File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0112, message 1

Date: Sun, 02 Dec 2001 10:10:14 -0500
Subject: RE: BHA: ontology, ontic, etc


Although I did not understand at all your impatience with ruth -- to whom
I'm grateful for a straightforward clarification -- I was completely
delighted with your reference to Adorno and with the issues you raised!!
In fact it was work on Adorno that sent me back to SRHE, among other texts.
 But I have reached conclusions -- tentative ones! -- quite the opposite of
yours, so I'd be very much interested in openly sorting these things out. I
want to emphasize that I have no axe to grind and would be delighted to
come round to your point of view.  That said, I find Adorno altogether more
problematic than you do.  So let me raise the problems that I see and
perhaps you'll help me get to the bottom of this.

The whole idea of the subject's control over the object, reason's control
over nature, etc., seems to me, in the way Adorno raises these issues,
first, a category mistake, and, second, maybe one of the last
anthropomorphisms in the way of green and socialist science.  One of the
really significant things in RTS is the distinction between patterns of
events and causal laws.  Bhaskar points out at RTS 33 that Anscombe and von
Wright before him had already pointed out that scientific experiment
involved the active intervention of scientists in nature (ie as against the
fiction of the "passive observer").  But RB observes that they did not draw
the ontological conclusion required:  that mechanisms of nature could not
be reduced to patterns of events, the empirical grounds, that made possible
their identification.  That is, the experimenter's intervention
participates in the event of the litmus paper turning red by dipping the
paper in liquid, but the experimenter does not *turn* the paper red!  A
generative mechanism of nature does that.  It follows that by providing the
occasion for the operation of a mechanism of nature, the agent as subject
does not "control" it (and it seems hubris rooted in an anthropomorphic
view to suppose that he or she could).   Much more to the point is
Collier's explanation that insofar as our experiments are constructed so
that more than one outcome is possible, then we are engaged in a sort of
ongoing dialogue.

Certainly with respect to our use of any natural process we can at most
claim to be co-participants in bringing about a result, that is, we
co-operate with nature rather than control it.  (Parethetically it is hard
to see anything wrong -- as Horkheimer and Adorno often seem to think --
with turning nature to our purposes.  This is the circumstance of our
condition -- compare Marx in Capital I, the second paragraph of Chapter 7
on the Labor Process.  We are not unique among living creatures in this,

If it is correct that the idea of the subject controlling the object
depends on collapsing the distinction between patterns of events and causal
mechanisms, then it is likely Adorno is working within the field of
ontological monovalence.  We would want to take that into account, then,
when evaluating the distinction between "identity thinking" and negative
dialectics or "non-identity thinking."  In other words, if we work from an
actualist terrain, then the idea of the subject mastering the object, or of
the concept conceived of as comprising the object under it, or of the
particular coming to be dissolved by the universal, or of reason subsuming
particular objects under general concepts, or of whatever other way you
would want to explain identity thinking, these propositions all lack
ontological depth.

That is, Adorno is correct to insist on the primacy of the object.  He is
correct also to insist that any concept we form is going to incompletely
capture the mind independent reality of the object.  There will be an
unassimilated residue left over, something not subsumed.  But at the level
of the actual, this doesn't get beyond logical classification.  The
ontological distinction between a power and its realized exercise, between
the real and the actual -- upon which Bhaskar's idea of a 'universal law'
depends -- is missing.  I have not been able to find in Adorno a reference
to the reality of powers in nature other than to the critiques he makes of
such concepts.  Am I wrong on this?  Plainly he reads this decisive aspect
of scientific realism out of Aristotle.  In his (Adorno's) Lectures on
Metaphysics he treats Aristotle like a Platonic idealist with the
difference only that whereas Plato thought the Ideas had a separate
existence independent of sensible things, Aristotle thought they were
immanent in things.  But this seems pretty clearly to misread Aristotle.
For Aristotle the active form responsible for a thing's development is a
matter of being, not ideas or concepts.  

Comparably, for Adorno abstraction "liquidates objects" and under its
"leveling domination" everything in nature "is made repeatable" (Dialectic
of Englightenment 13).  But abstraction leaves the real object of nature as
it was and it is idealism to think otherwise.  Neither realism or
abstraction dominate or liquidate or control the object.  Instead,
abstraction is a conceptual tool that makes it possible, if through
scientific work we have produced the appropriate conditions, to identify
from amidst the confusing welter of phenomena, those specific mechanisms
likely to be responsible for particular effects.

Incidentally the idea of abstraction making everything repeatable reflects
the residue of Hume that appears to cling to Adorno, as it did to Kant.
Reason in Adorno is instrumental, not explanatory, and reason's
explanations depend on prediction.  Bhaskar breaks the equation of
prediction and explanation and can think of a power of nature as something
that always tends to produce a particular effect without necessarily or
ever or often actually doing so.  Gravity brings heavy objects to earth,
but birds fly in air.

Adorno's critique of identity thinking is important.  He insists on the
ontological primacy of the object and he insists that the logic associated
with actualist science is not adequate to explain the world.  He brings
into powerful relief the limits of instrumental reason.  But he has nowhere
to go with this.  In fact the unassimilated residue so important to
non-identity thinking can lead to silliness if we have no way to
distinguish (fallibly) what is significant from what is not.  But we cannot
do that unless we have an idea of the real powers of things and of natural
necessity.  Yet these Adorno rejects.  So he critiques closure in favor of
the open character of the world.  But this leaves him with the dilemma of
the positivist who now must either give up the idea that there are any
universal laws in nature or the idea of the empirical character of natural
laws.  Negative dialectics clings to the empirical and critiques the
universal.  But it offers no prospect for science.

Tell me where I have mis- or under read!


At 01:30 AM 11/27/01 -0000, you wrote:
>Ruth wrote:
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From:
>> []On Behalf Of Ruth Groff
>> Sent: 27 November 2001 02:44
>> To:
>> Subject: RE: BHA: ontology, ontic, etc
>> Hi Phil,
>> You wrote:
>> >Where is the dialectics here?  To me, this approach seems to be about
>> >qualifying and hopefully gradually improving and tinkering with Bhaskar's
>> >ontology, overlooking the pressing problem about Bhaskar's
>> epistemology.
>> What approach?  Whaddaya talking about?  All I said was: "Here's
>> what he's on about.  Plus, it seems wrong when you think about
>> the social sciences."
>> [As for Adorno and Co., I actually had Horkheimer's "Traditional
>> and Critical Theory" in mind when I added that one sentence in
>> which I said that it seems wrong (for reasons that could
>> certainly be described as dialectical).]
>> Confused,
>> r.
>I believe you know very well what I am talking about.  Is it too Nietzschean
>of me to suggest that instead of starting by trying to give a loyal and
>frozen account of Roy's method, you instead start sceptically by questioning
>the epistemological presuppositions lying behind Roy's work?  Is it or is it
>not true that Roy has an epistemological presupposition that the subject
>should seek to dominate the object?  The question answers itself.  To me,
>Roy's work is suffused with identity reasoning.  It's back to NEGATIVE
>For critical thought,
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>     --- from list ---

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