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Remembering Roy Bhaskar 1944 – 2014

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In November 2014 Roy Bhaskar, whose work helped to crystalize the movement of critical realists, passed away. As a way of remembering him, his theoretical work, and his contribution to this project we would like to take a moment to give a brief overview of his life and work. Roy Bhaskar was born Ram Roy Bhaskar in Teddington, West London on May 15, 1944 to an Indian father, Raju Nath Bhaskar a GP, and an English mother, Kumla (nee Marjorie Skill), an industrial administrator. Bhaskar was educated at St Paul’s School, London, and undertook a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) degree at Balliol College, Oxford. In the course of writing a PhD dissertation on economics, global wealth and inequality Bhaskar became convinced that economic science as it stood was too empirically driven. Bhaskar wanted to find tools in economics that would allow for a deeper and more complex understanding of society and economic situations. Instead, he found that talking about the real world or anything outside of economic formula, was a virtual taboo. Economics, like many disciplines, bracketed such questions in order to focus upon its particular methodological approaches and applications, which presented themselves as “metaphysically neutral”. In short, one didn’t need to speak about the real world. In contrast to this Bhaskar felt that if economics was to have any meaningful place in the world it must be grounded in an understanding of that world, responding to the nature and complexity of particular situations including “non-economic” factors.

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Following this line of thought Bhaskar positioned himself against the two main theoretical camps – camps which continue to dominate social theory. Against positivism Bhaskar argued that we can come to knowledge of the real world, but that this knowledge is usually not the exact and predictive knowledge imagined by the positivists. Reality is not fundamentally law-like. Likewise, against the emerging postmodernisms, which rejected positivism and suggested we cannot and should not speak of reality at all, Bhaskar argued explicitly for the need to keep talking about reality, even if it is only ever known through particular mediations which are influenced by culture, language and interests. However reality cannot (and should not) be reduced to or exhausted by any particular description, experience or knowledge.Following this more deeply Bhaskar became increasingly convinced that not only economics, but Western science and social theory were founded on a series of intellectual mistakes which created false dichotomies and collapsed distinctions, such as those between structure and agency, individualism and collectivism, fact and value, and most importantly, ontology and epistemology. In particular, the collapse of the distinction between ontology and epistemology for Bhaskar leads to perhaps the most important and pernicious theoretical mistake plaguing Western thought – “the epistemic fallacy”. The epistemic fallacy suggests that questions about ontology can always be collapsed into questions of epistemology, that is to say, being as it is in itself can always be collapsed or translated into our knowledge of being. Instead of treating the things themselves, we treat the network, the structures of human thought. The result is that we become enmeshed in paradigms, languages and methodologies with no way out. Knowledge of the world becomes intrinsically anthropocentric.

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In approaching a solution to these questions about the nature of reality Bhaskar developed a theoretical approach using Kant’s transcendental method of argumentation. The basis of this approach is simply to ask: What must the world be like for x to be possible? Beginning with natural science, which often operates as the model and benchmark for all knowledge, Bhaskar argued that to understand how and why scientific experiments are necessary, possible and successful, we must understand certain things about the nature of the world – namely, that it is a complex, stratified and differentiated system. He concluded that any account of science, which wants to take scientific knowledge seriously, must acknowledge that the world consists of independently existing and enduring structures and mechanisms which are fallibly known by scientists. More importantly, these enduring structures and mechanisms are stratified, consisting of different and irreducible emergent levels. Here we may think of the relation between chemistry and physics – chemistry depends upon but cannot be reduced to physics; it is sui generis and requires its own methodological approach based on the unique structures and mechanisms encountered at this level. The same is true for the relationship between biology and chemistry, psychology and biology, sociology and psychology and so forth. At each level, there is a new level of complexity which means we must always develop an appropriate methodological response which is based upon the nature of the particular objects we are investigating.

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Given this is true for the natural sciences, it is even more the case for the social sciences. Against the various reductionisms which continue to riddle the field, Bhaskar consistently argued for a more integrative approach which acknowledged the complexity and stratification of the mechanisms and structures in the social world and that social science, if it wants to live up to its name, must proceed on this basis. The fruit of this thought is expressed in his two most enduring texts, A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism.

Despite some enduring hardships Roy Bhaskar was always a lively and jolly individual. He will be missed.

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