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The "processual" vs. "postprocessual" debate lies in epistemological issues—what can we know and how can we know it? In recent years the emphasis upon application of the scientific method to explanation of the archaeological record has received numerous challenges.

The postprocessualists leading the attack against science argue that a certain inherent bias influences scientists in their research. Moreover, postprocessualists argue that science consists of only one way of knowing and that there exist multiple ways of knowing of equal or greater veracity, e.g., the application of philosophical hermeneutics to the "reading" the archaeological record. Processualists hold that the archaeological record does not consist of a text for reading and, no matter how well-intentioned, archaeologists who attempt to do so practice psuedo-archaeology.

Philosophical hermeneutics remains a traditional tool of the humanities not the sciences. For philosophical hermeneutics to become a useful tool in fields, such as the social sciences, where scientific methodology functions as the most efficient engine in the production of knowledge, its rules and methods must acquire at least the reliability and validity of science. This would require redefinition of both reliability and validity as the two approaches do not always attach the same meanings to these words.

Both hermeneutics and science are learning strategies. Hermeneutics seeks discovery of the principles of interpretation, while science seeks to discover rules and laws that govern phenomena. These two learning strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rather serve different ends. Consider the contrast set forth by Randy L. Maddox:

...hermeneutic philosophers have tended to distinguish between the phenomenon of ‘explanation’ (erklaren), which is appropriate to the natural sciences, and the phenomenon of ‘understanding’ (verstehen), which is appropriate to the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). Or, in a more extreme form, they have made the empirical method (explanation) a derivative of the broader phenomenon of understanding. Likewise, hermeneutic philosophy has stressed the contextuality of the knowing subject and the influence of one’s preunderstandings on the knowing process. (Maddox 1985:518.)

Science explains the particular by subsuming it under a general law. This notion is not specifically required under hermeneutic analysis. Neither are probabilistic laws generally included in hermeneutic thinking, although Hirsch employed the notion of probability in seeking validity (Hirsch 1967:236). Science is concerned with testing explanations based upon accepted laws. Is it possible for the humanities and the sciences to meet in philosophical hermeneutics? Bungled science and bad hermeneutics, both of which can be encountered in archaeology, have no chance of meeting. But perhaps, good science and good hermeneutics can be objectively compared to identify aspects of mutuality.

Some thinkers believe that a provisional theory where the sciences and the humanities meet should be possible. Roger Seamon attempted to uncover "the theoretical foundations shared by different approaches and by showing the sequence of transformations that is common to all the schools [of thought] within the tradition" (Seamon 1989:294). His discussion centered upon the issues involved in establishing a "science of literature" in a literary field where hermeneutics predominated. He wrote:

The theorists of scientific criticism often defined their project in opposition to what they believed was the other major theoretical movement—hermeneutics—and the relation between hermeneutics and the scientific study of literature is central to the history of modern critical theory. The hermeneutic stream of theory...seeks to establish a "logic of interpretation"..., that is, some principles for understanding...the "work." The hermeneutic enterprise is a continuation of the effort to understand remote prized works that extends far back in our culture. While literary hermeneutics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be an advance on previous efforts to develop principles of interpretation, it is the same sort of project that Talmudic, classical, and biblical scholars have long engaged in. There is, of course, cultural hermeneutics, but from a literary perspective the ultimate aim is the interpretation of individual works, however contextualized interpretation becomes.

The theorists in the scientific stream of literary theory had a different aim. They wished to break from the hermeneutic tradition by attending to a new object,..."text" and identifies as a methodological field, that is, an object that calls for the establishment of a scientific method and body of knowledge that flows from it rather than a set of hermeneutic principles and the interpretations they support or generate. The object of a science is not this or that unique entity but the laws, rules, or structures governing the relevant entities—atoms, organisms, sentences, societies, and, of course, poems. Such governing rules and structures exist apart from the wills of either makers or interpreters, and therefore a science for literature is intended to produce "an impersonal body of consolidating knowledge"...something interpretation cannot do. (Seamon 1989:294-295.)

Philosophical hermeneutics seeks interpretation, that is, providing meaning for the postmodern world from hermeneutic analysis. Science seeks explanation. According to Watson, LaBlanc, and Redman:

It is a major goal of archaeology to explain the past, but as indicated by Hempel and Oppenheim, all scientific explanations, including those in archaeology, help to explain contemporary events and to predict future events. (Watson, et al., 1971:6.)

There are few if any signs of a letup in this scholarly debate which will likely continue well into the 21st century. The issues in this controversy distanced archaeologists from many other anthropologists.

Page last edited: 11/27/05 12:01 PM

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