Thursday 21 July 2005

Critical Realism: Remaining Problems

Yesterday I listed some of the potential benefits which a critical realist method might offer for theological and biblical scholarship. But I think some important problems and questions still remain unresolved, and I don’t think Christian scholars have yet given these problems the serious reflection that they demand. Let me note two of these problems:

1. The question of Marxism. Roy Bhaskar’s own sophisticated critical realism is explicitly and essentially Marxist. Bhaskar’s intention was to develop a theory of knowledge and reality which would make possible the socialist transformation of human societies. At the heart of Bhaskar’s model is the notion that true knowledge is knowledge of the deepest stratum of reality (the “real level”), i.e., not the level of empirical experience but the level of basic underlying structures. And if such structures are both real and knowable, then in turn a socialist transformation of these structures is possible; and, indeed, for Bhaskar such socialist transformation is the exact goal of all knowledge-production.

It is no surprise, then, that the burgeoning critical realist movement seems to a significant extent to be a new Marxist movement (witness the zeal with which older Marxists have thrown their support behind the new critical realist movement). Yet Christian scholarship on critical realism seems barely to have noticed the fundamental political structure of the critical realist method. It should be a task of future scholarship to clarify the exact relationship between critical realism and Marxist politics, and then in turn to clarify the relationship between this politics and Christian appropriations of a critical realist method.

2. The response to postmodernism. Critical realism is frequently promoted—not least of all by Christian scholars—as the definitive response to postmodern thought. It is portrayed as a theoretical position which allows us to move decisively beyond the postmodern impasse. But is this really the case? It seems to me that critical realist scholars have not yet taken seriously enough the questions and problems of poststructuralist theory. Questions about the nature and function of language and about the construction of texts seem to be bypassed or virtually ignored by much writing on critical realism. And if critical realism is really to move “beyond” postmodernism, then it will first have to go through postmodern thought, not merely around it.

I’m not offering these points as objections to the critical realist method. I’m only suggesting that (1) any method has political implications, and Christian scholars should not be unaware of such implications; and (2) enthusiastic announcements of the end of postmodern theory may be premature.

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