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Ernesto Laclau & Roy Bhaskar

Discourse Theory vs Critical Realism
This is an edited version of a debate which was held at the University of Essex in March of this year at the suggestion
of students in the Department of Sociology. Each speaker was allowed half an hour with ten minutes reply. As the tran-
script we worked from is somewhat defective, we have sometimes aimed to supply the gist rather than the literal record
of what was said. The spoken has also sometimes been altered to conform more to the canons of the written word. A
lengthy discussion which followed the debate has been omitted.

Ernesto In the third place, what we have insisted on is that the

… It is difficult to provide a direct, clear comparison pluralization of objects on which discursive practice oper-
between the theoretical approach of discourse theory and ates means that we cannot remain at a purely constative
that of critical realism. Discourse theory is something level, for the performative dimension is inherent to any lin-
which is embedded in ‘scientific’ – whatever that means – guistic operation. So that action is something which is
practice, which is the analysis of text: in the strict, narrow entirely inherent to discourse. The notion of discourse
sense of the term it is a set of methodological rules for the could, if you prefer, be replaced by that of practice. I
analysis of text. Critical realism, on the other hand, is a myself prefer to speak of discourse, for two reasons. First,
whole ontology with some kind of epistemological conse- by arriving at this point in which practice and discourse
quences. So the first thing we have to do is see how we can become almost synonymous, through the whole set of
establish a terrain on which a comparison of the two steps involving the linguistic derivation, we reveal some
approaches is possible. Now discourse theory, as it has aspects of these practical discursive structures which
been developed here in Essex, not only by myself, but by would not be evident otherwise. More frivolously, practice
a group of people working with the same type of approach, is a very neutral term, i.e. it is unlikely to provoke the
involves definitely some ontological assertions and some indignation of anybody, and concepts which don’t provoke
epistemological assertions, so I’m going to do a bit of vio- the engagement of people are necessarily boring. In order
lence to our work in order to find a terrain on which a com- to get some kind of excitement and enjoyment, I prefer the
parison is possible. term discourse.
I would say that from this more general point of view Finally, discourse theory is opposed to various forms of
there are four principles which are central to discourse the- ontology and epistemology, but the main philosophical
ory. First, there is the assumption that there is a basic approach it is opposed to is idealism. Now, while idealism
grammar within which possible objects are constituted and is a conception which presents historically a variety of fea-
that this mediates any kind of contact with reality. This tures, there are essentially two features which I regard as
grammar, which is what we call discourse, is largely central. First, the reduction of the real to thought. For
unconscious. Just as you speak your native language example, if I am asserting in an old realist way that there
before you learn its grammar and the task of the grammar- is an equation between thought and the thing, what I am
ian is to bring out the immanent grammatical structure saying is that there is a basic identity between thought and
which constitutes that language, so the task of the dis- thing, and this reduction of the material elements to some-
course analyst is to explore the immanent grammars which thing which is ultimately the universal form is exactly the
underlie all kinds of meaningful intervention. essence of all idealism. Now, insofar as discourse analysis
In the second place, by discourse we should not under- sustains the irreducibility of the real to discourse, it tries to
stand simply speech and writing, i.e. there is nothing specif- break from this point of view with the idealist tradition.
ically linguistic about it. The notion of language has been The second aspect is that if idealism means something, it
submitted to sustained critique over the last thirty years and means the unity of the mind, the unity of the subject; that
as a result the specificity of an object which was called lan- is to say, the unity of apperception, of the ‘I’ which accom-
guage in the strict sense has largely dissipated, and language panies all my representations – this is something which
on the other hand is a dimension which constitutes any pos- belongs to the essence of idealism. Now, it’s precisely the
sible experience. For instance, Wittgenstein’s notion of a category of the subject which is put under threat by dis-
language game is not involved only in a linguistic dimen- course theory, because there is a plurality of subject for-
sion; it is a combination of linguistic elements and the action mation which cannot be reduced to any single unit.
