[OPE-L:8527] Re: Critical Realism and the War with Iraq

From: Howard Engelskirchen (hengels@zoom-dsl.com)
Date: Sat Mar 01 2003 - 01:47:45 EST

Hi Jerry,

Critical realism, I think, is a coat of many colors.  Some take it as a distinct philosophical movement in itself, and many who are not critical realists have tried to fix it as such.  Others see it, as Bhaskar himself surely did in his early work, as a major contribution to the development of the most important philosophical development of the latter half of the 20th century -- the scientific realist critique of positivism and logical empiricism, and, together with that, of forms of social constructivism joined to positivism (for all their protest) in respect of shared fundamental assumptions.  Finally, there are those whose primary empahsis is on marxism and who see critical realism as important for the contribution it has made to freeing marxism from the dead hand of positivism.

This is certainly a personal and impressionistic account of tendencies, and, for what it's worth, I count myself in the third camp.  I consider Marx a prototypical scientific realist and consider social science, insofar as it is realist, necessarily marxist.  This is a minority view, though many critical realists are marxists or sympathetic to Marx.  Probably most critical and scientific realists, even if personally they incorporate Marx within the framework of their analyses, would suppose that there are broadly realist approaches to science, of which contemporary marxism would be one.  Also, one of the fields, as I understand it, that has seen a significant development of critical realist work in the UK and also to some extent elsewhere in Europe, has been precisely international relations, and this work I suppose would be considered critical realist rather than marxist.  I am guessing since I am not familiar with the body of this work.  Bhaskar himself I think would hold the view that there are many realisms, although he has often said that the critical realist project would be consistent with the project of dialectical and historical materialism.

Scientific realism's essential challenge to positivism and logical empiricism was to vindicate the reality of unobservables.  Ultimately this is necessarily an ontological claim.  We are not limited in our knowledge of things to what we empirically observe only, and in fact we cannot make sense of what we know unless we admit to knowledge of unobservables.  We do not observe gravity, quarks, and all manner of things.  The significance of this for social science is that it vindicates the study of unobservables in social life, and, in so doing, makes social science possible.  Social relations like value and capital, after all, are not observable; we know them by their effects.  Mental states are not observable.  So unless we have a methodology which accounts for unobservables, we have an impoverished social science; in effect we pretend to study social life without having any idea of what the object of our study is or could be.

As against the postmodernist challenge scientific realism asserts most fundamentally two things.  First, we are what Richard Boyd has called, "metaphysically innocent."  That is, we don't make any non-causal changes to the nature or structure of the world; we don't make things about the world true or false by agreeing that they will be thus and so.  Our theories don't establish the way the world is.  Independent causal structures are the object of science, including social science, and we do not make causal relations except to the extent that we ourselves function as ordinary causal phenomena.  The challenge to the social sciences is to show in what sense its objects constitute independent causal structures and how, since we make the phenomena of social life, they can be both independent and the subject of our making.  There is still no better book on this subject as far as I know than Bhaskar's The Possibility of Naturalism.

Second, it is essential to scientific and critical realism that the theory dependence and fallibility of all our knowledge be acknowledged.  The consequence is that the basic element in the naturalist realist approach to science is an accommodation between our conceptual and classificatory practices and the independently existing causal structures of the world.

All this by way of preface to your questions about CR and Iraq.

I do not know of specific work on this question, but I am not in touch with specialists in the field.

You ask what methodological understandings would guide a CR analysis of the drive to war.  From what I have said you will appreciate that from my point of view the essential methodological understandings would be marxist and of a marxism informed not be postivism or postmodernism but by recent advances in scientific realism.  That means starting, I would suppose, with Lenin's Imperialism -- what is going on before our eyes is not so much a choice of policy by a particularly egregious band of right wing Republicans, but an underlying dynamic having to do with the causal structure of international economic and political military relations.  I read the other day where Carter himself as President said were anyone to upset such modus vivendi as existed in the mideast, then the US would  have to intervene by any means necessary.  And so forth.  I have no special expertise in these matters.  Assuming the relevance of the broad strokes of Lenin's analysis, then it would seem also to follow that the breathtaking attack on civil liberties going on before our eyes in the US is also not a matter of the chosen policy of a particular Attorney General, though personalities and contingencies play an important role in contributing to the tempo of events.  Finally, you have emphasized inter-imperialist rivalry, and without doubt that underlying causal dynamic is on display.  Nonetheless, in the face of emerging hegemonic relations, I wonder whether the more significant phenomena in the long run do not reflect something in the way of a resurgence of the national and popular struggles of the Third World, painfully suppressed though they may be, and of people's movements, including in imperialist countries, objectively allied with them.  One of the striking phenomena of the recent period, and most especially in the mideast, but in Europe, the US and elsewhere as well, is the degree to which governments are increasingly remote from the people they govern.  I remember Brecht's poem -- perhaps Bush and them should elect a new people.  I'd be interested in knowing more about the underlying dynamic driving this phenomenon.

Sorry I missed the EEA.



  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: gerald_a_levy 
  To: ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu 
  Sent: Friday, February 28, 2003 7:25 PM
  Subject: [OPE-L:8526] Critical Realism and the War with Iraq

  At the Eastern Economics Association meetings last
  Friday I attended a session on "Critical Realism and 
  Economics."  Although interested in the session topic,
  my hidden agenda was to meet Andy B for the first time.
  Andy presented a paper, that he had jointly written, on 
  the "Political Economy of the Euro".
  The session organizer and chair, Andrew Mearman (from
  Wagner College on Staten Island in NYC), gave a 
  presentation on some of the basic concepts associated
  with CR and he, along with other speakers (including 
  Andy B), also gave a critical look at CR.  
  * Has anyone attempted to develop a CR analysis of 
  the reasons for the upcoming war with Iraq?
  * What would be some of the characteristics of a CR
  interpretation?  In other words, what methodological
  understandings and 'rules'  would guide a CR  analysis
  of the US and UK drive to war with Iraq?   
  Andy B?  Hans?  Howard?  Others who are familiar 
  with CR?
  In solidarity, Jerry

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