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Note: I am indulging here in thinking out loud, putting these things down to clarify my own thought a little.

In his 1947 study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye remarks that “idealism is a doctrine congenial to poets” (14). I think there is something to this, since in poetry the ideal and the concrete or material are merged in something midway between the two (whether that’s an image, a sound, a form, or what have you). But what may be true in, so to speak, a professional way, is not necessarily true in an ethical, political, or epistemological sense. There have been materialist poets.

Lately, I have been interested in various forms of what its practitioners describe as “realism”, alternately a way out of the left-right/idealist-materialist ideological impasse, a means of reconciling theory with empirical results, or a way of gaining epistemological certainty in the sciences and social sciences in a world afflicted by postmodernist relativism. Indeed, relativism, just as much as an authoritarian dogmatism, is at stake for the three realists I have been reading. Thus realism seeks to combine a historical and contextual precision with a grounded and empirical epistemology, as against relativism ahistoricism on the one hand and groundless epistemology on the other.

The three theorists I want to look at are Roy Bhaskar, whose “critical realism” has a certain standing in Marxist circles; Raymond Geuss, who proposes a realist philosophy of politics; and Anwar Shaikh, who counters orthodox (neoclassical) and heterodox economics with a theory of real economics, replacing theories of perfect and imperfect competition, with an empirically grounded concept of “real competition”.

Bhaskar’s work is of the longest standing. His initial contribution was to the philosophy of science, in a 1975 book called A Realist Theory of Science. In it, Bhaskar claims to develop a philosophy of “transcendental idealism” which combines empiricism with a theory of structures. Empiricism without structuralism is empty “actualism” which comes out of 17th century science (specifically Hume’s theory of causality) and which “while asserting the reality of things and/or events and/or states of affairs, denies the existence of underlying structures which determine how the things come to have their events” (Collier 7). Rather than seeing how events can be structurally determined (getting ahead of ourselves, we might think of structural racism or sexism), actualism “locates the succession of cause and effect at the level of events: every time A happens, B happens”. Bhaskar, on the other hand, asserts that there are structures in the world (physical, in the case of science; historical and social in the case of social sciences) which determine, through their transformations, the surface phenomena of the world itself. Bhaskar’s realism makes a claim for objectivity that, on the one hand, remains grounded in empirical practice while, on the other hand, allowing us to make larger and more significant (I would say, ethical and political) claims than those appropriate to a simple empiricism.

This larger set of possible claims allows Bhaskar to develop a theory of emancipation when he moves from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Bhaskar’s social theory is called “critical naturalism”, and again it seeks to produce a relational social ontology appropriate to social change and emancipation, while remaining grounded on empirically solid foundations. In Reclaiming Reality, Bhaskar writes:

All social structures – for instance the economy, the state, the family, language – depend upon or presuppose social relations – which may include the social relations between capital and labour, ministers and civil servants, parents and children. The relations into which people enter pre-exist the individuals who enter into them, and whose activity reproduces or transforms them; so they are themselves structures. And it is to these structures of social relations that realism directs our attention – both as the explanatory key to understanding social events and trends and as the focus of social activity aimed at the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed. (Quoted in Collier, 10).

In this sense, then, we can read Bhaskar as offering an empirically grounded, epistemologically secure, objective theory of science and society that brings Marx’s work up to the end of the 20th century (Bhaskar died in 2014). Indeed, in a chapter on Bhaskar in the Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, Alex Callinicos notes that “For some twenty years now, critical realism – the body of philosophical doctrines and arguments developed by Roy Bhaskar – has served as a rallying point for radical theorists in the English-speaking world who wish to escape from empiricism without falling prisoner to postmodernism” (567). At this juncture, I don’t want to draw any firm conclusions from Bhaskar’s work, except to note that in many ways librarianship too is caught between empiricism and postmodernism, and a “third way” would not go amiss.

Raymond Geuss’ Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) takes aim at one of Geuss’ perennial foes, Immanuel Kant, or rather at a “strong ‘Kantian’ strand’ which Geuss sees in much contemporary political theory.

This strand expresses itself in the highly moralised tone in which some public diplomacy is conducted, at any rate in the English-speaking world, and also in the popularity among political philosophers of the slogan “Politics is applied ethics”. (1)

Geuss notes two different meanings of the phrase ‘politics is applied ethics’. On the one hand, there is the meaning he thinks few people would raise any objection to, that politics “is not and cannot be a strictly value-free enterprise, and so is in the very general sense an ‘ethical’ activity” (1). If neutrality exists (which neither I or Geuss believe), then in politics – as in librarianship – you can be “neutral” or you can be ethical, but you can’t be both. If politics and librarianship are to be ethical activities (and many of us work libraries precisely because we feel it to be at least trying to be an ethical profession), then it must reject any notion of value-free neutrality. “Politics is a matter of human, and not merely mechanical, interaction between individuals, institutions or groups” – “the neutrality” of process, algorithms, or metrics cannot supplant the human in either politics or library work.

The second meaning of “politics is applied ethics,” what Geuss really objects to, is something other than the idea that neutrality is impossible. It is rather the idea that “we start thinking about the human social world by trying to get what is sometimes called an ‘ideal theory’ of ethics” (6). What Geuss sees in contemporary politics is the idea that the first step in political acting is to get clear in our minds a particular ethical framework (Kant’s, for example) and then apply that ethical framework to our political decisions. Because such ethical frameworks often (always?) begin with particular non-empirical general principles “such as that human are rational, or that they generally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain, or that they always pursue their own ‘interests’” – these principles tend to become enshrined, entrenched, unchanging, eternal, and unchallengeable.

