Big Problems Come in Bundles, Huge Nonsense Comes in Heaps, and Great Transformations Need Sound Philosophical Foundations

A Note on Mario A. Bunge (1919-2020) and the Future of Philosophy of History and Social Science

If it is true that the good die almost unnoticed, what about the best? On Febru-ary 24th 2020, Mario A. Bunge passed away. For vulgar inductivists this is a surprising event, given that Bunge was born on 21st September, 1919. Those who know (some of) his work consider this to be a tremendous loss to intellectual culture in general and philosophy specifically. Most readers, to the contrary, will probably ask: Mario who?


If you at times engage with philosophy, you may be surprised to hear that he arguably was the most productive, most innovative, and most systematic phi-losopher of the 20th century and beyond, and among the most often quoted scholars of the last two centuries. Mario Augusto Bunge is, or was, the author of 70 books and 540 articles (including translations), and one out of two philoso-phers in the Science Hall of Fame of the American Association for the Ad-vancement of Science, next to Bertrand Russell (Matthews 2019). Including translations, he published 170 books (Silberstein 2019). This whole oeuvre is quite intimidating, frankly unknown in contemporary philosophy, but more widely used among working scientists across the disciplines. I myself had never heard the name within philosophy before I stumbled over a chapter in theoreti-cal sociology bordering on philosophy; Bunge was featured there because he invented the general model of mechanismic explanation (Bunge 1965, 1967, 1968).


Not only did Bunge invent the model of mechanismic explanation, he also as-serted way before this became a topic in philosophy of scientific explanation that the practice of science is at its heart tackling problems of different kinds (Bunge 1959) and organized around research programs (Bunge 1967, Mathews 2019). When philosophers still confessed to positivist sobriety, Bunge argued for a productivist, non-Humean ontology of causation (Bunge 2009b [1959]). Way before the current fashion of metaphysics of science, he practiced it together with “scientific metaphysics” (Bunge 1973), and he engaged in a lifelong project of “scientific philosophy” before there was any talk of experimental or naturalist philosophy (Bunge 1963, 2018). By “scientific philosophy” he meant that philo-sophical ideas should be put to the test, specifically in confrontation with the sciences of the day. Furthermore, philosophies of a science should match the practice in that science which is named as the object of philosophizing.


Much before the millennial ontological turn at least among philosophically inter-ested social scientists, Bunge engaged with early general systems theory to build a systems ontology (Bunge 1979). That philosophy tried to socialise itself by talking about two people pushing a defunct car or making a stroll together, he – an emigrant from Argentina, which he classified as a part of the third world – took this to be what it is, an indicator of the decadence of “Western” philosophy which prefers the intellectual confrontation with its own life world to tackling big issues in social systems, social supersystems or even the economic world system.


Last but not least, he used his epistemologia in combination with philosophy of technology, ethics and socio-political philosophy in thinking about models for sustainable and “integral development” as far back as 1980 (Bunge 2014a [1980], 2009b). Already in his ethics, Bunge (1989) has argued that the summum bonum of our time would be the survival of the species.


Without naming a few books, it is impossible to indicate what we are talking about: Scientific Research (1967), Philosophy of Physics (1973b), Philosophy of Psychology (with Ruben Ardila, 1987), Finding Philosophy in Social Science (1996), Foundations of Biophilosophy (with Martin Mahner, 1997), Social Sci-ence Under Debate (1998), The Sociology-Philosophy Connection (1999), Po-litical Philosophy (2009b) and Medical Philosophy (2013). This might seem enough for a lifetime, but in between Bunge dropped the epochal Treatise on Basic Philosophy in 8 volumes and 9 books (1973-1989): two volumes about semantics, two about ontology, two about epistemology, two about the sciences and technology, and one about ethics. His Political Philosophy he wanted to be seen as the tenth volume (Bunge 2016).


Altogether, this is the only comprehensive philosophy of the sciences and proba-bly the only systematic philosophy on the market. Not to forget, it is the only comprehensive philosophy of the social sciences. The philosopher of history only wonders why he did not write a book specifically about history, arguably his secret love. One answer is that he considered (much of) history to be social science. Given the usual arrogance in relation to the social sciences in general and history more specifically, it is remarkable that Bunge had as much respect for the work of theoretical or experimental physicists as for historians. He often expressed his believe that “history is arguably more mature than any other social science, and even more so than a number of natural sciences” (Bunge 1998, 20). The difference to much of philosophy of history, which takes history to be “fic-tion” or “literature,” is the more astonishing if we consider that it was (and still is) usually practiced apriori.


Arguably, Bunge was the only general philosopher of science who knew his share of social science and history, and, for that matter, more than many historians and social scientists. Among his friends were James Coleman, Robert K. Merton, Charles Tilly, Raymond Boudon, and Bruce Trigger (Bunge 2016). One of the conundrums posed by current academia is why hardly anybody has taken up that oeuvre in philosophy in the last decades.


One reason may be that Bunge’s work – Bunge having been a trained physicist and professor of theoretical physics, who never formally studied philosophy – is even more intimidating to practitioners in the humanities due to its systematic structure, often formal organisation called “exact philosophy,” and its being virtually drowned in results of scientific research from various disciplines. Thus, that Bunge remains unknown might be explainable by the shocking realisation, threatening upon access, that something could really have been learned.


