File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 11

Date: Sat, 7 Mar 1998 12:34:58 -0800 (PST)
Subject: BHA: harre and madden

I mentioned I am reading Harre and Madden's CAUSAL POWERS.  This is
plainly a seminal work for critical realism and a very important
one.  In regards to concerns I have raised with RTS ch 3, sections
4 and 5, H and M do not invoke in any way Aristotelian language
regarding causality, but rather speak of active and passive powers
after the example of Locke.  Their emphasis is on "powerful
particulars," ie individuals which in virtue of their nature have
the power to behave in such and such a way.  This is an active
concept of agency, and they are very clear that "agency is a
concept applicable to the physical world in a precise and exact way
without anthropomorphic metaphors."(CP, 112).  The ocean, for
example, because of what it is, has weight and exerts pressure and
can therefore crush a submarine if the vessel goes too deep, etc. 
So this is the agency of the ocean.  But the distinction between
entities with active and passive powers makes no absolute
distinction among things and substances:  "The chain saw cuts the
tree and the tree dulls, to some extent, the teeth of the saw."  In
virtue of its nature.  
In the last chapter they emphasize that if there are to be ultimate
entities, they must be entities whose nature just is their powers,
and the concepts that seem to fit this idea, as RB suggested in
RTS, ch 3, section 4, citing them, come from field theory.  They
"The idea that modern field theory is some kind of return to
Aristotelianism as suggested by Miller and Caws in two recent
reviews, is to betray not only a failure to understand the
metaphysical revolution implicit in the shift from all genuine
substance theories to dynamical or power theories of matter but
also a lamentable ignorance of the history of science." (CP 166). 
In other words, the basic problem with Aristotle is his commitment
to a theory of substance and the idea that substances are the
ultimate subjects for all properties.  It is essential to
differentiate a modern concept of particulars with powers from all
such ideas.  So there is the pre-Hume concept of natural necessity
rooted in substance and quality ontologies and the new, post-Hume
ontology rooted in the concept of powerful particulars.  
I don't know where this leaves Aristotle's notions of cause nor the
significance of Bhaskar's references to them throughout his work. 
Also I don't know the extent to which RB's appeal to "principles of
substance" in section 5 of RTS (p205) reflects a difference with
Harre and Madden. Presumably none.  This is the passage I quoted a
post or so ago:
"It is of course possible that the nature of some particular will
be transformed:  in which event, scientists will search both for an
underlying substance or quasi substance which preserves material
continuity through change (e.g. a gene pool through species change,
an atom in chemic reactions, energy in microphysics) and for the
agent of mechanism which brought about the change.  The principles
of substance and causality are interdependent and complementary."
I think Harre and Madden would speak of nature rather than
substance, though not disagreeing with this description as applied
to ordinary material things.  But what they want to hold open is
the possibility of ultimate things whose nature just is their
But for all of you wiping your brow in relief at the thought of
leaving Aristotle behind, what do you make of this conclusion to a
fully critical realist discussion in their chapter five on "Causal
"But apart from what are scarecely more than minor verbal matters
we would assent in all essentials to Acquinas' theory, as
interpreted by Anscombe and Geach" (CP 100),
In the last chapter, "Fields of Potential," Harre and Madden write,
"an entity exists when it occupies space for a time, and has causal
powers."  So everything which exists has causal powers.  And again,
I think they would treat all such powers as reflecting agency.  So
the question is, do social relations exist?  What is their
ontological status?  And, if so, what is the nature of their
agency?  Is it Harre's position in subsequent writing that only
individual persons have agency powers?  Without in any way
addressing the nature of social relations, the last two pages of
CAUSAL POWERS are provocative.  Harre and Madden write:
"The ordinary modes of reference by which we pick out material
things serve both to identify an entity, that is, enable us to say
what kind of thing it is, as well as to individuate it, that is,
pick it out as an entity from all other entities."
That is, "the act which individuates and the act which identifies
go together, since identifiably different individuals must occupy
different places."  
But this does not always hold and identification and individuation
may be necessarily distinct.  For example, H and M give an example
of a spot of light on a wall.  The wall and the light may be
separately identified, but their individuation cannot depend, as
with ordinary material things, on their location in different
places.  "[T]he same act of reference serves to pick out both of
Now suppose a half dozen cops hold a suspect, a "sans papier,"
spread eagle in the spot light against the wall.  Here is a social
relation which endures in time and has causal powers, but does it
have location in space?  Certainly its location in space is not
exhausted by the 6 cops.  We would have to take into account the
whole police organization, the state, the courts, national
differences, etc.  Where is the social relation located?  So does
it exist?  Harre and Madden notably do not attribute existence to
causal criteria alone.  Also, Bhaskar's reference to social
relations as being like an electromagnetic or gravitational field
in that they exist in virtue of their effects may be to this extent
misleading.  Fields in physics, Harre and Madden note, occupy
On the other hand, because social relations exist only in virtue of
their effects, we can, by an act of reference, locate generally
where they are to be found, even if we can't specify a place within
that general location.  That is, social relations are found on
earth, some on a specific continent, some perhaps only in a
particular building, etc.  Does that mean they occupy space?  They
do not seem to be like a gravitational field which exists such that
anything which comes within the field is affected by it.
Anyway, assuming we hold to Bhaskar's analysis, Harre and Madden's
analysis of a field of potential does offer ways to think about
social relations as real and causally efficacious:
"The concept of a potential at a place is also capable of supplying
a scientifically satisfying sense to the demand that the field be
not only real but an agent.  The explanation of the acceleration of
a test body introduced at a certain place in the field as being due
to the potential identifies that potential as a causal power
responsible for a force on the particle at that point, and the
field as a powerful particular."  (CP 179).
Social relations seem to have potential at a place with causal
power responsible for persons acting in particular ways, e.g.
putting their hands against the wall.
H and M conclude on the last page:
"But since, as we wish to claim, the universal field exists in
space and is different in specific ways from empty space, it must
be identifiable as being of a certain kind, for example, the
ordered structures of its potentials can be expressed in unique
laws, in terms of which it could be differentiated from another
Social relations seem to exist in space in ways different from
empty space and can be identified as the ordered structures of
their potentials expressed in unique laws.  Isn't that so?  That is
why it is so important to focus on the question of their real
definition -- it is by discovering their ordered structures and
ways of tendential operation that we can identify them.  We cannot
pick them out by an act of reference.
And they would seem to have agency in Harre and Madden's sense.
P.S. So then what does it mean to say that "It is methodologically
incorrect to search for an efficient cause of society, though
society depends necessarily upon the efficient activity of men"?
"What is there just now you lack" Hakuin
Howard Engelskirchen

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