The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive

[On 25 November 2001, the following summary was posted to the politicsandspiritnetwork group, "a forum to develop the growing movement to unite visionary new political and spiritual thinking--through discussion, debate, brainstorming ideas and projects, networking and publicising events." The message, which has been lightly edited (e.g., book titles and words set off with asterisks or underscores have been italicized, some prefatory matter has been snipped, etc.), is archived here with the permission of the author, who retains the copyright.]

Summary of Roy Bhaskar's From East to West


Here is my summary of the main propositions of Bhaskar's From East to West (Routledge, 2000). I've tried to keep it simple. I've made no attempt for the most part to set out the supporting philosophical arguments. (A more complex account is available in my article 'New Left, New Age, New Paradigm? Roy Bhaskar's From East to West', Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 31:2, June 2002.)

1. The human being is essentially God, or Godlike.

I take this to mean that people, like everything else in the pluriverse, are emergent (developing) forms of God. The whole expanding pluriverse is (becoming) the material embodiment of God. God, the absolute, comes to self-realisation in and through the relative world of human and other being.

God is not a person with a white beard squatting outside the pluriverse. God is rather immanent in the world as the fundamental causal processes and structuring principles of nature--the 'cosmic envelope' or 'open absent totality' which promotes, sustains and orders the whole.

Science and religion are thus fundamentally united in that they are ultimately concerned with the same thing. Even agnostics and atheists can accept that, if that is what God is, science is ultimately concerned with God.

Such a conception also enables a concept of the unity of all religions. The different religions and deities are all so many manifestations, in the zone of relative (ephemeral) being, of the absolute and eternal which is God.

Bhaskar's system is thus a (stratified, 'polyvalent' or plural) monism rather than dualism. There are not two completely different kinds of thing in the cosmos, spirit or mind and matter, the ideal and the material; rather, they are ultimately enfolded in the one stuff ('Godstuff').

The human being's essential nature or dharma is to realise God, both in their inner lives and in outer love and solidarity with all other humans and beings. This means that they are both essentially one or united as a species and with the rest of the pluriverse; essentially creative; oriented to being, not having or "attachment"; enlightened, not ignorant; disposed to engage in "spontaneous right action"; and, above all, free. The human destiny is to live in an 'enchanted' world of non-alienation and oneness or connectedness with the totality of being (cf the secular vision of Rousseau, Marx).

2. Human beings have, however, forgotten that they are essentially God ('disenchantment').

It was necessary that this should happen in order for them to become self-consciously aware of their true nature as forms of God coming to self-realisation: "there could be no enlightenment without avidya [ignorance and superficiality] and . . . if we are already enlightened, no recognition or realisation of it without a prior forgetting (or fall)". Compare attempts to create artificial intelligence: it is clear that to have any hope of succeeding, the machine must be free to make mistakes (must have free will).

So, with the evolutionary emergence of the specifically human being, after an initial period of enchantment and oneness with God (Eden; pre- class society) people started to make mistakes and fall into error. Their two most momentous mistakes ('category mistakes') have been, first to define ontology (being) in terms of human knowledge and means of knowing (the 'epistemic fallacy'); and second to give a purely positive and 'monovalent', rather than negative and 'polyvalent', account of being. The most fundamental moves in the Bhaskarian system are therefore the revindication of ontology (the study of which has had a bad press from the modern (bourgeois) Enlightenment), and the elaboration of an adequate concept of absence.

These mistakes, and human activities in accordance with them, have compounded and concatenated to form a distinct zone of relative being --the 'demi-real' (within which we all now live our lives). The demi-real has two interrelated dimensions. First, and the more fundamental, a web of maya, 'structural sin', or ideological illusion. Thus we have the illusion that we are actually free, when in fact we are (wage-) slaves; or that we are separate atomised selves when objectively we are interconnected. This is the cumulative historical result of leading our lives based on fundamental human error. Second, oppressive and exploitative social structures (class, gender, ethnicity etc.), which Bhaskar refers to as 'master-slave-type relations'.

