Repositioning Epistemology; Radicalizing Realism

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:50
Oral Presentation
Katelin ALBERT, University of Toronto, Canada
Paige SWEET, University of Illinois Chicago, USA
Jonah Stuart BRUNDAGE, UC Berkeley, USA
Discussions of epistemology in critical realism are underdeveloped. When critical realists consider epistemology, they typically start from “epistemological relativism,” essentially the position that all knowledge is fallible, partial, and changeable over time. We find this position necessary, but we also find it insufficient. This is because it lacks a critique of the (highly unequal) social relations among observers themselves—relations that shape the very production of knowledge. Interestingly, while critical realism never ignored the observer or knowledge producer, we believe that its treatment remained limited by the original, Bhaskarian aim of accounting for the intelligibility of the scientific experiment. In this formulation, the positionality of the researcher is (relatively) unproblematic because it is simply the positionality of the experimenter. If critical realism is to fully move from natural science to social science, and from experiment to experience, however, a much more robust consideration of knowledge producers and their social relations is required.

Accordingly, we seek to develop a critical realist social epistemology. While it is indeed the case that all knowledge is fallible, it is also the case that all knowledge is positioned, it has a particular standpoint. What is more, the social, power relations between standpoints organize the production of truth in ways that produce systematic distortions (ideology). Grasping this point, far from a rejection of ontology, helps to extend the original promise of critical realism. Just as we must avoid the epistemic fallacy of reducing ontological questions to epistemology, we must equally avoid the ontic fallacy of reducing epistemological questions to ontology. But without reducing one to the other, we must further avoid radically separating ontology and epistemology to begin with, recognizing instead their mutual influences.