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date: 10 December 2019

Positivist and Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science

Abstract and Keywords

Interactions between archaeology and philosophy are traced, from the ‘New Archaeology’s’ use of ideas from logical empiricism, the subsequent loss of confidence in such ideas, the falsificationist alternative, the rise of ‘scientific realism’, and the influence of the ‘new’ philosophies of science of the 1960s on post-processual archaeology. Some recent ideas from philosophy of science are introduced, and that discipline’s recent trajectory, featuring debate between realists and anti-realists, as well as a return to ‘classic’ concerns about explanation, causation, and laws of nature, is described. Many interactions between philosophy of science and archaeology have been based on a misplaced quest for a single ‘off-the-peg’ methodology or other philosophical framework for archaeology. Historical conditions have fostered the damaging idea that archaeologists have to choose between ‘positivism’ and subjectivism. I conclude by suggesting what kinds of contemporary philosophical work might interest archaeologists, and argue that philosophers should recognize the distinctive heterogeneity of archaeology.

Keywords: logical empiricism, explanation, laws, New Archaeology, processualism, models, scientific realism, hermeneutics, post-processualism, cognitive archaeology


This article traces the history of interactions between archaeology and philosophy from the perspective of a philosopher of science. It begins with ‘New Archaeology’s’ use of ideas from logical empiricist philosophy of science and their development in the processual archaeology of the 1970s; it then explores the subsequent loss of confidence in these ideas and the associated post-processual reaction of the 1980s. I shall argue that any such quest for a single methodology or other philosophical framework for archaeology is misplaced, and that neither archaeologists nor philosophers should look to philosophy for any ‘off-the-peg’ framework. In this respect, the two most significant phases in the interaction between our two disciplines have both been misguided. Understandably, archaeologists have not kept up with what has happened in philosophy of science. But these conditions have given rise to the damaging idea that if they are seeking advice on method, archaeologists have to choose between ‘positivism’ and a kind of subjectivism. Because they took sides in this exaggerated and polemical way, the vituperative and often personal nature of the way in which the processual/ post-processual debate was conducted has left a lasting rift in the discipline.

My chapter concludes with some suggestions as to what kinds of contemporary philosophical work might interest archaeologists of various kinds, and with the suggestion that philosophers, especially philosophers of science, should look at archaeology as it is practised, recognizing that its heterogeneity is absolutely distinctive. Once we all take on board this distinctive heterogeneity, philosophers and archaeologists should be able to have a more fruitful interaction, and perhaps the rift in archaeology itself might even begin to heal.

Logical empiricism (‘neopositivism’)

‘Positivism’, which in philosophy refers to the 19th-century system developed by Auguste Comte, is not in question here, except insofar as some of its themes were taken up by 20th-century thinkers more properly called ‘neopositivists’. Unfortunately, some of the first archaeologists to introduce ideas from the philosophy of science misleadingly called themselves ‘positivists’, and the name stuck. Even more inappropriately, in archaeology the term ‘positivist’ is sometimes applied to any idea from the philosophy of science (or, even more widely, to any idea from ‘analytic’ philosophy). However, the positivist themes developed by the neopositivists were, roughly:

  • that only scientific activity is capable of yielding positive knowledge;

  • that science is or should be unified in a certain way;

  • that science has a special epistemic basis in perceptual experience;

  • that the value of science lies in its methods, rather than its conclusions; and

  • a general opposition to metaphysics and speculation.

Archaeology only really began to undergo significant influence from contemporary academic philosophy in the mid-20th-century when it came to be conceived of as more than a descriptive exercise in culture history. By that time, no significant philosophers called themselves positivists. Those whose philosophy had developed from what had earlier been ‘logical positivism’, i.e. former members, associates and students of the original ‘Vienna Circle’, were now spread across the Western world by virtue of having fled from the anti-Semitic persecution of 1930s Germany and Austria, but firmly disavowed the ‘positivist’ label in favour of calling themselves ‘logical empiricists’. Many of the issues in the field known as the philosophy of science reached something of a canonical form during this period.

Most notably, Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim introduced and developed the ‘deductive-nomological’ (D-N) model of explanation (Hempel and Oppenheim 1948). Conceiving of scientific explanations as arguments of a certain kind, Hempel and Oppenheim suggested that a full-dress explanation would consist of a series of premises that would logically entail their conclusion. This is sometimes known as a ‘covering-law’ model of explanation, since it reconstructs explanations as consisting of minor premises concerning initial conditions and major premises consisting of law-like statements. Hempel also argued that these same conditions show that the phenomenon mentioned in the conclusion of the argument is to be expected, and thus that the conditions apply also to predictions. There thus arises a supposed ‘symmetry’ of explanation and prediction: when the phenomenon mentioned in the conclusion of the deductive argument is given in advance, the combination of laws and initial conditions constitutes an explanation, whereas when the latter combination is given in advance and the conclusion is derived from them prior to the occurrence of the phenomenon it describes we have a prediction; the difference between the two is merely pragmatic.

