Pragmaticism as the new possibility of a scientific archaeology 1/3

I am preparing an article for an upcoming publication of the recent BASE seminar held in Tartu. The article deals with pragmaticism as the possibility of a new scientific archaeology. Here’s an excerpt of the text. I will do two more posts on this issue. This first point is on fallibilism and meliorism that in my view constitute part of the corpus of a philosophy that is essential for a scientific archaeology.

According to Peirce, ‘all human knowledge, up to the highest flights of science, is but the development of our inborn animal instincts’ (CP 2.754). Because the processes of thought and nature are alike (CP 3.422), ‘the human mind is akin to the truth’ (CP 7.220). The role of instinct and guessing has not often been taken seriously in science. This hypothesis, however, seems very natural once we abandon the false idea of man being somehow independent of nature and its laws. Like Peirce stated above, that what constitutes science is not the correct conclusions it may ultimately arrive at but a correct method. On occasion, however, Peirce (e.g. CP 1.43–45) refers to pragmaticism as an attitude, not as a method. It is therefore customary to see pragmaticism, as formulated by Peirce, not as a scientific method but as a scientific attitude even today.

It is now perhaps time to present the basic tenets of a scientific archaeology according to this scientific attitude. These key concepts are what I think constitute a scientific approach most suitable for a realist approach to archaeology. These themes have been to some extent discussed above but I will now back them up by citing Peirce.

1. Fallibilism and meliorism

All positive reasoning is of the nature of judging the proportion of something in a whole collection by the proportion found in a sample. Accordingly, there are three things to which we can never hope to attain by reasoning, namely, absolute certainty, absolute exactitude, absolute universality. We cannot be absolutely certain that our conclusions are even approximately true; for the sample may be utterly unlike the unsampled part of the collection. We cannot pretend to be even probably exact; because the sample consists of but a finite number of instances and only admits special values of the proportion sought. (CP 1.141)

By positive reasoning, Peirce refers to the idea that our knowledge has a positive relationship with what is real. Again, I refer to Peirce’s idea of a common ground that makes all scientific inquiry and communication relevant. Regardless of the assumption that philosophy and archaeology are positive sciences, we as scientists must ‘not block the way of inquiry’ (CP 1.135) by tenaciously clinging to strands of knowledge we may regard as true. Nor is it reasonable to expect all knowledge to be false.  That would lead to rationalism and skepticism which are unintelligible outlooks. It is just beneficial not to build knowledge upon a priori facts (scientists should avoid dogmatism) but by the same token it would be foolish to categorically doubt all of our senses. People do err, but, since, according to what has been discussed above about our ability to guess correctly, we are probably right more often than not. It is worth noticing that Peirce’s idea on fallibilism predates Poppers works on falsificationism. In fact, Popper writes that he wished he had known of Peirce’s texts earlier.

For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua. (CP 1.171.)

Evolution means nothing but growth in the widest sense of that word. Reproduction, of course, is merely one of the incidents of growth. And what is growth? Not mere increase. […] But think what an astonishing idea this of diversification is! Is there such thing in nature as increase of variety? Were things simpler, was variety less in the original nebula from which the solar system is supposed to have grown than it is now when the land and sea swarms with animal and vegetable forms with their intricate anatomies and still more wonderful economies? It would seem as if there were an increase in variety, would it not? (CP 1.174.)

Once you have embraced the principle of continuity no kind of explanation of things will satisfy you except that they grew. The infallibilist naturally thinks that everything always was substantially as it is now. Laws at any rate being absolute could not grow. They either always were, or they sprang instantaneously into being by a sudden fiat like the drill of a company of soldiers. This makes the laws of nature absolutely blind and inexplicable. Their why and wherefore can’t be asked. This absolutely blocks the road of inquiry. The fallibilist won’t do this. He asks may these forces of nature not be somehow amenable to reason? May they not have naturally grown up? After all, there is no reason to think they are absolute. If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. In the original chaos, where there was no regularity, there was no existence. It was all a confused dream. This we may suppose was in the infinitely distant past. But as things are getting more regular, more persistent, they are getting less dreamy and more real. (CP 1.175.)

Because of their ability to form positive knowledge, people are able to evolve and gain more knowledge, in a sense get better at doing things. This is an important argument also for the ability of scientific archaeology to know more about the past than the alternative approaches to studying the past. Success, however, is only possible if we work to achieve it. Such outlook has been referred to as meliorism. It can be described as an idea about the world that does not take it as the best nor the worst possible but that it certainly is capable of improvement. Although Peirce does not use the term meliorism often, it can be linked to his ideas about ethics; the question of what end is possible. Science therefore should be ethical in its attempt to work toward the most admirable end:

Ethics, or the science of right and wrong, must appeal to Esthetics for aid in determining the summum bonum. It is the theory of self-controlled, or deliberate, conduct. (CP 1.191.)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Ontology and/or epistemology « metaarchaeological nonsense

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