Critical realism

In the philosophy of perception, critical realism is the theory that some sense-data (for example, of primary qualities) can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other sense-data (for example, secondary qualities and perceptual illusions) do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events. In short, critical realism refers to any position that maintains that there exists an objectively knowable, mind-independent reality, while acknowledging the roles of perception and cognition.


Critical realism refers to several schools of thought. These include the American critical realists (Roy Wood Sellars, George Santayana, and Arthur Lovejoy) and a broader movement including Bertrand Russell and C. D. Broad. The Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan developed a comprehensive critical realist philosophy and this understanding of critical realism dominates North America's Catholic Universities. Whereas in the UK, critical realism refers to a philosophical approach to the social and natural world—Roy Bhaskar's work is particularly well associated with this approach and is referred to in the science-religion interface community.

Locke and Descartes

Primary and secondary quality

The primary/secondary quality distinction is a conceptual distinction in epistemology and metaphysics, concerning the nature of reality. It is most explicitly articulated by John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, but earlier thinkers such as Galileo and Descartes made similar distinctions.

  • Primary qualities are properties that objects have independent of any observer, such as shape, extension, number, solidity, and volume.
  • Secondary qualities are properties that produce sensations in observers, such as color, taste, smell, and sound.

Primary qualities are measurable aspects of physical reality. Secondary qualities are subjective.

One could imagine for example an apple without color. However, one cannot imagine an apple without a shape, because it is a primary quality; it exists even if unperceived.


According to Locke and Descartes, some sense-data, namely the sense-data of secondary qualities, do not represent anything in the external world, even if they are caused by external qualities (primary qualities). Thus it is natural to adopt a theory of critical realism.

By its talk of sense-data and representation, this theory depends on or presupposes the truth of representationalism. If critical realism is correct, then representationalism would have to be a correct theory of perception.

American and British critical realism

American critical realism

The American critical realist movement was a response both to "direct realism" (especially in its recent incarnation as new realism), as well as to idealism and pragmatism. In very broad terms, American critical realism was a form of representative realism, in which there are objects that stand as mediators between independent real objects and perceivers.

Direct realism is a theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with a direct awareness of the external world. In contrast, indirect realism and representationalism claim that we are directly aware only of internal representations of the external world. Idealism, on the other hand, asserts that no world exists apart from ideas dependent on the mind.

One innovation was that these mediators aren't ideas (British empiricism), but properties, essences, or "character complexes."

British critical realism

Similar developments occurred in Britain. Major figures included Samuel Alexander, John Cook Wilson, H. A. Prichard, H. H. Price, and C. D. Broad.

Contemporary critical realism

Critical realism is presently most commonly associated with the work of Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar developed a general philosophy of science that he described as transcendental realism, and a special philosophy of the human sciences that he called critical naturalism. The two terms were elided by other authors to form the umbrella term critical realism.

Transcendental realism attempts to establish that in order for scientific investigation to take place, the object of that investigation must have real, manipulable, internal mechanisms that can be actualized to produce particular outcomes. This is what we do when we conduct experiments. This stands in contrast to empiricist scientists' claim that all scientists can do is to observe the relationship between cause and effect. While empiricism, and positivism more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of events, Critical realism locates them at the level of the generative mechanism, arguing that causal relationships are irreducible to empirical constant conjunctions of David Hume's doctrine; in other words, a constant conjunctive relationship between events is neither sufficient nor even necessary to establish a causal relationship.

The implication of this is that science should be understood as an ongoing process in which scientists improve the concepts they use to understand the mechanisms that they study. It should not, in contrast to the claim of empiricists, be about the identification of a coincidence between a postulated independent variable and dependent variable. Positivism/falsification is also rejected due to the observation that it is highly plausible that a mechanism will exist but either a) go unactivated, b) be activated, but not perceived, or c) be activated, but counteracted by other mechanisms, which results in it having unpredictable effects. Thus, the non-realization of a posited mechanism cannot (in contrast to the claim of positivists) be taken to signify its non-existence.

