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From explanation to understanding

In 1942 Carl Hempel published what was to become a widely referenced paper on the function of general laws in historical analyses (Hempel 1942). Hempel’s argument here and in its later development (cf. Hempel & Oppenheim 1948), was that the occurrence of an event that required to be explained (the explanandum) could be explained by an expiations, which expressed a combination of the initial and the boundary conditions that had operated within the context of one or more general laws. A historical event, according to the Hempel model, is therefore explained when the antecedent conditions are subsumed within what William Dray characterised as a ‘covering law’ (Dray 1957). From this perspective, historical generalities were not to be described simply as organised assemblages of activities and material conditions. Instead the historical conditions that had generated the assemblages of residue had been governed by the laws of historical process which resulted in predictable, or at least statistically probable, outcomes (Salmon 1993).

The Hempel model found enthusiastic support among many archaeologists in the 1970s who saw it as providing a basis for the scientific analysis of the historical conditions to which they were able to attest archaeologically. These archaeologists regarded the ultimate aim of archaeology as establishing the covering laws that had governed the historical processes, to which archaeological residues attested, and within which human activities had once operated (Fritz & Plog 1970; Watson et al. 1971). This enthusiasm was notshared by all, however (Levin 1973; Morgan 1973). Indeed, Colin Renfrew argued that to subsume the particulars of any one historical circumstance within a model providing for a more general explanation, did not necessitate that the general model should be elevated to the status of a law of history (Renfrew 1973a). The argument that Renfrew used to explain the emergence of European megalithic tombs did not utilise any laws of historical development that would have been recognised by Hempel, but it did employ a generalisation about specific historical conditions. It did not, for example, offer a general law for why collective burial might be expected under certain boundary conditions, nor did it offer a general law that determined that burial sites should be used as territorial markers under certain historical conditions (cf. Saxe 1970). Instead Renfrew expected similar conditions to be explained by high-level generalisations that were specific to the period (the European Neolithic) and that referred to processes, such as those resulting from a growing population confronting the limited possibilities of economic expansion. These conditions had supposedly accommodated the variables whose cultural execution in tomb design was particular to each case

(Renfrew 1973a; cf. Braithwaite 1964, 319ff.). This argument leaves us to question how the sufficiency of explanations such as those offered by Renfrew is to be judged, given the lack of empirical data that were available to support the processes that were proposed. The obvious answer might be that the explanations seemed to work, given what was known, and that nothing more should be demanded of them. If this is so, then the problem simply becomes whether the target towards which the explanation is directed, namely the apparent emergence of territorial behaviour, is itself a valid description of the historical reality.

A generalising procedure for the archaeological identification of past processes therefore requires reducing the specific, cultural, detail of the material (a detail that is often painstakingly recorded by archaeologists) to represent the more general processes that had supposedly resulted in the creation of that material. Archaeological residues are therefore now treated as being significant because they inform on the ways that human activities were organised to satisfy certain functional requirements. It was upon this basis that the New Archaeology argued that the changing conditions represented by the sequences of material residues could be explained.

An early critique of Hempel’s model was provided by William Dray (1957). He accepted that historians work with generalisations that tend to group together historical conditions under certain common themes, as if each specific historical case were the representation of more generally applicable processes. An example that Dray offered was the ways that the general process that the historian might classify as a ‘revolution’ was manifested in a number of specific events. Dray then argued that the historian’s task was to investigate the characteristics that guided a historically specific example of such a condition. It was the historically specific variables that undermined the idea that historical events might ever be explained simply as the playing out of more general laws, and the historian’s task was to identify the historically specific variables in a particular case, rather than confirm some overarching law of process. The history of the French Revolution, for example, is, in Dray’s terms, to be understood by reference to the conditions and the strategies that were at work among the different sections of the population in eighteenth- century France: it was these strategies that gave rise to that particular revolution, rather than the events of 1789-1799 being explained by the operation of a supposedly timeless law governing all revolutionary conditions.

In Dray’s argument the historian’s task has always been to clarify what distinguished the particular historical trajectory within a more general kind of process (cf. Dray 1959). This is presumably how the records of events might initially have been perceived in archaeology, as attesting to the specifics of a cultural strategy, such as a cultural group belonging to the western European Neolithic, rather than as having satisfied a more general, functional requirement. The expectation of a cultural archaeology was therefore that its statements were always likely to refer to various cultural changes in material conditions, and these changes would tell us something about the influences that brought those changes about. In his study of megalithic tombs, Renfrew perceived what happened in history not in this way, but as an organisational change which he characterised in terms of a geographical pattern. Thus, for Renfrew, what happened in western Europe after 5000 BCE was the colonisation of the land by agriculturalists who had developed their mortuary rituals, and the associated monuments, to signal their claim on certain areas of land. The need to adjust to population pressures by means of establishing a territorial organisation for the allocation of land became the explanation as to why the monuments were apparently regularly spaced in those agricultural regions that Renfrew offered as examples of the process (Figure 1.2). However, this did not explain why it was tombs that were developed as territorial markers (cf. Chapman 1981), nor did it explain the architectural form of the tombs themselves. Indeed, it appears that the material itself (the megalithic tombs of western Europe) was not what was being explained in Renfrew’s model at all, rather it was the more general process that was hypothesised as being represented by those tombs. Renfrew does not therefore explain the development of megaliths; instead he offers some reasons for believing that what happened in western Europe with the arrival of agriculturalists was the emergence of a territorial form of settlement organisation. He offers an empirical reason for accepting that such an organisation arose (given by the distribution of monuments), and he argues for a reason as to why that organisation might have occurred (the hypothetical pressure on resources). We will return to consider the various ways in which we might understand the building of these monuments in Chapters 5 and 8.