in which these elements are embedded, and the resulting If I present the argument in these terms, what are the
totality of words and actions is what he called a language points of convergence and divergence with critical real-
game. This is precisely what we call discourse. This ism? I think there are two basic points of convergence. The
enlargement of the notion of discourse is largely a result of first is the critique of empiricism, that is to say the analy-
the increasing formalization of structural linguistics, a sis according to which the problem of induction and the
process whereby linguistic structures have become less and problem of what has been called transduction are irresolv-
less dependent on the materiality, the ‘substance’, of speech able for it; the reduction of ontology to epistemology in the
and writing. And it is in this sense that discourse is a rela- end begs the whole question. The second lies in what we
tional system which can be applied to any possible object. call the transcendental term; that is to say, we are dealing
with a transcendental realism, not with any kind of direct subject. In some sense the conditions of possibility of sci-
ontological realism. Here, however, is where my difficulty ence are there from the very beginning. Now let’s suppose
with some of the positions of critical realism starts, that I ask, what are the conditions of possibility for astrolo-
because the way in which the transcendental is understood gy, which is also a factum? Why am I going to accept a dis-
creates for me immediately some problems. course of physics instead of a discourse of astrology? Now
I would say that the main bone of contention between a I can immediately establish the conditions of possibility of
discourse theorist and a critical realist, beyond all the astrology in a set of ontological considerations about the
agreement, is the distinction between the transitivity and way in which the world has to be for astrology to be possi-
intransitivity of objects. I have no quarrel with the notion ble. But why this discourse is not accepted is not because it
of transitivity, if that would differentiate critical realism is incoherent in itself, it is simply because our experience is
from any naïve theory about the direct apprehension of the organized in a set of discursive sequences which are incom-
object in thought; rather with the concept of intransitivity. patible with the presuppositions of this ontology. In the
Some problems that emerge for me are the following. same way, scientific discourses in the contemporary sense
Firstly, the intransitivitiy of objects in the work of Roy is of the term are much more credible because they are able to
alluded to rather than ultimately defined, or he even speaks hegemonize a field of experience which is much wider than
of structure, about generative mechanisms, causal powers, the discourse of astrology, but these discourses are all the
and so on. But obviously these are not synonymous, each time changing. For instance, let’s suppose for the sake of
of them has specific theoretical consequences, and the the- argument that I can falsify a scientific prediction on the
oretical consequences have not been entirely worked out. basis of a factual observation. What this factual sequence
So what about the transcendental term and its relation to is, is a set of other discourses in which facts are constitut-
the intransitivity of the object? In the first place, the non- ed. The point is that the plurality of these discourses is not
transcendental solution is excluded by critical realism. unified, anchored in a coherent whole; there is no unity of
That is to say, well OK, all my representations are variable science as conceived within logical positivism. Scientific
approximations and so on and so forth, but there is some- discourses, as critical realism accepts, are changing all the
thing, which is the intransitivity of the object, which is time, and there is no way of anchoring the change in some-
there and which has a structure of its own which I can’t thing that is beyond this world of discursive variation. This
determine at least a priori and in some basic dimensions. is not relativism, because the plurality of discourses consti-
This would be a dogmatic approach, because why exclude tuting or organizing my experience is a plurality which is
from the transitive variation this object which is beyond simply the elaboration of my relation to the world, it is not
the realm of transitivity? But the argument Roy’s present- a mental product, discourses are simply anchoring institu-
ing obviously is not that, it’s not the dogmatic argument, tions organizing a set of experiences, and in a sense mean-
it’s an argument which passes through transcendentality. ing is the most material of the dimensions of reality. On the
The question he’s trying to ask is how the world has to be other hand, the world that is organized in this way is only
if science is going to be possible. That is to say, he takes one of the possible ones, the world of science is constituted
from Kantian transcendentalism the more general form of on the basis of eliminating a variety of dimensions in the
a transcendental argument, although he does not follow object. Now, this intransitivity of objects which is supposed
Kant all the way through. to be behind all experience as the ground of all the regular-
Now it is the factual character of science that for me is ities in experience is simply one more discourse which can-
at stake, for Kant is clear that the factum of knowledge was not be conceded to be different in quality from the dis-
not put into question and once the factum of knowledge courses which are seen as transitive. I would accept the
was there, the problem was how to establish the conditions hypotheses of critical realism, but I would integrate this
of possibility of that which existed, how synthetic a priori notion of the intransitivity of the object as one more dis-
arguments are possible in physics and mathematics. (The cursive element, so that the intransitivity of the object is in
factum of morality was also the starting point for the sec- itself transitivity.
