Monday, March 5, 2012

Softcore Solipsism

 “Softcore solipsism” is the name given by Charles Tilly to the work of social historians who take a low-intensity postmodernist approach to theory and research, a kind of “postmodern light.” Although Tilly criticizes this approach in various works, the most explicit is in a book review essay titled “softcore solipsism” (Tilly 1994); see also Tilly (1998, 2008, 2010). I think this phrase is an apt description of much recent archaeological theory.

Solipsism is the philosophical doctrine that the only thing one can be sure exists is one’s own mind. The external world does not exist, or we cannot know that it exists, so only a person’s mind is important. The softcore version admits that the real world exists, but casts doubt on the notion that scholars can generate objective knowledge about that reality (particularly in the past). Everyone has their own views of the ancient past, and who is to decide that one view is better than another? Specifically, the foci of analysis are ideas and mental states. These are what matter in the study of the past.

Tilly’s discussion of softcore solipsism in social history includes these features (Tilly 1994):
  • Only mental states are important.
  • Avoidance of causality in general, and explicit denial and denigration of the notion that economic phenomena have a causative effect on society and social patterns.
  • A linguistic or textual analogy for human experience.
  • Statements about past human society are seen as not intersubjectively verifiable.
  • Heavy usage of weak verbs and passive voice in writing.
Does this sound familiar? Check out recent archaeological writing on the following topics:
  • Identity or identities
  • The meaning of material culture
  • Agency and practice theory
  • Social construction
  • Material culture as a text
  • Postcolonial and poststructural perspectives
 I am not saying that every archaeological work that deals with one or more of these themes can be categorized as softcore solipsism. But if the shoe fits….

Sometimes I take a relativist perspective on things like archaeological softcore solipsism. If people want to talk about this stuff, that’s fine; it doesn’t prevent more materialist and empirically-minded archaeologists from doing our work. This is the way I phrase my distaste for high-level social theory in my urban theory paper (Smith 2011). If archaeologists want to run around quoting Giddens and Bourdieu in every other sentence, that is fine, but this kind of theory is not at all necessary for doing explanatory analyses of past societies. It may make people feel good, but it will not move research forward.

At other times I get more alarmed by softcore solipsism. It seems to have hijacked a whole generation of archaeologists, who have been diverted from the hard work of empirical documentation and causal explanation of past societies and their changes. Too many smart archaeologists spend their time trying to figure out clever new ways to guess at past mental states, instead of devising new methodological and epistemological approaches to generate reliable empirical knowledge about the past. Too many archaeologists want to deconstruct or "problmatize" knowledge of the past, rather than building and accumulating knowledge. When postmodernism hit the academy many disciplines dealt with it and moved on, whereas anthropology and archaeology got stuck in the mud, and are still struggling to get out. I think this has seriously harmed the discipline of archaeology. I have found in Charles Tilly's work a strong direction forward for archaeology as a comparative, historical, and materialist social science. Check out his work.

Tilly, Charles

1998    Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

2008    Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

2010    Mechanisms of the Middle Range. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociological Explanation, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 54-62. Columbia University Press, New York.


Anonymous said...

All your posts on this subject seem to be full of derision and disrespect for you colleagues in the discipline. Your implications that those who have different theoretical perspectives from you don't do "hard work" and merely "guess" at their interpretations are really quite insulting.

It's obvious that you haven't read much of the literature you criticize, since you seem to think practice theory has something to do with recovering past ideas or mental states. This is a profound misreading and a committed empiricist should be wary of commenting where they are largely ignorant of the basic literature.

I am interested in "high-level" social theory and I consider myself just as much as empiricist as anyone else. I do several months of fieldwork every year and consider it vital to thinking theoretically. I know many other archaeologists disagree with my approaches, but I think they do serious work and make a contribution to the discipline. I don't devalue their work because it is dissimilar to mine. Your anti-intellectual dismissal of hundreds of intelligent scholars, whom you treat as little more than an army of deluded clowns is perhaps the reason why the younger generation aren't excited about subscribing to such doctrinaire approaches to the past.

Michael E. Smith said...


I apologize for conflating a variety of high-level theoretical approaches in my broad-brush and off-the-cuff comments. I have read several books by Giddens, I have made several valiant (but failed) efforts to read Bourdieu, and I have read lots of archaeological work and some anthropological work about practice theory, as well as other social science discussions of the topic (in sociology and geography, for example). I agree that most practice theory is not about recovering past mental states. My criticism of practice theory is set out in my urban theory paper. This level of theory is not necessary for doing empirical and theoretical work in archaeology, and it does not provide the tools for the kind of causal and explanatory work I favor. Most work using practice theory in the distant past is not empirically verifiable, and not falsifiable. The links between theory and data in most such work are tenuous.

I did not mean to imply that archaeologists using practice theory just guess at their interpretations. More precisely, when archaeologists use practice theory to propose explanations for particular empirical processes or patterns in the past, their interpretations sound very speculative in the sense that they are not based on strict middle-level methods or models that satisfy scholars with a rigorous scientific, or social-scientific, epistemology.

My remarks about mental states in reference to archaeology, refer not to practice theory, but to writings on the meanings of objects, material culture as a text, and the like. Most (but not all) cosmological interpretations fit in here as well (see my 2003 and 2005 papers in Latin American Antiquity for critiques of non-empirical cosmological work on the Maya), as well as much writing on identity in archaeology (in the sense that identity refers to what people think about themselves, or what people think about other people, or both).

While my comments in this blog or in other informal venues may sound “doctrinaire” to some, perhaps this results from writing in an informal vein and trying to be provocative. I think very few colleagues would use that term to describe my published work. Right now there is a dearth of rigorous social-scientific models and theory in archaeology and that is one reason I am enthusiastic about the materialist and rigorous, but non-deterministic, causal mechanisms approach in sociology, political science, and social science history. People pursuing this approach (e.g., Charles Tilly, Robert Sampson, John Gerring, Jon Elster, Daniel Little, Mario Bunge) have little time or need for practice theory or postmodern ideas, and neither do I. If that makes me doctrinaire, then I am in good company.

Anonymous said...

I think the institutional or structural realities of academic archaeology contributes more to the "softcore solopsism" than the enumerated theories. Is it not the "application" (or lack thereof) of said thought that you disdain? Is that not an outgrowth of academia's character? Methinks the tail wags the dog.

Michael E. Smith said...

I'm not sure how to separate out the intellectual factors from the structural/logistical factors of the organization of academia. There is no doubt that academia produces pressure for endless innovation and fadism. But archaeological ideas relate to broader ideas in academia and scholarship.

Anyway, interesting point!