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Ships that should Pass in the Night

Jason Wasserman on balancing the claims of Postmodernism and Critical Realism.

In a recent article in Philosophy Now, (‘How to Get Real’, Issue 42) Roger Caldwell gave a highly critical account of postmodern theory, claiming that “Postmodernism is dead. It is to be succeeded by the age of critical realism.” As he didn’t discuss exactly how critical realism is replacing postmodernism, Caldwell’s comment was more a statement of what he thinks ought to be happening than a description of what is. Anyone reading his article who is familiar with the intended scope of postmodern theory can only come to the conclusion that Caldwell has missed the point. In a broader sense, so have critical realists in general. While there are certainly weaknesses in the postmodern account, it is an error to dismiss the critique it offers or to force it down a path most of its proponents never intended. The supposed conflict between postmodernism and critical realism is the product of failing to recognize the extent to which both are valid. The purpose of my response is to find a balance between these two schools of thought, which are presented by Caldwell and many other critics as incompatible.

Postmodern ‘reality’

Almost every introductory text begins with a strikingly similar warning that postmodern theory is too varied to be successfully grouped as a single school of thought. Postmodernism refers to a collection of theories that offer a critique of social change at a time when we clearly moving away from a ‘modern’, industrial era. Postmodern societies are characterized by weakening ties with community, nation, and occupation, where individuals are becoming increasingly isolated from the large social structures which used to bind them together. Employment in the United States, for example, is becoming increasingly unstable; people change jobs more frequently and are increasingly employed part-time or through temporary services. It is important not to overlook that the postmodern project is more a social critique than a well-defined system of theory. Roy Bhaskar, who many, including Caldwell, regard as the founding father of critical realism writes that “misunderstandings about the intentions of transcendental arguments [including postmodernism] often stem from the failure to appreciate the critical contexts in which they are developed – against existing theories.” (The Possibility of Naturalism, 1998, p.6) As such, postmodernism can provide a suitable way to understand a host of issues concerning the goings-on of people in societies that are increasingly moving away from modern systems.

Postmodernists also tend to argue that reality (in the objective sense of the word) has been lost, become irrelevant, or that it is, and has always been, a product of culture. In this sense ‘reality’ is simply a constructed account of the world (a ‘narrative’) that serves the purposes of groups or societies. This postmodern tenet stems from the process involved in defining objects. Following Michel Foucault, among others, postmodernists argue that defining objects must involve making judgments about which qualities are relevant to the definition and which are not. (see Michael Root’s The Philosophy of Social Science, 1999). For example, there is nothing especially exceptional about race as opposed to hair color as a defining characteristic, but the former has obviously been assigned greater value in many societies. In this way people are rather stringently categorized. These judgments tend to serve functional purposes for members of society and particularly powerful groups. But more importantly, they are subjective representations of reality, since they necessarily depend on the values of those making the definitive judgments. For postmodernism there is no such thing as objective reality since, in terms of defining objects, all ‘reality’ is defined in this way.

Critical Reality

Critical realists typically defend a modernist view of reality (see Nancey Murphy’s paper referenced at the end). While recognizing that language tends to be symbolic, they maintain that measures such as ‘truth-likeliness’ highlight the objectively real underpinnings of our world. The concept of ‘truth-likeliness’ asserts that the meanings of objects may not be objectively real, but they are real enough to work. Basically, close counts.

Critical realists argue that the postmodern account of reality is irrational and nihilistic. They frequently point to the success of science as buttressing their position; they say that scientific concepts which display a high enough degree of truth-likeliness illustrate an underlying objective reality. In other words, where science works, the objects are real, or at least real enough. For example, the polio vaccine really does prevent polio. Therefore, there must be some objectively real entity (call it a virus) that causes the disease under certain conditions, which the vaccine disrupts.

The Conflict

The central question that drives this supposed conflict is: what is reality? Is it postmodern and entirely relative? Or is it realist; symbolically defined and communicated within a specified range of possible meanings, but objectively real underneath? This article is an attempt to argue that the answer can be both. These two views, of Reality and ‘reality’, are not necessarily inconsistent. Instead they can be seen as a product of confusion between disparate concepts of reality, one focusing on function, the other focusing on meaning and value.

