My emerging philosophy of science (part 3): naturalism, realism and pragmatism

This post draws heavily on two books: Theory and Society: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by Peter Godfrey-Smith and A Realist Approach to Qualitative Research by Joseph Maxwell. If the ideas discussed are of interest, then these books are worth checking out as well as Cheryl Misak’s books on pragmatism.

Godfrey-Smith (2003) defines naturalism and realism as follows:

  • Naturalism: “An approach to philosophy that emphasizes the links between philosophy and science… [Naturalism] holds that the best way to address many philosophical problems is to approach them within our best current scientific picture of the world” (p.238).
  • Realism: “The most basic idea is this: a realist about X’s is someone who thinks that X’s exist in a way that does not depend on our thoughts, language, or point of view” (p.240).

Related to this, Godfrey-Smith notes that “scientific realism” holds that “science can reasonably aim to describe the real structure of the world, including its unobservable structures” (p.22). Such a belief holds that scientific knowledge refers to actual features and properties of the world. Godfrey-Smith defends the basic idea that science is “responsive to the [real] structure of the world, via the channel of observation” (p.227) and he defends a version of empiricism focussed on scientific ways of handling ideas.

Though I believe that scientific knowledge should be viewed as corrigible (and therefore I recognise that all scientific knowledge may eventually change to a varying extent), this doesn’t mean that scientific knowledge isn’t responsive to the world. Whilst our knowledge will change and improve, the reality of the things we study typically doesn’t rely upon our thoughts about or knowledge of them. To a large extent this also applies to the social sciences, though social “things” are more complex than physical objects and processes and I believe this makes our knowledge of social phenomena and processes more uncertain and tentative. Nonetheless I believe that, for example, social institutions and social structures are real and not arbitrary theoretical constructs formulated by sociologists (for interesting discussions about this see Professor Daniel Little’s blog e.g. this post).

I also endorse the version of naturalism that Godfrey-Smith proposes in Theory and Society:

Naturalism in philosophy requires that we begin our philosophical investigations from the standpoint provided by our best current scientific picture of human beings and their place in the universe… Science is a resource for settling philosophical questions, rather than a replacement for philosophy or the source of philosophy’s agenda” (p.154)

In my own research I’ve found that a “scientific picture of human beings” derived from relevant social and cognitive/psychological sciences is an essential starting point for many forms of social inquiry. This is similar to John Dewey’s evolutionary naturalism which argued that philosophy had to be rethought in light of a more scientific understanding of human beings informed by biological sciences (in particular Darwinian evolutionary theory). However, contemporary social scientists (as well as philosophers) have access to more sophisticated insights from a range of social and psychological sciences. Additionally, when adopting an actor-centred sociological perspective, I’ve also drawn on the pragmatist tradition which is a naturalistic philosophy (Misak, 2016a).

Maxwell (2012) presents a slightly different realist philosophical stance which he terms “critical realism” and he explores the potential value of this stance for qualitative research.

He argues that critical realism is unique in its combination of “ontological realism” and “epistemological constructivism and relativism” (p.5). This combination is argued to provide “an alternative to naïve realism and to radical constructivist views” (p.5). A realist ontology is defined by Maxwell as “the belief that there is a real world that exists independent of our beliefs and constructions” (p.vii) – i.e., a sort of commonsense realism. A constructivist epistemology is the belief that all our knowledge is our own fallible construction. Moreover, this position contends that all knowledge is created from a particular “vantage point” (p.vii). Maxwell’s epistemology is somewhat radical in that he argues that “there is no possibility of our achieving a purely “objective” account” (p.vii) and he “denies that there is any privileged perspective on or understanding of the world” (p.51). Consequently, he argues that multiple understandings of social phenomena and reality (more broadly) are valid.

A realist ontology is a stark contrast to the view that “qualitative research requires a thoroughgoing constructivist and relativist ontology and epistemology that holds that reality is itself a social construction, and has no existence outside this construction” (p.vii). Maxwell doesn’t argue that one position is the correct one, but he contends that realism is useful for qualitative researchers.

I concur with this aspect of his critical realism, though I would also emphasise that it is frequently important to explore multiple ontological positions. For instance, I think most social scientists would agree that, whilst the social reality facing a human actor is typically both “socially constructed” (broadly defined) and something that exists independent of our beliefs, there are instances where actors’ beliefs and the external reality interact in complex and emergent ways. To give a simple example, self-fulfilling prophecies can result in a situation where the emerging reality is partially the result of changing beliefs, such as where a bank run motivated by concerns about solvency leads to the bank being insolvent. In these sorts of social situations beliefs and reality are interdependent.

Related to this Maxwell contends that “critical realists in the social sciences treat the ideas and meanings held by individuals – their concepts, beliefs, feelings, intentions and so on – as equally real as physical objects and processes” (p.vii-viii). That is, the “concepts and perspectives” held by people “are part of the world we want to understand” (p.9). This view warrants qualitative researchers’ giving serious attention to “mental properties and processes” (p.13) e.g. when developing causal explanations. For instance, first-person accounts may be gathered and given weight when explaining behaviour particularly if reliability issues are considered. So far, so good.

Where I question Maxwell’s critical realism is with respect to epistemology.

He contends that “all knowledge is partial, incomplete and fallible” (p.5) and therefore provisional. I don’t have a problem with this aspect of critical realism, though I do believe that some knowledge is certain. The provisionality and corrigibility of knowledge is one thing that typically demands epistemic humility.

