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Society for American Archaeology

Inference to the Best Explanation: A Common and Effective Form of Archaeological

Author(s): Lars Fogelin
Source: American Antiquity, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 603-625
Published by: Society for American Archaeology
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Lars Fogelin

Processual and postprocessual archaeologists implicitly employ the same epistemological system to evaluate the worth of
different explanations: inference to the best explanation. This is good since inference to the best explanation is the most
effective epistemological approach to archaeological reasoning available. Underlying the logic of inference to the best expla
nation is the assumption that the explanation that accounts for the most evidence is also most likely to be true. This view of
explanation often reflects the practice of archaeological reasoning better than either the hypothetico-deductive method or
hermeneutics. This article explores the logic of inference to the best explanation and provides clear criteria to determine
what makes one explanation better than another. Explanations that are empirically broad, general, modest, conservative,
simple, testable, and address many perspectives are better than explanations that are not. This article also introduces a sys
tem of understanding explanation that emphasizes the role of contrastive pairings in the construction of specific explana
tions. This view of explanation allows for a better understanding of when, and when not, to engage in the testing of specific

Arqueologos de las orientaciones teoricas procesualy postprocesual, implicitamente emplean el mismo sistema epistemologico
para evaluar el merito de diferentes interpretaciones: inferencia a la mejor explicacion. Esto es bueno ya que inferencia a la

mejor explicacion es el metodo epistemologico mas efectivo del razonamiento arqueologico disponible. Fundamental a esta
logica es la suposicion de que la explicacion que incorpora la mayor evidencia es tambien la mas probable de ser verdad. Este
metodo de explicacion refleja mas correctamente la prdctica real del razonamiento arqueologico comparado con el metodo
hipotetico-deductivo o la hermeneutica. Este ensayo explora la logica de la inferencia a la mejor explicacion y proporciona
criterios claws para determinar que hace una explicacion mejor que otra. Las explicaciones que son empiricamente com
prensivas, generales, modestas, conservativas, simples, que son refutables y que hacen referenda a multiples perspectivas son
mejor que las explicaciones que no lo son. Este ensayo ademds introduce un sistema para el entendimiento de explicaciones
que acentua elpapel que juegan pares contrastantes en la construccion de explicaciones especificas. Esta perspectiva de expli
cacion permite un mejor entendimiento de cuando, y cuando no, es necesario probar explicaciones especificas.

This article begins with a simple observation. ology's recent disciplinary history, theoretical rev

Whatever theoretical perspectives archaeol olutions are said to have occurred: first in the 1960s
ogists have brought to their research, they with the new archaeology (later termed processual
have often created long-lasting, powerful explana archaeology) and again in the 1980s with post
tions concerning the lives of people in the past. I am processual archaeology. In both cases, proponents
not suggesting that all archaeological research has claimed that new approaches to archaeology that
been good?some has been terrible?but through signified a radical break with the past were being
out all the differing perspectives and approaches in

developed. If the rhetoric of the rival camps is taken

archaeology, a steady output of compelling, seem

ingly right, explanations of the past have emerged.

ogists were engaged in wholly different enterprises

seriously, processual and postprocessual archaeol

and should not have been able to have any pro

How has all this good research been possible?
This may seem an odd question. However, when ductive discourse.1 At first glance, the proces
viewed against the backdrop of archaeological the sual/postprocessual debates would seem to fit this
ory, it is an important one. At two points in archae

characterization well. However, today many

Lars Fogelin Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Albion College, 611 East Porter St., Albion, MI 49224

American Antiquity, 72(4), 2007, pp. 603-625
Copyright ?2007 by the Society for American Archaeology

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604 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

archaeologists, myself included, claim to work in

archaeology has to offer. This article is not a

the middle ground between these two archaeolog

detached discussion of the philosophy of science.

ical perspectives. Archaeologists of a more empiri

It is intended to be a practical guide for improving

archaeological research. For this reason, this arti

cist bent talk of doing "processual plus"

archaeology (Hegmon 2003). Those with more

cle concludes with several straightforward sug

interpretive leanings are actively engaging in field

gestions toward improving upon the implicit use

work and re-embracing many of the "scientific"

of inference to the best explanation in archaeology.

methodologies pioneered by the new archaeology.

In the meantime, both sides borrow data from one

Following Wylie (2002:25-41), I recognize that

the social theories and perspectives of archaeolo

another and continue to rely on the work of archae

gists have been widely divergent.2 The argument

ologists from the early twentieth century. How has

presented here is only that the underlying standards

all of this been possible? How do archaeologists

used to assess archaeological explanation are

balance two supposedly irreconcilable perspec

moted by these two perspectives are usable in the

largely the same throughout much of archaeology.

