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Bhaskar's Critical Realism

- Comparison with Dooyeweerd

This is an initial and rather summary comparison; please contact me if you have suggestions to develop it into something more sophisticated.

Bhaskar's Critical Realism [Bhaskar, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1991] may be seen as a reaction to the solipsism found in extreme relativisms, in postmodernism and social constructionism. Critical Realism says that there exists a reality independent of our representation of it, but it acknowledges that our knowledge of reality is subject to all kinds of historical and other influences. It draws a clear distinction between reality and our knowledge of reality, and Bhaskar criticises much postmodernist work for failing to distinguish between them. It sees reality and our knowledge of reality as operating in two different dimensions.

Would Dooyeweerd agree? Yes and no. There are many versions of Critical Realism. Dooyeweerd examined that by Riehl, and commented:

"We disagree with Riehl only on one point. Riehl's 'critical realism' prejudices his judgment and causes him to assert that common sense or nave consciousness sets forth such a 'theory' concerning the exclusive objectivity of sensory impressions. // Starting from the metaphysical antithesis between the 'world in itself' and the 'world as it appears to us', he neglects the pre-theoretical subject-object relation which is essential to nave experience. The latter does not confound the subjective sensory impressions with the objective sensory qualities of the things prceived." [NC,III:44ff]

To summarise what follows, Dooyeweerd and CR both believe in a transcending reality. But CR has difficulty with:

Overview of Problems with Critical Realism

[The following text has been inserted from another article on which I was working, because it seemed useful as an overview and covers some things not discussed below; readers can skip this if they wish. A.B. 18 April 2016]

"Taking a transcendence standpoint, however, might be able to address some of these challenges. Critical Realism, as expounded by Bhaskar [1975] and advocated by Mingers [2004] and others in the field of information systems, takes something of a transcendence standpoint. It holds there are three levels of reality (mechanisms, events and experiences); the reality of mechanisms transcends the others and echoes Dooyeweerd's notion of a law side. In the way it understands science, it disagrees with Kant [Klein 200====], and might not be so rooted in immanence philosophy.

"Though Bhaskar and Dooyeweerd both share a skepticism about the foundations of much extant philosophy, and especially of the Kantian gulf, their coverage of it is different. While Dooyeweerd surveys all kinds of philosophy then available, across all aeons, including the Scholastic era that many (including Klein [2004]) skip, Bhaskar [1975] restricts himself largely to the philosophy of science, and Bhaskar [2008] and [2012] concentrates on philosophers of the last 500 years in the West plus a few from India. Bhaskar's text consists mainly of his own ideas and explanations thereof, with occasional reference to other thinkers, while Dooyeweerd's is replete throughout with reference to other thinkers. While Bhaskar refers to the content of other thought, e.g. Hegel in Bhaskar [2008, 113], Dooyeweerd looks more to the mode of the thought and to the hidden assumptions that underlie it (see tt-immctq below).

"However, Bhaskar's [1975] notion has a very different feel from Dooyeweerd's -- which is true even in his later works on dialectical Critical Realism and on meta-reality [Bhaskar 2008; 2012]. Instead of starting in the everyday, Bhaskar begins with the scientific enterprise of finding out about reality theoretically. Even though Bhaskar [2012] has "everyday" in its title, neither the word "everyday" nor the notion of it can be easily found in his text, and not at all in its index. While Bhaskar [1975] recognises the activity of doing science is as important as the perceiving of the data, and Bhaskar [2012] does treat on the importance of aspects like love for the scientist, he does not situate this in wider everyday life. Instead of starting with meaningfulness, Bhaskar [1975] begins with events and experiences. Even though both his later books have index entries on 'meaning', they are few and refer to signification rather than meaningfulness, and in Bhaskar [2012] most of the references to meaning occur right near the end.

