Postmodernism vs. Critical Realism

Over the last couple years as a graduate student in sociology (not in philosophy, I should note), I’ve been thinking and reading about various philosophies of science, for both the natural and social sciences, and how those differing underlying philosophies actually relate to the ways that sociologists think about and conduct research. For those (especially more philosophically inclined) people outside of the social sciences, you should know that this is actually a pretty strange thing for a sociologist to do.

Most sociologists, it seems, ignore or otherwise scoot around the philosophical assumptions underpinning their work, and simply go about running regressions, conducting interviews, and writing articles. And by doing so, many sociologists easily end up working in and implicitly accepting one of sociology’s two main frameworks currently animating the discipline: either positivist empiricism or interpretivist constructionism.

Recently, a different view of (social) science—critical realism—has jumped the pond and is now making waves in graduate seminars, at conferences, and through certain publications in sociology and other fields, including theology. I will briefly describe positivist empiricism, interpretivist constructionism, and critical realism below. For now, the main point is that until recently I have thought of these three philosophies of (social) science as more or less distinct buckets. But I have started to see how they fit together analytically in a more organized way—a way that helps us to understand and contrast them more systematically. I’ve sketched out my thoughts in the diagram below.





First, this diagram is divided from left to right by what I have labeled, somewhat heuristically, as “hard” and “soft” positions.

When I refer to a position as “hard” I mean that it is more closely tied to face-value empirical observations and the nature of reality, and so can be thought of as “narrow” or “strict.”

When I refer to a position as “soft” I mean that it emphasizes theories, ideas, and the world of human subjectivity and preferences, and so can be thought of as “open” or “inclusive.”

Second, the diagram is divided into a top and a bottom. The top deals with positions regarding ontology, and the bottom deals with positions regarding epistemology. I know that most readers of this website know what ontology and epistemology are, but for those who don’t:

By “ontology” I am referring to the area of philosophical thought that seeks to answer questions about the structure and nature (or lack thereof) of reality.

By “epistemology” I am referring basically to the philosophy of knowledge, which addresses issues such as what knowledge is, what it means for a preposition to be true, what humans can potentially know, and how exactly we can know things.



This structural division of the diagram results in four positions: A hard position on ontology, a soft position on ontology, a hard position on epistemology, and a soft position on epistemology. These four positions, as I understand them, are as follows:

Hard Ontology

By “realism” I refer to the position regarding ontology that holds that—while certain aspects of reality are socially constructed—much of reality nevertheless has a nature independently of human perception of it, knowledge about it, or projections onto it. Additionally, even those aspects of reality that are, in fact, socially constructed, once they are constructed and established, become relatively objective—that is, they “take on a life of their own.”

Soft Ontology

By “constructionism” I refer to the position regarding ontology that holds that reality is socially constructed. And so reality, within certain broad limitations of logical possibility, for the most part is amenable to human construction, (re)definition, and preferences. On this view, there is no nature or essence to reality independent of (collective) human thought, desires, norms, and perceptions. There is no objective reality. Confusion is easy on this point, since the terms “constructionism” and “constructivism” are often used to refer to a position in epistemology (namely, the view that scientific knowledge is only a human construction, not extracted from or reflective of the real world). But I use the term “constructionism” here to refer to a kind of ontology—namely, the view that all of reality (not just human knowledge about reality) is socially constructed and so largely malleable. In short, “constructionism,” as I use the term, can be thought of as a kind of anti-realism.

Hard Epistemology

By “positivist empiricism” I refer to the position regarding epistemology holding that absolutely certain knowledge about the (material) world can only be gained through evidence from the five human senses. Of course, positivism and empiricism are two analytically different things, but in actual practice, and for our purposes here, they often go together. This position is basically foundationalist and evidentialist when it comes to human knowledge.

Soft Epistemology

By “interpretivism” I refer to the position regarding epistemology recognizing that all data is theory-laden. In other words, on this position, claims about and observations of reality are always and already subject to human subjectivity, criticism, and interpretation. Once again, this can get a bit slippery, because some people use the term “interpretivism” in a strong sense to mean that, “all we humans can ever do is interpret” (rather than, say, know truth or actually explain something). That’s not what I mean here. Instead, I use the word “interpretivism” to refer to a position in epistemology that holds that all data is inescapably filtered through the lens of human subjectivity and interpretation. This is basically a post-foundationalist and intentionally epistemically humble position.



