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critical realism

have you heard of this? I hadn’t until I was told to look it up and I feel like it’s about everything, which is how a philosophy should feel. In summary, it’s a philosophy of reality, or of science, which has as it’s ultimate aim progress, moving forward the debate or the system. So, unlike the constructivists who say there are many realities, or the positivists who say there is only one truth, critical realism argues for the distinction between intransitive reality (we actually do live in one single world… sorry) and transitive knowledge (our beliefs are fallible, changing, relative). The world is a reality, but our knowledge of it is not. The two are distinct; we should not reduce our theory of being (our ontology) to our theory of knowledge (our epistemology).

Roy Bhaskar founded the theory in the 1970s, and although his books are impenetrable his youtube is not. He developed CR for his PhD thesis, after initially trying to begin a  thesis on the (ir)relevance of  economic theory for the economic problems of developing countries. It was an impossible study, he says, because you cannot say anything about the real world through economic theory. You cannot compare the theory (here) with the real world (there). He blames Hume and Kant, of course, for the lack of talking about the world and the flood of talking about ‘the talk about the world’.

Critical realism is philosophical under-labouring, clearing the ground and removing some of the systems of belief that act as obstacles to progress in knowledge. It places great importance on what Bhaskar calls seriousness, which is the unity of practice with theory, the aim to produce a philosophy you can walk. The key to the practice of CR comes from Hermes, and Hermeticism:
don’t accept anything I say just because I say it.
what I say, in so far as it is true, you ought to be able to establish for yourself.
Critical realism as a research approach is wonderful because it involves imagination. Imagine the structures or mechanisms which, if true, would explain the event.

This ‘probable explanation’ is judgemental rationality, the third of the trinity of CR, along with ontological realism and epistemological relativity. In (European) history at some point all swans were white. This is the problem of induction. How do we jump from our experience of all swans being white to as assumption that all swans are white? There is no resolution to this problem in a philosophy that reduces knowledge and the world to one level. But a critical realist would ask; what is it about swans that makes them white? and so on. till they came to a reason independent of observable properties for why a thing (swan) is the way it is (white). Sometimes in summer I have my lunch on the water edge and a black swan in the Yarra comes right up close to my sandwich.


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