Critical realism needs to be a living tradition

I couldn’t agree more with these remarks from Dave Elder-Vass in a thought-provoking interview. We should be uncomfortable with the idea that the under-labouring has been done:

I’ve never been comfortable with the belief that early critical realism in general, or Bhaskar’s work in particular, is a fully coherent and consistent set of ideas that the rest of us should just use, or add to around the edges. There are problems within that body of work that need to be resolved and I think there are still elements missing from the core of critical realism. I see it as part of my programme to resolve some of those problems and to fill some of those absences, rather than taking the core as read.

I found it interesting that Jamie Morgan pushed back on this in terms of whether anyone would deny it. If he’s correct that “no consistent critical realist could or would deny” this point then it suggests a theory-practice inconsistency which invites explanation, given his own observation that Elder-Vass is relatively rare as a later critical realist to system build in a sustained and comprehensive way.

It’s interesting to consider this later observation from Elder-Vass in these terms, particularly why critical realism has become fixed in its common core and how that reflects the actions of gatekeepers and the accumulation of landmarks:

One of the interesting things about intellectual traditions is the process through which the sense is established that they have a common core of shared features. On the one hand, traditions cannot be allowed to ossify or they become irrelevant, and so there must always be room for shaking up our understandings of what counts as ‘critical realism’. On the other, traditions need gatekeepers – like journal editors – and broadly accepted landmarks – like canonical books and authors – to stop them dissolving away into a morass of divergent opinions.

I’ve always valued his capacity to engage charitably yet critically with other traditions (e.g. the engagement with ANT) and there’s a nice summary of the ethos underpinning this later in the interview:

To walk in their shoes for a mile and do your best to make sense of what they thought and why they thought it before evaluating. When you do that you can often find value in unexpected places – that helps to enrich your thinking as well as making it easier to build bridges to others who have been influenced by those thinkers.

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