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Human behavior, explanation,

archaeology, history, and

Article in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology June 1982

DOI: 10.1016/0278-4165(82)90020-4


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Douglas B. Bamforth
University of Colorado Boulder


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Human Behavior, Explanation, Archaeology, History,

and Science


Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106
Received December 12, 1981

Anyone proposing to increase the volume of essays on the intellectual

foundations of archaeology is automatically under suspicion of hubris if
not something worse. Our justification for still another effort is, of
course, that we think the present situation exhibits confusion and misun-
derstanding that can be cleared away by careful analysis of some of the
claims made in the name of science, history, or just plain truth. We do not
pretend to give a complete and balanced description and analysis of the
literature devoted to these intellectual foundations; instead, we confine
ourselves to a few topics as illustrated by a few sources. In particular, we
are concerned with the claims of excessive scientism and excessive his-
toricism. In extreme form, scientism refers here to the view that there is a
scientific method that can provide full understanding of the data of ar-
chaeology (and any other field of scientific inquiry) if it is applied dili-
gently and correctly and that our failure to achieve full understanding of
the data is the result of failure in the application of scientific method.
Historicism in extreme form is the view that human behavior has a special
character which precludes explanation by scientific methods because it is
not governed by scientific laws; understanding is attained not through
scientific explanation but rather through our peculiarly human ability to
empathize, to enter into passions, fears, calculations, and aspirations of
past humans. We will attempt to clarify these concepts and their ar-
chaeological implications with the aid of a brief discussion of 19th century
and later philosophies of history and science followed by a consideration
of two examples of commentary on archaeological philosophizing by
philosophers. Our discussion of intellectual history leans heavily on the
work of Barraclough (1962) and Berlin (1966).


The 19th century surely represents a triumphant period for science. The
line of progress from Galileo to Newton to the contemporary physicists
CoPyright 0 1982 by Academic Ress, Inc.
All rights of reproduction in any form resewed.

and chemists had produced genuinely elegant and broad generalizations

on the nature of things, historical geology had opened up endless vistas of
time for the operations of natural processes, and finally the concept of
organic evolution had brought the diversity of life itself into the domain of
scientific inquiry. And then there was history, the poor relation in the
intellectual enterprise; it had produced nothing to match the heady scien-
tific achievements, and critics were not lacking to point a scornful finger
at this poverty. Berlin (19665) notes that even in the 17th century,
Descartes . . . had already denied to history any claim to be a serious
study. And, While the accumulation of this confused amalgam of
memories and travelers tales, fables and chroniclers stories, might be a
harmless pastime, it was beneath the dignity of serious men seeking what
is alone worth seeking-the discovery of the truth in accordance with the
principles and rules which alone guarantee scientific validity. This sci-
entific condescension reached its highest pitch in the 19th century, when a
passionately scientific historian, Henry Thomas Buckle (quoted in Berlin
1966:51-52), explained that the inferior status of history was a combina-
tion of two factors, the complexity of social phenomena and the inferior
mental powers of historians. Historians were too stupid to apply the prin-
ciples of science-the scientific method-to their data to develop a sci-
ence of history with explanatory powers comparable to those of natural
science. It is not difficult to understand the indignant reaction of histo-
rians to these accusations, a reaction still evoked by terms associated in
the minds of some historians with unbridled 19th century scientific arro-
gance; positivism is the prime example of such terms. It is more dif-
ficult to understand why the main burden of defense was assumed by the
German historians and philosphers of history in the tradition of the Ger-
man philosophical idealists, notably Kant and Hegel.
Barraclough (1962: 586ff.) characterizes the arguments of historians
for the essentially distinctive nature of history as opposed to science as
L . . . a singular combination of subjective prejudices, ignorance, mis-
understanding, and legitimate limitative considerations. In his opinion,
the prevailing historical notions are the result of a misconception of the
nature of science together with some deep psychological factors revealed
by the emotional quality of the 19th century attack on the nascent social
science of the time. One important source of this emotion was the con-
nection between the historians position and the warfare between science
and religion; in subsequent years, Barraclough states, theology itself
. . . has successfully come to terms with science, but . . . historians
for the most part [are] still defending the old positions. The old positions
include the defense of free will against materialist determinism, of human
dignity and individuality against efforts to reduce human conduct to sci-
entitic laws, of German idealism against French and English positivism

