Can there be a Pragmatic Archaeology?

Comments on Carol McDavid’s  “Archaeology as Cultural Critique: Pragmatism and the Archaeology of a Southern United States Plantation”

Originally published in 1999 in Philosophy and Archaeological Practice, Perspectives for the 21st Century, edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Hakan Karlsson, University of Goteburg Press.


The current movement to make the social sciences “hermeneutical” rather than Galilean makes a reasonable, Deweyan point if it is taken as saying: narratives as well as laws, redescriptions as well as predictions, serve a useful purpose in helping us deal with the problems of society. In this sense, the movement is a useful protest against the fetishism of old-fashioned, “Behaviorist” social scientists who worry about whether they are being “scientific.” But the protest goes too far when it waxes philosophical and begins to draw a principled distinction between man and nature, announcing that the ontological difference dictates a methodological difference.

Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism, pp. 198-199

In her essay, Carol McDavid has taken on a the very difficult (and paradoxical) task of describing the ways in which a philosophy known for its non-foundationalism can serve as a foundation for archaeological practice. Pragmatism is a peculiarly American philosophy that has many different colorations; however, certain important threads are found through the 19th and 20th century writings of Pragmatists. Some of these threads certainly appeal to present-day sentiments among many humanists and social scientists. These threads tend to be nondualist, anti-foundationalist, and anti-essentialist. Pragmatism bridges so many of the dualities and paradoxes of social sciences, in part by discrediting or ignoring them.

The realist-idealist debate, in the eyes of a Pragmatist, is a kind of fruitless academic pissing contest that cannot be won. The endless worrying about whether our conceptions and models of Reality adequately conform to “real” Reality might be Pragmatically characterized as a kind of mental masturbation that goes nowhere and does nothing, and so is not really worth the energy put into it except as entertainment. To the Pragmatist, “the proof is in the pudding.” As McDavid asserts, language is important to Pragmatists inasmuch as language and meaning are tied to action, and so McDavid finds herself engaged in the test of a true Pragmatist. She has to advance her profession and career, or else she cannot hope to continue to engage in the socially and personally meaningful action she has set out for herself. But advancing her career means writing essays in compilations of essays on archaeological theory…works which (as a class) by their narrowness, their lack of social effect, their mission of self-aggrandizement, are all contrary to, perhaps detracting from, McDavid’s noble goals of enlivening a broader conversation about archaeology and its subjects. Her essay uses words like “praxis,” “Rorty” and “anti-essentialist,” and these are certainly not words in the normal vocabulary of Brazoria, Texas.

This dilemma is exactly the sort of nut the Pragmatic philosopher loves to crack…for it is a false dilemma based on the dualizing of language for “professionals” versus “the public,” and similar dichotomies such as “theory versus practice,” and “data versus interpretation.” We tend to create such contrasting pairs and then cling to the notion that we can value one or the other poles of the duality, but never both…nor can we work fluidly along a dynamic continuum between them. And so we see dilemmas where they needn’t be. How can McDavid be a “scientist” concerned with what is real if she is being a “humanist” concerned with such fuzzy, “subjective” ideas as “voices,” and “conversations?”  The “Realist” shouts “She can’t!!!…either it’s politics or science…it can’t be both!!”  The “Idealist” shouts “Screw science…archaeology for the People!!” The Relativist shouts (or mutters) “Well in this situation it’s like this, but in the other situation, well, then, it’s different, so it all depends…” The Pragmatist doesn’t concern herself. She stays away from such fruitless conversations, and does what she does in order to advance her goals.

While this sounds self-serving, McDavid correctly points out that, for more than a century, Pragmatists have tended to exhibit inclusive and empathetic perspectives and passions. This seeming paradox probably proceeds from non-dualist thinking. Pragmatists are less likely to divide themselves from the rest of the world. A Pragmatist archaeologist, like McDavid, is likely to identify with or care about or feel responsible to communities beyond her own group (whether her “group” at any moment be a racial, educational, class, or professional category). Does this mean that Pragmatism is simply another form of Leftist practice like neo-Marxist Critical Theory? Not at all. While Pragmatists may often seem “liberal,” there is nothing in the philosophy that dictates that this must be the case. Richard Rorty (1993) notes that he has been criticized by the Right for his bleeding-heart liberalism, while Leftists accuse him of being a heartless Neo-Conservative for his refusal to join in the “America Sucks sweepstakes.” Pragmatists, it seems, are bound to be characterized by their politicized colleagues as unprincipled fence-sitters, changelings or opportunists.

