Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    1. Grounds For a Realist Ontology 1. Grounds For a Realist Ontology > 1.3. The Onto-Transcendental Grounds of Experimental Activity

    1.3. The Onto-Transcendental Grounds of Experimental Activity

    Bhaskar thus concludes that the transcendental conditions under which experimental activity is intelligible are ontological in character. In order for experimental activity to be intelligible, it is the world, not our minds, that must be a certain way. And the world must be this way regardless of whether any science takes place or whether any sentient beings exist to engage in something approximating science. Above all it is necessary that 1) objects be intransitive to our knowledge, perception, or discourse about objects, and that 2) it be possible for objects to be out of phase with actual events. I will address the second of these points first.

    If we must draw an ontological distinction between objects and the events they generate to understand the intelligibility of scientific practice, then this is precisely because objects do not ordinarily or regularly produce constant conjunctions of events. Constant conjunctions of events are the exception rather than the rule, and it is for this reason that we engage in experimental practice. In this connection, Bhaskar draws a distinction between open and closed systems. Closed systems are systems where constant conjunctions of events obtain. Open systems are, by contrast, systems where the powers of objects are either not acting or are rather disguised or hidden by virtue of the intervention of other causes. Open systems are the norm rather than the exception. And within open systems or entanglements of objects, the powers of discrete objects are often veiled or inactive. It is here that we encounter the rationale behind experimental activity. As Bhaskar puts it,

    Now once it is granted that mechanisms and structures may be said to be real, we can provide an interpretation of the independence of causal laws from patterns of events, and a fortiori of the rationale of experimental activity. For the real basis of this independence lies in the independence of the generative mechanisms of nature from the events they generate. Such mechanisms endure even when not acting; and act in their normal way even when the consequents of the law-like statements they ground are, owing to the operation of intervening mechanisms or countervailing causes, unrealized. It is the role of the experimental scientist to exclude such interventions, which are usual; and to trigger the mechanism so that it is active. The activity of the mechanism may then be studied without interference [...]. It is only under closed conditions that there will be a one-to-one relationship between the causal law and the sequence of events.[28]

    We thus have an ontological distinction between objects or generative mechanisms on the one hand, and events, on the other. If experimental activity is necessary, then this is because generative mechanisms can be dormant, inactive, or veiled by the agency of other objects or generative mechanisms. Nonetheless, it is generative mechanisms or objects that are responsible for the production of events. As Bhaskar will remark further on, “[t]he world consists of things, not events. Most things are complex objects, in virtue of which they possess an ensemble of tendencies, liabilities and powers. It is by reference to the exercise of their tendencies, liabilities and powers that the phenomena of the world are explained”.[29]

    Because things, objects, or generative mechanisms can be out of phase with events, experimental activity is required to produce closed systems so that the relation between generative mechanisms and events might be discovered. To illustrate this point, Bhaskar provides a diagram distinguishing between the domains of the real, the actual, and the empirical:[30]

    Domain of Real Domain of Actual Domain of Empirical
    Table 1

    The domain of the empirical reduces events to experiences and excludes mechanisms altogether. As we saw in the case of Hume's empiricism, only sensations are given. In the domain of the actual, some events may be experiencable, yet there can be many events that we are yet to experience and even other events that are beyond the possibility of any experience. Moreover, events or actualities can be out of phase with mechanisms, objects, or things. Finally, the domain of mechanisms or the real is inclusive of both mechanisms, events, and experiences without the requirement that these categories overlap or always occur together. Thus there can be the presence of mechanisms without the presence of events or experiences, and there can be the presence of events without anyone about to experience them or anyone even capable of experiencing them. Zebras run across the savannah just fine without the aid of our gaze.

    Bhaskar drives his point home rather dramatically by claiming the condition under which experimental practice is intelligible lies in the possibility of “a world without men”.[31] Initially this thesis sounds paradoxical in that it is humans and perhaps other sentient beings that conduct experiments. However, Bhaskar's point lies elsewhere. He is not making the absurd claim that experiment requires no humans or sentient beings to conduct experiments—it does—but rather that because constant conjunctions of events ordinarily require humans or some other sentient being to produce them, because constant conjunctions of events are not the rule but the exception, and because generative mechanisms or objects are ordinarily out of phase with events or actualities, the intelligibility of our experimental activity is premised on the possibility of a world without humans where objects reside in the world unrealized and unwitnessed, and without producing certain actualities such as those we find in the experimental setting.