and naturalism, of morality and responsibility and voluntary human action

against a strict obedience to scientific law. The doctrine of historicism,
associated prominently with the work of Dilthey and Rickert and grounded
in German idealist philosophy, was the outcome. Historicism was widely
influential among historians, and it brought with it the tenets of German
idealism, which still remain . . . the stock-in-trade of historians every-
where, according to Barraclough (1962587).
The essence of historicism is, as is well known, the rejection of scien-
tific history by contrasting nature and spirit, the world of natural science
and the world of history. Again quoting from Barraclough (1962:587),
History was concerned with the realm of the unique, of the spirit, and of
change; natural science was concerned with the consistent, with the re-
peatable, and with the discovery of general principles. While science was
interested in particular facts only for the sake of discovering or testing
general laws, the historian was concerned with the evaluation of particu-
lar facts whose nature cannot be fully explained, if it can be explained at
all, by general laws; his task, in short, was to appreciate individuality and
value. A familiar formation of this concept is the nomothetic versus
idiographic methodological distinction. Natural science employs the
nomothetic method: it seeks to provide theoretical generalizations in ex-
planation of the natural world. History, in contrast, is idiographic in
method: the very nature of human behavior precludes theoretical
generalization, and the historian in consequence seeks to provide full
narrative descriptions of past events. Science offers explanation of natu-
ral phenomena; history offers empathetic understanding of human affairs.


The foregoing remarks are intended as a bare-bones account of the

history versus science controversy as it flourished some 80 years ago. We
will now attempt to provide an equally skeletal description of subsequent
developments as a background for our consideration of some current
arguments in archaeology. It is important to understand at the outset that
working historians for the most part continued and still continue to ply
their trade in accordance with their internal standards of intellectual
craftsmanship. They do not wait in tense expectation for some
philosopher to explain precisely how history at last can be transformed
into a respectable science complete with laws and theories as elegant as
those of classical mechanics. They do not think of history as an imperfect
science of human behavior on the one hand or as a purely humanistic
study on the other. They think of history as an intellectual discipline in its
own right with its own methods for dealing with the complexities of
human behavior as they are manifested in the historical record. This

sturdy independence of the working historian from the explicating clergy

(Paul Lazarsfelds term) has not, however, precluded continued
philosophizing about history.
Of particular interest here is the state of philosophy of history in the
1960s as practiced in the English-speaking intellectual domain. Our jus-
tification for this restricted approach is our special interest in the milieu of
the New Archaeology, which at least in its initial phases was strongly
associated with the English-speaking archaeological and philosophical
community. In so concentrating, we neglect a vigorous European-based
philosophical tradition rooted in German idealism, the hermeneutic-
dialectical approach to epistemology, including metascience and
metahistory and often characterized by a Marxist perspective. (Radnitzky
1973 provides a voluminous description and analysis of the contemporary
schools of metascience under the basic dichotomy of Anglo-Saxon and
Continental schools). Our principal sources are Dray (1964), the authors
represented in Dray (1966), Barraclough (1962), and Dray (1962).
Drays introduction in Philosophy of History (1964:1-3) provides a
clear and succinct description of the contemporary state of affairs in the
philosophy of history. He first notes the distinction between two branches
of the philosophy of history, the speculative branch and the critical
branch. Speculative philosophy . . . seeks to discover in history, the
course of events, a pattern or meaning which lies beyond the purview of
the ordinary historian. (Toynbees A Study of History is a comparatively
well-known exercise in speculative philosophy, although it is not repre-
sentative of the best work in the field in the opinion of many.) Critical
philosophy of history, on the other hand, . . . endeavors to make clear
the nature of the historians own inquiry, in order to locate it, as it were,
on the map of knowledge. We are concerned here only with critical
philosophy, the historical counterpart of philosophy of science as an
evaluation of . . . the concept and structure of scientific inquiry.
Dray goes on to point out that the critical philosophy of history has for
many years focused on the question of . . . whether historical inquiry is,
or is not, scientific, in a sense in which physics, biology, psychology or
even applied sciences like engineering are. One group of philosophers,
conventionally called positivists, argues there are no fundamental dis-
tinctions in method between scientific and historical inquiry and accord-
ingly that there is no separate critical philosophy of history. A second
group, the idealists, holds that . . . history is in important ways a
discipline with aims, concepts, and methods of its own. Dray notes that
the labels positivist and idealist are somewhat misleading, although
it is true that the claim for the independence of history is connected with
. - . idealist philosophers like Collingwood, Croce, Dilthey-and even
Hegel. (We have earlier quoted Barraclough on the idealist roots to the