Hempel also played a major role in developing the ‘hypothetico-deductive’ (H-D) model of scientific method (or ‘confirmation’), according to which science proceeds by the construction of general hypotheses, from which predictions are deduced, these predictions then being tested against data derived from observation or experiment, resulting in their confirmation (or refutation, of course).

In archaeology, the D-N model of explanation and the H-D conception of method (not always clearly separated) were taken to entail a search for general laws, in particular, general laws of cultural change. Lewis Binford, for example, was one of the first archaeologists to deploy Hempel’s D-N model of explanation in an attempt to show that scientific methodology could be applied to the subject, thus demonstrating that it could be more than the naïve kind of ‘stamp-collecting’ empiricism, hostile to theorizing, which was then associated with culture-historical approaches.

Binford’s advocacy of ideas from philosophy of science certainly caught on. In the US, archaeologists such as John Fritz, Fred Plog, Patty Jo Watson, Steven Leblanc, and Charles Redman (Fritz and Plog 1970; Watson, Leblanc, and Redman 1971) also endorsed Hempel’s original D-N model of explanation, conceiving of it as an alternative to a narrowly empiricist ‘inductivist’ methodology. Slightly later, Richard Watson, too, insisted that archaeology is logically related to many other sciences, including the physical sciences, that it involves prediction as well as explanation (both conceived of in the D-N way), and also that it involves a vast range of laws—although these are statistical, as in many other sciences, specifying the percentage of phenomena which have whatever property is in question (Watson 1976; 1990).

Binford’s ‘New Archaeology’, closely associated with the ‘processual’ view that followed, was by no means a monolithic adoption of logical empiricist themes, since it also featured ideas from the ‘New’ philosophy of science of the 1960s (see below). Its appeal consisted very largely in the fact that it promised to make archaeology look appropriately scientific. Whether archaeology should look scientific is a vexed issue, though. Many in the profession responded that the D-N model of explanation is inappropriate for their subject, since archaeological explanations almost never involve statements that have the form of general (i.e. universal or statistical) laws; and the search for general laws of culturechange came to be regarded as at best a red herring, since such laws would have to span historical contexts and operate at a level which apparently ignores the cultural meanings of the phenomena ‘covered’ by them.

One strand of reaction to this kind of complaint on the part of New Archaeologists was to move through a sequence of weaker and weaker conceptions of explanation, in the search for a grade of explanation that might fit archaeology. These developments paralleled a similar slide that had already taken place within philosophy of science itself, initiated when advocates of the D-N model itself realized that very few sciences feature laws of the required universality, and when critics of that model persuaded even its advocates that their thesis of ‘symmetry’ between explanation and prediction was untenable. The most common diagnosis of this latter failure was that scientific explanation (but not prediction) must involve reference to some feature that establishes a relation of relevance between the phenomena mentioned in the premises and the conclusion of an argument, such as causality.

So, for example, Merrilee Salmon argued that the H-D account of testing and confirmation was oversimplified, and that the D-N model of explanation was both inadequate in itself and inapplicable to archaeological phenomena (Salmon 1975). Instead she sought to apply the statistical relevance model of explanation, then recently developed by Wesley Salmon (one of the heirs of logical empiricism), according to which explaining an event involves assembling ‘the total set of conditions relevant to its occurrence’ and then assessing the probability of the event’s occurrence, given those conditions (Salmon 1975: 463; see also Salmon 1971, 1990 for the developments across four decades). Again, objections similar to those levelled at the D-N model spring to mind. Most obviously, the prospect of assembling ‘the total set of conditions’ relevant to the occurrence of some historical event or archaeological phenomenon seems extremely slim, especially as all archaeological samples are only partial.

Systems thinking and processualism

The logical empiricist vision of science, when transplanted into archaeology, also came to be associated with systems approaches, which were gaining intellectual currency elsewhere at that time because of the development of cybernetics. Such approaches do not, as sometimes claimed, provide an alternative to the D-N conception of explanation, since they do not offer any conception of explanation. Instead they offer substantive theories of archaeological subject matters, theories that recommend studying social units as systems, whose regulation is homeostatic. As such, they necessarily involve giving adequate functional explanations of historical phenomena (see Salmon 1982).

Binford initiated this ‘systemic approach’ in the 1960s (Binford 1962), but in his work it always had a firm background in anthropology. In the ‘processual’ archaeology that emerged from the ‘New Archaeology’ during the 1970s, the systems approach concerned itself with what Binford called ‘middle-range theory’, i.e. those descriptive claims about cultural systems which are mid-way between observational accounts of the material remains that archaeologists find, and their concluding descriptive reconstructions of the past (see Kosso 1991; 1993). In the UK, for example, David Clarke, from a background in geography, focused in particular on the use and value of models in archaeology (see Clarke 1968; 1972, perhaps partly influenced by the Cambridge philosopher of science Mary Hesse), as did Ian Hodder in his early work. For various reasons, these versions of systems theory proved very difficult to apply to more than a fraction of archaeological activity. More recently, however, Colin Renfrew has taken up the torch of systems thinking in a more sophisticated way (Renfrew 1979).