ond Critique.) This presents for me a set of problems. In Let me say something about social theory. In the first
the first place, to what extent can science as a factum be place, I see critical realism, not as something that dis-
there as a totality in which there is no plurality of scientif- course theory would reject entirely, but as one of the pos-
ic discourses each of which have conditions of possibility sibilities for discursively constructing the real. However,
which are very differentiated between themselves? To these possibilities are, I think, much wider than what criti-
what extent can we work with this notion of science as a cal realism accepts as some sort of final ontology. For
total unified code? instance, if we pass to the social world and a problem like
Secondly, the question which I don’t think is asked here the limits of naturalism which has been central in the dis-
is whether science is possible in its own terms. What if we cussions of critical realism, it is not at all a problem that
adopted, for instance, a pragmatist or a conventionalist could have been posed in those terms in discourse theory.
view – which is not exactly my position – and said, ‘Well, For naturalism is some form of discursive constitution of
our discourse – the scientific discourses – is not something the object, which in this sense refers to a deeper possibili-
that is anchored in anything that is the object in itself.’ For ty which is the discursive field constituting the basic gram-
instance, Husserl was trying to put the conditions of possi- mar of society. In the same way, problems such as holism
bility of scientific activity by inscribing it within the whole and individualism are problems which are going to be put
life world and the whole experience of the transcendental in different ways by critical realism and by discourse the-
ory. I share with critical realism the rejection of method- we’re vulnerable to your attacks on that ground.
ological individualism and the holistic approach to the Secondly, I quite agree with what you say about totali-
social, but I would say that this social whole, this structur- ties, but it is one of the themes of critical realism that total-
al whole which constitutes society, is by definition incom- ities must be open, do you know. We’re entirely against
plete, and this incompletion gives place to a set of prac- any premature closure of social reality. Social totalities, all
tices by which the unity that society is unable to reach at totalities, are open, and the myth of a closed totality, a
the level of the structural is going to be reconstituted at the closed system, is an empiricist idealist ideology, there is no
level of the imaginary. One of the basic assertions of dis- such thing. And I like your remarks that totality is a hori-
course theory is that totality is not a ground but a horizon zon, not a ground, except that I also want grounds; so there
in the phenomenological sense. It is through this necessary are aspects of totality that can be totalities recursively
incompletion of the social whole that I would approach the embedded within other totalities, and one totality can func-
problem of agency and structure. It cannot be solved via tion as a ground for another. But the fundamental thing that
the universalization of either of these two categories, nor is totalities are open – absolutely correct.
it going to be solved via any kind of easy structuration So on the question of totality, but not of absence and neg-
which puts together things which are conceptually com- ativity, I’m completely at one with where Ernesto wants to
patible. It is going to be solved only if we accept that the go. If he wants to talk about the negative, that’s fine. I think
problem of incompatibility between agency and structure the social world is structured around concepts of contradic-
is not a problem of our theory but a problem inscribed in tion, absence, dialectic. I think Hegel did a tremendous dis-
social reality itself. service to the dialectic in his actual practice. He is ontolog-
Finally, I would like to say a few words about the ques- ically monovalent. This was one of Marx’s great insights
tion which for us as discourse theorists is essential, which and also of course of Left Hegelianism, that you can’t do
is the question of negativity and antagonism. I don’t see that sort of conjuring trick on reality, the world. There are
exactly with what conception of antagonism – something four terms of the critical realist dialectic – you remember,
which is negative in itself and which cannot be retrieved by the Hegelian dialectic has the terms of identity, negativity
any form of positivity – a naturalistic conception of the and totality. In the critical realist dialectic we have the con-
social could work. However, I could see, for instance, cepts of non-identity (I’m going to take you up on what you
Hegelian dialectics as one way of reducing the disruptive said about transitivity and intransitivity) – non-identity
character of the negative to a certain principle of unity between beings and things, between causal laws and con-
because the dialectical movement operates only in one way stant conjunctions of events, between structures and events,
and any contingency is eliminated from this. So for us between the real and the actual, and the actual and the
antagonism, for reasons I have presented elsewhere, is con- empirical, between the positive and the negative. This is a
stitutive of the social, not as the result of empirical reason constant refrain, a critical refrain in critical realism. The
but for formal logical reasons. Social totality, being neces- second moment of negativity we’ve already discussed. This
sary, cannot however constitute itself. In this sense, the is the crucial one, in terms of the ontological power of
basic argument that I have presented is that antagonism is absence over presence, because this is due to the nature of
not something internal to society but is actually the moment the negative. The third moment is totality, which we’ve
in which social objectivity finds its ultimate limit. Now, I seen is open. The fourth moment, which is completely lack-
don’t see that critical realism at this point has developed a ing in Hegelian dialectic, or at the end is lacking, is trans-
notion of antagonism and negativity, but anyway it is some- formative practice. Transformative practice will ensure that
thing about which I would like to have the response of Roy, history never comes to an end. Even if we succeed in blow-
as to the many other issues that I covered. ing up the planet, there will be some kind of processes
going on at the end.
