Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology

Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology

Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology

Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology


"No other work in this field covers the history of important conceptual issues in archaeology in such a deep and knowledgable way, bringing both philosophical and archeological sophistication to bear on all of the issues treated. Wylie's work in "Thinking from Things is original, scholarly, and creative. This book is for anyone who wants to understand contemporary archaeological theory, how it came to be as it is, its relationship with other disciplines, and its prospects for the future."--Merrilee Salmon, author of "Philosophy and Archaeology

"Wylie is a reasonable and astute thinker who lucidly and persuasively makes genuinely constructive criticisms of archaeological thought and practice and very useful suggestions for how to proceed. She commands both philisophy and archaeology to an unusual degree. Having her articles together in "Thinking from Things, with much new material extending and integrating them, is a major contribution that will be widely welcomed among archaeologists--both professionals and students, philosophers and historians of science, and social scientists."--George L. Cowgill, Arizona State University


I first learned that philosophy and archaeology might have something to do with one another in an archaeological field camp. At the time (the summer of 1973), I was working for Parks Canada at Fort Walsh (Saskatchewan) as an assistant field supervisor—a summer job after my first year of college. As luck would have it, the director of that project was an ardent New Archaeologist, trained at the University of Arizona in Tucson; he had been hired by the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch of Parks Canada to help develop an ambitious field research program that was to provide the archaeological foundation for interpreting and developing historic sites across Canada. What made archaeology worth doing, in his view, was not just the intrinsic interest of the enterprise—the wholly absorbing process of recovering tangible evidence of past human aspirations and accomplishments—but what it could teach us about the conditions of life, the reasons for cultural change and persistence, affinity and diversity, that manifested themselves in the gritty particulars of the archaeological record. For him, as for many others at the time, “archaeology was anthropology or it was nothing. ” It was in this context that I first learned, and learned in a way that was viscerally connected to the doing of archaeology, that archaeology was undergoing a revolution.

In the spirit of bringing revolution to the hinterland, we were incited to commit philosophy at every opportunity, especially when immersed in the most earthbound of archaeological labors. We read not only the most up-to-date theoretical statements by prominent the New Archaeologists (L. Binford 1972a; P. Watson, LeBlanc, and Redman 1971; Deetz 1967; J. Fritz and Plog 1970; Flannery 1967) but also a selection of work in the history and philosophy of science. Because archaeology needed to break the grip of traditional “paradigmatic thinking, ” we read Kuhn (1970); but because the hoped-for new paradigm was to be resolutely scientific, we read positivists on the structure of scientific confirmation and explanation. I remember laboring at least as long and hard, in preparation for that first field season, over the intricacies of Hempel's account of general laws (1942, 1966) as over the complexities of the fort's construction sequence. In the process we learned what it could mean to incorporate into even the most mundane archaeological practice a philosophical injunction to design research always as a problem-solving, hypothesis-testing exercise.

After that summer, in the fall of 1973, I returned to the second year of a liberal arts program and took an introduction to philosophy of science. I read Hempel and Kuhn again, this time in the company of Norwood Russell Hanson (1958) and other critics of logical positivism who were intent . . .

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