Dialectical Critical Realism: 1 – Getting Past Hegel

By | March 10, 2014

I have in earlier blogs introduced Bhaskar’s basic critical realism, going on to suggest it offers a way of coming to terms with interdisciplinarity. There are any number of commentators who find basic critical realism helpful. Some of these retain their enthusiasm for Bhaskar’s original philosophical excursions through to his dialectical critical realism. Others fall by the wayside well before finishing his Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, published in 1993. Most, it has to be said, give up on encountering his programme of meta-philosophy.

This is the first of a few blogs – who knows how many – on dialectical critical realism. My project is to render it accessible, or sufficiently so for readers to decide whether or not to get stuck into it on their own account. Apart from Bhaskar himself, I draw mostly on Creaven and Norrie (see refs).

Bhaskar positions his analysis within the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Marx. His aim was to ‘deepen’ his basic critical realism by developing a general theory of dialectic sufficiently robust to underwrite a meta-theory of the social sciences that would release them to function as agencies of human emancipation. He aspired to provide, in his own words, ‘a philosophical basis for Marxian social theory consistent with Marx’s own undeveloped methodological insights’. This would require ‘philosophically under-labouring a genuinely emancipatory socialist political project’ (Creaven).

Bhaskar started by critiquing Hegel’s notion of the dialectic. The problem with Hegel’s logic is that it eradicates the dualisms of thought and reality and of subject and object en route to ‘a complete and self-consistent idealism’. Dialectic for Hegel is ‘a logical process … of reunification of opposites, transcendence of limitations and reconciliation of differences’ (Bhaskar). Bhaskar is worth quoting here:

‘From the vantage point of (positive) reason the mutual exclusivity of opposites passes over into the recognition of their reciprocal interdependence (mutual inclusion): they remain inseparable yet distinct moments in a richer, more total conceptual formation (which will in turn generate a new contradiction of its own). It is the constellational identity of understanding and reason within reason which fashions the continually recursively expanding kaleidoscopic tableaux of absolute idealism … Dialectic … is … the process by which the various categories, notions or forms of consciousness arise out of each other to inform ever more inclusive totalities until the system of categories, notions or forms as a whole is completed.’

Enlightenment amounts therefore to a process of negating negation. It culminates in the ‘achieved constellational identity’ of subject and object in consciousness ‘as thought finally grasps the world as a rational totality, as part of itself, which exists as rational totality in order to enable philosophical self-consciousness to be achieved.’ The unification of subject and object, then, is the process by which reason (or better, Reason) becomes self-conscious. This is the telos of the Hegelian system, the historical moment when totality becomes ‘constellationally’ closed or completed (Creaven).

So, setting aside its removal from Anglo-Saxon thinking, (at least since the early decades of the last century), what is wrong with Hegel’s ambitious, all-encompassing or absolute idealism? For Bhaskar, it is clearly at odds with his ‘first wave’ of critical realist philosophy: most obviously, it bulldozes over the ontological reality of stratification and emergence (see blogs on basic critical realism). Bhaskar seeks to show that the realist notions of stratification and emergence cannot lend themselves to Hegel’s idea of a closed totality, thus undermining Hegel’s ‘identity’ of subjective and objective dialectics. For Bhaskar, good totalities are open, bad totalities are closed.

The non-identity of subject and object, Bhaskar argues, ensures that there is no reason why all being must be ‘conceivable’ being, let alone why all being must be conceived of already. The fact that the cosmos is an ‘open totality’ ensures that there is always the possibility, or likelihood, of newly emergent strata – crucially for us, the possibility of new social structures brought about by human agency – so that reality is forever incomplete and ‘inherently impossible to grasp fully’ (Creaven).

This interpretation by Bhaskar supports the unity-in-difference of being and consciousness that is at the core of materialistic dialectics. Creaven again:

‘For Bhaskar, because strata are ‘equal members of the same hierarchy, (they have) an aspect of unity (dualism or pluralism is rejected)’; at the same time, because ‘the strata are not the same as, nor reducible to, one another … they have an aspect of difference (reductionism is rejected).’

What Bhaskar calls Hegel’s ‘cognitive triumphalism’ reduces the world to a non-hierarchical flat space with fixed boundaries and dimensions, arresting the ongoing process of determinate negation in physical and social systems alike. This denies the existence of ‘multiple totalities’ and of the openness and incompleteness of each of these. This can of course lead to the ’epistemic fallacy’: questions about the world collapse into questions about what we can/do know about the world (ontology is reduced to epistemology).

So Hegel’s dialectic fails to meet Bhaskar’s criteria. It is also, he maintains, internally flawed. If, as Hegel insists, truth consists in totality and the conformity of an object to its notion, then he ought to accept that the idea of an open totality is more true – that is, complete and adequate – than the idea of a closed totality’; after all, it is more comprehensive and encompassing and ‘contains the latter as a special case’ (Bhaskar). Creaven summarizes:

‘Logically, the structures of reality have to be grasped as ‘open-ended’, if Hegel’s ‘progressivist’ conceptualization of dialectic as the movement towards a richer, fuller, more universal consciousness is to be upheld.’

So Bhaskar’s skirmishing with Hegel sets the scene. A great deal more might and perhaps should be said. But this is enough for one blog and, I trust, sufficient to give those unfamiliar with Hegelian dialectic a sense of Bhaskar’s critique.


Bhaskar,R (1993) Dialectic; The Pulse of Freedom. London; Verso.

Creaven,S (2007) Emergentist Marxism: Dialectical Philosophy and Social Theory. London; Routledge.

Norrie,A (2010) Dialectic and Difference: Dialectical Critical Realism and the Grounds of Justice. London; Routledge.


Leave a Reply