"Adequate comparison between Critical Realism and Dooyeweerd still awaits us (a research opportunity in philosophy), but overall it is easy to agree with Dooyeweerd's [1955,III, 45-47] own brief comments on Critical Realism (at least on Riehl's version), that it fundamentally misunderstands everyday experience and some things in the scientific process."

Thought and thing

Like CR, Dooyeweerd was no solipsist, and initially at least he took the side of realism, but then he moved away from that position when he realised that realism tends to assume a detached observer. Much depends on what Critical Realism sees as the 'reality' that is independent of our knowledge and perception and representation of it.

CR differentiates three strata, the real, the actual and the empirical. As Klein [2004:131] puts it, "The REAL are the causal mechanisms and structures that produce actual events a subset of which then is empirically observed." This sounds reasonable, and very much in line with some of Dooyeweerd's thought, as in the following table.

CR Stratum
What it refers to Dooyeweerd agrees Dooyeweerd goes further
The Real Causal mechanisms and structures that produce the actual.

(Note: Some suggest believe actual social structures are part of the Real, others that they are part of the Actual. For example, Volkoff & Strong [2013] see ICT affordances as in the Real domain. )

Similar to law side, which is laws that pertain and response to which by the subject side produces ongoing actuality. According to Dooyeweerd, the law side is originally both diverse and coherent, may be diffracted into modal aspects, each of which is a distinct sphere of law. This provides a framework within which and on the basis of which all can existence or occur in meaningful ways. This is the basis for Dooyeweerd's theory of entities. It is only within the law-side that true universality is possible. 'Causal mechanisms and structures', evokes a rather deterministic tone in our thinking. Even though in fact CR does not mean it to be deterministic, Dooyeweerd's notion of law-that-is-responded-to is much more dynamic, allowing more dignity for the subject (even physical subjects) and freedom. It is also more general, in that causality implies a one-to-one correspondence between cause and effect, while law allows for multiple repercussions. Dooyeweerd's notion is also more fruitful, in that it invites us to ask "What kinds of law are there", which leads to an understanding of diversity, specifically as aspects.
The Actual What actually happens, whether observed or not. This is similar to Dooyeweerd's subject or entity side. That is, the concrete, actual happenings, things, experiences, etc. Events arise because, and by virtue that, entities function in the aspects. Entities exist because, and by virtue of, some functioning in the aspects. For example a poem exists by virtue of its meaning in the aesthetic and other aspects. All of the subject side of reality is subject to the law side and come into being as a result of responding to aspectual law. CR again has a rather thin, undifferentiated notion of the actual. Dooyeweerd, on the other hand, sees things as multi-aspectual, i.e. having multiple simultaneous modes of functioning and of being. While CR might allow such diversity, Dooyeweerd encourages consideration of it.
The Empirical What is observed. The observation usually being assumed to be not of an informal, casual, everyday kind, but of a formal, analytical, theoretical kind. Dooyeweerd differentiates two kinds of 'observation'.
  • Pre-theoretical, in which we are aware of things by virtue of functioning in various aspects, including the analytic aspect as an engaged subject-object relationship.
  • Theoretical, in which we 'stand over against' what we observe. We focus on one aspect, engaging in a Gegenstand relationship, which is radically different.
CR does not seem to differentiate the theoretical from the pre-theoretical, seeming to assume that pre-theoretical observation can be subsumed into theoretical, as a kind of fuzzy version of it.

Moreover, whereas to Bhaskar the empirical is as different from the actual as the actual is from the real, Dooyeweerd would see the empirical as part of the actual, with both enabled by the 'real'. Empirical, to Dooyeweerd, refers not to a separate realm of temporal reality, but to an attitude towards the world, of observing, usually theoretically. This is probably what Dooyeweerd meant when he criticised Riehl's CR (above) for ignoring the pre-theoretical subject-object relation.

To Dooyeweerd, therefore, reality is, more fundamentally law than entity, and meaning than being. It is one of Dooyeweerd's criticisms of Western thought from the early Greeks to today that it has presupposed that reality is, more fundamentally, entity and Being. It is not surprising that Critical Realism has taken on the mantle of entity-orientation.

Baloch & Cusack [2011] make an interesting combination of the three realms of CR with Dooyeweerd's aspects, to create an 'ontology evaluation grid', to evaluate knowledge representation ontologies. They propose that every aspect should be applied to each of real, actual and empirical.

Entities etc.

However, this is not as simple as it seems. According to Mingers' [2004:381-383] useful summary of Bhaskar's Critical Realism,

So it seems that CR is reaching for something of Dooyeweerd, but is still hampered by an entity-orientation.

On the Actual-Empirical Distinction

Dooyeweerd has two 'sides' of reality, law-side and subject-object-side; CR has three realms or domains: Real, Actual, Empirical. Is CR therefore more refined than Dooyeweerd, with three rather than two, and thereby to be preferred?

CR separates empirical from actual as deeply as it separates these from real. Thus CR perpetuates the presupposition that observation, and especially theoretical thought, is somehow separated from the actual. The implies or at least connotes that the observer is detached from the actuality being observed. Dooyeweerd utterly rejects this. He strongly maintains that all observation is itself part of actuality.

However, in defence of CR, it may be that the empirical is the results of observation - the curious phenomenon of knowledge. However, even there, Dooyeweerd would say that knowledge and knowing are themselves part of the actual, and knowing is a type of functioning, not something different. Though knowing has some special characteristics compared with other types of functioning, it is still a functioning within the actual.

CR would seem to privilege knowing and knowledge over all other actuality. Or, as Dooyeweerd put it [NC, III, 45], it "opposes reality [the Actual] and consciousness (the Emprirical]" as a form of "nominalism [which] shatters the temporal coherence of reality, thereby involving itself in an irreconcilable conflict with the data of nave experience." CR, like Kantianism, holds that ultimately we cannot know. Dooyeweerd believes we can know, because our knowing is a functioning in the same law-side or 'ocean of meaningfulness' as that which is known.

This perhaps helps us make more sense of Dooyeweerd's statement earlier that CR makes a theory of pre-theoretical experience.

On Research methods

Philip Dobson [2002] discusses how critical realism would approach research in the social aspects of information system, especially when compared with the interpretive framework for research as set out by Galliers [1992]. Galliers suggests that the object of research (whether society, group or individual) and the type of research (theory testing, theory building or theory extension) are independent of each other, and he suggests a different type of research method is appropriate for each of the nine possibilities.

Ignoring what these methods are, Dobson makes two points from the stance of critical realism:

The relationship between ontology and methodology is explained by Archer [p.16] (cited by Dobson) as:

"the social ontology endorsed does play a powerful regulatory role vis-a-vis the explanatory methodology for the basic reason that it conceptualises social reality in certain terms. Thus identifying what there is to be explained and also ruling out explanations in terms of entities or properties which are deemed non-existent. Conversely, regulation is mutual, for what is held to exist cannot remain immune from what is really, actually or factually found to be the case."

Comparison with Dooyeweerd on Research Methods

Dooyeweerd would agree with a number of the points above:

But Dooyeweerd might pose a number of critical questions for critical realism (these are some initial suggestions, for which critical comment is invited):

