6/16 – On Bhaskarian and Laskean Dialectics

Michael Schwartz

(In Memory of Roy Bhaskar 1944-2014)

Michael Schwartz

M schwarz

Michael Schwartz

Roy Bhaskar, who passed away last fall, was a leading philosopher and meta-disciplinarian who founded the school of Critical Realism, an international academic movement encompassing many research domains, including an annual international conference, a peer-reviewed journal, and four active book series on Routledge press. Bhaskar himself wrote eleven books and edited many others, his philosophical itinerary now well documented. Starting out as a young man in economics in the 1960s, with emancipatory intent to address suffering in the world, he concluded that existing economic theory was inadequate to the task, constituting pseudo-science, which turned him away from economics and launched his career as a philosopher.

Roy Bhaskar

Roy Bhaskar

Before his death from a heart condition last November, Bhaskar and the Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle leadership (see had established a plan to hold a small symposium at his home institution of the University of London in the summer of 2016, involving members of the critical realist community and members of the CCPC to participate in presentations and discussion around the theme of dialectic. Featured were to be Bhaskar’s own monumental 1993 volume Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom and in parallel, as an initial contribution from the CCPC, a significant dialectical thinking, preferable non-European, Nishida Kitarō being the leading choice. All participants would read a common set of texts ahead of time in preparation for the symposium. At the gathering itself, Bhaskar’s four-stadia dialectic first would be presented and then discussed and critiqued; then another round of this procedure would be conducted for the second philosopher (again, leaning towards Nishida). Third, would be a comparison between the insights gleaned from the first two rounds of engagement, leading to yet another phase of presentations, this time by participants on other philosophical approaches to dialectic and related themes. The gathering would come to a close with general reflections and the initial discussion about a book project, inviting contributions from those in attendance who would be drawn to contribute.

Sadly, this project will never come to be, given Bhaskar’s passing. This short paper is intended then as a tribute to his memory and to the joint project that had been planned with the CCPC.

First, I shall outline the four phases of Bhaskar’s philosophical work. Second, I shall return to explore in greater depth his views on dialectic, if still only in a cursory manner, as his volume on the topic is monumental and in the end about ethics and social emancipation. Third, I shall turn to the work of Otto Laske, who has taken up Bhaskerian dialectics through the methods of developmental psychology. I conclude with some thoughts regarding a symposium that will never be.

Bhaskar’s first book was A Realist Theory of Science published in 1975, which for many readers is to rank with the philosophical writings on science by Popper, Kuhns, and Bachelard. Bhaskar forwards a transcendental realistic account of the natural sciences and of nature grounded in a specific view of philosophy. Taking up a Lockean metaphor, he sees philosophy as an underlaborer for existing domains of knowledge and practice, clarifying those domains in terms of themes like knowing, being, and valuing — philosophy offering critical and revisionary remarks, while also learning from the encounter. General principles and philosophical insights grow in part out of this underlaboring encounter with existing domains. With regard to the natural sciences, Bhaskar takes up and revises Strawson’s version of transcendental argumentation and asks: “What must the world be like for natural scientific experiment (and for its results and effects) to be possible?” He ends up positing, through such argumentative tact, that there are three depth strata of the real: empiricities, events, and generative mechanisms. The empirical is bound to human knowing – “I see the sun rising.” Events are less so, having a semi-independence from knowing (and what that entails is perhaps underdefined in this early phase of thought). Generative mechanisms or structures are independent of human knowing – gravity works whether humans exist or not. What is important in this account is the claim that events and the array of interlocked structures that are their causes are out of phase. Most philosophies of science, Bhaskar claims, fail to make this last distinction, attempting to explore causal laws with regard to seeking regularities of conjunctive events, where events and empiricites together are termed the actual. Instead, Bhaskar argues that natural scientific experimentation produces artificial closed systems that enable the isolation of a given generative mechanism for a certain event-set. There is no one to one relation between events and generative mechanisms in the open system of nature, such that generative mechanisms are non-identical to the events to which they give rise, the efficacy of a given structure countervened or dampened in its force by other structures in a given moment. The seeking of regularities of conjoined events in the open system of nature is thus a faulty account of what science does. Instead science isolates with patience generative mechanism after generative mechanism, building up through the results of research horizontal linkages and vertical hierarchies amongst such causal factors, without reducing one level to another; where higher orders, say molecules rather than sub-atomic particles, cannot be explained, without remainder, by reference to the mechanisms at the lower level, entailing the view of real emergence in nature (a point that comes to the fore in the later dialectical writings). To give an example, the current vogue of theoretical physics as a theory of everything is reductive, reducing causation to the lowest levels of nature, whereas emergent levels like the earth’s biosphere have their own respective generative mechanism that are also emergent and irreducible.

