The second principle of Philosophical Materialism is that of epistemological materialism. Critical realism directly engages the question of ontology and asserts the possibility for the independent existence and transcontextual causal power of the objects targeted by science. Such a stance directly confronts the epistemologies of positivism, postmodernism, hermeneutics and social constructionism,1 which in general make the error of collapsing what there is (ontology) to the question of what we can know (epistemology), or in other words, an “epistemic fallacy.” For critical realism, there exists a gap between the world and knowledge of the world. In critical realist jargon, this gap separates two domains of knowledge: intransitive and transitive objects of knowledge. The intransitive domain contains the generative mechanisms and structures that operate independently of human existence and underlie the range of phenomena human beings experience, such as gravity, thermodynamics, the biological sphere shaped by evolutionary
adaptation and so on.2 Likewise, there exists intransitive objects of knowledge in the social world, which founts the possibility for critical realist social inquiry and critique. The likely candidates in the social sphere qualifying as having ontological “reality” include the powers intrinsic to human agents, the enduring relations that constitute social structures, and the symbolic frameworks, ideologies and meanings existent in the cultural sphere. Objects of natural and socio-cultural intransitive knowledge preexist human subjectivity and practice, which establishes such objects as holding temporal priority, relative autonomy and causal powers vis-à-vis the human subject-agent, and consequently, form the condition of possibility for natural and social science. The claim of an intransitive domain of knowledge is a meta-theoretical argument, whose foundational a priori claim is that causal mechanisms are ontologically real and responsible for the phenomena of events. As a meta-theory, it does not make any substantive claims as to which causal mechanisms do and do not exist. The task of identifying causal mechanisms is under the purview of specific scientific approaches (physics, biology, psychology, sociology, interdisciplinary study and so forth). In other words, the claim of an intransitive domain of generative mechanisms and structures is a “philosophical ontology,” which should be distinguished from any substantive scientific ontological claims.
While intransitive objects of knowledge, and the mechanisms sought, are the ontological gold of human inquiry into the world, nonetheless, mechanisms are apperceived always through or mediated by transitive objects of knowledge. Transitive objects of knowledge are the antecedent collection of theories, facts, beliefs, symbolic frameworks, models, paradigms, methods and etc. that form the material base for further knowledge production. Human beings produce scientific knowledge for techno-scientific mastery and understanding of the world, and as such, valuations are inherent3, and must be considered a social process. In formal contexts, scientific practice is preconditioned by study, training, and institutional and financial resources. As an entrenched process, connecting the interests and values of the state, universities, corporations, private foundations and individual scientists, transitive knowledge is conditional on the political, economic and cultural base of its production.
While the contour of scientific practice is shaped by the social coordinates of its practice—that knowledge is relative—this fact does not entail that intransitive objects are human constructs imposed upon phenomena. The gap between the intransitive and transitive domains ensures that epistemological (and methodological) concerns do not dominate scientific inquiry, deciding a priori what can be known, thought, or investigated.For critical realists, the relativity of knowledge production necessitates understanding the scientific process as an inherently “fallibilist enterprise,” performing a continual reassessment of the facticity of any ontological claims about the intransitive domain. The history of science abounds with generative mechanisms considered no more: phlogiston, phrenology, scientific racism, cold fusion and etc. On the contrary, by recognizing the distinction between the intransitive and transitive domains of knowledge, critical realism overturns the two dominant approaches to knowledge production in western philosophy, both which attempt to eliminate the relativity of knowledge by either 1) collapsing the world into the mind such as by positing Kantian-like transcendental categories of the mind—the error of idealism, or 2) collapsing the mind into the world such that knowledge is only of atomistic entities sometimes linked by constant conjunctions at the human experiential level of phenomena —the error of empiricism. A third approach, loosely clustering around the notion of postmodernism, is characterized as an immanent version of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Instead, however, of universal transcendental categories, the mind’s grid of intelligibility is formed by categories embedded in time and place, which subjects the mind to the contingencies of experience. Immanent idealists posit various mediating “conceptual formations” (for lack of a better word) between mind and world that are a “given” representational modality of the world that cannot but be displaced, deformed
and angled constructions (of reality), and whose veracity to the world is irrelevant according to the logic of the modality. If not “world veracity,” the logic tends towards instituting, on the bright side, cultural particularity, and on the dark side, domination, exploitation and marginalization. Examples of conceptual formations include “collective representations” for Durkheim, “language” for Wittgenstein, “discourse” for Foucault, “text” for Derrida, and “signifier” for Baudrillard. Critical realism rejects all three approaches because they privilege epistemology over ontology, commit the epistemic fallacy, and consequently disavow knowledge of the causal powers of generative mechanisms operating in the intransitive object domain of knowledge.
2An interesting question arises as to the intransivity accorded to the human body. We (self) consciously embody our body, itself constituted by three foundational strata containing physical, chemical and biological mechanisms. Yet, allied to the biological body, which holds particular emergent powers, liabilities and tendencies, is a fourth strata, that of human conscious, which, as we will see below in our discussion on agency, holds additional emergent powers, defining homo sapiens in the larger animal kingdom and, so far as we know, makes us unique in the universe.
3The Nietzschean point is taken that the philosophical goal of truth is compromised by the preconditional valuation of truth. I would argue Nietzsche’s point, noting that value is not derived from biology or some sort of universal spirit inside us (and ignoring or supplementing the ontological reality of a will to power…), opens the possibility that valuation is constituted within a socio-cultural, geo-historical nexus.