The normal human condition is for all persons—not just academic philosophers—to come down somewhere on the questions of epistemology and ontology, whether they ever think about it or not. When we combine an epistemology with an ontology, we get general approaches to thinking about social science, and, in fact, the broad way that we think about knowledge and the world. The next step, then, is to match epistemologies with ontologies and see what we get.

So, here are the four combinations:

Interpretivism + Constructionism = Postmodernism; Relativism. On this view of knowledge and the world, there is no absolute truth or objective nature to reality. Truth and morality are relative. Categories and institutions are highly malleable. All we humans can do, in the end, therefore, is offer our own personal interpretations and preferences.

Positivist Empiricism + Constructionism = Overconfident Postmodernism, along with Materialism. I suspect that many young persons in the West today hold to an inconsistent commitment to both positivist empiricism and constructionism. This is the kind of thinking from which we get ideas that sound something like: “Truth and morality are relative, and you ought to agree with that or else you’re wrong.” And, “I’ll believe in God only if I see Him.”

Positivist Empiricism + Realism = Direct or “Naïve” Realism; Scientism; Modernism. Broadly speaking, this would be the general approach to knowledge and the world that holds that humans can perceive (material) reality directly and objectively—unhindered by human subjectivity, and thus can simply compile evidence to discover what is true about reality.

Realism + Interpretivism = Critical Realism. This position is a post-positivist, post-empiricist, realist philosophy. On this view, there is an objective nature and structure to reality, and humans (should and often do) use the best of our necessarily subjective observations and interpretive theorizing to arrive, through collective reasoning and criticisms, at what is true about reality. I can’t do full justice here to the complexities of critical realism, including all of its specific ontological commitments regarding causal mechanisms, ontological stratification (i.e., the real, the actual, the empirical), the multi-layered nature of reality, antireductionism, ontological emergence, retroductive inferences, and much more. There is no shortage of good books on critical realism that one can read to get a full understanding of its basic commitments. At this point, though, it is enough simply to see that, at its most basic, critical realism is a combination of realism and interpretivism, as I have defined those terms here. Note also that in the equation above, I put realism before interpretivism to represent that critical realism—unlike the other approaches—starts with ontological commitments about the nature and structure of reality, rather than taking the modern (and postmodern!) approach of starting with an epistemology, whether hard or soft, and using it to draw conclusions about ontology.



I, for one, think that critical realism, not postmodernism, is the way to go, especially if we want to avoid the pitfalls of a strong constructionist ontology. I think that it is our best account of how to be a realist in our ontology, but also post-foundationalist and interpretivist in our epistemology.

This diagram and typology—as is the nature of diagrams and typologies—is admittedly overly simplistic. For example, it seems to imply that the only way to be a realist but not a positivist or empiricist is to be a critical realist, and that obviously isn’t true. So we need to be aware that not every position and possibility is laid out in the diagram and description above. But I do think that this way of viewing things does have the potential to start a productive conversation about the role of various ontologies and epistemologies in making sense of the differences between postmodernism and critical realism. With that, I’ll end with some questions and leave the rest for the comments section. I look forward to a lively and insightful discussion.



(1) Is this a helpful and productive way to think about these issues? Does the diagram “work?”

(2) What are some of the oversimplifications and oversights of this method of viewing things? For instance…

  • Where does pragmatism fit into this diagram (and conversation)?
  • Where does ethics fit into this diagram (and conversation)?
  • Where does narrative fit into this diagram (and conversation)?

(3) What intellectual or practical benefits, if any, does postmodernism have over critical realism?

(4) It has been suggested elsewhere that one cannot be both a realist (ontologically) and a post-foundationalist (epistemologically). Is that right? Why might that be?

(5) How does (or should) commitment to Christ and the truth of Christianity influence the way we think about these general approaches?

(6) What are the differences between postmodern scholarship and critical realist scholarship?

  • Seth

    One intellectual/practical benefit of some strains of postmodern/poststructural thought is its impulse to deconstruct assumed categories by revealing their historical and geographical contingencies. Realism–including critical realism–often uncritically relies on categories of thought (e.g. ‘the economy’, ‘race’, etc.) understood as ‘objective reality’ but whose histories, geographies, and processes of assemblage are not a priori givens and do actively construct, bound, and mediate human/non-human relationships.

