Notes on: Albury, R., Payne, G., and Suchting, W.  (1981) 'Naturalism and the Social Sciences'.  Review Article in Economy and Society 10: 367-79.

Bhaskar's position is that society can be studied in the same way as nature.  Naturalism seems to arise in positivism through the notion of a unification of the sciences, while traditional anti-naturalism is based on hermeneutics.  However, anti-positivist naturalism is also possible, based on realism.  Bhaskar's transcendental realism is summarized (368) arguing that we use the same techniques [in natural science] to establish the conditions of possible knowledge in the social sciences.  That is we search for the properties of society and for people [and deduce transcendental characteristics from empirical properties]. There is of course much philosophical discussion of positivism and hermeneutics—Winch is recommended for the latter.

We can criticize the transcendental method, however.  Bhaskar demonstrates the possibility of a naturalistic science of society as a necessary logical preliminary for an actual science of society.  This is the familiar philosophizing of the sciences—philosophy is to provide foundations or guarantees of science before any actual scientific work takes place.  However, this idea of knowledge independent of material practices is 'a fantasy'.  Actual science proceeds through bootstrapping, activity undertaken in the dusk of the working day before the owl of Minerva takes wing (370).  Bhaskar's strategy claims instead to isolate more or less universally recognized features of substantive social life, to ground his a priori statements—but which ones should be discussed?  What we get in fact is 'a mishmash of more or less ordinary beliefs (pre or anti scientific in character)and 'then [he]"infers" whatever ideologically determined "conditions for the possible" of this characterization are appropriate in the circumstances'(371).  The characteristics are selected so as to lead to his version of historical materialism.

Secondly, Bhaskar critiques methodological individualism by referring to social norms.  He says that society is about the relations between individuals and groups, and then relations between these relations.  But what is a social relation?  He considers a number of views [my notes say agency as in Weber,  structure as in Durkheim, dialectic as in Berger and Pullberg].  This leaves individuals as both reproducers and transformers of social relations.  This is transcendentally deduced from the fact that society is a necessary condition for any intentional act.  There is also a recognition of Marx, and the view that society involves both productive apparatuses and a telos, and production involves raw materials: this prevents any support for ex nihilo individualism, while the notion of the self involves intentionality, which prevents the reification of the social.  In general though, this discussion deals only with straw men, especially in the case of Weber and Durkheim. Meanwhile, the real historical question is ignored—what determines the balance between the reproductive and transformative moments?  What parts are played in intentional action of socialization and contingency?  Bhaskar says he is not concerned with human activity as such, only with relations, but this means he skips over transformation and ends with a rather formalist structuralism, with the model of 'lots' in the social structure waiting for individuals to fill them.

Bhaskar develops a heavy reliance on Althusser and the notion of structural causality, where structures are sets of relations acting as generative mechanisms for social life: this only repeats the enigma of a structure 'irreducible to the present only in its effects' (374).  It is a particularly unsuitable model for Bhaskar rather than Althusser, since the former wants to distinguish mechanisms and their effects in order to defend the notion of a realism.  None of this is clarified. 

Further, social structures are real but they can also be transformed, but the knowledge required to do this can only be limited and partial, and this is where it differs from natural sciences.  Sociology, for example, elaborates law-like statements about only relatively enduring relations of social life and the structures which they form.  The problem lies in distinguishing these [concrete] structures or relations and their effects, and the formalistic notion of a structure, which suggests that practices are logically or historically derived from social relations.  It's quite possible to argue the reverse, that practices can be fixed and then structures emerge, and this would avoid the danger of reification where relations seen as prior.

Certainly, scientific sociology claims to be emancipatory, and Bhaskar criticizes the anti-science elements in Marxism and in critical theory.  Indeed, there is a covert struggle with Habermas in the work.  But Bhaskar is still theoreticist.  He claims that social values determine social theory through the choice of its objects and methods and it is these values from objects that appear in social theory.  This is unclear [!], But it seems to involve the claim that explanation must first involve understanding.  Social theory  can then determine emancipatory values, because it tries to explain how social reality produces ideas about reality, and how false ideas can be necessarily generated: we can critique these false ideas to assist emancipation.  However, this implies that if social ideas are untrue, their own social reality must be given some negative value.  This in turn implies that truth is some moral or ultimate value, requiring a commitment to truth as a condition of the possibility of [critical] discourse in general.  However, pure theory has no necessary emancipatory significance—its values are apparent only in practice, and do not exist at the formal level.

It is the way in which practices generate theory, combining various standards and orientations which is crucial, but this is largely ignored by empiricism [and theoreticism].  Some practices therefore may be emancipatory, although not necessarily from theory, but only if they undertake subsequent action [including theorizing?].  Marxism has a practical field to test its significance [not at all easily or unambiguously though] but this construction of a field by practice is ignored in favour of formalism in Bhaskar's work.

The issue of theoretical truthfulness has a moral value only in some practical circumstances.  It is not a matter of a sacred duty to pursue it.  Habermas gets closest here with his insistence on quasi transcendental interests, including the claim that communication involves an a priori interest in autonomy, acting as a presupposition of any rational discourse or authentic account of self reflection [I have noted the critical discussions in McCarthy].  Bhaskar seems to be pursuing a Christian analogue—the truth shall make you free.  As social science progresses the possibilities of domination and social control also increase, as we know from Foucault, on the ways in which discourses of sexual liberation have been recuperated.  [Lasch is also mentioned here].  Practice is decisive not theory.

The underlying problems in Bhaskar arise from his argument that material practices are derivative or secondary; that the material practices of science are subordinated to philosophy; that the material practices of life are subordinated to abstracts structural relations; that emancipatory practices are subordinated to theoretical formalism.  The whole argument shows that there are no solutions to practical problems found in philosophy!

more social theory