Another reason is that, as the political scientist Andreas Pickel says (Droste 2019), Bunge took no prisoners, but engaged in open and uncompromising at-tacks on what he called “phobosophies” or took to be examples of pompous academic games irrelevant to the real word. Among the latter he also ranked high most of formal philosophy practiced in the environment of the society for exact philosophy he had founded. This is taken to be politically or academically incorrect bashing by some, an example of refreshing academic activism and responsibility by others. It may have cost him many followers in the long run, given that the target has often been what was and is popular. And honesty runs out of fashion anyway the moment the search for truth is exchanged with global antirealism or at risk of being given over to entrepreneurial concerns within aca-demic industries. Bunge uncompromisingly likened the authentic philosopher to the scientists; both search for truth and argue for it (HERE).


A third reason is that Bunge practiced and defended everything that has been declared old fashioned in mainstream thought. His systemist ontology is una-bashedly naturalist, materialist, emergentist, processualist (or, if you wish, histor-ist) and, first of all, realist. His epistemology is scientific (non-naïve) realism. His basic methodology subscribes to scientism (Bunge 2017a), i.e. there is something worth of being called “the scientific method.” His ethics is also realist and within the humanist traditions, claiming that some values are objective and based on basic human needs, whereas some are merely relative or subjective (Bunge 1989). His political philosophy promotes “integral democracy” (Bunge 1989, 2009a), which he recently discussed under the label “socialism” (Bunge 2014c, 2017b).


He believed, contrary to many philosophers, that philosophy is important and indispensable in the sciences and any social practice. One instance of this is the design and implementation of plans (or social programs) based on scientific knowledge and a philosophy, i.e. technology. He took the belief in the possibility of using knowledge to change the world to be one heritage of the Enlightenment project (Bunge 1994). This was one manifest reason why he did not forget about the social sciences. He claimed that big theoretical problems come in bundles, which is the reason why his philosophy is not a heap of aphorisms but a concep-tual system. Social problems are also not taken to be aggregates of personal troubles but systemic (Bunge 2014). As a consequence, he proposed that “sys-temic social reforms,” which involve all the major sub-systems of a society, are needed, in contrast to Popperian piecemeal social engineering, which is one phi-losophy behind many pronouncements of “evidence-based policy,” and, of course, in harsh contrast to laissez-faire. Note that philosophy here overlaps with ideology, and that in order to implement plans rationally historical knowledge is needed, though of rather recent times (Bunge 1973c). Note also that such a sys-temist hypothesis at the intersection of theoretical and practical philosophy has a pluralist counterpart in the theory of historical explanation. There is no prime mover of ontic history. For short, Bunge claimed that “systemic materialism proposes a genuine materialist and realist conception of history” (Bunge 2001, 301). Arguably, this philosophy in many respects fits the tendency of what histo-rians have learned in the twentieth century (Plenge 2019).


What is the biggest, most astounding difference of this philosophy to everything else? As is well known, pupils in school and university students experience phi-losophy as a disintegrated pile of ideas, where some favour some parts which others for reasons unclear don’t like (see also Bunge 2012). Furthermore, in aca-demic philosophy a lecture in, say, semantics has nothing to do with a lecture in ontology, a lecture in metaphysics nothing with epistemology and philosophy of science, not to mention, with ethics or socio-political philosophy. In Bunge’s system, this is different. Everything is, for short, in some degree connected to anything.


Remembering Bunge in the context of our times, it becomes obvious how scan-dalous a fact it is that academic philosophy has almost totally given up on the social sciences, historiography, and the real world. This may be interpreted as a result of ontological individualism as one main component of neoliberal ideolo-gy, the once hegemonic grand narrative which was punctuated in the last decade and is still letting off steam. With this, the question of what social sciences (in-cluding history) can and do contribute to successful or failing societies was lost. It is hardly ever to be found in philosophy outside of the Bungean system (Bunge 1998).


Way before this has become politically correct again, Bunge also warned again and again that those irrationalists who “mounted a Trojan horse inside the aca-demic citadel with the intention of destroying higher culture from within,” name-ly those he called the “antiscientists” and the “pseudo-scientists” (e.g. Bunge 1999, 209 f.), would eventually gain influence outside of the Ivory Tower. Now-adays they don’t even need a Trojan horse any longer to get into power, and explanatory hypotheses about links between postmodernist philosophy and politics are drawn explicitly (McIntyre 2018).


To my surprise, a historian recently told me that Donald Trump had freed meta-theory of history from post-truthism. I’m not convinced, because what is politi-cally correct to be said publicly is a fashion destined to be short-lived. However, nobody really knows what the constructivist-relativist schools have stated, what the grounds for believing it were, and in which relation they stand relative to actual practice in which schools in history and other social sciences – and to the world outside of the Ivory Tower. The pressing question at the intersection of philosophy, the humanities, social sciences and real life, which has far too long remained under the carpet, is whether to be progressive (or critical) is to be an ontological naturalist, a socio-ontological realist, an epistemological realist, a humanist in ethics, and a critical planner, or the opposite of all of that. A Bungean chooses the former.


Problems may come in bundles, nonsense often seems to come in heaps within metatheory of the humanities and the social sciences, which also makes it hard to remove it. And often those heaps become avalanches which bury those who are not cautious enough. Bunge once said that social scientists at times lack philosophical filters to separate the plausible from the absurd. At the beginning of the 1980s, it might have saddened us if historians hadn’t been able any longer to understand themselves in talking metatheoretically. Today, it’s just a normal part of the state of debate, where “theory” has become mostly irrelevant to research and nobody knows what it is. Researching historians also have learned the lesson that they cannot win any trophy in a contest which is hardly ever about what they are doing and formulated in a language that is often hard to understand, if at all. Bunge always questioned whether the social sciences and history have any theories worth the name.


“Philosophy has a bad reputation among scientists, who regard it as being either irrelevant to science or opposed to it” (Bunge 2009a, 5). A historian recently wrote something similar to me about philosophy of history, and social scientists usually also don’t read academic philosophers. What can we learn from Bungean philosophy at this sad occasion?


I think that it is time for the following within philosophy of history: To become (i) analytic again, (ii) empirical and informed (about research), (iii) systematic, (iv) useful or relevant, (v) activist or normative, and given this also (vi) themati-cally pluralist. Then somebody might care. The last point means that it should go beyond epistemology in a narrow sense – which is also a Bungean perspective –, and here the small analytical bunch may meet the continental horde in ‘histori-cal theory.’ “Seek unity of your own philosophy but tolerate the diversity of all authentic philosophies, and promote the rational debate among them” (Bunge 2012, 183). The good news is that much of what is needed to approach some-thing resembling a Bungean project is lying around, though dispersed (Plenge 2019).


Given the heterogeneity of the other social sciences, it would be worthwhile to strip Bungean philosophy a bit of its normative side. If there are many different philosophies, do they really make a decisive difference in practice, as Bunge believed, or not? That there are many tendencies of mixed methods strategies in empirical research, and that (meta-)theories such as analytical sociology, institu-tionalisms, explanatory sociology and critical realism etc. are highly similar on their philosophical side could mean that it is not so clear whether the plurality of philosophies still is a save hypothesis or whether some pluralism (instead of sys-tematic integration) is in the end the ticket. In my view, however, Bungean sys-temism is the best tool for the critical integration of all of the above views and much actual research practice, though it is unclear how far it holds, descriptively and normatively, to what degree in which respect to what exactly (Plenge 2019).


Bunge (1998, 451) claimed at the end of his monumental Social Science Under Debate that “every generation of social scientists and philosophers should ask, how far have social studies come, what are their main flaws, and where are they going?” Furthermore, “social science has flaws of two kinds: philosophical and substantive; and the former are a source of many a fault of the second type.” Social scientists (including historians) neither agree on whether or how far they have advanced in the last 20 years, nor on which role philosophies play in fact or should play, and whether the roots of controversies are substantial or philo-sophical.


Perhaps this is the time to take stock again and to relaunch the Bungean project of asking what philosophy can do for social science and social science for socie-ty, because some social scientists have claimed what many feel, namely that great transformations are to come anyway, either by “design or by disaster” (Sommer and Welzer 2014). The Bungean question for the future is what role philosophies and the social sciences (including history) play therein: “Since capi-talism and bogus socialism each supported by an obsolete philosophy, have brought us to the brink of global disaster, we must find a third way. The next problem is to design feasible and minimally destructive political procedures for effecting the transition from the old to the desirable social order” (Bunge 2001, 412). We can learn from Bunge: Great transformations, if they shall be shaped to some extent, require sound philosophical foundations. The fundamental norm of Bunge’s ethics is “Enjoy live and help live.”

 

Dr. Daniel Plenge


Bibliography
Bunge, M. A. (1959): Qué es un problema cientifico? In: Holmbergia 6, 47-64.
Bunge, M. A. (1963): The myth of simplicity. Problems of scientific philosophy, Englewood Cliffs.
Bunge, M. A. (1965): Phenomenological theories, in: M. Bunge (ed.): The critical approach to science and philosophy, London, 234-254.
Bunge, M. A. (1967): Scientific research, two volumes, Heidelberg.
Bunge, M. A. (1968): The maturation of science, in: I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.) Problems in the philosophy of science, Amsterdam, 120-137.
Bunge, M. A. (1973a): Method, model and matter, Dordrecht.
Bunge, M. A. (1973b): Philosophy of physics, Dordrecht.
Bunge, M. A. (1973c): The role of forecast in planning, in: Theory and Decision 3, 207-221.
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McIntyre, L. (2018): Post-Truth, Cambridge.
Plenge, D. (2019): Geschichtswissenschaften, Sozialontologie und Sozialtheorie. Eine philosophische Klärungsskizze, Stuttgart.
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Sommer, B./Welzer, H. (2014): Transformationsdesign. Wege in eine zukunftsfähige Moderne, München.

 

Last updated: 23.4.2020