Those who objected to the D-N conception of explanation and its offspring tended to be equally opposed to systems thinking in archaeology, and for much the same reasons (see e.g. works by Ian Hodder after his apostasy, such as Hodder 1986). Functionalism in social theory has certainly been the target of devastating critiques, and even functional explanations are often thought of as inappropriately mechanistic for cultural subject matters. Contemporary philosophers of science carefully distinguish between the two, though (since various thinkers who offer functional explanations have no truck with the functionalist view of social systems), and the analysis of functional explanations has been a significant growth area in more recent philosophy of science (see e.g. Ariew, Cummins, and Perlman 2002). However, since this recent work has resulted in a consensus that such explanations are grounded in the theory of evolution, it is unlikely that those hostile to the use of functional explanations in archaeology will be won over.

Karl Popper and falsificationism

The hypothetico-deductive (H-D) model of scientific method was also given another canonical form in the work of the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, who provided one notable kind of opposition not only to logical positivism and logical empiricism, but to any approach to science which would suggest that science is rational because its theories are capable of being confirmed or justified. Reacting to the early 20th-century revolutions in physics in a sympathetic way, Popper nevertheless drew lessons very different from those drawn by the logical empiricists. He argued that what characterized Einstein’s revolution was the critical attitude that Einstein had taken, not only to previous theories, but also to his own theory. Popper’s philosophy, ‘critical rationalism’, sought to model inquiry in all sorts of disciplines on the relentless critical exploration that he discerned in the most advanced and intellectually revolutionary sciences. His philosophy of science, ‘falsificationism’, says that science consists in a cycle of hypothesis production and testing. One exhibits the scientific attitude to the extent to which one is willing to expose one’s theories or models to critical testing, i.e. to falsification. When one’s theory is falsified, one moves on to a better theory, exposing that in turn to falsification; thus is epistemic progress made.

Popper’s philosophy explicitly disavowed the focus on meaning which the logical positivists had introduced as part of their ‘linguistic turn’, in favour of a focus on truth. He did not reject metaphysics as meaningless, but merely categorized it as non- or even pre-scientific, and instead turned his fire on theories (Marxism, psychoanalysis) whose advocates claimed scientific status for them, but whose attempts to secure those theories from falsification conspicuously did not manifest the critical attitude. In archaeological theory, the person whose work most clearly counts as an application of Popper’s methodology is Jim Bell (1994), although his work has not made a very widespread impact.

‘Scientific realism’

Popper always counted himself a ‘realist’ about scientific theories, realism here being the view that theories are complex statements that should be taken literally and are (perhaps unbeknownst to us) either true or false. But Popper’s realism was always ‘conjectural’, that is, it never included any claim to the effect that current science consisted in theories that are true, or that we could know them to be true. At the beginning of the 1960s, though, as the influence of logical empiricism waned, philosophers of science became more and more confident about the legitimacy of such claims (with respect to some theories). What began to be known as ‘scientific realism’, proposed by J. J. C. Smart, Grover Maxwell, and Hilary Putnam, and later defended by a host of philosophers of science, is the view not only that can scientific theories be assessed for truth or falsity, but that we can also have good enough reason to think that some of them are true, or at least close to the truth. A great deal of literature in the last half-century of philosophy of science has been devoted to defences of, and attacks upon, scientific realism (for a mere taste see e.g. Leplin 1984; Papineau 1996). For a while, though, this emergent scientific realism had to share the limelight with a development of a different kind.

The ‘new’ philosophy of science, social constructivism, feminism, and post-processualism

In 1962, a book series initiated by the logical empiricists closed with an unexpected bang: the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962; see also Preston 2008). By the mid-1960s the concerns of logical empiricism began to look passé, as Kuhn’s terminology of ‘paradigms’, ‘scientific revolutions’, and ‘incommensurability’ became the flavour of the decade. Kuhn’s book did not take issue with logical empiricism head-on, although the logical empiricist assumption that theories are confirmed (or infirmed) using data that have a relatively non-theoretical status came to be eroded by the new idea that observations are always ‘theory-laden’. Most of the topics and concerns of neopositivist philosophy of science (scientific method, the nature of explanation, confirmation, causation, laws of nature, reduction, etc.) were not really transformed by the ‘new’, historically informed, philosophy of science. Neither Kuhn nor other important ‘new’ philosophers of science such as Imre Lakatos addressed them, and although Paul Feyerabend did, it was only in a negative way. Instead, this new philosophy of science simply sapped the former confidence that there could be any such thing as e.g. an account of scientific explanation, or natural laws, which would hold good for more than a limited historical period. These issues therefore got eclipsed for a while, to be replaced by a concern with issues concerning scientific rationality, social influences on science, objectivity, and, to a lesser extent, the realism/anti-realism debate, now more or less explicitly treated in an historicist way.

