Sunday, September 16, 2007

critical realism

wikipedia article

Critical realism
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. In short, critical realism refers to any position that maintains that there exists an objectively knowable, mind-independent reality, whilst 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. In Canada, the Jesuit Bernard Lonergan developed a comprehensive critical realist philosophy. More recently it refers to the community associated primarily with the work of Roy Bhaskar. It is also the name used by a number in the science-religion interface community.

Locke and Descartes

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

British 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

General philosophy
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 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 conjuntions of David Hume's doctrine; in other words, a constant conjuntive 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 can not (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 the best 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.
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 criticised for the density and obscurity of his writing. An accessible introduction was written by
Andrew Collier. Andrew Sayer has written accessible texts on critical realism in social science.
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.

Theological critical realism

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. Tom 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, pp. 35)
Tom 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.

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 - experienced - reality. Tony Lawson argues that economics ought to embrace a "social ontology" to include the underlying causes of economic phenomena.


Archer, M., Bhaskar, R., Collier, A., Lawson, T. and Norrie, A., 1998, Critical Realism: Essential Readings, (London, Routledge).
Bhaskar, R., 1975 [1997], A Realist Theory of Science: 2nd edition, (London, Verso).
Bhaskar, R., 1998, The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences: Third Edition, (London, Routledge)
Bhaskar, R., 1993, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, (London, Verso).
Collier, A, 1994, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy, (London, Verso).
Lonergan, B. 1957. "Insight", (London, DTL).
Lopez, J. and Potter, G., 2001, After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism, (London, The Athlone Press).
McGrath, A. E., 2001, A Scientific Theology, (London, T&T Clark)
Meyer, B. 1989 "Critical Realism and the New Testament", (San Jose, Pickwick Publications)
Polkinghorne, J, 1991, Reason and Reality: The Relationship between science and theology, (London, SPCK)
Sayer, A. (1992) Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, (London, Routledge)
Sayer, A. (2000) Realism and Social Science, (London, Sage)