In the book’s development of a transcendental realism, Bhaskar critiques wide strains of philosophical thought, coining terms like the “epistemic fallacy,” “anthropocentrism,” and “actualism” – expressing concerns that pre-date many of those of so-called speculative realists, but often, if one might venture, with more depth and breadth (amongst such thinkers, only Levi Bryant has taken up Bhaskar to any significant extent to which I am aware). The upshot of this volume is a transcendental realistic critique of analytic and positivistic philosophies of science in the forwarding of a depth stratified ontology.

If Bhaskar’s first book was about the natural sciences, his second – The Possibility of Naturalism published in 1979 – concerns itself with the social sciences, developing a philosophy of critical naturalism. Culture and society (as well as mind) are, for Bhaskar, emergences out of nature and also possess their own generative mechanisms or structures. The discerning of these mechanisms however is far more challenging than in the natural sciences. For according to Bhaskar, unlike with the natural sciences, social scientists cannot generate experimentally closed systems to isolate generative mechanisms, such that the modes and procedures of causal explanation differ between the natural and social sciences. This does not make the causative dimensions of objects and process of the latter less real or valid, just more difficult to discern. Central to the social is the agency-structure dyad, where structure – one might think of Bourdieu’s habitus for an initial approximation – precedes a given action as the condition of possibility of that action; where the action is the re-iterative instantiation of the structure that propels that structure forward in time in sustaining social life. Basic actions, for Bhaskar, are in part intentional (also having unintended consequences that are regularly recursive to the re-enforcement of that structure). While actions typically reproduce a structure more or less as it had been, with incremental shifts and changes in degree, the emancipatory impulse is to transform the structures themselves in a more radical sense – hence the importance, for Bhaskar, of distinguishing the transformation of structures from the more superficial altering of social actualities, which tend to leave the structures intact that generated the problem in the first place. In this volume Bhaskar also argues that there is no fact-value split in any strong sense of that theme, entailing his development of a moral realism – the contours of which I admit I do not always follow (and, as a side note, I report that I have turned to Levinas in this regard in some recent philosophical engagements with critical realism).

His third book – Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation published in 1986 – deepens the accounts of transcendental realism and critical naturalism. It introduces the notion of emancipatory critique, a form of ethics that is realistic, normative, and applicable to existing philosophies and theories of nature and society as well as to dimensions of social reality itself. Indeed, the notion of critique runs throughout his corpus, the terms of which proliferate and complexify with each new major book – from immanent critique to omissive critique to emancipatory critique to the analysis of TINA formations to ideological analysis to two versions of metacritique – the terms and modes of critique can be bewildering. In any case, Bhaskar’s philosophy of the social sciences has had an immense impact, exemplified, for example, in England in the work of Margaret Archer, while currently making inroads in the US in the sociology departments at Yale, Notre Dame, and Michigan.

These three moments — of transcendental realism, critical naturalism, and emancipatory critique — constitute what came to be called original critical realism. Noteworthy is that these first three books were based on Bhaskar’s PhD thesis written at Oxford, a six-volume manuscript titled Problems about Explanation in the Social Sciences, which was rejected not once but twice by its examiners on the grounds that it contained nothing new. Bhaskar never received his PhD, by the way.

The next phase of his philosophical unfolding centered in two books – Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom published in 1993 and Plato, Etc.: published in 1994 – which constitute a shift to what Bhaskar termed dialectical critical realism, which took up the earlier work and insights into an internal critique of the Western philosophical tradition — and especially of dialectic. We shall return to this topic in just a moment.

Finally, beginning around 2000 with publication of From East to West and culminating in two volumes of 2002, Bhaskar took what has been called a “spiritual turn,” developing a philosophy of non-duality — what in the latter two volumes he terms metaReality: non-duality as meta- to the real. If the two books of the dialectical phase focused on the inheritance of Western philosophy, From East to West in a way marks a turn to Eastern thought and practice. In the 2000 volume terms like “god” are deployed, which disappear in giving way to a more “secular” language in the volumes on the philosophy of metaReality. A hallmark of the latter two volumes is the effort to introduce transcendental argument, coupled with versions of phenomenological analysis, into a philosophy of non-duality. What Bhaskar does is offer transcendental arguments that attempt to show that a condition of the possibility of a given facet of everyday social life is metaReality. Whether he is able to extend such argumentation to metaReality as condition of the real tout court is another matter.