same effect. Giedymin [1975] presents an analysis of antipositivism in

which he points out that the opponents of positivism often fail to identify
their target with any precision; in particular, they confound the views of
positivists in the old and strict sense, those of Auguste Comte and John
Stuart Mill and later of the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle before
1935, with the more recent logical empiricism.)
It is well known that there were and are vigorous defenders in history
and archaeology of the autonomy of history and its accompanying critical
philosophy. Dray himself is one of them, but he does not attempt to
justify this view by vague appeals to understanding, spirit, and other
concepts associated with historicism. Instead, he bases his distinction
between history and science on an analysis of explanation (1964:15-20,
is a useful summary), arguing that historians sometimes offer explanations
that do not employ generalizations that would qualify as scientific laws; in
contrast, scientific explanations necessarily appeal to scientific laws di-
rectly or implicitly. Examples of these distinctively historical explana-
tions are how possibly explanations, which are explanations of how
some unexpected event could have happened at all in contrast to explain-
ing why it did happen, and explanations (sometimes called interpreta-
tions) which explain by . . . relating parts, at first not seen to be such,
to a whole of some kind. Examples given for the whole are the Re-
naissance in 15th century Italy or the Revolution in 18th century France;
these are organizing concepts, and the process of colligating events under
the organizing concept is the essence of historical inquiry. But historical
inquiry . . . has no logical similarity, however, to explanation on the
scientific model, as positivists have generally represented it. For these
and other reasons, history and science should be thought of and practiced
as two fundamentally different kinds of intellectual enterprise, although
both belong to the broad field of empirical inquiry.
In response to our reviewers, we note parenthetically that empirical
inquiry is employed here (following Hempel) to contrast those fields of
intellectual activity (the natural and social sciences and historical re-
search) in which appeal to publicly ascertainable evidence is the method
of testing hypotheses and theories with those fields lacking this require-
ment, theology for example. In particular, to characterize science as em-
pirical inquiry is not to ignore the essential role of theory in scientific
inquiry; it is rather to acknowledge the essential role of empirical obser-
vation and measurement (in conjunction with theory) in the scientific
enterprise. Additional discussion is provided below in our consideration
of Hempels analysis of scientific explanation.
Archaeology can be understood as a kind of history because it is con-
cerned with past human activities, although its central emphasis on the
description and explanation of the socially patterned behavior of groups

of humans, the cultures of societies, contrasts sharply with the emphasis

of traditional history on the description and explanation of selected events
and selected sequences of related events. Despite this difference in em-
phasis, there is (or was) a detectable historical influence on archaeological
thinking manifesting itself in the form of the limitative considerations
of orthodox historical interpretation: human behavior is in some impor-
tant sense unpredictable, and this unpredictability places limits on the
ability of archaeologists to explain their data. The essence of the New
Archaeology as we understand it is the rejection of this historicism. In-
stead of acknowledged (if somewhat hazy) limits to archaeological knowl-
edge, there are indefinitely remote frontiers toward which archaeologists
struggle. The question of limits to archaeological knowledge is the ques-
tion of the degree and quality of predictability of past cultural behavior,
and this question is a matter for archaeological research, not a priori
declaration. The answer must be pursued by objective investigation of the
observable data of archaeology; objective investigation of observable data
is simply scientific research; and the desired outcome of archaeological
research is scientific explanation of archaeological data. This interpreta-
tion of the goal and method of archaeology implies the rejection of not
only traditional historicism but also of the careful arguments of Dray (and
others) that history in fact exhibits explanations that are genuinely differ-
ent from explanation on the scientific model, as positivists have gener-
ally represented it. We will attempt to shed some light on the ensuing
history-science-archaeology arguments by examining specific exam-
ples. We will consider two efforts by the explicating clergy, Morgan
(1973, 1974) and Levin (1973).



