of the differences and similarities between the natural and social sciences and what this means for the project of human emancipation.

The possibility of understanding the social world in the same manner we can understand the natural world has been rejected in many quarters. Marxists have often found themselves alone defending the idea that there do exist laws of the social world which can be discovered and understood in a manner similar to that by which the natural sciences render the natural world comprehensible.

Bhaskar points out that those who oppose this view do so because their understanding of the nature of the natural sciences is incorrect in the first place; their attempt to apply that misunderstanding to social sciences serves only to throw their original confusion into sharp relief.

It is the acceptance of an essentially positivist understanding of science which has led to the rejection of science as a means to understand society. If instead we accept a plausible view of natural science, then the dilemma of similarly understanding society disappears.

As well as providing a lucid introduction to Bhaskar's work, Collier (also a key figure in the critical realist camp) voices several criticisms. In particular, he expresses greater scepticism than Bhaskar over the possibility of scientifically understanding the social world. This is certainly the most contested aspect of critical realism and has been the site of previous debates within the school.

Collier's suggestion that psychoanalysis should be the paradigm of the social sciences seems difficult to accept, however. Social science, even lacking the assistance of a critical realist perspective, has made great progress without resort to the fairly arbitrary and speculative reasoning which psychoanalysis employs.

None the less, Collier's book is on balance a very valuable one. It serves well as an introduction to the work of the critical realist school, and even for anyone not intending to delve deeper it will clarify and deepen the understanding of philosophy. There is no other source which offers the insights of critical realism in such an accessible form.

A hopeless project?

For anyone who does want to read further, Bhaskar's most recent book, Plato Etc, is one of his more accessible. It is also his broadest in scope and ambition.

In his previous Dialectic, he developed a critical realist view of dialectics, which had been an obvious lack for a school which situates itself so closely to the philosophical legacy of Marx and Engels. In Plato Etc a more developed philosophy is explained, and its critical power is brought to bear on the central problems which have plagued philosophy since ancient Greek times.

A.F. Whitehead once characterised Western philosophy as a series of footnotes on Plato. Bhaskar convincingly argues that the contradictions which Plato tried and largely failed to resolve are in essential respects the same contradictions which philosophy up to the present day has tried and similarly failed to resolve.

Philosophy's inability to settle the same problems with which it started out two and a half thousand years ago has produced understandable pessimism about the entire philosophical project. Its distance from reality (or its assertion that there is no reality) and its frequent employment to justify assertions patently ridiculous to common sense have done nothing to challenge such pessimism. Bertrand Russell even declared that the problems of philosophy were simply not possible to resolve.

The subtitle of Plato Etc is an assertion to the contrary. Identifying the commonalities which have been shared from Plato to Hume, Kant and Hegel and through to post-structuralism demonstrates their common errors rather than their insoluble problems. In particular their error is their common lack of conception of a type of realism with enough depth to avoid the persistent dilemma of philosophy. Those who have adhered to some form of realism have run into contradictions. Those who have taken anti-realist positions have had the prevalent shallow conception of realism with which to sustain their rejection of it.

With this critique Bhaskar traverses almost all the main areas of the philosophical discipline--from theory of knowledge, philosophy of science and causality through to ethics, politics and the sociology of philosophy. The importance of critical realism is vindicated in Plato Etc by its ability to deal with such a broad range of issues and to bring coherence to such a complex history of ideas.

The above article was originally published in Green Left Weekly 190 (June 7, 1995).
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Copyright © 1995 Neville Spencer

The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive