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[The following paper, which was originally posted to the Bhaskar email list, is archived here with the kind permission of the author, who retains the copyright.]

Bhaskar and American Critical Realism


Critical Realism occupies an exciting position in contemporary philosophy. It seems poised to offer solutions for the contemporary post-positivist and post-theoretical situation in which philosophy finds itself. Much of the attractiveness of Critical Realism lies in this seeming uniqueness but perhaps as true, moderate Critical Realists we ought to resist a sense of destiny or ideology. In fact, while I am a convinced theoretical Critical Realist, I believe that our movement has a great deal in common with older movements; to be more precise, "American" Critical Realism.

Some familiar with contemporary Critical Realism and the works of Roy Bhaskar may be struck by the similarity of its name with that of the older American movement from the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether or not there is any doctrinal similarities, one thing is certain; the major proponents of contemporary Critical Realism do not seek to address older Critical Realism in any way. I propose to review the history of this movement to see exactly where any affinities, if any, lie.

"Critical Realism" was coined by Roy Wood Sellars (1880-1967; not to be confused with his son, Wilfred) in 1915. Sellars meant to refer to his brand of scientific materialism that stood in contrast to Idealism, Pragmatism and Realism. Although sometimes considered a position articulated in response to British Realism and the work of G. E. Moore, American Critical Realism really developed concurrently. The most tangible evidence of this movement was the volume Essays in Critical Realism, to which Durant Drake, J. B. Pratt, A. K. Rogers, George Santayana, Roy Wood Sellars, C. A. Strong, and Arthur Lovejoy all contributed (c.f., Chisholm 1982).

Much of the work of these contributors is quite diverse; for example, George Santayana is usually grouped with American pragmatists. Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a mind-body dualist and in ethics a psychological hedonist. However, some of the works of the more canonical figures, especially Sellars, and to a lesser extent Lovejoy, bring out significant doctrinal patterns.

Sellars most wanted to promote a non-reductive scientific materialism. Thus, it is correct to say that whereas today's Critical Realism is a broad-based normative discipline, American Critical Realism was an epistemological doctrine. However, while American Critical Realists lacked a consistent social philosophy and ethics, their epistemological commitments implicated metaphysical issues as well.

Consistent with a critique of monistic theories of knowledge (be they idealistic or realist), American Critical Realists insisted on the structuredness of the world, its transcendent status, and our variable access to it in cognition. A good example is Lovejoy's (1930) "temporalistic realism" according to which reality is structured in a metaphysical pluralism, and determinate perspectives follow from this. In the end, Lovejoy strongly upheld epistemological dualism so that empirical questions could not be divorced from metaphysical questions. Here we find an early defense of Bhaskar's distinction between the Transitive and Intransitive dimensions.

Here the orientation of American Critical Realism to natural science is most evident. As the New Realism passed on to Ordinary Language philosophy and Rylian new-Realism, a ban on empirical questions continued to issue from England. At the same time, the unfortunate positions of the Logical Positivists forestalled meaningful progress from the other end. It is in this context that an older Roy Wood Sellars wrote about relativity theory and rigidly kept pluralism separate from mere perspectivalism. The existence of any Marxian stance has been absent so far, but it is interesting that Sellars (1969) took very seriously some of Lenin's ideas and included them in his very interesting, but little-read, surveys of philosophy written at the end of his life.

At this point the bridging personality emerges, Maurice Mandelbaum (1908-1987). He was strongly influenced by Lovejoy but also by the Gestalt position of Wolfgang Khler. From Khler, he expanded on metaphysical pluralism and epistemological dualism to obtain a more sophisticated position on science and scientific law and explanation but also added a position on perceiving influenced by phenomenology. An intellectual historian like Lovejoy, Mandelbaum learned to consider historical issues without slipping into a hermeneutic model.

All Critical Realists today are indebted to Mandelbaum's essay on "Societal Facts" published in 1955 in England, at the height of Isaiah Berlin-Friedrich von Hayek-Karl Popper methodological individualism, as well as to his essay of two years later on "Societal Laws" (published again in England!) where he clarified Popper's position on "historicism." Mandelbaum's early work began in the thirties with his realist defense of historical knowledge, and his contributions to the theory of knowledge have been advanced often in the context of the philosophy of history. His Philosophy, History and Sense-Perception defended by name a "radical critical realism." This was strongly influenced by Khler and Mandelbaum's carried on Khler's critique of New Realism with his own criticism of Gilbert Ryle. What Mandelbaum meant by "radical critical realism" was a prescription against identifying the properties of perceived objects with their referents, a move that promoted science but did not deny the autonomy of the psychological.