The larger social theories that inform these expla
nations are often at odds with one another in pro

other? If processual and postprocessual archaeol

found and important ways. These differences

ogy are truly as incompatible as their proponents

should not be minimized. Even if my suggestions

tives? How is it that the data and knowledge pro

once claimed, no synthesis should be possible. Yet concerning inference to the best explanation are
it is occurring. My explanation is straightforward. widely accepted, archaeologists will find no lack
Neither processual nor postprocessual archaeology of issues to debate.
are as different from each other as their practition

ers claim. They have each brought new concerns

Philosophy of Science in Archaeology
and questions to archaeological inquiry, but both
often rely implicitly on the same underlying style With the advent of the new archaeology in the
of reasoning?inference to the best explanation.
1960s, archaeologists began a process of explicitly
Making an inference to the best explanation is, addressing epistemological questions. It was
at its heart, a straightforward and common process. argued that archaeology should employ the scien
According to Lipton (1991:58), "Given our data tific method, initially understood as a deductive
and background beliefs, we infer what would, if nomological enterprise as described by Hempel
true, provide the best of the competing explanations

(covering law model: Hempel 1965, 1966).3

we can generate of those data." One additional point Archaeologists were advised to develop laws of

is critical. The ability of an explanation to explain

a wide variety of data makes it more likely to be
true. Clearly, this is a problematic statement in
terms of the official epistemologies of processual

culture, create testable hypotheses, and apply them

through deduction to the archaeological record

(Binford 1967, 1968a, 1968b; Binford and Bin
ford, eds. 1968; Fritz and Plog 1970; Hill 1970;

and postprocessual archaeology. I ask, for the Watson etal. 1971,1984).

moment, that readers reserve judgment on these

epistemological issues and consider how they actu

Following the standard definition of deduction

in philosophy, Hempel (1966:10) stated that "in a

ally engage in archaeological research. All systems deductively valid argument, the conclusion is
of reasoning have their own sets of epistemologi related to the premises in such a way that if the
cal problems. The question then is not which sys premises are true then the conclusion cannot fail to

tem of reasoning can or cannot provide some be true as well."4 At first glance this definition might
measure of objective truth, but rather, which one is

most useful in terms of archaeological research.

This article has three interlocking goals. First, I

seem to imply that any valid deduction must yield

true results. That is incorrect. Given the standard

define what inference to the best explanation is and

definition of deductive validity, it is possible for a

valid deductive argument to have a false conclu

show how it works. Second, I argue that inference

sion, for example:

to the best explanation has been "standard practice"

in archaeology for over a century. Its implicit use

partially accounts for much of the best work that

All hominids have wings.

Homo ergaster is a hominid.
Thus, Homo ergaster has wings.

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This is a valid deduction because if the premises
were true then the conclusion would have to be true

ior are any closer to being developed, and few

archaeologists are even trying (see also LaMotta

as well. Of course, both the first premise and the and Schiffer 2001; Schiffer 1988).
conclusion are false, but that does not affect the
With the recognition of the limitations of the

deductive validity of the argument. In fact, this is deductive-nomological approach, archaeologists

a pattern of reasoning commonly used in science and philosophers began searching for a philosophy
to refute proposed universal statements or laws. If of science more appropriate for archaeology. Mer
Homo ergaster is a hominid and specimens of ilee and Wesley Salmon advocated approaches that
Homo ergaster do not have wings, then we can could account for the statistical nature of archaeo
validly reason that not all hominids have wings.

logical reasoning (Salmon 1982; Salmon and

Salmon 1979). Others promoted the falsification

hypothetico-deductive method Hempel advocated strategy of Karl Popper, arguing that hypotheses

This simple point of logic lies at the heart of the

for testing scientific hypotheses.

For Hempel, those hypotheses that fail a valid

deductive test must be rejected or at least modified.

can never be confirmed, only rejected (Peebles

1992; Popper 1959, 1976). Others mined biology
and geology for scientific methods deemed more

Conversely, those hypotheses that survive multiple appropriate for historical sciences (Dunnell 1989,
tests are taken to be stronger (Hempel 1966:8). For

1992; Flannery 1986; Lyman and O'Brien 1998).

Hempel, this measure of strength is derived from Some strayed further from the hypothetico

inductive reasoning, not deductive reasoning. deductive fold, appropriating philosophical dis
Hempel is explicit on this point.
Even extensive testing with entirely favorable

results does not establish a hypothesis con

clusively, but provides only more or less strong

support for it. Hence, while scientific inquiry

is certainly not inductive in the narrow sense

... it may be said to be inductive in a wider

sense, inasmuch as it involves the acceptance
of hypotheses on the basis of data that afford

no deductively conclusive evidence for it, but

lend it only more or less strong "inductive sup

port," or confirmation [Hempel 1966:18;

cussions of realism (Gibbon 1989) or even rejecting

outright the need for scientific positivism in archae

ology at all (Hodder 1982,1983,1984; Shanks and

Tilley 1987a, 1987b). With the exception of the
anti-positivist outlook of postprocessual archaeol
ogy, few of the alternative systems appear to have

caught on. For the most part, archaeologists seem

to have gone about their research without a clearly

articulated epistemological foundation. While

some processual archaeologists make vague claims
to the hypothetico-deductive method, in practice it
seems that hypotheses are becoming rarer-and-rarer

in the archaeological literature. This point can be

most clearly seen in Hegmon's (2003:230) recent
While it is possible for a scientist to assess discussion of processual-plus archaeology, where
whether a deduction is valid, it is not logically pos the hypothetico-deductive method is discussed
emphasis in original].

sible to state with certainty that any of its premises mostly for its historical interest.
are irrefutably true. The latter would, as noted by
Given the quantity and diversity of philosophi
Hempel (1966:7), fall into the fallacy of affirming cal writings in archaeology, it is not possible to pro
the consequent. Thus, deduction by itself has no vide a detailed review of them here. Other reviews

mechanism to establish any form of independent are more than adequate for this purpose (Gibbon
or objective truth.
1989; Kelley andHanen 1988; O'Brien etal. 2005;
The deductive-nomological approach, as under Wylie 2002; see also Bawden 2003). However, a
stood by Hempel, required that a set of universal few archaeological discussions of epistemology
laws of human behavior be developed in archaeol

bear directly on the arguments presented here. In

ogy. By the mid-1970s, even some of Hempel's the background of the epistemological debates in
strongest advocates recognized that little progress archaeology, several archaeologists and philoso
was being made in the creation of these laws (Bin

phers have argued that little has actually changed?

ford 1977;Flannery 1973; Read and LeBlane 1978; that most archaeologists continue to employ the
Tuggle et al. 1972; Watson et al. 1984). Forty years same sorts of reasoning they always have. Peter
later, it does not appear that laws of human behav Kosso (1991; see also Arnold 2003) has argued
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606 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

that the middle-range theory of processual archae

ology and hermeneutics of postprocessual archae

ology are, in practice, pretty much the same.

Christine VanPool and Todd VanPool (1999,2001;
see also Arnold and Wilkens 2001; Hutson 2001;

If we take as a starting point the limitations of the

hypothetico-deductive method in archaeological

reasoning, it would seem that archaeological expla

Wylie 2002:200-210) have gone further, arguing nations must often be derived from either flights of
that postprocessual archaeology is just as scientific

as processual archaeology. One common problem

fancy or some form of inductive reasoning. As for

the former, it would not account for the observa

tion that began this article?that a great deal of

seemingly right, research has occurred in
gain from the recognition of these fundamental
This suggests that induction must be
similarities? How does it improve archaeological
great deal of good archaeological rea
research? The recognition that archaeological rea
is that none of the standard
soning across the discipline is similar should lead
systems of induction seem to fit many of the forms
to specific suggestions for improving research.
To date, inference to the best explanation has of explanation that archaeologists typically employ.
This section examines traditional types of induc
played only a small role in archaeological discus
tion to demonstrate (1) that they could not produce
sions of epistemology. The most explicit use of the
concept can be found in Marsha Hanen and Jane the explanations commonly constructed by prac

unites all of these articles. What do archaeologists

Kelley's "Inference to the Best Explanation in ticing archaeologists, and (2) that traditional forms
Archaeology" (1989; see also Kelley and Hanen of induction often rely implicitly on inference to

the best explanation.

1988). Here Hanen and Kelley employed the con
As defined by The Oxford Companion to Phi
cept of inference to the best explanation to argue
(Honderich, ed. 1995:405), "an inductive
that the underlying styles of reasoning of proces
inference can be characterized as one whose con
sual and earlier forms of archaeology were funda
clusion, while not following deductively from its
mentally similar. They contrast Kelley's processual
research at Cihuatan, El Salvador (Hanen and Kel premises, is in some way supported by them or ren
dered plausible in light of them." In contrast to a

ley 1989) with Emil Haury's (1958) research at

Point of Pines in the American Southwest. They

valid deduction, the conclusion of an inductive

argument can be false even if the premises are true.5

concluded that both archaeologists evaluated mul

tiple explanations for a given phenomena, in the Induction can occur from specific cases to general
end accepting the 'best' explanation as most likely principles and, despite a common misunderstand
ing, from general principles to specific cases.6 The
to be true. The best explanation, in their view, was
most important element of inductive arguments is
determined by eliminating explanations that were

"less well supported" by the material evidence that they are ampliative.7 That is, their conclusions
contain more information than is contained within
(Hanen and Kelley 1989:16). In terms of their

analysis of specific cases, I am in full agreement

with Hanen and Kelley. Further, I will argue that

postprocessual archaeologists also employ infer

ence to the best explanation in a similar fashion.

their premises. This is a very valuable trait. To use

a classic example, on observing many black ravens,

I might infer that all ravens are black. Here I have
amplified my limited number of observations of
black ravens to a general statement about raveness

My concern with Hanen and Kelley's discussion is

(they are all black).
what it does not address. It does not provide a clear
Central to all forms of induction lies a critical
definition of inference to the best explanation, nor

does it present clear guidelines for how to evaluate

which explanation is best. Further, even if one

assumption, first identified by David Hume

(1956[1777])?regularities that have occurred in
the past will continue to occur in the future. If the

explanation is shown to be best, there is no guar

sun has risen every day, it will continue to do so
antee that the explanation is any good. It might
tomorrow. Inductions, then, are always underde
simply be the best of a bad lot. Any application of
termined by empirical evidence. As in the exam
inference to the best explanation in archaeology
ple above, they are empirical generalizations from
requires methods to reject those "best" explanations

that are not "good" explanations.

a limited sample of past experiences. Further, there

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always remains the chance that the sun will not con

gists must employ more flexible, practical criteria

tinue to rise in the future (for example, when it

based upon their experience in constructing and

explodes 5 billion years from now). All inductive evaluating arguments to make these determina
arguments, no matter how robust, are always sub

tions. More simply phrased, archaeologists need to

ject to rejection with the discovery of new infor

examine which violations of absolute epistemo

mation. This problem with induction is often

logical ideals lead to explanations that seem to work

referred to as Hume's skepticism concerning induc over the long term. A successful example of this
tion. The conclusions of an inductive argument are can be seen in the hypothetico-deductive approach

always under threat of the discovery of new evi when Hempel argued that hypotheses that survived
dence that could discredit them.
multiple attempts at falsification could serve as
Humean skepticism is not the only form of skep

ticism that archaeologists must face. Cartesian

skepticism serves as the epistemological founda
tion of many of the postmodern ideas that under

widely accepted laws.

Philosophers have identified several different
types of induction. These include: analogical infer
ence, statistical induction, and inference to the best

write postprocessual archaeology. This form of explanation. Perhaps the most ink has been spilled
skepticism is not based on the limits of inductive in archaeology over analogical reasoning (Ascher
reasoning, but rather the unreliability of sensory 1961;Binford 1967; Gould and Watson 1982). This
information. Cartesian skeptics claim that the world

form of reasoning is covered well, in my opinion,

outside our own mind can never be known objec

tively because our sensory perception is epistemo

by Alison Wylie (2002:136-153). Analogical rea

logically unreliable. Building on this argument,

Kant (1998[1781]) proposed that people cannot

soning follows a simple structure: if A is composed

of a set of traits (Al, A2, A3...), and B shares those

traits (Bl, B2, B3...), plus others (B4 and B5), it

simply perceive an objective world; instead, they follows that A might also have those traits (A4 and
actively construct it. In this way, Kant serves as the A5). Wylie notes the general philosophical under
bridge between Cartesian skepticism and the con standing that good analogical arguments also note
structivist theories that inform postprocessual
the points of dissimilarity. Further, Wylie
archaeology. Specifically, Cartesian skepticism is (2002:147-148) argues that strong "analogical
the foundation for claims that knowledge is con comparisons generally incorporate considerations
ditioned by the social, political, and historical con of relevance that bring into play knowledge about
text of the observer. In the end?through an entirely underlying 'principles of connection' that structure
different route?Cartesian skeptics reach the same the association of properties in the source and the
skeptical doubts concerning objective claims about

subject." I will argue that strong analogical argu

external phenomena, more-or-less, as Humean ments also employ inference to the best explana
skeptics do. It is important to note that these skep

tion. The assumption of analogical reasoning is that

tical doubts do not apply only to archaeological

some principle of connection exists between the
claims about the past, but to any claim about any traits being compared. In a strong use of analogi
thing outside the mind of an individual.
cal reasoning, this relationship is explained. In a
I cannot resolve either of these skeptical prob weak analogical argument, the relationships are
lems. I doubt anyone can. There is simply no way left unexplained (though assumed to exist). Ana
to rule out the possibility that current regularities
logical reasoning, on its own, cannot create prin
might change in the future or that our senses pro ciples of connection that link the traits being
vide unreliable information about the world. The studied. As will be discussed below, this is the job
evaluation of different forms of reasoning, there of inference to the best explanation. Thus, strong

fore, cannot be based on the ability of a system of analogical arguments employ inference to the best
reasoning to objectively identify irrefutable truths.

explanation to clarify the relationships between the

Any claim or explanation about the world?past or

traits selected for comparison.

present?requires a violation of absolute logical or
Statistical induction is what most people think
epistemological ideals. The question is which stan of when they consider inductive reasoning.8 The
dards to violate, and how? Rather than relying upon discussion of ravens above is a classic example of
an epistemological guarantee of truth, archaeolo statistical induction. On seeing a sample of the total

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608 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

population of ravens, an empirical claim concern

two areas, a male/female dichotomy was also

ing the rest of them is proposed (they are all black).

found. Finally, Richards related the organization of

The most obvious standard employed to judge the

houses in the Orkneys to Neolithic cosmological

quality of a statistical induction is the quantity of principles connected to seasonal changes.

prior observations. A statistical induction based on

a few raven sightings would be weaker than one

based on thousands of raven sightings. Statistical

Where did all that come from? It certainly does

not appear to be a statistical induction of the form
noted above, nor do I believe Richards intended it

inductions are also stronger, in practice, with be. First, Richards's sample is small. The richness
increased temporal and geographic diversity in the of his explanations cannot be explained by his sam

observations. Archaeologists regularly employ ple size. Second, the explanation seems different
from the empirical generalizations that typically
these criteria when they examine inductive argu
ments. But archaeologists often run into problems result from statistical induction. Rather than mak
at this point. When archaeologists evaluate infer ing a general statement about houses, he provides
ences concerning the Pyramids of Giza, how many an interpretation that brings distinct elements of
other massive, awe-inspiring pyramid complexes these particular houses within an overarching
along the Nile can they observe? Sadly, this is not understanding. Richards's explanation may be
the only problem with statistical induction in terms wrong. New information might overturn his con

of archaeological research.
Let's suppose that I am an archaeologist study

clusion. For example, archaeologists might learn

that traditional gender roles were reversed or absent

ing domestic architecture.91 have excavated many in the Orkneys during the Neolithic. This only goes
domestic structures and read the reports of other to show that whatever Richards is doing, it must be
excavations. It is now time to infer something. I first
a form of induction. But just as clearly, it is not sta
decide to make a highly universal empirical tistical induction.

generalization?all domestic structures have some

sort of entrance. On the face of it, this does not

Some might suggest, incorrectly I argue, that the

richness of Richards's explanation was due to an

appear particularly illuminating. It brings to mind underlying, complex set of statistical inductions. By

Flannery's (1973:51) oft-cited critique of "Mickey employing many statistical inductions (concerning
Mouse laws." By sacrificing universality, I might issues of gender, cooking patterns, concepts of
be able to state something more interesting?most lighting, cosmology, etc.) their roles in Richards's
domestic structures contain a hearth. This conclu explanation were disguised. This, however, brings
sion, while still not earth-shaking, at least allows up a final difficulty with statistical induction. As
for some ideas of where and how food preparation the number of premises of a statistical induction

occurred. Finally, let's compare these examples increase, the reliability of its conclusions decrease.
with the results of a real archaeological study of This can be viewed as the problem of multiplying
domestic architecture, in this case Colin Richards's error. All of the premises of a statistical induction
(1990) examination of Neolithic semi-subterranean can be discredited with new information. Some, or
houses in the Orkneys.
In Richards's (1990) study, he examined the lay

all, may also be wrong. If it later turns out that one

of the premises is wrong, or at least not wholly right,

faith in the conclusion is reduced. The more

houses in relation to one another. Where is the premises employed, the greater the chance that this
hearth in relation to the door, in relations to the beds, might occur. Despite archaeologists' widely held
in relation to cooking areas, etc.? Through these conviction that multiple lines of evidence improve
examinations Richards identified several nested
an argument, in terms of statistical induction they
out and organization of different features within the

oppositions in the use of space. First, he identified do not. This does not mean that multiple lines of
a general right/left division of space within the evidence do not have value. They do. Rather, sta
houses in relation to the door. Since the doors of tistical induction does not provide a venue in which
the houses enter toward the right side of the house

the value of multiple lines of evidence can be effec

and provide greater illumination to that side,

tively accounted for.