The last phase of his life and career turned towards inter- and trans-disciplinary projects and collaborations: on ecology, on sustainability, on health care, as well as a four-year long dialogue between critical realism and integral theory on the question of metatheories for interdisciplinary research (these dialogues having led to two volumes of papers coming out shortly on Routledge). The planned dialogue between critical realists and comparative-continental philosophers can be considered part of this last phase of activity.

Having very briefly surveyed the phases of Bhaskar’s philosophical itinerary, I would like to chunk down and focus on his view version of dialectic, first outlining in the broad strokes Bhaskar’s dialectic and then move more briefly into its uptake and operationalization in the work of Otto Laske. This is in honor of the theme of the planned symposium.

Arguably Bhaskar’s philosophical magnus opusDialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, first published in 1993, is a four-part study that advances what the author sees as a novel form of dialectic on the one hand, and on the other is in service to the coming forth of the eudaimonistic society (as regulative ideal of socio-cultural unfolding) through what is termed metacritique and transformative praxis. Bhaskar positions his dialectic as a “non-preservative sublation of Hegel’s,” a “critical realist dialectic” the terms of which are “non-identity, negativity, totality and transformative praxis or agency, in comparison with the Hegelian trio of identity, negativity and totality… [where] the accounts of negativity and of totality are radically different from Hegel’s.” The details of the relationship of Bhaskar’s dialectic to that of Hegel, to Marx’s critique of Hegel (of crucial important to Bhaskar), to Adorno, and to Sartre is beyond the scope of this paper and is a research domain yet to be actualized with needed robustness, as for example at the very least countenancing the recent re-interpretations of Hegel by Žižek and Malabou, and how this might impact Bhaskar’s argument and project.

Bhaskar calls his four-moment dialectical scheme MELD. 1M is prime or first moment. 2E is the second edge. 3L is third level. And 4D is fourth dimension. 1M is the stadia of the non-identity of the depth strata of the real — the empirical, events, and generative mechanisms — which as strata are all at once, inseparable, yet non-identical to one another. Much of prior original critical realism is translated and preserved in this moment. What he terms the metacritical error proper to 1M is destratification, often entailed by the failure to differentiate actuals from generative structures. 2E is the stadia of negativity – and too of absence and process. Bhaskar argues for the existence of absence – that manifestation arises on a vaster sea of absence, of the unmanifest, inclusive of determinate absences. This is not the theme of nothingness per se, as in the Schellingian question why is there something rather than nothing (interpreted by Tritten as a cosmological question movitated by existential concerns) or some version of Buddhist nothingness. It involves process as the dynamically changing character of the real inclusive of novel emergence. The coming forth of determination, the de-absenting of absences, is what constitutes process for this dialectic — process here seemingly does not attempt to gesture towards radical becomingness, but as delimited for emancipatory clarification of the social splits and ills that call for the absenting of some determinate absence. The metacritical error here is positivization proper to what Bhaskar terms ontological monovalence – a concept he develops in Plato Etc. and having affinities with what has been termed in the Continental tradition the metaphysics of presence – for Bhaskar, a primal tendency of Western philosophy. 3L is the stadia of totality, a word Bhaskar is not afraid to redeploy – totality as a local, open, dynamic constellation, constituted through external relationship, internal relationships of mutual dependence and necessity, and holistic causality. Here the metacritical error is de-totalization as insufficient constellating of dynamic inter- and intra-relationships, as proper to modes of analytic reasoning. 4D is the dimension of transformative praxis, where basic actions are intentional while always having non-intended consequences. The metacritical error here is de-agentification, Bhaskar offering a re-reading of Hegel’s sections on self-consciousness in terms of modes of modern alienation where these have underwritten many forms of modern philosophy (here social critique as metaphilosophical to philosophy, hence as an instance of metacritique itself).

