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Defending Philosophy

Phil Sharpe

THE ARTICLE by Ron Heisler in What Next? No.18 attacking Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism is problematic in both general and specific terms.1 In general, Heisler seems to question the very significance of philosophy, which is considered to have little practical content (unless it is the work of Marx) and to be basically an exercise in idealist obscurantism. This standpoint is inconsistent and contradictory, because Heisler refers to the rich history of philosophy, such as the contribution of Kant and Hegel, but he essentially and reductively considers that modern philosophy is usually a convenient means and pretext for obtaining a university occupation. In other words, he outlines a crude form of Foucault’s power knowledge perspective, which equates philosophy with an expression of accommodation to hierarchical power-relations. On this basis, Critical Realism can be situated as a form of academic privilege and an expression of the interests of the petty bourgeoisie. (More on this point later on.)

But philosophy, far from having an obscure and elitist relationship to the existing power relations, is actually a dynamic expression of developments within society. Philosophy can be very complex (as with Bhaskar’s Dialectical Critical Realism), but this does not mean it is abstracted from historical and social development in an elitist manner. Mészáros has shown that philosophy has a profound ideological content that is connected to understanding the contradictions of the domination and alienation produced by capital.2 This means that some types of philosophy can certainly become ideological forms that uphold the status quo, but it does not mean that philosophy is inherently retrogressive and reactionary. Philosophy can also be extremely revolutionary. This is because philosophy can provide the basic premises that uphold intellectual independence and the necessity to challenge the inconsistencies and omissions of a ruling class ideology that defends the Orwellian nightmare conception that 2+2=5.3

For example, the imperialist powers define Iraq as an aggressive and militaristic state (one which, of course, they supported in the 1980s), and on this basis they justify the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqi people. This situation is similar to the Orwellian conception of perpetual war in which one power declares war on another and denies the objective truth of its former alliance. Philosophy is able to show why this standpoint is the ideological expression of a political method that rejects any consistent ethical norms. Also, governments regularly boast about increases in health and education spending when in fact real spending as a proportion of Gross National Product has gone down. This situation is similar to Orwell’s reference to decreases in the chocolate ration being portrayed as an actual increase. Philosophy is able to indicate that this propaganda represents a dichotomy between objective reality and the subjective, ideological and idealist world of the establishment politicians who try to impose empty word forms onto reality.

The essential point is that Orwell’s hero Winston Smith has philosophical concerns about the distortion of truth about objective reality. Smith attempts to challenge the Inner Party’s subjective and egotistical conception that allows its consciousness to omnipotently define reality. In other words, Smith is trying to develop a philosophical alternative to this idealism. Thus the opposition to the nihilistic and destructive idealism of the Inner Party is represented by a philosophical perspective that reality can be independent of the consciousness of the party, and that it is possible to arrive at facts that are not reduced to the ideology of the party. This is why it was not accidental that some Soviet philosophers upheld freedom of thought, and they showed the possibility that objective reality could be conceived in a manner that philosophically credible, and which did not reduce reality to the ideological requirements of Stalinism. In general philosophy has a long history of defending the autonomy of thought, and Spinoza is possibly the most famous and symbolic expression of the intellectual requirement of the freethinking imperatives of philosophy.

The point being made is that philosophy expresses the disciplined capacity to act as the moral conscience of society because it elaborates the premises for challenging ideological forms and structures that uphold tyrannical authority. The most famous example of this was the Young Hegelian milieu of the 1830s and 1840s. The basis for philosophy having a progressive content is that it discusses questions about how we conceive reality (ontology) and about how knowledge develops (epistemology). This rich theoretical and methodological content means that philosophy has the continual potential to question those who ideologically attempt to restrict our understanding of reality in accordance with the interests of an elite, whether it be the interests of capital or of a Stalinist type of bureaucracy.

Heisler could object to the above in the terms of Lukács’s perspective outlined in The Destruction of Reason.4 Lukács argued that since Hegel and Marx philosophy has become increasingly pessimistic, irrational, and reactionary, as shown in the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger. But Lukács’s standpoint is one-sided and ultimately subjective. He dismisses Sartre’s attempt to elaborate the ontological principles (conception of reality) of a dialectic of freedom as another form of idealism and pessimistic existentialism. Thus Lukács’s approach cannot explain the importance of Sartre’s attempt to establish the materialist premises of transforming praxis.5 Furthermore, Lukács does not evaluate the attempts of Bloch and Adorno to establish the reasons why philosophy is crucial to the question of human emancipation.