At the same time, much philosophy and archaeology began to feel the pull of contemporary French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida, and of recent German thinkers from the Frankfurt School. Taking off from the work of luminaries such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, their thought involved a deep background scepticism about any contemporary scientific activity or claims to knowledge, which they strove to unmask as merely the machinations of advanced capitalism.

Kuhn’s work, and (to a much lesser extent) Feyerabend’s, was immensely influential in the social sciences during the 1970s. Read in a loose way, it was involved in the spawning of movements such as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of knowledge, whose instigators, Barry Barnes and David Bloor, melded the work of sociologist Karl Mannheim with that of Karl Marx. Against most philosophers of science, they insisted that science is a social product which can and must be investigated in the same way as any other social product: by sociology. The conclusions they drew were radically anti-realist (the phenomena studied by sciences, as well as the conclusions scientists come to, are merely ‘social constructions’) and subjectivist (any semblance of objectivity in science (even perhaps in their new master science, sociology) is a complete illusion). The French social thinker Bruno Latour, whose more recent work is influential in archaeology at the moment (e.g. Shanks 2007; Sørensen 2013), started from just such a social constructionist background (Latour and Woolgar 1979).

There now exists important work on the idea of social construction by philosophers of science (see Hacking 1999; Kukla 2000; Dupré 2004), which tries to sort out which constructivist claims and themes make sense. But the arguments for constructivism’s core, anti-realist claim that natural phenomena (i.e. the sorts of phenomenon that physics, chemistry, and biology study) are social constructs has generally failed to persuade philosophers, and so the approach has remained controversial but peripheral there.

The 1980s also saw the first influence on archaeology from a related perspective, feminism. Meg Conkey and Janet Spector, for example, were very influential in persuading archaeologists that gender categories are socially constructed (Conkey and Spector 1984). Feminism had its impact on the philosophy of science, too, beginning in the 1980s (see Harding 1986; 1987). There, however, since victory over ‘positivism’ had already been secured, it shared the fate of other social constructivist approaches, its initial momentum being partly taken up by quite different modern forms of realism and anti-realism. Its impact was not as deep as in archaeology, either, at least partly because feminist philosophers of science have so far failed to persuade their wider philosophical community that the most abstract questions philosophers ask about the nature of scientific explanation, theories, laws, causation, methodology, etc., or their answers, are gendered in any deep or essential way.

The influence of many of these figures and movements made its way into archaeology first through the work of Ian Hodder. Hodder was influenced by the philosopher R. G. Collingwood and the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, as well as by the intellectual tradition known as hermeneutics. What these thinkers have in common is their stress on the importance of understanding the actions of historical agents in the terms in which those agents themselves would have seen them. Hodder thus opened up to archaeologists the possibility of approaches to their subject which were symbolic, in that they insisted on the importance of trying to capture the meanings which bits of material culture had for their users. From the early 1980s, his work (Hodder 1982a; 1982b; 1986; 1987) initiated what amounted to a new archaeological paradigm, ‘post-processualism’. This term covers an enormous range of archaeological activity, but Hodder’s theoretical and methodological perspective was then taken further (too far, in fact) by the work of his former pupils, notably Michael Shanks and Chris Tilley. Their books Social Theory and Archaeology (1987a) and Reconstructing Archaeology (1987b) critiqued neopositivist and functionalist views in what looked like a fundamental and ‘radical’ way, by casting doubt on ideas such as objectivity, the reality of the past, and the tenability of claims to knowledge or well-grounded belief on the part of archaeologists. This is a conclusion that flatly contradicts at least one starting-point of this tradition, since Collingwood’s philosophy of history was actually closer to logical empiricism than to social constructivism, although it was set against the crude positivism of certain late 19th- and early 20th-century historians (see Salmon 1992). That many of these attacks on ‘positivism’ in archaeology also took for granted that ‘positivism’ was at least roughly a correct account of work in the natural sciences is also a liability. If, as I shall suggest, the way philosophers see the natural sciences has moved on considerably, even this original debate between the New Archaeologists and their opponents might need rethinking.

Many philosophers of science reacted to the ‘new’ philosophy of science (and its descendants) with suspicion. Kuhn, for example, was widely perceived to have had done little to forestall accusations of irrationalism, relativism, and idealism, and Feyerabend was perceived positively to have courted these very accusations. His 1975 book Against Method argued not only against every major methodology that philosophers had ever proposed for science, but also against any way of legitimating scientific knowledge claims, and in favour of the complete separation of science from the state (Feyerabend 1975; Preston 1997). Scientists, indeed experts of all kinds, were portrayed as mere political interest groups, whose claims could be rejected with complete impunity. Shanks, Tilley, and Julian Thomas (Thomas 2004) were among those who encouraged this attitude among archaeologists, to significant and quite lasting effect. In philosophy, by contrast, where relativism has had its advocates ever since Plato opposed it, it was well known as a perspective that would backfire on its advocates, and the field itself never became politicized to the same extent as archaeology (see Searle 1994).