Roy So much for the two points, that I don’t think should be
Basically I had prepared a talk, but I’m going to construct in dispute between us, about totality and negativity. I think
my remarks around Ernesto’s. As far as I could see, there are matters of substance in relation to ontology. Now
Ernesto talked about three main topics, the first ontology, what is ontology? Ontology is the theory of being. Now a
he brought up some nice distinctions, the second about the whole tradition in Western philosophy has tried to reduce
nature of social theory, and the third about negativity. And being to knowledge, to epistemology, and I think from
I think the third point is just – if you’ll pardon me saying Ernesto’s remarks he’s against this tradition. So he actually
so, Ernesto – wrong. I’ve written two very big books, does want an ontology. Now what I think is absolutely cru-
Dialectic and Plato Etc, which are concerned precisely to cial is that this tradition – the basic form of Western phi-
hammer away at what I think is the fundamental failing of losophy – was anthropocentric. To get away from this
Western philosophy, which is to give only a positive anthropocentricity is one of my motivations in actually try-
account of being, a thesis I call ontological monovalence, ing to thematize the character of extra-discursive reality.
and I assert the priority of negativity, the priority of I’m making things very simple before we get onto tran-
absence over presence, and I define dialectic in terms of scendental arguments, but we believe in the possibility and
absence… I think this is one of the strongest points of that actuality of a world without human beings, and therefore
development of critical realism over the last couple of without discourse. What critical realism says is that we can
years, dialectical critical realism. It does mark a break actually say something about the general character of that
from the first phase of development, but I don’t think world, we can say that it must be structured, differentiated,
open, governed by laws which are transfactual, constituted that it’s governed by transfactual laws, that is by tenden-
by its own kind of contradictions and antagonisms, and cies, that there are a multiplicity of mechanisms and struc-
without reason, intelligibility or discursive practice. How tures at work, that the world is constituted by open sys-
can we say all this? By transcendental arguments. Ernesto tems, some of which are internally related to others, that
says there’s an extra-discursive reality, we agree about that. discourse is a case of an efficacious mechanism which
Critical realism says that extra-discursive reality has a cer- operates on the world and is embedded in the world, and
tain shape, and that it’s very important to get its shape right. the world impacts on discourse – this is perhaps another
If you get it wrong, this is going to be implicitly secreted point that we want to discuss more finely later. But I would
into your theory of knowledge. An example of this can be say that the initial premises of transcendental realism from
given from Habermas. Habermas doesn’t believe in ontol- experimental activity were really to generate a critique of
ogy at all, and he doesn’t believe in positivism in respect of empiricism on its strongest grounds, and I think that cri-
the human sciences, yet in his account of instrumental rea- tique is invincible and provides an adequate account of the
son he assumes that the natural world is structured by con- experimental natural sciences. You could just stop there
stant conjunctions of events, and that causal laws can be and say, ‘Well, now we know what physicists and chemists
reduced to empirical regularities but that explanation in nat- assume about the world, we can make a more interesting
ural science proceeds by deductive subsumption. And all contrast with the conditions of social science or of geolo-
these things are false, not just for science, but actually onto- gy or biology, where they can’t do experiments.’ That’s
logically false for the character of the world. interesting enough in itself, but what I’m suggesting is that
Ernesto is going to say to me, ‘Well, what you’re doing when you argue from a transcendental premise you are
in your transcendental argument must be based on certain arguing from something you have to believe. Undoubtedly,
premises, what are your premises?’ This is where the criti- all transcendental arguments are going to be relativized to
cal points become very important. I took as my initial a premise, and I agree with Ernesto that in principle there’s
premises experimental activity because there was a whole an infinite number of premises, there’s an infinite number
ideology of science – the empiricist ideology – which says of practices. Experimentation of the classical sort is impos-
that experimentation is the most important thing in science sible in the domains of the very minute (quantum mechan-
and that the one reason why we can’t do social science is ics) and of the very large. So we could argue from some
because we can’t do experiments. It is a fact that the natur- other aspect of scientific activity. So it’s all going to be rel-
al sciences, some natural sciences, can conduct experi- ativized to some form of activity, but then your practice in
ments and they do attribute value to what they discover in the world is going to implicitly assume a certain ontology.
