Dialectical Critical Realism: 2 – Bhaskar’s Materialist Dialectics

This second blog on dialectical realism offers a summary of Bhaskar’s materialist dialectics. This, he claims, supercedes Hegel’s earlier idealist efforts. I draw here on Bhaskar, Creaven and Norrie, as in the previous post.

First some guidelines, following Creaven. Bhaskar will have no truck with the triadic process of negation generally associated with Hegel (thesis-antithesis-synthesis). Dialectics for him is not simply about a putative law of the interpenetration of opposites in a given structure or system, leading to their ‘preservative sublation’ in a new structure of system (a higher totality). Dialectical processes, Bhaskar insists, are not always sublatory (or supersessive), let alone preservative; nor are they always characterized by opposition or antagonism. On the contrary, many are characterized by ‘mere connection, separation or juxtaposition’.

In the most general of terms Bhaskar defines dialectic as ‘any kind of interplay between differentiated but related elements’. More specifically, he sees dialectic ‘as structure-in-process and process-in-structure by virtue of the interconnections and oppositions which bring about the elaboration or transformation of a given system or totality or of some or more of its elements’ (Creaven). In his own words, dialectical thinking is ‘the art of thinking the coincidence of distinctions and connections.’

Hegel came to privilege unity over difference. Bhaskar reverses this. Time to recall a tenet or two of basic critical realism. Each (ontological) stratum can be conceptualized in isolation from any concept in the stratum from which it is emergent or in which it is rooted (the champion is necessarily emergent from/rooted in them, but cells don’t win Wimbledon). It follows that ‘in reality there is nothing present in the emergent stratum connecting it to the root stratum. Because of this … it is the aspect of difference that requires emphasis within the critical realist ontology’ (Bhaskar).

If for Hegel the dialectical process denotes the logic of negation, Bhaskar emphasizes ‘negative dialectics’ as (generally) the absenting of absence and (specifically) ‘the absenting of constraints on absenting absences or ills’ (hang in there, and hopefully this will become a little clear later on). Although he distinguishes between conceptual, social and natural dialectical processes, he regards all of these are ‘energized by the logic of absence or negation’. Creaven again:

‘Ontologically, the process is synonymous with social and natural geo-history. Epistemologically, the process is synonymous with progress in philosophical and theoretical thought, particularly the logic of scientific discovery. Normatively-practically, the process is precisely ‘the axiology of freedom’.’

In a bid to ‘radicalize’ Hegel, Bhaskar defines the core dialectical category as ‘real determinate absence or non-being’. Negativity here becomes ‘the lynchpin of all dialectics’. This negativity or absence is not simply a property of (the incompleteness of) conceptual thought, but of the ontological status of reality itself. This is crucial.  Bhaskar argues against what he terms ‘ontological monovalence’, or a ‘purely positive, complementing a purely actual, notion of reality’. He insists rather on the necessity of absence or non-being – that is, on ‘negative dialectics’ – given the open-ended nature of reality.

‘If negativity or absence were entirely cancelled out by positive being, the dialectic would cease, and with it change, development, evolution, emergence, leaving us with Hegel’s ‘constellationally’ closed totality (‘endism’)’ (Creaven).

Hegel’s ‘absenting of the notion of absence’ betrays the positivity of absolute idealism. Creaven:

‘For Hegel there was history, but in capitalist modernity there is no longer. Positive being reigns supreme. Argues Bhaskar, ‘the chief result of ontological monovalence in mainstream philosophy is to erase the contingency of existential questions and to despatialise and detemporalise being’.’

Negativity, for Bhaskar, is a condition of positive being; and so absence or non-being is ontologically prior to presence or being. Absence or non-being is an ocean, presence or being merely a ripple on its surface. ‘Real determinate absence or negativity energizes the struggle for presence or positivity. This is the essence of dialectic’ (Creaven).

Bhaskar distinguishes between three types of negation: real negation, transformative negation and radical negation.

Real negation is the most basic and wide-ranging, denoting absence from consciousness (e.g. the unknown, the tacit and the unconscious); or an entity, property or attribute (e.g. the spaces in a text) in some determinate space-time region; or a process of mediating, distancing or absenting (Creaven’s paraphrase of Bhaskar). Real negation is the motor of dialectic; transformative and radical negation are subsets of real negation.

Transformative negation refers to the transformation of some thing, property or state of affairs. Such processes involve the cessation or absenting of a pre-existing thing, property of state of affairs.

Radical negation is a special case of transformative negation. It refers to the auto-subversion, transformation or overcoming of a being or condition; this is negation as self-transformation.

Bhaskar’s explication of negativity provides the basis for his analysis of contradiction. His definition of contradiction is a broad one: it can be taken, he suggests, as a kind of metaphor to cover ‘any kind of dissonance, strain or tension’. But there are discernible types of contradiction. At root, contradiction ‘specifies a situation which permits the satisfaction of one end or more generally result only at the expense of another; that is, a bind or constraint’ (Bhaskar). An internal contradiction occurs when there is a double bind or self-constraint (which may be multiplied to form a knot):

‘In this case a system, agent or structure, S, is blocked from performing with one system, rule or principle, R, because it is performing with another, R1; or, a course of action, T, generates a countervailing, inhibiting, T1. R1 and T1 are radically negating of R and T respectively’ (Bhaskar).

Internal contradictions are essential to the possibility of emergent entities and of change as a self-implementing process.

The notion of external contradiction refers to laws and constraints of nature – like the speed of light – to be established by the mere fact of determinate spatio-temporal being. The notion embraces the limiting conditions or binds imposed on humans and societies by force of natural necessity. Creaven extrapolates:

‘In terms of society, the concept may perhaps also usefully refer to the inter-relations that exist between structures of a given system or social formation, insofar as these are not relations of mutual presupposition (i.e. internal and necessary connections between elements of an institutional whole), but insofar as these entail mutual incompatibilities or strains between elements of the total system. But, in fact, these can be said to be simultaneously external and intrinsic contradictions: ‘intrinsic’ insofar as these are strains or incompatibilities between the constitutive structures of a unitary social system (e.g. those between capitalism and liberalism’s own legal and political norms of ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’); ‘external’ insofar as each constituent structure of a social system (economic, political, religious, educational etc) is constituted and defined by a specific configuration of roles, rules, norms and positions, which are mutually antagonistic.’

Formal logical contradiction is a form of internal contradiction ‘whose consequences for the subject, unless the terms of redescribed and/or the discursive domain is expanded … is axiological indeterminacy’ (i.e. the lack of rational grounds for action).

The notion of dialectical contradiction is another form of internal contradiction. They can be radical or transformative depending on whether they negate ‘the source of the existential incompatibility between elements of the totality or the common ground of the totality itself’, or whether they inform ‘processes of dynamic restructuring which can be contained within a given totality or which do not sublate its common ground’.

Gradually, via this synopsis of Bhaskar on contradiction in particular, a link with Marx and a potential salience for substantive sociology is revealed. Bhaskar has gone beyond (his reading of) Hegel and given ontological anchorage to the concept of dialectic. In the next blog in this series I will discuss Bhaskar’s stance on Marx. After that, we shall have to return to Bhaskar to go a little deeper.



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