By Tobin Nellhaus
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Suggested citation: Nellhaus, Tobin (2022) There are three domains—just not exactly Bhaskar’s, Critical Realism Network, https://criticalrealismnetwork.org/2022/07/11/there-are-three-domains-just-not-exactly-bhaskars/
In a recent post, Tom Fryer and Cristián Navarrete (2022) argued that “domains” talk is
confusing and redundant (the terms mechanisms, events and experiences are sufficient), and that
domains don’t even exist since everything is real. In response, Dave Elder-Vass wrote a blog
post (2022) contending that we should absorb the domain of the empirical into the domain of the
actual, but keep the distinction between the real and the actual. I will argue instead that there are
considerable reasons to preserve both the concept of domains and a third ontological domain.
First, though, I agree with Dave that we must preserve the real and actual domains. The
distinction is a vital element in critical realism. I’m less persuaded by his proposal to call merely
latent powers “the potential,” since the word “latent” suffices, and for various reasons I would
rather rename the entire domain from “the real” to “the potential.” But the matter isn’t significant
here, so I will continue to use “the real.” However, I will urge a fundamental amendment to “the
To the main issue, then: the proposed elimination of the actual/empirical distinction. One of my
concerns is that the metaphor of “domains,” sometimes described as “levels,” obscures an
important point. Reexamine Bhaskar’s famed table of the domains (Bhaskar 1978: 13, 56;
reproduced as Dave’s Figure 1). As we all know, it distinguishes between the real, the actual, and
the empirical in a qualitative manner—but crucially, it doesn’t present them as separated layers
of a birthday cake: they are (also) subsets. The domain of the actual is part of (included within)
the real, and the empirical is part of the actual, and thus also real. This is especially clear at his
“experiences” level: experiences are real and actual and empirical, rather than just one of them.
(Bhaskar shorthands this as d r > d a > d e in Dialectic [1993: 207].) The metaphor for Bhaskar’s
ontology is more like a wedding cake: layers if you look from the side, concentric circles if you
look from above.
Bhasker’s use of subsets obviates one of the arguments against the three-domain theory, because
his ontology already incorporates Dave’s key claim. We can watch Bhaskar’s concept of the
empirical as a subset vanish when Dave moves from an off-hand mention that for Bhaskar, “the
empirical is a subset of the actual,” to a far more forceful statement that the actual/empirical
distinction itself “is problematic as a distinction between ontological domains, because my
experience is itself also an event,” on which he bases much of his subsequent argument that “the
empirical” is merely an expository device. For Dave, experiences are just one type of event
among myriads of others. For Tom and Cristián, everything is real, a point which of course is
already in Bhaskar’s theory.
However, recognizing that Bhasker’s ontology involves subsets doesn’t by itself mean you can’t
fully collapse or absorb the empirical into the actual; all it tells us is that in Bhaskar’s view, the
empirical in fact is already within the actual. What’s really at stake, as Dave correctly observes,
is the rationale for differentiating the two sets to the point that the empirical even constitutes a domain. To anticipate a bit, I contend that Bhaskar’s approach is indeed faulty: nevertheless some such ontological domain is crucial for critical realism, even if his version is ill-conceived.
Dave acknowledges its awkwardness and attempts to rescue the empirical from anthropocentrism
by arguing that in A Realist Theory of Science, Bhaskar was specifically thinking about science,
paradigmatically the natural sciences. Which is true: Bhaskar only turns to the social sciences in
The Possibility of Naturalism. But there he merely reiterates his concept of the domains (Bhaskar
1989: 15). He doesn’t even reconsider it in Dialectic, where he reframes pretty much everything.
His empirical domain is anthropocentric, full stop. That’s indeed a dubious basis for establishing
a whole ontological domain!
Still, the two-domain thesis faces an important problem: how does it account for varying
interpretations of natural phenomena? “The sun revolves around the earth” and “The earth
revolves around the sun” are both interpretations of a particular recurring event. Some people
still even claim the earth is flat. The validity of these theories is not the question, only that they
interpret the same thing differently. How do differing views not become conventionalist mere
and equally valid interpretations? How can collapsing the empirical into the actual contend with
these difficulties? Are different interpretations simply different synaptic firings? How can that
possibly be if everyone’s brains differ and thus different synapses are involved—yet all English
speakers understand the words “The earth is round” more or less identically, and they mean
nothing to people who have never encountered English. In short, where do we locate meaning?
Can the mind really be reduced to the brain?
