File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0112, message 11

Date: Thu, 06 Dec 2001 00:10:35 -0500
Subject: Re: BHA: Adorno, Bhaskar, and theories of knowledge

Hi all!!

Many thanks to Ralph and Mervyn and Ruth for your positive comments on my
questions re Adorno.  For Ruth, 3 points.  

1.  You say, "Adorno will say that you can't have the widespread domination
of nature without having the widespread domination of people."  

My point about the anthropomorphic element in control relates to this but
was not well explained.  The neo Kantian Hans Kelsen wrote a good deal
about the way in which our ideas of natural causality have their source in
ancient ideas of retribution.  A favorite example is from Anaximander:
"The sun will not overstep his measures [the prescribed path]; but if he
does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of Justice, will find him out."  Here
normative necessity is imposed on nature.  It occurred to me that Adorno
perpetuates a similar  anthropomorphism.  That is, human beings are centers
of causal power and in this respect like hydrogen or acid etc.  But through
the exercise of power in the ordinary sense (think Foucault), we do succeed
in dominating and controlling one another.  So then we turn around and
suppose we dominate acid in the same way because we make it turn litmus
paper red.  

2.  You say, "from Adorno's perspective critical realism is a kind of
identity thinking because it involves the idea that in principle at least
there is nothing in nature that we can't know . . . ."  I would challenge
the idea that Adorno could make the case that scientific realism is a kind
of identity thinking, and really, I guess, challenge the faces/candlestick
proposition you are arguing for.  The idea of a rationalist epistemology,
or of an idealist one, is that objects of the world are made to conform to
our thought.  The subject and object are collapsed into an identity.  A
scientific realist epistemology tries to make our thought an adequate
expression of reality.  But this is not just the rationalist or idealist
approach stood upside down.  While forms of empiricist realism might treat
thought as just a mirror of reality, and thus collapse the subject and the
object, this is not scientific realism.  Scientific realism strives to make
thought an adequate expression of reality but preserves the distinction
between the transitive and intransitive realms.  The American philosopher
Peirce's distinction between the real and dynamic object of the sign is
relevant here.  The signs we use to refer to the objects of science yield
an interpretation that is the product of a particular historical and social
conjuncture.  But we do not suppose that we have the last word in
understanding the object.  People referred to water for thousands of years
without knowing it as H2O.

3.	I don't know why you would refer to ontology supplanting epistemology.
That scientific realism insists on the distinction between scientific
discourse and its objects is an epistemological distinction.

Thanks also for your post, Phil.  I hope some clarification can result.  Of
course you must know that continents separate us, so I really do not
appreciate the context of ideological battles that impels your observations
or explains the unspoken targets of your attack.  Be that as it may, the
trajectory of my own loyalties, as I think I have made pretty clear over
time, is to scientific realism, rather than critical realism as such.  I
think Bhaskar has made a genuinely significant contribution to the
development of scientific realism over the last quarter century.  But
insofar as you are interested in tracking the career of critical realism,
we may wind up talking about different things.  In any event, it is
definitely the case that you are interested in the critique of Bhaskar and
I am interested in the critique of Adorno, so there again we may talk past
one another.  Perhaps the best thing I can do in the way of clarification
would be to make explicit what I take the epistemology of scientific
realism to entail -- at least in its essential characteristics.

1.  The production of scientific knowledge is work -- practical work on the
one hand; intellectual and theoretical work on the other.
2.  While knowledge is produced, the object studied isn't.  In other words,
the effort is to present facts in their real, not imagined connection.
This means that experimental design, if the experiment is to be a proper
one, must look to a result that depends causally on the nature of the real
object.  This in itself establishes a distinction between the transitive
and intransitive dimensions, between the subject and object.
3.  There is an expectation that the object may be complex -- a rich
totality of many determinations -- and that the task is to work out in
thought the structures of complexity.  One form of complexity we become
aware of through reflection on the nature of scientific experiment is the
distinction between causal laws and patterns of events.
4.  Abstraction is a conceptual tool offerring access to simpler
5.  The test of knowledge involves our engagement with the real object
(practice), but, because our practice is always subject to interpretation,
our knowledges are necessarily fallible.