experiments, so it’s a reasonable move polemically and Let’s take the case of Hume. Hume says we have no better
critically to argue against empiricism that they’ve got their grounds for going out of the second floor door than the
analysis of what the world must be like for experiments to second floor window. Isn’t that absurd? In our practice we
be possible wrong. Do I need to go through the analysis? It do – we must – make some sort of commitment. We may
is basically that, in an experimental natural science the sci- make it on the belief that Newton’s theory of gravity is
entist sets up an artificially closed system; her artificial right, or we may make it on some other more recondite
activity is necessary to gain an invariant conjunction, an belief, but that’s how we actually do act.
empirical regularity – outside these closed systems we That’s the first line of defence. If you don’t want to use
don’t get such regularities. The significance of this activity transcendental arguments to establish the general shape of
is that what happens inside the experiment gives the scien- the world from experimental and applied scientific activi-
tist epistemic access to what happens outside it and what ty as then possible in the experimental natural sciences,
would happen outside it if the experiment hadn’t been then you have to do so from some other, equally sound
done. Let me give you an example. The law of gravity is premise to act at all, to engage in any discursive practice.
tending to pull us down from the sixth floor of this building My second argument is that the shape of ontology that the
to the ground floor. This law is operating irrespective of the experimental natural sciences presuppose is entirely con-
fact that countervailing forces are preventing it being man- tinuous with what we can establish by transcendental argu-
ifest. It is part of a correct scientific description of the situ- ments from very simple, mundane activities in the other
ation. So we have a certain shape to the world, a certain sciences, in the arts, in everyday life.
shape for ontology is presupposed by experimental physics What, then, of transcendental realism’s assertion of the
and chemistry. Is this position and presupposition that we existence of an extra-discursive reality, given that we have
are intervening in nature and that nature has it’s own struc- discourses? Of course, in discussing the general shape of
tures and transfactual character so unfamiliar to us? If, for the world, the general kind of ontology, the character of
example, we make a cup of tea and put some sugar in the ontology, the content of ontology, I’m polemicizing
tea, we expect it to dissolve; if it doesn’t dissolve, we against Kant as much as anyone else. You remember Kant
assume there must be something in that tea which is pre- said that we constitute a phenomenal world, but there is of
venting the sugar from dissolving, or the sugar must have course a real noumenal world behind that. I think in a way
some impurity. So it’s not in fact all that arbitrary, I would there’s a tendency within Ernesto to want to say that we
argue, you can move from experimentation in physics and constitute a phenomenal world in our discourses, but of
chemistry through to ordinary practices and see that they course we’re not denying that outside those discourses
also presuppose the same general character of the world. there is something to which they can ultimately be
I would make certain claims that the world is structured, referred. I’m saying the character of this world can be
known, it can be known by transcendental argument, rela- Ernesto
tivized always to the conditions of possibility of some We need a philosophical ontology, I absolutely agree. The
social practice. So we can’t have philosophy unless we point is, What is this philosophical ontology? For me, it is
also have discursive practices, but philosophy can tell us exactly everything which is constituted within discourse…
what the world would be like even if we didn’t have dis- It is the level of constitution of any objectivity. In the case
cursive practices. But what can philosophy tell us about a of natural science, which has precise conditions of possi-
world in which we do have discursive practices? bility, these go back to a more basic ontology, which is
This is where we come up against a dualism which is very what I call discourse (scientists would say scientific prac-
familiar to philosophy, a whole set of dualisms: between tice), and that it is able to constitute its object on the basis
mind and body, reasons and causes, the intelligible and the of regularities depends on sedimented social practices and
purely natural. I get a feeling – and I may be wrong – that a variety of discourses, and the constitution of its objects
part of the thrust of discourse analysis is falling in line with has discursive conditions of possibility which comes
this dualism. What would discourse analysis be like if I was before.