The ‘new’ philosophy of science, as seen today

In retrospect, both the ‘new’ philosophers of science of the 1960s (Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos) and some of the currents they partly inspired in archaeology now themselves look rather passé, and the takeover of both philosophy and archaeology which they promised proved both fleeting and unsuccessful. The usual consensus in philosophy is that this ‘new’ philosophy of science, its progeny (such as the strong programme and social constructivism), and associated movements such as deconstruction were overreactions to positivism, quite rightly rejecting it, but going too far in the opposite direction, as it were. The sorts of relativism, subjectivism, irrationalism, and idealism which they seemed quickly to result in had an attraction in the heady 1960s, but are simply too philosophically problematic to be endorsed for more than a moment (see, again, Searle 1994). A similar reaction seems ultimately to have prevailed in archaeology. So, for example, while philosophers might argue about what the reality of the past consists in, if they go as far as to deny the existence of the past, or its reality, archaeologists can, should, and did eventually turn away.

It is instructive that this particular consensus has been challenged in recent years by a new generation of philosophers of science who have argued that Kuhn and Feyerabend’s significant assumptions and conclusions were far closer to positivism than they were perceived to be at the time, or than they should have been. Kuhn and Feyerabend’s sceptical conclusions about the possibility of progress in science, and their notion that paradigms or theories may be ‘incommensurable’ with one another, are now widely perceived to be problematic consequences of an even more problematic set of positivistic assumptions about meaning (Bird 2000; Gattei 2008). In mainstream philosophy of science, in fact, the pendulum has definitely swung back to views which allow that science can give us knowledge, by yielding claims that are at least approximately true. This is a return to something pre-modern (and pre-positivist), a more optimistic philosophy which sees philosophy as continuous with the sciences (philosophical ‘naturalism’). On either account of Kuhn, though, his ‘new’ philosophy of science threw the baby out with the positivist bathwater. In fact, the ‘scientific realist’ alternative to logical empiricism has so far proved to be the better-sustained one, for it now dominates the philosophy of science. It did take a while for the traditional philosophy of science topics of explanation, confirmation, causation, and laws of nature to come back into focus. But when they did so, it was not under the auspices of the ‘new’ philosophy of science. Instead, interest in them was revived by participants in the realism/anti-realism debate, especially by the realists.

Recent anti-realisms and challenges to realism

The dominant current within philosophy of science of the last fifty years, scientific realism, comes in an enormous variety of flavours (most of which, since they derive from thinking about the physical sciences, are unlikely to be of direct relevance to archaeologists). But although historic forms of anti-realism (such as those associated with neopositivism) have not (yet) been revived, there are still important recent examples of the genre. Most fêted, perhaps, is Bas van Fraassen’s ‘constructive empiricism’, according to which science aims to give us not theories which are literally true accounts of (aspects of) the world, but rather accounts which are empirically adequate, that is, theories whose empirical parts are true. Science, on this view, is not, as the realist imagines, the attempt to discover truths about the unobservable aspects of the world, but rather an activity of model construction, the construction of models which are adequate to the world’s empirically accessible aspects. Within archaeology, this perspective was most explicitly endorsed by Marsha Hanen and Jane Kelley (Kelley and Hanen 1988). But because its primary focus of attention is the observable/unobservable issue, it is not an easy fit with most archaeological work, where that distinction hardly applies.

Perhaps equally important within philosophy of science was the attack on epistemically optimistic forms of scientific realism by Larry Laudan (1981). Laudan argued that any version of ‘convergent’ realism, i.e. any view according to which mature scientific theories are converging on the truth, is over-optimistic, since the progress that the natural sciences have exhibited indicates that the central theoretical terms of past theories (‘phlogiston’, ‘aether’, ‘caloric fluid’) can completely fail to refer. Although we can be confident that our best present-day scientific theories are epistemically preferable to their predecessors, we can have no assurance that our best present or future theories are good approximations to the truth, as most realists suppose. Laudan’s argument does not rule out epistemically modest versions of realism, but it does constitute a significant challenge to epistemically optimistic versions (a challenge which such realists devote considerable energy to rebutting).

Alison Wylie’s work

The developments I have sketched so far are all considered and evaluated in much more detail, but also developed, in the work of Alison Wylie (see the wealth of her papers collected in Wylie 2002). She has been the main conduit between the subjects of philosophy of science and archaeology, and has shouldered most of the unenviable task of making issues and views within the philosophy of science intelligible to archaeologists, as well as arguing for a modestly optimistic version of scientific realism about archaeological subject matters. Wylie’s work is also important in bringing feminist philosophy of science to bear on archaeology, showing that the feminist insistence that previous and existing archaeologies are gender-biased is quite compatible with, indeed can draw sustenance from, the idea that suitably primed archaeologists can still theorize in an epistemically responsible way about objective past realities. Her work also represents the most significant example of traffic in the archaeology-to-philosophy of science direction, since her close study of archaeological research has yielded, for example, important conclusions about evidential constraints and significant clarifications of the extent to which, and the ways in which, archaeologists can profitably use reasoning by analogy.

