Is the idea of meeting needs in adult education a myth? Armstrong and Lawy challenge the commonly held notion that needs have an objective reality of their own and suggest that they are instead “manufactured political constructions”. Based on the framework outlined above, I disagree with the challenge to the objectivity of needs. Natural needs, I contend, are an objective reality. At the same time, I agree with the claim that needs are social constructions, which are subject to the inequities and ideologies of neoliberal capitalism. Specifically, I argue that the nature of access to the objects of natural needs is mediated by social structures. Ideally, educational programs would help learners overcome alienation from their natural needs.
The objective of this essay is to propose critical realism as a philosophical middle way between two sets of ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions regarding learner needs. Key concepts of critical realism, a tradition in the philosophy of science, are introduced and applied toward an analysis of learner needs, resulting in novel ontological and epistemological assertions about learner needs. Retroduction is offered as a methodology for interrogating needs as a function of broad and complex social processes.