Issue Critical Realism Dooyeweerd
Types of object of research Critical realism accepts there are three levels of object of research: individual, group and society - but on what basis are these differentiated? In what way is it better than interpretivism in this respect? And what about other objects of research? Dooyeweerd can differentiate types of objects of research according to the aspect in which they are meaningful.
Relational perspective Critical realism argues for a relational perspective - but does it make the types of relationship a critical question? Dooyeweerd does: he identifies subject-object, part-whole and five types of enkaptic relationship; that between individual, group and society would be enkaptic rather than part-whole.
Interdependence of object and method of research Critical realism states that these are not independent on each other, but on what basis does it do so? How do we account for the interdependence? Archer suggests this is because we deem certain entities to exist and others not to. But on what basis may we deem the existence or non-existence of entities? Dooyeweerd has a clear answer to this: Entities that are being studied exist in relation to the meaning of an attribute, and to other aspects they might not exist.
Results of research According to Dobson, critical realism cannot engage in falsification (theory testing) nor prediction (theory extension) except in limited ways because 'closure' cannot be created for social situations. Dooyeweerd would partly agree that 'closure' can only be created for science in the determinative aspects. However, it is not so pessimistic about the possibility of prediction and falsification in the normative aspects, because these aspects too have laws, and these laws imply both prediction and testing, though of a non-determinative kind.


Dooyeweerd criticises critical realism, as promoted by Bavink, German philosopher of nature, on the following grounds [[NC, I, 559-560]: Bavink makes a statement
"The principal point is not at all with what methods and means of thought we should approach things, but rather what resulted and probably will result further from this approach which for centuries we have executed with the greatest success without any epistemology. The whole question is not at all a question of epistemology, but rather of ontology, that is to say, it does not matter how I ought to think the world or can or must think it, but how it really is."

Dooyeweerd remarks,

"This statement seems to be philosophically neutral, but it really depends upon a sharply defined apriori philosophical view of the cosmos. It is only meaningful on the condition of our accepting a constellation of reality in which the physical universum is opposed to human thought as a 'world in itself', a constellation in which reality is shut off in its pre-sensory natural aspects2. There is a connection between this view of the cosmos and BAVINK's agreement with the epistemological conception of the merely subjective character of 'secondary qualities' (the objective sensory properties of colour, smell, taste, etc.)" [my emphasis]

This would seem to be true of Bhaskar's view too.


Archer M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach Cambridge University Press.

Baloch, FK, Cusack, B. (2011). Exploring the potential of Dooyeweerd's aspects and Critical Realism for evaluating robustness of ontology in information systems. Australian Conference on Information Systems (ACIS) Proceedings, Paper 39. Download.

Bhaskar R (1978) A Realist Theory of Science, Hassocks: Harvester Press.

Bhaskar R (1979) The Possibility of Naturalism Brighton: Harvester Press.

Bhaskar R (1986) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation London: Verso.

Bhaskar R (1991) Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom Oxford: Blackwell.

Bhaskar R. 2012. Reflections on Metareality: Transcendence, Emancipation and Everyday Life - A Philosophy for the Present. Routledge.

Dobson PJ (2002) "Critical Realism and information systems research: why bother with philosophy?" Information Research 7(2).

Galliers RD (1992) "Choosing information systems research approaches" pp.144-62 in Galliers RD (ed) Information Systems Research: Issues, Methods and Practical Guidelines, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publishers.

Klein, H.K. (2004). Seeking the new and the critical in critical realism: Deja Vu? Information and Organization, 14, 123-144.

This is an excellent critique of CR, well worth reading. But Klein still retains a Kantian presupposition that Dooyeweerd criticises. So we find that whereas in some places Dooyeweerd would agree with Klein, in others he would not.

Mingers J (2004) "Re-establishing the Real: Critical Realism and Information Systems" Chapter 10 in Mingers J and Willcocks L Social Theory and Philosophy for Information Systems. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Volkoff O, Strong DM. 2013. Critical Realism and affordances: theorizing IT-associated organizational change processes. MIS Quarterly, 37(3), 819-34.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Created: 15 June 2004 Last updated: 17 June 2004 research methods. 31 March 2007 added Dooyeweerdian quote and Mingers stuff, and list of things not in CR. 4 November 2009 Real, actual, empirical; klein. 28 May 2013 empirical as part of actual to Dooyeweerd; Baloch. 18 April 2016 section from book; rid counter. 21 January 2017 Added about distinction between Actual and Empirical. 6 March 2020 Bavink quote as Other Material.