Wednesday 20 July 2005

Critical Realism: Roy Bhaskar

The sociological philosopher Roy Bhaskar developed an epistemological model known as “critical realism.” Bhaskar developed this model in several books, but his most influential work is The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences (1979; 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1998). Inspired by Bhaskar’s work, there is now a Centre for Critical Realism, an International Association for Critical Realism, and a Journal of Critical Realism.

Many scholars in both theology and biblical studies have been employing critical realism as a working method, especially because it claims to offer a way beyond the postmodern impasse. But unfortunately not many Christian scholars have engaged directly with Bhaskar’s own work (a notable exception is Alister E. McGrath, in the second volume of his Scientific Theology). Here is a quick list of the central points of Bhaskar’s critical realism:

There are three fundamental principles in Bhaskar’s critical realism:

  • ontological intransitivity (reality exists independently of knowledge)
  • epistemic relativity (all knowledge is socially constructed)
  • judgmental rationality (there are rational grounds for preferring some beliefs over others)

    According to Bhaskar, reality is stratified, and it consists of three levels:
  • the empirical level (the level of experiences)
  • the actual level (the level of events and states of affairs)
  • the real level (the level of underlying structures, causal laws, and “generative mechanisms”—for Bhaskar, all true knowledge is knowledge of this underlying level)

    In my next post I’ll offer a comment on theological engagements with Bhaskar’s critical realism.

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