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Thinking from Things

Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology

Alison Wylie
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 357
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  • Book Info
    Thinking from Things
    Book Description:

    In this long-awaited compendium of new and newly revised essays, Alison Wylie explores how archaeologists know what they know. Examining the history and methodology of Anglo-American archaeology, Wylie puts the tumultuous debates of the last thirty years in historical and philosophical perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93540-2
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. PART ONE Introduction: Philosophy from the Ground Up
    (pp. 1-22)

    Despite earthbound appearances, archaeology has always been a deeply philosophical discipline, or so I will argue. Certainly Anglo-American archaeology is remarkable for the extent and visibility of the philosophical soulsearching it has undergone in the past three decades. Many suggest that this represents a significant break with the past, whether it is to be welcomed as a timely waking from dogmatic slumbers or regretted for marking the loss of an idyllic time untroubled by unresolvable complications and uncertainties. In 1973, for example, Clarke declared that archaeology was struggling with a “loss of disciplinary innocence” (1973a).¹ Reflecting on the state of...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      In the essays included in this section, my aim is to clarify what is at issue in the debates sparked by the programmatic claims of the New Archaeology. This first involves setting them in the context of a long history of debate within North American archaeology. A number of common themes run through these debates, centering on the question of how archaeology is to get beyond fact gathering—the antiquarianism opposed early in the century, or the “empiricism” condemned by some in the 1950s and, again, by the New Archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s—without lapsing into arbitrary speculation....

    • 1 How New Is the New Archaeology?
      (pp. 25-41)

      From the inception of the New Archaeology, its newness has been a matter of lively debate.¹ Its strongest proponents have insisted that it represents a revolutionary break with the past. Certainly it is true, and uncontested, that a generation of archaeologists with a great diversity of backgrounds and interests were drawn together by common disaffection with traditional archaeology. But the more contentious and interesting claim is that this convergence of critical sympathies produced a comprehensively new departure in archaeological theory and practice. Kuhnian theories of scientific revolution were invoked to valorize the initiatives of the New Archaeology and to secure...

    • 2 The Typology Debate
      (pp. 42-56)

      Conservative forms of traditional archaeology have coexisted with, and been shaped by, more or less radical demands for a new—anthropological and scientific—archaeology for as long as archaeology has been institutionalized as a discipline in North America. Although each of these orientations has taken a dominant role in different periods or contexts, neither has succeeded in displacing the other; this pattern continues into the present. There have always been strong voices on the side of methodological conservatism, dating at least to Laufer’s ardent conviction that ethnographic insights would eventually emerge if only archaeologists pressed on with collecting basic data....

    • 3 The Conceptual Core of the New Archaeology
      (pp. 57-77)

      By the late 1950s, when Meggars (1955) remarked on the “new look” evident in North American archaeology and Caldwell (1959) marked the end of an era—the maturation of the discipline beyond its “natural history” phase—internal critics (both conservative and radical) had already struggled for twenty-five years with the question of how best to institute properly scientific, anthropological forms of practice.¹ Indeed, these goals had been articulated forty years earlier, when Wissler declared the need for a “real, or new archaeology” (1917);² they were by no means unique to the New Archaeologists of the 1960s, who, within a few...

    • 4 Emergent Tensions in the New Archaeology
      (pp. 78-96)

      Archaeology was by no means alone in its struggle to redefine entrenched goals and modes of practice in the 1960s. In fact, Gibbon argues that the New Archaeologists’ enthusiasm for positivist/empiricist ideals is best understood as an extension of a “concerted effort to ‘harden’ the social sciences” that took root across North American social science in the 1960s (1989: 139–140). He argues that this move to scientize social research, far from representing a decisive break with past practice, was a defensive reassertion of traditional naturalist ambitions¹ fueled by an anxious concern to shore up the credibility of social research....

    • 5 Arguments for Scientific Realism
      (pp. 97-105)

      Although I have little sympathy for Ernest Nagel’s instrumentalism, his “dictum” on the debates over scientific realism (as Boyd calls it, 1981: 644) is disconcertingly accurate; it does seem as if “the already long controversy . . . can be prolonged indefinitely” (E. Nagel 1961: 145). The reason for its continuance, however, is not that realists and instrumentalists are divided by merely terminological differences in their “preferred mode[s] of speech” (141); indeed, that analysis appeals only to those who are already convinced that realism of any robust sort is mistaken. Instead, the debates persist because the most sophisticated positions on...

