“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.
2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.
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.