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Critical realism

Summary:
What properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us? My strategy in developing an answer to this question will be effectively based on a pincer movement. But in deploying the pincer I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental. Thus it is because sticks and stones are solid that they can be

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Critical realismWhat properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us? My strategy in developing an answer to this question will be effectively based on a pincer movement. But in deploying the pincer I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental. Thus it is because sticks and stones are solid that they can be picked up and thrown, not because they can be picked up and thrown that they are solid (though that they can be handled in this sort of way may be a contingently necessary condition for our knowledge of their solidity).

No philosopher of science has influenced yours truly’s thinking more than Roy did, and in a time when scientific relativism is still on the march, it is important to keep up his claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level.

Critical realismScience is made possible by the fact that there exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I cannot see that the main task of science is to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, the task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is ‘closed,’ and since social reality is fundamentally ‘open,’ models of that kind cannot explain anything about​ what happens in such a universe. Positivist social science has to postulate closed conditions to make its models operational and then – totally unrealistically – impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the ‘deep structure’ of society.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events are​ what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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