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Following a rule

Up until now archaeology has not prioritised an understanding of what makes the regularities in human behaviour possible. Instead it has claimed that its purpose is to know what structured or determined those regularities. It has been upon this basis that archaeology has sought to explain the regularities of behaviour as the result of external stimuli or internal motivations, treating either of these as the response to those external stimuli, or as the expression of internally cognised meanings. An alternative way to think about how we might gain a historical understanding of any period is to ask what made an individual’s behaviour in that period, practiced amongst that of others, meaningful. It was, after all, the ability to live meaningfully in ways that could be understood by others that rendered a way of life understandable. What made this way of living possible by making people understandable to others? The point is not that material culture was ‘meaningfully constituted’ (as if it were made to represent some cognised meaning), but that different forms of life were lived meaningfully amongst that material culture. Life was, and is still, structured by its reference to things. It was life, not things, that was meaningfully constituted.

In his reflections on the regularities of behaviour that attest to ‘following a rule’, Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated that if such rules were privately formulated (that is, if they were indeed the creation of, and remained the product of, an individual’s thinking alone), then any sequence of behaviour, however bizarre, could be explained as if it were rule-bound.

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made to accord with the rule. . . . What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases. (Wittgenstein 1968 [1953] §201)

And hence also ‘obeying a rule’ is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it. (§202)

To follow a rule is therefore to act in ways that others recognise, and such a recognition can only occur within the material context in which the rule-based action is executed.

Following a rule might therefore be better described as a practice (Arrington 2001, 129ff), as if it were a matter of proceeding from one step to the next, a performance that is the ongoing reinvention of how to behave aright. Such a procedure might be described as a routine. Proceeding aright is a judgement of how to take the next step; it is necessarily shared and thus it is socially accountable. Following a rule is therefore to be assessed as such by those who claim a shared understanding of a procedure, it is not something that is asserted by the individual. It is under such a condition that others will respond to express the extent to which they find the agent’s behaviour recognisable, and either acceptable or unacceptable. The agent can evaluate themselves whether they have proceeded aright, and sense the degrees of deviancy that might be tolerable. They can do this by monitoring the reaction of others.

Like all life, human life develops through access to the necessary resources of sustenance and protection, a relating to things that is the practical realisation of the qualities of those things. Fluman life is distinctive in its fragmentation into different kinds of humanness (Barrett 2014a). These various kinds of humanness are performed as different responses to the qualities of things, resulting in the allocation of spaces and resources differentially across a population. In this way the different manifestations of quality become recognisable by experiencing the networks of things, spaces, and people.

Wittgenstein sought ‘to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or a form of life’ (Wittgenstein 1968 [1953] §23). This is indeed so, but speaking (the making of words) is normally expected to formulate a meaning relative to the context of the utterance, and this is only part of all the activities that are performed amongst the historical conditions and that made a particular form of life possible. It is surely remarkable that the important work that has extended Wittgenstein’s philosophy into the social sciences has been undertaken with, at best, minimal reference to the ways that human agency is made out of a socially common revelation as to the qualities of physical things (Winch 2008; Bloor 2002; Gunnell 2014). A language lives not just because we speak it but because others hear and begin to understand what we are saying. And this is just one aspect of an activity that becomes understandable because it is directed towards things in ways that others might be expected to comprehend.

The argument that I am attempting to develop here is likely to fail to meet the expectation that archaeology’s aim should be to establish the kinds of causal conditions that have resulted in human communities organising themselves in particular ways. Flowever, to follow a rule, that is to live within a material and traditional context in ways that made sense to the self and to others, means that an understanding of the qualities and values of things was expressed by the practices that others were able to assess. By so doing, certain material conditions that supported understandable forms of social life were reproduced and developed institutionally (cf. Bloor 2002, 27ff.). These are therefore self-organising systems and there is nothing deeper, no ultimate and determinate cause to uncover. Our aim is to do no more than to grasp something of an understanding of how these systems of meaningful behaviour formed and were sustained, and thus how other forms of life other than our own were once possible before they passed into history.

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