Critique of Archaeological Reason
5. Excerpts and summaries

Colin Renfrew

Giacomo Fornasieri – September 2014

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Extended summary of Renfrew 1994 Cognitive

Definition      The aim of cognitive archaeology is to understand what and in what manner prehistoric people thought. This formal object needed to be observed with a specific method: the philosophical position, which many cognitive archaeologists support, and which can be described as a realist one. It can thus be defined as "the study of past ways of thought as inferred from material remains."
Previous research           Cognitive archaeology is a subject still in its infancy, even though generations of archaeologists have previously written about the beliefs and thoughts of ancient people.
     Despite diffusion of this epistemic (if approximate) approach, the optimism of New Archaeology (also known as processual archaeology) and the newly discovered potentials of the discipline led to a deeper adherence to archaeological data. Processual archaeology aims for archaeology to be co-existent with anthropology, and its statements are founded on the persuasion that the goals of archaeology correspond with goals of anthropology. Arguing from a standpoint of a functionalist point of view (functional-processual archaeology), characterized by the L. White definition of culture as "man's extra-somatic means of adaptation". Therefore, attention was often on social and economic aspects, ignoring beliefs and local identity.
     Nowadays, workers of the processual tradition are seeking to develop, focusing on symbolic and cognitive characters, frameworks of inference to amend the premature conclusions of New Archaeology's early insights. For this reason, Renfrew might claim that processual archaeology, far from vanishing, has just entered a new phase, called "cognitive-processual" archaeology. There is, in fact, an unbroken tradition of thought that connects processual and cognitive archaeology.
     The criticism that arises from the self-denominated "post-processualist" archaeologists, also unveil an "anti-processualist" archaeological position. As a matter of fact, they advocate idealist and relativist interpretative categories. Their theory of interpretation would probably be just a re-run of the past debate between two different Weltanschauung, "scene(s) of thought". Anti-processualists probably situated themselves alongside those philosophers interested in understanding the "meaning" (Erlebins) hidden in the mind of an identifiable historical character, with a not well specified and intuitive "I-was-there" personal experience.
     On the other side are situated those philosophers, who, with Marx and Darwin, think that all behaviours of human beings and human societies can be described and understood with principles of science, avoiding the division between history and nature, supported by the idealists. One of the purposes of the present work is to bridge the gap between these aspects, through the archaeological scientific field. Anti-processualist polemic, in fact, far from being inappropriate or unimportant about its issues, is rather unhelpful: they throw out "the realist baby with the positive bathwater".
The approach of "cognitive-processual" archaeology      Cognitive archaeology is interested in developing a cognitive-processual approach, that uses the already existing methods of archaeology to study the early use of symbols. Therefore its task is developing frameworks of inference to understand how ancient people used their minds. This attempt must be valued not "by apriori epistemological arguments, but by what can be discovered, constructed, re-constructed or otherwise informatively asserted about the past".
     In fact "The task for the cognitive archaeologist is to devise methods of study and frameworks of inference which will, in practice, allow the archaeological evidence to be used to make contributions to the discussion which go beyond more general speculation".
     The approach followed here seeks to study the way in which cognitive processes operated in specific ambits and analyze the interrelationship between these processes and contexts, where they arose and were promoted. More specifically, it concerns the human ability to construct and use symbols, developing Cassirer's intuition of man as an animal symbolicum. For processual-archaeologists, it is enough to gain data about how the minds of ancient communities and individuals worked and the manner in which it guided and shaped their actions. It is possible to consider symbols as describing aspects of human behavior like structured and purposeful actions, planned work, measurement, social relations, communication with the supernatural and representation as production of depiction.
     Cognitive archaeology goes beyond the processual-functional one, trying to apply methods of scientific enquiry to the cognitive sphere. This approach would be more concrete to suppose every person has a cognitive map of reality, built upon the foundations of one's own experience. The existence of this mappa is indeed inferred from common and shared human experience, in which "I", "you" and the "world" emerge as distinct, though not separate, entities. The circularity of thought, as a petitio principi, between an individual's actions and his/her cognitive map, can be avoided in the data's concrete aspects, as the form of depictions of a subject of the world. The evidence and the existence of this map is needed from the object observed itself: without this interpretative scheme, it would be without meaning, not collocated to the context where we found it. Otherwise, the object would never exist, or better, would never be itself, have an "identity" without the cognitive map from where it emerged.
      Therefore, these conclusions perfectly agree with the recent discoveries of philosophy of science, where it can no longer be asserted that facts have an objective existence independent of theory: theory is necessary in the determination of facts, because knowledge is knowledge of a material object. But it can be investigated from a determinate standpoint: for knowledge is needed a formal object, which by formal questions select the aspect of the world going to be studied. On the other hand, theory needs facts, because it needs elements of validation, as in a hypothetic-deductive system.
     The defining characteristic of cognitive archaeology should be the more careful selection of roles for interpretation and inference framework construction and to make explicit the assumptions which sustain the argument. As a matter of fact, validation does not rest on authority but on testability and on the explicitness of argumentation.