In the realm of American politics, for example, Bill Clinton reasonably well exemplifies Pragmatism. What is Clinton’s “philosophy?”  Many would argue he has none, that he is a shameless, poll-watching opportunist. And yet from the beginning he has pursued countless opportunities to break down barriers of race, gender, age, handicap or other categorizations that traditionally lead to exclusion in the halls of power. Clinton does not write, talk or debate the idealized rightness or wrongness of his viewpoint, he simply acts in the best way he can to achieve a goal he believes in with the tools at hand for the moment. As a result he is hated by ideologues on the Left and on the Right. Rorty “enjoys” a similar notoriety among some scholars for his unwillingness to argue about the primary, essential nature of any specific position in morality or politics. To some casual observers, McDavid’s actions and wishes to incorporate a multitude of perspectives into her interpretive frame, and to conceive archaeology more democratically than its elitist origins would once have allowed, may make her appear positively Gramsciian in her approach. But there is a difference. She may hold dear some liberal moral convictions, but she has not elevated them to either a theory or a method that is based upon any particular socio-political assumptions.

One of the most important points McDavid’s essay makes (far more important, I believe, than any statements about Pragmatism) is the critical insight concerning the patronizing arrogance that often accompanies archaeological “presentation” and “education.” I invariably cringe when I hear colleagues speak about “educating the public;” they inevitably mean “indoctrinating the public.” What’s more, McDavid deserves credit for taking this insight beyond some sort of purely academic critique. She is not simply substituting a “conversation” word-game for an “education” word-game. In fact it is her actual experience in trying to hear, work with, and participate in an interpretive community that includes descendents of the people who occupied the Levi-Jordan quarters—or others like them–that provides the insight in the load carried by traditional approaches to “educating the public about archaeology.” It is her action–and the actions of her fellow interpreters–that leads her to glimpse the face of the beast of Relativism…and to stare it down. How, she asks, do we deal with others’ “realities” if they directly contradict our own.  How does she stare down this monster–the one that scares the britches off all the hard-science set? She says she’ll deal with things on a “case-by-case basis.” That is, she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. She won’t allow imaginary “logical conclusions” to become practical limitations to reasonable action. Good for her.

Recently, a traditional scholar made a genuine arse of himself at a public lecture. The anthropologist spoke of narratives of African slaves in the “Middle Passage,” and acquitted himself and his long and productive career brilliantly…until the question-and-answer period following the lecture. An African American in the audience asked for the speaker’s opinion about Ivan van Sertima’s (1976) thesis that Africans arrived in the new World long before Europeans, and that they affected the early civilizations of Mesoamerica. Many Afrocentrists are, quite understandably, attracted to van Sertima’s ideas. This lecturer blew off the questioner, and the whole notion of Africans in Precolumbian America. He simply refused to get into a discussion and, in so many words, piled They Came Before Columbus on the trash-heap of fringe-zone archaeological books like Chariots of the Gods (von Daniken 1999). I don’t believe–and the majority of Americanist archaeologists don’t believe–the evidence warrants concluding there were Africans in Pre-Columbian America. I also feel that archaeologists should grasp every opportunity to share their knowledge and insights with others, but it is nothing but arrogant and idiotic to simply cast aside a work or an idea that has such a grip on so many people. It does not help provide a better understanding of the lives of Africans in America–a task to which this scholar has dedicated his life’s work–and it simply reinforces a widespread notion that scholarship is insensitive, irrelevant, elitist tripe. Needless to say, I prefer McDavid’s approach. She is likely to have much greater success evolving a body of interpretation that is meaningful to all of her communities–archaeologists as well as Levi-Jordan neighbors.

As I mentioned early on, the “proof is in the pudding.” I didn’t feel I could comment upon Carol McDavid’s essay without taking time to examine what the essay is about. This is represented, at least in part, by the web site she has created for the interpretation of the Levi-Jordan Plantation project ( I cannot help but wonder how the community she identifies with actually relates to this web site  (or if they do at all), but it is a very good beginning, and I hope others will take a long look at it.

I am fond of the newer flavors of Pragmatism—those of Rorty and Nancy Fraser, especially. They present us with a way of thinking and acting that accommodates postmodernist, poststructuralist, feminist, Marxist, antiracist, and other critiques of the traditional perspectives spawned by the Enlightenment. And yet, this Pragmatism does not require us to subscribe to a party line, or believe in the emptiness of every thought or endeavor, or to embrace the equivalence of all opinions. Can a view of the world that believes in not promoting foundational beliefs serve as a foundation for archaeological practice? Sure it can. Pragmatists don’t worry about such paradoxes.

Richard Rorty

  1. Consquences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  1. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” In Mark Edmundson, ed., Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, pp. 289-305. New York: Penguin Books.

Van Sertima

1976 They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House.

Von Daniken

1999 Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. (reprint edition). New York Berkley Publishing Group.

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