Habit of acting as meaning – interpreting the meanings of things in archaeology

I dare to propose that archaeologists are slowly starting to realize that the social and the material are both aspects of the real and can not be separated. But one has to start from somewhere and what would be a more fitting approach for an archaeologists working mostly with material remains of the past than an object-centered approach. For material objects are the first and foremost source of archaeological knowledge. It therefore makes no sense to start from the hardest to study (the complex and abstract social aspects of reality) and advance toward what is easier to study (concrete material things). One must begin with the material that is the easiest to study for it changes relatively slowly. This does not mean that objects are studied in their present context and denied their particular past context of use. On the contrary, one must begin by studying things that are similar to those that are in use in our own society. In other words, one must begin by studying the habits that are thought to be common to both the past and the contemporary society.

One of the first archaeologists to propose such an approach was Christopher Hawkes who in his 1954 article wrote that he has ‘often been embarrassed by the formal necessity of beginning the prehistoric narrative at its beginning, where we know least, and proceeding from that forward’ (Hawkes 1954: 167). Then he went on to suggest that ‘instead of proceeding from the unknown toward the known, one could proceed toward the unknown from the known’ (ibid). Hawkes (1954: 161–162) proposed a four-level inference hierarchy that has later been referred to as Hawkes’ ladder. Hawkes (1954: 161–162) wrote that archaeologists should start by studying first the technology or the techniques of production. He states that reasoning on this level should be relatively simple. The second easiest level of inquiry is related to past subsistence strategies and should also be more or less manageable. The third level involves inferring past social and political institutions. The hardest aspect of past society would be religious institutions and spiritual life.

Hawkes (1954: 156) made a distinction between text-free and text-aided archaeology and pointed out that the so-called text-free archaeology has always been concerned with materials and evolutionary theory. In that sense text-free archaeology has concentrated on the study of types that express ‘a consistent purpose on the part of its ancient makers’ (Hawkes 1954: 157). Text-aided archaeology, however, has always been based on the connection between what can be read in historical texts and what can be known by studying archaeological remains (Hawkes 1954: 158). The past meanings of a thing, then, can be fairly well known by studying the context in which it is being depicted in the text, or as Hawkes (ibid.) put it, types can be determined by ‘textual statements guaranteeing that there were such types, standardized and varying only in detail’. With the help of such guaranteed cases, one can advance and infer about the types that have not been guaranteed.

I will now refrain myself from going into Hawkes’ use of the term guarantee but what does strike me as interesting is the way the term type is used as a synonym for style and, as I am about to propose, meaning. As Hawkes (1954: 158) wrote, the typology by guarantee of textual statements is similar to the typology of artifacts into types based on their materials and other functional traits in text-free archaeology. They are both based on the idea of human norms in the activity responsible (Hawkes 1954: 158). There is a continuation to be found from prehistory to history, or from history to prehistory in the Hawkesian sense, and both periods are manifested in things, archaeological remains that is. There is a relation to be seen between texts and things mentioned in the texts, and things mentioned in the texts and things of the prehistoric period. ‘Our awareness of that relation enters necessarily into our cognition of them, and conditions our archaeological interpretation of them’ (Hawkes 1954: 159).

Although Hawkes’ inference hierarchy has been criticized for its shortcomings, I find it having an enormous value when examined from a pragmatist point of view. Hawkes’ approach is consistent with the evolutionary idea of historical sciences of his time period. The study of the past was based on the idea that cultural progress takes place according to certain universal and evolutionary processes just as nature does. This approach has later been criticized for the fact that no-one was able to identify the processes nor the method by which one was to analyze cultural change (Lyman and O´Brien 2001: 333). The problem is that biological evolutionary processes were thought to apply to human action in the cultural sense. This is of course true to a certain extent but is as far from the truth as the more recent approach that makes a clear distinction between cultural and natural evolution. Such a distinction should not be made.

A more appropriate approach is to think of human action as habit in an avolutionary sense. As I already mentioned before, for Hawkes the study of type and style is based on the idea of human norms in the activity responsible. The idea of evolution and continuity can be seen in Hawkes’ formulation that comes very close to Charles Peirce’s idea of habit. For Peirce habits are what provide generalities in all phenomena, something that gives birth to generals. Generals in turn constitute the intelligible and continuous structure of the world (Hausman 1993: 177). Peirce states that habits become general laws; every habit is a general law (CP 2.148). In this sense it is not very far-fetched to link Hawkes’ norms of human action to Peirce’s habits. By the same token, one can now arrive at the conclusion (one that is central to my point in this post) that both humans and non-humans or things are both habitual in this sense, and share a common ground. And once we abandon the rationalist philosophy, things get more simple: Graham Harman (2010: 146–147) has astutely noted that, as this traditional philosophy has treated humans and things as essentially separate, the relation between humans and things has become philosophically more interesting than that of things and other things, or mainly things that seem to be in close contact in nature, and those relations have been dealt with by the natural sciences. This kind of debunking of traditional dualities leads to a completely different idea of meaning. While still maintaining that things as signs do not exist in any meaningful and dynamic fashion until they become interpreted, these meanings are based on the material nature of things. Following Michael Polanyi (1969), one could call them tacit meanings, as opposed to literal meanings. Remember that we have already abandoned the centrality of language and the human rationale in the sense that it has been used in rationalist philosophies for hundreds of years. Tacit meanings are therefore meanings closely related to repeated action and the positive traits of things (humans included). Bjørnar Olsen (2012: 212) writes that a word can be substituted by any word as long as it is consistent and different from other words, but a thing can not be replaced by any thing since they all have their unique competence or affordances. Following this idea, it becomes clear that once we grant things their uniqueness, it becomes easier to study their past meanings.