Critical naturalism argues that the transcendental realist model of science is equally applicable to both the physical and the human worlds. However, when we study the human world we are studying something fundamentally different from the physical world and must therefore adapt our strategy to studying it. Critical naturalism therefore prescribes social scientific method which seeks to identify the mechanisms producing social events, but with a recognition that these are in a much greater state of flux than they are in the physical world (as human structures change much more readily than those of, say, a leaf). In particular, we must understand that human agency is made possible by social structures that themselves require the reproduction of certain actions/pre-conditions. Further, the individuals that inhabit these social structures are capable of consciously reflecting upon, and changing, the actions that produce them—a practice that is in part facilitated by social scientific research.

Since Bhaskar made the first big steps in popularizing the theory of critical realism in the 1970s, it has become one of the major strands of social scientific method—rivaling positivism/empiricism, and post-structuralism/relativism/interpretivism.

Theological critical realism

Critical realism is used by a community of scientists turned theologians. They are influenced by the scientist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi. Polanyi's ideas were taken up enthusiastically by T. F. Torrance whose work in this area has influenced many theologians calling themselves critical realists. This community includes John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke. The aim of the group is to show that the language of science and Christian theology are similar, forming a starting point for a dialogue between the two. Alister McGrath and Wentzel van Huyssteen are recent contributors to this strand. N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham also writes on this topic:

… I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of "knowing" that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence "realism"), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence "critical"). (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35)

N.T. Wright's fellow biblical scholar—James Dunn—encountered the thought of Bernard Lonergan as mediated through Ben Meyer. Much of North American critical realism—later used in theology—has its source in the thought of Lonergan.

Critical realism in economics

Heterodox economists like Tony Lawson, Frederic Lee or Geoffrey Hodgson are trying to work the ideas of critical realism into economics, especially the dynamic idea of macro-micro interaction.

According to critical realist economists, the central aim of economic theory is to provide explanations in terms of hidden generative structures. This position combines transcendental realism with a critique of mainstream economics. It argues that mainstream economics (i) relies excessively on deductivist methodology, (ii) embraces an uncritical enthusiasm for formalism, and (iii) believes in strong conditional predictions in economics despite repeated failures.

The world that mainstream economists study is the empirical world. But this world is "out of phase" (Lawson) with the underlying ontology of economic regularities. The mainstream view is thus a limited reality because empirical realists presume that the objects of inquiry are solely "empirical regularities"—that is, objects and events at the level of the experienced.

The critical realist views the domain of real causal mechanisms as the appropriate object of economic science, whereas the positivist view is that the reality is exhausted in empirical, i.e. experienced reality. Tony Lawson argues that economics ought to embrace a "social ontology" to include the underlying causes of economic phenomena.


  • Archer, M., R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, and A. Norrie. 1998. Critical Realism: Essential Readings. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415196321
  • Bhaskar, R., 1975 [1997]. A Realist Theory of Science, 2nd ed. London: Verso. ISBN 9780859520140
  • ———. 1993. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso. ISBN 9780860915836
  • ———. 1998. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences, 3rd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Collier, A. 1994. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy. London: Verso. ISBN 9780860916024
  • Lonergan, Bernard, Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (eds.). 1992. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan). University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802034557
  • Lonergan, Bernard. 1990. Method in Theology. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802068095
  • Lopez, J. and G. Potter. 2001. After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism. London: The Athlone Press. ISBN 9780485006179
  • McGrath, A. E. 2001. A Scientific Theology. London: T&T Clark. ISBN 9780802839275
  • Meyer, B. 1989. Critical Realism and the New Testament. San Jose: Pickwick Publications. ISBN 9780915138975
  • Page, J. 2003. Critical Realism and the Theological Science of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Exploring the Commonalities Bridges: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Theology, History and Science 10(1/2): pp. 71-84. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  • Polkinghorne, J. 1991. Reason and Reality: The Relationship between science and theology. London: SPCK. ISBN 9781563380198
  • Sayer, R. Andrew. 1992. Method in social science: a realist approach. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415076074
  • ———. 2000. Realism and social science. London: Sage. ISBN 9780761961246
  • Tekippe, Terry J. Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Comprehensive Commentary. University Press of America, 2003. ISBN 978-0761825951

External links

All links retrieved November 25, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.