Monday, April 15, 2013

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens - Critical Realism 101 (And a Lot More)

Diagram/schematic of theory - Recreated from Mingers and Willcocks (2004)

Critical Realism is not a new philosophical theory, but it has been much more prominent over the last 20 years or so than it had ever been prior. Contemporary critical realism is most closely associated with Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar developed a philosophy of science that he named transcendental realism, and a philosophy of social sciences that he named critical naturalism. Critical realism represents the union of these two ideas.

Critical realism is attractive to advocates of social justice causes due to it's potential for human development. CR (Bhaskar uses the abbreviation, as do others) upholds the "critical and emancipatory potential of rational (scientific and philosophical) enquiry" against both positivist (there is valid knowledge (truth) only in scientific knowledge), and 'postmodern' challenges (relativism). CR stresses the importance of "distinguishing between epistemological and ontological questions and the significance of objectivity properly understood for a critical project." CR conceives of philosophy and social science as socially situated, but not socially determined, which "maintains the possibility for objective critique to motivate social change, with the ultimate end being a promotion of human freedom."

From the Wikipedia entry on Critical Realism:
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.
From the Wikipedia entry on Roy Bhaskar:
Bhaskar's consideration of the philosophies of science and social science resulted in the development of Critical Realism, a philosophical approach that defends the critical and emancipatory potential of rational (scientific and philosophical) enquiry against both positivist, broadly defined, and 'postmodern' challenges. Its approach emphasises the importance of distinguishing between epistemological and ontological questions and the significance of objectivity properly understood for a critical project. Its conception of philosophy and social science is a socially situated, but not socially determined one, which maintains the possibility for objective critique to motivate social change, with the ultimate end being a promotion of human freedom.

The term Critical Realism was not initially used by Bhaskar. The philosophy began life as what Bhaskar called 'Transcendental Realism' in A Realist Theory of Science (1975), which he extended into the social sciences as 'Critical Naturalism' in The Possibility of Naturalism (1978). The term 'Critical Realism' is an elision of Transcendental Realism and Critical Naturalism, that has been subsequently accepted by Bhaskar after being proposed by others, partly because of its appropriate connotations; Critical Realism shares certain dimensions with German Critical Theory (see the Frankfurt School).

In contemporary Critical Realist texts 'Critical Realism' is often abbreviated to 'CR'. A later dialectical development of Critical Realism in Bhaskar's work in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (1993) and Plato Etcetera (1994) led to a separate branch or second phase of CR known as 'Dialectical Critical Realism' (DCRBenton]]. He was a founding member of the Centre for Critical Realism and the International Association of Critical Realism. More recently he has held visiting positions in several Scandinavian Universities. Bhaskar is currently employed at the Institute of Education in London where he is working on the application of CR to Peace Studies.

The first 'phase' of Critical Realism accrued a large number of adherents and proponents in Britain, many of whom were involved with the Radical Philosophy Group and related movements, and it was in the Radical Philosophy Journal that much of the early CR scholarship first appeared. It argued for an objectivist, realist approach to science based on a Kant-style transcendental analysis of scientific experimental activity. Stressing the need to retain both the subjective, epistemological or 'transitive' side of knowledge and the objective, ontological or 'intransitive' side, Bhaskar developed a theory of science and social science which he thought would sustain the reality of the objects of science, and their knowability, but would also incorporate the insights of the 'sociology of knowledge' movement, which emphasised the theory-laden, historically contingent and socially situated nature of knowledge. What emerged was a marriage of ontological realism with epistemological relativism, forming an objectivist, yet fallibilist, theory of knowledge. Bhaskar's main strategy was to argue that reality has depth, and that knowledge can penetrate more or less deeply into reality, without ever reaching the 'bottom'. Bhaskar has said that he reintroduced 'ontology' into the philosophy of science at a time when this was almost heresy, arguing for an ontology of stratified emergence and differentiated structure, which supported the ontological reality of causal powers independent of their empirical effects; such a move opened up the possibility for a non-reductivist and non-positivistic account of causal explanation in the human and social domain.

This explanatory project was linked with a critical project the main idea of which is the doctrine of 'Explanatory Critique' which Bhaskar developed fully in Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (1987). This developed the critical tradition of 'ideology critique' within a CR framework, arguing that certain kinds of explanatory accounts could lead directly to evaluations, and thus that science could function normatively, not just descriptively, as positivism has, since Hume's Law, assumed. Such a move, it was hoped, would provide the Holy Grail of critical theory, an objective normative foundation.

The 'second phase' of Critical Realism, the dialectic turn initiated in Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom (1993) won some new adherents but drew criticism from some Critical Realists. It argued for the 'dialecticising' of CR, through an elaborate reading of Hegel and Marx. Arguing against Hegel and with Marx that dialectical connections, relations and contradictions are themselves ontological - objectively real - Bhaskar developed a concept of real absence which it was claimed could provide a more robust foundation for the reality and objectivity of values and criticism. He attempted to incorporate critical, rational human agency into the dialectic figure with his 'Fourth Dimension' of dialectic, thereby grounding a systematic model for rational emancipatory transformative practice.

