A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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If Bhaskar refers to this form of argument as the “epistemic fallacy”, then this is because, in his view, it renders our actual engagement with the world incoherent. In other words, for Bhaskar we are unable to make sense of our actual praxis in seeking knowledge if we dissolve questions of ontology into questions of epistemology. I’ll get to how this might be so in a moment, but the first point to note is that Bhaskar’s point is not that epistemology as such is a fallacy. In short, Bhaskar is not claiming that we should abandon epistemological questions or questions of how we know. Indeed, Bhaskar pitches A Realist Theory of Science as an epistemological inquiry. As he writes in the first chapter,

Any adequate philosophy of science must find a way of grappling with this central paradox of science: that men in their social activity produce knowledge which is a social product much like any other, which is no more independent of its production and the men who produce it than motor cars, armchairs or books, which has its own craftsmen, technicians, publicists, standards and skills and which is no less subject to change than any other commodity. This is one side of ‘knowledge’. The other is that knowledge is ‘of‘ things which are not produced by men at all: the specific gravity of mercury, the process of electrolysis, the mechanism of light propogation. None of these ‘objects of knowledge’ depend on human activity. If men ceased to exist sound would continue to travel and heavy bodies fall to the earth in exactly the same way, though ex hypothesi there would be no-one to know it. Let us call these, in an unavoidable technical neologism, the intransitive objects of knowledge. The transitive objects of knowledge are Aristotlean material causes. (21)

The central nut that Bhaskar’s theory of knowledge seeks to crack is how knowledge can be socially produced (the transitive dimension), while nonetheless delivering us to intransitive or human independent objects that exist in their own right. It is the second of these claims, of course, that is controversial within the framework of contemporary philosophy. While the reigning anti-realisms are more than happy to argue that our knowledge is socially or mentally constructed, the thesis that the objects, things, or entities that our social or mental constructions deliver to us are real or intransitive to that knowledge, that they are independent of the social and the mental, is understood to be the height of dogmatism. Here it is important to note that anti-realisms are not being accused of Berkeleyian idealism or the thesis that mind creates reality without remainder. Most anti-realists are more than happy to hold, as did Kant, that there is a mind-independent reality. Rather, the anti-realist thesis tends to be more nuanced. The point is not that this mind-independent reality doesn’t exist, but that we can never have any access to that reality. Rather, we must be content with treating ontological claims in terms of what being is for-us, remaining agnostic as to whether reality itself is “like this” independent of us or our social practices.

Bhaskar’s thesis is that when epistemology makes this move our practice becomes incoherent. If the epistemic fallacy is, according to Bhaskar, a fallacy, then this is because 1) questions of ontology cannot be reduced to questions of access or epistemology, and 2) we cannot dispense with a realist ontology if our theory of knowledge is to be coherent. The fallacy then consists in the thesis, often implicit or assumed, that ontology can be dissolved in epistemology. Not only will Bhaskar argue that daily practice and science become incoherent under this model, but he will also argue that this thesis undermines the possibility of emancipatory politics.

The reference to our actual practice should clue us in to the point that Bhaskar’s argument for ontological realism is transcendental. It will be recalled that, roughly and crudely, a transcendental argument proceeds by asking “under what conditions is such and such a particular practice or form of cognition possible?” Thus, for example, Habermas’ theory of communicative action asks “what does communication presuppose in order to be possible?” and proceeds to deduce the norms governing communication between two or more people. Similarly Kant, accepting Hume’s arguments that we cannot ground causality based on sensation and association, notes that we nonetheless do make causal judgments, and therefore proceeds to inquire as to the conditions under which these judgments are possible. If these judgments can’t be grounded in sensation, yet we nonetheless make them, then it follows, according to Kant, that we must have an a priori category in the mind that the mind imposes on the flux of sensation, contributing the judgment of necessity. Generally transcendental arguments take the form of tracing conditions of possibility back to mind or society. The Kantian revolution consisted in analyzing our cognition of objects, rather than objects themselves. The price he paid was that we must now reject knowledge of things-in-themselves as we have duly restricted ourselves to our cognition of objects. In other words, we can never know whether things-in-themselves possess these causal relations.