However, even if we agree with Lukács that since the 19th century philosophy has become increasingly irrationalist and conservative, this does not mean that philosophy in general has become reactionary, irrelevant, and superfluous. For the critical and reflective role of philosophy is made necessary and possible by the human aspiration to interpret and argue about the nature of the world. Science may be able to provide increasingly precise theories about the laws and tendencies of different aspects of reality, but science can never exhaust the conscious human desire to debate and discuss in the most profound terms issues such as the general character of reality and the possibility for human freedom. In this context the great divide between materialism and idealism is not arbitrary, or an invention of a polemic by Feuerbach or Lenin, but is instead located in constant disputes about whether independent reality or consciousness is more explanatory and primary in ontological and epistemological terms.6 Improvements in knowledge about the world will continue to have a profound philosophical content, and the advances of science will not resolve important philosophical questions but will instead give new forms and enrichment to philosophy.

Ironically Bhaskar shares the concerns of Lukács about philosophy becoming increasingly conservative, cautious, and elitist. The work published immediately before Dialectic: The Pulse for Freedom is a book about the influential pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty.7 Bhaskar takes issue with Rorty’s “modest” equation of philosophy with literary metaphor, rhetoric and the art of conversation, and the related denial of the role of philosophy in elaborating an understanding of science. Bhaskar is also critical of Rorty’s ideological accommodation to US imperialism in philosophical terms. In other words, Bhaskar is developing a philosophical opposition to the latest form of American pragmatism, and therefore trying to show why it cannot consistently facilitate the realisation of human freedom.

This polemical work about Rorty is transitional to Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom.8 The immediate philosophical context to the book is Bhaskar’s attempt to provide an alternative to Fukuyama’s right wing Hegelian philosophy of history, in which the struggle for the realisation of recognition is equated with ascendency of liberal democracy.9 Bhaskar is also trying to show that it is possible to oppose the sceptical post-modern denial of a universal conception of reality, because objective reality does represent the possibility to realise universal human freedom.10

Bhaskar, alongside Lukács and Mészáros, considers the ideological role of philosophy to be of crucial importance. Philosophy has been characterised by a dominant strand of irrealism which has upheld theory and practice inconsistencies, and this results in a defence of the alienating power of capital. Irrealism is connected to ontological monovalence, or adherence to a conception of rigid and closed totalities which deny the rich complexity of the contradictions that explain the world in a dynamic and dialectical manner.11 Hence, despite Hegel’s immense contribution to philosophy, his dialectic is ultimately irrealist and idealist because reality is considered to be indeterminate and abstract if it is not connected to the defining content of the Absolute Spirit. Thus the Absolute Spirit resolves contradictions in an idealist manner. This means Hegelian contradictions are not ontologically connected to the material contradictions of historical reality.

Marx’s practical materialist dialectic has not definitively resolved the irrealist problems of Hegel’s dialectic because the role of the Absolute Spirit has been projected onto the proletariat. This has meant the revolutionary process has been considered uncritically by Marxists, in the sense that the necessity of independent philosophical reflection has become replaced by a programmatic strategy of success. Hence the crucial role of ethical scrutiny of politics has become dismissed as idealist or Kantian moralising and considered to be a reactionary irrelevance. But the ascendency of Stalinism shows the objective theoretical necessity of ethical reflection in relation to political practice. This is not to deny that the material conditions facilitated the ascendency of Stalinism, but an ethical approach can help to develop opposition to the Stalinist equation of the rule of an omnipotent and antidemocratic bureaucracy with socialism. In this philosophical sense, Bhaskar is not trying to reject Marxism in the terms of an absolute negation, but rather he is trying to show that Marxism has ontological theoretical limitations when explaining reality, and these limitations are related to the denial of a role for philosophy. This results in Marxism being transformed into a counterrevolutionary opposite.

But, as Heisler contends, does Bhaskar actually project the Absolute Spirit onto history, in the form of an inevitable or teleological realisation of freedom as the concrete utopia? The Bhaskarian conception of absence is an attempt to show that the problem of alienation, exploitation and oppression is an ontological condition because reality has a lack of freedom. This does not mean that reality will inevitably realise freedom, but rather there is the potential to overcome the structural limitations that negate freedom. This is because the central aspiration of humanity is for the transcendence of master-slave relations. However, Bhaskar’s idealist turn, outlined in his latest work From East to West, is an attempt to establish a philosophical guarantee that alienation will be overcome through divine revelation.12 This accommodation to idealism is a departure from the realist philosophical premises of Dialectic. For Dialectic tries to establish the conditions for human freedom within a structured, intransitive (independent, objective, primary and material) and complex reality.13

The point being made is that Bhaskar’s philosophy may have undergone a major digression and regression, but the necessity for philosophy is not negated as a result. Philosophy is continual and perpetual because philosophy is an expression of the constant necessity for human inquiry and interpretation of reality. In this context Dialectical Critical Realism has contributed to our understanding of the world, but it also has limitations because a given philosophical trend can never establish the ultimate and completed conception of reality. For reality itself has elements of uncertainty, contingency, chance, catastrophe, and alienation, and this means that a specific philosophical trend cannot guarantee that it is definitively triumphant over competing viewpoints. But Heisler is trying to make a claim of philosophical omnipotence for Marxism, and on this basis he ridicules Dialectical Critical Realism, which is considered to be a revisionist departure from Marxism. It is apparently not possible to construct a progressive post-Marx philosophy.