    • 6 Between Philosophy and Archaeology
      (pp. 106-114)

      The Society for American Archaeology and the Philosophy of Science Association both launched their society journals in 1934:American AntiquityandPhilosophy of Science.¹ In the ensuing fifty years these societies witnessed substantial change in the identity of the disciplines they represent, and in both cases this has involved internal debates that have turned, in part, on questions about how philosophical inquiry relates to the practice and results of empirical research.

      On one line of metaphilosophical debate that unfolded in the 1970s and 1980s, philosophers found themselves embroiled in internal dispute over the question of what, if anything, justifies the...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 115-116)

      Whether or not the New Archaeology was revolutionary, by the early 1980s friends and foes alike were referring to its rapid rise to prominence a decade earlier as a watershed that had substantially shifted the terms of internal debate. Some were intent on exploiting the possibilities opened up by the New Archaeology, while others regretted what they saw as a failure to realize its promise; still others yearned for the halcyon days of lost innocence and were actively working to undo the damage of upheaval. Those committed to the ideals of the New Archaeology were grappling with the implications of...

    • 7 The Interpretive Dilemma
      (pp. 117-126)

      When the New Archaeologists undertook to operationalize a solution to the interpretive dilemma inherent in traditional archaeology, they vacillated between two interconnected strategies for securing interpretive inferences; to extend a figure used by Patty Jo Watson (1979), they worked both on the source side and on subject side of the inferential equation, despite periodically repudiating one in favor of the other. Their first impulse was to act on the positivist conviction that the sources of an interpretive hypothesis, the considerations that play a role in the “context of discovery,” are ultimately irrelevant to its justification as a credible account of...

    • 8 Epistemological Issues Raised by Symbolic and Structuralist Archaeology
      (pp. 127-135)

      There seem compelling reasons why archaeologists should adopt some form of structuralist approach, and yet even advocates of a structural archaeology sometimes assume that since it would concern itself with a notoriously inaccessible dimension of past cultures, it can claim to be no more than an exercise in creative speculation. I will argue that this assumption presupposes a false dilemma that opposes any study of the ideational, symbolic dimensions of the cultural past to properly scientific, empirically rigorous forms of inquiry; structural archaeology need not be consigned to the speculative horn of this dilemma simply because its theories are empirically...

    • 9 The Reaction against Analogy
      (pp. 136-153)

      However much analogical inference has broadened interpretive horizons and however indispensable it has seemed to the interpretation of archaeological data, arguments by analogy have long been an object of uneasy mistrust among archaeologists. In fact, this mistrust has grown steadily in the past hundred years despite the essential role that Orme (1973, 1974, 1981) shows ethnographic analogy to have played in shaping contemporary conceptions of prehistory. As professional archaeologists struggled to differentiate their discipline from nineteenth-century antiquarianism and armchair anthropology, analogy became a particular target of criticism; the speculations of early evolutionary theorists had made its potential to mislead especially...

    • 10 Putting Shakertown Back Together: Critical Theory in Archaeology
      (pp. 154-160)

      “Contemporary archaeology,” says Kohl in a review of the state of the field, “is nothing if not tortuously self-conscious” (1981: 108); and yet, as he observes, this self-consciousness has been curiously limited. In the context of North American archaeology it gave rise to a “vehement advocacy” of positivist methods for realizing objective knowledge of other (past) cultures, while in other social sciences it led to an intensely critical “question-[ing of] the possibility of impartial, value-free social science research” (93).¹ One reason for this divergence is to be found in the concern to make archaeology relevant that informed the appeal to...

    • 11 Archaeological Cables and Tacking: Beyond Objectivism and Relativism
      (pp. 161-168)

      Archaeologists wrestle with what Dray describes as “a certain metaphysical anxiety . . . about the task of coming to know what literally does not exist” (1980: 29); as often as they champion methodological strategies for meeting this anxiety, they express deep pessimism, even wholesale skepticism, about the prospects for ever establishing credible knowledge of the cultural past. There are a number of striking parallels between this localized pattern of debate and an opposition, described by Bernstein, between objectivist and relativist positions that recurs across philosophical and empirical fields of inquiry. Despite clear indications that “absolutism . . . is...