To supplement this very brief summary of what are very complex arguments, which demand far greater critical scrutiny than being offered here, we shall consider a concrete example. Let us say that there is a country in South America that is short on food supplies for the majority of its population and that we are oriented to correcting this social ill, of absenting this absence. At 1M we would consider not only the actuals of the situation but would move to investigate the generative mechanisms, the structural causes of this food shortage. Here we see how most of what goes on as counting as steps and projects to address such issues are actualist, never addressing changes in the structural depths that are operative in the first place, leaving those as is in hazarding a return of the same kind of problem. At 2E we would orient to the possibility of absenting absences, of bringing forth novel emergences of some kind, including especially structural changes, oriented to redress this social ill; thereby countering what Bhaskar calls TINA formations as a specific kind of ideological logic, the acronym echoing Margaret Thatcher’s phrase “there is no alternative” which fossilizes and substantiates the present situation as solid, “real,” and unchangeable – a view of being as seamless non-stratified presence, rather than as process with tensions and splits that are key sites of where absences might be brought forth. 3L would move beyond limits of analytic reasoning to discern the situation as regards a “totalizing” orientation, investigating the constellation of factors that are mutually conditioning – economic, political, social, cultural, environmental, natural. Here there is the countering of simple analyses that angle towards one or two of these dimensions, rather than the interdependence and mutual conditioning of such factors in an open, dynamic (local) totality. And, as my descriptions have already indicated, these first three moments themselves are constellated. The investigation of structural causes will be impacted by the third moment of a constellated open totality of factors which will alter initial senses of what would seem to be absent, and so on. The fourth moment of transformative praxis as embodied action is dependent on these first three and constellated too with the entire scheme, as a given action will have both intended and unintended consequences, which alter the constellated field, may well shift the sense of the structural causes at stake, hence what needs to be absented, entailing a change in the direction of the next set of actions, hence in a kind of feedback loop and ongoing learning process.

And yet, why move transformative action? For Bhaskar this entails in the dialectical phase of his thought what he calls the pulse of freedom as a geo-historical tendency, real if not actual — a kind of regulative moral ideal, which turns on what he calls the axiology of freedom unfolding from the primal scream of the child to the eudaimonic society as flourishing of each and all (as an update on Marx) in the undoing of structural and institutional master-slave relationships. Again, for Bhaskar, this is rational direction or rather rational tendency of geo-history. And here there is some overlap with Habermas, for whom Kantian regulative ideas are not of the subject but are embodied between interlocutors in communicative action. For Bhaskar something akin to this moral regulative permeates not only speech acts but all of social reality, what he terms four planar social being, and does so as a spaced-tempo rhythmic – that is, per the pulse of freedom, real if not actual, having causal efficacy while guaranteeing no specific short or long term series of events or outcome. In the end the dialectic volume is about radical emancipation, although the density and often opaque and inexplicit moral argument in this volume is to be noted.

Otto Laske, Magic Mountain, 2014

Otto Laske, Magic Mountain, 2014

Having surveyed, in the brief, Bhaskar’ dialectic of emancipation, we turn now to the work of Otto Laske. Laske did his PhD in philosophy under Adorno and his PhD in developmental psychology with Robert Kegan at the Kohlberg Institute. (Otto, I might add, would have been a core participant in the planned symposium, and soon after Bhaskar’s death was invited to speak at our annual CCPC meeting at the University of Iceland [May 2015], but was unable to accept the invitation due to financial limitations). His work is the operationalization of dialectic in the lives of everyday human beings. Laske makes the point, that to speak about dialectic does not entail or guarantee that one thinks and acts dialectically. His work is to take up dialectic, as having been proper to philosophy, and bring it into the realm of developmental psychology through the latter’s empirical research methods, while maintaining the rigors of a philosophy of dialectic. His is a bridging of German and Continental philosophical concern for dialectic with American pragmatic uptake of developmentalism, as especially evident in the philosophical work of William James’ student James Mark Baldwin, who whose work was all-important for Piaget.

Laske in the main takes up Bhaskar’s four moments of dialectic and demonstrates that these entail various “thought forms” – as the latter were ascertained by researcher Michael Basseches in work dating back several decades, as celebrated as it has been neglected. Laske parses out the various thought-forms of the four stadia of dialectic, retaining the meta-critical views of Bhaskar, while critiquing aspects of Bhaskar’s model. The four stadia of MELD become with Laske: context, process, relationship, and transformation. Each of these four moments contains a set of thought forms of varying complexity of cognition. Per the empirical research, a person typically moves through the sequence of thought forms per the dialectical sequence of its moments, although this process is not entirely linear, while certain thought forms that are later in the scheme might come forward before there is competency in earlier ones. It is both a linear and somewhat non-linear, this unfolding in the competency of the 28 DTFs. Dialectic for Laske too is in practice to be wed to dialogue and to the art of listening. He detects a tension in critical realist circles (if not in Bhaskar himself) between dialectic and what original critical realism called immanent critique – the taking up of the argument of the other, learning from it, charitably strengthening it, and then showing its fault lines, tensions, contradictions, and omissions. He sees this in its actual performance as a by and large “monological” endeavor, ”critiquing” the other in the name of one’s own theorizing, which is not the same as the openness of mutual learning and listening of dialogue (as we strive for here in the CCPC, I might add). Laske seems to go so far as to suggest that dialectic cannot be fully performed outside of the dialogic – theorized about, yes; fully embodied, no.