The Meaning/Function Distinction

The postmodernists’ critique of Reality is that it is impossible to find objective meaning or value in objects. Their critique of the Real is based on the premises involved in classification, a linguistic exercise that necessarily involves culturally bound judgments about relevant distinctions among objects (e.g. that race is relevant but hair color is not, or not as much). Thus, the meaning of an object itself depends on the values of the interpreter, or the society in which it is classified. But this says nothing necessarily of how well the object functions, which seems to be the thrust of the critical realist perspective. Interactions of objects that produce highly consistent, predictable outcomes may indeed illustrate an objective reality. But it is not inconsistent to say in the next breath that this Reality may only be subjectively defined and understood.

Take the following example: A knife may be successfully used as a utensil, a screwdriver, or a weapon. The meaning and value of the object varies in relation to the intentions of the individual who possesses and uses it. But its functional success implies a certain reality about the relationship of the knife to other objects, which makes it functionally successful where other objects may fail. For example, its ability to cut through butter illustrates a functional characteristic of the universe: that denser objects are able to disrupt the composition of less dense objects under given amounts of force. While there are variations, the relationship is perfectly predictable. Thus, there are objectively functional processes in the world. This does not mean, however, that we are able to make objective conclusions about the meaning and value of the objects in relation. The knife still means different things in different contexts.

We find a more robust example in the social concept of ‘family.’ Colin Turnbull’s anthropological work on the Ik mountain people of Uganda shows that they have a fundamentally different concept of family than is common to western societies. He writes, “The Ik seem to tell us that the family is not such a fundamental unit as we suppose, that it is not an essential prerequisite for social life except in the biological context” (The Mountain People, 1972 p.133). The biological processes are still the same, but family means something very different.

Clearly there is room for both realist and postmodern interpretations, since the respective arguments conceptually miss each other. While this may seem to be a vindication of the realist school, since they largely work to find the exception that proves the Reality rule, as if finding one piece of incontrovertible Reality demolishes the postmodern critique, it does more to inform us that the critical realists have missed the postmodern point, forcing it to an unintended, illogical conclusion. To the contrary, postmodern thought, by and large, remains quite intact when this distinction is applied. But most critical realist thinkers do not limit themselves to functional reality. Instead they tend to argue that if these objective processes exist, then there must also be some objective common ground for the meaning of objects.

Bhaskar does show some sensitivity to the meaning/ function distinction when he distinguishes between the ‘intransitive dimension’ of experiment and application and the ‘transitive dimension’ of discovery and development. But he contends that in both there is capacity for knowing objective reality. Referring to function, Bhaskar writes, “If this activity (scientific application) is to be rendered intelligible, causal laws must be analysed as the tendencies of things, which may be possessed unexercised and exercised unrealized, just as they may of course be realized unperceived (or undetected) by people.” In other words, things can work with or without people understanding them. This statement could easily be accepted on the postmodern account since it allows for differing meanings of objects. Here, Bhaskar is making the uncontroversial claim that causal laws (e.g. the relationship of gravity and Newton’s apple) illustrate objectively real and predictable relationships between objects. But this doesn’t necessarily say anything about our ability to define the meaning of those objects.

Where Bhaskar and Realism do break with the postmodern account is in taking the next step: claiming that in order to interpret causal relationships we must be able to objectively define the objects in relation. But Bhaskar recognizes that defining objects involves negotiating the boundaries of the important qualities of these objects, which are, to some extent, flexible. He continues:

“Typically, then, the construction of an explanation for… some identified phenomenon will involve the building of a model, utilizing such cognitive materials and operating under the control of something like a logic of analogy and metaphor, of a mechanism which if it were to exist and act in the postulated way would account for the phenomenon in question.”
(Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism 1998 p.12)

In other words, Bhaskar asserts that we can build meanings for objects. In this way, Reality, not just as an underlying functional process, but with objective meaning, is continually ‘unfolded’. However, we might pause to notice the way in which Bhaskar refers to this process as the ‘construction of an explanation,’ since this would seem to concede that in empirically interpreting and defining objects, people necessarily bring to the table a list of preconceived ideas about the world. If they didn’t, then analogy and metaphor would be meaningless since, by definition, they are ideas about the nature of the world as it is in other venues, which must exist prior to that in which they are applied. To say for example, that George W. Bush has the intelligence of an ox, implies that we already have an idea about what ‘ox’ and ‘intelligence’ are. And although almost everyone would agree with the statement, the meanings of the terms can still vary. Moreover, this method is ultimately founded on the underlying functional processes since this is the starting point for empirical assessment and the application of appropriate definitions to objects.

