Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Attacking Kant: a symmetrical case of asymmetry

In Arkeologi, Filosofi on desember 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm

In a relatively recent article on the subject of a possibility of a symmetrical archaeology, a fierce attack is made on the infamous philosopher Immanuel Kant (Olsen 2007).



Seen as an act of rhetoric, it is both understandable and mediocre. Understandable because Kant is well known to have taken a few hits, this makes him an easy target; one that we all can agree on is obsolete. Mediocre because Kant was actually a brilliant philosopher who’s insights changes the course of philosophy. For instance, the dualities of a priori and a posteriori are central even in some of the accounts of symmetry in archaeology (Webmoor 2007).

Immanuel Kant, the father of modern metaphysics. Is the problem that symmetrical archaeology is not metaphysical? On the contrary, I would proclaim that symmetrical archaeology indeed is involved in metaphysics. As Collingwood pointed out in his major work on Kant and metaphysics; to acknowledge the concepts of a priori and a posteriori is to accept metaphysics as such. To make an argument in metaphysical terms involves pointing out what is already presupposed in the argumentation of your opponent:

“The act of finding these presuppositions must involve a reflection on what we ourselves already and always have presupposed, by making ourselves the subject of all empirical-descriptive validity claims by claiming them. Following this, it cannot take form of a description of necessary traits of reality. (..) That we are obliged to perform a self reflection in order to trace the transcendental conditions, must also show itself in the form of the discussion about these conditions. For instance, if one has, voluntarily or not, strayed into the field of epistemology, this cannot be performed as a comparison between different theories and reality meant to show that the theory is not adequate. The attack must take form of an effort angled at proving that this person’s analysis is not sufficient at, or is even contrasted with, what he himself in his proclaiming silently has presupposed”. (Øfsti 1994, translated to Norwegian by Olav Gundersen 2008, and now translated to English.)

If we do not follow the logics of this theoretical claim, we are on a fast track to theoreticism. Theoreticism implies making the concept of theory absolute. The most explicit theoreticists are Karl Popper and W. V. Quine. Kant however, was not a theoreticist. On the contrary, his Copernican inversion in philosophy still obliged our understanding to be guided by the things, by reality. Likewise, our theories must be guided by evidence, and in this respect we are all empiricists. But we must understand that when he established the dichotomy between the things-for-me and the things-for-themselves, this was not a statement pertaining to an empirical divide of the objects in front of us; that the first is perceptually obvious and the other only reachable through scientific methods. The thing-in-itself is nothing more than a postulated entity that must have an existence with necessity if the Copernican inversion – and following the line, metaphysics – is logically true. It has being, but not being-in-the-world. For instance, when the idea of the DNA as structured by a double helix was first put forth (Latour 1987), this was not a progressive step in the search of the thing-for-itself. And neither was it a discovery that made Kantian metaphysics shiver. It was ‘just’ another exploration of the things in this world. The DNA is a thing-for-me. Because of this, it is troubling to see spokesmen of symmetrical archaeology create confusion between the things in the Husserlian motto “Back to the things themselves!” and the thing in the Kantian thing in itself. (Edmund Husserl made this his motto in part because of his anti-psychologism; he wanted to study that which was given in experience as it was given. As such, it was not a quest for a ghostly thing.)

After having shed some light on what a metaphysical argument is, one question needs to be answered: is not the Kantian move from the Cartesian dichotomy of mind and world to a transcendental and non-empirical dualism of subject and object precisely of the same nature as the symmetrical move from society and nature to the pre-theoretical things present-at-hand? In short, yes. The arguments are of the same metaphysical nature; they show what is being presupposed, and how these determine the explanations that follow in practical research (Webmoor 2007, Latour 2005). On the question of whether or not archaeology has managed to reach a phenomenology of the things present-at-hand, to make an account of the ‘thingness’ of the material, Olsen (2007) says no. Even though this is not the main concern of a symmetrical archaeology, it is still a daring task indeed; one that we might not have considered a relevant task at all were it not for the introduction of the symmetrical ‘attitude’.


Collingwood, R. G. 1940: An Essay on Metaphysics. Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. 1987: Science in Action. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. 2005: Reassembling the social. Oxford University Press.

Olsen, B. 2007: Keeping things at arm’s length: a genealogy of asymmetry. In: World Archaeology. Volume 39, Issue 4 December 2007 , pages 579 – 588

Webmoor, T. 2007: What about ‘one more turn after the social’ in archaeological reasoning? Taking things seriously. In: World Archaeology. Volume 39, Issue 4 December 2007 , pages 563 – 578

Øfsti, A. 1994: Ahwandlungen. Essays zur Sprachphilosophie und Wissenschaftheorie. Königshausen und Naumann, Würzburg. Translated by O. Gundersen in Mikrotranscendentalpragmatisk festskrift til Audun Øfsti I anledning 70-årsdagen. Uautorisert oversettelse av hans skrift: Absolutteringen av begrepet empirisk teori: Tilfellet Quine. Philosophical Institute, NTNU.

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