Roy Bhaskar: The Possibility of Naturalism

by tigermanifesto


Two years ago, after finishing my required course in philosophy for undergrad, the professor encouraged me to join the department because he believed I had an aptitude for the material. I did not do so, largely because I was committed to studying history and found the philosophy department at the university I attended somewhat distasteful. Philosophy has formed a significant part of my reading diet ever since that class, but I’ve never found philosophical reasoning––contrasted with putting philosophical concepts to work in historical study––to be one of my strong suits.

After reading through The Possibility of Naturalism almost entirely on long commutes to and from work, I feel vindicated in sticking to historical research and rejecting the siren call of my college’s “analytic” philosophy department. I do not mean to denigrate the book by saying as much; I found it an enlightening defence of the human sciences and their distinct programs and objects. Still, the experience of reading the work was like dropping into the middle of a long conversation without knowing the speakers or the subject of discussion.

Bhaskar’s argument for a critical realist philosophy of human science, as opposed to a positivist or hermeneutical one, develops throughout the book in dialogue with those two opposing positions. Having only a rudimentary grasp of positivism––I had studied followers of hermeneutical traditions in university courses on cultural history––more of my attention had to be dedicated to deciphering what Bhaskar was rejecting. Without doing so, I would not be able to understand the significance or, at least, the novelty of what he proposed. Though the book is relatively short at under 200 pages, its prose has a density characteristic of philosophical writing. As philosophy’s object of study is purely conceptual, the book is concerned with drawing lines and marking territories in an abstract space, employing a liberal quantity of jargon and foreign language phrases in the meantime.

With some diligent re-reading, however, I discovered that Bhaskar’s critical realism settles fairly closely to the structural Marxist tradition founded by Althusser. Althusser comes up several times in the text, as does Marx. I first heard of Bhaskar through an exposition of Althusser’s structural causality, so this was not surprising. While I’m familiar with Althusser and his historical milieu, however, Bhaskar’s was, as mentioned, much more elusive. As a consequence, The Possibility of Naturalism felt as though it was explaining points I had already assimilated elsewhere but in a different language. It shows how important context and antagonists play in shaping any research or argument; Althusser’s primary opponents were humanists and more traditional “orthodox” French Marxists, while Bhaskar is more interested in the philosophy of science as such. 

As for the argument of the book itself, I find myself at pains to reproduce it accurately. At its basis, however, it maintains that all of the social sciences can be just as scientific as natural sciences. That is, they can be self-critical and progressive bodies of knowledge that possess explanatory  power. In contrast to natural science, of course, human sciences do not have controlled testing situations and intervene into spheres of which they are themselves a part. Put another way, while a physicist studies basic universal forces as an outside observer, the sociologist attempting to define laws of social behaviour is within his subject matter. Bhaskar argues that this internal status and lack of decisive tests and experiments limits human sciences in important ways––they lack the power of prediction, for instance––but does not disqualify them as sciences. Alongside this core assertion, Bhaskar argues that reality is a “structured and differentiated” entity, one where different layers of reality emerge from lower ones, depending on the latter without being entirely explained by them. Mind emerges from the body but has “emergent” powers of its own. Hence, psychology has a proper subject matter separate from neurobiology. Societies depend on the existence of individual persons to exist, but also include structures and laws that exist outside of those persons, governing them at times without their knowledge or consent.

Marxists who are interested in developing politically might not find the philosophical arcana and presentation style palatable. I certainly had a difficult time acclimating myself to Bhaskar’s method of exposition, which liberally uses abbreviations and attends closely to logical minutia because, well, that’s what has to be done in a philosophical work for it to hold water. However, anyone who is working in the human sciences or is interested in, say, the status of a “scientific” historiography, should consider this essential reading. Practitioners of human sciences need to ask whether the knowledge we are creating can contribute to human emancipation and articulate a strong, irresistible answer in the positive. Without a strong theoretical foundation, such ap project would founder, and I appreciate The Possibility of Naturalism as an attempt to give us that foundation, despite being unused to its curious customs and style.