Two flavours of “ontology” in critical realism – and why it doesn’t matter


 

Bhaskar’s critical realism emphasises a distinction between intransitive and transitive objects. I think the easiest way to see how the distinction works in social science (as opposed to say, geology) is as follows. Find all the social theorists and make them and their books and journal articles vanish. The things that are left are intransitive objects, e.g., people and social institutions likes banks and governments, and all the things they do even though no theorists are around to observe. The things that vanish with the theorists are all the transitive objects – the fallible accounts of how the various intransitive objects “work”.

It should be recognised that the theorists and their theories are intransitive objects too and theories influence social life, e.g., through the pop psychology jargon people use when they talk to each other. Also everyone theorises, not just professionals. But let’s not get tied up in knots.

Ontology is about the kinds of things that exist, including material and abstract “things” like numbers. Cruickshank (2004) argues that ontology is defined in two different ways by critical realists. Sometimes it refers to all the things, knowable and not, in the intransitive sense. Other times ontology refers to critical realists’ theories of what there is – these theories are transitive objects.  But reducing what there is to what is known (philosophically) about what there is commits what Bhaskar called the epistemic fallacy – one of the key fallacies critical realists are trying to help us avoid.

Cruickshank concludes that Bhaskar shoots himself in the foot by making critical realist theories of ontology inevitably commit the epistemic fallacy (Cruickshank, 2004, p. 572):

“The problem though is that in defining the epistemic fallacy as the transposing of questions about being [ontology] into questions about knowing, Bhaskar has defined the said fallacy so broadly that any reference to what we know of reality (which may well be knowledge claims with a high degree of veracity) must commit this putative fallacy. Indeed the only way to avoid this fallacy would be to step outside knowledge to ‘see’ reality in itself.”

It’s a challenging debate, aiming for precise understandings of concepts like ontology and exploring the possibilities and limits of philosophical reasoning, but it seems unhelpful for the day-to-day work of doing social science.

Perhaps more helpful – and bigger than critical realism – is to emphasise the role of creativity in doing science. We can’t just go out and rigorously observe reality (whether social life or the cosmos) and somehow perceive theories directly. Although rigorous observation is important, science involves speculating about what might be out there and then working out what evidence we would expect to see if we were correct or if plausible alternative theories were correct.

My favourite analogy comes from cryptanalysis. We can systematically analyse letter and word frequencies in cyphertexts to try to spot patterns. But it helps to guess what people might be trying to say to each other based on something beyond the ciphertext, and to use those guesses to reduce the search space of possible encryptions.

References

Cruickshank, J. (2004). A tale of two ontologies: An immanent critique of critical realism. Sociological Review, 52, 567–585.