Back in business

Apologies for the recent lack of posting; I was out of town in Montreal last week for meetings with co-editors and contributors to two edited volumes, as well as a reception for a teaching award I won last year.  But I’m back now!

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Bruce Trigger also was exposed, by proxy, to the work of the archaeologist and social theorist V. Gordon Childe, and in particular to his popular book, Society and Knowledge (Childe 1956).  This is as close to epistemology as I can normally bear to get; Childe is aiming to reconcile the imperfection and imperfectibility of human knowledge with the fact that we, as individuals and as societies and as species, have survived and thrived.

Childe begins with the notion that we adapt to the world not as it is, but as we imagine it to be.  This is idealism, at least in its moderate form, and Childe freely acknowledges the influence of Kant and Hegel in his thinking.  All perception is mediated through cognitive construction.  But then, following Hegel’s principle, “The Real is rational and the Rational is real”, Childe insists that there must be some fairly robust correspondence between imagined reality and external reality, or else we would not have survived (Childe 1956: 64).  Childe asserts that, “In fact mankind’s biological success in surviving and multiplying affords empirical evidence that useful knowledge of the external world – of man’s environment – is attainable.” (Childe 1956: 64).  If it were otherwise, we would not have survived.   Controversially (today though not in the 50s) Childe goes still further, linking this notion to cultural change, arguing that the intergenerational transmission and accumulation of knowledge, such as the ‘cumulative accretion of the world of science’, plays into this, ensuring that what is learned is retained in some way (Childe 1956: 66).

For me, this is not just an epistemological argument, but also an evolutionary one.  It explains why we have the sorts of thinking brains we have, why we have the sorts of concepts we have, without falling either into pure idealism and presuming either that our thoughts are all that is knowable, or a naive realism that presumes that reality is just as we perceive it to be.  And it is in the interstices of cognitive error: those neat little places where we misconstrue the world just enough to tell us about how our minds work, but not enough so that our minds don’t survive – that I see real hope and interest for a cognitive, linguistic, and evolutionary science of anthropology and archaeology.

But enough from me. What do you think?

Works cited

Childe, V. Gordon. 1956. Society and Knowledge: The Growth of Human Traditions. New York: Harper and Brothers.



  1. “In fact mankind’s biological success in surviving and multiplying affords empirical evidence that useful knowledge of the external world – of man’s environment – is attainable.”

    Substitute ‘cockroach’ for ‘mankind’ in the above. Cockroaches are immensely successful as a species but I’m not sure that they possess ‘useful knowledge’.

    More broadly, our ordinary perception of nature is highly approximate as anyone who has ever studied quantum field theory knows only too well. I’m also a bit skeptical about ‘our’. Evolution happens because of differences not similarities.

  2. John: Indeed, and Childe is decidedly not arguing against the notion that ‘our ordinary perception of nature is highly approximate’. What he is insisting is that, despite cultural variability, and despite the cognitive errors to which we are all subject, if our perceptions were radically out of line with the ordinary aspects of reality to which we adapt, then we would not have survived. It’s an argument for a modest realism tempered with a modest subjectivism, that doesn’t get us into the perils of mind-body dualism and the consequent failure to explain why humans have minds.

    Anyone who is not a creationist must acknowledge that the human capacity for culture is an evolved capacity – it must have benefited our hominin ancestors reproductively for a long period of time. But as you say, cockroaches seem to function perfectly well without this capacity. But if human cognition is solely or primarily a source of error (by which I mean roughly ‘lack of correspondence between perception and reality’) then we have a problem. At the very least, we would have to say that the human ability to form concepts is selectively neutral; at worst, we are faced with an apparent paradox.

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