Now what makes Bhaskar’s transcendental argument so delicious is that he inverts the nature of transcendental arguments. Where transcendental arguments tend to trace the transcendental conditions of possibility back to mind or some variant of the social and proceed based on the question “what must our cognition be like for this sort of experience to be possible?” or “what must language be like for this form of experience to be possible?” or “what must society be like for this form of experience to be possible?”, Bhaskar instead asks “what must the world be like for science and our daily practice to be possible?”

If we cannot imagine a science without transitive objects, can we imagine a science without intransitive ones? If the answer to this question is ‘no’, then a philosophical study of the intransitive objects of science becomes possible. The answer to the transcendental question ‘what must the world be like for science to be possible?’ deserves the name ontology. And in showing that the objects of science are intransitive (in this sense) and of a certain kind, viz. structures not events, it is my intention to furnish the new philosophy of science with an ontology. The parallel question ‘what must science be like to give us knowledge of parallel question ‘what must science be like to give us knowledge of intransitive objects (of this kind)?’ is not a petitio principii of the ontological question, because the intelligibility of the scientific activities of perception and experimentation already entails the intransivity of the objects to which, in the course of these activities, access is obtained. That is to say, the philosophical position developed in this study does not depend upon an arbitrary definition of science, but rather upon the intelligibility of certain universally recognized, if inadequately analysed, scientific activities. In this respect I am taking it to be the function of philosophy to analyse concepts which are ‘already given’ but ‘as confused’. (23 – 24)

We will recall that “intransitive objects” are objects that are mind-independent and that would continue to do what they do regardless of whether or not humans existed. By contrast, the transitive consists of those changing theories, social conditions, language, categories, and so on. That is, all the elements that belong to the domain of how knowledge is produced. Here it is important to note that ontology does not tell us what particular objects exist and what their powers are. This is a question for actual inquiry that requires hard and laborious work. In other words, we can’t know before we know and we have to engage in the process of inquiry to reach these intransitive objects. Moreover, we can be mistaken about the nature of these objects. Ontology, then, simply outlines the most general features the world and objects must possess for our practices to be intelligible.

But why must we presuppose the mere existence of these mind and society-independent intransitive objects to render our practices intelligible. As chance would have it, a discussion with a good friend and colleague (a rhetorician) today provided me with a wonderful example of just why the epistemic fallacy is a fallacy. In a discussion about the differences between realist ontology, realist epistemology (which I don’t advocate), and anti-realist epistemology and ontology, my friend made the offhand remark that, “I just figure that perception is the best we have so we’re constrained to work within this framework.” In articulating this thesis my friend had articulated a very basic anti-realist claim. If we don’t like the term “perception” (content), we can nonetheless preserve the form of the argument, plugging language, society, social forces, power, mind, sensations, intentionality, etc., into the place of “perception”. The point is that my friend, in making this offhand statement, was making the claim that we can only work with what is given, immediate, immanent, or what we have access to. For him this was perception. In a manner analogous to Hume, my friend was proposing that all claims about beings are really claims about perception (not the things themselves).

Now, it has been my experience that for whatever reason us Continentalists tend to get squirrely or really nervous whenever there is talk about science. Somehow all our critical acumen is directed at showing how science is dogmatic, yet we don’t interrogate our own key concepts. In this connection, it occurred to me that perhaps Bhaskar’s argument would get more traction with my friend if, rather than talking about things like the atomic properties of hydrogen, I instead discussed something closer to home in the world of the humanities and social sciences: psychoanalysis. Wouldn’t it be delicious, I thought, if it could be shown that Lacanian psychoanalytic practice could be shown to presuppose a realist ontology? So where, and how, can Lacanian psychoanalytic practice be shown to presuppose a realist ontology?

To answer this question we must look at what actually goes on not in the theory, but in the clinic. Here my focus will be on neurosis as this is what is most commonly treated in the clinic. To understand the realist underpinnings of Lacanian psychoanalysis we must, in a thumbnail way, have a sense of 1) the Lacanian theory of subjectivity, and 2) the position of the analyst and how the analyst comports himself in the clinic. Within the framework of Lacanian theory, the subject is essentially relational. This is one of the reasons that Lacan was so interested in topology, and, in particular, topological figures like the moebius strip, the torus, the cross cap, the Klein bottle, and so on. Where our standard notion of mind tends to conceive it on the model of a sphere with a clearly defined inside and outside, topological structures like the moebius strip, the Klein bottle, the cross-cap, and the torus do not have a clearly defined inside and outside. They appear to distinguish inside and outside, yet what we find when we investigate these structures is that the surface is continuous.

