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Over the last while I’ve been investigating anti-positivist methodologies as a way to approach questions in librarianship. In “A ‘Common Sense’ in Librarianship” I looked at how hermeneutics - specifically Gadamer’s hermeneutics - might supplant a positivistic commitment to “documentation” in librarianship. In that post I commented on the strict division between the scientific and the humanistic approaches identified by Gadamer (among many others, the idea is quite old), a division rejected by the strict scientism of positivist LIS (i.e. the idea that the human sciences can and must have the same procedures and methods as the natural sciences). For Gadamer,

the distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences is that, because the object of the human sciences is humanity and society, we - as researchers - cannot remove ourselves from them, cut ourselves off from our objects of study, as is required by the objectivity of science and the scientific method. We bring our entire lived experience - as individuals living in societies - to the study of humanity and social forms.

In the late 1970s, Roy Bhaskar developed another approach different from both positivism and hermeneutics. In 1975, he published A Realist Theory of Science, which sought to provide a way to think about science and the scientific method as actually producing real knowledge, something Bhaskar thought previous scientific paradigms were unable to do. In the classical empiricism of Hume and others, a scientific law required that events occurred in a regular, re-occurring, experimentally reproducable sequence. These sequences were understood as expressing a given natural law. However, because these sequences were reproduced in the closed environments of experiments, and empiricism did not allow for the possibility of non-observational knowledge, there was no way to state that previously witnessed physical regularity had any bearing on subsequent experiments. For empiricism, only experimental evidence was valid, and so there was no way to conceive of larger or invisible structures obtaining within the physical world. Bhaskar adduces the theory of natural selection as being inconceivable according to pure empiricism: because of the time-scale of its operation, Darwin had to deduce the operation of the theory, which went against the purely inductive reasoning allowed by empiricism.

A subsequent paradigm emerging from the work of Kant, transcendental idealism, had the opposite problem. For transcendental idealists, real phenomena were forever unknowable, and the world was constituted by the intellectual activity of human beings. Whereas classical empiricism did not recognize creative intellectual activity (e.g. the construction of theories), transcendental idealism did not recognize the reality of the physical world. Everything we see and investigate is always-already ordered by innate ideas. For both classical empiricism and transcendental idealism the very practice of the scientific method and the knowledge that arises out of the scientific method, are impossible.

Bhaskar argues in contrast to both, for a position he calls “transcendental realism”. Like transcendental idealism, transcendental realism relies on what Kant called transcendental questions: “what would have to be the case for x to be true?” Needless to say, such questions are impossible in the classical empiricist paradigm. For Bhaskar, the basic transcendental question for science is something like, “what would have to be the case for the scientific method to produce real knowledge?”

I won’t go into the details of Bhaskar’s theory here, but after developing transcendental realism as a theory for science, he developed a similar methodological approach for the social sciences in 1979’s The Possibility of Naturalism. There, Bhaskar raises the question with which I began this post, “to what extent can society be studied in the same way as nature?”. He calls this question “the primal problem of the philosophy of the social sciences”, and argues that naturalism (or positivism) and hermeneutics represent the two dominant ways of answering this question (“completely” and “not at all”, respectively).

Positivism, in assuming the mantle of the Enlightenment, associates itself with a tradition whose Galilean roots lie in the new Platonism of the late Renaissance; while hermeneutics, finding early precursors in Herder and Vico and possessing a partially Aristotelian concept of explanation, has always flourished in the humus of romantic thought and humanist culture. (1).

For the natural sciences and the humanities, then, the solution is fairly straightforward: positivism is the appropriate methodology for science, and hermeneutics for the humanities. But where does this leave the social sciences, caught between the desire for naturalism, hard evidence, and concrete proposals, and their own history under the broad umbrella of the humanities? Bhaskar proposes a social-scientific equivalent to transcendental realism, which he calls critical naturalism.

Interestingly, Bhaskar notes the existence within the Marxist tradition of both naturalist and hermeneutic positions, “with the so-called ‘dialectical materialists’ on one side, and Lukacs, the Frankfurt School and Sartre on the other” (2). This division maps, I think, onto what Ernst Bloch has called the “cold and warm streams” of Marxist thought, and explains, for example, the insistence of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thinkers (the latter exemplified by J. Moufawad-Paul) on the “scientific” nature of Marxism as opposed to the the various humanist/hermeneutic Marxisms on offer.

The highest expression within Marxism of the naturalistic or scientific paradigm is that of Louis Althusser, whose whole philosophical project was concerned with legitimating Marxism as a science. What Althusser came up with, under the aegis of the victorious structuralism of the time, has come to be known as “structural Marxism”, a Marxism in which social structures are everything and individual agency is nothing. The problem of which takes priority, structure or individual agency, is still a pressing one in the social sciences today.

Bhaskar reconciles the problem of structure vs. agency by proposing his own model of society/individual interaction which avoids giving primacy either entirely to society or entirely to individual action. Like his theory of natural science, however, Bhaskar argues that critical naturalism can only produce knowledge if we recognize an ontological distinction between society and individuals. Individuals are not simply completely determined by social structures (as in naturalism/structuralism), nor are they completely free (as in a strictly humanistic hermeneutics). Rather, society and individuals are constantly interacting. In this way, critical naturalism conforms to transcendental realism which argues that there is indeed a real world that is the object of scientific knowledge (contradicting the Kantians), but that we do not come to scientific knowledge as blank slates, but rather bringing all our experience and socially-produced knowledge to science.

In this, I think Bhaskar’s theory conforms to Andreas Malm’s view of historical materialism (i.e. Marxism) in 2018’s The Progress of This Storm. There, Malm raises a defense of the Marxist position against other currents of contemporary social theory (constructionism, hybridism, new materialism, etc.). For Malm, it is important to recognize the strict division between nature and society (property dualism) while recognizing the human beings and the natural world are made up of the same stuff (substance monism). He equates the substance monist/property dualism position with Marxism itself: “The tribe of historical materialists have always preached [that society and nature are inextricable] - indeed, in its very name is inscribed the insistence on human beings as made up of matter, while ‘historical’ implies that social relations cannot be deduced from it” (58).

Like his theory of the natural sciences, Bhaskar’s social theory allows us to recognize the reality of the social world (structures) while not reducing human agency to those structures.

At the heart of Bhaskar’s critical realism (the name for the combination of transcendental realism and critical naturalism) is precisely the distinction between knowledge (which is always socially produced) and the objects of knowledge, which are real. Malm writes that distinguishing the object of knowledge from the “means by which it is known” is “the very starting point of critical realism” (129).

on the one hand, there is the transitive dimension, or ‘the social production of knowledge by means of knowledge’… and on the other, the things to which they, sometimes tentatively, and always fallibly, reach out. For Bhaskar, critical realism is not some high-flown philosophical concoction, but a down-to-earth reflection of what scientists actually do and think. (129).

Returning to the blog post mentioned above, it is interesting to consider what insights critical realism (or a critical naturalist paradigm) might provide within LIS. Ron Day argued that the alternatives open to LIS were the ones Bhaskar describes: naturalism/documentalism or hermeneutics. It would be interesting to explore the application of critical realism to some of the standard research topic within librarianship.

(This post is part one of an unknown number of posts exploring Bhaskar’s critical realism. While Bhaskar himself has always referred to Marx in his work, a major attempt to work out the consequences of critical realism for Marxism has been undertaken by Alex Callinicos. I will explore Callinicos’ views of Bhaskar’s work in part two).


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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