On archaeological knowledge, truth, and interpretation, and on the relationship between theory and data in archaeology

My master’s thesis is about as finished as it will ever get. I plan to leave it for evaluation this week. The following is the prologue of my thesis. It will also be published in Finnish in a forthcoming issue of Muinaistutkija (1/2011).

Hedgehogs and foxes

In his essay The hedgehog and the fox, Isaiah Berlin (1953), referring to a Greek poet Archilochus (c. 650 BC), divides people roughly into two types, hedgehogs and foxes. ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ (Archilochus’ fragment 201, West 1971 in Berlin 2004). Both types of people build and base their knowledge and view of the world on the very things they know. Even though the fox is very resourceful, he is powerless in front of the hedgehog’s one and only defense.

Even though, according to Berlin (1953: 2), this kind of division is very simple and even a bit ridiculous and absurd, it contains enough truth to provide a setting or a starting-point for any kind of study or at least a bona fide examination, or ‘genuine investigation’, as he writes.

Berlin’s study was about Tolstoi’s philosophy of history but his classification serves my purposes well. Every archaeologist is, when interpreting his or her research material, confronted with a task of explicating his or her view of the relationship between theory and data (i.e. empirical observations). Even though no explicit theory or model is utilized in his or her study, the researcher should eventually (at least when writing a master’s thesis) have to explain his or her standpoint on notions like knowledge, truth, and interpretation. Even if it were impossible to say anything positive or final about them, it is most beneficial for the reader to know what the author thinks of them.

In this chapter, I will present my view of knowledge, truth, and interpretation. In addition, I will give an example of the relationship between theory and data. My objective is to approach the aforementioned concepts by making brute distinctions. In relation to knowledge, I have divided people into pragmatists and rationalists. In relation to truth, I have divided them into realists and relativists. When it comes to interpretation, people can be divided into those who believe in historical meaning-making processes, and those who believe in non-historical meaning-making processes.

The topics in this chapter may appear banal and as absurd and ridiculous as Berlin’s division of people into hedgehogs and foxes. It is, however, best to approach the meaning of theory in archaeology by assessing the most profound concepts, and by making absurdly simple divisions. It is the very simplicity where the power of this approach lies. This approach is also justified since the history of archaeology has always been written by making simple distinctions. Historiographers of archaeology like dividing researchers into processualists and postprocessualists, realists and relativists, for example.

On knowledge

In the history of archaeology, and all human thinking for that matter, there can be seen two distinct ways to think of knowledge. The first is usually referred to as rationalism. Even though René Descartes is often blamed for inventing it (Descartes 2002; e.g. Olsen 2010: 64, 98), it is hard to say how old this philosophical outlook is. It is undoubtedly as old as thinking itself. According to the maxim of rationalism, it is possible to doubt all empirical knowledge. Only thinking (and therefore doubting) is the only certain entity the existence of which we need not nor should doubt. After all, there has to exist a mind that senses the real and false experiences. Rationalists therefore think people have knowledge before experience. In archaeology this would mean that research is not necessarily done from the researcher’s own cultural background characteristic of his or her time, but independently of all burden of history.

The other way of thinking of knowledge is often referred to as pragmatism. This way of thinking was made popular by scientist, philosopher, semiotician, mathematician, and logician Charles Peirce and his contemporaries during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Waal 2005: 1). A pragmatist thinks experience precedes all knowledge. Therefore, since we can only have knowledge that is based on experiences, it is pointless and unnecessary to categorically doubt all experiences systematically. Peirce called such doubting ‘paper’ doubting and despised Descartes’ approach to knowledge (Misak 1991: 50). According to Peirce, it is pointless to doubt all knowledge just because some knowledge may be false (Misak 1991: 50). His response to Descartes was as follows, ‘[l]et us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts’ (EP1: 28). (EP1 refers to Houser and Kloesel 1992.)

The pragmatist’s approach to knowledge is characterized by a method of building a system of beliefs and justifying knowledge distinctive of that of the rationalist’s. Whereas a rationalist may base his or her system of knowledge on one or few small hypotheses, a pragmatist bases his or her system of knowledge on many small hypotheses. Built like this, a system will be more resistant in situations where one or more hypotheses are falsified. A system that is based on big hypotheses is more likely to collapse if even one of the founding hypotheses becomes falsified.

A pragmatist does not want to base his or her system of knowledge on big hypotheses, but will acknowledge the basis of all beliefs to be in a system of many small hypotheses dictated and continually shaped by new experience and new knowledge.

On truth

When speaking of knowledge, Berlin’s distinction is somewhat clear; hedgehogs are rationalists, whereas foxes can no doubt be classified as pragmatists. People can be divided into hedgehogs and foxes also when it comes to knowing the truth. The matter becomes somewhat complicated when we can, on the one hand, identify realists who believe in one objective truth as hedgehogs, but on the other hand, relativists who believe in one subjective truth can also be identified as hedgehogs. Berlin’s choice for Tolstoi as the subject of his study is interesting since Tolstoi can, in his nihilistic and pessimistic view of history, be identified as a fox, who does not believe it to be possible to say anything true about history. Even though Tolstoi saw things to be predestined and thought the individual will ultimately have very little, if any, historical significance or power in making decisions, he thought everything is more complicated than anyone can understand (Berlin 2004: 123, 126-127). In this sense Tolstoi can be seen as a hedgehog, who believed the universe to function as a unity of which certain ‘truths’ (however abstracted, arbitrary, and ultimately untrue) can be averred since all knowledge is based on experiences, but it must not be done by believing blindly in the all-explaining nature of natural sciences (Berlin 1953: 73; 2004: 119-121).

