Roy Bhaskar

David Graeber “Roy Bhaskar obituary”

先月、英国の科学哲学者のRoy Bhaskar氏*1が死去した。享年70歳。彼の哲学的立場は「批判的実在論(critical realism)」*2と呼ばれる。

Before long, he concluded that the problem ran deeper: western science and social theory itself were based on a series of intellectual mistakes, which created false dichotomies such as those between individualism and collectivism, and scientific analysis and moral criticism. The most important of these he called “the epistemic fallacy”, arising from the conventional study of how we can know things, or epistemology. Almost invariably, philosophers have treated the questions “does the world exist?” and “can we prove the world exists?” as the same. But it is perfectly possible that the world might exist and we could not prove it, let alone be able to obtain absolute knowledge of everything in it.

In this way, Roy argued, the two camps into which the left has been divided – positivists, who assume that since the world does exist, we must, someday, be able to have exact and predictive knowledge of it, and postmodernists, who believe that since we cannot have such knowledge, we cannot speak of “reality” at all – are just rehearsing different versions of the same fundamental error. In fact, real things are precisely those whose properties will never be exhausted by any description we can make of them. We can have comprehensive knowledge only of things that we have made up.

Roy’s approach adopted a version of Kant’s transcendental method of argument, which asks “what would have to be the case in order for what we know to be true?” For science, he argued that two key questions must be asked simultaneously: first, why are scientific experiments possible, and second, why are scientific experiments necessary, in order to obtain verifiable knowledge of what scientists call natural laws. Why is it possible to contrive a situation where you can predict exactly what will happen, when, say, water is heated to a certain temperature in a controlled environment, but also, why is it that one can never make similar predictions in natural settings – no matter how much scientific knowledge we acquire, we still cannot dependably predict the weather. Why, in other words, does it take so much work to create a situation where one does know precisely what will happen?

His conclusion was that the world must consist of independently existing structures and mechanisms, which are perfectly real, but they must also be, as he put it “stratified”. Reality consists of “emergent levels” – chemistry emerges from physics, in that chemical laws include physical ones, but cannot be reduced to them; biology emerges from chemistry, and so forth. At each level, there is something more, a kind of leap to a new level of complexity, even, as Roy put it, of freedom. A tree, he argued, is more free than a rock, just as a human is freer than a tree. What a scientific experiment does, then, is strip away everything but one mechanism at one emergent level of reality. To do so takes enormous work. But in real-world situations, like the weather, there are always all sorts of different mechanisms from different emergent levels operating at the same, and the way they interact will always be inherently unpredictable.


He later applied this approach to a critique of the “new realism” of Tony Blair. Vaunted as a belated adjustment to the facts of political life, Roy said that it fails to recognise the underlying structures and generative mechanisms, such as property ownership and the exploitation of labour, that produce observable phenomena and events such as low pay and intolerable working conditions. In other words, New Labour was based on realism of the most superficial sort. He presented these and other political implications of his work at the Philosophy Working Group of the Chesterfield Socialist conferences, associated with Tony Benn*3 and Ralph Miliband*4, in the late 80s. This work was eventually published as Reclaiming Reality (2011).

Roy was a political revolutionary. The unifying purpose of his work was to establish that the pursuit of philosophical knowledge necessarily implied social transformation; the struggle for freedom and the quest for knowledge were ultimately the same.

See also

Christopher Norris “Roy Bhaskar Interviewed”