Addressing a similar distinction to that between meaning and function, Caldwell refers to Richard Rorty’s distinction of truth and usefulness, arguing that it is insufficient. Citing Jean Bricmont’s critique, Caldwell writes, “If, as Rorty proposes, we replace the notion of truth with that of usefulness, so that we accept only those propositions which we find in general to be ‘useful’, then the question arises as to whether they are really useful or not. That is, the very criteria by which we judge a proposition to be useful involve the same recourse to a correspondence with reality which the theory denies us in advance.” But this is not necessarily the case. Caldwell gives us no reason to conclude that propositions which prove functionally successful despite being subjectively defined with respect to their meaning are useless. On the contrary, this is the thrust of much critical realist work, particularly with respect to concepts such as truth-likeliness. These concede that meaning is subject to context, but some propositions are real enough to work (i.e. to be useful).

It seems that the usefulness of a proposition might be better assessed by its predictive capacity than by our ability to objectively define the meaning of the object in question. If I say, “Hand me that knife,” and I receive an object that satisfies my requirements, then we might easily say that this application of the concept ‘knife’ is useful, despite the fact that it may mean very different things, even to myself and the person who passes it to me. Failing to appreciate this predictive usefulness is what leads Caldwell to write:

“The notion of nature, and for that matter human nature, tends to be seen [in sociology] as essentially a social construct, which means that we can never speak of nature as such but only of discourses about nature. The result of this, combined with a suspicion of scientific thought as indissolubly linked with political and social domination, is that sociologists are powerless to contribute to debates about such important contemporary issues as loss of biodiversity or ecological degradation, assessment of which is crucially dependent on scientific analysis.”

Perhaps Caldwell isn’t familiar with the bulk of sociological work, but it consistently involves the use of (social) scientific methods, most often in the form of statistics, whose very purpose is the prediction of outcomes from the functional relationships of objects. This clearly does give sociology the means to contribute to these sorts of practical issues – I’ve listed a couple of useful sources at the end of this article for people who want to know more. So, functional usefulness remains an important and viable standard for assessing objectively real relationships. The only question remaining then is: does being truth-like constitute adequate evidence for objective meaning?

Quine argued for a distinction between ‘having meaning’ and ‘giving meaning’. The former is a matter of significance, the latter a matter of synonymy, the linguistic ability to rename an object or explain it in simpler terms. Quine wrote:

“The useful ways in which people ordinarily talk or seem to talk about meanings boil down to two: the having of meanings, which is significance, and sameness of meaning, or synonymy. What is called giving the meaning of an utterance is simply the uttering of a synonym, couched, ordinarily, in clearer language than the original … But the explanatory value of special and irreducible intermediary entities called meanings is surely illusory.”
(W.V. Quine, ‘On What There Is’, Review of Metaphysics 1948)

We may be able to state and restate names for objects, and these may be useful tools of communication, but this is not the same as having universal meaning. The latter is filtered through a person’s experiences, values and culture, which are subjective.

We might now apply an informal significance test to the varied potential (but reasonable) meanings of an object to assess the disparity between them. Returning to the knife and the butter example, we can reasonably argue that the different contextual meanings (tool, weapon, eating utensil) are so varied that they are indeed significant, despite the fact that the knife can be named and renamed with a high degree of synonymy as a ‘cutting tool’, a ‘sharp utensil’, etc. And while the range of possible interpretations of the object are indeed finite – the knife is not a dog, for example, since it does not possess all of the necessary qualities of being a dog – this is not necessarily inconsistent with the postmodern account. Postmodernists need not contend that there is an infinite range of meanings of an object, but only that the differences in meanings are significant.

Fitting the meaning/function distinction

This conceptual distinction is hardly new. Immanuel Kant in his Logic made a similar argument in differentiating synthetic and analytic concepts. Synthetic concepts refer to functionally successful relationships between abstract objects. For example, while 2 plus 2 always functions to equal 4, the objects in relation (the numbers themselves) have no objective meaning. Analytic concepts are those empirically determined, the meaning of which can vary. The relation of these sorts of objects may be symbolized by synthetic formulas which represent their objective functional relationship, but their meaning cannot be objectively captured as such.

Kant is clearly attuned to the way in which our experiences come to influence our definitions of objects. But he rightly allows for an objective world to function despite our contextual understanding of it. Even further, he allows for us to represent synthetic functional relationships. These then may be applied to the world in a functional capacity such as the predictability of statistical relationships. At most we might argue that we cannot objectively understand the objects, but we can indeed predict relationships, which seems to be a quite useful tool even if we concede a stated degree of potential error.