From our point of view, Morgans work is a decidely unfortunate mud-

dying of the waters. His principal thesis is that the work of Watson et al.
(1971) is an amateurish, bungling attempt to derive a prescription for
doing archaeology from an extremely dubious philosophical doctrine
(1973:273). The philosophical doctrine in question is the concept of scien-
tific explanation variously and more or less appropriately referred to as
the covering law model, the Hempelian model, and the deductive-
nomological model. Morgan (1973:260) characterizes the essential aspect
of the covering law model: . . . the event to be explained must be sub-
sumed under some general principle or law for explanation to take place.
He also states (1973:273): Proponents of the CL [covering law] model do
not see themselves as doing just natural history of scientific endeavour.
Rather, they view their model as having prescriptive force-anything

which does not fit the model cannot be an explanation. Nor do the propo-
nents of the CL model see their analysis as restricted to any particular
field or type of explanation. The analysis is presumably universally appli-
cable to any type of explanation in any field. He characterizes Hempels
presentation (Hempell965) as the clearest and most detailed exposition of
the covering law model.
We agree with Morgan on the essential aspect of the covering law
model and on his characterization of the Hempel presentation, but we are
puzzled by his unqualified statement on the claim for the prescriptive and
universal properties of the model on the part of the proponents of the CL
model. Presumably Hempel is one of these proponents, but he does not
seem to make such claims. He states (1965:33): What is the nature of the
explanations empirical science can provide? What understanding of em-
pirical phenomena do they convey? This essay attempts to shed light on
these questions by examining in some detail the form and function of
some of the major types of explanatory account that have been advanced
in different areas of empirical science. We interpret this and similar
statements to mean that Hemple does see himself as doing a natural
history of scientific explanation, of analyzing preexisting and undoubted
examples of scientific explanation to discover the essence of their
explanatory quality. Instead of instructing scientists on how to explain,
Hempel is attempting to explicate some important features of the expla-
nations that scientists make. The prescriptive force that Morgan notes
results from the outcome of the analysis: in every case of scientific expla-
nation examined, subsumption under a covering law or general principle
is detected. We would modify Morgans statement (. . . anything which
does not tit the model cannot be an explanation.) to anything which is
clearly an explanation in science and history seems to fit the model. The
ability to recognize explanations is prerequisite to the analysis of the
character of scientific and historical explanations.
Hempel continues: The terms empirical science and scientific ex-
planation will here be understood to refer to the entire field of empirical
inquiry, including the natural and the social sciences as well as historical
research. This broad use of the two terms is not intended to prejudge the
question of the logical and methodological similarities and differences
between different areas of empirical inquiry, except for indicating that the
procedures used in those different areas will be taken to conform to cer-
tain basic standards of objectivity. According to these standards, hypoth-
eses and theories-including those invoked for explanatory purposes-
must be capable of test by reference to publicly ascertainable evidence,
and their acceptance is always subject to the proviso that they may have
to be abandoned if adverse evidence or more adequate hypotheses or
theories should be found. This is indeed a broad scope for application,

but it does not imply applicability to every conceivable field or type of

explanation. We do speak of explaining how to get to the library or the
meaning of a sentence in some foreign language, but these reasonable uses
of explain are not obviously (perhaps not at all) connected with cov-
ering laws or general principles. There is no claim that the covering law
model applies to every context in which we use explanation to refer to
the process of making something clear or understandable, contrary to
the apparent import of Morgans statement, as Hempel makes clear
(1965:412-413). If we are correct in thinking that Hempel is a prime
representative of Morgans proponents of the CL model, then Morgan
has seriously misrepresented the position of these proponents on the pre-
scriptive quality and range of application of the model.
The covering law model, then, is the product of an attempt to analyze
and describe the kind or kinds of explanation associated with empirical
inquiry. These explanations (scientific explanations for brevity of refer-
ence) are answers to why-questions of a certain kind. Among the exam-
ples that Hempel (1965:334) gives are: Why do the planets move in
elliptical orbits with the sun at one focus? and Why did Hitler go to war
against Russia? We might add for archaeological flavor Why are there
no metal tools in archaeological deposits more than 10,000 years old? The
questions may be concerned with single events (or a property of a single
object) or with classes of similar events or properties of classes of
objects-with a particular circumstance or a class of circumstances. The
covering law analysis indicates that in every case the answer, if the ques-
tion is answerable, involves showing that the explanandum (that which is
to be explained) can be inferred from a group of propositions at least one
of which is general in character. In very informal terms, the explanation
shows that the circumstance in question is to be expected as a matter of
the way in which the world goes.
If the covering law makes a universal claim, then inference is achieved
with deductive certainty. This piece of iron expanded when it was heated
because all pieces of iron expand when they are heated; this is an example
of deductive-nomological explanation in a very simple form. Hempel also
distinguishes a second major type of explanation, statistical explanation,
which in turn has the subtypes deductive-statistical and inductive-
statistical explanation. Statistical explanation does not provide an argu-
ment to the effect that a particular circumstance must necessarily be
expected as an implication of the covering law or laws; instead, the cov-
ering generalizations are frequency distributions relevant to a class of
circumstances of which the circumstance in question is a member.
The frequency distribution itself may be deduced from an exact mathe-
matical formulation together with some appropriate assumptions to pro-
vide a deductive statistical explanation. Thus from the assumption that we

