Whose Rationality? A Response to Fekri Hassan

By Hodder, Ian | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Whose Rationality? A Response to Fekri Hassan


Hodder, Ian, Antiquity


In December 1997 we published Fekri Hassan's comments on Ian Hodder's 'Reflexive excavation methods' (ANTIQUITY 71: 1020-25). Ian Hodder responds here to the criticisms and defends his position.

In the context of discussing the need to bring 'unity and harmony to a world afflicted by ethnic, sectarian and nationalist conflicts', Hassan (1997: 1021) talks of 'upholding the mandate of reason'. Whose reason? It is clear that Hassan refers to the reason of a world community of trained archaeological experts (1997: 1024). Trained by whom? He talks (1997: 1021) of archaeology as a 'scientific discipline within the academy'. Which academy and defined by whom? The academy Hassan refers to guards against any usurpation of the concept of 'fact' (1997: 1024) and upholds canons of knowledge against the abandonment of reason (1997: 1021). Again, concepts of 'fact' defined by whom, and whose reason?

In reading Hassan's critique I sensed echoes of 18th-century Enlightenment thought and 19th-century colonialism - an uncritical Western belief in universal rationality. This spirited defence of empiricism and positivism takes us back at least to pre-TAG days, and certainly to before the accommodations made on both sides of the processual/postprocessual debate (e.g. Renfrew & Bahn 1991; Hodder 1992). Apart from the nostalgic pleasure of revisiting old battlefields, I respond to Hassan because I believe fervently that he is profoundly, even dangerously, misguided.

I answer this way because of the conviction that even archaeologists should heed some of the abiding lessons of the 20th century (e.g. Hobsbawm 1994). Hassan writes as if science or scientific anthropology will protect us from all sorts of evils. This may well be true in the examples he provides, but it is surely only half the story. After the horrors of the Great War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, how can we put our faith in the mandate of reason, meaning the mandate of Western reason? For many of my generation, those who grew up experiencing the insanity of Vietnam, it is difficult to have much faith in Western rationality. Another great movement of the 20th century has been the decline of many colonial powers and the resurgence of ex-colonial nations and indigenous groups. In this postcolonial world, the notion that the Western voice is only one of many has been reinforced. How, in such a world, can authority derive from self-appointed 'experts' in 'the academy'?

The awareness of difference and of the need to listen to other voices has taken on a particular urgency at the end of the 20th century in the context of globalism. In my view, the type of universal rationality espoused by Hassan plays into the hands of the homogenizing tendencies promoted by those who control the new information technologies. We are wrong to dismiss the new technologies as 'razzle-dazzle' (Hassan 1997: 1024). They have the power to transform our lives, to homogenize, to limit debate and diversity, to create a true 'end of history'. But these same technologies can be used, not to promote universality, but to guard against the erasure of history. The new information technologies can be used to promote difference, and it is for this reason that I suggest their use to encourage reflexivity, relationality, interactivity and multivocality.

Towards non-dichotomous thinking

Throughout Hassan's critique he reasserts old dichotomies. These can be set out as follows:

mandate of reason                 prejudice, emotion,
                                  dogmatic belief

epistemological canons            political, moral agendas
of veracity, plausibility
and accuracy

canons of knowledge,              subjective error
accuracy

methods of science                dogmatism, chauvinism,
                                  demagoguery,
                                  idiosyncratic
                                  beliefs, revelations

scientific domain                 ethics (and aesthetics,
                                  history, poetics, novels)

scientific discipline             a priori beliefs about the
within the academy                mother goddess etc. 

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