    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 169-170)

      Post- and antiprocessual critiques of the 1980s and 1990s throw into sharp relief the tensions inherent in the New Archaeology that I have described in earlier chapters. In the essays included in this section I address the challenges posed by these critiques, elaborating on proposals about the status of archaeological evidence and strategies for stabilizing interpretive inference that I introduced in part III. My central thesis is that the very features of the archaeological record that are often cause for epistemic despair are among its greatest assets as a resource for investigating the cultural past. I refer here to the...

    • 12 “Heavily Decomposing Red Herrings”: Middle Ground in the Anti-/Postprocessualism Wars
      (pp. 171-178)

      These are difficult times for philosophy in archaeology. The tenor of debate among those who take seriously questions about the aims and limitations of archaeological inquiry has become so acrimonious and so sharply polarized there is often very little constructive engagement of the issues raised.¹ Adversaries joust with such gross caricatures of opposing views that they routinely argue past one another, and then reinscribe in their own platforms the very contradictions they mean to transcend.² Not surprisingly, a recurrent theme in these engagements is the accusation that the critics and defenders of key positions have simply failed to see what...

    • 13 Bootstrapping in the Un-natural Sciences—Archaeology, for Example
      (pp. 179-184)

      In its most general formulation, the central epistemological problem in archaeology is that which motivates Glymour to develop his bootstrapping account of confirmation: it is the problem of showing how charges of circularity can be met in contexts in which evidential grounds for evaluating theory are themselves theory-dependent. The specific form of circularity that threatens in archaeology is much like that described by Meehl in his discussion of bootstrapping strategies for using clinical data in psychoanalysis. There is always the danger that the unconscious themes an analyst is able to disembed, by virtue of training and theoretical sophistication, are arbitrary...

    • 14 The Constitution of Archaeological Evidence: Gender Politics and Science
      (pp. 185-199)

      I begin with a digression that will situate my discussion of archaeological uses of evidence in the wider context of debate about the objectivity and value neutrality of archaeological understanding. My aim is to show that although archaeology is a thoroughly social and political enterprise, evidential constraints are not reducible to the interests of individual archaeologists or to the macro- and micropolitical dynamics of the contexts in which they operate. In fact, they are in some respects constitutive of political interests. The model of how evidential constraints operate on which I draw was introduced in chapters 12 and 13; my...

    • 15 Rethinking Unity as a “Working Hypothesis” for Philosophy of Science: How Archaeologists Exploit the Disunities of Science
      (pp. 200-210)

      As compelling as they once were, and as influential as they continue to be in many contexts of practice, theses of the global unity of science have been decisively challenged in all their standard formulations: methodological, epistemic, and metaphysical. It cannot be assumed as a normative ideal or even as a “working hypothesis” (Oppenheim and Putnam 1958) that the sciences presuppose an orderly world, that they are united by the goal of systematically describing and explaining this order, and that they rely on a distinctively scientific method that, successfully applied, produces domain-specific results that converge on a single coherent and...

    • 16 Unification and Convergence in Archaeological Explanation
      (pp. 211-226)

      In the mid-1990s something of a watershed was reached in philosophical theorizing about explanation. While questions about explanation have always been central to philosophy of science, with the widely touted demise of positivism they assumed the status of paradigm-disrupting anomalies, and since the early 1970s a number of widely divergent approaches to understanding explanation have been continuously in play. After 1988 there appeared a spate of syntheses, overviews, and collections in which some of the central contributors, most visibly Wesley Salmon and Kitcher, undertook to bring order to this proliferation of positions. The upshot is a tripartite categorization of philosophical...


    • 17 Ethical Dilemmas in Archaeological Practice: The (Trans)formation of Disciplinary Identity
      (pp. 229-246)

      From its inception as a museum- and university-based discipline early in the twentieth century, one of the defining features of North American archaeology has been its identification as a scientific enterprise. This is evident not only in the programmatic literature and, indeed, in the training and practice, institutional location, and funding base of most North American archaeology but also in the bylaws and statements on ethics adopted by the major archaeological societies from the 1970s on. In some cases—for example, that of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA)—these policies have undergone several rounds of revision as archaeologists grapple...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 247-292)
  11. References Cited
    (pp. 293-322)
  12. Names Index
    (pp. 323-326)
  13. Subject Index
    (pp. 327-339)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 340-340)