So, in this attempt to assert a methodological claim that Marx and Marxism has the last word to say about philosophy, Heisler also seems to suggest that philosophy as a general discipline has become superfluous and anachronistic. Now, if reality was nothing more than a collection of facts, or impressions about surface appearances, it might be uncontested that theory was essentially a matter of developing empirical scientific research. But the relationship between appearance and essential reality is complex and not reductive. This is why scientific development becomes open to different interpretations, and therefore philosophical conflict is an inseparable part of the process of scientific advance. However, to Heisler, the role of theory is essentially completed with the work of Marx. Theory becomes a question of inspired interpretation (which is how Heisler considers Lukács, in contrast to the “ignorant” Althusser) rather than a matter of development and innovation. Hence Bhaskar’s problem is that he has dared to think differently from Marx. Bhaskar may have accommodated to a idealist conception of divinity, but Heisler has a different type of God, a secular God called Marx. No wonder all other views are inherently heretical.

Heisler’s article is also problematical in more specific terms. Firstly, in relation to his conception of the theoretical relationship between philosophy and historical materialism. Heisler comments: “We like our dialectics as specific as possible, spread thinly on a nice slice of old fashioned, well researched, well reasoned historical materialism.”14 He seems to be suggesting that to Marx philosophy has no other significance than to uphold the primary role of historical materialism. Or, as Alex Callinicos argues in his theoretical biography of Marx, Marxist philosophy is primarily a philosophy of practice (the Theses On Feuerbach) that upholds the conception of the self-emancipation of the working class.15 This praxis standpoint has important limitations. We may accept that an emancipatory philosophy is about sustaining the revolutionary role of the proletariat, but it is still a theoretical and logical absurdity to try and suggest that adherence to the Theses On Feuerbach can answer all of the diverse types of philosophical questions that are generated by the complexity of reality.

For example, whilst the Theses On Feuerbach shows the dynamic, social, and historical character of human practical activity, it does not elaborate precise ontological criteria as to whether the subject as conscious practice is primary or secondary in relation to the objective material content of nature. In other words, Marx does not resolve the question of whether materialism or idealism is primary, and instead he locates the tension between materialism and idealism at a new contradictory level. This is precisely why Dietzgen and Engels developed dialectical materialism, in that they are trying to establish a more precise ontological understanding of the primary material content of reality as the basis for understanding human practice and thought. Furthermore, Bhaskar develops his conception of the intransitive and transitive, or the relationship between independent reality and the social nature of thought, as another attempt to go beyond the idealist tensions in the Theses On Feuerbach.16

In this context, the problematical nature of the philosophical contribution of Lukács and Korsch can be understood. What is primarily at issue is not their adherence to the class standpoint of the working class; rather, the crucial question is whether they philosophically interpret this political perspective in idealist terms. Lukács could be considered to have emphasised the role of the subject in a manner which denies the importance of the objective, and so makes concessions to idealism. But, obviously, this question is a matter for ongoing philosophical debate, and also it is significant that Lukács changed his philosophical stance over time.17 The point is that Heisler’s moralising about the principled nature of Lukács does not contribute very effectively to a discussion of Lukács’s immense philosophical work.

Secondly, Heisler seems to argue that Critical Realism is inherently pro-Althusser. But, believe it or not, there is no monolithic Critical Realist interpretation of Althusser’s work. Andrew Collier, who in his earlier works utilised Althusserian theory in a sympathetic manner, has become increasingly opposed to what he considers to be the idealism in Althusser’s conception of the relationship between the thought object and the real object.18 The possibility for a wide variety of Critical Realist views about Althusser is made possible by the very changeable nature of Althusser’s own philosophy. Althusser initially starts out with a conception of philosophy as theoretical practice, but in his autobiography he rejects the role of philosophy in the nihilistic terms that it is narcissistic and self indulgent.19 A standpoint very similar to Heisler’s! What is necessary when evaluating the work of Althusser is not Heisler’s shallow subjectivist approach, but instead to show what might or might not be explanatory and materialist in the work of Althusser. Obviously there will not be unanimous views about Althusser’s work, but this rejection of a monolithic and partisan standpoint seems to Heisler to be a strange approach.

