Friday, September 6, 2013

Elmar Flatschart on Critical Realism

“Critical Dialectics for the Social Sciences: Towards a Mediation of Critical Realism and Critical Theory”  is a valuable review of Critical Realism because it is a philosophical current which, despite Roy Bhaskar's collapse into mysticism, is taken quite seriously, especially in philosophy of science milieus that want to approach logical positivsm and its offshoots seriously without recourse to the relativism of hermeneutics and post-structuralism.

However, it is also important as a kind of salvo on its own count against both of those philosophical currents and the tendency to reduce philosophy to methodology.  Flatschart implicitly and explicitly raises some important points about the applicability of dialectic to nature, which makes this an even more interesting intervention.

The opening point is that the reduction of philosophy to an "underlabourer and occasional midwife" of science, a view found in analytical philosophy of science, is problematic and it evades genuine problems about why the object of science is knowable in return for a strict focus on how we can know.  His fundamental concern is with the social sciences, but he recognizes the need to take up the natural sciences as well in order to adequately address the matter.

Firstly, you cannot conflate theory with methodology because theory is not merely an instrument to be used on immediate, given, unconceptualized facts.  Facts and the objects of analysis come to us only through their already at some level being conceptualized.  In taking up this point, he cites the typical paradox of Structure vs. Agency.  This chicken-egg paradox is often decided upon by assertion, without much justification or even recognition that this constitutes a valid problem.  In raising this, Flatschart also brings up the first statement on dialectic, and it is not without its own problems.

"This is also what dialectics is about – to find a middle ground between strictly opposed moments, but retain – pace postmodern approaches – a notion of causal efficacy and systemic stratification."

A "middle-ground" is not exactly adequate, if only because mediation of structure and agency also means the mutual determination of each by the other.  Middle-ground implies a road between that misses the mutual construction of the two ends of the pole, taking them as "positions" rather than as a proper relation.

Even so, the way he lays out the problem is quite good and he goes on to point out that much of post-Kant philosophy evades the ontological aspects of knowledge in place of a strict focus on the epistemological questions.  That is, how we know is the focus, but what it is we are knowing about (typically what one might call "reality") is avoided.

As he notes, Critical Realism makes a claim to overcome this evasion of the ontological.

"Focusing on Ontology, Critical Realism is therefore going beyond a sole conjecture, that there has to be some reality, it explicitly maintains that the world has to have a certain structure for knowledge to be possible.For the natural sciences, this is extensively discussed by taking the example of the scientific experiment. From its properties, it is inferred, that the world must be structured, stratified and consisting of transfactually working mechanisms that are complexly interwoven and merely actualise themselves in events. Again, events don’t have to be perceived to take place, that’s why the empirical is an even smaller dimension of reality as understood by Critical Realism. These three domains of reality can be graphically depicted in the following table:
Table 1: Stratified Reality

Real Actual Empirical


They are not normally “in phase” and it is just the artificial “closure” taking place in experiments that enables us to infer from the distilled working of one mechanism to its real function in the open system of reality. Science thus cannot be understood as an addition of atomised thoughts, it is rather to be seen as a social process, namely that of “social production of knowledge by means of knowledge.”

Since this knowledge has to be knowledge of something, there has to be an ontological object of knowledge, exactly the status of which logical positivism evades by simply taking it for granted.  Hermeneutics and philosophy after the linguistic turn often take the object of knowledge to be nothing other than the concepts themselves, so that science has a navel-gazing structure of self-referentiality with no actual world.  This is the philosophy of a highly theoreticist empiricism since it rarely moves beyond linguistic experiences of the scientists, or maybe in some cases to linguistic events, but the only real mechanisms are linguistic construction, that is, the world is utterly reduced to human capacity for speaking aobut it and otherwise does not exist.

Flatschart summarizes the Critical Realist position as follows:
"The Critical Realist agrees with Positivism, that there are causal laws and generalities at work in social life. S/He disagrees when it comes to their reduction to empirical regularities. Social science can therefore never be predictive and always has to be self-reflexive in its explanatory effort.

The Critical Realist stands with the Hermeneutics to the point that the social sciences deal with a pre-interpreted reality, brought to concepts by social actors. But it doesn’t accept the hermeneutical reduction of social science to mere conceptualism and instead argues for the existence of real structures and mechanisms."

 The problem is that CR fails to elaborate on what links the two moments: "There is no determination of the actual principle of mediation."  He also notes that CR tends to assume the predominance of structure, conflating the concepts of "society" and "social structures".