These topological meditations on the structure of the subject are not idle musings, but have real clinical consequences in terms of how treatment is conducted. If the subject is, for example, like a moebius strip, this is because the relationship between the “I” and the “Other” (and no, I’m not here confusing the “I” and the subject) is a continuous surface, not a relationship between what is “inside” a sphere and what is “outside” a sphere. Just as when we draw a line along the surface of a moebius strip (make one for yourself!) we find that, much to our surprise, the line appears on both sides of the surface, the relationship between the subject and the Other is not one of two separate spheres, but is rather a continuous surface. The manner in which the subject relates to the Other is itself a dimension of the subject, not something Other than the subject. Put otherwise, we can say that the subject constructs its Other as a sort of formal schema of how it relates to all others so as to constitute itself as a subject. However, here’s the kicker: Just as when we initially view a moebius strip we think it has two sides (not one), when we relate to others we genuinely think they are others and don’t recognize the manner in which we construct our others or our “formal schema of the Other”. This construction of the Other is what Lacan calls “fundamental fantasy”.

Here I am simplifying tremendously, but it is this strange topology that is the focus of the Lacanian clinic. It could be said that the Lacanian clinic practices the difference between the Other and the Other. What do I mean by this? The Lacanian hypothesis is that the symptom of the patient, the reason the patient suffers, is because of the Other that she constructs. As Lacan will put it in the middle work, the neurotic subject converts the desire of the Other into a specific demand or request. Whenever we hear the term “desire” we should think “opacity” or “enigma”. In Seminar 10, L’angoisse, Lacan gives the disturbing image of standing before a praying mantis without knowing whether or not you’re wearing the mask of a male praying mantis or a female praying mantis. The female praying mantis, of course, devours her mate. This state of non-knowledge is– and here I simplify again –for Lacan, desire. It is the anxiety of being before an Other without knowing that characterizes desire. As Lacan will say, neurosis is characterized by perpetual doubt. What is it that that Other wants. We construct our own desire around this question.

The neurotic strategy for dealing with this anxiety provoking state with respect to the Other’s desire is to maneuver herself so as to convert that enigma and opacity into a specific demand. A demand has content, whereas desire is perpetually withdrawn or enigmatic. This gives us a sense of just what the Lacanian subject is. The Lacanian subject is a sort of strategy for evoking demands. The obsessional neurotic, for example, might be extremely attentive to all the wants of his partner. He listens to what sort of housework she wants, how she wants it in bed, what sorts of gifts she wants, how she wants to be talked to, what his bosses want, how forms are to be filled out, etc., etc., etc.. In relation to these demands he tries to perfectly fulfill each and every demand, completely satisfying them and always being attentive in every way. Indeed, this satisfaction of demand can go so far that it becomes mockery. For example, the partner says, one time, in the bedroom “no, do it this way!” with some particular touch or kiss, and suddenly that is all the obsessional does in bed.

Two things are going on here. First, by satisfying each and every demand and doing so before they are even requested, the obsessional strives to negate or dissolve the desire (enigma, opacity) of the Other. The idea is that you can get rid of the trauma producing enigma of the Other if you only satisfy all their demands. Second, by over-satisfying the demands of the Other, the obsessional insures that he will not be an object of the Other’s jouissance or enjoyment. This sounds counter-intuitive. Why wouldn’t someone want to be the object of an-other’s enjoyment? To understand this, we should think in terms of “being enjoyed by an-other at our own expense” as in cases where we feel a boss is just using us as their tool with no regard for who we are or when someone else mocks us. What terrifies the neurotic is being this type of object of enjoyment. And when the neurotic is enjoyed by an-other this “at my expense” is how they experience this jouissance of the Other. They experience themselves as fading or disappearing as a subject. In this respect, the obsessional’s behavior can be interpreted as a way of negating of defending against the Other’s jouissance because, in that jouissance, they disappear as a subject.

The case is similar with hysteria. Where the obsessional strives to satisfy all the demands of the Other and to convert desire (enigma, opacity) into demand, the hysteric strives to evoke the Other’s demand (“do this!”) so as to frustrate it. In frustrating the Other’s demand the hysteric strives to evoke the Other’s desire. In other words, where the obsessional strives to negate the Other altogether by reducing them to a specific set of demands that he can then parodically fulfill, the hysteric’s strategy for negating the Other’s desire is to turn himself into an enigma for the Other or an object of desire that perpetually evokes the Other’s demand, seeming to want that demand, while frustrating that demand leaving the Other wondering “what is it he wants?” He might turn forms in late at the office, for example. He might adopt an enigmatic and elliptical style of writing. He might give all the signs that he sexually desires the Other only to swerve and feign indifference when the Other shows interest. In this way, the hysteric manages the desire of the Other by himself becoming an opaque enigma.

