Critical realism is best understood as the philosophy that maintains that we can know things about the world because we can gain reliable knowledge about it, although always with the proviso that we must not be overly confident or naive about the quality of the information we bring in. Critical realism as an identifiable term arose in the United States as an answer both to idealism and to earlier rejections of idealism. Critical realism was first identified and articulated as a coherent philosophy by the American philosophical naturalist Roy Wood Sellars (1880-1973), in a book called Critical Realism, published in 1916. The same year, a collection of essays began to take shape to develop the idea. The book was delayed by the exigencies of war and was published in 1920 under the title Essays in Critical Realism (1920). Several prominent American thinkers, or people who went on to become prominent thinkers, contributed to this work: As well as Sellars, contributors included George Santayana (1863-1952), Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962), and Durant Drake (1878-1933).
Durant Drake, whose essay was placed first, argued that critical realism escaped the problems of both “epistemological monism and epistemological dual-ism.” The critical realists agreed with the pragmatists, for instance, that evidence for the existence of the external world was overwhelming, primarily because the evidence “worked.” But they were suspicious of the monists’ quest for too certain a link between the external world and our knowledge of it. The critical realists were naturalists without being reductive materialists. As Sellars put it: “Physical things are the objects of knowledge, though they can be known only in terms of the data which they control within us.” Several of the contributors to Essays in Critical Realism went on to articulate further their ideas, the most notable results being Lovejoy’s The Revolt Against Dualism (1930) and Sellars’s A Philosophy of Physical Realism (1932).
But if the critical realists knew what they were against, they were less clear what they were for. The contributors to Essays in Critical Realism straddled a variety of opinions across the metaphysical, social, and political divide. And during the 1930s, the focus shifted away from the epistemological questions of the Essays toward social and political questions. And after World War II, the intellectual trends moved further away from critical realism when philosophy took the so-called linguistic turn. An important voice for critical realism, without using the term, was the American philosopher Marvin Farber (1901-1980), the latter part of whose philosophical career was spent criticizing some of the more extravagant implications of phenomenology. In the United Kingdom, critical realism has been championed by the philosopher Roy Bhaskar (1944-), who was also instrumental in the establishment of the International Association for Critical Realism in 1997. The IACR seeks to further the aims of critical realism and facilitate contact between critical realists around the world.
The foundation of the IACR is one manifestation of the reemergence in the 1990s of critical realism as an important philosophy. Once again, it has emerged largely as a reaction to the excesses of earlier trends. Today’s critical realists are reacting to the perceived follies and excesses of postmodernism. A worthwhile example of the recent styles of critical realism can be found in a collection of essays edited by José Lopez and Garry Potter. Heavily influenced by Bhaskar, the critical realism as outlined by Lopez and Potter claims that we can have good, rational grounds for believing one theory rather than another. It is not simply an arbitrary choice, as postmodernists argue. Furthermore, we can have these grounds because some theories give better accounts of reality than others do. Critical realists accept that knowledge is constructed in society and that it is built up with language and that all these construction methods are fallible. But it refuses to then leap to the conclusion that no objective knowledge or truth is possible. And notwithstanding all the objections that could be made about the ways science gathers its knowledge, the fact remains that is does have the best track record of producing reliable knowledge about the world and that we ignore this at our peril.
Another, stronger, version of critical realism has been advanced by the philosopher John Searle, when he spoke of “external realism,” which he defines as the view that there is a way things are that is logically independent of all human representations. Searle calls facts about the external reality “brute facts,” which have logical priority over what he calls “institutional facts,” which are about the institutions human beings create, such as marriage or money. External realism functions as part of the taken-for-granted part of our surroundings. Searle argues that the very first step in combating irrationalism is to defend the notion of external realism and refute arguments against it.
More recently still, Susan Haack has spoken of “critical common-sensism,” which is even closer to critical realism than Searle’s external realism. Haack outlines critical common-sensism as referring to the idea that there are objective standards of better and worse evidence, that observation and theory are independent, that scientific theories are either true or false, and that the determinants of evidential quality are objective even when the judgments of them are perspectival or dependent upon situation or context.
Searle and Haack, Lopez and Potter, are all reacting against the radically skeptical, even nihilist implications of the postmodernist attacks on objectivity, science, and reason over the past 30 years. And as several commentators have noticed, the epistemological questions raised by critical realism are very relevant to the discipline of anthropology, cultural anthropology in particular. Many commentators have noted the serious divisions over questions of the construction of social reality, the evaluation of rival claims, and the politics of research. Lawrence Kuznar is one among many who has articled what could be described as a critical realist appeal for an anthropology that takes science seriously. Related to the epistemological challenge articulated by Kuznar, anthropologists like H. James Birx have spoken of what he calls “dynamic integrity” as the motivational agent behind the critical realist approach.
- Archer, M., Bhaskar, R., Collier, A., Lawson, T., & Norrie, A. (1998). (Eds.). Critical realism: Essential readings. London & New York: Routledge.
- Haack, S. (2003). Defending science—Within reason. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Kuznar, L. A. (1997). Reclaiming a scientific anthropology. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.
- Lopez, J., & Potter, G. (2001). (Eds.). After postmodernism: An introduction to critical realism. London & New York: Athlone Press.
- Searle, J. (1996). The construction of social reality. London: Penguin.