wrong? We would have to say that discourses, discursive Regarding your second point, I don’t accept such a dis-
practices, are in continual causal interaction with the mater- tinction between the discursive and the extra-discursive.
ial world. That ideas are causally efficacious on the world, You ask what is the effect of discourse on the external
practices are causally efficacious on the world, and that the world, well, for me the external world is also discursively
world itself is causally efficacious on practices – we can see constituted, not in the sense that it’s constituted by the
the effect that global warming is having on our social prac- mind of men, but in the sense that any kind of practice is
tices, we can see the effect of years of neglect of the London embedded in the elaboration of the linguistic world. This
transport system on social practices in London. Nature has a involves at the same time interaction between subject and
recoil, and I would argue that it is impossible to get at rea- object, for if I’m going there and I open the door, on the
sons irrespective of their material efficacy. Let me take one hand I want to open the door, on the other this forces
someone – Bill, will you hold up your hand? What has hap- me to a material act, which is to open the door. The per-
pened here is that I’ve given Bill a reason for doing some- formance of that act is what I call discourse; it is not that
thing, I did it in virtue of my material effect on the world in discourse produces some kind of material effect, but that
issuing a sequence of sounds, Bill understood me hermeneu- the material act of producing it is what discourse is. That
tically and held up his hand; and that effected a change in is why, at the beginning, I insisted that the performative
the material world. I think that unless you allow that reasons dimension is inherent in the discursive operation – it is not
are causes and that mind and body do interact – that society something that is added to it – and that is why I said that
and discursive practices are embedded in nature and the finally discourse and practice are a single category.
biosphere – we end up with a philosophical dualism that is Obviously all practice, scientific or not, is based on some
totally unacceptable. I’m not saying Ernesto does this, but assumptions about the world. These assumptions can be per-
that I feel it’s a tendency in his work and perhaps we’ll reach fectly contradictory. For example, in legal practice, we
a point of agreement before the evening is out. assume that punishment requires a free legal agent, that it was
So instead of giving a long spiel about critical realism discussed with the agent who is responsible in committing
and discourse analysis, I’ve really just responded to some act or not. On the other hand, in scientific discourse we
Ernesto’s points. I’d just like to re-emphasize, first, that believe in universal determinism. These two responses oper-
we need to know something about the general character ate with assumptions about human beings which are totally at
of the world, we need to have a philosophical ontology, variance with each other, and there is no guarantee that there
and the character of that ontology is crucially important is some kind of unity that is going to put all these practices
for social practice as well as social theory. Secondly, together. That is why I think any kind of practice, whether sci-
where exactly do Ernesto and discourse analysis stand in entific or not, has to pass through the treadmill of making
relation to the causal interactions between discursive itself credible in front of a variety of other practices. I can eas-
practices or reasons and extra-discursive realities? I ily construct a perfectly coherent discourse which has
accept of course that all extra-discursive realities are assumptions about the world – an implicit ontology and so on
constituted within discursive practice, from the point of – but this discourse is not going to be accepted because it is
view of their intelligibility. But that’s not to say that coherent in its own terms, it’s not going to be accepted
they’re constituted in discursive practice from the point because it clashes with many other discursive sequences
of view of their causal impact. We can assume that glob- which organize our world. So in this sense any kind of scien-
al warming went on long before we had the concept of it, tific practice, I would say, would have to be hegemonic, that
and this is true. We come to the concept of most diseases is to say, it has to be proved in front of a tribunal which is con-
long after they have had their causal impact. So where stituted by a variety of other practices. My objection from this
does he stand on the causal interaction between discur- point of view to the notion of the intransitivity of the object is
sive practices and things which are not at the moment not that I don’t believe that it is important for organizing our
discursively cognized or things which are clearly extra- practices, but the point is that, if you say about the intransi-
discursive or things which are part of a material world or tivity and transitivity of an object a set of things, these things
things over which we have no material control like the are said on the basis of assumptions which are themselves
cosmos? It’s on these two points that we’ve honed down challengeable, and in this sense: the very distinction between
a nice difference. intransitivity and transitivity is itself transitive.