In 2000, Bhaskar published From East to West: The Odyssey of a Soul, in which he first expressed ideas related to spiritual values that came to be seen as the beginning of his so-called 'spiritual' turn, which led to the final phase of CR dubbed 'Transcendental Dialectical Critical Realism'. This publication and the ones that followed it were highly controversial and led to something of a split among Bhaskar's proponents. Whilst some respected Critical Realists cautiously supported Bhaskar's 'spiritual turn', others took the view that the development had compromised the status of CR as a serious philosophical movement.

In his Reflections on Meta-Reality, he states:
This book articulates the difference between critical realism in its development and a new philosophical standpoint which I am in the process of developing, which I have called the philosophy of Meta-Reality.
The main departure, it seems, is an emphasis on the shift away from Western dualism to a non-dual model in which emancipation entails "a breakdown, an overcoming, of the duality and separateness between things." However, this move was seen by some to undermine some of early Critical Realisms strongest aspects.
There is also a bit of well-reasoned criticism of Bhaskar, especially his recent turn toward spirituality (also from the Wikipedia entry on Bhaskar):

Whilst his early books were 'models of clarity and rigour', Bhaskar has been criticized for the "truly appalling style" (Alex Callinicos, 1994) in which his 'dialectical' works are written.

Other criticisms have been levelled at the substance of Bhaskar's arguments at various points. One objection to Bhaskar's early Critical Realism is that it begs the question, assuming, rather than proving, the existence of the intransitive domain. Another objection, raised by Callinicos and others, is that Bhaskar's so-called 'transcendental arguments' are not really that. They are certainly not typical transcendental arguments as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have defined them, the distinguishing feature of which is the identification of some putative condition on the possibility of experience. (However, his arguments function in an analogous way since they try to argue that scientific practice would be unintelligible and/or inexplicable in the absence of the ontological features he identifies.)

It has been alleged that the dialectical phase of his philosophy proves too much, since Critical Realism was already dialectical.

Bhaskar's concept of real absence has been questioned by, among others, Andrew Collier, who points out that it in fact fails to distinguish properly between real and nominal absences (in "On Real and Nominal Absences", in After Postmodernism, 2001).

Bhaskar's most recent 'spiritual' phase has been criticized by many (most?) adherents of early Critical Realism for departing from the fundamental positions which made it important and interesting, without providing philosophical support for his new ideas.
The Web Site for Critical Realism offers some excellent resources, including a glossary of major ideas and links to major papers. With that, here is the short piece from Sean Esbjörn-Hargens.

Critical Realism 101

By: Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

ITC 2008 Plants a Seed

I first learned of Critical Realism from Mark Edwards during his 2008 ITC presentation, where he said something to the effect that to not know Roy Bhaskar’s work was to risk not being integral. Well, that was all it took for me to order about 10 books from Thank you Mark for introducing me to Critical Realism!

Mark’s comments led me to begin to study and draw on Critical Realism, which I found quite stimulating, and this led me to write the article “An Ontology of Climate Change." This was my first attempt to augment Integral Theory with the philosophical insights of Critical Realism.

I first met Roy Bhaskar at the International Symposium “Research Across Boundaries” at the University of Luxembourg in June 2010. This important four-day gathering was hosted by Markus Molz. Roy had recently read my ontology article, and upon seeing me at the registration line for the conference he congratulated me on a job well done and thus began a series of conversations. It wasn’t long before Roy and I were planning a Critical Realism and Integral Theory Symposium, which was hosted by the Integral Research Center and took place September 15-18, 2011 at JFK University. Thank you Markus for introducing me to Roy!

Since the JFKU symposium a number of exchanges have been occurring between critical realists and integral theorists. Some of these are documented in the materials below. I’m pleased that the Integral Research Center will be hosting an invitation only ITC 2013 pre-conference symposium on Wednesday July 17th entitled Metatheory in the 21st Century. This symposium will be the basis for a book we have contracted with Routledge to be published July 2014.

Your Critical Realism 101 Packet

For an audio clip of Roy introducing Critical Realism at the opening of the JFKU symposium, see below.

Below are two PDFs to support you getting acquainted with Critical Realism and the engagement between CR and IT. In a future blog post we will provide additional materials that have emerged in the context of a lively debate between Ken Wilber and Roy Bhaskar. But for now these materials should provide a good introduction to Roy and Critical Realism.

A Resource Paper from MetaIntegral Foundation:

From the Journal of Critical Realism:

From the MetaIntegral Critical Realism & Integral Theory Symposium:

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