Critical realism combines depth ontology (that there are real, generative mechanisms and structures underlying events and our “human”phenomenal experience of events qua mechanisms) with epistemological relativism(that knowledge is a social product, and consequently, there is no a-historical and a-cultural vantage point to determine truth-value and criteria for rationality). However,
epistemological relativism neither entails ontological relativism (the epistemic fallacy) nor judgmental relativism. Contra the slide towards the epistemological nihilism of postmodern skepticism (the excesses taken from Nietzschean perspectivism, T. Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (the unwatered down version) and various constructionist perspectives usually derived from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and so forth), critical realism espouses judgmental rationalism1, the position that in principle, we can arbitrate among competing theories.
A primary supposition of critical realism is that beneath the flux and indeterminacy of the phenomenal world, causal powers operate independently of human experience. Critical realism explicitly attempts to reinvigorate ontological speculation, countering the epistemological turn in modern philosophy (and its positivist offshoots) and the linguistic turn in postmodernity. As we have seen, the ontological turn taken by critical realism, necessitates investing in the intransitive domain, characterized by its stratification into supervening levels: social, biological, chemical and so on. The stratification of reality and the multiplicity of generative mechanisms, each with specific emergent causal powers, constitutes the emergent potentialities, operating at each stratum. Emergent powers legitimate the plurality of scientific disciplines, as these powers are non reducible to more basic levels. Consequently, ontological being in the world is approached and understood as a depth ontology, entailing that we distinguish between three levels of reality: the empirical, the actual and the real. At each stratum, ontological features qua generative mechanisms hold real, actual and empirical characteristics, and are susceptible to scientific investigation in accordance with critical realism’s philosophical materialist framework.
The empirical level is the human-centered world of phenomenal experience and sensory impressions. The level of the actual is composed of the events, processes and objects of which we have sensory experience. The level of the real is composed of the generative mechanisms and structures that form the condition of possibility of the actual, and consequently, of the empirical. Experiences, events and
mechanisms therefore constitute the three interlocking domains of reality. For instance, when an apple falls from the tree, the event is the specific instance of an apple falling due to wind, the shaken branch, the weakened stem, and possibly the ripe weight of the apple. The causal power of gravity is the generative mechanism pulling the apple down toward earth. The empirical fact of this event is necessarily anthropocentric, requiring transitive knowledge in service to a human perceiver for the intelligibility of the event. Nonetheless, several conditionals follow. Generative mechanisms and structures operating at the level of the real may or may not manifest into events. As the natural and social worlds are open systems with multiple co-determinations and countervailing powers always in potentia, the actuality of an event is conditioned by its relations (and hence is dialectical) with other causal powers. In addition, the three levels of reality are distinct from one another and consequently, are often out of phase with one another. Events occur frequently without a human perceiver to experience. Generative mechanisms, especially in the social world, may not produce events they govern due to countervailing mechanisms. Structural conditions for revolutionary political upheaval may be present for years until a minute tipping point unleashes hitherto latent political dissatisfaction.2
2For instance, on December 17, 2010, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being slapped in the face by a Tunisian policewoman seeking a bribe. Bouazizi’s action, in part, provoked mass confrontation with authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East.