Critical realism and Marxism

27 Apr, 2020 at 14:53 | Posted in Politics & Society | 3 Comments

At the juncture of Roy Bhaskar’s refounding of critical realism philosophy of science, postmodernism had spread like a virus across academia with its seductive attack on grand theories or “metanarratives.” Neoliberal policies took advantage of the subsequently lowered intellectual immune systems and “identity politics” squabbling to impose its anti-working class “meta” economic model upon global humanity.

marxWhere Bhaskar’s work struck with devastating consequences for degeneration of theories of knowledge toward irrealism was in his compelling argument over philosophy of science imbibing what he dubs the “epistemic fallacy.” Quite simply, what that entails is the belief that in answering the epistemological question of how we know something, the ontological question of what there is to be known is simultaneously answered. For Bhaskar, rather, it is the ontological question and the specific nature of the object of study in the real world which determines the form and scope of its possible science.

Further, Bhaskar argued that the “flat” ontological model of empiricism, which based scientific knowledge on observation, cannot explain how revolutions in science occur. Scientific change across the ages is possible because of an ontological structure of the world and all its furniture that is deep and stratified with causal mechanisms which generate myriad phenomenon we observe. Capturing these causal mechanisms and the scientific laws they designate operates through a process of “retroduction.” Here, scientists puzzled by phenomena both in terms of observation and limits of current theory posit the existence of a deep causal mechanism responsible for those surface manifestations they perceived. Scientific truth is reached when a correspondence is arrived at between the causal structure of the object of knowledge to be explained or defined and the logical structure of the theory that purports to explain or define it.

Armed with Bhaskar’s bringing ontology back in to science it is possible to rethink Marx’s claims for his economic theory in Capital as the founding work of a new science. After all, almost a century following the passing of Marx, work of economic historians such as Karl Polanyi and Robert Heilbroner is referred to for their grasp respectively of marketization “disembedding” economic life from other social practices or markets “creating” an “economic society” from the social fabric. Yet, what precisely causes economic life in the capitalist era to appear to levitate from the social or create a “separate sphere” of society is never explained.

Richard Westra


  1. Find this quote very interesting:

    “On the other hand, the second question gave renewed life to another long tradition in the history of philosophy – conventionalism. Quite simply, conventionalism balks at notions of universal laws corroborated by observed evidence when it is the case that results of scientific practices like experiment, from which such laws are honed, are actually “created” by us with the instruments and cognitive resources we deploy. This opened floodgates in the theory of knowledge to flights from reality such as postmodernism which extrapolated conventionalism to extremes with views that no “real,” mind-independent world exists from which we can take soundings to assess the truth of our thought schemes in relation to their subject matters. There are only those schemes, paradigms, discourses, and so forth, each generating their own “world.”

    Weinert’s The Scientist as Philosopher is an antidote to this seeming non-sense. It sounds a lot like this.

    • Conventionalism reminds me of the Jain philosophy of Anekantvada, which the “blind men and the elephant” parable depicts. We each have blindspots, so our “soundings” are limited and idiosyncratic. For Jains, you can only hold all possible viewpoints in mind at once (thereby getting a “true” picture of reality) by scrubbing karmas until you reach a stage of enlightenment. Until then you would do well to listen to other viewpoints because they might be seeing a different part of reality than your limited viewpoint allows you …

  2. ““intra-theoretic” or unassailable from outside its conceptual purview” sounds like blind ideology and fundamentalist religion.

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