chapter  2
Accentuate the negative
Pages 28

In the first chapter, we noted the significance of absence for Bhaskar’s dialectic, and my intention here is to explore it in some depth. I begin with a consideration of terms. In the dialectical tradition, ‘absence’ has not until now had the import Bhaskar gives it. Words such as ‘negation’ and ‘negativity’ by contrast lie at its heart. Bhaskar uses these terms too; indeed, the three main sections of Dialectic dealing with absence refer sequentially in their titles to negation, absence and negativity.1 However, ‘absence’ is his term of choice, and in the first section I consider why this should be so, though I argue that Bhaskar’s terminology is essentially open, and not too much should be made of his favouring absence.2 In a second section, I shall then look at the role absence plays in dialectical critical realism, in creating its ‘second edge’ (2E). Here absence moves critical realism forward from its original interest in natural necessity and real non-identity (its first moment – 1M) to its emphasis on the spatio-temporal character, the becoming, of being. This can be described as a move from thinking about the entities or products of social life to thinking about the process of their production, from ‘product’ to ‘process’, from being to becoming. In a third section, I shall then move to consider the reasons for giving absence priority over the present or the positive. I shall suggest that what is of real importance is its significance in relation to presence, though I shall note that there is a sense in which absence is primary, a sense caught in Bhaskar’s conception of ‘the constellational’, the term developed in his account of totality.3 Fourth, I shall focus on its importance for thinking critically about the development of western philosophy from its earliest moments. In particular, Bhaskar’s recognition of absence points up the corresponding denial that lies at the heart of the western philosophical tradition and that he terms ‘ontological monovalence’. I shall deal with this last briefly in anticipation of what is to come in Chapters 6 and 7, though it is philosophically central to Bhaskar’s critique of western philosophy.