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Critical Realism

Critical Realism is a diverse and developing movement, and there is no single universally agreed definition of what critical realists stand for. This page introduces some of the founding texts and ideas, but there is considerable debate within critical realism about many of them. Different critical realists tend to advocate different but overlapping sets of ideas drawn from these texts and developed in dialogue with them.

Classic texts and key ideas

An introductory overview by Tim Rutzou.

Roy Bhaskar – Transcendental Realism


In A Realist Theory of Science (1975), Bhaskar argues that the revindication of ontology (that is the study of being) is necessary, not only for providing a realist account of science, but for science itself to understand and sustain the grounds of its own intelligibility and practice. It does so through an inverted Kantian transcendental argument which asks, what must the world be like for knowledge of the world to be possible? In this question we can already begin to see the emphasis of critical realism; prioritising ‘the world’ (the real) over any system of understanding or practice.

So, in order to maintain the intelligibility of scientific understanding, particularly the fallibility and transformation of human knowledge, it holds we must separate epistemology (knowledge, systems, thoughts, ideas, theories, language…) from ontology (being, things, ontics, existents, reality, objects of investigation). This distinction between what critical realism calls the transitive (the changing knowledge of things) and the intransitive (the relatively unchanging things which we attempt to know) is a critical distinction which runs throughout critical realism.

In particular this distinction targets the widely held belief that to speak or desire to speak about “the real world” is either naive or meaningless, and we must only speak of the way in which we understand or arrange the real world, be it through forms of thought, habits or customs, models, or language. This tends to  collapse “mind-independent” being into our knowledge or experience of being (which Bhaskar labels the epistemic fallacy), and is the basis of providing an anthropomorphic account of the world.

Against this, Bhaskar not only argues for the need to do ontology, but for a structured and differentiated ontology which is necessarily presupposed by scientific practice, and in particular, the practice of scientific experimentation. The basic tenets and logic of this argument are simple enough, but the implications extend to a radical revision of the nature of causal laws as expressing the transfactual tendencies of things, and science as investigating mechanisms and not events in an open, and not closed world.

Real structures exists independently of, and are out of phase with, actual patterns of events necessitating the need to perform experimentation so that scientists might make sense of their operation in a controlled and non-complex environment (that is a relatively closed environment). David Hume famously argued that  causation was simply constant conjunction, we see one thing following another and believed them to be connected. This is true of closed systems in which event 2 always follows from event 1. But this is not universally true, and occurs only in certain situations, such as in a laboratory or similarly controlled environment. Most of reality is not a closed system, it is what we call an open-system.

In the open system, constant conjunctions are not always forthcoming. Event 2 does not always follow event 1: we simply need to consider history and social situations to realise this, however it is also true in science. Reality does not conform to the constant conjunction of events. Similarly reality does not conform to our experience of events. What is happening now, has happened, or will happen, is not exhausted by our knowledge or experience, nor does it exhaust the categories and possibilities of reality. Reality is complex, temporal, and changing. This critical distinction frames the differentiation of mechanisms from their exercise, and the occurrence of events apart from our experience (or knowledge) of them.

                        Domain of Real            Domain of Actual            Domain of Empirical        

Mechanisms                      X

Events                                 X                                    X

Experiences                        X                                    X                                    X

It is only if we make the assumption of the real independence of natural mechanisms and structures from the events by which they are known, that we can understand the nature of causality. Causality is thereby understood as operating transfactually, that is the ongoing operation of, and endurance of, these mechanisms apart from the experimentally closed conditions in which they are observed and identified.

The basis of causal law lay in the generative mechanisms of nature, of which we do not have direct, only mediated, experience. These mechanisms can be understood as the way things act, that is the structures, powers, and liabilities which frame an object’s tendencies as they operate and interact. These mechanisms are said to operate in both open and closed systems (but are of course more identifiable in closed systems) and may also be exercised without being manifest (RTS:14). It is thus the powers and potentials of objects (i.e. the operation of mechanisms), which outline the conditions of possibility for nomothetic and normic (i.e. universal) statements.

