A summary and review of “Critical Realism and Composition Theory” by Judd (2003)

I first read this book at the start of my PhD, in 2013. I have recently re-read it in preparation for a research monograph and chapter I am writing, both for Bloomsbury Academic. The working title for the book is ‘What makes writing academic: re-thinking theory for practice’. The chapter is for an edited collection on social theory in EAP, provisionally titled ‘Critical Realism and EAP’.

Donald Judd’s book (2003) is unique, as far as I can gather, in turning the critical realist lens to academic writing. The only other attempt I have come across is Pratt (2010). My short-lived endeavours to contact both authors to ask where their work has since taken them have, in turn, led to dead-ends. Yet they have left me restless and have imposed on me an imperative to try and re-kindle the important insights I think both Judd and Pratt bring to understanding academic writing as a transformative social practice committed to social justice and change.

I am now reviving this blog to track thinking in progress. I started it back in 2013, as way to make visible my research on academic writing and to dialogue with myself about what I was reading and what conclusions I was coming to. As a research blog, it proved invaluable. It helped me articulate complex ideas and (mis)understandings; it kept me writing between PhD chapters; it functioned as an academic journal to refer back to; and it connected me with a global community of academic writing scholars. Now I need the blog to serve me again, to write a book and to write chapters for others.

So, I start with ‘Critical Realism and Composition Theory’ by Donald Judd (2003).

Judd is a teacher of English and Composition Studies, what the Americans call ‘Academic Writing’. He draws on the US’s established field of Rhetoric and Composition, which I have blogged about at length and which has informed much of my PhD. His book takes issue with 3 cornerstones of American Composition Studies (which, to varying degrees, have influenced the UK tradition of EAP):

  • Expressivist theory and voluntarism
  • Cognitive rhetoric and empirical positivism
  • Socio-constructivist rhetoric and super-idealism

After inflicting a scathing immanent critique by identifying the theoretical inconsistencies of each theory with regard to their practical classroom implications, he provides a radical transcendental critique by proposing the social philosophy of Critical Realism.

He berates Expressivist Theory for being individualistic and having the (un)intended consequence of all writing counting as ‘good writing’; he accuses Cognitive Rhetoric of falling foul to the linear, mechanistic determinism of input-output computer analogies, whereby each step in the writing process sequentially leads to a predictable outcome that takes no account of context or human agency; and he takes serious issue with Socio-constructivist and Post-modern theories of writing because, Judd argues, they lead to the kind of relativism that makes knowledge wholly transitive and incommensurable rather than intransitive and shared.

Transitive knowledge is knowledge of how we come to know things (epistemology). For example, how a doctor comes to know that a patient is ill or how a researcher comes to write about something they wish to understand better. However, the ‘how’ (epistemology) should not be collapsed into the ‘is’ (ontology). According to Judd, and the critical realist tradition he draws on, the reification of transitive knowledge by socio-constructivists is subject to the epistemic fallacy of reducing all knowledge to its method of discovery, such as language, discourse, and other methods of discovery that allow us to understand a phenomenon (e.g. the patient’s illness). The problem with reducing knowledge in this way, namely to how it is discovered, is that it risks being understood only by the communities that share the same discourses and methods. Instead, Judd proposes that knowledge be understood dialectically as an interaction between transitive knowledge and intransitive knowledge.

Intransitive knowledge is knowledge of something or knowledge that something is real (e.g. the patient is real, regardless of what we say about them or how we describe them or how else we account for them. The patient exists independently of how we come to know they exist). This reality includes both the social and the natural world. For example, social structures, such as capitalism, are real, until they are proven to be otherwise. Natural phenomena, such as gravity, are real, until they are proven to be otherwise.

Once we agree that some things are real (until proven otherwise) and that they are intransitive, we stand a better chance of ensuring that different communities are able to talk about the same reality. The fact that different communities (different theoretical traditions) invoke different methods, different discourses, different perspectives, and, ultimately, different values (transitive knowledge), does not change the reality of what they are talking about (intransitive knowledge).

How does all of this connect with Composition Studies/Academic Writing?

Hard to sum up in a bloggy paragraph, but, basically, his point is that none of the 3 pedagogies listed above recognise the distinction between transitive and intransititve knowledge. And by not recognising that knowledge is both epistemological (transitive) and ontological (intransitive), the 3 pedagogies fail to fulfil the ultimate function of education which is to be transformative, i.e. to change reality, change the status quo, further social justice, and recognise the social and natural realties we are all subject to (but not reducible to).

The theoretical inconstancies of each of the 3 traditions of writing listed above (expressivist; cognitive; socio-constructivist) lead to confused classroom practice on writing that ultimately thwarts the educative purpose of writing:

  • Expressivist pedagogy encourages students to dwell on individualistic transitive knowledge (i.e. what I think, how I got there, etc.).
  • Cognitive pedagogy encourages students to think that knowledge is sequential, logical, linear, predictable, and value-free, and that academic writing is meaningful and good as long as it is well-planned (IELTS essays or skills-based approaches to academic writing might be an example of the cognitive approach). This kind of knowledge is ultimately devoid of content, so neither transitive or intransitive.
  • Socio-constructivist pedagogies deny expert positions (such as the expertise of the teacher) by suggesting that knowledge is co-constructed and sanctioned by the community (the teacher and the students). This reifies epistemic relativity. Academic literacies approaches might be an example of socio-constructivist approaches. Socio-constructivist pedagogies assume a transitive conception of knowledge because they deny a reality that is external to the knower (the individual knower and the community of knowers).

Judd’s transcendental critique consists in proposing critical realism as an alternative theoretical foundation for academic writing.

There are four main reasons for proposing this (pp. 124-130):

  1. from a critical realist perspective, the reason we need knowledge is to further human emancipation. This means that writing instruction, if it is to have educational value in the academy, must create the conditions for humans to emancipate themselves;
  2. knowledge is neither solely individualistic (expressivist), cognitive, or relative (socio-constructivist), but about the social in the sense that it must recognise the social and institutional structures that explain social phenomena such as poverty; capitalism; climate change, injustice, and so on;
  3. knowledge is corrigible. Through self-reflexivity and an ongoing quest to understand and to know things, we can correct mistaken beliefs. Writing pedagogy should be educative in this respect, ie it should lead students away from mistaken beliefs and provide them with authentic and meaningful tasks to ensure they are writing from a position of knowledge;
  4. truth and consistency are epistemic virtues (Daston and Galison, 2007) that involve value judgments about social and natural reality. This means that writing tasks which require students to communicate their positions on social (and natural) phenomena need to allow students to learn content, do research, and read up about the phenomena they are being asked to write about. This ensures that writing pedagogy honours its educational mission to be emancipatory and transformative.

To conclude, a critical realist framing of academic writing frames writing as a socially transforming self-reflexive practice, a practice that gives space to the agency of the writer whilst recognising their dialectic interaction with established norms and conventions (social and institutional structures). What this means is that although academic writing is subject to established conventions, it is not reducible to or determined by these conventions (p. 113).


Bhaskar, Roy (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Routledge.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books

Judd, D. (2003). Critical realism and composition theory. Routledge.

Pratt D. (2010) Critical Realism. In: Modelling Written Communication. Methods Series (Methodological Prospects in the Social Sciences), vol 8. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-9843-6_2