The recent influence of biology and the cognitive sciences

Post-processualism’s success in directing leading figures in archaeology away from processualism was incomplete. In the USA, there is still a significant camp that resists, and whose members continue to work under the processual paradigm in a largely unaltered form.

Other figures and trends have also resisted or got out of the way of the post-processual tide. In the UK, Stephen Shennan stands as a fairly direct descendent of processualism, by virtue of incorporating themes from genetic and evolutionary biology in his work (Shennan 2002; 2008). Colin Renfrew, too, has drawn on the cognitive sciences in the construction of a ‘cognitive-processual’ archaeology which accepts the post-processual critique of functionalism and the insistence that archaeology must take into account the symbolic (meaningful) nature of material culture, while resisting social constructivist conclusions and requiring that archaeological theorizing must respect the constraints of scientific methodology (Renfrew and Zubrow 1994). Steven Mithen is another important contemporary figure in this same line of thinking (Mithen 1996). That figures such as these are among the most respected in British archaeology does indicate that post-processualism is not the only game in town. It may have established itself as a paradigm, but it has done so without achieving the complete dominance which some associate with that notion.

These figures draw on philosophy of science only at a distance, though. The very active field of philosophy of biology (see e.g. Hull and Ruse 1998; Sterelny and Griffiths 1999; Hull and Ruse 2008; Ruse 2008; Rosenberg and Arp 2009) has yet had little impact even on those archaeologists potentially well-disposed to philosophy of science.

Naturalism and anti-naturalism

In retrospect, none of the philosophical approaches yet mentioned has been a very good fit with any large part of archaeology, or has yielded very much fruit in the interaction between the two subjects. In part, this is because, as a glance around any major department of archaeology will show, it is a paradigm example of a hybrid discipline. Some aspects of it look like (or have close connections with) natural science, partly because the evidence being studied are natural phenomena (biota) or items of material culture. Other aspects have far closer connections with disciplines such as history and anthropology (whether or not these are conceived of as social sciences). Thus the fundamental tension that underlies the conflict between ‘positivists’ and their opponents (but which sometimes gets expressed in other ways, such as the contrast between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’) is that between what philosophers know as naturalistic and non-naturalistic approaches. The former seek to model archaeology on the natural sciences (since they accept some form of ‘methodological monism’—the view that there is at root a single optimal scientific method, which physics, chemistry and biology seem to have latched on to). The latter, non-naturalistic approaches to archaeology seek to model it instead either on the social sciences or other humanistic disciplines—they are methodologically dualist (or, better, pluralist).

Much of the conflict within the subject about its identity has ultimately stemmed from this hybrid nature, but that very nature suggests that such conflict can never really be resolved by the victory of one party. This makes archaeology intellectually distinctive, even if not intellectually unified. The latter, I would argue, is an inappropriate goal for the discipline. The idea that there could be any detailed single methodology, or single account of explanation or causation, for prehistoric studies of hominid groups which feature at most only rudimentary language and culture and for studies of historical societies with fully-fledged literate cultures, is a non-starter. The intellectual tools and methods needed for answering questions about handaxe production, conceptions of space in medieval monasteries, or the significance of burial goods across widely divergent epochs may well be as divergent as these topics themselves.

Of course, many archaeologists interested in theoretical issues have found ideas from philosophy useful, but these have not usually been ideas from the philosophy of science, but from what one might call cultural philosophy, the kind of philosophy that has, until recently, dominated what philosophers from the analytic tradition have tended to think of as ‘continental’ philosophy or social thought. So, for example, the ideas of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, the Frankfurt School, and, most recently, Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour have had a significant impact on archaeological theory. Such an impact can be quite fruitful even if (as should be obvious from what I have already said) these figures would be poor guides to conclusions about archaeological methodology. To suggest that archaeologists might draw inspiration from such philosophical currents is not to invite capitulation to each and every fashionable and dogmatic ‘continental’ philosophy that comes along (both ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-structuralism’ had their influence on archaeology, but to little good or lasting effect). While theoretical archaeologists are quite justified in taking inspiration from anywhere they like, very few of the modern movements in continental philosophy will help archaeologists understand the nature of their discipline.