Central to this approach is the idea that things and humans are connected in a semiotic chain of interpretation. It is not the essential properties of things that matter nor their relations to other thing in the relationist sense but the effects their activity has on that of other things. Now what is important for an archaeologist is that certain things have remained relatively unchanged throughout thousands of years, or in more semiotic terms that the affordances of certain things have remained relatively unchanged as they have been used under similar circumstances. When assessing what things have changed little enough for us to reconstruct their past meanings, the human evolution becomes relevant. If we are able to show that the physiological and psychological grounds of human experience have remained relatively unchanged, we should be able to reconstruct past meanings more accurately. It seems likely that the organism we refer to as human has remained relatively unchanged for at least tens of thousands of years. But since human evolution – and evolution of the human mind – is evolutionary in the sense that it is not independent of its surroundings, there is no point in trying to look for the common ground of experience solely from within the human experience.

Habits as meanings are not inherent to humans, or things for that matter. Meanings are not in humans (or the human mind) or things. Meanings as habits are generals. Things as generals, as Peirce writes, have an esse in futuro: Their mode of being belongs to the thirdness:

My view is that there are three modes of being. I hold that we can directly observe them in elements of whatever is at any time before the mind in any way. They are the being of positive qualitative possibility, the being of actual fact, and the being of law that will govern facts in the future. (CP 1.23)

Things, as well as humans, are teleologically oriented. The basis of action is in the anticipated outcomes of that action; the fact that things have happened according to certain habits (i.e. habits have become general laws and providers of generalities) results in their potentiality in following that general law of action (CP 2.148). The past and the present are finite assemblages of things and events, or, as Peirce writes, ‘actual facts’ (CP 2.148) and as such are relatively easy to study. The hard part in the study of meanings is to study what possibilities were involved in the experience. The notion of meanings of things acquires a new meaning as the object of archaeological study. This brings us back to what Hawkes wrote about the four levels of inference. Technologies, as evidence of a kind of praxis (their esse in futuro owing to action perhaps targeted at producing something), are fairly easy to study, whereas the meaning of a more abstract type of action that has not left behind very concrete evidence should be the hardest to reconstruct.

If the meaning of a thing is equal to the habits it involves, and, furthermore, the nature of those habits is being in futuro, how does one begin to reconstruct past experiences the meanings of which are in futuro? John Dewey (1895: 32) refers to these non-referential or unconscious references as Gefühlston:

Gefühlston represents the complete consolidation of a large number of achieved ends into the organic habit or co-ordination. It is interest read backwards. That represents the complete identification of the habits with a certain end or aim.

The experiences of past people are embodied in us as a result of their actions that aimed at certain outcomes of that action. No one person can remember all past experiences (not even their own), yet they have an impact on our experience as formed habits of action. Experiences are therefore not something belonging to the purely psychological individual but are bodily and evolutionary as well. This can be clarified by a somewhat lengthy cite from Peirce’s How to Make Our Ideas Clear:

[T]he whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. If there be a unity among our sensations which has no reference to how we shall act on a given occasion, as when we listen to a piece of music, why we do not call that thinking. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. (EP 1: 131)

Thought or cognitive processes as a habit of action that is characterized by human presence is something that always involves all three aspects of the Peircean sign (into which I will not go in more detail here) followed by the production of a new sign in the process called semiosis. The mode of being of that cognitive habit is esse in futuro. But what is the object of archaeological knowledge? Is it the thing in itself (noumenal) or the meaning of a thing as something abstract but experienced (phenomenon)? Neither, I say. The object of archaeological knowledge is the anticipated action that is produced in interpretation. People today, as well as in the past, produce things and act in order to achieve something. That is the basis of all action and thought. What is created in the process is a complex assemblage of meanings. The meaning of a thing in the past may be different from its meaning for me but nevertheless my knowledge of the past meanings have an affect on the meaning of the thing for me. My assumed meanings of the thing in the past affect its meaning in the present. Similarly a thing in the present may have many meanings. A thing can be put in a museum and treated as an exhibit piece, or it can be studied in a lab. Its meanings may be very different to different people. Furthermore a thing could have meant different things to different people in the past. That is the very reason an archaeologist should start from the most rudimentary of action, as was also proposed by Hawkes already in the nineteen fifties.

Archaeologists are in the end not left with things that have nothing to do with their own time but with things that are part of a chain of semiosis that connects the past and the present and all thought in its mode of being in futuro. The fact that things are in continuity makes action (as well as studying the past) meaningful. Stating that past meanings were something purely cognitive and therefore are solely esse in futuro would render past meanings completely unreachable today. The good thing is that past action (however teleological) produced material parts. And since archaeologists are ultimately dependent on material things, it is worth keeping in mind Peirce’s statement that ‘[w]hatever is continuous has material parts’ (CP 6.174). The trick is to find the material parts that are continuous.

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