  • Henry Imler

    I think the diagram is helpful for organizing one’s thoughts on the matter. I do think the hard and soft categories contain particular assumptions and create false equivalencies between the binaries.

    Over at Peter Enn’s blog, Karl Gibberson contributed a guest post wherein he discusses an encounter with what he calls a “strong Postmodernist” and sketches his support for Critical Realism, giving this nice, short positive description:

    Critical realists believe that the world is known through a spiraling discovery process where we continually circle the phenomena we are trying to understand, getting closer and closer as we understand it better, but never reaching absolute certainty. A gap always exists between the thing we want to understand and our very best theory of how that thing works. The gap can be small or large, but it never entirely vanishes.

    The three key elements his Gibberson’s sketch of critical realism are

    science is a spiraling discovery process

    Historically we get closer and closer to understanding the phenomena (the so-called “best theory of how a thing works”)

    We never reach absolute certainty (there is always a gap)

    Confidence in the above and it’s (un?)warranted transference to other fields of study, such as literary and historical criticism, provide Christians living in the current age with confidence, like a great pillar of fire in the sky, in their “fideist assumptions about the Bible, truth, and theology,” as Jones puts it. It enables us to build our own little foundationalist castles and ignore all doubt and the tough questions that come along with it. Not realizing we’ve built upon sand, we create for ourselves great danger when phenomena arise that are difficult to explain.

    Some Questions for Critical Realists

    How do you respond to the history of successive incompatible paradigms the history of science as detailed by Thomas Kuhn (this attacks the first element)?

    The greatest evidence for an upcoming paradigm shift in physics is the great disconnect between the vocabulary we’ve created to govern science on the grand scale and the micro scale, that is, the incompatibility between General Relativity and Quantum Physics.

    Upon what, given #3, do we base our faith upon #1 and #2? If we don’t achieve absolute certainty in any of our endeavors, then how can we know that we are approaching or receding from a correspondence between what we think is going on and what is actually going on? Don’t tell me that scientific critical realists are actually coherentist pragmatists! (Are you all? If so, let’s talk… actually, let’s talk anyway.)

    The Move to History and Closing Thoughts

    The first three questions dealt primarily with the philosophy of science angle, but there is also the lingering question of how we can transfer our confidence that we’ve built in Mathematics to Physics and from Physics to other fields of study, such as historical criticism.

    I’d feel much better with dropping the realism and admit to myself and to my community that we have no guarantee of correspondence of our view of the world with the world itself, which does not speak. I fully believe that my story-of-it-all is the best story-of-it-all, though I could be wrong and am employing all sorts of tools to constantly refine that story. Perhaps I’m a ‘I’m a critical fideist and I’m ok with that.

  • Henry Imler

    To address your question #4, I don’t think it is possible. For me, any argument for a Realist view is going to reply upon my epistemology, how I can “dig down” and ever get my “hooks” into the really real. Because my epistemology (and the critiques of foundationalist epistemology (both hard and soft, as sketched out by Clark) does not ever allow me to get at “the world as it is”, then I feel as though I have to abandon a Realist perspective and be an Anti-Realist constructivist.

    I end up trying to use a sort of coherentist (structure of knowledge) pragmatic (major verification process) anti-Realist who encounters a Story (the gospel) that fills the world with meaning. I place my bet (because I don’t have the tools to verify it, if I’m being honest) on this Story coming from the outside (i.e. a revelation from God) and being the “one true God’s eye view of things”.

    I don’t necessarily like such a point of view, but given the critiques of Hume, Nietzsche, the contributions of Wittgenstien (games instead of telos), the realizations about the natural world brought on by General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and the fog of history, I feel as though it is the most honest approach.

    We can construct knowledge and stories about the world as best we can with the tools available, but we have to be humble enough to recognize that we can’t ever get at the “world as it is”.

    I’d love some pushback. I’m a lay theologian and lay philosopher, so please be gentile.