It should now seem clear that most postmodernists are not the nihilists that they have been labeled. Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is known as the forerunner to the postmodern scientific critique. Kuhn argued that even when the paradigms of science undergo a radical shift (revolution), certain beliefs and conceptions are maintained and worked into the fabric of the new paradigm. We might easily argue that the surviving pieces are those which proved functionally successful. Presumably a scientific revolution might redefine meanings of objects, but would be unlikely to abandon the functionally successful features of previous scientific paradigms (such as the polio vaccine). It would be hard to imagine medicine discontinuing the use of penicillin simply because our understanding of bacteria became such that the term no longer adequately defined those bodies which cause certain diseases.

Indeed it is difficult to find any postmodern critique of the real that does not exclusively involve matters of meaning and value. Even when Zygmunt Bauman in his 1992 book Intimations of Postmodernity called for the abandonment of statistics, he explicitly referred to social phenomena, which he claimed have become, or are becoming, unpredictable. Conversely then, where predictable relationships (i.e. functionally successful) persist, Bauman’s analysis would concede the appropriateness of quantitative statistical methods.

Similarly, it is difficult to find a realist account that does not refer (at least at a foundational level) to the functional characteristics of the universe. While critical realists may go on, unconvincingly, to argue for the status of truth-likeliness as evidence of the Real, their premise at its foundation is exclusively functional. Bhaskar defines his charter, “I argue that social forms are a necessary condition for any intentional act, that their pre-existence establishes their autonomy as possible objects of investigation and that their causal power establishes their reality.” Clearly causal power is a functional quality, and this realist interpretation then certainly leaves room for the interjection of a postmodern account where the meaning of objects is subjectively defined.

But Bhaskar and other critical realists, notably Margaret Archer, are not content with the status of objective reality as functional rather than a matter of meaning, and it is here that they clash with the postmodern critique. The clash is not viable, however, since the realists depend on truth-likeliness as a measure of the Real. As discussed above, for an object to have a finite range of meanings is not necessarily inconsistent with the postmodern account, when one considers that objects may have both a finite range of meanings and an infinite number of variations in between. That the differences in meaning are significant justifies the postmodern critique and relegates the realists to the functionally Real.

Arguing against pluralism Caldwell writes, “Obviously, there is a pluralism of ways of looking at the human body – an artist, a sexual partner, a surgeon will all look at it from very different perspectives. But it seems to me that only the biologist is in the business of explaining how the human body functions.” (my emphasis). But this is precisely the point. Investigating the functional processes of the body, the biologist may discover all sorts of useful relationships with predictable outcomes that improve the treatment of diseases and so forth. But the postmodern critique rightly warns us that the meaning of the body is contextual. Surely the biological interaction of one’s organs does not encapsulate the body’s meaning to one’s sexual partner. Imagine the predicament of a person with a sexual partner who viewed them with the eye of a biologist! The solution to this conflict is to relegate each theory’s critique to these two realms of reality that I have delineated. We should be careful not to make the mistake, as Caldwell does, of totally rejecting one or the other since both provide valuable comment. Critical realists are correct in arguing that there is an objective reality, but it is best seen as a functional one. Postmodernists rightly warn that defining the meaning of objects is necessarily subjective and contextual. If we stick to this distinction, then critical realism and postmodernism will be like ships quietly passing in the night. To my thinking, this is better than being mired in conceptual confusion and forced contradiction.

© Jason Wasserman 2004

Jason Wasserman is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He would like to thank William Cockerham, Mark LaGory and Jeffrey Clair for their comments on earlier drafts.

Further Reading

• Margaret S. Archer, Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995)
• Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity (Routledge, 1992)
• Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. (Anchor Books, 1967)
• Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences 3rd ed. (Routledge, 1998)
• Nancey Murphy, ‘Scientific Realism and Postmodern Philosophy.’ British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 41: 291-303, 1990.
• George Ritzer and Douglas Goodman, Modern Sociological Theory 6th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2004)
• Michael Root, The Philosophy of Social Science. (Blackwell, 1999)
Two useful reviews of environmental sociology are:
• Riley Dunlap and William Catton Jr. ‘Environmental Sociology.’ Annual Review of Sociology 5: 243-273, 1979.
• Shirley Laska, ‘Environmental Sociology and the State of the Discipline.’ Social Forces 71: 1-17, 1993.


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