Interpretive archaeology: phenomenology and hermeneutics

However, two approaches that could be described as interpretive and whose philosophical credentials are promising have been influential in post-processual archaeology. On the one hand there is a strand influenced by phenomenology, not such much by the work of its founder, Edmund Husserl, but by the work of followers such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Chris Gosden’s Social Being and Time, and especially Chris Tilley’s A Phenomenology of Landscape, both from 1994, have been very influential, and the phenomenological currents within archaeology show little sign of abating. Here the relation between the philosophy and the archaeology is a loose one. In philosophy the idea is that phenomenological investigation can disclose the essences of phenomena, their a priori aspects, truths about them which are both substantive and necessary (true under all possible conditions). As a philosophical method this is flawed (since, roughly, truths about phenomena are contingent, not necessary, and conceptual truths (which are necessary) cannot be disclosed by the phenomenological method). However, this does not mean that the attempt to see landscapes, buildings, and other artefacts ‘phenomenologically’, i.e. in terms of the lived experience of those who produced and worked on them, may not be of value in empirical subjects like archaeology.

Even within the phenomenological camp there are divisions, though. Tilley’s work has been influential particularly within the study of prehistory (notably Neolithic studies—see Brück 2005), but historical archaeologists are sceptical about its usefulness for any more recent period, since they worry that its philosophical inspiration, Heidegger’s phenomenology, takes insufficient account of the ways in which humans’ experience of their bodies, landscapes, dwellings, and other and structures changes across historical epochs. Such archaeologists have therefore instead backed the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (combined with Bourdieu’s ‘theory of practice’), which seems to hold out some prospect of reflecting this historical variation (see Meskell 2004; Gilchrist 2012: 7).

On the other hand there is the strand influenced by hermeneutics, such as the work of Ian Hodder (see Hodder 1986; 1991; 1992). This kind of interpretive social thinking, as developed within 19th-century German biblical scholarship, now forms the core of an extended tradition whose contributors included Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Max Weber. In the 20th century, during which hermeneutics was one of the idealist-humanist traditions that the logical empiricists set themselves against, it spawned a great deal of literature (e.g. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Emilio Betti, Paul Ricoeur). One mainstay of this tradition is anti-naturalism, the idea that the methods of the physical sciences are inadequate for the social sciences, since our knowledge of the physical world is external, experimental, and quantitative, but our knowledge of the social world is not.

This interpretive tradition underwent something of an invigoration in mid-20th-century philosophy of social science when several thinkers who drew inspiration from the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, notably Peter Winch (1958), underscored anti-naturalism by arguing that while natural phenomena are law-governed, social phenomena are rule-governed, and thus that the kind of explanation suitable for the former could never yield the kinds of understanding necessary for the latter. Reaction from ‘positivists’, their heirs, and most philosophers of natural science was predictably negative, but the tradition of interpretive social science has continued (see Dallmayr and McCarthy 1977; Hutchinson, Read, and Sharrock 2008), and more recent interest in Wittgenstein’s remarks on that magnum opus of Victorian anthropology, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, has generated equally important literature on the nature of the social studies (Wittgenstein 1979; Cioffi 1998; Hacker 2001: chs 2 and 3).

An important recent development in the philosophy of social science that seems to have gone unnoticed in archaeology is John Searle’s work on the construction of social reality (Searle 1995; 2010). Searle’s work is a hard-headed attempt to think through the ontology of social phenomena in a realist way, which makes an interesting contrast to social constructivist approaches.

Other developments in philosophy (although not only in the philosophy of science, even of social science) are potentially relevant to archaeologists. There is, for example, a wealth of recent material on the philosophy of action which might well be of use to those archaeologists interested in the kinds of agency that items of material culture can be said to have (see Hacker 2007: ch. 5, and, for an overview of the field, O’Connor and Sandis 2010).

Contemporary philosophy of science

Philosophy of science is now as fragmented as most other intellectual areas, and dominated only by a vague consensus in favour of ‘realist’ views, not by any single realist view. Even a glance at the area reveals an enormous middle ground between ‘positivism’ and an extreme form of social constructivism which has largely been invisible in archaeology, presumably because those who initiated the post-processual revolution persuaded their peers that these two approaches were the only available alternatives.

However, the relative epistemic modesty of most of the previous forms of scientific realism has recently been assailed. Although they largely deflected the challenge of social constructivism, philosophers of science have more recently had to put up with metaphysicians invading their territory. Some of the most recent versions of realism to enter the limelight in the UK derive from what is known as the ‘Metaphysics of Science’ movement, a group of philosophers who think that metaphysical conclusions about the nature of reality can be derived from, or at least can derive support from, science (see Bird 1998; Ellis 2002). When it comes to the epistemic credentials of science, they count as among the most optimistic (least modest), and they sometimes converge with more traditional scientific realists in their insistence that our best scientific theories can be known to be at least approximately true. This diminution of scepticism about knowledge claims (scientific and metaphysical) is not a revival of ‘positivism’, though. Although the subject has largely turned away from the concerns of the ‘new’ philosophy of science, and has returned to the classic topics that interested the neopositivists, neopositivism does not feature centrally as an approach within the contemporary discussion. Recent forms of realism are further from positivism not only than modern versions of anti-realism are, but also than the kind of relativistic views which had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

These more metaphysical forms of realism are unlikely to have any direct impact on archaeology, especially since they often issue in an extreme form of metaphysical essentialism (according to which things have an essential nature which fixes their identity), and metaphysical philosophers have yet to persuade anyone in the social sciences or humanities that ‘essentialism’ is anything other than a dirty word.