Key Texts

Margaret Archer et. al., Critical Realism: Essential Readings

Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science

Roy Bhaskar – Critical Naturalism

In the field of social science Bhaskar applies these principles to the prevailing problems in sociology by asking

‘What properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us? My strategy in developing an answer to this question will be effectively based on a pincer movement. But in deploying the pincer I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental. Thus it is because sticks and stones are solid that they can be picked up and thrown, not because they can be picked up and thrown that they are solid (though that they can be handled in this sort of way may be a contingently necessary condition for our knowledge of their solidity)‘. (PON 25)


In particular, critical naturalism seeks to resolve the dualisms prevalent in social science, namely, structure and agency, collectivism and individualism, reification and voluntarism, causes and reason, body and mind, facts and values.

Regarding structure and agency, and following Durkheim, critical realism holds structure precedes human agency in so far as it provides the material causes of human action. We are always thrown into a socio-linguistic-epistemic context in which we must act. But following Weber, the structures of society must not be reified, but operate through the mediation of human agency and social activity. ‘Society is both the ever present condition (material cause) and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency. And praxis is both work, that is, conscious production, and (normally unconscious) reproduction of the conditions of production, that is society. One could refer to the former as the duality of structure, and the later as the duality of praxis (PN 44).’ This dynamic relationship between structure and agency forms the transformational model of social activity (TMSA) and the basis of social scientific investigation in the relationships which constitute ‘society’.  People do not simply create society, for it pre-exists them and is the necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society is instead to be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices, and relationships, which individuals both reproduce and transform, without which society would not exist. 

Key Texts

Margaret Archer et. al., Critical Realism: Essential Readings

Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism

Margaret Archer – Morphogenesis

Beginning with her work on Social Origins of Educational Systems (1979) and her famous critique of Anthony Giddens and structuration theory in 1982 in the British Journal of Sociology Archer’s work has been consistently committed to resolving the tensions in social theory between structure, agency and culture. Indeed, Archer would suggest “The fundamental problem of linking human agency and social structure stalks through the history of sociological theory” with the result that “theoretical developments have tilted either towards structure or towards action, a slippage which has gathered in momentum over time”.

The champion of the day, structuration theory, sought to unite certain functionalist and interactive traditions without derogating the lay actor. However as Archer was to highlight this attempt at duality resulted in an uncontrolled oscillation between moments of structural determinism in which the agent appeared as powerless and passive, and moments of extreme voluntarism in which the agent appeared as completely self-created. At the heart of this was a collapse of analytic dualism which can be represented as an immediacy or a lack of distance and differentiation between moments in which structures are reproduced and moments in which structures are transformed. Notably, in Giddens this meant structures were by and large atemporal and synchronic without much thought given to how the transformation of social structures by agents is possible. Archer argued that the morphogenetic approach coupled with an analytic dualism was a much better footing for social theory.

The morphogenetic argument was that structure and action operate over different time periods such that:
• structure logically predates the action(s) which transform it (t1),
•  structural elaboration logically postdates those actions, which can be
represented as shown in (t4)


In truth, all three lines are always continuous, and the element of analytical dualism only operates to break up the flows into intervals critical to understanding the problem in hand and preventing to collapse into indeterminacy or duality. Given any particular problem, understood temporally , the three lines all extend equally backwards and forwards, connecting up with other morphogenetic cycles. This approach represents the bedrock of  understanding of social and systemic properties, of structuring over time, and enables explanations of specific forms of structural elaboration.

This approach has been refined and further developed by Archer in her many works, elaborating the mechanisms of social transformation, the vital role of the internal conversation, and the analytic necessity of understand the social world as consisting of structure, agency, and culture (SAC), and most recently, the role of reflexivity in the modern world.

