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Critical Realism and The Art of Gift Giving

This is a guest post by Onur Özmen (University College London)

Onur Özmen is a PhD student at the Institute of Education, University College London and is working on critical realism and ethics. This blog post is adapted from a section of the paper he presented at the annual conference of the International Association for Critical Realism in 2016, titled ‘Is a critical realist conciliation of Plato’s anti-anthropism and Aristotle’s moral anthropology possible?’.

Part 1: The Concept of Concrete Axiological Judgements

Imagine you have a niece of age seven that you are going to see soon, and you want to be a good uncle or aunt, which means, that you want to contribute to the free flourishing of the small human being into an agent fully capable of engaging in transformed, transformative, trustworthy, totalising, transformist, transitional praxis [1] to build a eudaimonistic society in which the free flourishing of each is regarded as the condition of the free flourishing of all [2] But there is a difficulty. You figure that a small but important step towards such a contribution is giving her a very nice gift, and you are free to choose the gift from a limited array of options. What are you going to pick?

Imagine your options consist of a dagger with ornamental silverwork, a wooden chess set, a jar of Chian wine, or a parchment scroll of Homeric poetry. If we shoulder a quite innocent and light-weight baggage of ceteris paribus clauses and normalizing presuppositions (for instance, that you will have other opportunities to give her the scroll at a later stage in her life when she can fully understand and appreciate the text, or that she is not in danger of being attacked by a wild animal, which eliminates the dagger, or that she does not already have a chess set etc.), one of the options seems more apt than the others.

You probably should give her the chess set. But as trivial a choice as it is, actually choosing the right gift to give a niece to facilitate her development as an agent and enhance her well-being and happiness requires a concrete axiological judgement, ‘prescribing what is to be done in the particular circumstances which actually prevail’[3]. This choice that you might have landed upon, of giving her the chess set, is a judgement because you form a conclusive reasoned decision by considering various aspects of the situation and by discerning, weighing and evaluating different options. It is concrete in that you pick a definite, particular course of action under a determined set of circumstances, and it is axiological (remember, we assumed that you want to be a good uncle or aunt) because you choose the gift based on your values, your opinions on what might be good or bad for a seven year old to have, and what character traits that you believe the gift would and would not cultivate.

‘Concrete axiological judgement’ (sometimes ‘CAJ’ from now on) is a term coined by Bhaskar in his theory of explanatory critique. Technically, it is one of the necessary steps in the process of moving from theoretical critique to emancipatory action [4]. But in the sense that I want to deploy the concept, concrete axiological judgements are ubiquitous in moral life and their role is not limited to this technical location in the schema of explanatory critique, or to put it differently, they are not necessarily derived from an explanatory critique.[5] As Bhaskar himself notes, ‘it should be remembered that some, perhaps implicit, CAJ is always present (and so formed) and some action or other is always performed’. This seems to imply that explanatory critiques are not analytical to the concept of CAJs, which allows for the possibility of ill-informed or bad judgements of this type. So they do not have to be conjoined to an explanatory critique to serve as a stepping stone towards intentional (im)moral action. But I do not argue that CAJs are directly decisive upon all action. For acts that are partly based on such judgements, there are always going to be other complicated internal and external factors involved as well, which might support or counteract the CAJs, making room for inconsistencies. Besides, some acts are not based on such forms of judgment at all, e.g. in cases of forced action (your brother makes it clear that you must choose the scroll), in cases of akrasia (you decide on the chess set but spend your gift-giving budget on the wine and drink it yourself [6]), in cases in which your capacity to form a judgement has faltered but you act nevertheless etc. I only argue that even the simplest-looking acts of love and good will, such as giving a gift to your niece, require them.

Part 2: The Axiological Ubiquity of Anthropology

Philosophy has a way of extracting small baggages of presuppositions into huge mountains of theory.

We have our CAJ for acting like a good aunt or uncle, but not everything in a CAJ is necessarily explicit, so let us look more into that little baggage we had took on: why, again, would one choose that one particular gift? How do we come to reach the judgement that our gift would contribute to the well-being and flourishing of our niece? In choosing the gift it is clear (or so I will argue) that we have engaged in at least some anthropology, as we would in any moral action, including the simplest, everyday ones.