In the end, he argues that CR cannot ascertain "the metatheoretical basis for materialist approaches to the social sciences."  Flatschart thus argues that an adequate approach has to fulfill the following:

"There has to be something external, a nameable something, to maintain such a viewpoint. But this externality mustn’t be an abstract, totally philosophical one, for otherwise we run into the problem of an infinite regress, as one could ask for the ground of the ground and so on. Dialectics offers a way to shift this problem’s shape and deal with it in a way which transcends the limits of formal logic, thereby bending the problem of society-as-totality into a new dimension of illustration that focuses on the inherent contradiction itself."

At this point, I think it is instructive to compare this critique to an earlier one by Richard Gunn in his article "Marxism and Philosophy" in Capital & class #37.  Many of the same points are presented, but I think the two articles largely supplement each other, both in developing the points differently, and in terms of their differences in the understanding of dialectic.

That said, Flatschart correctly points out that what this all has to do with "dialectics" might not be clear.  In preparation for clarifying this, he returns to the epistemological issue and then goes to the ontological question.  His starting point is the formal logic of the syllogism.  Since I find this illuminating, i am going to quote a large piece of it:

"At the core of formal logics we find the scheme of syllogism as the most instructive model of coherent argumentation. A possible example would be:

Table 3: Syllogism
I. All Cretans are humans. M ε P major premise
II. Elmar is a Cretan. S ε M minor premise
III. Elmar is a human. S ε P conclusion

Analytically, the syllogism is the most simple and still customary procedure of propositional logic. Yet it is still a form of argumentation and as such in principal an expression of language. We can analyse it in terms of the three dimensions of language:

Table 4: 3 Dimensions of Language
I. Syntactic The dimension of the formal connection of signs
II. Semantics The dimension of meaning of signs
III. Pragmatics The dimension of the (implicit) social effect/presupposition of signs

The syllogism and with it the whole of formal logics focuses on syntactical aspects, striving for coherence that can in principle abstract from all semantic issues – it doesn’t matter what we talk about, it just matters how we do it. The effect of absolute persuasive efficacy of this scheme could be viewed as its pragmatic moment. Formal logic and with it the general epistemology of most (analytical) scientific approaches will usually not go beyond this basic scheme. Systematically, one could say that we find Deduction (III.) and Induction (II.) encompassed in the syllogism and it can thus also be viewed as an abstractified illustration of what happens in science. The process of coherent inference is put into a formal logical guise so as to analyse it in terms of basic laws of (linguistically and formally correct) reasoning. It is clearly marked what can and cannot be said and therefore truth and scientific objectivity seem to be once and for all established. This was also a main aspiration of 20 th century analytical philosophy and its “linguistic turn”.

The problem with this approach is not only the purely epistemological orientation, which can, with Critical Realism, be accused of omitting problems of ontology. It can also be shown, that it is itself not totally coherent by its own standards. The backbone of logical reasoning as exemplified in the syllogism is the assertion that any propostion is either true or not true. In the abovementioned example, Elmar has to be either a Cretan or not. It is a syntactical necessity to not accept the contradiction that would arise, if there were a third position, “tertium non datur”.

But there are special cases that make it impossible to hold this law of non-contradictoriness. Very famous is the so called “Cretan paradox”, which arises when we assume the following constellation:

Elmar, who is, as we have learned above, a Cretan makes the statement:
“All Cretans are liars.”

This simple proposition is syntactically correct, as there is no logical inconsistency. Semantically, we are not faced with any problems at first; it might be intelligible, that all Cretans are in fact liars. But when we take into account the specific pragmatic stance that Elmar is a part of the semantic content (Cretan) and thus referring to himself, we have a problem. The difficulty becomes even clearer, when we narrow this sentence down to its basic form:

Elmar makes the statement: “This proposition is wrong.”

When we view this proposition we have can (and have to) take two standpoints.
Position A (Proposition A): X is true
Position ¬A (Proposition non-A): X is not true (wrong)

The sentence above implies that both positions are equally true. In a peculiar way, syntactical, semantic and pragmatic dimensions seem to be merged into one whole, which is itself permanently producing a binary version of purely syntactical oppositions. One has to constantly jump from one position to the other but there is no end to the problem, no analytical closure as in syllogistic inference. So the syntactical level doesn’t suffice. This is so because the proposition’s semantic potential collides with the pragmatic criteria of every proposition, namely that it has to be true. I cannot pragmatically assert that a singular speech-act is itself “wrong” – I always convey the social message “what I say is true”. Every single proposition presupposes the pragmatic meta-proposition “this proposition is true”. This again cannot be dissolved out of its pragmatic stance, as it leads to an infinite regress of questions for the truth of each consecutive proposition.

Such kinds of constellations have been termed “strict antinomies” and boast four major qualities, which are linked intrinsically and circularly..."