Bhaskar and American Critical Realism
Article from WSCR Archive

Critical Realism occupies an exciting position in contemporary philosophy. It seems poised to offer solutions for the contemporary post-positivist and post-theoretical situation in which philosophy finds itself. Much of the attractiveness of Critical Realism lies in this seeming uniqueness but perhaps as true, moderate Critical Realists we ought to resist a sense of destiny or ideology. In fact, while I am a convinced theoretical Critical Realist, I believe that our movement has a great deal in common with older movements; to be more precise, "American" Critical Realism.
Some familiar with contemporary Critical Realism and the works of Roy Bhaskar may be struck by the similarity of its name with that of the older American movement from the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether or not there is any doctrinal similarities, one thing is certain; the major proponents of contemporary Critical Realism do not seek to address older Critical Realism in any way. I propose to review the history of this movement to see exactly where any affinities, if any, lie.
"Critical Realism" was coined by Roy Wood Sellars (1880-1967; not to be confused with his son, Wilfred) in 1915. Sellars meant to refer to his brand of scientific materialism that stood in contrast to Idealism, Pragmatism and Realism. Although sometimes considered a position articulated in response to British Realism and the work of G. E. Moore, American Critical Realism really developed concurrently. The most tangible evidence of this movement was the volume Essays in Critical Realism, to which Durant Drake, J. B. Pratt, A. K. Rogers, George Santayana, Roy Wood Sellars, C. A. Strong, and Arthur Lovejoy all contributed (c.f., Chisholm 1982).
Much of the work of these contributors is quite diverse; for example, George Santayana is usually grouped with American pragmatists. Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a mind-body dualist and in ethics a psychological hedonist. However, some of the works of the more canonical figures, especially Sellars, and to a lesser extent Lovejoy, bring out significant doctrinal patterns.
Sellars most wanted to promote a non-reductive scientific materialism. Thus, it is correct to say that whereas today's Critical Realism is a broad-based normative discipline, American Critical Realism was an epistemological doctrine. However, while American Critical Realists lacked a consistent social philosophy and ethics, their epistemological commitments implicated metaphysical issues as well.
Consistent with a critique of monistic theories of knowledge (be they idealistic or realist), American Critical Realists insisted on the structuredness of the world, its transcendent status, and our variable access to it in cognition. A good example is Lovejoy's (1930) "temporalistic realism" according to which reality is structured in a metaphysical pluralism, and determinate perspectives follow from this. In the end, Lovejoy strongly upheld epistemological dualism so that empirical questions could not be divorced from metaphysical questions. Here we find an early defense of Bhaskar's distinction between the Transitive and Intransitive dimensions.
Here the orientation of American Critical Realism to natural science is most evident. As the New Realism passed on to Ordinary Language philosophy and Rylian new-Realism, a ban on empirical questions continued to issue from England. At the same time, the unfortunate positions of the Logical Positivists forestalled meaningful progress from the other end. It is in this context that an older Roy Wood Sellars wrote about relativity theory and rigidly kept pluralism separate from mere perspectivalism. The existence of any Marxian stance has been absent so far, but it is interesting that Sellars (1969) took very seriously some of Lenin's ideas and included them in his very interesting, but little-read, surveys of philosophy written at the end of his life.
At this point the bridging personality emerges, Maurice Mandelbaum (1908-1987). He was strongly influenced by Lovejoy but also by the Gestalt position of Wolfgang Khler. From Khler, he expanded on metaphysical pluralism and epistemological dualism to obtain a more sophisticated position on science and scientific law and explanation but also added a position on perceiving influenced by phenomenology. An intellectual historian like Lovejoy, Mandelbaum learned to consider historical issues without slipping into a hermeneutic model.
All Critical Realists today are indebted to Mandelbaum's essay on "Societal Facts" published in 1955 in England, at the height of Isaiah Berlin-Friedrich von Hayek-Karl Popper methodological individualism, as well as to his essay of two years later on "Societal Laws" (published again in England!) where he clarified Popper's position on "historicism." Mandelbaum's early work began in the thirties with his realist defense of historical knowledge, and his contributions to the theory of knowledge have been advanced often in the context of the philosophy of history. His Philosophy, History and Sense-Perception defended by name a "radical critical realism." This was strongly influenced by Khler and Mandelbaum's carried on Khler's critique of New Realism with his own criticism of Gilbert Ryle. What Mandelbaum meant by "radical critical realism" was a prescription against identifying the properties of perceived objects with their referents, a move that promoted science but did not deny the autonomy of the psychological.
Many Critical Realists may be aware of Mandelbaum's discussions of Marx as an intellectual historian, especially through his History, Man and Reason (1971). This history of 19th century philosophy is a monument to Mandelbaum's ongoing interest in history and his discussions of Marx are no less sophisticated than the rest of the book. Of course, Mandelbaum is no "Marxist," but he carried on the necessary interpretive work to understand Marx and thinkers surrounding him.
Mandelbaum argued many things that are increasingly commonplace. He clarified how the early Marx was not searching for a science of society, was a Feuerbachian, and could not have formulated the developmental laws which Hegel and Engels did; how beginning with the "Theses on Feuerbach," the mature Marx adopted an approach based on the careful, dialectical study of actual and not generic social institutions; and finally explained the nature of Marx's view of historical change and whether or not it was directional or functional. Finally, Mandelbaum (1982) weighed in on the debate over G. A. Cohen's interpretation of Marx, accepting the fact that functional explanations exist in Marx but denying that they are, as Cohen argues, valid and instead arguing that Marx's theory derives plausibility based on other premises.
Mandelbaum took for granted many things, especially regarding the philosophy of science, that are strong features of contemporary Critical Realism. Most importantly, he denied the symmetry of explanation and prediction so central to Logical Positivist models of science, and he used a form of the Critical Realist argument for realism which he called the Self-Excepting Fallacy. He consistently showed the dependence of doubt on belief so that most forms of relativism can be shown to depend in some way on objectivities that are taken for granted. This has similarities to Bhaskar's Epistemic Fallacy, except that it names the mechanism by which much epistemology is reified into Ontology.
In this sense it is unfortunate that in the single instance in which Mandelbaum is mentioned in the Bhaskar corpus, it is negative. In A Realist Theory of Science, Mandelbaum's pioneering paper "Historical Explanation: The Problem of Covering Laws" (1960) is criticized. Mandelbaum was unhappy with Hempel's influential application of Vienna School principles to history in the form of "covering laws" (subsuming historical instances under a "covering law") and criticized the use of notions of cause and law, based on Humean perspectives. This was an important gesture for social scientific naturalism in search of more adequate foundations.
Almost unknown to Critical Realists is Mandelbaum's discussion of causality in The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge with a full critique of Hume that goes back to Gestalt sources. Mandelbaum argued that linear causality is a myth and in the case of Hume's billiard balls argued that the ball is not hit and only then does it move; rather, it moved when hit. One brilliant article, "Determinism and Moral Responsibility," has made almost no impact on the discussion of ethics and agency. Both the concepts of causality and determinism developed by Mandelbaum deserve full comparison with those same concepts developed in the Bhaskarian model.
Bhaskar has shown how his brand of Critical Realism arose out of some very unique conditions. As an economist he was unhappy with the inability of economic science to deal with economic justice. Thus he saw the need for a realism that could do justice to problems of ethics and individual agency. To align this to the unique perspective of a "generation of 1968," however, would be to deny the motivations behind all philosopher's work. While contemporary Critical Realism might be considered a form of theory for reformed Marxists, a realism that can do justice to human uniqueness was common to the generations of 1918 as well as of 1945.
The conclusion I draw is that at a minimum Critical Realists ought to praise American Critical Realism for the unique service it performed throughout the twentieth century, smoothing out the various extremisms of New Realism, Ordinary Language, Logical Positivist and Libertarian philosophy. Naturally, it did not anticipate completely contemporary Critical Realism, however in examining many of its doctrines we should not be surprised by a strange sense of familiarity.

Works Cited

Chisholm, Roderick. "Theory of Knowledge in America." The Foundations of Knowing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982. 109-93.
Drake, Durant, et al. Essays in Critical Realism. New York: Macmillan, 1920.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Revolt Against Dualism. New York: Macmillan, 1930.
Mandelbaum, Maurice. "Societal Facts." British Journal of Sociology 6 (1955): 305-17.
-----. "Societal Laws." British Journal for the Philosophy of Sciences 8 (1957): 211-24.
-----. "Determinism and Moral Responsibility." Ethics (1960): 204-19.
-----. Historical Explanation: The Problem of Covering Laws, History and Theory 1 (1961): 229-42.
-----. Philosophy, Science and Sense-Perception: Historical and Critical Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964.
-----. History, Man and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
-----. The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
-----. "G. A. Cohen's Defense of Functionalist Explanation." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 12 (1982): 285-7.
Sellars, Roy Wood. Reflections on American Philosophy from Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism
A Brief Overview and a Critical Evaluation

By Fadhel Kaboub

Roy Bhaskar is the leading author in the critical realist paradigm. This paradigm came as a critique of Positivism and Hermeneutics, as well as a new philosophical approach to scientific thinking. The critical realist philosophical ontology states that something is real if it can bring about visible/material consequences. In other words, in critical realism something is real if it is causally efficacious (e.g., a magnetic field, unemployment, poverty). As for epistemology, critical realists tend to opt for a pragmatic theory of truth even though some critical realists still think that their epistemology ought to be correspondence theory of truth. Other critical realists prefer to be more eclectic and argue for a three-stage epistemology using correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theory of truth [Ardebili 2001].

This paper will critically delineate Bhaskar’s critical realist paradigm and highlight its key features. This will allow us to assess a critique of the positivist and hermeneutic paradigms a la Roy Bhaskar. Some of the Bhaskar’s views will be analyzed in this essay, namely his notion of critical naturalism, stratification of reality, the concept of social structure, transformational model of social activities, his theory of society, and his critique of Positivism and Hermeneutics.

In his book The Possibility of Naturalism (1979), Bhaskar tried to address a question that has been at the center of methodological debate among social scientists: “to what extent can society be studied in the same way as nature?” [Bhaskar 1998, 1 (emphasis in original)]. Positivists claim that society and nature ought to be studied in the same way and in accordance with the Humean notion of law (i.e. the naturalist view). On the other hand, Hermeneutics argues that the social sciences aim to elucidate the meaning of social events, and therefore society cannot be studied by using a naturalist methodology (i.e., the anti-naturalist view). Bhaskar defined naturalism as “the thesis that there is (or can be) an essential unity of method between the natural and the social sciences” [Bhaskar 1998, 2]. He also acknowledged the difference between naturalism and its sub-parts – reductionism and scientism. Rather, Bhaskar, as a critical realist, advocated an anti-positivist naturalism. He claimed that it is possible to give an account of science under which the methods of both natural and social sciences can fall. Although Bhaskar recognized that there are significant differences in these methods, he argued that, based on ontological, epistemological and relational considerations, impose limits on the possibility of naturalism. Furthermore, he argues that it is by virtue of these considerations that social science is possible. Most importantly, Bhaskar argued that “it is the nature of the object that determines the form of its possible science” [Bhaskar 1998, 3].

Bhaskar addressed the fundamental issues regarding the relationship between philosophy and science. He asserted that if philosophy is to be possible, it must follow a Kantian approach (transcendental arguments). Indeed, Kantian transcendental analysis addresses the question of the possibility of an object of study (e.g., what are the conditions of the possibility of knowledge?). According to Kant, there is a need for certain individual conceptual categories that enable us to understand and identify social events. Thus, Kant based his argument on an idealist and individualist mode of analysis (e.g. the condition of possibility of knowledge is the human mind).

Bhaskar rejected this Kantian idealist and individualist approach, but he kept the Kantian transcendental realist approach. That is, unlike Kant, Bhaskar believes that the conceptual categories that we use to identify and understand social events are not exogenously determined; rather these categories are socially and historically determined2 [Ardebili 2001]. Thus, Bhaskar addresses a deeper issue using a transcendental realist (as opposed to the Kantian transcendental idealism) approach by investigating the preconditions of the possibility of social activity. Then Bhaskar continues his analytical analogy between the study of nature and society by asking, “What are the preconditions of the possibility of experiments?” Here, Bhaskar makes a sharp ontological distinction between “patterns of events” and “causal laws.” He wrote:

What is so special about the patterns [that scientists] deliberately produce under meticulously controlled conditions in the laboratory is that it enables them to identify the mode of operation of natural structures, mechanisms or processes which they do not produce. What distinguishes the phenomena the scientist actually produces from the totality of the phenomena she could produce is that, when her experiment is successful, it is an index of what she does not produce. A real distinction between the objects of experimental investigation, such as causal laws, and patterns of events, is thus a condition of the intelligibility of experimental activity [Bhaskar 1998, 9 (emphasis in original)].

In other words, causal laws are invisible and are embedded in the natural structure; thus they are different from the empirical patterns of events. Failure to distinguish between the two would result in misunderstanding the event in question. Note that this ontological distinction applies for social as well as natural phenomena.

From the above analysis, we can see that Bhaskar’s critical naturalism advocates that the structure of generation of knowledge is the same in both natural and social sciences. Thus, there is a Methodological unity according to which science (in general) is practiced (i.e., the structure of scientific practice).

It is important at this point to define reality in the critical realist paradigm. Reality exists independently of us and of our knowledge and/or perception of it. Failure to distinguish between reality and our conception of it is referred to as the epistemic fallacy. In critical realism, reality consists of three different layers: empirical (observable by human beings), actual (existing in time and space), and real (transfactual and more enduring than our perception of it). The latter contains structures that have powers and liabilities from which observable events emerge [Ardebili 2001]. Thus, social phenomena emerge from the deep underlying real structures, become actual, and then empirical. Whereas our understanding of these social phenomena goes exactly in the opposite direction (from empirical to actual and then to real), which makes understanding them a very difficult task.

Bhaskar distinguished the transitive or epistemological dimension of reality from its intransitive dimension. The transitive dimension is essentially our perception of reality, whereas the intransitive dimension is the actual underlying structure of reality. It is important to point out that Bhaskar is mainly concerned with ontology not epistemology, and that he is confusing the conditions of possibility of science with the conditions of its intelligibility [Ardebili 2001].

Bhaskar asked the question “What properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us?” He proposed to concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, then to turn to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. Thus, using transcendental realism, he argued that “it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us” [Bhaskar 1998, 25 (emphasis added)]. In other words, what we study determines the way we study it.

In the second chapter of his book The Possibility of Naturalism (1975), Bhaskar argued that “societies are irreducible to people,” that “social forms are the necessary conditions for any internal act,” and that the pre-existence of these social forms determines their autonomy as possible objects of scientific inquiry, and more importantly, that the causal power of these social forms determines their reality [Bhaskar 1998, 25]. Bhaskar showed that the pre-existence of these social forms entails a transformational model of social activity that denies any possibility of naturalism at the ontological level.

From a critical realist perspective, “methodological individualism is the doctrine that facts about societies, and social phenomena generally are to be explained solely in terms of facts about individuals” [Bhaskar 1998, 27]. That is, methodological individualism reduces society to individuals or groups; Bhaskar called it social atomism, in which the explanation of social events is deduced from behavior of the ‘participating individuals’ and the description of their situation. According to Bhaskar, “explanation, whether by subsumption under general law, advertion to motives and rules, or redescription (identification), always involves irreducible social predicates” [Bhaskar 1998, 28]. Meaning that explanations can only be given in a social context (e.g., cashing a check-banking system; tribesman-tribe).

Bhaskar asserted that the methodological individualist’s definition of ‘the social’ is radically misconceived. They regard ‘the social’ as a synonymous with ‘the group’. Thus, for them, social behavior is explicable as the behavior of groups of individuals or individuals in groups [Bhaskar 1998, 29]. Rather, he argued that sociology is concerned with the persistent relations between individuals (and groups as well), and the relations between these relations (and between such relations and nature and the products of such relations)” (e.g., relations between student & teacher, husband & wife, capitalist & worker, slave & slave-owner…). “Mass behavior is an important social-psychological phenomenon, but it’s not the subject-matter of sociology” [Bhaskar 1998, 29].

Methodological individualism includes utilitarianism, liberal political theory and neoclassical economic theory, according to which “reason is the efficient slave of the passions and social behavior can be seen as the simple maximization problem: … the application of reason… to desires… or feelings… that may be regarded as naturally given. Relations play no part in this model [Bhaskar 1998, 29].

“To say that people are rational does not explain what they do, but only at best how they do it.” For Bhaskar, rationality is an a priori presupposition of scientific inquiry, without any explanatory content and is almost certainly false. He used neoclassical economics as an example of a normative theory of efficient action, generating a set of techniques for achieving given ends, rather than an explanatory theory. He also stated that methodological individualism denies that: “the material presence of society = persons and the (material) result of their actions” [Bhaskar 1998, 30].

According to Bhaskar, Durkheim’s conception of the subject-matter of sociology is a collectivist one. This conception is different from the utilitarian individualist conception, and also from Bhaskar’s relational conception. He argued that in Durkheim enduring relationships must be constructed from collective phenomena, whereas for Bhaskar (the realist/relational view) collective phenomena are the expressions of enduring relationships [Bhaskar 1998, 30]. Bhaskar said that while Durkheim combined the collectivist conception of sociology with a positivist methodology, Max Weber combined a neo-Kantian methodology with an individualist conception of sociology. For Bhaskar, neither Durkheim nor Weber was able to depart from their empiricist commitment.

According to Bhaskar, there are two major sociological theories: Weber (Model I): society determines individual human behavior (voluntarism); and Durkheim (Model II): individual human behavior determines society (reification). A 3rd model advocated by Peter Berger and his disciples (Model III) suggests that society forms the individuals who create society. In this model, society produces individuals who produce society in a continuous dialectic (illicit identification). In Berger’s model, “society is the objectification or externalization of human beings. And human beings are the internalization or reappropriation in consciousness of society” [Bhaskar 1998, 32]. However, Bhaskar argued that this model is “seriously misleading” because it succeeds only in combining Weber and Durkheim. Note that for Bhaskar, “people and society… are not related ‘dialectically’. They do not constitute two moments of the same process. Rather they refer to radically different kind of things” [Bhaskar 1998, 33].

From a critical realist perspective, Bhaskar argued that society is not created by human beings, although it is reproduced and transformed by them. In Bhaskar’s transformational model of social activity (Model IV), society and human praxis must have a dual character. “Society is both the ever-present condition (material cause) and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency.” This is the duality of structure. “And praxis is both work, that is, conscious production, and (normally unconscious) reproduction of the conditions of production, that is society.” This is the duality of praxis [Bhaskar 1998, 34-35]. On the other hand, human action is characterized by intentionality. There is an important distinction to be made between ‘people & societies’, and also between ‘human actions & changes in the social structure’. According to Bhaskar, people, in their conscious activities, unconsciously reproduce and occasionally transform the structures governing their substantive activities of production [Bhaskar 1998, 35].

Bhaskar’s model advocates that:

People do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce or transform, but which would not exist unless they did so. Society does not exist independently of human activity (the error of reification). But it is not the product of it ((the error of voluntarism) [Bhaskar 1998, 36].

Skills, competences and habits are acquired and maintained as necessary preconditions for reproducing and transforming society: This is the process of socialization. In Bhaskar’s words:

Society… provides necessary conditions for intentional human action, and intentional human action is a necessary condition for it. Society is only present in human action, but human action always expresses and utilizes some or other social form [Bhaskar 1998, 34-35].

Four key characteristics regarding society and intentional human action are highlighted by Bhaskar:

· Society (intentional human action) cannot be identified with intentional human action (society).
· Society (intentional human action) cannot be reduced to intentional human action (society).
· Society (intentional human action) cannot be explained in terms of intentional human action (society).
· Society (intentional human action) cannot be reconstructed from intentional human action (society).

According to Bhaskar, Model I has actions but no conditions, Model II has conditions but no actions, Model III confuses actions and conditions; and Model IV, by emphasizing material continuity, accounts for change and history.

Given that social structures are the appropriate mechanism used to explain social events, Bhaskar argued that social structures (unlike natural structures) “exist only in virtue of the activities they govern and cannot be empirically identified independently of them.” Social Unlike natural structures, social structures do not exist independently of activities they govern; they do not exist independently of the agents’ conceptions of what they are doing in their activity; and as a result, social structures can only be relatively enduring [Bhaskar 1998, 38].

According to Bhaskar, society is an articulated ensemble of tendencies and powers that:
1) exist only as long as they are exercised;
2) are exercised through human intentionality; and
3) are not necessarily universal and ahistorical [Bhaskar 1998, 39].

Moreover, social structures must be conceived as in principle enabling, not just coercive… these structures are irreducible to their effects, and yet they are only present through their effects [Bhaskar 1998, 40]. Thus, he asserted that social relations are based on social rules, not on any kind of ‘natural laws’.

At this stage of analysis, Bhaskar asked, “What is the relationship between the relational conception of sociology and the transformational model of social activity?” His answer stated that human agency must be linked to social structures by an enduring ‘point of contact’ that is occupied by individuals. This mediating system is what Bhaskar called the position-practice system [Bhaskar 1998, 40-41].

Besides the three ontological limits to naturalism cited above: Namely, society is an articulated ensemble of tendencies and powers that:

1. exist only as long as they are exercised;
2. are exercised through human intentionality; and
3. are not necessarily universal and ahistorical [Bhaskar 1998, 39].

Bhaskar presented an epistemological limit and a relational limit to naturalism. The epistemological one refers to the fact that social science cannot be experimentally closed, it must be within a context of an open system, and thus it can only be explanatory but not predictive. The relational limit is that social science is internal to its subject-matter, thus the objects of knowledge are intransitive and cannot exist outside of society.

The main concepts pointed out by critical realists suggest that social activities are historically and institutionally determined. Thus, social theory sorts out relations that are real but not empirical. Furthermore, beliefs are social objects, and therefore they must be taken into account by social scientists. According to Bhaskar, social science is neutral in a sense that its factual statements cannot be derived from values and at the same time, values cannot be derived from factual statements. He also argued that human beings make value judgments in both social and natural sciences, even as they decide what is the object of scientific study.

As Bhaskar has argued in his book The Possibility of Naturalism (1975), reality exists independently of our conception of it; therefore if we want to generate scientific knowledge, we can use neither positivism nor hermeneutics. Positivism is internally inconsistent by virtue of combining Humean ontology with Cartesian epistemology. Whereas Hermeneutics fails to generate adequate scientific knowledge because of its over-emphasis on coherence between meaning and interpretation, instead of the crucial coherence between meaning and reality. Critical realism, according to Bhaskar, sees the production of meaning as law-governed but not determined [Bhaskar 1998, 123].


1. Some ideas put forward in this essay are inspired by discussions in class seminars as well as other readings listed below.
2. In this sense, critical realism appears to be relativist rather than absolutist.


Archer, Margaret, et al. (editors). Critical Realism: Essential Readings. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
Ardebili, Morteza H. “Unpublished Lecture Notes: Social Science 610, Philosophy of Social Science,” Department of Economics & Social Science Consortium, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Fall 2001.
Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science (2nd edition), New York and London: Verso, 1997.
_______. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences (3rd edition), New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
Collier, Andrew. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. New York and London: Verso, 1994.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (4th edition 1998 [1637]).
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Eric Steinberg. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (2nd edition 1993 [1777]).
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962 (3rd edition published in 1996).
Lawson, Tony. Economics & Reality. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

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