From symmetry to tacit knowledge in archaeology

The so-called symmetrical archaeology was born as a critique of postprocessual archaeology which, according to it’s critics, had in all its preoccupation with the individual and the socio-cultural forgotten the ‘thingly component’ of the past (Olsen 2003: 87). This in turn led to an asymmetrical disposition between people and things (Olsen 2007).

Shanks (2007) for example writes that symmetrical archaeology does not necessarily claim an ontological position. It is a loose notion, even a metaphor. Symmetry in archaeology deals more with epistemology than ontology. Symmetry according to Shanks (2007: 590-591) is about the relationship between the past and the present, people and things, individual and culture, biological and cultural, but most of all it is a personal affair.

What archaeologists often fail to correctly identify is the relationship between the past, the present and the future. The present is often taken as something dynamic, and the past as something static. The future does not often fit in this picture. Symmetry in archaeology therefore, in my view, deals somewhat erroneously with the static past and the dynamic present where all science is practiced. Shanks (2007: 591), however, states that ‘the past is constantly being recreated because the past is a process, a genealogical relationship with present and future.’ Shanks reminds us that this kind of thinking, conceiving the past as constantly being reassessed, does not compromise the ontology of the past as something that really did happen. Shanks seems to treat the past as something that on the one hand is ontologically ‘real’ in the sense that it remains static, and on the other hand as something that is epistemologically renegotiable, a social representation of the real past. Shanks therefore falls a victim of the Kantian style of separating ‘reality’ and perception.

It is ironic that while stating that symmetrical archaeology is a culmination of debunking the modernist dualities (Shanks 2007: 589), Shanks’ ontology maintains the very same duality between people and things when he says that regardless of the past being what it is, it can never be reached since we continually reassign different meanings to it. Olsen (2007: 581) on the other hand takes a somewhat more cautious approach when he admits that Kant has been one of the philosophers whose thinking has affected social sciences the most in this respect. Olsen (2007: 586) then, while not giving it a name, goes on to suggest the following somewhat pragmatistic solution to the problem:

A symmetrical archaeology, in my opinion, should be conceived of as a pragmatic (and hopefully soon superfluous) concept coined in relation to the effective history briefly outlined. Its semantic refers to nothing but an attempt to make our knowledge and our self-image compatible with practice, with the world as we live it. What it promises is that, if we cease to treat action, influence and power as rare commodities of which only humans have possession, we may be able to produce a more just, interesting and realistic account of past and present collectives.

As a response to the anthropocentric postprocessual archaeology, some archaeologists have turned to assigning agency to things. Agency theories can be seen as an attempt to bring symmetry into material culture studies. Agency theories in archaeology often rely on concepts of habitus from Pierre Bourdieu (1977) and actor-network theory (ANT) by Bruno Latour (1987). These notions have been very influential in archaeology and it is often said that contemporary scholars use the terms very loosely. They have, however, been used extensively to construct a more symmetrical relationship between people and things. Latour (1987: 83-84) states that ‘both people able to talk and things unable to talk have spokesmen’ and ‘whoever and whatever is represented [is an] actant.’ Latour’s theory is therefore most fit for an archaeologist interested in reconstructing premodern ways of conceiving the cosmos. Some archaeologists (e.g. Herva 2009, Hodder 2011) have come to the conclusion that premodern and early modern world-views and human-thing relationships were understood in terms of relations. In other words things were not thought to have essential properties but to change accordingly when any entity in the world changed, hence the term relational ontology used to describe this approach.

All of the above examples can be seen to represent an outlook in material culture studies that does not take human action as primarily based on language. This outlook acknowledges that  intentionality, perception, and therefore action is not something that is based on a propositional understanding of the world. That the production of material, cultural objects does not happen inside a lingual structure. It is not anthropocentric in the sense that it would assume that perception is only limited to mental representations that are structured according to lingual abilities. During the last ten years there has been movement from structural theories of material culture as a product of a structural human mind toward more relational and externalist theories that take material culture (things) as something symmetrical to humans.