Key Texts

Margaret Archer, Realist Social Theory

Dialectical Critical Realism

My project is normative‘. Roy Bhaskar

DPF Routledge

The work of Roy Bhaskar has taken different turns. The first of which was a renewed focus on the question of the dialectic. While dialectical thinking is arguably present throughout critical realism (one might think on the manner in which binaries or dualisms are overcome in works like The Possibility of Naturalism) in Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom, Bhaskar attempts to elaborate the nature of dialectical thinking. First published in 1993, sets itself three main aims: the development of a general theory of dialectic, of which Hegelian dialectic can be seen to be a special case; the dialectical enrichment and deepening of critical realism, viz. into the system of dialectical critical realism; and the outline of the elements of a totalizing critique of Western philosophy.

Following  this, dialectical critical realism (DCR), can be understood as a preservative generalisation and enrichment of the implicit dialectic within critical realism. DCR develops on the general logic and ontology of critical realism to encompass on one hand, negativity and the resources of critique, and on the other, the concept of totality including causation, space, temporality and ethics.

To theoretically situate it within other traditions, we might say DCR follows a ‘non-preservative sublation’ (i.e. it develops but also changes and discards aspects) of the Hegelian (and Marxian) dialectic realised upon a stratified and differentiated ontology in which change is central. Being is understood not only being open, differentiated and stratified (Basic Critical Realism) but permeated by negativity (notably absences), and temporality including change (being is spacio-temporal-causal). To Hegel’s dialectics of identity, negativity and totality, Bhaskar offers four categorical moments of dialectic as non-identity, negativity, totality, and transformative agency (praxis).

In pursuing totality, DCR pushes the dialectic device towards alethic truth (the undisclosed realisation of natural necessity as the power and liabilities of things), encompassing universality and totality as concrete (and not abstract), and, following this,  the possibility of moral realism and ethical naturalism proceeding from metacritical, theoretical, and practical critique coupled with a holisitic understanding (an open totality) of human society.

Central to the revindication of the dialectic is the re-conception of absence as primary, with the process of dialectic itself defined as the absenting of absences, constraints, or ills. This re-vindication of absence proceeds from a critique of the entire philosophical tradition beginning with Parmenides and the philosophy of the unchanging One, centring upon the characteristic error of philosophy, which Bhaskar calls ontological monovalence; the reliance on a ‘purely positive, complementing a purely actual, notion of reality’ (DPF: 4-5).

The first chapter of Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom, clarifies the rational core of Hegelian dialectic. Chapter two then proceeds to develop a general theory of dialectic. Isolating the fallacy of ‘ontological monovalence’,  Bhaskar then shows how absence and other negating concepts such as contradiction have a legitimate and necessary ontological employment. He then goes on to give a synoptic account of key dialectical concepts such as the concrete universal; to sketch the further dialectical development of critical naturalism through an account of what he calls four-planar social being; and following consideration of the dialectical critique of analytical reason, he moves on to the real definition of dialectic as absenting absence and in the human sphere, the axiology of freedom.

Chapter three extends and deepens critical realism’s characteristic concerns with ontology, science, social science and emancipation not only into the realms of negativity and totality, but also into the fields of reference and truth, spatio-temporality, tense and process, the logic of dialectical universalizability and on to the plane of ethics, where it articulates a combination of moral realism and ethical naturalism, whereby consideration of elemental desire involves commitment to the eudaimonistic society. This is then followed by a sublime discussion of key moments in the trajectory of Western philosophy, the tradition of which can now be seen to be based on what the author calls the unholy trinity of the epistemic fallacy or the reduction of being to knowledge, primal squeeze or the collapse of structure and alethic truth, and ontological monovalence.

Key Works

Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: the pulse of freedom

Roy Bhaskar, Plato etc.