Many Critical Realists may be aware of Mandelbaum's discussions of Marx as an intellectual historian, especially through his History, Man and Reason (1971). This history of 19th century philosophy is a monument to Mandelbaum's ongoing interest in history and his discussions of Marx are no less sophisticated than the rest of the book. Of course, Mandelbaum is no "Marxist," but he carried on the necessary interpretive work to understand Marx and thinkers surrounding him.

Mandelbaum argued many things that are increasingly commonplace. He clarified how the early Marx was not searching for a science of society, was a Feuerbachian, and could not have formulated the developmental laws which Hegel and Engels did; how beginning with the "Theses on Feuerbach," the mature Marx adopted an approach based on the careful, dialectical study of actual and not generic social institutions; and finally explained the nature of Marx's view of historical change and whether or not it was directional or functional. Finally, Mandelbaum (1982) weighed in on the debate over G. A. Cohen's interpretation of Marx, accepting the fact that functional explanations exist in Marx but denying that they are, as Cohen argues, valid and instead arguing that Marx's theory derives plausibility based on other premises.

Mandelbaum took for granted many things, especially regarding the philosophy of science, that are strong features of contemporary Critical Realism. Most importantly, he denied the symmetry of explanation and prediction so central to Logical Positivist models of science, and he used a form of the Critical Realist argument for realism which he called the Self-Excepting Fallacy. He consistently showed the dependence of doubt on belief so that most forms of relativism can be shown to depend in some way on objectivities that are taken for granted. This has similarities to Bhaskar's Epistemic Fallacy, except that it names the mechanism by which much epistemology is reified into Ontology.

In this sense it is unfortunate that in the single instance in which Mandelbaum is mentioned in the Bhaskar corpus, it is negative. In A Realist Theory of Science, Mandelbaum's pioneering paper "Historical Explanation: The Problem of Covering Laws" (1960) is criticized. Mandelbaum was unhappy with Hempel's influential application of Vienna School principles to history in the form of "covering laws" (subsuming historical instances under a "covering law") and criticized the use of notions of cause and law, based on Humean perspectives. This was an important gesture for social scientific naturalism in search of more adequate foundations.

Almost unknown to Critical Realists is Mandelbaum's discussion of causality in The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge with a full critique of Hume that goes back to Gestalt sources. Mandelbaum argued that linear causality is a myth and in the case of Hume's billiard balls argued that the ball is not hit and only then does it move; rather, it moved when hit. One brilliant article, "Determinism and Moral Responsibility," has made almost no impact on the discussion of ethics and agency. Both the concepts of causality and determinism developed by Mandelbaum deserve full comparison with those same concepts developed in the Bhaskarian model.

Bhaskar has shown how his brand of Critical Realism arose out of some very unique conditions. As an economist he was unhappy with the inability of economic science to deal with economic justice. Thus he saw the need for a realism that could do justice to problems of ethics and individual agency. To align this to the unique perspective of a "generation of 1968," however, would be to deny the motivations behind all philosopher's work. While contemporary Critical Realism might be considered a form of theory for reformed Marxists, a realism that can do justice to human uniqueness was common to the generations of 1918 as well as of 1945.

The conclusion I draw is that at a minimum Critical Realists ought to praise American Critical Realism for the unique service it performed throughout the twentieth century, smoothing out the various extremisms of New Realism, Ordinary Language, Logical Positivist and Libertarian philosophy. Naturally, it did not anticipate completely contemporary Critical Realism, however in examining many of its doctrines we should not be surprised by a strange sense of familiarity. 

Works Cited

Chisholm, Roderick. "Theory of Knowledge in America." The Foundations of Knowing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982. 109-93.

Drake, Durant, et al. Essays in Critical Realism. New York: Macmillan, 1920.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Revolt Against Dualism. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. "Societal Facts." British Journal of Sociology 6 (1955): 305-17.

-----. "Societal Laws." British Journal for the Philosophy of Sciences 8 (1957): 211-24.

-----. "Determinism and Moral Responsibility." Ethics (1960): 204-19.

-----. Historical Explanation: The Problem of Covering Laws, History and Theory 1 (1961): 229-42.

-----. Philosophy, Science and Sense-Perception: Historical and Critical Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964.

-----. History, Man and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

-----. The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

-----. "G. A. Cohen's Defense of Functionalist Explanation." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 12 (1982): 285-7.

Sellars, Roy Wood. Reflections on American Philosophy from Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

Copyright © 2000 Ian Verstegen

The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive