File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9810, message 76

Date: Thu, 15 Oct 1998 17:30:40 -0400
Subject: Re: BHA: Bhaskar's theory of truth

I am going to try to present a bit more systematically some of my
reservations of Bhaskar's account of truth in DFP in the form of a series
of questions. But before I get to them I just want to say that I do not
consider my own stance to be relativist. I simply want to argue that there
can be no single theory of truth, if by theory of truth we mean an account
that is able to tell us in advance what can and what cannot be counted as
true statements about the world. I believe I can hold this position while
still respecting the three tenets of CR, ontological realism,
epistemological relativism and judgmental rationalism. Others may well

I also do not think that Bhaskar has mounted a 'watertight' case for his
account of truth, or, for that matter, for his account of dialectic. I do
think that RB captures the nature of the problem well when he writes (p.
217) that: "If the generic weakness of 'reflectionist' (objective
empiricist) Marxist theories of truth is neglect of the socially produced
and geohistoric structure of truth judgements, that of epistemically
idealist western Marxist theories is neglect of the independent existence
and transfactual efficacy of the objects of such judgements. What is needed
clearly is a theory which neither elides the referent nor neglects the
socially produced character of judgements about it." The question is, does
his account give us this theory?

I will now try to lay out some of my difficulties with his approach along
three lines:
1) What is universal in his account of truth
2) What is the status of the truth tetrapolity 
3) How do we bridge the gap between such elements as: (a) propositions and
the world (epistemology and ontology); (b) philosophy (dialectic) and
social science; (c) form and content; (d) fact and value

(1) RB writes on p. 215: " In respect of the familiar distinction between
meaning and criteria of truth, although the latter must be (a)
universalizable in *form*, (b) their *contents* may well be as *variable*
as the contexts in which truth claims are made." My question here is what
does it mean for the form of the criteria of truth to be universalizable? 

Moreover, as I suggested in an earlier post, doesn't RB himself imply that
there are limits to the extent to which any aspect of any theory of truth
can be universalized when he writes on the same page (as previously quoted
by Mervyn) that: "it has to be recognized that there is an inherent TD/ID
bipolarity or ambivalence in concepts like 'facts' and 'truth', which
cannot be completely gainsaid in an adequate truth theory." I keep getting
the feeling that he is straining against something that he himself
describes as an impossible task.

(2) It is unclear to me what the status of the four components of the truth
tetrapolity is. Does each successive component represent a 'step' towards
an ever fuller truth, or do they represent different 'kinds' of truth? The
distinction seems to me to be an important one. If they are seen as steps,
or as representing ever-greater degrees of truth as one approaches alethic
truth, then a case could be made that RB is trying to work out a universal
account of truth. If, on the contrary, they represent different 'kinds' of
truth, then there would be no necessary relationship between the components
of the tetrapolity and we would have an irreducibly pluralistic account of
truth. The problem, it seems to me, is that such a plural notion of truth
would seem to be in considerable tension with the claims that are
repeatedly made for alethia in DPF.

In fact RB seems to indicate that it is the former interpretation that he
favours. Thus, in commenting on the truth tetrapolity he writes: that "we
go from *subjective certainty* -> *intersubjective facthood* -> *alethic
truth*" ( p. 218, all emphases his) and that the four components "may also
be regarded as expressing degrees of groundedness" (ibid.). For me this
raises the question, again, of whether he is now claiming to have gainsaid
the inherent TD/ID bipolarity or ambivalence in concepts like 'facts' and

(3) I think that the cluster of issues that relate to the bridging of these
various gaps is the key debate. Bhaskar claims that it is totality that
"will resolve the traditional problem of opposites", i.e. "subjectivity and
objectivity, epistemology and ontology, language and the world, the
intrinsic and the extrinsic, or its close correlate, reasons and causes"
(p. 271). He tells us that at the expressive-referential level of truth we
are still caught inside language, but by a process of transcendental
detachment "we see that it is a condition of the possibility of our
premisses--the unity of world and language linguistically articulated--that
being is quite independent of our articulation, knowledge of this accord,
and even of our existence." (ibid.)

I have two concerns here. First, how does reference to totality take us any
further than simply postulating the existence of a world out there, of
which we are a part, that is independent of our knowledge of it, but about
which we can acquire knowledge? Why do we need to talk in terms of "the
constellational unity of the unity of subject and object (or being and
language) within subjectivity (language) within objectivity (being)"? (p.
272) And whence "the urge of totality to break down the philosophy/science
divide, as that between science and everyday life"?

