By chance I came across Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist theory of Science soon after Harvester Wheatsheaf added it to their list in 1978. Unlike some others of those who sampled it early I found it rigorous and clear. If Roy’s terminology was demanding, (a) his innovative analysis and style justified a certain dexterity and inventiveness, and (b) it did the job. By 1980 it was on my reading list for medical undergraduates opting for my ‘conceptual foundations of modern sociological thought’ unit in the University of London’s intercalated B.Sc in Sociology as Applied to Medicine. They were extraordinary students: I recall one noting and reporting on A Realist Theory of Science in its entirety, no mean feat. I was hooked. I followed up with The Possibility of Naturalism, Roy’s application of what came to be called ‘basic critical realism’ to the social sciences.
There were, in retrospect, several seductive moments in these two books and the volumes of essays that punctuated and succeeded them. The exposure of the ‘epistemic fallacy’ was pivotal. What exists cannot be swallowed whole by whatever we can be said to know about what exists. Ontology was recovered from the basement, dusted down and put back on display by Bhaskar. There is ‘experience’, he said, plus the ‘events’ that it makes accessible; but, as it were beyond these, there is a domain of the ‘real’. The proper objects of interest for the natural and social sciences alike are the ‘generative mechanisms’ that must exist in the domain of the real for phenomena and events to unfold as they do. But while the natural sciences can often draw on experimental ‘closures’, the social sciences are stuck with ‘open systems’. Mechanisms (beneath the surface) cannot simply be ‘read off’ (on the surface). Moreover one mechanism can be neutered by its ‘rivals’, dozing off while others remain alert and engaged (class can be countermanded by gender or ethnicity). But they do not go away. And they endure whether or not we are aware of it: class does not cease to exist just because for some focus of attention in some neighbourhood or household it yields causal primacy to gender or ethnicity.
Add in the ‘naturalistic fallacy’: foci of attention for sociologists cannot be reduced to or rewritten as those of interest to psychologists or biologists. ‘Emerge’ from them though it does, tennis as a social institution cannot be ‘explained away’ via the talents and personalities of individual players, let alone their body systems or cells. Like the other social sciences, sociology stands tall in its own right.
If mechanisms constitute some kind of constraining structural assemblage, agency is not thereby diminished. Agency too has its mechanisms and causal efficacy, no matter how rarely it is exercised; and in its exercise rests the potential for social transformation. In my terms, agency (like culture) is structured but not structurally determined.
What these kinds of arguments delivered for me was a modest frame for doing sociology. It was the philosophical task of under-labouring come good. Of course Bhaslar’s critical realism went on to deliver a more impressive (neo-Gothic) building than could be predicted from the foundations laid in its basic phase. I tiptoed tentatively into ‘dialectical critical realism’ via his massive and massively complex Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, published in 1993, and have even ventured four blogs in an attempt to outline its rationale and proclaim its worth. Somebody sneaked on me and told Roy of my blogs. I breathed more regularly when he subsequently announced them ‘very impressive’. I have not as yet got to grips with his works on ‘meta-philosophy’, although I am disinclined to write them off (I suspect their profound novelty disguises a consistent and continuing philosophical quest).
Perhaps critical realists fall into one of three camps: pragmatists, who find solace or inspiration in basic critical realism; adventurists, who extend their reach to dialectical critical realism; and humanists, who turn to meta-philosophy to better understand what constitutes human sociality and morality. But there is a tension to be found in each of these camps: this is between the philosophical and the substantive. The former focuses more or less exclusively on formal or abstract issues of ‘argumentation’, the latter on applying critical realism to addressing and explaining natural or social phenomena. Having started life as a neophyte philosopher I enjoy the philosophical almost as much as I am committed to the substantive. During what turned out to be his last years, Bhaskar invested time, effort and collaboration in the substantive; and the substantive is the testing ground for critical realism. It may be, as he argued, that ‘good science’ always was and remains essentially critical realist; but he became committed to show as much via considerations of climate change, disability and so on. I thought this brave. He was not afraid to put his philosophical under-labouring work to the test. This was the gist of the many conversations he and I had.
Roy’s death was more of a shock to me than a surprise. He was obviously unwell and talked openly about it; but he was an intellectual force to the end, as much a catalyst for others as an author of originality and depth. I was never entirely at ease with critical realist evangelizing, nor with a close – I am tempted to add ‘closed’ – coterie of admirers and disciples (most of them talented in their own right as well as generous to ‘outsiders’). Maybe Roy’s guru-like appearance encouraged outsiders to stereotype those around him as ‘followers’; and maybe sociologists are particularly alert and resistant to intellectual fandom. Certainly he was destined to ‘marginalisation’ qua philosopher. There is an echo of LSE’s Popper here. Ayer (who did nothing much, but with incontrovertible Oxbridge eloquence) was compulsory, Popper optional.
A chance would have it Roy and I were in regular email contact during his final months. He was supportive of a proposal I constructed for a book entitled Society, Health and Health Care: An Essay in Dialectical Critical Realism. This was accepted by Routledge in time for us to celebrate jointly. He was no less supportive of a proposal by Mark Carrigan, Tom Brock and I for a collection of Margaret Archer’s writings, Structure, Culture and Agency: Selected Papers of Margaret Archer. I suspect he knew before we did that Routledge would go for this too, but we heard after his death. Maggie was, of course, a long-term collaborator of Roy’s as well as being a major social theorist in her own right. I talked to her when I travelled to Warwick’s Centre of Social Ontology to give a talk just a day or two before Roy’s death.
Roy Bhaskar was a kind, calm and generous man. Whenever we met he wanted to know how each of my four daughters was doing before we got down to institutional, philosophical or sociological business, usually in his office high in the Institute of Education. He left behind him a stunning philosophical legacy. He also provided the resources for others, in Britain and overseas, to build on and apply his work. We will miss him.