The above discussion has dealt more with the relationship between people and things than past and present. I will now get back to the important question of studying the past. I have laid the foundation for a non-propositional and non-semantic understanding of knowledge in terms of defining things as somewhat symmetrical to humans, not as a product of a human mind but more as a product of the human mind as something evolutionary and external to mere individuals. I will not go as far as asserting that things have intentional agency, but rather suggest that material culture along with all other aspects of the material world form the boundaries of human action.

We now arrive at the core of the problem about forming knowledge about the past. If what we perceive is only sense-data as is assumed in the traditional empiricist discourse, there is no possibility of ever knowing the past since it can not be empirically perceived. In this sense, what we sense and have knowledge of, are only the objects that we are immediately engaged with. If, however, we take a more realist approach and state that what we perceive are not the things in themselves but a representation of them based on something that our mind puts in the world (remember the Kantian view some archaeologists share that I discussed above). These representations then have the ability to take on meanings constructed by my mind, based on my past experiences. Now we have to admit that there is no way of knowing the real world since what we would be studying would be the structure of our mind. That is why neither, the empiricist or the Kantian, views are valid.

Following another line of thinking, I propose that all knowledge of the past is the result of an inquiry that has its basis in the hard material facts of the world, not propositional thinking. Hypotheses are in a way formed immediately as a product of being in the world. There is therefore an aspect of intuitive knowledge and guessing in forming hypotheses about the past. In this sense the process comes close to what Michael Polanyi (1969) has referred to as tacit knowing. According to Polanyi, we have such knowledge of things that cannot be put into words. Knowing is akin to skill, and ultimately being able to function in the world (Polanyi 1969: 126). In the same vein, certain skills cannot be taught, but only learnt. Similarly, certain things cannot be written on excavation reports. There is therefore also knowledge only archaeologists who conducted the excavations have access to.

One reason the idea of intuition has not been widely discussed in archaeology, or all of science for that matter, is because of the strong influence of and aspirations for making archaeology a natural science. When archaeology has not been based on the ideals of natural sciences, it was inspired by the semiological and structural view of meaning which in turn is based on the assumption of a correspondence between structural propositions and reality, as I have already pointed out. With the so called speculative turn in continental philosophy (see for example Bryant et al. 2011) and the increased interest toward materialism and realism, and pragmatism (e.g. Preucel and Bauer 2001, Preucel 2006), more archaeologists have opened their eyes to alternative approaches to cultural studies. As a result, more attention can be given to non-literal meanings and non-literal knowledge.

My particular interest in archaeology deals with abductive reasoning as a basis for all processes of forming archaeological knowledge. Not much attention has been paid on this topic in archaeology, and all rare cases have been conducted by philosophers, not archaeologists. There is a reason for archaeologists to bother themselves with philosophical questions: archaeologists are the experts when it comes to studying the past through material remains. Therefore it is vital to be able to identify the bases of one’s knowledge formation processes. All science is, or should ultimately be, based on similar processes of reasoning. According to the later writings of Charles Peirce, abduction can be characterized as a guessing instinct for finding good hypotheses similar to that of the animals’ instinct for doing things that are beneficial or necessary for their survival, that has developed during hundreds of thousands of years of evolution (Paavola 2005: 131-132). To back this up, Peirce argues that it would have been virtually impossible for humans to have developed and reached the current state of knowledge if reasoning was based on mere guessing. In this sense the human mind is, according to Peirce, ‘akin to the truth.’ Abduction is a weak mode of inference that resembles guessing. Abduction is the first phase of inquiry with which ideas and hypotheses are generated. Induction and deduction are then used to test these ideas and hypotheses. When the basis of knowledge is understood in this fashion, there is little room for arguing in favor of a theory of semantic logic as the grounds and boundaries of knowledge.

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