    Consequently, Bhaskar's thesis is radically opposed to something like Lacan's claim that the universe is the flower of rhetoric. Such a thesis is misguided on two grounds: first, this thesis conflates propositions about the world with the world itself. Yet the world requires no propositions about the world to be the world. Second, and more importantly, this thesis renders experimental activity completely incoherent because science does not begin with true propositions, but seeks to create closed systems (where possible) so as to trigger generative mechanisms and thereby produce or uncover constant conjunctions of events. Were the world the totality of true propositions or constructed by language, this activity would be most peculiar indeed as there would be no unknown generative mechanisms to uncover in the experimental setting. In other words, the intelligibility of experimental practice is premised on the ontological supposition of generative mechanisms or objects independent of that activity.

    And it is for this reason also that the condition for the intelligibility of experimental activity is the existence of objects that are intransitive or independent of mind and perception. For if objects were dependent on mind, perception, or culture, then there would be nothing to discover in the closed systems produced in the experimental setting. Consequently, not only are intransitive objects the premise of experimental activity, but the generative mechanisms discovered in experimental activity are also treated as operative in open systems once they are discovered, despite the fact that they operate in open systems in a fashion where the events they are capable of producing go unrealized because the mechanism is either dormant or countervailed by other generative mechanisms.

    Bhaskar thus argues that claims about generative mechanisms are transfactual. Experimental activity does not show that constant conjunctions of events must always be operative in open systems, but rather that where these generative mechanisms exist without producing actualities or events, they are nonetheless operative in these open systems. Bhaskar thus argues that generative mechanisms must be understood as tendencies or powers. “[T]endencies are potentialities which may be exercised or as it were 'in play' without being realized or manifest in any particular outcome”.[32] Needless to say, a tendency or power is a real feature of objects themselves, a feature of the being of objects, and not the being of objects for-us. Moreover, the distinction between generative mechanisms or objects with their tendencies or powers and events or actualities is an ontological distinction, not a distinction pertaining to our knowledge. Events are real beings or occurrences produced by generative mechanisms, and generative mechanisms are real entities with the power to produce these events. Thus the transcendental conditions Bhaskar uncovers for the intelligibility of experimental practice are thoroughly ontological and realist in character. They are features of the world itself and not the mind that regards the world.

    Already we can sense just how far we are from Kant and Hume, both of whom have influenced contemporary theory so deeply, albeit in an often subterranean fashion. Where both Kant and Hume call for an investigation of mind when raising questions of knowledge, Bhaskar calls for a philosophical investigation of the world. For Bhaskar, it is ontology that is first philosophy, not epistemology. More importantly, where both Kant and Hume treat claims about causality as claims about constant conjunctions of events, Bhaskar vigorously rejects the thesis that claims about causality are claims about constant conjunctions of events on the grounds that constant conjunctions of events are the exception rather than the rule, and instead argues that claims about causality are claims about generative mechanisms that may or may not produce certain events depending on their entanglements with other objects.

    Additionally, it will be noted that the ontology proposed by Bhaskar is immune to the charge of being a naïve realism. The charge of naïve realism is a favorite lazy rejoinder of anti-realist and correlationist styles of argument whenever encountering a defense of realism. Now, naïve realism is the thesis that the world is exactly as we perceive or experience it. It is, in short, the thesis that the qualities we perceive in an object truly belong to the object itself regardless of whether anyone perceives that object. However, it is clear that nothing could be further from Bhaskar's position. In distinguishing between generative mechanisms or objects and events or actualities, in noting the manner in which objects behave differently in open and closed systems, Bhaskar underlines the manner in which objects are withdrawn from any qualities they might happen to manifest. Put otherwise, a key feature of Bhaskar's argument is that objects or generative mechanisms cannot be equated with or reduced to their qualities. I shall have much more to say about this later when I deal with exo-relations or relations between generative mechanisms or objects, but for the moment it is sufficient to note that the ontology proposed by Bhaskar is anathema to any variant of naïve realism.


    1. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, p. 46.return to text
    2. Ibid., p. 51.return to text
    3. Ibid., p. 13.return to text
    4. Ibid., p. 34.return to text
    5. Ibid., p. 50.return to text