are tossing a fair coin (and some other assumptions), we can deduce with
the aid of the binomial expansion that two tosses will result in two heads
with a probability of .25, in a head and a tail with a probability of SO, and
in two tails with a probability of .25. Here we are explaining the frequency
distribution rather than any particular outcome of the tossing; we do not
know why the outcome was two heads in this trial.
In inductive-statistical explanation, the frequency distribution is simply
inferred from empirical evidence; we might note that in sites of the Illinois
Hopewell type about 10% (an illustrative value only) of the potsherds are
tempered with limestone, and our explanation for the observation that
about 10% of the potsherds on a newly discovered site are limestone-
tempered would be that it is an Illinois Hopewell kind of site. We offer no
answer to the question Why do Illinois Hopewell sites exhibit a relative
frequency of about 10% for limestone-tempered sherds? Further, all that
we can reply to the question Why is this potsherd limestone-tempered?
is that is came from an Illinois Hopewell site and that experience shows
that some potsherds from such sites are limestone-tempered. We need
more information about Illinois Hopewell sites before we can offer a
better explanation.
We note in passing that the term deductive-nomological is some-
times applied to all covering law explanations because there are deductive
elements in even inductive-statistical explanations. We observe collec-
tions of potsherds from a sample of Illinois Hopewell sites and note that
each exhibits about a 10% relative frequency for limestone-tempered pot-
sherds. On this evidence, we infer inductively that all Illinois Hopewell
sites are similar with respect to this relative frequency. If we assume that
this inference of homogeneity is correct, then we can argue deductively
that any collection from a new Illinois Hopewell site will exhibit the
estimated 10% of limestone-tempered potsherds; the assumed homogene-
ity provides the universal premise needed for deductive inference. But the
presence of this deductive element in the chain of inference does not
contradict the basic inductive-statistical character of explanations derived
from the observations. The estimated about 10% limestone-tempered
is a frequency distribution derived inductively from empirical observa-
tion, not a value deduced from and explained by some background theory
of Hopewell cultural behavior. It probably would be desirable to charac-
terize the explanatory process as inferential-nomological to avoid
confusion; here we follow Maxwell (1975: 124- 125), who suggests simi-
larly that hypothetic0-inferential is a better term than hypothetico-
deductive to describe explanatory reasoning.
The puzzle in need of explanation can arise in more than one way: the
explanation seeker might be ignorant of the relevant covering law or
general principle (or covering laws and general principles), or he may

have failed to realize that the puzzling circumstance is indeed an instance

to which a general principle applies, or he may not understand how the
explanation can be derived from the relevant explanatory generalization
or generalizationa. Consequently, the actual form that an explanation
takes in practice is context dependent; usually it will do no more than
supply the particular information required to complete the inference.
These pragmatic aspects of explanation make it possible for philosophers
of history to point to good examples of explanations that do not explicitly
appeal to covering generalizations. An example from Hempel (1965:427)
is the case of the man who did not understand why his house got cold
when he was watching television. The explanation simply pointed to the
fact that the television set was placed under the thermostat. This is a
pragmatically satisfactory explanation: it identifies an understandable
cause for the puzzling phenomenon without mentioning a law. But we
have background knowledge of empirical generalizations to the effect that
warming a thermostat shuts off the heating and that an operating televi-
sion set produces heat. In the light of these generalizations, all that we
need to know to complete the inference is that the television set was
placed close to the thermostat, and that is the information that was
supplied. Philosophers of history have provided numerous candidates for
explanation without appeal to generalizations in defense of the autonomy
of history, as we noted above. Hempel argues (1965:425-486) that, al-
though these philosophers are right to call attention to these important
pragmatic facets of explanation (1965:427), all of the candidates are
unsatisfactory in the sense that there is always a covering generalization
somewhere in the background, and he provides detailed analyses to jus-
tify his position. In contrast, Morgan (1973:266) asserts (with specific
reference to Hempel as an example) that . . . attempts by CL theorists to
incorporate these types into the CL model . . . frequently do not seem to
do justice to actual examples, but rather seem to distort such examples
out of recognition. Morgan does not comment further on the nature of
the distortion he detects; this casual dismissal of Hempels careful argu-
ments is not acceptable.
In broad terms, Watson et al. reason that the goal of archaeology is to
explain archaeological observations, that (following the Hempelian ex-
position) explanations require covering laws or general principles, and
that archaeologists accordingly should energetically and explicitly pursue
a program of proposing plausible covering laws and testing the proposals
against the available objective data. In response, Morgan asserts that the
Hempelian model of explanation is an extremely dubious philosophical
doctrine and that (1973:268-269) In philosophy of science, the CL
model has generally been discredited as an adequate account of scientific
explanation. Some explanations seem to fit the CL pattern, but by no

