Critical realism is a philosophical theory of reality and human knowledge. Critical realism posits that humans are capable of learning objectively about the world, without interference from human psychology or other subjective factors that color perception. However, critical realists do not think this is a simple thing to do. To see the world as it really is, one must learn and then reflect critically on what was learned and on how it was colored by the limits of human perception.
Critical realism came about as a respnse by German philosophers to idealist philosophy popular in the late 1800s. In the American philosophy movement, critical realism caught hold around 1916, as a means of blending idealism and the notion that humans could know their world as it truly was, with new realism, which purported that the external world was exactly as it seemed. The name "critical realism" came about in 1966 when philosopher Ian Barbour spoke about scientific realism and theological realism, which respectively posit that their claims hold weight because a scientific reality and divine reality exist independently of human stories, experiments or theories.
The major themes in critical realism are these: A reality exists independent of human conception and perception. The rules, laws, events and mechanisms of this underlying reality are at play in all of our observable experiences and events. In the natural world, this underlying mechanism refers to the natural laws that have visible effects -- for example, gravity or aging. In the social realm critical realism still can be applied, but it is not predictive. Because the underlying social rules and mechanisms are created by humans, they are constantly evolving over time and geography. Critical realism can be used to describe current or past situations. It cannot, however, lead to certainty about future outcomes.
Classic Authors and Texts
Ian Barbour's 1966 diologue, "Issues in Science and Religion," published by Harper and Row in 1971, first identified critical realism as an independent theory that furthered the work of scientific realism and theological realism. That work was expanded by Arthur Peacocke, whose "Intimations of Reality: Critical Realism in Science and Religion" was published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 1984. Going back further, Roy Wood Sellars was the first American philosopher to write about critical realism, in his 1916 work, "A Study of the Nature and Conditions of Knowledge," which became available as a reprint in 2010.
There are several points of criticism often handed to critical realism and scientific realism. In the natural world, the issue of experimental results proving a particular theory is often questioned. Just because a particular result is observed, that does not prove that any given theory about the mechanism behind that result is empirically true. Over time, science has unshakably proven, then discarded, theories about the invisible mechanisms of the natural world.