Q. Can you tell us what is distinctive about critical realism as compared with other realist epistemologies and philosophies of science?
A. The answer to this question would take an interview in its own right! But very briefly, it used a transcendental method of argument, which most philosophies of science didn’t use, and then the transcendental argument became a dialectical one in which the force was immanent critique. Secondly, it had the various propositions about ontology, about the necessity of ontology, about the particular place or shape of ontology – that the nature of the world is presupposed by science – which it explicitly thematised, and it was shown that rival philosophies of science tacitly secreted or implicitly presupposed some distinctive, normally Humean, ontology that was quite inadequate to the real nature of being and the true character of science. The sort of ontology I was arguing for was the kind of ontology in which the world was seen as structured, differentiated and changing. And science was seen as a process in motion attempting to capture ever deeper and more basic strata of a reality at any moment of time unknown to us and perhaps not even empirically manifest.
So this created a radically new world view and this world view was taken into the philosophy of social science, into ethics, into politics to a small extent, into other branches of philosophy, into the history of philosophy, and above all into the area of dialectic.
Now there is a third thing besides the content of the particular thesis at issue at any particular stage in the development of critical realism. Through and through critical realism has been critical of what we can call the nature of reality itself. Not the nature of absolute reality, or the absolute structure of being – to be critical of that is to put oneself into the position of God or the creator of the universe – but rather it is to be critical of the nature of actual, currently existing, social reality, or of our understandings of social and natural reality. It has always taken epistemologies, philosophical thesis, etc., as reflections of the society in which they are generated and sustained. And as far as these theses are misleading, they point to deep categorial confusions and errors inherent in the very structure of social reality itself. So it was natural to find an identification between people who were influenced by critical realism and left-wing socialist, Marxist and other critical currents of thought in the 1970s and through on into the 1990s.
And so I would say that the three major distinctive things about critical realism are: its transcendental and dialectical character; the content of its particular theses; and the fact that it is critical of the nature of reality itself, in the first instance social reality, including the impact of human beings upon the natural world in which they are embedded and in which they are at present creating so much havoc.