What is a consequent Marxist view of the history and philosophy of science? Reference to the work of Marx and Engels (or even of Lenin) will not yield a satisfactory answer, although certain signposts are evident. For example, there is the famous observation on method in the Introduction to the Grundrisse, which argues that, contrary to the procedures adopted in classical economy, where the starting point for investigation is apparently concrete phenomena from which abstract theoretical descriptions are then derived, ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is the only way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.’footnote1 Or there are Engels’s late works, pre-eminently Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, in which the so-called laws of the dialectic are laid out schematically, and of which it is asserted that they constitute ‘the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought’.footnote2 Or there is Lenin’s critique of positivism in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, on which the later works of Althusser would depend so heavily for their justification of philosophy’s role in relation to science.

Post-classical Marxism has been remarkably fecund in its treatment of epistemological themes and in elaborating competing versions of the Marxist theory of knowledge, emphasizing different passages or moments in Marx’s (less often Engels’s) corpus to buttress its claims for the authentically Marxist character of the theory. Western Marxism in particular, from Lukács, Korsch and Gramsci to Adorno, Della Volpe, Sartre and Althusser, has productively developed Marxist epistemology to the point that, if serious disagreements remain, it is nevertheless possible to assess Marxist philosophy of science and—to appropriate a famous metaphor—discover the rational kernel inside the mystical shell.

Such I take to have been the project of Roy Bhaskar over the past decade and a half, although the specifically Marxist pedigree of his work has only gradually become evident. (Marxism finds no place in A Realist Theory of Science, for example, his first, and still fundamental, book.)footnote3 It is at any event fully evident in his most recent collection, Reclaiming Reality, which contains, among other riches, perhaps the finest brief historical and methodological assessment in English of the major issues in Marxist philosophy.footnote4

What is the task of philosophy of science in Bhaskar’s view? It lies, to cite the Lockean metaphor on which he has come increasingly to repose, in ‘underlabouring’ on behalf of the sciences. Underlabouring entails clarifying and explicating what it is the sciences do and how they do it, as well as, on occasion, criticizing existing scientific practices for failing to meet the standards of scientificity they set for themselves. Philosophical underlabouring (the proposed title for a planned further collection of essays; see rr, p. 208 n. 32) thus proposes a philosophy of science (what Bhaskar terms ‘transcendental realism’, the strong research programme first announced and elaborated in rts) that is at the same time a philosophy for science (what Bhaskar is now willing to call ‘critical realism’; rr, pp. vii, 190). But why should the sciences need a philosophy at all? What is to be gained, in the first instance for science but in the end for humankind generally, from a coherent account of what Rom Harré has called ‘the principles of scientific thinking’?

Bhaskar’s justification of his own enterprise is as follows:

The essays collected in this volume all seek to underlabour—at different levels and in different ways—for the sciences, and especially the human sciences, in so far as they might illuminate and empower the project of human self-emancipation. They attempt, that is to say, for the explanatory-emancipatory sciences of today, the kind of ‘clearing’ of the ideological ground, which Locke set out to achieve for the prodigious infant of seventeenth-century mechanics. Such sciences, which only partially and incompletely exist, will not only interpret but help to change the world. But they will do so rationally only on the condition that they interpret the world aright. (rr, p. vii)

Or, as he opines some pages later in a gloss on the eleventh of the Theses on Feuerbach: ‘The world cannot be rationally changed unless it is adequately interpreted’ (rr, p. 5). Critical realism is therefore ‘a necessary but insufficient agency of human emancipation’ (rr, p. 191). This, as Bhaskar himself observes, is at one with Marx’s conception of the theory/practice relation, at once virulently anti-idealist and anti-voluntarist (rr, pp. 128, 137). Critical realism is therefore not just an optional attainment for socialists; it undergirds the production of knowledge that enables their political practice. Why should this be so?