- Critical Realism
N.T. Wright seeks in New Testament and the People of God set forth his approach to the writing of history. Wright begins his multi-volume work at a presuppositional level as for ‘if we do not explore presuppositional matters, we can expect endless and fruitless debate.’1 so ‘it is vital that a project such as this one should show from the outset where it stands on basic questions of method.‘2
N.T. Wright adopts an epistemological method called critical realism which is contrasted, by Wright, to the (i) positivist position and (ii) phenomenalism which are the ‘optimistic and pessimistic version of the enlightenment epistemological project.3
The positivist position seeks ‘solid and unquestionable knowledge4 and this epistemological stance is found among ‘naïve realists’ who ‘have instant access to raw data about which they can simply make propositions on the basis of sense experience.’5 The following diagram illustrates the directness, and absence of the hermeneutical spiral, from the observer to the object.
Observer ————————————————————–> Objectively
-simply looking at objective reality
-tested by empirical observation
-if it doesn’t work, it’s nonsense
We may say that the positivist positivist as applied to historical research is found in Rankean historiography.
The phenomenalist , in contrast to the optimism and epistemological certainty of the ‘positivism’ ‘translates talk about external objects… into statements about sense data’6 for ‘the only thing of which I can be sure when confronted by things in (what seems to be) the external world are my own sense-data’7
-I seem to have evidence of external reality
-but I am really only sure of my sense data
‘Over against both of these positions, I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of thing known, as something other than the knower (hence realism), whilst also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and thing known(hence ‘critical). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principal concerning realities independent of the mid of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower’ 8
It may be represented diagrammatically as
is challenged by critical reflection
but can survive the challenge and speak truly of reality.
A Critical Realist approach seeks to overcome the false choice between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, between enlightenment epistemology and the post-modern response. ‘. Wright notes three things which are needed for critical awareness.
I) There is no ‘gods eye view available to human beings’9 .
II) All information from the real world is interpreted ‘through a grid of expectations, memories, stories, psychological states and so on’..’it is peculiar in terms of my worldview’.
- How we see the world, and historical data, we see ‘because we belong to a particular human community’ for ‘every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations, anxieties, and so forth, which encourage its members to construe reality in particular ways’.10