The problem
Ball of yarnJudgmental rationality, or the ability to evaluate different positions as being better or worse, is a very easy ideal to call for, but is often undeveloped and under-theorized. ‘Critical realism’ begins with the critique of simplistic accounts of realism (often called naïve realism). Once you reject ‘naïve realism’ (often embedded in ‘common sense’), difficult questions arise about how we judge between different and competing accounts of reality.

This is due in no small part to the difficulty of articulating evaluative criteria, let alone universal criteria, and this is true in both social science and natural science. Facts are not neutral objects, but are caught up in a process of knowledge production. Knowledge based solely on experience or empirical data is a myth – facts are theory laden, theory is value laden and values are paradigmatic rather than given. In other words, there is no neutral position with which to view the world or assess theory. But, avoiding naivety, how do we prevent ourselves comfortably slipping into its opposite – judgmental relativism in which knowledge is completely internal to paradigms and without any ability whatsoever to judge between competing perspectives. Such a position leads us to dogmatically entrenched positions and/or skepticism in which our paradigms become monolithic and all encompassing entities which swallow up the world, and us with it.

Finding criteria for judging between different accounts is no easy feat. Various criteria have been suggested ranging from parsimony (Ockham’s razor), predictive success, convention, coherency, explanatory power, ‘best explanation’, even aesthetics. All of this says both too much and too little. Afterall, how do we decide which criteria we should use in any given situation? Following this logic it seems we need another set of criteria, ad infinitum and absurdum. Moreover, some explanations of situations are going to be inherently complex (not parsimonious), incoherent (our reasons for acting are certainly not always coherent) and, as a result, well, ugly. Others might be beautifully simple, but lack ‘explanatory power’ or ‘predictive success’. Furthermore, terms like ‘explanatory power’, ‘best explanation’ and even ‘success’ sound all well and good, but they are also evaluative terms and dependent on normative judgments.

So, how do critical realists address this problem?book picture

Notably, for Bhaskar, rejecting naïve realism entails rejecting the idea of any automatic or mechanical science, and with this, the Baconian pursuit of a “sure and certain method” which would eliminate the need for human thought and thus human error (Bhaskar, 1978: 168). Instead, for Bhaskar, any adequate account of knowledge needs to come to terms which a central paradox: in our social activity we produce knowledge like any other kind of production (chairs, books etc.), and that knowledge of things is not simply a social product and therefore does not solely depend upon human activity (ibid 20). We might say, in Bhaskar’s critical realism, knowledge is produced with both ‘subject-ive’ and ‘object-ive’ aspects and is therefore both a social product produced by a subject and knowledge embodied(?) in an ‘object’ (i.e. what we are trying to get at and the conditions of possibility for our social production of knowledge).

For Bhaskar, there is no 1:1 correspondence between our models and reality. Concepts and models certainly play an important role in scientific thought, but there is a qualitative difference between the two. One can eat an apple, but not the concept of an apple. The adequacy of a concept is always and necessarily intrinsic and immanent to a particular practice and interest. If there are “no general philosophical criteria” which can be “laid down” (ibid: 167) any project of knowledge is inherently going to be a work that requires creative intelligence for which there is no mechanical surrogate (ibid: 167). There is a seeming paradox here, there is just the “general relativity of our knowledge” which insists upon “the impossibility of knowing objects except under particular descriptions” and “[t]here is just the expression (of the world) in speech (or thought)” (ibid: 249)) and yet, our concepts can be more or less adequate in how they pick out certain features of the world. There are not unlimited possibilities for our creative expression. Any theory depends on complex and interdependent relations between the object of knowledge, the known, the knower, the way it is known and the knowing community. Critical realists do not advocate naïve realism! They are attentive to language and concepts and the problems they raise for realism. Knowledge is not pure. But because of this, it is not easy to find good substitutions for terms like truth, or even concepts like realism (c.f. Sayer, 2004: 71).

Practical Adequacy

Here I think Andrew Sayer’s appeal to ‘practical adequacy’ is the best solution one can offer in response to this difficult question:

To be practically adequate, knowledge must generate expectations about the world and about the results of our actions which are actually realized. (It must also, as conventionalists have insisted, be intersubjectively intelligible and acceptable in the case of linguistically expressed knowledge.) The practical adequacy of different parts of our knowledge will vary according to context. The differences in success of different sets of beliefs in the same practical context and of the same beliefs in different contexts suggests that the world is structured and differentiated. (Sayer, 2004: 69)

Notice that practical adequacy bridges reality and conceptuality with practice and activity. Activity drives us to knowledge which thereby drives us to action. Insofar as one is integrated with the other, knowledge is not about the creation of a comprehensive description (how could it be?), nor is it a purely instrumental device for driving action without care to questions of truth. Instead, through practice, and investigation and reflection into the basis of practice, we can begin to get at the structured and differentiated aspects of the world, and come to a greater and fuller picture of the complexity of the world. Where practice and theory come to heads, we can use one to sharpen the other drawing out and examining the implicit theory within practice (the logic of practice) and the implicit practices contained within theory.