Heisler also wants to define Critical Realism as being pro-Heidegger. Such a supposed affinity is obviously part of Heisler’s attempt to show that Critical Realism is a philosophy for an increasingly irrational petty bourgeoisie. But Bhaskar’s comprehension of the philosophical importance of Heidegger (and Bhaskar does not speak for all Critical Realists) does not mean that Bhaskar “idealises” Heidegger. On the contrary. The point that Bhaskar is making in Dialectic is that Heidegger cannot sustain his emphasis upon ontology, and so Heidegger has a monovalent, static, and irrealist conception of reality.20 Possibly Bhaskar’s evaluation has its own flaws, but Heisler’s attempt at a crude identity between Bhaskar and Heidegger is another justification for dogmatic thinking.

Thirdly, and most seriously, there is Heisler’s argument that Bhaskar’s attempt to construct a philosophy of history is another form of the Young Hegelian emphasis upon philosophical consciousness rather than revolutionary class practice. Consequently idealism is located within Dialectic, and this idealism achieves its full realisation in the religious views of From East to West. So it could be argued that there would seem to be no comparison between the Marxist and empirically grounded theoretical conception of reality in Mészáros’s Beyond Capital and the apparently philosophical and speculative schema of Bhaskar’s Dialectic.21 Mészáros’s work seems to be a Marxist repudiation of the primacy of the philosophical subject, and so locates the possibility of human emancipation within the development of material and social practice. In contrast, Bhaskar seems to project a philosophical and utopian subject onto reality as the basis of human freedom. But Bhaskar is aware of this problem of philosophical idealism, and so he tries to locate the potential for the concrete utopia within the structures and agency of existing human praxis. This is not to suggest that Bhaskar has overcome the problem of idealism, but his four level conception of social reality tries to establish why and how reality has an objective intransitive primacy, and so consciousness and practice cannot transcend and dominate social structures in an idealist manner.22

Consequently, as Alan Norrie and others have argued, Bhaskar’s turn towards idealist equation of the categories to explain reality with reality itself is a break with the philosophical realism of Dialectic.23 Bhaskar is now effectively upholding a different and idealist conception of reality, and therefore he has repudiated the philosophical advances of Dialectic. So, far from accepting this idealist trajectory, the supporters of Dialectical Critical Realism are expressing different and challenging views about Bhaskar’s From East to West. Critical Realism is experiencing a Feuerbachian critique of its founder. Exciting days are ahead for Critical Realism whether Heisler likes it or not.

So is Dialectical Critical Realism nothing more than a philosophy for the increasingly irrational petty bourgeoisie? Not at all. Dialectical Critical Realism is another specific form of the necessary connection between the proletariat and philosophical inquiry about reality. It is the privileged sections of the petty bourgeoisie who don’t need philosophy, because they don’t need emancipation from capitalism. Thus to reject philosophy in the name of Marxism is effectively to act on behalf of the petty bourgeoisie and against the proletariat. Dialectical Critical Realism does not have all the answers, and even has its idealist aspects, but its contribution to philosophical development can only facilitate human emancipation.


1. Ron Heisler, “Response to the Modern Ranters: A Layman’s Naive Thoughts on the Cult of Roy Bhaskar”, What Next? No.18.

2. Istvan Mészáros, The Power of Ideology, Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hertfordshire, 1989, pp.3-59.

3. George Orwell, 1984, in The Complete Novels, Penguin: London, 2000.

4. Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, Merlin: London, 1980.

5. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol.1, Verso: London, 1991.

6. T.I. Oizerman, The Main Trends In Philosophy, Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1988.

7. Roy Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom, Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1991.

8. Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Verso: London, 1993.

9. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Hamish Hamilton: Middlesex, 1992.

10. A recent Critical Realist critique of postmodernism has been carried out by Christopher Norris in his article “Postmodernism: A Guide for the Perplexed”, in Understanding Contemporary Society, Gary Browning, Abigail Holcli and Frank Webster (eds), Sage: London, 2000.

11. Bhaskar, 1993, pp.180-7.

12. Roy Bhaskar, From East to West, Routledge: London, 2000.

13. Bhaskar, 1993, pp.279-99

14. Heisler, p.19.

15. Alex Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Bookmarks: London, 1983 pp.77-81.

16. Roy Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, Verso: London: 1989, pp.127-8

17. Istvan Mészáros, Beyond Capital, Merlin: London, 1995, pp.353-63.

18. Andrew Collier, Critical Realism, Verso:London, 1994, pp.52-54.

19. Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts A Long Time, Chatto and Windus: London, 1993, pp.171-3.

20. Bhaskar, 1993, p.205.

21. Mészáros, 1995.

22. Bhaskar, 1993, pp.204-14

23. Alan Norrie and Nick Hostettler, “Do You Like Soul Music?”, in Alethia, Vol.3, No.2, November 2000, pp.2-7.