For critical realism this is no small matter—it is tied to several other arguments. One of
Bhaskar’s major theses is his distinction between the intransitive and transitive dimensions of
studying reality (the conduct of science, historiography, psychotherapy, etc.). The intransitive
dimension (ID) consists of the objects that we examine, as they exist independent of our thoughts
about them; the transitive dimension (TD) is our thinking about these objects, an activity that
involves the entire material, social and cultural infrastructure behind research (preexisting views,
technology, funding sources, attitudes, gender discrimination, etc.). At root, however, it is the
distinction between ontology and epistemology—the foundation of realism. Conversely,
conflating being into our knowledge of being is the definition of the epistemic fallacy. The
TD/ID distinction also implies that thoughts about real entities—interpretations of it—can vary:
a single object in the ID can be understood variously in the TD.
Notice that the TD/ID distinction does not mean mental vs extramental, respectively: we can
think about (TD) our own thoughts (ID). (Translating TD/ID into mental/extramental is handy,
but imprecise.) One way Bhaskar puts this is by saying epistemology is contained within
ontology, in the sense that thought is real. Let’s dwell on that a moment. It upholds the
containment or subset series of the domains, as discussed earlier. But it also insists that ideas are
real. The latter point is the essence of a crucial argument in The Possibility of Naturalism:
reasons can be causes, which is absolutely necessary to uphold agency. Since thoughts have
causal powers, they are real entities, even though particular thoughts may or may not result in
actions. The opposite claim—that thoughts are unreal—is a standard empiricist position.
The transitive dimension is closely related to part of Bhaskar’s “holy trinity” of critical realism:
ontological realism, epistemic relativism, and judgmental rationalism. Epistemic relativism
pertains to the fact that all knowledge is sociohistorically produced, and we always recognize
objects under some description rather than through some sort of purely objective and direct
contact with it. I get the impression that critical realist research persistently under- or outright
unrecognizes epistemic relativity, and the erasure of a third ontological domain recapitulates that
As you can see, I’ve moved quite a bit past “the empirical,” which is just one type of meaning,
thought, or experience. I will go still farther by pointing out that, for example, many non-human
creatures have (in some sense) a concept of numbers, which implies that we need to account for
something wider than human beings and is thus potentially non-anthropocentric. Indeed, even the
word “meaning” is dodgy and anthropomorphic, though I’ll continue to use it for a while.
The two-domain thesis fails to account for meaning as a special sort of actuality. But, one might
counter, no matter how convincing my arguments that thought is special among all the events in
the domain of the actual and that it plays crucial roles in critical realist theory, I still haven’t fully
justified the claim that it constitutes a distinctive ontological domain. I will show that we do
have to establish some such domain, akin to Bhaskar’s but also quite different: meaning. It is of
course actual and real, per my discussion above.
To achieve that justification, I must return to a point on which we already agree: there is a valid
distinction between the domains of the real and the actual. The domain of the real consists of the
transfactual existence of causal (and thus real) powers and mechanisms, and the actual emerges
from the interactions among those powers and mechanisms. These interactions within the actual
can even produce new powers and mechanisms within the real that can be neither reduced to nor
deduced from their constituents. A simple example is the interaction of hydrogen atoms with
oxygen atoms that produces water, which has characteristics irreducible to its constituent atoms.
A far more sophisticated instance is DNA, which consists of a structure of elements underlying
startling new power: life. Among other things, living beings can act back upon denizens of the
physical world, such as by consuming gases and minerals, through which they maintain their
existence and reproduce themselves. But the development of new powers and mechanisms isn’t
the only thing that creates new realities: for instance, if an asteroid larger than the one that killed
the dinosaurs were hurtling toward the sun, the result within the real domain would be quite
different if the earth were directly in between than elsewhere. No new power would arise, just a
new but real situation, with real consequences for future events.
Thus when powers and mechanisms (within the domain of the real) interact (domain of the
actual), the result is a new reality affecting future interactions, even if it can be fully predicted
from the components’ powers. The process through which interactions between real entities
produces actualities with consequences affecting reality is called emergence. In other words, the
nature of the difference between the domains of the real and the actual—the criterion explaining
the ontological distinction between them—is emergence itself.
The very same criterion justifies distinguishing the domain of meaning from the domain of the
actual: meaning is emergent from the innumerable events that occur (including ones in brains).
In particular, it consists of a wholly new order of power altogether, because meaning is not
physical. Its lack of physicality is why empiricism calls thoughts “unreal.” Meaning requires a
physical substratum, such as neurons, but the power isn’t itself physical and can’t be reduced to
synaptic firings. Its materiality, so to speak, consists of relationality. Nonetheless, because it’s a
power, meaning is real. It can act upon actualities, such as by becoming the reasons for an
agent’s activity. There can even be “mind over matter,” through neuroplasticity. One of
meaning’s possible actions, namely the effort to understand actualities, in fact comprises the
transitive dimension, and this activity can occur in various ways, resulting in divergent
interpretations of the entities constituting the intransitive dimension. Emergence is the condition
of possibility for varying interpretations of actual events, forestalls the reduction of thought into
brain matter, and prevents the domain’s absorption into the actual.
