Ryan  Burns, phd
September 18, 2010

Critical Realism

This week I gave in and finally started reading some material on critical realism (CR). Specifically, I read an interview with Roy Bhaskar, an article by Sayer (2004), and the intro to A Realist Theory of Science (Bhaskar 2008). I am reading CR for a number of reasons. First, a philosopher of science on campus told me back in June that one significant hurdle I’ll have to jump with regard to my dissertation is a critique from speculative realism, particularly object-oriented ontology. Since it seems one must first have a reasonable grasp of CR to understand the other two, I decided to take a look at CR in order to move on to the speculative variety of realism. Second, CR does seem to be gaining popularity (still, even though ARToS was originally written in ‘75), and a working knowledge of it would seem to be helpful for someone who claims an interest in social studies of science.

I must admit that I was astounded by the utility provided by a CR take on science. Citing Outhwaite (1987), Sayer claims that:

…critical realism is ontologically bold, but epistemologically modest, the latter being a consequence of the fact that our knowledge of the world is always constituted in terms of available discourses, and hence there is no Archimedean point from which to evaluate them.

CR seems to, in an overly simplistic sense, retain a realist ontology coupled with a social constructivist epistemology. Thus “bold” refers to the fact that CR asserts a world existing aside from humans and our ability to know it; “modest”, in turn, refers to the critical realists’ argument that we only know the world through concepts, discourses, and theories. Epistemology, then, is a social construction that, semiotically speaking, stands as an imperfect referent (discourse, etc.) to the referred (object in the world).

Furthermore, in his interview Bhaskar says that the

…three major distinctive things about critical realism are: its transcendental and dialectical character; the content of its particular theses; and the fact that it is critical of the nature of reality itself, in the first instance social reality, including the impact of human beings upon the natural world…

The ontological world, according to Bhaskar, exists in a state of fluctuation, problematizing the notion of an immutable and independent world to “know”. By espousing a “transcendental and dialectical” method, Bhaskar prioritizes “immanent critique” as a way of furthering our understanding of the world.

The ontological theme of CR contrasts it with various post-structuralist perspectives. If my readings of Derrida, Foucault, Butler, etc. are correct (and they may not be - I’m a geographer, not a philosopher), I see them as denying the existence of an a priori ontology. Rather, the existence of the world only exists in our knowledge/description/discourse of the world. For instance, “gender” for Butler only exists in our discourses of it; “male” refers not to some thing in the world, but calls it into being only in our use of the term. Also in contrast with post-structuralism is Sayer’s almost dangerous tendency to use the word “truth”. Of course he re-appropriates the term much in the same way as Haraway (1991) and Longino (1990), situating it and critiquing it.

I have several questions about CR that I hope will become clearer with further readings. As of now I’m confused about whether CR intends to be a critique of science, a description of how science operates, or a prescription for how science should work. I am also curious about the ability of CR to explain social systems. If we consider a field like human geography to be a science, what are the ontic essences that CR would highlight? Also, Bhaskar touched on how CR deviates from empiricism but I am curious about the role of observation in CR: for CR, are all social aspects of the world observable? Which are not, and what does that mean for CR’s ability to theorize?

I welcome your responses and thoughts, if you so desire to do so.

Works Cited

  1. Andrew Sayer, “Realisms through Thick and Thin,” Environment & Planning A 36, no. 10 (October 2004): 1777-1789.
  2. Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  3. William Outhwaite, New Philosophies of Science (London: Macmillan, 1987).
  4. Donna J Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991).
  5. Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press, 1990).
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