But what if one is a true nominalist who rejects the existence of universals and says, ‘No, I have acted on the needs, desires and abilities of one particular human being, on what is good specifically for her. Why would any of that have to be universalizable into a grand theory encompassing human beings as such? Indeed, what makes a gift a good gift is that it appeals to the uniqueness of the person to receive it, and in that sense, the act of good gift-giving is antithetical to anthropology. [7] It is not generalizing, but singularizing that constitutes the essence of an act of kindness’? I will not go deep into an ancient nominalism-realism debate here, but if you adopt this line of reasoning, this implies that in your CAJ, knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a human being has no relevance for your judgement, and your judgement’s adequacy is based only on your knowledge and understanding of the particular niece, Katara. This would mean that you have, although implicitly, presupposed that she is able to learn and enjoy chess in virtue merely of a Katara-ness that is defined independently of her humanness and of qualities that are derivable from her humanness such as age-specific needs (in their hierarchical structure), etc., which seems to be absurd. You would either have to deny that your niece is a human being, or demonstrate that her humanness does not contribute at all to properties of her that are relevant for the gift you picked, and that all the predicates you needed to presuppose to develop your CAJ are exclusive to her.

I would rather argue that your niece’s Katara-ness and anthropology have direct relevance for each other in various ways, one way being that her Katara-ness establishes the fact that it has been possible to actualize her distinct history and unique character within the given potential of humanity. [8] The CAJ in question is inescapably tied to beliefs regarding the niece, human beings and chess (which might, of course, be true or not), for example, that the niece is a human and a child, and that one particular activity in which children need to engage is play, and that chess, as a game, both meets that need to a degree and facilitates cognitive and emotional development in human beings at that age and beyond. Yet, this is anthropology still at a relatively superficial level. The anthropological presuppositions underpinning one’s CAJ can be excavated as deep as the level of granting to human beings the ability of symbolically mediating ideas (the level of species-differentiation), but arguably even deeper into a metaphysical level in which human beings are considered causally efficacious (that they are real, so that a human being can bring about change in the world -otherwise what could Katara ever do with the wooden chess pieces?). So it is very much possible to have concrete universals: an ineradicable humanness mediated and singularized in a particular person called Katara. It is worth noting that you would not have succeeded in taking anthropology totally out of the picture had you chosen the wine or the decorative dagger (if the case is still that you want to be a good aunt or uncle). You would only be, I would argue, doing some bad anthropology, since your decision would still presuppose something about what it is to be a human, such as that seven is a suitable age for consuming alcohol or possessing fancy and possibly dangerous silverware. Another important point is that it does not matter whether you think in terms as general as those in the species-being scale when you reach a concrete axiological judgement, or whether you rush to your library for academic resources on anthropology. My position is the humble one that the ontology of anthropology (the intransitive dimension) in part determines whether our judgements on what is good or bad are in reality good or bad, and that therefore anthropology (in its transitive dimension) is presupposed by our axiological judgements, not necessarily on a full-scale or conscious level. In our moral praxis we inevitably, even if sometimes (or perhaps mostly) implicitly, do tap into our understanding of what human beings are, what they need, what their potentials are, and what their ethos and telos (if it exists) consists in.


[1] Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 210. 

[2] Ibid., 98.

[3] Roy Bhaskar, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 186.

[4] Bhaskar’s complete list for these stages is as follows: ‘(i) theoretical critique (satisfaction of the critical condition); (ii) explanatory critique (satisfaction of the explanatory condition); (iii) value judgement; (iv) practical judgement; (v) concrete axiological judgement; (vi) transformation in agent’s praxis; (vii) emancipatory action, i.e. praxis oriented to emancipation; (viii) transformative praxis, consisting or culminating in the dissolution or progressive transformation of structural sources of determination (emancipating action); (ix) emancipated (free) action.’ (Ibid., 188.)

[5] But the reverse is not true, all explanatory critiques do entail CAJs, which include judgements that prescribe inactivity or no action.

[6] These are not categorical in the sense that one is either completely heteronomous or autonomous, or one either enjoys complete enkrateia or suffers from complete akrasia, but are usually a matter of degree and balance in a combination of forces.

[7] I use the term ‘anthropology’ throughout this text in the broadest possible sense of the (not-necessarily-academic) study of humanity and its relations with the environment.

[8] All biography, in the sense of personal trajectories, is in this sense in part anthropology.