Realist Theory

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Realist Theory





Theoretical schools and trends represent more than abstract, free-floating ideas. They are socially moored, and need to be seen in relation to other intellectual and social trends. Realism has been present in philosophical thought at least since Aristotle, but the return of realism in recent years can be best understood as a reaction against the dominance of postmodernism in the academy, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. What we have now come to call postmodernism (even when some of its adherents disavow the label) is a theoretical position that relies on a definable epistemic stance what the philosopher Bernard Williams has called the stance of the denier. At the most general level, what is being denied is the value of such intellectual (and social) ideals as truth and objectivity.

The current version of realism in literary and cultural disciplines emerged as a response to postmodernism as an epistemological position. Drawing on sources in realist philosophy of science (e.g., the work of Putnam and Boyd; see Antony [1993] for a good exposition), and in solidarity with the progressive goals of postmodernist thinkers, recent versions of realist theory, identified as critical realism or postpositivist realism, attempt to go beyond both idealism and positivism without relying on the relativist and skeptical stance that characterizes postmodernist thought of various stripes (see Steinmetz 1998 on critical realism, inspired by Bhaskars work; on postpositivist realism, see Boyd 1988; Livingston 1988; S. Mohanty 1997, 2001, 2004; Moya and Hames-García 2000). In the social sciences, where postmodernism has had at best marginal influence, some critics of positivism invoke postmodernist theses about the social and discursive construction of social phenomena to move beyond narrow empiricism, but other theorists of social science, suspicious of postmodernism, are more robustly realist (see Calhoun 1995; Gilbert 2001). (Postmodernists and contemporary antipositivist realists share a commitment to one version or another of the social construction idea, but much depends on how that idea is specified and developed.)

Key postmodernist figures such as Jacques Derrida saw themselves as deconstructing the idealist substructure of Western thought, the idealism that sometimes permeates even some self-avowed materialist approaches. Contemporary realists share the anti-idealist perspective of deconstruction and other strands of postmodernism but also develop a nonpositivist account of the very concepts postmodernists wanted to denyconcepts such as truth and objectivity most centrally, but also reference (Boyd 1988; S. Mohanty 2004), causation (Miller 1987; also see Somers 1998, a sociologist who draws on an alternative tradition of realism), identity, and experience (Alcoff 2000; S. Mohanty 1993; Moya and Hames-García 2000; Siebers 2004).

A serious debate between the postmodernist position and the contemporary realist one has barely begun, and narrowly partisan rhetoric, mistaking intellectual disagreement for political hostility, has prevented a genuine engagement. But the implications of the questions that are being scrutinized are largeand these questions could, for the first time in recent years, gather practitioners of the humanities and the social sciences together on common intellectual ground.


Often, key theoretical slogans become more useful when their underlying claims are questioned and clarified. The postmodernist movement relies, for instance, on a critique of illegitimate and overly general historical accounts what Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) and many others following his lead called grand narratives. On one level the rejection of grand narratives is a rejection of ethnocentric (Hegelian) accounts of entire cultures and civilizations. But on another level the critique extends more generally to all explanationshistorical or social (see Spivak 1990 for one typical example). The danger with this approach is that it is too extreme, conflating as it does all kinds of idealization, legitimate and illegitimate. After all, all explanation (in the natural and the social sciences) requires idealization, the tracing of a perspicuous pattern through the vast mass of available data, and an indiscriminate skepticism toward all grand narratives and all explanations prevents us from distinguishing good, productive use of idealization from overly general and distorting ideal accounts.

A more useful critical approach would examine the ways in which both Hegelian idealizations of history and positivist methodologies, despite their differences, demand (as Richard Miller [1987] puts it about the latter) a debilitating worship of generality. As Miller argues, the positivist covering law model of explanation relies on an overly abstract understanding of phenomena, given its primary commitment to subsumption under general laws, scientific or historical. Realist philosophers of science such as Miller thus typically emphasize an approach that is more hermeneutical, reflexive, and dialectical.