Like Adorno and Bhaskar, Laske too is concerned with social ills. Aligned with Kegan, who warned that we are today in over our heads, that as studies are showing the cognitive demands of contemporary life are outstripping the capacities of most people, Laske sees growth into dialectical thinking as the way of meeting this contemporary stress and demand, which is a pre-condition for engaging social ills critically and effectively. Also an artist, perhaps we can get a direct sense of mature dialectics through Laske’s abstract painting. As in comparison to an analytic cubist work, his is perhaps more multi-leveled, dynamical-processual, constellated through interrelatedness, with the sense of (unseen) depth strata — the title Magic Mountain (perhaps echoing Thomas Mann) evoking the geology of unseen and (directly unseeable) depth strata as causative of what is seen.

In this brief paper I have tried to honor the prospect of a symposium that would have brought together critical realists, comparative-continental philosophers, and scholar-researchers like Otto Laske, in the investigation of the topic of dialectic. At this symposium, which will never be, I had imagined important comparative moments: robust discussion of Hegel in relation to Bhaskar, the introduction of William Desmond’s notion of the metaxological, Gilles Deleuze on difference before difference and identity (which is only summarily treated in Alan Norrie’s book Dialectic and Difference), Nishida’s predicate logic, Asian dialectical schemes, and John Sallis’s notion of exorbitant logics of the imagination. These are the kinds of investigations that I was hoping would come forth, but that now will never be.

May these brief words then honor this never to be project and especially the memory of he who had become a new friend of the CCPC and its latest member of its Advisory Board, the late Roy Bhaskar. Let us close with the views and sentiments of others. David Graeber, in his obituary of Bhaskar in The Guardian, wrote: “After losing a foot in 2008 to Charcot’s disease, he made use of a wheelchair, and survived on only a partial salary as a world scholar at the Institute of Education in London. Nonetheless, he remained a figure of unparalleled energy and invention, and of almost preternatural kindness and good humour.” And Otto Laske in his online obituary: “Bhaskar’s academic work is for me inseparable from the person he was: a nearly selfless, Buddha-like creature who, despite his own visible suffering, was always there to help and engage others, a person of immense kindness and humanity few people can lay claim to. He is unforgettable to me and many others who knew him.”

About the Author

Michael Schwartz, PhD Columbia University, is Professor at Georgia Regents University, Augusta GA, where he teaches a sequence of transdisciplinary-based academic classes to students in studio art. He is co-founding executive officer of the Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle, an international professional organization with both a peer-reviewed journal and book series of which he is Associate Editor. Michael has published in the areas of continental philosophy, comparative spirituality, art history, art criticism, art education, critical social theory, integral theory, critical realism, comparative metatheory – including co-editing and co-authoring the first professional academic volume on integral as philosophy (forthcoming). He is curator of the international art exhibition In the Spirit of Wholeness: Integral Art and its Enchantment Aesthetic.



  1. Otto Laske on December 16, 2019 at 6:46 am

    This is the most perceptive article about my absorption of Bhaskar’s work and the clearest sketch of ‘Laskean’ dialectic I have found. The reluctance of seeing in Bhaskar’s work the beginning of a new dialogical epistemology is astounding to me; it seems to be easier to remain in a monological academic mode despite the pervasive and urgent need of listening-based dialogue at high levels of thinking the world over, not only in for-profit organizations. I think this is a sad story. For an attempt to turn the tide toward greater and pragmatic self-reflection based on adult-developmental research, see Jan De Visch’s and my book on “Practice of Dynamic Collaboration” forthcoming at Springer in 2020. Thank you Michael for your very clear outline of the differences between Bhaskar’s monological and my dialogical dialectic (which by the way owes a lot to Bruno Liebrucks, my Frankfurt teacher who wrote a 7-volume work on Hegel and his use of language, under the title of “Sprache und Bewusstsein”, so far untranslated into English. I am convinced that knowledge of Liebruck’s and my work could completely redefine the integral community’s grasp of how the real world works.

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