    • Jonnie

      Hey Henry, a couple of thoughts. First, I think it is crucial to notice that your feeling as though you have to abandon a Realist perspective is not sign on any impossibility with holding the two together. It is clearly an epistemic skeptical ‘feel’ that might be natural for many people, but it doesn’t necessarily consign one to anti-realist ontologies. Say I’m suspect too but don’t feel that that makes me question whether there is a real world, beyond that veil. Same epistemological conviction, minus the ontological capitulation.

      Additionally, I think you might actually slip back into a realist position (as so many do naturally outside of talking philosophy) in your second paragraph where you throw in with such and such a story trusting it has the “God’s eye view of things.” This is exactly the kind of thing I describe as the alternative option to your first paragraph above. Your epistemology is not capitulating to an anti-realist ontology here. The whole assumption of being humbled at not getting at ‘the world as it is’ leaves plenty of room, conceptually and practically to believe the world still is as it is… Make sense?

      Again, I see your ‘feel’ of the impossibility, but there is no conceptual incoherence in believing there’s a world out there and I’m just cut off from a clean, pure, or naive grasping of it.

      Great thoughts!

  • Sentinel

    I like the discussion that you’ve provided, but the diagram itself doesn’t work for me.

    I think it would be clearer as a table, since you’re taking one element from the top pair, and one form the bottom pair. For me, having those pairs as two rows of a table would make the options and combinations easier to see.

    The main issues is that you’re doing alternative combinations of two pairs (one each of onto and episto), but your combinations are not obvious to me in the diagram. I see four quadrants, and I don’t immediately see why those can’t combine into 6 possible combinations instead of 4. (that is: ab, ac, ad, bc, bd, cd). Or, for that matter, three possible combinations: ab+cd, ac+bd, ad+bc). The “set-menu” approach (aka, “Please choose one from column A, and one from column B”) would make this clearer.

    The position of ethics, I think, is determined by how you view ethics: are there objective ethical standards, or are all ethics simply convention? The answer to that will point you to whether they can be studied empirically or are constructivist, and I think that you will fall into either hard or soft ontology based on the same decision.

    • Brad Vermurlen

      I thought it was clear that SO and HO are mutually exclusive, and SE and HE are likewise mutually exclusive. So this exercise works only by choosing one O and one E. You’re right that this isn’t clear simply by looking at the diagram, but it’s explained in words below it.

  • Steve Allison

    When I first heard the term ‘critical realism’ and before I learned the definition I thought it was a great name for a philosophy and good PR. It appeared like an upgrade from the everyday bland form of realism. It is always great when something is new and improved. One expects that of everything these days. And if you don’t sign on what are you? A naive realist? Yet, I perceive the value and virtue of epistemological humility. And while the extreme postmodernists initially threw me off with their aplomb, “The Gulf War Never Happened” and unnecessarily dense writing, I now get some of it and it has been an aid to me in breaking out of the straightjacket of modernism and its reductionist gray flat world. But yet, I’m a research and development professional. And understanding and working with the shared perception of a real world is important to serving my customers and sponsors. So I guess I still need a form of the real in the name of my philosophy. Science and technology, with a hat tip to Kuhn, still seem to work, you know, the blind see and the lame walk. But, the boundaries are blurry. I see through a glass darkly. Thus, with a little pragmatism thrown in I guess my vision and philosophy may be designated “fuzzy realism”.

    • Brad Vermurlen

      Sounds to me like you’re on your way to being a critical realist.

  • James K.A. Smith

    The problem with so-called “critical” realism is that it still accepts representationalism as the basic model of knowing–a model called into question ever since Wittgenstein.

    • Brad Vermurlen

      What would the alternative to representationalism be? Some kind of gestalt, pragmatic philosophy of perception? How exactly would that work?

  • J. Edward Hackett

    Let me contribute a few thoughts about the questions created by your diagram. First, anytime someone proposes a positive view of reality with technical jargon, issues of contention will be
    raised. First, you will have people saying you can’t do that; you’re creating binaries. Binaries are actually fine if they help us understand reality despite the immediate knee-jerks they generate in some people.

    Second, you will have people tell you that your particular usage of a term isn’t exegetically correct or comes with its own set of assumptions that get missed with the use of the language in the chart. As such, you should take criticism with a view to see what dividing up a view of ontologies and epistemology will get you. I leave that for you to decide, but from its presentation the “upshot” isn’t clear other than (maybe?) the other quadrants are far less superior than critical realism and interpretivism.