Alan Norrie, Dialectic and Difference (a good starting place)

The Philosophy of MetaReality


The second and more controversial turn in Roy Bhaskar’s work was a turn toward metaReality. Building on a radical new analysis of the self, human agency and society, metaReality shows how the world of alienation and crisis we currently inhabit is sustained by the ground-state qualities of intelligence, creativity, love, a capacity for right-action and a potential for human self realisation or fulfilment.

MetaReality moves the logic of DCR in sustaining non-identity and the priority of the negative over the positive, towards realising identity and the priority of the non-dual as sustaining the world of duality. It moves from thinking being, to being being including (in its ethical form) becoming our being (realising the potential of being of emancipation).

MetaReality deepens the critical realist schema to encompass re-enchantment in which being is understood as intrinsically meaningful and valuable where the distinction between the sacred and the profane is shown to (in the end) breakdown with the deepest level of being understood as characterised by peace, love, freedom and creativity and therefore as meaningful and valuable (value-impregnated and value-impregnating).

Furthermore, being is understood as non-dual and consisting of non-dual moments. This paves the way for revindicating spirituality as basic to human life, arguing that one can be spiritual without ‘religious frameworks’, and indeed, given the non-dual nature of reality, such a ‘spirituality’ is unavoidable.

MetaReality situates identity and non-duality as a more basic level upon which the world of duality operates. The relationship between non-duality (identity) and duality (non-identity) can be represented as, non-duality < duality, or as identity < non-identity < (false) identity.

Once a realm of duality is constituted, you then have the possibility of that kind of duality which sharpens into a dualism, as in the move from a dialectical connection to an antagonistic contradiction. The realm of duality (or relative reality, with non-duality as absolute reality) thereby gives way to binary oppositions, and in doing so ‘reality’ becomes characterised by dualism, split, alienation, reification, commodification, and the ensuing TINA formations and master-slave relations which arise. Relative reality, when characterised by these dualisms is called ‘demi-reality’, and is a world of causally efficacious illusions; falsities which presuppose a truth, but act to mask and mystify the underlying reality and connection. Relative reality is the world of becoming, encompassing change, process, evolution and development, structured by difference and grounded in non-identity. Demi-reality radicalises the duality of non-identity and difference into alienations, repulsions, and indeed divisiveness, hate, and fear in the social world. Thus, metaReality < relative reality < demi-reality. From this basis, metaReality theorises, love, creativity, action, learning and education, perception and consciousness, the self, the discursive intellect, and the sociology of the everyday, from the categories of non-duality and transcendence to the thematisation of thinking being to being being. Of particular interest to us is the re-vindication of re-enchantment and creativity at the deepest level of being.

Re-enchantment is thematised in chapter 3 and chapter 5 of The Philosophy of metaReality (PMR), and proceeds from the collapse of subject-object duality, and with it the collapse of the semiotic triangle. Here we have immediate unmediated identity of being and meaning, that is reality is seen as meaningful in itself, entailing, among other things, that we can learn from it. The world, as it were, becomes (or more correctly, is seen to have been) a meaningful text which speaks to us. Likewise, values are no longer seen as subjective classifications of the mind, but rather, they are already constitutive of reality itself (peace, love, creativity etc…).

Creativity, thematised in PMR chapter 3, develops from the DCR categories of emergence, holisitic causality, and totality, which in DPF were already considered in terms of autopoeisis and creativity. In metaReality this is deepened, and creativity becomes central to being itself, as the production of something new but something already implicitly or potentially in what was there before. Creativity, is therefore not only characteristic of human thought and action, but of being itself as being is punctuated by emergence (the flaring and fuming of primary matter), transformation, objectification, reflection, etc… The understanding of creativity thereby opens the door to an understanding of the world of becoming, of time and change and of process, and in metaReality this becomes one of the keys to accessing the deep interior of being.

Key Texts

Roy Bhaskar, Reflections on metaReality

Roy Bhaskar, The Philosophy of metaReality

Roy Bhaskar, From Science to Emancipation