On objects and habits

Abandoned writing implements in an abandoned small house in Southern Finland. Marko Marila, 2009.
There are, I think, two types of philosophies that have set the agenda for archaeological theory after the linguistic turn, namely contemporary continental realism and classic American pragmatism. Both traditions are ample in their supply of realist and materialist thinkers (such as Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson or Charles Peirce and William James) that suit the needs of a contemporary archaeologist interested in things after the ‘material turn’. Current scholars in the field of continental philosophy include for example Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, who have been very influential also in archaeology.

Such archaeologists as Johan Normark (see his Archaeological Haecceities blog), Bjørnar Olsen (2010; 2012), Matt Edgeworth (2012) and Christopher Witmore (2012) have been influenced by speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy in particular. (For previous Archaeolog entries on speculative realism and archaeology see posts by Witmore and Webmoor).
While there are many philosophers who continue the tradition of American pragmatism, relatively few archaeologists have been inspired by classic pragmatism. There is, however, a growing number of authors working on pragmatism in archaeology, perhaps the most well known example being Robert Preucel’s (2006) pragmatist take on social archaeology. Webmoor and Witmore (2008) provide a take on social archaeology and thing-human relations that combines elements of continental philosophy and pragmatism. Furthermore, Timothy Webmoor (e.g. 2007) has written extensively on pragmatism and archaeology. In his 2007 article he argues for a pragmatic (Jamesian) epistemology of archaeology in hope for a ‘mediating archaeology’. Thus Webmoor astutely identifies the possibilities of a pragmatic approach in rendering archaeology a unifying enterprise between sciences and humanities, as well as archaeologists and non-archaeologists. Christopher Witmore (2012) provides an example of a somewhat pragmatist approach with symmetrical archaeology’s notion of pragmatology, the idea that things, events and circumstances are real and have real effects on each other and as such provide the starting point as well as the grounds for speculation for what possible course action could take, what could happen at any given instance or what possible relevance a thing could have on another thing. He does not, however, explicitly refer to any particular pragmatist philosopher. In fact the notion of pragmatology was born out of the discussion revolving around symmetrical archaeology. The idea of pragmatology nonetheless adopts the speculative attitude that is vital for any realist archaeology. For a Peircean approach to material agency, see Watts (2008). Also of interest to the reader may be the papers given at the 2010 TAG seminar session on pragmatism (http://proteus.brown.edu/tag2010/8045). The above is by no means a complete listing of pragmatic approaches in archaeology, but a collection of some writings where a pragmatic approach has been adopted in regard to studying the nature of things in particular.
Objects always act
As I wrote above, Witmore’s conception of objects is mostly based on the writings of such philosophers as Graham Harman and Levi Bryant. The core tenet of object-oriented philosophy is that what ultimately exist, are objects. Objects can be said to share various relationships with each other. Levi Bryant (2011, 26) for example does not follow the modernist schema of relationism in which objects are thought to be defined by their relations with each other. He follows Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and maintains that objects are always withdrawn from relations (Bryant 2011, 26), i.e. ‘that objects have no direct access to one another and that each object translates other objects with which it enters into non-relational relations’. Nor are all objects thought to be in relation (or non-relational relation) with each other (Bryant 2011, 68). Not everything that happens affects all objects. In this sense Bryant (2011, 68) makes a distinction between objects and their relations and maintains that the universe is not a closed system where everything affects everything. In fact, he points out that if this were the case; if objects were only constituted by their relations with each other, everything would be frozen, nothing would move (Bryant 2011, 68). Bryant (2011, 69) then goes on to explicate his philosophy of objects by stating that ‘we must not say that an object has its qualities or that qualities inhere in an object, nor above all that objects are their qualities, but […] we must say that qualities are something an object does’. This is an essentially pragmatistic view of objects and one of the many points of connection that speculative realism has with classical American pragmatism. The pragmatic maxim tells us to ‘[c]onsider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object’ (CP 5.402).
In addition to being shared by both speculative realists and pragmatists, the idea of an object being defined by its potential effects can also be seen in the writings of some current archaeologists. Bjørnar Olsen (2012, 212), for example, writes that a thing can not be substituted by any other thing since things have their unique competence or affordances. Olsen seems to be supporting the view that the meaning of an object is in the possible effects it is capable of producing. This is an essentially realist definition for a thing: things, as far as they are active by their virtue of being able to act, are general. In order for us to study the possible meanings of things in the past, a certain degree of generality is needed. Particular things of the past become general by their similar affordances, or the habits of acting they involve, to use a more pragmatistic vocabulary. Certain slow-changing and all-encompassing habits, like the laws of physics, provide a common ground also for the study of the past.
Past is real
In Process and Reality, Whitehead (1978, 214) writes that the past is a nexus of actualities while the future is real without being actual. The present for Whitehead (1978, 214) is ‘the immediacy of teleological process whereby reality becomes actual’. Peirce’s (CP 2.148) view was somewhat similar:

Whatever is truly general refers to the indefinite future; for the past contains only a certain collection of such cases that have occurred. The past is actual fact. But a general (fact) cannot be fully realized. It is a potentiality; and its mode of being is esse in futuro. The future is potential, not actual.