    I am a self-identifying ethicist and someone with Jamesian leanings in pragmatism. Therefore, I wanted to take up where exactly mypositions might map onto this diagram and found myself falling into the camp of questioning the “set of assumptions that get missed with the use of language in the chart.” Let me explain.

    The strong criteria dividing up the x-axis is hard and soft. By your admission, hard tends to be people that take face-value observations and soft tends to view human subjectivity as “open” and “inclusive.” Moreover, at least on the ontology side, the hard-side is realism which emphasizes mind-independence and the softer-side is mind-dependence in which reality is constructed. Since I have taken up more ontological issues in my work, I will let someone else
    comment on the “epistemology.”

    Pragmatism would reject the dichotomy between realism and
    constructionism since what is real follows from the conceptualization of an idea’s effect on experience. In fact, pragmatists of different stripes have very “thick” conceptions of experience that could easily collapse the solid boundaries of this diagram (here I am thinking of Dewey as well as James), but something like the diagram can still be preserved. Rather than have solid boundaries with mind-independence and mind-dependence as a criterion for ontology, I could easily see creating a separate “spectrum” in which the ends emphasize mind-independence and mind-dependence but the middle sees reality as a fusion of those extremes as a process of generating the real through the facets of what is experienced. The
    immediately experienced is somewhat “independent” from us, and the open question of the purpose of the immediately experience and how it will guide us is the “construction.” We regard what is most real as that which facilitates our interaction with the world and others. In this way, we can understand James’s insight that our metaphysical ideas express our aesthetic and practical interests; metaphysical ideas are maintained for the preservation of those interests as well.

    Finally, let’s return to your endorsed position. Critical realism + interpretivism. These are terms best used within the philosophical issues about what it means to do sociology. As such, this is a philosophy of method question internal to sociologists. If this is the case, then I would think an assessment of what these entail as opposed to other rival positions about the object of sociological study and the best method that reflects the object of study is needed. Since the question is raised here, I can guess maybe the question of method arises with a view to do sociology of religion? If so, I wonder again how served you are by making divisions between ontology and epistemology with respect to sociology. Would other sociologists want to opt for such a method or is there a dialog internal to sociology that might better suit your wants? I’m just asking questions to prompt some reflection.

    As for the question of ethics, I’m not too sure what you want with asking where would ethics go. Some people use the term “ethics” to mean a system of morality. For me, ethics is the self-reflective attempt to inquire into what a person might do, and when I teach ethics to undergrads it is not sociology. I am teaching people how best to deliberate about these matters. Ethics is a first-personal inquiry, and highly practical affair. Maybe, what you mean is the ontology of value?

    If so, then – like pragmatism – there can be stories and approaches to ethics that collapse the problem as I indicate with the higher-order commitments of pragmatism. For instance, someone might propose that values are eternally ranked with respect to each other, but instantiated in the experience of how people experience those values in intentional feeling.
    Again, this would be a “process” that undermines what both “mind-independence”
    and “mind-dependence” could mean for your account. I do not think they are “useful,” and that’s the honest pragmatic answer.

    I want to encourage you to think about the limits of method in your own discipline, and keep up looking at the structure and shape of what is real. I hope you find my comments somewhat helpful.

  • Arnachie

    I’m from Germany and what I really admire about the North American academic culture is the tendency and the gift to simplify complex theories into a set of “isms” and modells. While in our academic culture we adore complexity for its own sake you guys try really hard to make things clear and understandable. But there are problems with this approach. You have a tendency to construct movements where there might be no movements and labels where no labels fit. And sometimes you can get trapped or get seduced by thoose labels. There has not been a single continental philosopher I could think of who has been confortable with labels or being labeled. You could argue in fact most of 20th century continental philosophy is an insurrection against the compulsive need to “label everything including the labelmaker” (to quote a nice TV Show) or an insurrection against the compulsive need to organize and to understand (“Wut des Verstehens”). There is this tendency to reduce postmodern thinkers to some abstract “postmodern position on epistemology” while some of thoose thinkers are not even trying to construct a differing view on epistmology but trying to protest against the notion that you have to have a coherent view on epistemological questions. I would view “postmodernism”, if we really need to speak about such a thing, more like a strategy and less like a position.