In the philosophy of perception, critical realism is the theory that some of our sense-data (for example, those of primary qualities) can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other of our sense-data (for example, those of secondary qualities and perceptual illusions) do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events.
Contemporary critical realism most commonly refers to a philosophical approach associated with Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar's thought combines a general philosophy of science (transcendental realism) with a philosophy of social science (critical naturalism) to describe an interface between the natural and social worlds. Critical realism can, however, refer to several other schools of thought, such as the work of the American critical realists (Roy Wood Sellars, George Santayana, and Arthur Lovejoy). The term has also been appropriated by theorists in the science-religion interface community. The Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan developed a comprehensive critical realist philosophy and this understanding of critical realism dominates North America's Catholic Universities.
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.
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.
One innovation was that these mediators aren't ideas (British empiricism), but properties, essences, or "character complexes."
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 combined 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 actualised 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 observe the relationship between cause and effect. Whilst 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 are 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, non-realisation 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 popularising the theory of critical realism in the 1970s, it has become one of the major strands of social scientific method - rivalling positivism/empiricism, and post-structuralism/relativism/interpretivism.
An edited volume, Critical Realism: Essential Readings, is currently the most appreciated and available reader in critical realism.
There is also a Journal of Critical Realism, which publishes articles on the theory and results of the practice of critical realist social science. See also, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, published by Blackwell, which also publishes theoretical and empirical realist social science.
A lively email discussion on critical realism can be joined on the critical realism e-mail list.
Since his development of critical realism, Bhaskar has gone on to develop a philosophical system he calls dialectical critical realism, which is most clearly outlined in his weighty book, Dialectic: the pulse of freedom.
Bhaskar is frequently criticized for the density and obscurity of his writing. That said, some readers may actually appreciate his meticulous linguistic precision, which can be time consuming to read, but read properly, it is possible to understand the precise and unambiguous meaning behind his writing. An accessible introduction was written by Andrew Collier. Andrew Sayer has written accessible texts on critical realism in social science. Danermark et al. have also produced an accessible account. Margaret Archer is associated with this school, as is the ecosocialist writer Peter Dickens.
David Graeber relies on critical realism, which he understands as a form of 'heraclitean' philosophy, emphasizing flux and change over stable essences, in his anthropological book on the concept of value, Toward an anthropological theory of value: the false coin of our own dreams.
Robert Willmott has developed the realist ("morphogenetic") social theory of Margaret Archer in his Education Policy and Realist Social Theory: primary teachers, child-centred philosophy and the new managerialism, published by Routledge.
Critical realism is employed 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 (the latter of Princeton Theological Seminary) 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 spiralling 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 the service of theology—has its source in the thought of Lonergan rather than Polanyi.
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.