Implications of Practical Adequacy

To recognize that a theory has ‘practical adequacy’ is not to presuppose that every part of it is practically adequate, let along true, let alone useful for practice. Practice, knowledge, and the production of knowledge, is a combined and uneven process. Certain parts advance, other parts are placed into new contexts, are lost, are overlooked, or discarded. In fact, not all aspects of practice or a theory are necessarily relevant and may be redundant, wrong, or simply make no significant difference, even though they may function as background beliefs or over-beliefs which we require in our explanations. Our theories are always partial, overdetermined and underdetermined, saying too much and too little, depending on language and concepts which operate in conjunction with practice. Here  I am tempted to call this a triple dialectic or a triple hermeneutic between question of ontology (or reality), practice (activity) and epistemology (conceptuality), without collapsing one into the other.

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Here the language of cartography and map building is particularly ‘useful’ in illustrating, bringing together and highlighting the interdependency of these different elements when it comes to articulating everything from objects, spaces, or themes. A good map represents a deft blend of ontology, epistemology, and practice. A map not only orients our practice and is drawn up with a particular purpose in mind, but it must interpret and transpose, however accurately or not, certain features of the world to guide our action and re-present the world according to various schemas, scales, images, keys and legends.

Maps do not represent everything, let alone everything accurately, but enough to highlight particular features in particular ways with practical purposes in mind. Different maps (fallibly) pick out different features of the world, in different ways to different degrees of accuracy, for different purposes, even when attempting to chart the same area. They may be more or less detailed, contain more or less redundancy, and even gloss over certain features – but they are all constrained by the world they are trying to represent, the conceptual schemas they use and the interpretation they give, and the practice they are trying to guide. Where one of these features is out of balance, the others can be used correct the excesses, lacks and/or defects. When a map is inaccurate, is unhelpful in interpreting the landscape and ceases to guide, direct or explain a terrain, these other elements can be brought in and used as a means of investigating where things have gone wrong.

What ontology does the map secrete? What epistemic features does it deploy? What is the practical purpose behind the production of the map? What is the map trying to get at, in what way, to what end? Does the map adequately explain a particular practice? Have any important features been left out? What has the map under-represented? Over-represented? Inconsistently represented? Is a particular concept providing an obstacle or masking something important? Has the terrain changed since the map was drawn up?

sundial-1388070_960_720For the critical realist this is often connected to an important question: does the map move beyond simply charting surface phenomena and constant conjunctions (empiricism)? Does it have depth? And does it attempt to identify causal or generative mechanisms which may be hidden, latent or operating beneath the surface (not empirically observable)? Is it naive?

Practical adequacy, and the relation between ontology, epistemology and practice it represents, gives us a strong language and conceptual scheme which allows us to modify or critique models, paradigms, and research programs without being mechanical or automatic, but it does require a significant amount of work. Trying to represent the world ain’t easy and neither is assessing where we fall over.

To summarize:

  1. There is no mechanical or automatic relation between our knowledge and the world – only a double hermeneutic between thought and the objects our thought is trying to get at (knowledge and the objects of knowledge).
  2. We can only know things under particular descriptions expressed in words and thoughts.
  3. We need to avoid non-sequiturs – because all knowledge is fallible, this does not imply that all knowledge is equally fallible; because knowledge is socially constructed or produced this does not mean that it is nothing but social constructions etc..
  4. Theories are not necessarily all or nothing but can be overlapping, differentiated, uneven, with different degrees of redundancy and as a result can be mutually compatible, mapping the same place in different ways to highlight different features.
  5. Practice is an active relation which bridges the realm of ideas and the realm of material objects.
  6. Critical realism underlabours for practice but trying to articulate the logic of practice
  7. ‘Theorizing’ as a process involves adjusting our accounts, models and abstractions of objects and relations, so that the various excesses in explanation are avoided and the practical adequacy of our conceptual ‘maps’ is increased.


Bhaskar, R. (2008) A Realist Theory of Science. London: Routledge.

Sayer, A (1992) “Explanation and the question of difficulty II” in Method in Social Science. London: Routledge