Peirce’s view of truth was a realist one (EP1: 120). He thought there is nothing that has a starting-point, and all meaning is necessarily historical. To Peirce, the world is a unity in which all meanings are interconnected. In his philosophy, reality is what it is, regardless of what you, me, or anyone else may think about it (Waal 2001: 64). The conduct of inquiry is the process of seeking the truth. The truth therefore can ultimately, at the end of the hypothetical day, be reached, but it is only a final opinion of a group of scientists whose object reality is (e.g. Misak 1991: 80-81). The final opinions reached by inquiry do not necessarily match reality, which, to us, remains necessarily anthropomorphic.

When the inquiry is conducted far enough, certain truths can be averred about the past. The real past, however, will most likely remain unknowable, since some events will, according to Peirce, remain ‘buried secrets’. Buried secrets will remain unanswered even if the inquiry was carried on forever. (For a concise account of buried secrets and Peirce’s view of truth, see Misak 1991.)


On meaning and interpretation

The way one experiences history has the most profound significance when making interpretations of the meanings of past events. In this distinction, dividing thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes becomes even harder. Both can be found among those who believe meaning is based on relations of things solely in the present, as well as among those who think meaning is based on historicity. Those who believe in diachronic, i.e. historical meaning-making practices can be identified as foxes, but the fact that they believe in a historical unity makes them hedgehogs. Also those who believe in synchronic meaning formation can be identified as foxes. They believe meaning is formed in a horizontal meaning-making horizon. What distinguishes synchronism from diachronism is that in the former meaning is continually being reevaluated and cannot be justified with historical ‘facts’.

It is fairly easy to describe Descartes’ thinking as characteristic of a hedgehog, whereas Peirce would no doubt seem to be a fox who combines data from various fields of science open-mindedly. Both, however, strived for a systematic approach to forming a coherent structure in which all experience, knowledge, and meaning could be justified. In this they succeeded. It is therefore by no means totally clear if Peirce was ultimately a hedgehog or a fox. Defining him as either is as hard as Berlin said it to be to define Tolstoi. It, then, so often happens that a fox only thinks he or she is a fox, whereas historiography could eventually categorize them as hedgehogs.

On the relationship between theory and data

Above, I presented my view of the basic and underlying concepts important when discussing theory in research and particularly in archaeology. I divided people roughly into two categories; hedgehogs and foxes. Even though in the end it is hard to say which researchers are hedgehogs and which are foxes, it appears possible to divide them into different types of hedgehogs who believe in one personal truth, and different types of foxes who believe in one objective truth, or one world and many world philosophers, as proposed by Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen (2011).

In order for this account on knowledge, truth, and interpretation to be more than trivialities, it is most important to clarify what theory means in research. It has become somewhat a proverb in archaeology to state that theory and data are inseparable. This notion is indeed valid, but it remains a bit ambivalent, and does not provide a starting-point for a genuine investigation. It is necessary to approach the problem by providing an absurd example:

The relationship between theory and data could be compared to seeing. I look around in a room, make observations, and collect data. I memorize certain details that are important or significant to me. Some details, in fact most of the information, I ignore or simply do not observe.

I close my eyes and think about what I saw in the room. What color was the bookshelf? Was it brown like the one my parents had when I was little? I think that bookshelf was light brown. Every time I open my eyes, I see the bookshelf a little bit differently (which happens also when writing and reviewing a master’s thesis like the one I am writing at the moment). Also my memories seem to change a little. New observations and new data affect my theory on bookshelves. I have an image of a bookshelf that I see when I close my eyes. Still, when I keep my eyes open, I can recognize an object as a bookshelf, and I can distinguish one bookshelf from another.

The objects in the room appear to be real, but they seem to change constantly. The same phenomenon can be seen when interpreting archaeological material. An archaeologist makes observations of material the maker’s motives of which he or she has no certain knowledge. The archaeologist, nevertheless, makes hypotheses that are based on his or her own theory on material culture, his or her motives and values, his or her way of looking at the world. The source of this theory is the material world, experience, and life. Charles Peirce once said, already at the age of fifteen, that life is a theory.

  • Berlin, Isaiah 1953. The hedgehog and the fox. An essay on Tolstoi’s view of history. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  • Berlin, Isaiah 2004. Siili ja kettu. Tutkielma Tolstoin historianfilosofiasta. Transl. Hanna Tarkka. Otava, Helsinki.
  • Descartes, René 2002. Teokset II. Mietiskelyjä ensimmäisestä filosofiasta. Kirjeitä 1640-1641. Gaudeamus, Helsinki.
  • Houser, Nathan and Kloesel, Christian (eds.) 1992. The essential Peirce: selected philosophical writings. Volume 1 (1867-1893). Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  • Misak, C. J. 1991. Truth and the end of inquiry – a Peircean account of truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Olsen, Bjørnar 2010. In defense of things. AltaMira Press, Lanham.
  • Pietarinen, Ahti-Veikko 2011. Yhden versus monen maailman filosofit. Maailma. Proceedings of the Colloquium of the Finnish Philosophical Society. To appear. (Available at [http://www.helsinki.fi/%7Epietarin/]. Accessed on March 9th, 2011.)
  • Waal, Cornelis de 2001. On Peirce. Wadsworth, Belmont
  • Waal, Cornelis de 2005. On pragmatism. Wadsworth, Belmont.
  • West, M. L. (ed.) 1971. Iambi et elegi Graeci ante Alexandrum cantati. Part 1, Archilochus, Hipponax, Theognidea. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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