The Web Site for Critical Realism WSCR Archive
[The following profile was written for The Web Site for Critical Realism (WSCR), at the request of the WSCR Collective, and is printed here with the permission of the author, who retains the copyright.]

Rom Harre


Harre was born in 1927 in New Zealand, where he taught applied mathematics and physics. In the mid fifties he undertook postgraduate study in philosophy in Oxford, and began his long career as a researcher, teacher, and writer in the philosophy of science, and later in social psychology. His earlier books developed a realist approach to science, notably Theories and Things (1961), The Principles of Scientific Thinking (1970) and Causal Powers (with E. H. Madden, 1975). These undermined the deductivist theory of the structure of science, refuted the Humean or regularity conception of causality and developed a realist concept of natural necessity. Harre's work was a considerable influence on Roy Bhaskar, whom Harre supervised.

In Varieties of Realism (1986) Harre distinguishes three ontological realms, related to but distinct from Bhaskar's domains of the empirical, the actual and the real. Realm 1 is the domain of objects of direct experience. Harre upholds Gibson's ecological account of "direct perception," which results from our active exploration of the flowing array of stimulation, and is neither representational nor cognitively mediated. Realm 2 concerns beings which are observable with the right equipment, while Realm 3 contains beings which are in principle unobservable--Harre's examples include quantum states and social structures. Theories of Realm 1 are concerned with classification and prediction, theories of Realm 2 identify mechanisms and systems whose workings bring about the regularities observed in Realm 1. To explain Realms 1 and 2, theories of Realm 3 invoke beings beyond all possible experience.

Harre advocates "policy realism": the principle that if a theory is plausible (powerful in prediction and retrodiction) it is reasonable to read its terms as denoting real things, and to set up a search for these beings. In this way posited entities may (occasionally) move from Realm 3 to Realm 2, or (more often) from Realm 2 to Realm 1. Harre is equivocal about the ontological status of beings in Realm 3. All we can know of them are their "affordances," the events and practices they permit, from which we infer their dispositions. Where these objects are manipulable, this is "good ground for a 'revisable' ontological claim on their behalf" (Varela and Harre 312). On the basis of an inductive argument, Harre adds to his "policy realism" a weak form of "convergence realism," i.e., the view that the increasing empirical adequacy of science as a whole implies the convergence towards better and more accurate theories of the world. Our knowledge applies only to the human Umwelt--the world made available to us by our perceptual, cognitive and manipulative capacities. Realm 3 is on the edge of the Umwelt. Science can enlarge the Umwelt, but there always remains a noumenal reality beyond, independent of us. Bhaskar criticises this as "a very limited ontological realism" which cannot sustain "the transfactuality of the objects of our knowledge" (10).

In 1971 Harre and Secord founded The Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, with which Harre is still associated. JTSB has published important papers in the philosophy of the human sciences, including debates about realism and about the relationship between agency and structure. It was originally conceived, together with The Explanation of Social Behaviour (1972, with Paul F. Secord) as mobilising support for a new direction in social psychology--ethogeny. Against positivism in experimental social psychology, Harre and Secord argued a hermeneutic approach. Actors' own accounts of their behaviour constitute the main data for social science. The "open souls" doctrine posited that people do have knowledge of the meaning of their actions. Social Being (1979) identified two social orders, practical and expressive, of which the latter tends to be dominant. Personal Being (1983) argued that there are two sorts of reality, physical reality and conversation. Conversation emerges from physiology, but is structured by rules rather than causal relations.

With collaborators, Harre has developed an interactionist theory of discursive "positioning," influenced by Wittgenstein, Vygotsky and Goffman. Social structure is conceived as "fluid patterns of positioning" and therefore immanent rather than real. In recent debates with Bhaskar Harre has vigorously denied that social structures have causal powers, accusing Bhaskar of a Durkheimean reification and Marxist motivation (Varela and Harre 1996). For "conversational realism," people are the only powerful particulars. In his anti-naturalist discursive turn, Harre also rejects the concepts of "self" and "mind" as Cartesian reifications. He remains a realist, but the ontology of his social world contains "arrays of people" that constitute the locations for the basic entities of psychology, speech acts following discursive rules (1994).

Works Cited

Bhaskar, Roy, ed. Harre and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Rom Harre with His Commentary on Them. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Harre, Rom. "Exploring the Human Umwelt." Harre and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Rom Harre with His Commentary on Them. Ed. Roy Bhaskar. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

-----. Personal Being. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

-----. Social Being. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979.

-----. Varieties of Realism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Harre, Rom, and Grant Gillett. The Discursive Mind. London: Sage, 1994.

Harre, Rom, and Edward H. Madden. Causal Powers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975.

Harre, Rom, and Paul F. Secord. The Explanation of Social Behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell, 1972.

Varela, Charles R., and Rom Harre. "Conflicting Varieties of Realism: Causal Powers and the Problems of Social Structure." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 26.3 (September 1996): 313-325.

The Web Site for Critical Realism WSCR Archive