Roy Bhaskar: Philosopher whose school of critical realism challenged established ways of thinking about being and knowledge

Bhaskar insisted that we must understand what the world is like for us to have knowledge of it

Thursday 29 January 2015 01:00
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Bhaskar: he was open, funny, gregarious and generous
Bhaskar: he was open, funny, gregarious and generous

Roy Bhaskar was an outstanding philosopher who challenged established ways of thinking. Whereas most modern philosophy asks questions about our knowledge of the world (focusing on epistemology, the theory of knowledge), Bhaskar insisted that we must understand what the world is like for us to have knowledge of it (insisting on the importance of ontology, the study of the nature of being).

Born to an English mother and Indian father, he was educated in London and Oxford, submitting a DPhil thesis to the latter in 1974. Too radical for the philosophers on the examining panel, the work became his first book, A Realist Theory of Science (1975). In a philosophical world dominated by positivism and the linguistic turn, its strikingly original argument was that the reality of being must be accepted if we are to understand how scientific knowledge is possible. It was followed in 1979 by The Possibility of Naturalism, which argued that the social sciences could be understood as similar to the natural sciences once the specific differences in their subject matter (human beings on the one hand and social relations on the other) were acknowledged.

These works established Bhaskar's position, but they were followed in the 1990s by explorations in the dialectical tradition that took him in another direction. From engagement primarily with Kant and Hume, the new work took him to the Greeks, to Hegel and to Marx (and through them to a remarkable alternative position to postmodern theory, with its emphasis on fundamental difference and plurality). Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom (1993) and Plato Etc (1994) were outstanding works aiming both to radicalise the philosophy of critical realism and to rework the dialectical tradition in light of a critical realist account of being. Reality was broken and diffuse, yet it was still possible to hold on to the ethical importance of the flourishing of each human being.

The ambition was staggering and included a range of problems that Bhaskar argued philosophy was unable to escape. Caught in a series of "TINA problems" (named ironically after Margaret Thatcher's stock phrase, "There is No Alternative"), conventional philosophy's basic premises ignored the nature of being, and in particular, failed to grasp the importance of absence or negativity in the world. Its general irrealism meant that Western philosophy occupied a site of alienation, a citadel of what Hegel had called the "Unhappy Consciousness".

Such a view unsurprisingly gained little traction in philosophy departments, but it attracted followers across a range of disciplines. Conferences associated with Bhaskar's work were held in the US, Brazil, Scandinavia, South Africa, and Australia. The driving force in his thought was the importance of grasping being in its relation to thinking. This led to the importance of a historical understanding of being and thought, which was linked to claims of freedom, solidarity and emancipation for humans.

In the 1990s, Bhaskar continued to innovate. Drawing initially on his Eastern heritage, he began to look beyond the Western tradition to ideas thematised under the term "metaReality" – a deeper level of being than the natural and social sciences are used to dealing with. He was concerned with thinking about the underlying unities that hold humanity and nature together even in a world of splits and divisions. To listen to another is at a deep level to identify with the other person, and even antagonistic relations require cooperation. Even in a world of conflict and difference there are underlying realities which hold things together. This work has become important for scholars in a variety of disciplines, for example in understanding creativity, peace and theology.

Bhaskar's innovation could bewilder his collaborators, and as a professional philosopher, he became a marginal figure. Yet his willingness to think the unthinkable, and to pursue the line of most resistance, rendered his marginality virtuous and productive. He held posts at Pembroke College, Oxford, the Universities of Edinburgh and Sussex, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences and the University of Tromsø in Norway.

In the last phase of his career he was a World Scholar at the Institute of Education, surviving on a fractional contract and in some debt. Yet he was tireless in his support of a growing band of postgraduate students, running seminars, engaging with colleagues, hosting conferences and generally arguing his corner.

Roy Bhaskar was a lovely man, open, funny, gregarious and generous – perhaps too much so for his own good. Underneath, there was the competitiveness and intellectual steel that could generate such a body of original work. Fearless in his conviction of the rightness of his positions, he was also capable of unworldliness and down-to-earth, self-deprecating humour. Charming and mannerly, he could sometimes be imperious.

In later years he contracted Charcot's disease, which led to the amputation of a foot. He adapted to life in a wheelchair and did not bemoan his lot. He had long given up his talent for dance, replacing it with support for Manchester United and televised sport. His death came as a surprise to many who had imagined that willpower alone might see him through. Critical realists should have known better. He will be sorely missed.

ALAN NORRIE

Roy Bhaskar, philosopher: born 15 May 1944; married Hilary Wainwright; died 19 November 2014.

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