Roy Bhaskar

Roy Bhaskar

Bhaskar (born May 15, 1944) is a British philosopher, best known as a significant proponent of the philosophical movement of Critical Realism.

Early life

Bhaskar was born in London, the elder of two brothers. His Indian father and English mother were TheosophistsFact|date=April 2008.

In 1963 Bhaskar began attending Balliol College, Oxford on a scholarship to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Having graduated with first class honours in 1966, he began work on a Ph.D. thesis about the relevance of economic theory for under-developed countries. This research led him to the philosophy of social science and then the philosophy of science. In the course of this Rom Harré became his supervisor.

Critical realism

Bhaskar's consideration of the philosophies of science and social science resulted in the development of Critical Realism, a philosophical approach that defends the critical and emancipatory potential of rational (scientific and philosophical) enquiry against both positivist, broadly defined, and 'postmodern' challenges. Its approach emphasises the importance of distinguishing between epistemological and ontological questions and the significance of objectivity properly understood for a critical project. Its conception of philosophy and social science is a socially situated, but not socially determined one, which maintains the possibility for objective critique to motivate social change, with the ultimate end being a promotion of human freedom.

The term Critical Realism was not initially used by Bhaskar. The philosophy began life as what Bhaskar called 'Transcendental Realism' in "A Realist Theory of Science" (1975), which he extended into the social sciences as 'Critical Naturalism' in "The Possibility of Naturalism" (1978). The term 'Critical Realism' is an elision of Transcendental Realism and Critical Naturalism, that has been subsequently accepted by Bhaskar after being proposed by others, partly because of its appropriate connotations; Critical Realism shares certain dimensions with German Critical Theory (see the Frankfurt School). Critical Realism should not be confused with various other 'critical realism's, including Georg Lukacs's aesthetic theory. In contemporary Critical Realist texts 'Critical Realism' is often abbreviated to 'CR'. A later dialectical development of Critical Realism in Bhaskar's work in "Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom" (1993) led to a separate branch or second phase of CR known as 'Dialectical Critical Realism'.


Bhaskar, who lectures internationally, has taught at the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Sussex and City University, London. Following the enthusiastic reception of his first two books, Bhaskar founded the Critical Realism Conferences with notable scholars and leading CR writers Andrew Collier, Bill Outhwaite and Ted Benton. He was a founding member of the Centre for Critical Realism and the International Association of Critical Realism. More recently he has held visiting positions in several Scandinavian Universities, and is currently working on the application of CR to Peace Studies.

The first 'phase' of Critical Realism accrued a large number of adherents and proponents in Britain, many of whom were involved with the Radical Philosophy Group and related movements, and it was in the Radical Philosophy Journal that much of the early CR scholarship first appeared. It argued for an objectivist, realist approach to science based on a Kant-style transcendental analysis of scientific experimental activity. Stressing the need to retain "both" the subjective, epistemological or 'transitive' side of knowledge "and" the objective, ontological or 'intransitive' side, Bhaskar developed a theory of science and social science which he thought would sustain the reality of the objects of science, and their knowability, but would also incorporate the insights of the 'sociology of knowledge' movement, which emphasised the theory-laden, historically contingent and socially situated nature of knowledge. What emerged was a marriage of ontological realism with epistemological relativism, forming an objectivist, yet fallibilist, theory of knowledge. Bhaskar's main strategy was to argue that reality has "depth", and that knowledge can penetrate more or less deeply into reality, without ever reaching the 'bottom'. Bhaskar has said that he reintroduced 'ontology' into the philosophy of science at a time when this was almost heresy, arguing for an ontology of stratified emergence and differentiated structure, which supported the ontological reality of causal powers independent of their empirical effects; such a move opened up the possibility for a non-reductivist and non-positivistic account of causal explanation in the human and social domain.

This explanatory project was linked with a critical project the main idea of which is the doctrine of 'Explanatory Critique' which Bhaskar developed fully in "Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation" (1987). This developed the critical tradition of 'ideology critique' within a CR framework, arguing that certain kinds of explanatory accounts could lead directly to evaluations, and thus that science could function normatively, not just descriptively, as positivism has, since Hume's Law, assumed. Such a move, it was hoped, would provide the Holy Grail of critical theory, an objective normative foundation.