Roy Roy
I think this is very interesting. I would like to make a series …you admit that it is existentially intransitive with respect
of distinctions between philosophical ontology and scien- to discourse, but you then want to take it back to the level
tific ontology, and between ontology and being. Now the of the signifier or signified and say that this object only
subject matter of ontology has to be broadly conceived to exists in my discursive constructions. In other words, you
include absence as well as presence, totality, internal rela- are contradicting yourself to say, ‘Here, that thing has a
tionality, reasons, causes, whatever you like. Everything reference independently of human beings’, but at the same
has being, and some things have being or exist quite inde- time you are not having a rigorous enough concept of ref-
pendently of their constitution in scientific or philosophi- erence, you are pulling the referent back to the level of the
cal discourse, and there’s a distinction between these two. transitive, to its constitution in discourse.
Once you accept that, it opens up the possibility of saying Ernesto
how the general character of the world is, and you can use My quarrel with you is not that.
what you establish on the basis of a transcendental argu- Roy
ment which is credible for you. Astrology obviously isn’t Now, I would want to extend the category of reference to
credible for you. Concerning your example of universal include causal laws, the general structure of causality, to
determinism and free will, I think the two are actually include what I call transfactual efficacy –
compatible, but I’ve argued that elsewhere so won’t go Ernesto
into it now. There I would not agree.
What is the argument for ontology? The most basic argu- Roy
ment is referential detachment. To refer to something, to All right, so you just want to enclose things. I would
say anything about the world, I must detach myself from extend the category of reference so it would include open
that to which I refer. This is a function of all agency, all totality, I would extend it to include absences, I would
desire. If I desire water, I must detach the water from the extend it to include that aspiration to freedom which I
desiring subject, this is the referent of my act of desire. Are think is implicit in our most elemental desires. So I want
you saying that no referents exist independently of their to make a huge claim for the intransitive dimension. I
discursive constitution? If you are, I can’t agree with you. want to say that everything that I say about it is of course
The world fifteen million years ago or the planet earth fif- constituted in my discourse now, but that is at the level of
teen million years ago existed independently of its discur- the signifier and signified; at the level of the referent it
sive constitution. either is or is not the case, or perhaps possibly is the case.
Ernesto We can give any epistemic value to that, but ontological-
No quarrel. ly, either the earth had a certain shape fifteen million years
Roy ago which is in some way captured in my discourse or it
No quarrel, OK. This is a point where you may quarrel. didn’t, or it didn’t exist.
Did global warming exist prior to its discursive constitu- I think what is absolutely crucial, and what a lot of
tion? Did cancer exist before it was identified and discov- poststructuralist theory doesn’t do, is to articulate the
ered as a particular form of disease? concept of what I call the semiotic triangle (not a con-
Ernesto cept unique to myself), that is to say, clearly distinguish
I’m not saying that global warming did not exist indepen- the word, the signifier or the sentence, and its meaning
dently of the discourse which called it global warming, or the signified, on the one hand, from the referent, on
because that would be absurd. What I’m saying is that the other. And whether the referent exists or not is an
global warming is a way of classifying something which is interesting question, and it is not determined by the con-
there with… stitution in the transitive dimension of science of the
[End of tape 1] signifier or signified.

A version of an IACR logo designed by the editor appears on the cover of this issue; some other permutations are
published below. It is based on Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectic, Figure 2.19 Natural Absences, Hidden Depths (p.146). It
could readily be adapted for use by the CCR by a switch of acronym. It has been submitted to the Board of Trustees
who are due to consider it as we go to press.