Roy Bhaskar was born in 1944 to a family with Indian and English parentage. His early years are of little consequence to the discussion here, yet a short note on his experiences at university are interesting in allowing us to better understand some of the underlying motivations in his work. What is notable is that Bhaskar’s entry into the study of philosophy at university was somewhat accidental and also that it was informed by a deep interest in oppressive social forces in society. Bhaskar entered university in the 1960s to study Philosophy, Politics and
Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. As a student, along with many of his 1960s contemporaries, he became deeply concerned about the problem of world poverty, and the inadequacy of modern social science, notably the science of economics, to deal with this problem. Motivated by this concern, Bhaskar eventually started work on a PhD thesis on the relevance of economic theory for underdeveloped countries. This research never got as far as he initially hoped, however, as he found himself ‘distracted’ by important philosophy of social science questions that he felt he should deal with prior to proceeding further into his PhD studies. By delving into the study of philosophy of science and social science he
became increasingly dissatisﬁed with the debates characteristic of these ﬁelds. At the time key battles in the philosophy of science were conducted between the so-called theorists of ‘growth of knowledge’, Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend. In philosophy of social science, on the other hand, debates between the ‘positivist’ scientists of society and ‘hermeneutic’ opponents of a scientiﬁc study of social aﬀairs were dominant. While the idea of science remained at the core of all these debates, Bhaskar was perplexed by the fact that a curiously singular discourse of science seemed to inform the debates philosophically. The proponents of scientiﬁc inquiry in mid-twentieth century philosophy
of science tended to openly draw on the long tradition of empiricist-positivist philosophy of science to justify their approach to science. Positivism is an infamously contested term but it is generally associated with the belief that ‘scientiﬁc methods’ can, in reference to empirical observational evidence, justify the superiority of some knowledge claims (scientiﬁc) over others (say,
speculative, metaphysical or religious). Positivist philosophies of science are informed by an empiricist theory of knowledge: belief in perceptual impressions as a key way of generating and validating knowledge. For key positivists during Bhaskar’s studies, such as Karl Popper (1959) and Carl Gustav Hempel (1965) for example, the best way to come to know the world was through the study of observational regularities in the world around us. On the basis of knowledge of general observational patterns (or laws), and equipped with a rigorous deductive logic, we could form valid and reliable scientiﬁc knowledge and make predictions through which we can exert some control over our environment, natural and social. Popper’s and Hempel’s positivism was premised upon a deductive and falsiﬁcationist conception of scientiﬁc logic and the progress of science (not the inductive and veriﬁcationist view of earlier ‘logical’ positivists), yet the key emphasis of their deductive-nomological (DN-) model of science was still on the ability to set criteria for more or less objective ‘truth-approximating’ knowledge. However, Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) account of the history of science had posed deep challenges to this kind of perspective. Kuhn argued that, instead of working independently of their social context and seeking unbiased falsiﬁcation of arguments, scientists are in fact inevitably inﬂuenced by their social context. The parameters of what is seen as ‘normal science’ shapes in deep ways their knowledge claims, what they study and how. Science and its superiority as a ‘way of knowing’ received a knock from Kuhn, then, and also simultaneously from many critical theorists of the Frankfurt School vein sceptical of the destructive outcomes of scientiﬁc knowledge during the early twentieth century (for example in the ‘Marxist’ Soviet Union and during the Second World War). In the social sciences too, the idea of science was ﬁercely contested. The
so-called interpretivist and hermeneutic scholars argued that social inquiry should not pretend to be akin to the natural sciences and should instead be focused on ‘interpreting’, more akin to the arts, the unique conﬁgurations of thought and meaning that agents hold. There were diﬀerent strands of interpretivism: ‘traditional’ hermeneuticians tried to gain an understanding of the ‘real meanings’ that actors held, whereas more ‘radical’ interpretivists following Wittgenstein and poststructuralist ideas started to emphasise that we cannot claim to unearth the real meanings or reasons of actors but rather should merely study the complexity of the language games or discursive constructions that provide the context for social actors’ behaviour (Bauman 1978; Hollis 1994). The interpretivists, despite the variations between them, were united in emphasising the inadequacies of the generalising, observational, predictive and ‘value-neutral’ conception of social science advocated by the positivists. Social inquiry, interpretivists argued, necessitates interpretive judgements and normative evaluations. Importantly, the interpretive tradition tended to be hostile to the very language of science and causation – science and causation were seen as notions fundamentally embedded within the objectivist ‘instrumentally rational’ social science (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972).