Critical Realism


Accounting for differences between reality and perceptions of reality

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … external reality
  • Knowing is … internal interpretations
  • Learner is … an individual mind (insulted and isolated from the world)
  • Learning is … interpreting
  • Teaching is … conveying and testing




Critical Realism was articulated centuries ago as a response to Realism (a.k.a. Naive Realism). Some versions of Critical Realism assert that only some of one’s perceptions accurately represent the external world, while other versions assert that all perceptions are incomplete. Critical Realism draws a distinction between primary qualities (observer-independent, objectively measurable) and secondary qualities (observer sensations, subjectively determined). One’s understandings are assumed to be a mix of primary and secondary qualities; hence, those understandings are always provisional and subject to revision. A companion discourse to Critical Realism (that is sometimes conflated with it) is:
  • Anti-Realism (Michael Dummett; 1960s) – As the name suggests, Anti-Realism begins by rejecting the “realist” assumption that truths are literal depictions of an external, independent reality. Within Antirealism, the truth of an assertion is determined through internal logic mechanisms. (Notably, some of those mechanisms vary considerably from the tenets and constraints of classical logic.)


An obvious problem with Critical Realism, on top of the cluster of issues typical of most Correspondence Discourses, is that the separation of primary from secondary qualities is entirely problematical. As some commentators have highlighted, tools for “objective” measurement are created by humans who, according to the theory, are prone to conflating primary and secondary qualities – meaning that those tools could be (and likely are) fundamentally flawed. The perspective very quickly dissolves into a forced acknowledgement that human objectivity must be a matter of social agreement rather than external truth.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

John Locke; Roy Bhaskar

Status as a Theory of Learning

Critical Realism is normally classified as a philosophy or worldview, but it can be seen as a theory of learning because it has clear and immediate entailments for how one comes to know – namely, taking in a world through the senses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Critical Realism is not a theory of teaching, but its core distinction between primary and secondary qualities persists as a popular explanatory principle in traditional teaching practices. It is especially prominent in justifications for continuous testing (i.e., used to ensure subjective interpretations match with objective reality).

Status as a Scientific Theory

Critical Realism is the opposite of a scientific theory – although, not without irony, it was a dominant sensibility in the early stages of the Scientific Revolution.


  • Anti-Realism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Critical Realism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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