They are self-referential and negative and contradictory and mutually implying each other and it retains its coherence as a logical proposition when "we think it in the constant process of changing sides.  We cannot stop that process on one side without losing the logical coherence..., but in the course of putting the process itself in the foreground we lose grip of the basic logical assumption that there cannot be a third between two strict opposites."

This constellation of strict antinomies are not merely linguistic problems, but "formulate the very basis of the subject-object dichotomy and its contradictions and have as such determined the course of modern western philosophy."

He argues that this really only applies to the social sciences because self-reference doesn't happen with non-Human nature, but is essential to "social reality in the social form of language."  This view takes up all three dimensions of language (syntactic, semantic, and performative).

"When we look closer we can decipher major problems of social science in patterns of the strict antinomy. Self-reference brings us to the question of autopoiesis and the nature of social structures. Negation can be read with reference to the relativity of social utterance, insofar it always is actual and individuated, but related to a bigger social hole. The dimension of contradiction-as-implication at last points to the non-closed nature of social systems and the constant procedural domain that shapes society. Thinking in “determined contradictions” (bestimmte Widersprüche) may thus be seen to be at the core of social theory.

At the end, we have to arrive at a position that combines the ontological problem – that is (in social science) the concern of naming society-as-totality – and the epistemological problem – namely the insufficiency of formal logical language and method to grasp the realm of the social sufficiently. Such a position is forced to take into account the dialectical contradictoriness of society and knowledge of it as such. Framing society thus necessitates a search for the social form-logics that constitute the recurrent actualisation of contradictions that are shaped in the way of “strict antinomies”."

 The essay ends with a section arguing for the validity of real contradictios as a "framework for the social sciences".  This amounts to a somewhat dubious tossing aside of Hegel's dialectic as "positive" and always-already subordinated to a "weltgeist" (world spirit), followed by a rather more interesting discussion of Adorno.

The really engaging part of this section is the explanation of "second nature".  This concept is very important, I believe, in teasing out the difference between dialectical and pragmatist accounts, like Nicole Pepperell's or, relatedly, those of philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari who collapse Man and Nature into a single, undifferentiated flow, c.f. p. 5 of Anti-Oedipus.  Pepperell, for example, mixes both into her interpretation in which structural aspects are completely reduced to open-ended practices, in which the alteration of a practice can potentially create a new flow with new "downstream" effects leading to the end of capitalism.  As Vidar Thorsteinsson noted in his talk "The Social Efficacy of Abstraction: Statehood between Idea and Object", the pragmatist view effectively loses any notion of the efficacy of structures.

"...there exists a forceful yet unconscious logic of identity, this “principium synthesis”, which brings the opposites together. This explains the unexpectedly firm solidity that distinguishes capitalist society despite of all its inherent contradictions. So it is the very nature of “real contradictions”, which are not only seemingly “natural”, but in fact constitute a real, yet socially made “second nature”. The so defined second nature of the identity of commodities is real, yet not real, as it is a social construct that exhibits all traits of naturalness. It is the ultimate form of a societal framework, which is not consciously controlled by mankind but itself shapes social structures and agency on a deep level of social cohesion. This deep ontology of an inherent dialectical contradictoriness is best attainable by an approximation that has the model of the strict antinomy in mind, just because the contradictions are “real” and “necessary”."

He ends by criticizing Adorno, for all the strengths of his negative dialectic, for making assertions which "are often vague and tend to be tentative rather than explanatory."  However, I am not sure that this is a criticism I care much about.  Insofar as we approach theoretical reflection as being fundamentally unable to resolve real contradictions or to even express them without there always being some surplus of conceptuality and meaning, we cannot be explanatory except tentatively and sometimes vaguely.

His other criticism is that Adorno remains in the realm of exchange-relations in taking up abstraction and the logic of identity.  This certainly seems like a credible criticism when one takes into account how Adorno, Horkheimer and Sohn-Rethel all read the exchange-relation back into Antiquity.

However to argue that this misses the differentia specifica of capitalism being founded "on production, not circulation", this might be missing the mark.  If value and surplus-value are produced in the labor process, they are also only realized in the exchange-process, and the labor process itself relies on labor being determinate, a labor which is sold and bought prior to its entry into the labor process, and it is only labor qua commodity which can enact labor as value-producing.

It is possibly no mistake then that, unlike the aforementioned Richard Gunn, what Flatschart seeks is a "Theory of Society", as opposed to a dialectical theory against society.  We thus may not be able to get a "reconciliation of between dialectical and formal logics" because that contradiction is not able to be overcome in theory where it remains actual in society.  Thus, at risk in the end of this highly interesting paper is a move too often made by social theory in its drive to be social science, to overcome in thought the contradictions which can only be overcome in practice, and thus to produce a reified theory of society rather than a critique of theory and  society.

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