In a philosophical world dominated by positivism and the linguistic turn, its strikingly original argument was that the reality of being must be accepted if we are to understand how scientific knowledge is possible. It was followed in by The Possibility of Naturalism, which argued that the social sciences could be understood as similar to the natural sciences once the specific differences in their subject matter human beings on the one hand and social relations on the other were acknowledged.
These works established Bhaskar's position, but they were followed in the s by explorations in the dialectical tradition that took him in another direction. From engagement primarily with Kant and Hume, the new work took him to the Greeks, to Hegel and to Marx and through them to a remarkable alternative position to postmodern theory, with its emphasis on fundamental difference and plurality. Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom and Plato Etc were outstanding works aiming both to radicalise the philosophy of critical realism and to rework the dialectical tradition in light of a critical realist account of being.
Reality was broken and diffuse, yet it was still possible to hold on to the ethical importance of the flourishing of each human being. The ambition was staggering and included a range of problems that Bhaskar argued philosophy was unable to escape.
Table of Contents: Roy Bhaskar :
Caught in a series of "TINA problems" named ironically after Margaret Thatcher's stock phrase, "There is No Alternative" , conventional philosophy's basic premises ignored the nature of being, and in particular, failed to grasp the importance of absence or negativity in the world. Its general irrealism meant that Western philosophy occupied a site of alienation, a citadel of what Hegel had called the "Unhappy Consciousness".
Such a view unsurprisingly gained little traction in philosophy departments, but it attracted followers across a range of disciplines. The driving force in his thought was the importance of grasping being in its relation to thinking. This led to the importance of a historical understanding of being and thought, which was linked to claims of freedom, solidarity and emancipation for humans. In the s, Bhaskar continued to innovate. Drawing initially on his Eastern heritage, he began to look beyond the Western tradition to ideas thematised under the term "metaReality" — a deeper level of being than the natural and social sciences are used to dealing with.
He was concerned with thinking about the underlying unities that hold humanity and nature together even in a world of splits and divisions. To listen to another is at a deep level to identify with the other person, and even antagonistic relations require cooperation. Even in a world of conflict and difference there are underlying realities which hold things together. This work has become important for scholars in a variety of disciplines, for example in understanding creativity, peace and theology.
Reflections upon Roy Bhaskar’s ‘Critical Realism’
Bhaskar's innovation could bewilder his collaborators, and as a professional philosopher, he became a marginal figure. Yet his willingness to think the unthinkable, and to pursue the line of most resistance, rendered his marginality virtuous and productive. In the last phase of his career he was a World Scholar at the Institute of Education, surviving on a fractional contract and in some debt.
Yet he was tireless in his support of a growing band of postgraduate students, running seminars, engaging with colleagues, hosting conferences and generally arguing his corner. Roy Bhaskar was a lovely man, open, funny, gregarious and generous — perhaps too much so for his own good.
Underneath, there was the competitiveness and intellectual steel that could generate such a body of original work. Fearless in his conviction of the rightness of his positions, he was also capable of unworldliness and down-to-earth, self-deprecating humour.
Charming and mannerly, he could sometimes be imperious. In later years he contracted Charcot's disease, which led to the amputation of a foot.
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He adapted to life in a wheelchair and did not bemoan his lot. He had long given up his talent for dance, replacing it with support for Manchester United and televised sport. His death came as a surprise to many who had imagined that willpower alone might see him through. Critical realists should have known better.
New Studies in Critical Realism and Education (Routledge Critical Realism)
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I thought this brave. He was not afraid to put his philosophical under-labouring work to the test. This was the gist of the many conversations he and I had. He was obviously unwell and talked openly about it; but he was an intellectual force to the end, as much a catalyst for others as an author of originality and depth. Ayer who did nothing much, but with incontrovertible Oxbridge eloquence was compulsory, Popper optional.
A chance would have it Roy and I were in regular email contact during his final months. This was accepted by Routledge in time for us to celebrate jointly.
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I suspect he knew before we did that Routledge would go for this too, but we heard after his death. Roy Bhaskar was a kind, calm and generous man. Whenever we met he wanted to know how each of my four daughters was doing before we got down to institutional, philosophical or sociological business, usually in his office high in the Institute of Education. He left behind him a stunning philosophical legacy. He also provided the resources for others, in Britain and overseas, to build on and apply his work. Initially my enthusiasm stemmed from the answers that Bhaskar offered for some troubling but fairly narrowly defined questions concerning the cognitive status of the natural sciences.
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I had become interested in these as an undergraduate studying physics and philosophy at Bristol in the late s, partly as a reaction against Paul Feyerabend's lively and iconoclastic Against Method and Science in A Free Society , two highly readable books that combined an attack on the orthodox claim that science can progressively tell us more about nature with a critical re-evaluation of the place of science and scientists in contemporary society.
I felt far from happy about Feyerabend's more sceptical implications. Scientific reasoning in some shape or form seemed potentially a better force for social good than the epistemological free-for-all that Feyerabend seemed to promise. So I turned to a study of theoretical explanation in the natural sciences and came to the not-very-profound conclusion that scientific theories were best understood as provisional statements about the characteristics of entities that exist in the natural world; that is, as ontological claims.
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But a move to Manchester and an introduction to Bhaskar's book in the early s took me much further down the path of philosophical realism. A Realist Theory certainly confirmed my feelings about the importance and nature of theoretical reasoning. But it also made me realise that I had absorbed too much of the orthodox philosophical thinking about the ontology of nature. Bhaskar argues that to understand the practical achievements of scientists in grounding their theoretical arguments through experimentation, we must see the world as an open, complex set of natural ''mechanisms".
If A Realist Theory of Science were simply a technical treatise on these philosophical aspects of the natural sciences, I doubt whether it would have had quite such a lasting impact on me. But Bhaskar's interest stems from a concern with the wider political uses to which models of scientific reasoning are put. The central ideas of A Realist Theory were developed in The Possibility of Naturalism , which sought to show that social structures exist and that it is possible to study them in the same way as natural ones.
Both impressed partly because they drew upon Continental as much as Anglo-American schools of thought. For a time I thought seriously about focusing my doctoral research on philosophical realism. But ironically, a lesson I had learned partly from Bhaskar eventually dampened my enthusiasm.