means do ah. The adequacy of the CL model is at least an open question,

and the failure of the authors [Watson, LeBlanc, and Redman] to indicate
in any way that these are problems constitutes a gross breach of scientific
objectivity. And Morgan adds (1973) that, contrary to the view that
explanation is the desirable end of scientific practice, he would suggest
1 . . . that explanation is not a goal of science but may perhaps be a
by-product; rather than an end, explanation plays the role of a means
in scientific methodology. This latter point seems to involve merely
playing with words; in opposition, we quote (Nagel 1961:4), It is the
desire for explanations which are at once systematic and controllable by
factual evidence that generates science; and it is the organization and
classification of knowledge on the basis of explanatory principles that is
the distinctive goal of the sciences.
In his major presentation (1973) and in his response (1974) to the Wat-
son et al. reply (1974), Morgan does not quarrel with the notion that
production of laws would be a good thing for archaeologists to ac-
complish, and he recommends rejection of a priori arguments on the
possibility of producing such laws. Further, Morgan states (1973:274):
There is nothing wrong with urging archaeologist to attempt to discover
and test generalizations, principles, and even (if possible) laws. On this
basis alone, it is difficult to understand the vigor of his attack on Watson
et al. A milder exposition of the deficiencies in philosophical precision
exhibited by Watson et al. (on Morgans analysis) would seem to be
appropriate. We suppose that Morgans zeal and scorn stem from the
alleged prescriptive use of the Hempelian formulation by Watson et al.;
somehow they have managed to jab a thumb into a very sore spot of
Morgans. This sore spot is plainly Morgans rejection (1973:275) of . . .
vague, highly controversial, philosophical doctrines . . . in general and
the covering law model of explanation in particular.
Our reading indicates that Morgan has misrepresented the status in
philosophy of Hempels view of scientific explanation. We have the im-
pression that, at least in the United States and probably in some other
quarters, the essential feature of the view, the necessity for a covering law
or general principle, represents mainstream philosophical thinking on sci-
entific explanation rather than a doctrine that has generally been discred-
ited in the philosophy of science as an adequate account of scientific
explanation. The doctrine may not be entirely adequate (whatever that
might mean), but it is certainly viewed by many as essentially correct. The
truth and utility of philosophical doctrines are not determined by popular-
ity polls, but a misrepresentation of the situation is not helpful to non-
We conclude that Morgan has misrepresented the scope, purpose, and
level of acceptance of the covering law model, and we think that this