The crucial antipositivist point made by realist philosophers of science and social science is this: Background or auxiliary theories, which are ineliminable, have epistemic significance; there are no theory-independent methods and there is no unmediated knowledge. This is a hermeneutical point on which they agree with such forebears of postmodernism as Martin Heidegger, who urged that we acknowledge the theoretical forestructures of understanding. Realists such as Hilary Putnam and Richard Boyd would differ sharply from Heideggers postmodernist descendants, however, by insisting that a nonpositivist objective knowledge is possible and that it is gained by taking the epistemic import of our background theories seriously. Putnams antipositivist insights lead him and others not toward relativism or skepticism but to a sophisticated notion of objectivity as theory dependent and situated. On this view, objectivity is not neutrality; rather, it is the product of active engagement with the content and implications of our theoretical and ideological presuppositions. For Putnam and others, the postmodernist denial of objectivity rests, ironically, on an essentially positivist framework: The postmodernist thinks that the only possible form of objectivity is a positivist one, based on the ideal of a completely atheoretical and aperspectival knower. And when the postmodernist (rightly) sees that such a knower is a dangerous fiction, a false myth, he or she (wrongly) concludes that objectivity as such is impossible to achieve. That conclusion follows only if one agrees with the postmodernist that the positivist conception of objectivity is the only candidate available. The nonpositivist account of theory-mediated (or theory-dependent) objectivity is an attempt to sketch an alternative notion of objective knowledge that is dialectical, hermeneutical, and situated.


Richard Boyd (1988) makes the important argument that after recent developments in realist philosophy it is possible to see how the justification of moral claims is not altogether different from justification procedures in natural science. Both rely on a holistic process of achieving reflective equilibrium (Rawlss phrase) among our various beliefs, theories, and rational conjectures. The sharp positivist distinction between the hard sciences and the softer areas of human knowledge is untenable on this view. Boyd proposes a materialist account of the human good as based on our best scientific understanding of human natureour deepest needs and capacities, for instanceand on our best conjectures about how these needs can be met and these capacities realized. Realist thinkers argue that even the most objective moraland aesthetictheory be seen as corrigible, since it is the product of social inquiry. Even when such inquiry is based in everyday practice, it is rationalin the broadest sense of the wordand purposive, and hence not all that different from inquiry in the natural sciences (Babbitt 1996; Boyd 1988; Gilbert 2001; S. Mohanty 1997, 2001; Railton 2003).


In literary and cultural theory, where postmodernist ideas have been immensely popular, realist theorists have outlined a series of proposals about such key concepts as experience and identity (and, more recently, values). Extending the nonpositivist view of moral objectivity to these social-theoretical domains, realists have argued since the mid-1990s against a purely constructivist view of experience and identity, showing how both can be not only constructed but also real (see Alcoff 2000, 2006; S. Mohanty 1993; Moya 2002; Moya and Hames-García 2000; Siebers 2004; Wilkerson 2000). The key thesis here is that claims about our subjective experiences and social identities are mediated by ideology and social context, and by theoretical presuppositions, but are nonetheless evaluable claims. They are explanations, and can be evaluated by comparing them with other relevant and competing explanationssince they refer not to mysterious inner essences but outward, to key features of the social world and to the individuals location in that world. This theoretical proposal counters the postmodernist argument that experiences and identities are purely constructed and hence epistemically unreliable (Culler 1982; Scott 1991).

Realists about identity argue, moreover, that the future of progressive social struggles depends on greater clarity about the ways in which identity claims are justified, clarity about where and why such claims are valid, and where and why they are specious. Realists propose that we take the epistemic content of experiences and identities of minoritized groups seriously, since they contain alternative (buried or explicit) accounts of the world we all share. The development of objective knowledge about society grows out of an engagement with such alternative perspectives (see the ongoing work of the Future of Minority Studies Project).

One important consequence of this rehabilitation of identity is we can see how the best kind of moral universalism (the kind that underwrites our conceptions of human rights, for instance) is compatible with those particularist moral claims that require us to take minority identities seriously. Instead of railing against all aspects of Enlightenment thought, realists suggest how the best strands of Enlightenment universalism can accommodateand indeed complementthe identity-based struggles of minoritized groups (e.g., women, racialized populations, gays and lesbians, the disabled) in a modern, diverse society (S. Mohanty 1997; C. Mohanty 2003; Teuton 2006).

SEE ALSO Civilization; Culture; Derrida, Jacques; Empiricism; Epistemology; Hermeneutics; Human Rights; Idealism; Identity; Identity, Social; Minorities; Narratives; Objectivity; Philosophy; Philosophy of Science; Politics, Identity; Positivism; Postmodernism; Relativism; Social Science; Subjectivity: Overview; Universalism


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Satya P. Mohanty