Together these constitute evil, i.e. evil is human error or forgetting of God and its cumulative consequences. The ignorance produced by such error has led to "attachment", i.e. on the one hand an ethic of having or desiring more and more (materialism, instrumental rationality), instead of being, and aversion or fear of realising our human possibilities and acting on higher froms of reason and insight than instrumental reason.

Evil is, however, entirely parasitic upon our essential natures, existing only as "a dislocation of good, a warp". Society's erroneous and internally contradictory structure of ideas depends on "a real deeper realist one" which it, on the one hand, functions to mask or occlude, and, on the other, presupposes and tacitly acknowledges.

3. 'All' we have to do, therefore, to achieve the good society (eudaimonia) is 'shed' or 'let go' of structural sin, like butterflies emerging from a crysalis, and act in accordance with our essential natures or selves (self-realisation, re-enchantment).

However, we'll have to work very hard at it! For this, Bhaskar prescribes two fundamental dialectics. First, the dialectics of 'inaction' (of abstaining from doing in order to be)--prayer and meditation, 'witnessing-in-activity', etc (inner commitment). Second, the dialectics of action (outer commitment and solidarity). Here the fundamental dialectic is 'the dialectic of desire to freedom', eventually transmuting into freedom from desire. Its drive is towards a society in which "the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all", which entails the abolition of "generalised master-slave-type relations" in their entirety. Its twin motors are, first, desire to absent constraints on human flourishing, and second, the logic of dialectical universalisability, whereby we come to see that it is in the interest of the flourishing of each and all to end the suffering of all dialectically similar beings.

The ultimate driving force of these dialectics is unconditional love of our essential Selves and those of every other being and God-- "conditional love just is (or implies) attachment". Love and solidarity is the essence of liberated humanity.

Today humanity stands on a precipice. "Dominant Western accounts of society and knowledge, and more especially the demi-real . . . categorial structures which inform them, threaten the survival of . . . the planet". Eudaimonia is thus "a condition of planetary survival". Western civilisation is in decline, and Western thought, with its characteristic emphases on "action and presence", is in crisis. This has, however, produced four progressive turns in thought over the last few centuries: reflexive (self-referential); processual (red); ontological (realist); and holistic (green). Together with an input from East, with its characteristic emphases on "absence and inaction" (negativity and 'being'), these have made the new philosophical synthesis--"the philosophy of universal self-realisation"--possible. But the Owl of Minerva, as ever, is taking flight only at dusk, and this time it could well be "the final falling of the dusk"--unless we act to end the mad demi-real dialectic of having and possessing through a revolution 'far more profound than perhaps any of us can perhaps imagine', and the species leaves the world of Bush and Blair (and Bin Laden) behind and moves to a far higher plane of loving and being. All change begins with self-change i.e. realising who we are and what we can do.

Many of these ideas are not new. As I have said I was struck by their similarity to those presented by Michael Lerner, which have been echoed by others on this list. Bhaskar's real originality is to have developed them in the context of a powerfully argued and coherent philosophical system. His thought belongs squarely, not within the modern bourgeois Enlightenment, which it sharply critiques, but within the older tradition of dialectical and spiritual Enlightenment going back to Plato, Aristotle and the major world religions. In Bhaskar's hands, this tradition 'overreaches' the modern Enlightenment, embracing important aspects of it.

His system stresses, first, the openness, plurality and 'depth' of the world, and the primacy of the possible over the actual. Second, the ontological primacy of the negative (absence) over the positive (presence) and the crucial role of (non-logical) creativity, intuition or transcendence in human thought. Third, the relationality, connectivity, and processuality of the world-- together with the holistic and "quantised" conception of causality necessary to apprehend them in thought. Fourth, our alienation from the greater whole (Totality) of which we are a part, and our potential to overcome it.

Bhaskar is under no illusion that the intellectual battle is everything in the struggle for eudaimonia, seeing it rather as just one essential dimension of that struggle. He aspires to generate a worldview fitting for a global eudaimonistic civilisation--"to produce for everyone now a total philosophy for the whole of their (i.e. everyone's) being".

Copyright © 2001 Mervyn Hartwig

The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive