Posts Tagged ‘Critical Realism’

I’ve been in Nottingham attending my first academic conference post PhD completion. The conference in question is the annual three-day get-together of Critical Realists, which was a slightly surreal experience (a note on this at the foot of this post).

But the conference itself was preceded by a two-day workshop, a ‘discussion’ on Critical Realism. I put the word discussion in quote marks because there was actually very little discussion and very much note-taking; in short, it was mostly an exercise in listening to the philosopher and founder of Critical Realism (in its current incarnation as a philosophical perspective of research and science), Roy Bhaskar while trying to write down what he was saying. There is something about his presence and delivery that seems to make you do this. Even audience members who had seen and heard him many times reached for their pens whenever he said something like “I’ll just outline for you the four types of laminated system in the dialectic…”

Bhaskar is quite an intellect. Speaking without slides and without many notes, he took the audience step by step through the three main stages of development of his philosophy. You may not need ever to know what these are, but for the record it goes:

1. Original Critical Realism OCR

OCR results from immanent critique of prevalent positivist/empiricist and constructivist/postmodern views of natural and social science. The shortcoming CR addresses in both is their conflation of epistemology (what we can know) with ontology (what there is), and this is known as the epistemic fallacy. Basic CR starts by vindicating ontology. In other words, it is not only acceptable to hold that there must be a world ‘out there’, aspects of which are not necessarily accessible to us in our experience of events, such realism is inescapable. Without it all epistemology would be impossible. To take this one step further, Original Critical Realism presents a stratified (actually, nested) ontology of three levels:

The Empirical, the level of sense data and information, arguably also the level of meaning, which is emergent from….

The Actual, the level of events, which may or may not be experienced by us in the Empirical, emergent from…

The Real, the level of ‘generative mechanisms’ or ‘forces’, ‘fundamental laws’, or tendencies etc. that might, or might not, produce events in the Actual.

You can see that the idea of emergence is quite central to CR and to its aim, which – because the world is an open and not a closed system – is explanatory rather than predictive. OCR chooses to make the inferential jump from the Empirical to the Real. In fact, it insists on this move because the smaller, deductive jump from Empirical to Actual will always falls short of providing fundamental explanatory principles, while the inductive jump from Actual to Empirical is scientifically a very poor way of explaining or predicting.

A couple of other ideas are important here, namely:

a) in CR there are two dimensions of knowledge – transitive and intransitive. The transitive is knowledge that is socially produced, and are all the things that would not exist if we were not here to know them. The intransitive are any entities that exist independently of our knowledge of them. Both types can be causal, but only the intransitive tells us anything about the nature of the Real. You will recall that this is the realm of the fundamental laws of nature, which is what science is trying to reveal (keep up!). Social science is full of heuristics that are transitive (e.g. ‘Ego’, ‘profit’ or ‘leadership’) but these are simply constructions and not explanations (transitive ideas dressed up as intransitive facts).

b) CR is ontologically realist but epistemically relativist. What this means is that we can accept that there can be a variety of views the nature of knowledge, and it also means that knowledge is always fallible.

The above is where a lot of researchers get to and then for various reasons stop. But OCR serves to pave the way to another step in this philosophy that builds on those basic precepts by introducing the dialectic.

2. Dialectical Critical Realism DCR

Having brought a realist ontology (inference about being) back into service to clear the erroneous or rubbish ideas littering science, the second phase of Critical Realism was a connection to epistemology (knowing) that challenges the idea first put forward by the English philosopher David Hume, that science is unable to make the jump from “is” to “ought”.

DCR makes this move by first seeing ontic ‘Being’, established in OCR, as generating a process of epistemic ‘Becoming’. The whole process is dialectic, i.e. it exists only by virtue of inherent contradiction, or difference. Examples of basic dialectic relationships include up/down, beginning/end, on/off, profit/loss etc. (any concept has meaning by virtue of that which it is not…).

The most basic such dialectic is absence. Believe me when I say: this is huge.

DCR continues the philosophic trail by arguing from dialectic parts to the necessity of an emergent whole, or totality, or synthesis (if you prefer), and finally to the idea that human beings can act on the world so as to transform it. Here a whole section of the CR world branches off into the complex relationship between ‘agency’, ‘structure’ and ‘culture’ in social science. Indeed I suspect that is what gets a lot of Critical Realists up in the morning to debate endlessly with each other.

A lot of researchers have followed CR and Bhaskar quite happily to this point, especially if they come to this looking for a framework sympathetic to certain social science traditions and philosophies that also feature the idea of the dialectic.

But Bhaskar wishes, I think, to do two other (related) things with the Philosophy of Science. The first is fostering the whole idea of science as interdisciplinary and integrative. The second is demonstrating that life is intrinsically meaningful. These are themes of the third part, which has been labelled by some as the spiritual turn, though Bhaskar himself sees this as a secular project.

3. The Philosophy of MetaReality

There is as yet, unfortunately, no accompanying text written to offer a layperson’s guide to Bhaskar’s MetaReality, so one is required to refer to the source texts, which are not easy reads, and which have not been picked up or developed by many researchers. But, very crudely, he continues the sequence of developing his ontology by seeing ‘Being’ as:

a) inward, reflexive and natural (or spiritual, if you prefer)
b) re-enchanted (in contrast to the disenchanted view that says Being has no intrinsic value)
c) a matter of awakening

Sounds very hocus-pocus? Don’t worry, a lot of other people think so, too. Bhaskar readily admits that this isn’t easy – we live day to day with our world of dualities, and these undeniably do have a real effect on our lives. MetaReality exposes these, however, as only “demi-reailties”.

Bhaskar’s end point, I would say, is to try and get us to understand something which almost every other ancient (and several modern) philosophy also wants us to see, namely that once we have dealt with and transcended all the dualistic illusions of the self (embodied by us in ideas such as the ego) for what they are, what remains is a non-separation; a nonduality. There are all sorts of ways that this “ground state” presents itself, albeit merely in the briefest of glimpses.

Better that I stop there for if I haven’t already lost you, I am liable to lose myself, since my own reading in this area is still very limited, and in fact Bhaskar is still working on it.

Anyway, the conference is continuing another day, but without me. My own Demi-realities have re-asserted themselves and tomorrow I must return to the office. As far as I could tell, there were three types of person at the conference. The first group, fairly large but the most silent, were people like me – new to academia or new to Critical Realism, probably following only a portion of what was being said by the second group, also quite large, consisting of established academics. But this more experienced and assured group was dominated by people who seemed to me to be going round and round (and then round again) in intellectual circles, making smaller and smaller amounts of common sense. And, to make matters worse, they were doing so to project or protect their egos (ironic, considering CR’s take on that matter). Finally, and thankfully, there was a small group of inspirational and very clever people who had the courage or the vision to move the whole conversation forward. I enjoyed talking and getting to know the first group, found myself with little in common with the second, and learnt some valuable lessons from the last (a section that includes Bhaskar himself).


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Handing the PhD in


That’s the instruction I usually have to give to others at the end of their Henley MBA exam, but today it’s something I have to tell myself (at least for a while) as I have just handed in my PhD Thesis to the Registrar at the University of Lancaster. Done. Dusted.

And what an odd feeling it is.

I am proud of the achievement, and thankful that I had time to make the thousands of small edits and still meet my own personal deadline of the end of February. Now I have to focus on being ready to defend my thesis to a panel of examiners in a viva examination in a few months The fact of the viva is both petrifying and  galvanising – something to occupy the mind, certainly. However, not feeling the need to sit in front of a screen for hours and hours a day with notes, papers and books trying to draft and craft a text is, well, weird.

I might even read a book for the fun of it (I brought two with me up to Lancaster – a Penguin paperback of science fiction short stories, and R G Collingwood’s autobiography. The latter title is cheating a bit, of course.)

Oh, but, you know, this feels good!!!

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