Second, I am not sure what to make of the following excerpt which is part
of the same section on totality:

"Totality is the mainspring too in the logic of dialectical
universalizability that we have already seen at work... It is the fount of
the totalizing depth praxis in the axiology of freedom, a praxis which just
expresses the reality of social relations and global intradependence. It is
totality that inspires hope, but it is equally behind the superveillance
techniques that Foucault has described. It is the drive for totality that
begins discursive argumentation, inspires participatory democracy, the
Habermasian 'public sphere', but it is also at the root of colonialism,
neo-colonialism, capitalist accumulation and empire-building generally.
There is a methodological lesson here: dialectical arguments and figures
are neither good nor bad in themselves--they are necessary or possible,
and, when the latter, they leave the field of phenomena underdetermined.
That is to say, our totality, unlike Hegel's, is open both synchronically
(systemically) and diachronically (to the tensed spatializing causal
processes of the future)." 

On the one hand, I find the openness that RB champions here to be salutary,
but it is clearly achieved at the expense of any determinate content.
Totality inspires both participatory democracy and empire-building. How,
then, does a single concept both "resolve the traditional problem of
opposites" and inspire the full range of human behaviours, both enslaving
and emancipatory?

My suspicion is that Bhaskar is pulled in two contradictory directions,
that can never be entirely merged. He wants his dialectic to resolve the
problems of philosophy and also to be the pulse of freedom. It strikes me
that he is thereby periodically led to overstep illicitly the boundaries of
"mere underlabourer to the sciences" and to impart a definite content to
his enterprise. My own sense is that this content rightly belongs to the
sciences and/or to human practice, not to philosophy.

For example, I wonder how to square the following two passages. He writes
(p. 261-2):

"Now the subject-matter of social science is composed not just by social
objects but by beliefs about social objects, and if such beliefs are false
(a judgement which is within the remit of social science), and one can
*explain* the *falsity*, then, subject to a ceteris paribus clause, in
virtue of the openness of the social world and the multiplicity of
determinations therein, one can move without further ado to a negative
evaluation of the explanans and a positive evaluation of any action
rationally designed to absent it. This is the heart of the missing
transcendental deduction of facts from values. It turns on discovering the
*alethic truth of falsity*..."

And (p. 280):

"Because we are inhabitants of a dialectical pluriverse, characterized by
complex, plural, contradictory, differentiated, disjoint but also
coalescing and condensing development and antagonistic struggles over
discursively moralized power[2] relations, subject to regression, entropy
and roll-back, we cannot expect the *dialectic of real geo-historical
processes*, from which the logic of totality, i.e. of dialectical
universalizability, starts and to which it always returns, to be anything
but a messy affair. This logic is a spatiotemporally, multiply and unevenly
distanciated developmental process, in which so long as dialectical
universalizability is not seen as a *transfactual, processually oriented,
concretized, transformatively directional norm, subject to the constraint
of actionability* in a world in which agents act on their perceived
interests (including their perceptions of the interests of others), it is
often going to seem to be falsified. But norms, although they can be
broached and discarded, cannot be falsified by the irrationality of actual
geo-history. They can be falsified, but only by the provision of a better,
nobler, norm more fitting to the needs and propensities of developing
four-planar socialized humanity. Pluralism, diversity, is intrinsic to the
logic of totality, but as we are dealing with a dialectic encompassing
immanent critique in counter-hegemonic struggle, inconsistency too must be
conceded a value in its own right. It is a dialectic, not an analytic, of
dialectical universalizability that I am about."

While I think I agree with much of what he says in this second passage I am
left wondering two things. What happens to alethia in the second passage
and is there very much that is new here, especially given the extravagant
claims that are repeatedly made for DCR? In the end, is he telling us
anything more than that we can expect rational, autonomous, self-interested
individuals to strive for freedom, although never under conditions of their
own choosing, that part of this struggle involves articulating a vision of
the future that challenges prevailing norms, and that freedom is a highly
contested notion? If not, I agree with him wholeheartedly. But in that case
I fail to see how totality resolves the question of opposites. 

One final remark. In the first passage I just cited, RB argues that once
one has explained the falsity "one can move without further ado to a
negative evaluation of the explanans and a positive evaluation of any
action rationally designed to absent it".  It does not seem to me that this
gives us any greater certainty that our actions will, in fact, absent the
identified cause. The Bolsheviks, and a very large number of people
worldwide, were convinced that the October Revolution absented oppressive
social relations. We now know better, and will require an explanation of
where they went wrong if ever another attempt to replace capitalism is to
become feasible. My question is simply what do we gain by calling that new
explanation alethic? Or, alternately, would it have mattered if Lenin had
called his reading of Marx the alethic truth about capitalism (or that
Mervyn understands the alethia of the wage-form to be the "generalized
production for the market on the basis of private ownership of the means of

Howie Chodos

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