To my knowledge Bhaskar connected domains to emergence only in passing and only with
regard to the real and the actual (1993: 237) and he used the concept primarily for entities (1993:
49-56). But that’s unimportant: the concept of emergence does justify the concept of domains.
Thus contra Tom and Cristián’s case for speaking solely of concrete mechanisms, events and
experiences, which is fine for non-philosophical and introductory conversations, within critical
realist philosophy the term “domains” reflects important ontological differences. The emergence
of real powers, mechanisms and entities (e.g., quarks to atoms to molecules to life forms etc.) is
ontic; the emergence of domains is ontological.
Finally, in a move that among other things permits non-human beings to possess something akin
to concepts, indeed fully de-anthropomorphizes the domain, I reconceptualize the domain of
“meaning” as the domain of semiosis, that is, semiotic activity. Thus there exists, for example,
the scientific field of biosemiotics. All living beings possess a semiotic system of varying
complexity. In humans the system (and its physical substratum) is so sophisticated that it can
operate through wholly arbitrary symbols such as language. Its power extends to objects that
aren’t present or physical—in other words, its referent can be absent (“I can’t find my keys!”) or
abstract (“systems”), and it can produce a host of non-actual states and entities, including fictions
(e.g., Anna Karenina and Wookiees); counterfactuals (“If Hilary Clinton had been elected
President instead of Donald Trump, there would have been more liberals on the Supreme
Court”); projections of the future (“I’ll go to bed early tonight”); impossible (like time travel);
and many more. The emergence of semiosis as a non-physical, relational power justifies
establishing a new ontological domain within the domains of the actual and the real. Collapsing
the semiosic into the actual is tantamount to conflating being and knowledge of being, and
rejecting epistemic relativism. In short, if no domain of semiosis, then no critical realism.
At the technical level, my own (more or less current) theory of the semiosic domain elaborated in
Nellhaus 1998 is a slightly modified version of Peirce’s semiotics, which has numerous
advantages over Saussure’s, including a connection to Bhashar’s own theory (1993: 222-23),
anti-anthropocentrism, and an additional rationale for considering the semiosic as an ontological
domain; but even if one prefers Saussure’s semiology (which is restricted to humans), semiosis
stands as an ontological domain emergent from within and distinct from the actual, which in turn
is emergent from within and distinct from the real.
Against Dave’s view that the third domain was merely a rhetorical device for articulating a
realist theory of science, and a rather pointless one at that, let me emphasize that Bhaskar’s
theory is a theory of science—that is, knowledge. His theory rightly focuses on ontology, but its
raison d’être is epistemology. And knowledge must have a real existence in order to have a
content. The nature of that existence is semiotic.
Bhaskar’s concept of the empirical domain fails because although the general idea behind
ontologically differentiating the “empirical” from the actual is correct, the content of his third
domain—experiences—is empiricist. That’s really what’s wrong with his actual/empirical
distinction. As I put it elsewhere (2022), “as long as critical realism shackles an entire
ontological domain to ‘experience,’ it will surreptitiously harbor an actualist, anthropocentric
and anthropomorphic ontology.”
Bhaskar, Roy. 1978. A Realist Theory of Science. Hassocks, Sussex: Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
Harvester Press; Humanities Press.
———. 1989. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary
Human Sciences. 2nd ed. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
———. 1993. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso.
Elder-Vass, Dave. 2022. “Maybe Two Parts of Reality Instead of Three?” Critical Realism
Network (blog). July 6, 2022. https://criticalrealismnetwork.org/2022/07/06/maybe-two-parts-of-
Fryer, Tom, and Cristián Navarrete. 2022. “Let’s Stop Talking about the Three Domains of
Reality.” Critical Realism Network (blog). April 26, 2022.
Nellhaus, Tobin. 1998. “Signs, Social Ontology, and Critical Realism.” Journal for the Theory of
Social Behaviour 28 (1): 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5914.00060.
———. 2022. “A Critical Realist Experience.” In Dave Elder-Vass, Andrew Sayer, Tobin
Nellhaus, Ian Verstegen, Alan Norrie, and Nick Wilson, “Symposium on The Space That
Separates: A Realist Theory of Art, by Nick Wilson.” Journal of Critical Realism, 1–32.