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Will the Real “Critical Realism” Please Stand Up?

I am writing my dissertation on critical realism. More specifically I am putting critical realism in conversation with analytic theology. Critical realism feels something like a 1960’s to early 2000’s topic. Except for a form that emerged in the early decades of the 20th century, most critical realists did their work in the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Analytic Theology is much newer, and supplements critical realism in theology in a helpful way. My dissertation aims to show how.

To the extent that critical realism is a modest form of realism, there are probably thousands of scholars who claim to be modest realists, chastened realists, critical realists, cautious realist and so on. This is good news; there is strength in numbers. We should be cautious about the minority thinker who seeks to completely overturn the knowing process.

Anyhow, the real purpose for this posting….is to disagree slightly with a conclusion in an Appendix by Donald Denton in his monograph on Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies. Denton’s monograph compares the historiographic styles of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer. Those who know Meyer’s work, know that he appropriated very much the critical realism of Bernard Lonergan in his own historiographic work. Denton, naturally, has to address critical realism in his book. I should say that Denton’s Appendix is a nice and tidy overview of most of the major critical realist players up until its own writing.

In Appendix 2, Denton naturally tries to get his hands around the “Varieties of Critical Realism.” He opens the appendix saying, “We would do well to clarify some issues surrounding the use of a ‘critical realist’ epistemology. (Denton, 210). In other words, there are an increasing number of people talking about critical realism and things are getting a bit sloppy; let’s clarify things. Denton then proceeds to give a helpful summary of “Three Forms of Critical Realism”: Early Critical Realism (CR1), Critical Realism in Philosophy of Science (CR2), Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism(CR3). Then he moves to “Critical Realism in Jesus Studies”: N.T. Wrights Critical Realism (CRw) and finally the Critical Realism of Bernard Lonergan.

What do I disagree with? I’ll get to the point here. Denton summarizes most of the varieties of critical realism as a via media between two extremes. I think this is correct. He attempts to note various differences among CR1 or CR3 and so on. He suggests N.T. Wright’s use of critical realism is a bit vague/generalist but likewise a middle way between extremes. Then he comes to Lonergan and says that Longergan’s critical realism is different. It is not a via media between extremes. Then he suggests that Ben F. Meyer, who used Lonergan’s critical realism treated as sort of a via media too. He doesn’t say this but he sort of implies that Meyer read that “usage” of Lonergan back onto Lonergan’s critical realism – when the latter isn’t really that. He implies that most of these thinkers are taking middle route between extremes like naive realism and idealism both of which Lonergan accuses of using a conception of “knowing is like taking a look at something.” Meyer suggests that if Lonergan’s critical realism were likewise a via media.. it too would be sitting between two extremes both of which traffic in the idea that “knowing is like looking.” Buuuuuut Lonergan totally contradicts that, says Denton (Lonergan absolutely does contradict this) – and so Denton concludes that Lonergan’s critical realism can’t be of a same sort as these.

I think the better way to sort out critical realisms… is to do more of what Denton starts to do. Line up everyones critical realism with the domain they are working in. Everyone is trying to know about “the real” mind independent world but they are all looking at different corners of it… .and this is what makes everyone’s critical realism a little bit different – even though all critical realists are a little bit the same. In other words, I think most critical realists are trying to avoid two extremes. If this is all you say, then you wind up with a view of critical realism that see’s it as sort of a general position. Modest realism, chastened realism, critical realism—”Meh!” Aren’t we all?

What makes critical realists differ is that they require unique epistemic machinery depending on the field they are investigating. Knowing about unobservable objects in science requires different epistemological tools than knowing real events in history. Obtaining knowledge about “real meaning” in texts is different than real knowledge about medium sized dry goods we perceive by merely opening our eyes. Again, what differentiates all the sorts of critical realism is, minimally, the corner of the world they are looking at. They have to differ this way.

Back to Denton’s Take on Lonergan. I suspect that Denton separates Lonergan’s critical realism too much from the others. What makes Lonergan’s critical realism different? I’ve only gotten into Lonergan a little, but from what I can tell is this. Lonergan’s primary concern in Insight (which later spills over into Method) is not so much “What does it look like to have understanding in Science” or “What does it look like to have understanding in Literature,” or History or what have you. Lonergan’s focus is on – what does it look like to have understanding about understanding? Lonergan has turned the camera around and aimed it at the very knowing process itself – that which occurs again and again in any field. This means that one should probably be able to wedge Bernard Lonergan’s critical realism into anyone’s account of critical realism in this or that field.

In the above sense, Denton is right. Lonergan IS different. Everyone else’s critical realism is looking out at the world. Lonergan is looking in at the knower. That being said, Denton himself gives quotations where Lonergan construes his critical realism as a via media. I think the point is that, when one pursues knowing—in any field—as Lonergan describes it, they wind up in that via media slot.

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