The lopsidedness of the postconference brings me to the question of the “spiritual turn.” Critical realism supposedly endured a break between the “original critical realism” of A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism and related texts, and the dialectical critical realism announced by Dialectic. I suspect the severity of the break has been greatly overstated – most practical applications of critical realism need few dialectical concepts, if any, and so attitudes toward DCR may lean more toward indifference than opposition. And what defines rejection of DCR? Some of Bhaskar’s notions are keenly debated on philosophical grounds, most notably “alethic truth” (a category error in my view), and his view that there’s indeterminate non-being, not just determinate absence (I’m undecided on this score, and I doubt it has much practical or even theoretical purchase). However, it doesn’t seem to me that disputing these two ideas necessarily constitutes a break from DCR; nor do I see why they should stop one from using the firmer parts of Dialectic, as I do myself. On the whole I think there’s less of a problem here than some have asserted.
However, it’s news to nobody that Bhaskar’s philosophy of metaReality and the “spiritual turn” in critical realism are far more controversial. I can only offer a few brief comments here. There are two main concerns. The first is whether these ideas represent a continuation of critical realism, or a fundamental departure from it. The second is whether it poses any particular problem for the acceptability of critical realism within scholarship more broadly. The two issues are independent.
I’m certainly not the first to say that PMR appears to make several arguments that seem implausible on logical grounds and inconsistent with OCR. Despite Mervyn Hartwig’s protests in the Dictionary, and presumably Bhaskar’s as well, PMR appears incompatible with the materialist philosophies (marxist, feminist, and otherwise) that have grounded the work of many critical realists until now, myself included. Thus PMR seems to have parted ways from critical realism. The claim that it continues and succeeds (“preservatively sublates”) critical realism isn’t very persuasive; to draw a slightly rude but pointed analogy, it looks similar to the way Christianity claims to continue and succeed Judaism.
That said, turning to the second concern, on one level it doesn’t particularly bother me if some people support PMR. On the whole I believe in the “big tent” view of critical realism – although at some point the tent ends. But on another level, I worry that for scholars outside the existing ambit of critical realism, PMR will further muddy the waters regarding what critical realism is all about, exacerbating the accusations that it’s a cult. It may even muddy the waters within critical realist circles themselves, by upping the ante on what it means to be a critical realist.
It might be healthiest for everyone, then, to straightforwardly refer to the adherents of PMR as “metaRealists” while continuing to call the advocates of OCR and DCR “critical realists,” acknowledging that there’s a historical relationship between them, but they’re philosophically distinctive. PMR neither subsumes critical realism nor is utterly alien to it. That may have implications for how we think about the conferences and IACR, but that’s manageable.
The conference in Cardiff will certainly have a different flavor: there will be more people with more extensive and varied experience with critical realism, and more time will have passed for us to think about critical realism post-Bhaskar. That last I’d say is the most important: critical realism should now become a leaderless movement, and attend more closely to expanding into other areas of scholarship, particularly through its conferences.