Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Critical Realism, the Sciences and the Arts

Critical Realism, the philosophy of Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer and a number of acolytes is a philosophical critique of the nature of causation. It is grounded in a re-examination of scientific knowledge and asks the question "given that we have scientific knowledge of the world, what must the world be like?" In responding to this, it argues that Hume's theory of causation (that scientists construct causes in the light of reproducible experiment) is wrong. Bhaskar is not the only person to say this: his supervisor, Rom Harre said much the same thing in his "Causal Powers". Bhaskar argues that the Humean mistake has had knock-on effects on the social sciences, where social science has tried to compensate for the lack of reproducible experiments (with statistics, probabilities, textual analysis, etc) so as to similarly facilitate a process of 'constructing causes' in an attempt to make defensible claims about the social world. A variety of social science methodologies do this - for example, the Grounded Theory of Glaser and Strauss.

I think Bhaskar's argument here is pretty solid, and it has led to some practical innovations like Pawson and Tilley's Realistic Evaluation, which I find far more sensible than most of the available social science methods. But my concern recently has been with the arts, not science. How does Bhaskar's argument transfer to the arts?

Where scientists concern themselves with cause, I think artists concern themselves with form. Form and Cause are related - at least for Aristotle, and I think both are related to knowledge. Artistic knowledge is different from scientific knowledge: but Shakespeare will still leave us astounded at insights into human nature and life that the most penetrating scientists barely touch.

Bhaskar's argument for scientists is that they do not construct causes, they discover them. Similarly, I think artists do not construct forms, they discover them. Picasso's famous comment "I do not seek, I find" would bear this out I think. But in much contemporary art (and particularly music) there is a tendency to focus on abstract phenomena and discover forms: mathematical series, formulae, concepts. I wonder if this is the analogue of the 'reproducible experiment' in the sciences. Are artists drawn to these things because the possibility of discovering universal form is questioned? It is as if the discovery of abstract form is used as a way of making artistically defensible claims about the world. This seems to me to be a methodological (or technical) error.

The question for the arts is "What is the form discovered by art delimited by?" Those artists who focus on abstract forms consider that the abstraction is the delimitation. I think the delimitation is always the world, and the challenge for artists is to find a way of discovering the form of our world today. This is a related enterprise to social science, for understanding the causes of our world is inextricably entwined with understanding its form.

My only reservation with this position is that artistic technique is always a delimitation of sorts: artists work by restricting themselves. But this restriction serves to control the form that they deal with and their own agency in manipulating it. That is technique: a necessary attenuation. But the challenge is to ensure that technique serves the discovery of form, rather than merely reveal itself.

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