misrepresentation is a disservice to those archaeologists who find

philosophical descriptions and analyses helpful in clarifying their ar-
chaeological thinking and consequently helpful in the archaeological
practice that the thinking suggests. We do not argue that archaeologists
must justify their activities by appeal to the correct philosophical doc-
trine. The ultimate test of value in archaeology is what happens in archae-
ology, not what happens in philosophy; archaeologists must apply their
own standards of evaluation to claims for archaeological knowledge. In
our opinion, these standards must include those of science in general, and
for this reason we think that the descriptive and analytical results of
philosophy of science are useful for archaeologists. This opinion leads us
to a final comment on Morgans essay: we judge that his rejection of the
covering law model, in particular of its applicability to historical explana-
tion, is a philosophical error. We make this perilous leap for non-
philosophers because we think the matter is important for archaeology
and because the arguments of Hempel and others are persuasive to us.
Here we act in accordance with the principle that war is too important to
be left to generals (or even to second lieutenants).
The Levin (1973) contribution, by contrast, is a judicious and salutary
effort. Levin points out that philosophical theses are analytical and de-
scriptive. Philosophers look at science and generalize on the methods
employed by scientists in obtaining their results. The value of scientific
results is appraised in empirical terms: do these results provide a reliable
prediction of heretofore unobserved events and do they somehow en-
hance our knowledge of the observed properties of the world and the
interrelationships of these properties? And the certainties of the conclu-
sions of deductive logic are certainties about the world only with the
proviso that the premises of the deductive inference are empirically
valid-are true of the world. Valid (logically correct) deductive arguments
can result in false conclusions if the premises are false. But the truth or
falsity of premises is a matter to be tested as best we can (an inductive
process) by objective observation or inference from objective observa-
tion. Above all, philosophy provides no royal road to scientific creativity,
no method for identifying the variables relevant to the solution of a scien-
tific problem and to the formulation of fruitful hypotheses. Instead,
philosophy provides a careful analysis and description of the manner in
which scientists proceed once they have a specific hypothesis to be
tested. We will have to obtain interesting archaeological hypotheses from
some source other than philosophy. Obviously this source is nothing but
hard work in archaeology itself, combined with a judicious awareness of
the applicability of methods employed and results obtained in other fields
of science. We will not find sure-fire recipes for creativity in scientific
method and, a fortiori, in philosophic descriptions of scientific method.

Levins position, in our opinion, is both sound and cogent; there is no

point in looking to philosophers for guidance that they cannot give.
We have commented on these two contributions from philosophy to the
archaeological literature in order that they may be compared and con-
trasted. Both are critical of archaeological efforts to involve philosophy in
archaeological thinking. We judged that Morgans efforts were less than
helpful because they centered on his inadequately supported opposition to
a carefully developed view of scientific explanation and because his zeal
led to overemphatic and questionable criticism. Levin, by contrast, clears
the air with an exposition of the widely (or universally) acknowledged
limitations of analytic philosophy. Further review of philosophical contri-
butions to archaeology is not essential to our goal of reconciling science
and history in archaeology, but we do wish to pay our respects in passing
to the work of the Salmons (Salmon 1975,1978; Salmon and Salmon 1979)
and to observe that their comments have useful, air-clearing aspects,
especially the 1975 and 1978 articles by Merrilee H. Salmon. We also
judge that the Salmons arguments for a modification of the covering law
model of explanation do not require an appraisal for our purposes because
they are concerned with the nature of the connection between the cover-
ing law or laws and the explanandum; the necessity of the covering
generalizations is not in question.


Thus far we have sketched the development of a vigorous and some-

times bitter debate on the character and relationships of history and sci-
ence within the broad field of empirical inquiry, argued that a fundamental
property of the recent archaeological thinking conventionally labeled
New Archaeology is the rejection of both extreme and moderate claims
from the historical side for the intellectual autonomy of history together
with inescapable limitations on the explanation of past human behavior,
and presented two examples of philosophical comment on archaeological
thinking to illustrate and clarify some of the important issues. In our
consideration of Morgans philosophical comment, we indicated our ac-
ceptance of the view of Hempel (and many others) that explanation is
achieved in history and science by inference from one or more covering
generalizations. On this basis, one major conclusion on the interrelation-
ships of archaeology, history, and science is obvious: the question of
whether archaeology should adopt history or science as its model for
explanation is meaningless. Past, present, and future explanations of ar-
chaeological, historical, and scientific phenomena have been, are, and
will be based on explicit or implicit covering generalizations because there
is no other way to explain empirical data. In the absence of any distinction