Nevertheless, one can identify certain topics and ideas within contemporary philosophy of science that archaeologists who think of their own work as scientific might find of interest.

Laws of nature, it is true, are a hot topic again. Most work in the philosophy of science is still concerned (explicitly or implicitly) with sciences that do seem to feature laws. Realist approaches are much in evidence, and some of these (such as the ‘necessitarian’ view that laws are necessary truths) are excessively metaphysical. But as well as the usual anti-realists who interpret law-hood as a matter of a kind of attitude we take towards certain statements, there are now several important philosophers (Bas van Fraassen, Nancy Cartwright, Ronald Giere, Stephen Mumford) whose view might be summarized in the idea that there are no laws of nature, or at least that science is not in the business of discovering them.

The notion of causation has likewise come in for a lot of attention (see e.g. Woodward 2003). The kind of causation in which most philosophers of science are interested is specifically physical causation, rather than the kinds of causation that are more likely to interest archaeologists, kinds which involve or are mediated by social phenomena. However, the probabilistic approach to causality might be relevant to some archaeologists (see Cartwright 1989; Humphreys 1989—Cartwright’s version, drawn from econometrics, features a somewhat Aristotelian approach to the topic).

A large body of literature on the use of models in science has also flowed under the bridge recently, even to the extent that that notion seems to have replaced the notion of scientific theory in certain respects. Philosophers have become aware of the sheer variety of kinds of models operative in the sciences (see Morgan and Morrison 1999), and the view that the ways in which models are used lends support to anti-realism has other important contemporary representatives, as well as van Fraassen (see e.g. Cartwright 1999). Scientific realists themselves, though, are now equally enamoured of the topic (see Suppe 1989; Giere 1999). One contemporary archaeobotanist who, having discerned and rejected an anti-methodological stance within post-processualism, is explicit about using middle-range theory to construct models of crop husbandry practices in her book on Neolithic farming is Amy Bogaard (Bogaard 2004).

Philosophical work on the topic of explanation might seem to offer the best prospect of being relevant to archaeologists, simply because although many archaeologists would deny that their subject is in the business of discovering laws of nature, or need involve the construction of models, only those who insist on a strict distinction between explanation and understanding would deny that it issues in explanations. So it might well be thought that, instead of sifting analytical philosophy of science for work on natural laws, causation, models, methodology, or the realist/anti-realist dispute, archaeologists would be better off looking there for material on this concept. There is no consensus on this notion within philosophy of science, but the field does contain some approaches which might be worth investigating. The currently dominant approach, known as unificationism, is unlikely to have anything to offer, since it resolutely conceives of explanation as a global feature of scientific theory deriving from its power to unify phenomena (Kitcher 1981). But van Fraassen’s important book The Scientific Image (1980), as well as making him the leading modern anti-realist, also put the issue of explanation back onto the agenda, since he challenged the neopositivist conception of explanations as logical arguments, offering instead a pragmatic account, according to which to explain some phenomenon is to give a certain kind of answer to a certain kind of why-question. Another such pragmatic approach to explanation has been pursued by Peter Achinstein (1983).

Nevertheless, one may still harbour doubts about the relevance of this literature to more than a small part of archaeology. Many of the kinds of explanation that archaeologists offer are still so different from explanations in the natural sciences that such interactions may well not be fruitful. Merely relaxing the assumption that archaeology could ever be modelled as a natural science, aiming at the discovery of laws, is not enough. Instead, in my view, many archaeologists would be wise to focus not on ‘philosophy of science’ (which usually means philosophy of the natural sciences) but on philosophical work which deals with questions of interpretation, that is, philosophies that could at least in a loose sense be said to be hermeneutical. This work often falls under the heading of the philosophy of social science, of course.


Relations between archaeology and philosophy got off to a bad start, with archaeologists trying on ideas from a philosophy of science already discarded within philosophy (as well as the inappropriate name ‘positivism’). This caused an understandable overreaction, which (a) mobilized ideas from the ‘new’ philosophy of science, but not to much good effect, and (b) mobilized philosophical ideas from outside the philosophy of science (hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstruction, postmodernism), to mixed effect. Even the advocates of such approaches had to pull back from the most extreme of their implications.

Now, though, a more fruitful interaction should be possible. In contrast with the 1960s, archaeology now has bodies of existing theory to draw on, and is more mature and self-confident as a discipline. Philosophy of science is less dominated by philosophy of physics, less dominated by the idea that the discovery of natural laws is the primary goal of science, less prone to pontificating about what does and what does not count as science, and far less prone to assume that science is either methodologically or substantively unified. Archaeologists might even be interested to read certain recent work in the philosophy of science, and philosophers should certainly be more interested in archaeology.

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