Potentialities bring objects together and make them real. So while Whitehead states that the present is what includes the past and the future, Peirce maintains that the future is what connects the past and the present in any meaningful fashion. Things, as well as humans, are teleologically oriented. The basis of action is in the anticipated outcomes of that action; the fact that things have happened according to certain habits (i.e. habits have become general laws and providers of generalities) results in their potentiality in following that general law of action (CP 2.148). The hard part in the study of meanings is to study what possibilities were involved in the experiences of past people, or other objects for that matter. The notion of meanings of things acquires a new meaning as the object of archaeological study. Recall for example what Christopher Hawkes (1954) wrote about the four levels of inference. Technologies, as evidence of praxis (their esse in futuro owing to action targeted at producing something), are fairly easy to study, whereas the meaning of a more abstract type of action that has not left behind direct material evidence should be the hardest to reconstruct.
If, as Peirce wrote in How to make our ideas clear (CP 5.400), the meaning of a thing is equal to the habits it involves, and, furthermore, if the nature of those habits is being in futuro, how does one begin to reconstruct past experiences the meanings of which were in futuro? John Dewey (1895, 32) refers to these non-referential or unconscious references as Gefühlston:

Gefühlston represents the complete consolidation of a large number of achieved ends into the organic habit or co-ordination. It is interest read backwards. That represents the complete identification of the habits with a certain end or aim.

The experiences of past people are embodied in us as a result of their actions that aimed at certain outcomes of that action. No one person can remember all past experiences (not even their own), yet they have an impact on our experience as formed habits of action. Experiences are therefore not something belonging to the purely psychological individual but are bodily and evolutionary as well. People today, as well as in the past, produce things and act in order to achieve something. That is the basis of all action and thought. What is created in the process is a complex assemblage of meanings. The meaning of a thing in the past may be different from its meaning for me but nevertheless my knowledge of the past meanings have an affect on the meaning of the thing for me. My assumed meanings of the thing in the past affect its meaning in the present. Similarly, a thing in the present may have many meanings. A thing can be put in a museum and treated as an exhibit piece, or it can be studied in a lab. Its meanings may be very different to different people. Furthermore, a thing could have meant different things to different people in the past.
Archaeologists are in the end not left with things that have nothing to do with their own time but with things that are part of a chain of semiosis that connects the past and the present and all thought in its mode of being in futuro. The fact that things are in continuity makes action (as well as studying the past) meaningful. Stating that past meanings were something purely cognitive and therefore are solely in futuro would render past meanings completely unreachable today. The good thing is that past action (however teleological) produced material parts. And since archaeologists are ultimately dependent on those material parts, it is worth keeping in mind Peirce’s statement that ‘[w]hatever is continuous has material parts’ (CP 6.174). The trick is to find the material parts that are continuous.
Works cited
Bryant, L. 2011. The democracy of objects. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
CP (followed by number of volume and paragraph) refers to the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 volumes, 1931-1958. (Vols. 1-6, C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, eds., vols. 7-8, A. W. Burks, ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dewey, J. 1895. ‘The theory of emotions,’ Psychological Review, 2, 13-32.
Edgeworth, M. 2012. ‘Follow the cut, follow the rhythm, follow the material,’ Norwegian Archaeological Review, 45(1), 76-92.
Hawkes, C. 1954. ‘Archaeological theory and method: Some suggestions from the old world,’ American Anthropologist 56, 155-168.
Olsen, B. 2010. In defense of things: Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham: AltaMira Press.
Olsen, B. 2012. ‘Symmetrical archaeology.’ In Archaeological Theory Today. Second Edition, edited by I. Hodder, Cambridge: Polity Press, 208-228.
Preucel, R. 2006. Archaeological semiotics. Malden: Blackwell.
Watts, C. M. 2008. ‘On mediation and material agency in the Peircean semeiotic.’ In Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, edited by C. Knappett and L. Malafouris, New York: Springer, 187-207.
Webmoor, T. 2007. ‘The dilemma of contact: Archaeology’s ethics-epistemology crisis and the recovery of the pragmatic sensibility,’ Stanford Journal of Archaeology 5, 224-246.
Webmoor, T. and Witmore, C. 2008. ‘Things are us! A commentary on human/things relations under the banner of a ‘social’ archaeology,’ Norwegian Archaeological Review 41(1), 53-70.
Whitehead, A. N. 1978. Process and reality. New York: The Free Press.
Witmore, C. 2012. The realities of the past: Archaeology, object-orientations, pragmatology. Modern materials: The proceedings of CHAT Oxford, 2009. (B. R. Fortenberry, L. McAtackney, eds.). Oxford: Archaeopress, 25-36.