The key point is that the neurotic himself does not know that he is the one orchestrating this drama. Just as we first think the moebius strip has two sides, the subject thinks that it is the Other that is making all these demands, that it is the Other who mysteriously always ends up desiring him, and so on. He doesn’t recognize his role in orchestrating these intersubjective dramas.

Enter the analyst. By now descriptions of the Lacanian analyst are famous. She doesn’t speak much. She often simply repeats what the patient says or says “hmmm” in a high pitched voice. When she does speak she does so in riddles worthy of the Oracle at Delphi or Jesus. The analyst is opaque and enigmatic. “Why don’t you just give me the answer!” the patient cries out? “Why won’t you even talk to me about how your day was or your latest article?” In the initial sessions of analysis the posture of the analyst can be extremely anxiety provoking. It’s like being thrust into a world without coordinates. And the coordinates absent here are the coordinates of the Other or our standard others.

This posture can seem extremely cruel. “I want a therapist that will talk to me, that will comfort me, that will give me advice, tell me what my problem is, or lay down the law!” However, there is a point to this “cruelty”. What the analyst practices through his practice is the difference between the Other and the Other. Here we are finally in a position understand just what it might mean to practice the difference between the Other and the Other. On the one hand we have the Other as the construction of the subject or that moebius strip that organizes the patient’s self-other relations. On the other hand, we have the Other as that enigma that perpetually withdraws from our ability to capture them in the net of demands, the Other as opacity and enigma, the Other as irreducible to any specific demand the Other might make. In occupying the position of enigma and opacity— and this is what is above all important in the position of the analyst —the analyst gradually draws the attention of the analysand or patient to the differend between the Other that he constructs and the Other as independent of that construction. In the dawning awareness of this differend, in the experience of the fact that he perpetually attributes all sorts of thoughts and dispositions to his analyst without the analyst behaving in any way that could merit or support the attribution of these attitudes towards him, the analysand gradually becomes aware of how he has constructed the Other. Put otherwise, the analysand comes to see how the desire he was attributing to the Other was his own desire all along. No longer does he see himself as the innocent victim of the Other’s demands and desires, but he now sees himself as the origin of these desires, such that he is now in a position to choose those desires or adopt other desires. For example, where before he saw the demand to be a doctor as issuing from his parents, he now sees that as his own reflection in a mirror that he encountered without recognizing that image as him or the result of his construction. This is a central part of what it means to traverse the fantasy.

So, we might ask, where is the ontological realism in all of this? Why, we might ask, is this practice only intelligible on the grounds of an ontological realism? If, as my good friend suggested, we only went on perception, the practice of analysis would be completely incoherent? Why? Because the practice of drawing the differend between the Other and the Other is dependent the premise of something that we do not have access to through perception. Rather the Other would be that construction. This, for Lacan, is the position of the psychotic, where the Other does not exist for the “subject”. For in the case of the psychotic, the “intersubjective” relation is defined not by the perpetual doubt that characterizes neurosis, but in certainty. The psychotic holds that the Other is nothing but the Other that they know and that he has immediate access to that Other. By contrast, the Other upon which the position of the analyst is premised is an ontological Other, or an Other that is independent of any of our constructions or fantasies. It is an Other that is not exhausted by our access to this Other, but rather an Other that can only be thought in ontological terms as what is in excess of any perception, talk, or idea we might have of this Other. Here we have a case of an entity or entities that must be presupposed in order to render a practice intelligible or coherent in transcendental terms. The question is not strictly one of access, but of what the world must be like– what intersubjective relations must be like –in order to be rendered intelligible. This discovery is not isolated to Lacan. It was discovered with respect to Husserl in the case of both objects and others, again in the case of Levinas with respect to the Other, and yet again in Jean-Luc Marion with respect to existence. In each case, epistemology passes over into ontology, discovering a limit where the question “how do we cognize objects” encounters an internal limit where the question can no longer be exhausted by epistemology, but where we must pass over into genuine ontology.