Adorno's epistemology is problematic for me because real relations tend to
be interpreted in terms of logical relations among concepts.  Thus nature
is (counterfactually) 'controlled' by reason and the particular is
dissolved into the universal.  Second, Adorno cannot tell me anything about
how to distinguish unassimilated residues that are significant from those
that are not.  Perhaps the guidance comes here from an aesthetic "move."
But if so it is not clear to me how this would count as an epistemology.
Third, Adorno cannot tell me about the object as a center of causal power
whose capacities can be distinguished from their realized exercise.  That
is, he doesn't distinguish between causal laws and patterns of events.

Martti,  I do not have Dialectic with me, so I will wait until the weekend
to respond to your posts.

Thanks to all,


At 02:26 AM 12/5/01 -0000, you wrote:
>Howard, Ruth, Martti, and all,
>Howard, on reflection I have decided to reply to your post (below) about
>Adorno, since it is possible that some clarification may result.  My
>impatience with the way you and Ruth read Bhaskar and Adorno has to do with
>what I perceive to be the (epistemologically) frozen loyalty with which you
>treat critical realism.  To me, critical realism is a theory of knowledge,
>just like Adorno's NEGATIVE DIALECTICS and other works is a theory of
>knowledge, in other words critical realism is not THE (unsurpassable) theory
>of knowledge.  In philosophy, theories of knowledge are meant to be compared
>with each other, in order to see what they can learn from each other.
>Engels expressed this in a much fuller and very useful way in LUDWIG
>point of this process of comparison is not just to see how the more recent
>theory of knowledge has advanced on the earlier one, it is also to see what
>the earlier theory of knowledge may have to add to the recent one.  Your
>post makes some points about a certain lack of realism in Adorno's work with
>which I am inclined to agree.  But my reaction is: where does this get us?
>We already know about these realist points from the work of Bhaskar.  You
>are correct to say that I must be reading Adorno in a different way to you
>and Ruth.  Let me elaborate a bit.
>First, you and Ruth read Adorno as a Kantian sceptic.  You think that Adorno
>is saying that we can't ever know the object.  That is not how I read
>Adorno.  To me, Adorno is saying that there is a constant struggle between
>materialism and idealism in epistemology.  Some objects ARE knowable (and
>contrary to Gillian Rose's account Adorno is not anti-science) but the
>battle between materialism and idealism in epistemology continues unabated.
>To me, this is the point where Bhaskar is in trouble because in FEW he seems
>to be claiming to have definitively resolved the opposition between
>materialism and idealism.  Whereas it seems to me that this opposition will
>continue *forever* (or as long as there are human beings).  What Adorno is
>arguing for is not scepticism (as you and Ruth believe) but reflexiveness
>and immanent critique.  Immanent critique of one's own work is made possible
>by not building in guarantees into one's epistemology.  Here again the
>Bhaskar of FEW seems to be in difficulty.
>Althusser understood the need for constant materialist philosophical
>interventions into science to counter the spontaneous idealist philosophical
>SCIENTISTS).  But Althusser's anti-Hegel stance (which seems to be shared to
>a large extent by Bhaskar) meant that unlike Adorno and the Lenin of the
>PHILOSOPHICAL NOTEBOOKS, Althusser is unable to read Hegel's theory of
>knowledge seriously.  Whereas in his own way Lenin, and certainly Adorno,
>seem to understand that you never fully settle accounts with the theories of
>knowledge of major thinkers of the past.  Of course, progress is made in the
>course of the process of comparison of major thinkers' theories of
>knowledge, but there is also the possibility of regression when thinkers are
>misread (Adorno and Hegel seem to be much misread).
>My own critique of Bhaskar's epistemology (insofar as I have developed it)
>was delivered in a paper to the Critical Realism seminars at Kings College
>London.  I do not have the paper to hand.  But essentially what I argued was
>that Roy's notion of the mind as a "complex of powers" is idealist because
>it leaves open the possibility that ideas are not matter.  (The "complex of
>powers" notion comes from PLATO ETC., I have not got round to critiquing
>FEW).  If ideas are not conceived of as matter, then the door is open to
>subjective idealism, and you have a dualist separation between matter and
>mind (despite Mervyn's claim that Roy is a monist).
>Anyway, the above is a brief account of why I think the really important
>questions about Roy's work are not about his ontology but about his

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