between history and science in this matter of central importance, what

can be said about differences between the two fields and about implica-
tions for archaeology of any differences that can be detected?
It seems clear that at bottom the distinction between the historical and
the scientific disciplines is a reflection of the special character of human
behavior, including the behavior of historians. The human capacity to
discriminate among the complex combinations of circumstances produced
by the interaction of a number of variables and to respond accordingly is
unrivaled by anything else in the world. This incomparable plasticity is
perceived as inherent uncertainty by traditional historians-there are in-
escapable limits to explanation of human behavior, past or present. These
limits prevent the construction of general theories explaining the details of
human behavior, but they do not preclude improved understanding of the
restricted events and sequences of events that are the subjects of tradi-
tional history. Historical research can disclose previously unknown and
relevant facts to clarify a puzzling historical situation. Moreover, the
historian can identify relevance with a certain degree of confidence be-
cause humans in some sense can enter into the minds of other humans (the
empathy of the traditional debate), can understand motivations and
responses of past humans in particular situations because of their knowl-
edge of their own proclivities and experiences. In a typical case, the
historian and the readers of history share knowledge to the extent that the
historians carefully constructed account achieves a pragmatically satis-
factory explanation without explicit appeal to covering generalizations. In
terms of Hempels cold house example of the pragmatics of explanation,
historians are suppliers of the missing information that the television set
was placed under the thermostat.
Social scientists in general and anthropologists in particular attempt to
advance beyond this level in the face of this acknowledged complexity of
human affairs. They do so by considering the flux of human behavioral
events at a higher level of abstraction. In the case of cultural anthropology
and archaeology, the basic unit of study shifts from a specific individual or
group of individuals responding to some situation to the entire set of
individuals interacting systematically in a society. The socially patterned
behavior of this set, the culture of the society, is the primary unit of
description and explanation, and the individual is treated as a participant
in the patterned behavior. The inherent uncertainty of individual human
behavior emphasized by historians is perceived as inability to control
more than a part of the variables relevant to any particular situation so
that explanation of within-culture variation in behavior must be statistical
and partial. The cultural patterns themselves are statistical abstractions
from the flux of observed behavior or results of behavior, and no
preexisting limitations to the degree of valid generalization (and con-

sequently of explanation) that can be attained are recognized. Empa-

thetic or humanistic insight is not a special mode of explanation in
anthropology or archaeology; it is rather an element in the creative pro-
cess that gives rise to theories which must in turn be tested by means
of their objective implications. Indeed, cultural anthropology emphasizes
the danger of confusing our own cultural conditioning with basic human
nature. Cultural anthropology and archaeology have the essential
character of science, not history, however imperfect their explanations
may be in comparison with classical mechanics. They are theory-building
enterprises because they are concerned with aspects of human behavior
that cannot be dealt with effectively solely in terms of the knowledge that
thoughtful and well-informed people have of characteristic human behav-
ior. Traditional history, in contrast, is directed at just those topics that
can be treated effectively with this stock of knowledge; in practice, it is
concerned with quite specific events or sets of events in a cultural con-
text more or less familiar to historians and readers of history.
We have stated earlier that the New Archaeology rejects historicism,
the notion that some essential unpredictability in human behavior pre-
vents constructing explanatory theories more general than those provided
by the implicit, common-sensical, stock of the historian. Instead, there is
a strong recommendation for scientific archaeology, for active theory
building and testing in the tradition of scientific anthropology to provide
explanatory generalizations. The question of limits to the degree of expla-
nation that might be achieved is treated as an empirical matter, something
to be discovered through effort rather than a subject for a priori
philosophizing. This recommendation has been accompanied by some
excesses of scientism, notably the mistaken idea that scientific method
includes systematic techniques for the efficient production of fruitful
hypotheses. A second excess is overly scornful dismissal of archaeologi-
cal explanation in the historical mode: an explanation which makes an
implicit appeal to widely known generalizations is not necessarily useless.
It may be correct, illuminating, and economical, as historians have dem-
onstrated. It is true that widely known and true are not synonyms,
but it is equally true that the correctness of a generalization may be well
established at a prescientific level of knowledge.
These excesses can be corrected without reducing the New Archaeol-
ogy to empty preaching. Archaeologists have been careless or unenter-
prising in devising and testing explanatory hypotheses, and they have
attempted to excuse lack of progress by appeal to a supposed philosophi-
cal justification of inherent human unpredictability. At its best, scientific
archaeology defines its theoretical entities, past human societies inferred
from material remains, formulates general hypotheses about these entities
in terms of the interrelationships of explicitly and carefully defined vari-

ables, draws out the material implications of these interrelationships, and

examines the data in an objective and systematic manner to discover to
what degree the hypothesized interrelationships are confirmed or refuted
by the objective examination. More simply, scientific archaeology implies
that if we are lucky enough to get some good ideas about the way the
archaeological world goes, we should express them clearly and we should
subject them to empirical test. It further implies that there is no predeter-
mined limit to the degree of understanding that we can achieve ultimately.
We suggest that this characterization applies equally well to history.


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