Once an ethical framework has been worked out or adopted, only then are the empirical details of a given context then brought into the picture, either requiring some tweaking of the theory (as in economics, as we shall see), or with the empirical being twisted to fit the procrustean bed of theory.

The view I am rejecting assumes that one can complete the work of ethics first, attaining an ideal theory of how we should act, and then in a second step, one can apply that ideal theory to the action of political agents. As an observer of politics one can morally judge the actors by reference to what this theory dictates they ought to have done. Proponents of the view I am rejecting then often go on to make a final claim that a ‘good’ political actor should guide his or her behaviour by applying the ideal theory. The empirical details of the given historical situation enter into consideration only at this point. ‘Pure’ ethics as an ideal theory comes first, then applied ethics, and politics is a kind of applied ethics. (8-9)

In contrast, Geuss proposes a realist political philosophy, which “must start from and be concerned in the first instance not with how people ought ideally (or ought ‘rationally’) to act… but rather with the way the social, economic, political, etc., institutions actually operate in some society at some given time, and what really does move human beings to act in given circumstances” (9). This is, to me, not only congruent with Bhaskar’s philosophy of structures, but also congruent with Marxism’s demystifying project). Again, I don’t want to draw too many firm conclusions from Geuss’ work at this time, but I do wonder how political actors taking ethical positions (as #critlib does, for example), fits into this. Is Geuss proposing only a philosophy of political analysis, or does his theory also provide a guide to real political praxis as well?

The idea that we begin with certain invariable principles (“human nature”) and then grudgingly allow empirical reality to impinge on that theoretical framework, is at the heart of Anwar Shaikh’s critique of both orthodox and heterodox economics. Neoclassical economic theory, the hegemonic conception of economic reality, in Shaikh’s view begins with the perception of the perfect order of the capitalism system:

The perceived order of the system is recast as the supreme optimality of the market, of the ever-perfect invisible hand. This optimality is in tern projected back onto microscopic units, so-called representative agents, from whose superlatively rational choices it is said to arrive. And so we arrive at a particular vision. In its perfectly ordered form, the system equalizes all prices for comparable goods, all wage rates for comparable labors, and all profit rates for comparable degrees of risk. Moreover, it fully utilizes all available resources, including available plant, equipment, and labor. All of this without error, instability, or crisis. Only then, after this has been firmly established as the ruling conception, is potential disorder allowed into the story, sotto voce, in grudging concession to the obstinate indifference of the regrettable imperfect real. (Shaikh, 4)

Shaikh sees heterodox economics as falling into a similar trap. Rather than creating its own theory empirically grounded in real economic lives, heterodox economics often simply turns a principle of neoclassical economics around (instead of perfect competition, for example, competition is imperfect, but everything else stays the same). What Shaikh is arguing for is a realistic economic theory empirically grounded in real life, but with the explanatory and predictive power only rigorous theory can produce. Again, I think Shaikh’s realism is congruent with both Bhaskar’s and Geuss’.

I’m not sure how much all this applies to librarianship, though I think that our profession remains focused on empiricism to the exclusion of much else (which is why I often talk about the need for non-empirical utopian thinking in librarianship). Many of us are also suspicious of any kind of empiricism grounded in metrics and analytics – for good reason! So perhaps a “library realism” would fall somewhere between an uncritical adoption of analytics and fetishism of empirical or evidence-based research, and an ungrounded utopianism. I’m not too sure what that would look like yet.

However, one thing that is clear from reading these three theorists, is their common critique of methodological individualism (which I’ve written about before). Because librarianship has inherited the ethical framework of liberalism, methodological individualism is particularly difficulty to identify, let alone weed out, in our profession. Bhaskar’s social theory is not atomistic – “knowledge of society does not reduce to knowledge of people” (Collier 138):

Insofar as ‘methodological individualism’ stems from a general assumption that complexity is ultimately unreal, that complex wholes must be resolved into simple parts before they can really be understood, Bhaskar’s argument for stratification and emergence has already undermined it.

For Geuss, methodological individualism is an overarching “article of faith” for many if not all of the ethical frameworks “applied” to real politics. In a framework like Kant’s, for example, “the precepts of ethics are thought to apply directly and in the first instance to human individuals” and politics is only this individual ethics in the aggregate. (It is worth pointing out that Marxist ethics do not subscribe to methodological individualism. However, we do not challenge Geuss’ perspective by replacing a liberal ethical framework with a Marxist one). Finally, Shaikh’s view that the “perfection” of the capitalism system is projected onto and derived from a purported perfection of individuals (“representative agents”) is particularly pernicious.

There is, I think, a lot of structuralism (broadly speaking) in critical LIS today, and this provides a necessary challenge to the liberalism that is hegemonic within the profession. It is important, however, to provide an empirical justification for such structures (Bhaskar calls them structures; Shaikh calls them patterns; Geuss calls it context). My own work has not focused on such empirical justification, but a lot of writers in librarianship are doing this work. It will be interesting to reflect in a few years on whether a “library realism” develops around such a combination of theoretical analysis and empirical support.

However, it’s hard for me to conceive of breaking with a materialist focus: we need to be concerned with people’s material lives (health care, maternity, labour, etc.), which means we need to make an ethical commitment, and one which combines a recognition of the individual (my needs are not the same as yours) with a non-individualist social ontology. Anyway, I’ve been finding the work of these three realists useful and helpful in working through some of these problems (especially Geuss). It remains to be seen whether in the long run “realism” proves more helpful, useful, transformative, or emancipatory than other left philosophical approaches.


Alex Callinicos, “Critical Realism and Beyond: Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectic”, in Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis (eds.) Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Haymarket 2009).

Andrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (Verso 1994).

Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton University Press 1947/1969).

Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press 2008).

Anwar Shaikh, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford University Press 2016).


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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