The 'second phase' of Critical Realism, the dialectic turn initiated in "Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom" (1993) won some new adherents but drew criticism from some Critical Realists. It argued for the 'dialecticising' of CR, through an elaborate reading of Hegel and Marx. Arguing against Hegel and with Marx that dialectical connections, relations and contradictions are themselves ontological - objectively real - Bhaskar developed a concept of real absence which it was claimed could provide a more robust foundation for the reality and objectivity of values and criticism. He attempted to incorporate critical, rational human agency into the dialectic figure with his 'Fourth Dimension' of dialectic, thereby grounding a systematic model for rational emancipatory transformative practice.

In 2000, Bhaskar published "From East to West: The Odyssey of a Soul", in which he first expressed ideas related to spiritual values that came to be seen as the beginning of his so-called 'spiritual' turn, which led to the final phase of CR dubbed 'Transcendental Dialectical Critical Realism'. This publication and the ones that followed it were highly controversial and led to something of a split among Bhaskar's proponents. Whilst some respected Critical Realists cautiously supported Bhaskar's 'spiritual turn', others took the view that the development had compromised the status of CR as a serious philosophical movement.

In his "Reflections on Meta-Reality", he states:

This book articulates the difference between critical realism in its development and a new philosophical standpoint which I am in the process of developing, which I have called the philosophy of Meta-Reality.

The main departure, it seems, is an emphasis on the shift away from Western dualism to a non-dual model in which emancipation entails "a breakdown, an overcoming, of the duality and separateness between things." However, this move was seen by some to undermine some of early Critical Realisms strongest aspects.


Whilst his early books were 'models of clarity and rigour', Bhaskar has been criticized for the "truly appalling style" (Alex Callinicos, 1994) in which his 'dialectical' works are written. Andrew Sullivan mocks himFact|date=May 2008 for writing sentences such as:

"Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucaultian strategic reversal - of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundament of positivism through its transmutation route to the super-idealism of a Baudrillard."Fact|date=May 2008

More serious criticisms have been levelled at the substance of Bhaskar's arguments at various points. One objection to Bhaskar's early CR is that it begs the question, assuming, rather than proving, the existence of the intransitive domain. Another objection, raised by Callinicos and others, is that Bhaskar's so-called 'transcendental arguments' are not really any such thing. They are certainly not typical transcendental arguments as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have defined them, the distinguishing feature of which is the identification of some putative condition on the possibility of experience. However his arguments function in an analogous way since they try to argue that scientific practice would be unintelligible and/or inexplicable in the absence of the ontological features he identifies. More serious criticism has been levelled at the dialectical phase of his philosophy, which it has been alleged proves too much, since CR was already dialectical. Bhaskar's concept of real absence has been questioned by, among others, Andrew Collier, who points out that it in fact fails to distinguish properly between real and nominal absences (in "On Real and Nominal Absences", in "After Postmodernism", 2001). Bhaskar's most recent 'spiritual' phase has been criticised by many, perhaps most, adherents of early CR for departing from the fundamental positions which made Critical Realism important and interesting, without providing philosophical support for his new ideas.

Personal life

Bhaskar married Hilary Wainwright, the socialist and feminist, in 1971.

See also

* Critical Realism
* Structure and agency

External links

* [ Roy Bhaskar Interviewed]
*"A Realist Theory of Science" (1975), [ chapters 1-3]
* [ Centre for Critical Realism]
* [ Journal of Critical Realism]
* [ Web Site for Critical Realism]


* Archer, M. et. al 1998, "Critical Realism: Essential Readings," London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-19632-9
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1997 [1975] , "A Realist Theory of Science," London: Version. ISBN 1-85984-103-1
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1998 [1979] , "The Possibility of Naturalism" (3rd edition), London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-19874-7
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1987, "Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation", London: Verso.
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1989, "Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy", London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-951-X
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1990, "Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom", London: Blackwell.
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1993, "Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom", London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-583-2
* Bhaskar, R.A., 1994, "Plato, etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution", London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-649-9
* Bhaskar, R.A., 2002, "Reflections On Meta-Reality: A Philosophy for the Present", New Delhi: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-9691-5
* Collier, A., 1994, "Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy", London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-602-2

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