Even allowing for the conflicts over the ways we might characterise what happened in history, explanations as to why it happened obviously confront the ‘problem oflimitation’. If the explanation for an emergent condition is treated as ifit were a causal reason - that is, as necessarily occurring in some antecedent condition - then the problem is that we lack any guide for selecting the conditions that might have been causally significant. Any number of factors will exist from the vast array of antecedents (Botterill 2010, 289). These antecedent conditions will include all those conditions that have left no archaeological trace at all. Botterill considers the target towards which an explanation is directed, and he distinguishes between those explanations that address the interrogative ‘why?’ questions and those that address ‘how?’ questions. He characterises the latter as ‘process explanations’ (Botterill 2010, 295), and argues that these could prompt narrative accounts that search for agencies that were end-directed or teleological in their form.

Causal and teleological explanations have traditionally been held to be in contrast one with the other (von Wright 1971, 83). Causal explanations point towards the past to identify the prior conditions that might explain ‘why’ something happened, such as the pressure on resources triggering a concern for the control over a territory. These explanations tend to be mechanistic in their form and deterministic in their operation (thus reflecting the earlier archaeological interest in laws under which historical explanations might be subsumed). Teleological explanations on the other hand point to a future state to explain the direction towards which processes were directed. They explain why certain things might have occurred by detailing ‘how’ such end-directed processes might have operated to achieve their goal, such as a project to build, maintain, and use a megalithic tomb. Von Wright noted that the explanandum of a teleological explanation is ‘in typical cases, an item of behavior - or it is the product or result of behavior’ and where ‘behavior which has a genuine teleological explanation might be called action-like' (von Wright 1971, 86 emphasis original). This directs our attention towards the purpose of an agent, which we will take to be the direction of an agent towards certain conditions of possibility. This reading of purpose therefore results in an archaeological concern with understanding how certain historical processes might have been possible. Therefore, an understanding of how historical conditions might have been possible stands in contrast to explaining why such conditions may have occurred.

Understanding is also connected with intentionality in a way explanation is not. One understands the aims and purposes of an agent, the meaning of a sign or symbol of a social institution or religious rite. The intentionalistic or . . . semantic dimension of understanding has come to play a prominent role in more recent methodological discussion, (von Wright 1971,6 emphasis original)

Teleological explanations in archaeology have tended to be called upon when the function of the innovation to be explained is identified. In this way a new arrangement of things might be explained as if those innovations were designed to do what they are now assumed to have done. The obvious problem with such arguments is that the function of things is often not realised until those things exist. Megalithic tombs might indeed have been a way of establishing the territorial claims of early agricultural communities, although it would be difficult to understand how such a role was conceived before these tombs existed. They might, after all, have been built with the intention of simply housing the dead and, once built, only then might they have functioned as territorial markers. However, all this might seem to be little more than supposition. The obvious lack of either a living informant or a literary testimony that would enable archaeological investigators to understand the motivation of an agent’s actions, has long been held either to make such a task impossible, or to render it little better than informed speculation (cf. Binford 1987).

The claim that archaeology can identify the general processes that instigated the patterns of archaeologically recovered materials which are believed to represent the ways that human behaviours were organised economically and socially, has accompanied attempts to ‘justify the broad cross-cultural and diachronic scope of our work’ (Drennan et al. 2012, 1). However, Drennan and others have complained that ‘ | i | n the past two decades, the pendulum seems to have swung away from comparative research in archaeology. Many archaeologists focus on detailed contextual descriptions of individual cases, and only a few have dedicated themselves to explicit comparative work’ (Drennan et al. 2012, 1).

The archaeological task as set out by Kintigh and his colleagues, and with which we began this chapter, would seem to return us to the quest for comparative historical studies upon which general explanations of causation may be founded, and this reads like one of the programmatic statements associated with the literature of the New Archaeology which appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. That literature was optimistic about the possibility that archaeology could establish the general characteristics of any historical change, and the continuing commitment to this approach is expressed by the challenges that Kintigh and his colleagues have listed as addressing one of three kinds of question. The first of these is that of cause (as in: ‘how did certain material conditions emerge, or what prompted such conditions to arise?’). The second is the question of function (as in: ‘what was the role of certain patterns of organised behaviour?’). Functional questions often reduce to questions of cause simply because, as I have argued above, the function of a kind of behaviour is offered as explaining the cause for its existence (as in: ‘what were the consequences of such and such a condition?’ as if this explained its cause - which it doesn’t). The third kind of question concerns the available analytical procedures (as in: ‘how might archaeology best understand these material patterns and the forms of the organised behaviour that are indicated by those patterns?’). This entire approach thus characterises the past as if it comprised systems of material conditions (made up of material culture and the material conditions of the wider environment), and patterns of human behaviour. These systems are represented today by their material residues and can be described in terms of different kinds of human and material organisation (expressed in such terms as settlement, economic or social organisations, and environmental conditions).

If we could indeed define the kinds of systemic organisations that have occurred in the past, then the historical challenge would seem to be one of either explaining or understanding why these kinds of organisation might have arisen. Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn have commented that ‘[t]o answer the question “why?” is the most difficult task in archaeology’ (Renfrew & Bahn 2004, 469). We might wonder if the question ‘how?’ would prove to be equally difficult.

 
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