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Epistemology of archaeology: The anthropological disciplines as a contested arena between humanities and life sciences

Vak 2011-2012

Compulsory attendance

Yes. Your presence is mandatory; you are allowed to miss out on a meeting once, but will have to compensate with an 800 words paper on the subject matter of that meeting.

Admission requirements

For RMA and PhD students exclusively.


Archaeological research is confusingly multiparadigmatic. The epistemology of archaeology (and anthropology) does not look at archaeological (or anthropological) data as such, but at the various, and often conflicting, ways data are handled in terms of the basic presuppostions of individual archaeologists. Even elementary archaeological concepts (such as “protoculture,” “site,” “intention,” “ritual”) and periodisations (“Ancients-Moderns,” “human adaptive grade”) are theory-laden and always part of a specific theoretical discourse. They are inextricably connected to other notions, rules, assumptions, values, and scenarios which occur in that specific discourse. The main theoretical/conceptual divide in archaeology and anthropology, connected with opposed views of the disciplinary identity of these disciplines, is that between, on the one hand, culturalist/interpretive (and cf. post-processual) approaches and, on the other hand, evolutionary (ecological, processual) ones.

Traditionally, the humanities and part of the human sciences apply culturalist, interpretive methods. These methods sit uneasily with explanatory strategies in the natural sciences in general and the life sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, in particular. Their – usually quite implicit view – is that humans, as self-conscious, free-willing an, as such, morally responsible beings, are essentially different from animals. What this stance is up against is an alternative conception of the human sciences which tends to subsume them under the evolutionary life sciences. The assumption here is that humans, although quite different from most other animals, are basically just another natural species, to be studied in the same, objective way as the rest of living nature. This assumption is connected to naturalistic positions in recent, mainly anglophone philosophy, while the first stance is much more influenced by mainstrream continental-European philosophy (and, to some extent, British analytical philosophy).

We will deal with problems and casuistry to do with ritual, myth, and ritual art, as well as exchange and reciprocity, focusing on problems and problems of consilience.

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philos-
ophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Daniel Dennett

Course objectives

  • Critically reflect on one’s own ways of handling archaeological data conceptually and theoretically
  • Being able to apply views and perspectives from cognitive neuroscience and adjacent disciplines to archaeological data and problems
  • Being able to formulate and voice one‘s own well-argumented opinion in discussions with others, in oral and written presentations


Course schedule details can be found in the RMA time schedule.
Exam dates can be found in the examination schedule.

Mode of instruction

Lectures with much room for interaction and discussion. Obligatory weekly student comments on the Blackboard. One obligatory presentation to the class (in groups of two or three).

Assessment method

Written examination for Research MA students; the obligatory weekly postings to the Blackboard, the presentation to the class and the participation to the discussions during the meetings will weigh in for about 33 %.

For Ph D candidates an individual oral examination plus a substantial paper. Here too, the obligatory weekly postings to the Blackboard, the presentation to the class and the participation to the discussions during the meetings will weigh in for about 33 %.

Reading list

  • R. Corbey, The metaphysics of apes: Negotiating the animal-human boundary. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press (2005). (website book; Italian translation: Metafisiche delle scimmie, transl. and with a Foreword by Paola Cavalieri. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri (2008);
  • R. Corbey, “Laying aside the spear: Hobbesian warre and the Maussian gift”, in: T. Otto, H. Thrane & H. Vandkilde (eds), Warfare and Society: Archaeological and social anthropological perspectives. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press (2006). pp. 29-36;
  • R. Corbey & A. Mol. “By weapons made worthy: A Darwinian perspective on Beowulf”, in: M. Collard & E. Slingerland (eds), Creating consilience: Evolution, cognitive science and the humanities. Oxford University Press;
  • Various texts and internet items available or specified on Blackboard, related to the casuistry under discussion.


Register for this course via uSis.
Instructions for registration can be found in the uSis manual.

Contact information

For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr R.H.A. Corbey.