Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Archaeology trying to become a science

Richard Rorty repeatedly, but most clearly in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, makes the point that it was the Kantian project of submitting the other sciences under the tutelage of philosophy, whose Erkenntnistheorie (pp.135-136) would be responsible for adjudicating whether teach science was wielding the tools correctly and staying in their little box (pp.138-139, esp. Fn 18). Via the Neo-Kantians and the logical positivists and the Wiener Kreis, this stance moved into the USA and became the basis for the Wissenschaftsverst√§ndnis, as expounded by Carnap et al. (p.221).

This all may sound harsh and a little difficult to believe, until you pick up a volume like Explanation in Archaeology from 1971, which is expressively trying to be the "good kid" and follow the rules laid down by Hempel and the others.

Consider the Preface:
As the fields of science developed, natural laws were incorporated in formalized frameworks or theories for the understanding or explanation of natural phenomena. The formulation and confirmation of such laws and theories is the primary goal of science, that is, the discovery and description not only of what, when, and where, but also of how and why. By use of scientific laws and theories, explanations can be given and predictions made. This is no less true of the newer social sciences than it is of the natural sciences. (p.vii)
After pointing out that it makes no sense for everyone to define their own sense of "explanation", the authors explicitly turn to the experts for help.
We turn to the logical positivist philosophers of science for a carefully considered definition of the word "explanation". To these analytic philosophers, explanation is by no means a vague concept. It means demonstrating that the particular case one wants to explain is an example of general relationships described by an established general law. Such laws are called covering laws, and this type of explanation is called a covering law explanation. (p.viii)
The advantage of their tack is not only that they can move logically within their explanations, but that the setup itself has consequences that are rationally sound.
Once this definition is accepted, as we feel it should and will be, a number of very important consequences logically follow. (p.viii)
Among these consequences is that the investigation has to start with the laws.
The most obvious and fundamental of these is that to explain anything one must have a body of general laws about the relevant phenomena. (p.viii)
The acceptance of this rather harsh prescription has not proved popular. Many archeologists have simply preferred to be unconcerned, and those that have shown concern seem to have protested the matter.
The suggestion that archeologists accept this definition and its consequences has produced a significant amount of controversy over theory among some archeologists, but has left many others unconcerned. (p.viii)
The reasons are not, as Rorty would have argued, that this form of philosophical Arbeitsplatzsicherung is too transparent to fool anyone, but according to the authors have to be looked for in the nature of archeology itself.
To understand why this [rejection of logico-positivistic explanation, RCK] is the case, we must digress briefly to consider the multiple nature of the broad area of study labeled archeology. (p.viii)
The authors know that the discussion of these scientific explanations are a cottage industry in their own right, but feel that the promise of scientific testability of hypotheses is an advantage that makes for a pragmatic argument to switch.
There is an immense literature describing and extolling the virtues of using scientific methods, but the basic reason for adopting them is pragmatic. In practice they provide practical, testable explanations and predictions. It is for this reason that their acceptance within the general framework of scientific archeology is urged. (p.viii)
Of course, the outer framework is just that, and it needs science-specific filling.
Philosophers of science tell us, in clear, logical terms, that scientific methods are; and scientists of other disciplines provide various models demonstrating how these methods may be applied. (p.xi) 
But before scientific archeology can progress in an orderly and systematic fashion, archeologists must achieve preliminary general agreement concerning initial assumptions, proper procedures, and what constitute successful and acceptable general laws and explanations in archeology. (p.xi)
They cite Harvey's 1969 book Explanation in Geography, London (Eaton Arnold), as a successful exemplar.

PS: For a brief moment, the authors appear to be more pedagogical than some of their comrades in post-modernism, when the authors---after sketching the structure of their book---note
 It must also be made clear what we are not doing in this book. We are not interested in showing where and how archeologists have not been scientific. (p.xiii)
That's great, except the next sentence continues
Because few archeologists have claimed that their work is rigorously scientific, this would be a meaningless endeavor. (p.xiii)
Ooohh ... the disappointment.

Bibliographic Record

Patty Jo WATSON, Steven A. LeBLANC, Charles L. REDMAN, Explanation in Archeology: An Explicitly Scientific Approach, New York -- London (Columbia University Press), 1971.

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