Where I get more uncomfortable is when Maxwell argues that we cannot have “any “objective” knowledge … of the world” and that “there is no possibility of attaining a single, “correct” understanding of the world” (p.5). The scare quotes are telling, though he never defines what is meant by objectivity or by being correct. Maxwell appears focussed on the issue of bias and the inquirer’s unique standpoint, rather than other notions of objectivity which relate to making our beliefs responsive to the world and its real objective characteristics (the latter would seem well-aligned with realism). His commitment to multiple understandings of reality may warrant forms of relativism which I oppose. In contrast I believe seeking truth often should be maintained as a goal of inquiry (i.e. trying to get things right and avoid mistakes) – though I also recognise that humans are prone to error, that the use of scientific methods cannot guarantee that we will identify the truth or avoid mistakes, and consequently we should be skeptical of truth claims. Such a position points to forms of critical realism which aren’t epistemologically constructivist.

So, in summary, for me adopting a ‘critical realist’ position (as I often do) most strongly means adopting a general realist philosophical stance whilst also adopting a stance of epistemic humility which recognises that human beings are “fallible, limited beings” that are prone to error and overconfidence (link). Unlike Maxwell I’m not willing to give up the aspiration to attain objective knowledge or to seek the truth, at least for most focal objects of study. I’m concerned that his epistemological position, which strongly emphasises the “situatedness” of the investigator or knower, may promote problematic forms of radical relativism. That being said, it may be the case that some people have a special point of view which enables them to either better appreciate and/or better attain relevant facts and thereby reach different conclusions about the issue or object being investigated.

The question of how this is related to pragmatism is an interesting one which is made much more difficult by the diverse positions adopted by philosophers in “classical” pragmatist and “neo-pragmatist” traditions. Below I address naturalism and critical realism and the kind of pragmatism that could be productively synthesised with them.

With respect to naturalism, most pragmatists embrace some version of naturalism (Misak, 2016a), though such positions are often much broader than Godfrey-Smith’s version of naturalism. For instance, Cheryl Misak, a philosopher steeped in one pragmatist tradition, writes:

I will be using ‘naturalism’ to describe a wider view that directs philosophical attention to the fact that we find ourselves immersed in the world and in an inherited view of that world, unable to step outside of our practices and system of belief so that we might figure out first principles. This kind of naturalism has it that we have to extract the concept of truth and our standards of justification from our practices of inquiry, reason-giving and assertion” (Misak, 2016b, p.7)

Misak (2016a) points to a core related starting point for classical pragmatism in “the human origins of and constraints upon knowledge”. Related conceptualisations of human beings are central to various philosophers who developed or were influenced by key pragmatist ideas. For example, in her latest book Cambridge Pragmatism Misak points to the work of Frank Ramsey who argued that “we have … to consider the human mind and what is the most we can ask of it. The human mind works essentially according to general rules or habits” (quoted in Misak, 2016a, p.180). Similarly, Hookway (2013) notes that “the role of tacit habits of reasoning and acting in fixing our beliefs and guiding our actions is a theme that recurs in the work of all of the pragmatists”.

Such perspectives can inform a general philosophy of science (see an earlier post on human cognition and cognitive biases). Additionally, it can add to the philosophical foundation of a version of critical realism that strongly emphasises epistemic humility.

Additionally, as Misak has noted, key founders of pragmatism were both resolute fallibilists and they developed accounts of truth. For example, Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatist account of truth proposes that “a true belief is one that would stand up to inquiry”. This account calls for practices which “put our beliefs through … tests of inquiry” which, in effect, “throw criticism and evidence at our beliefs so we know whether they might withstand it” (Misak, 2008, p.95-96). In a sense fallibilist truth seekers like Peirce are critical realists of the sought advocated earlier in this post: “[our] beliefs are fallible but responsive to experience, and aimed at truth” (Misak 2016b, p.15).

Such an epistemology also points to some common issues with advocates that have been discussed on this blog: I rarely see advocates test their beliefs in ways that are often needed if their beliefs are to aim at truth such as seeking out potentially conflicting experience and considering related arguments that are contrary to their position.

Finally, it must be noted that ‘pragmatism’ is a broad label referring to unorthodox empiricist philosophical views which integrate inquiry, thought and action (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, p.239). As I’ve become a quasi-empiricist – in the sense of believing our ideas should be responsive to experience (broadly defined) and that we should non-dogmatically expose ideas to experience and avoid fixed doctrines – I’ve come to appreciate related ideas about how science works (see Godfrey-Smith, 2003). A pragmatic sensibility or attitude (link) can enable greater willingness to test our beliefs in an open-minded manner.


Godfrey-Smith, P. 2003, Theory and Society: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, The University of Chicago Press.

Hookway, C. 2013, ‘Pragmatism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), available at:

Maxwell, J.A. 2012, A Realist Approach to Qualitative Research, SAGE Publications.

Misak, C. 2008, ‘A Culture of Justification: The Pragmatist’s Epistemic Argument for Democracy’, Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 94-105.

Misak, C. 2016a, Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Misak, C. 2016b, ‘Pragmatism and the Naturalist Project in Ethics and Politics: Lessons from Peirce, Lewis and Ramsey’, Political Studies Review, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 7-16.

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