right/left can also be read as interior/exterior and

To sum up, statistical induction has several

light/dark. By identifying gendered activities in the inherent problems. First, it is always subject to

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rejection based upon new evidence. Inference to the

hypothesis is true." Thus, it is assumed within infer

best explanation does nothing to solve this prob

ence to the best explanation that the best inference

is also most likely to be true.10 The key difference

does. Statistical inductions are also highly depen between Harman's and Peirce's formulations is the
dent upon the quantity and diversity of previous recognition that inference to the best explanation
observations. For this reason, it does not address is not only limited to the initial stages of scientific
lem; but if Hume is right, no system of reasoning

particularities in the past well at all. Finally, statis

reasoning. In practice, inferences to the best expla

account for the value of multiple lines of evidence.

as true without further testing or investigation what

It is in regard to these latter problems that infer

soever. At times, some hypotheses are stronger at

ence to the best explanation is an advance over sta

inception than those that have been subjected to

tical induction does not have a mechanism to nation can be sufficiently robust as to be accepted

tistical induction. Inference to the best explanation numerous rounds of rigorous testing.

places epistemological value on multiple lines of

At first glance, inference to the best explanation

evidence and can accommodate explanations of may seem absurdly circular. It actually isn't. Prov
unique phenomena.
ing that one explanation is "more true" than another

Inference to the Best Explanation

would require prior knowledge of the "true" expla

nation. Even if it was possible, we would have to

wonder why anyone would be evaluating the rela

Elements of inference to the best explanation can tive truth of explanations for a particular set of evi
be found in the writings of Peirce (1931) and other dence if he or she already had the perfect
pragmatic philosophers (Dewey 1929; Hanson explanation in hand. Still, there must be criteria to
1958; Mill 1904). For these philosophers, inference judge which explanations are best for inference to
to the best explanation (what Peirce called abduc the best explanation to work. Rather then judging
tion or retroduction) was thought to characterize an explanation based upon its likeliness, an infer
the creative process that scientists used to gener ence to the best explanation should be evaluated in
ate hypotheses. Peirce correctly noted that prac terms of how compelling it is (Lipton 1991: chap

ticing scientists did not simply observe

ter 7).11 Compelling explanations have traits that

commonalities and make empirical generalizations.

people have found to characterize successful expla

Rather, scientists sought to explain surprising nations in a wide variety of contexts. Many of these
observations by creating explanations that would traits are already familiar to archaeologists. For
account for them. More formally, if a proposed example, accounting for a greater quantity and
explanation made a surprising phenomenon explic diversity of empirical evidence will typically make
able, there was sufficient reason to think it might an argument more compelling. Similarly, all things
be true. Peirce saw inference to the best explana being equal, a simpler explanation is usually viewed
tion as a way to develop strong hypotheses for sub as being more compelling than a complex explana
sequent investigation through standard forms of tion. I examine, in detail, toward the end of this arti
scientific reasoning. In Peirce's formulation, then,

cle, several of the traits that philosophers have

inference to the best explanation was viewed as a

model for the initial creative process of scientific

identified as characterizing compelling explanations.

almost constantly with little thought about the sys

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gil Harman developed

the understanding of inference to the best expla
nation that underlies this discussion (Harman 1965,

tem of reasoning they are engaging. A mechanic

employs it to diagnose the problem with a car. A
detective uses it to decide who committed a crime.

1968a, 1968b, 1973; see also Brody 1970; Hanson

1958; Lipton 1991; Thagard 1978). As presented
by Harman (1965:89), when conducting inference

The central element of inference to the best expla

to the best explanation, "one infers, from the

best explanation is, perhaps, most clearly demon

strated in detective stories. The fictional detective

premise that a given hypothesis would provide a

People employ inference to the best explanation

nation is that it searches for that explanation that

fits the diverse evidence available. Inference to the

'better' explanation for the evidence than would any

links the diverse, if not bizarre, evidence into a sin

other hypothesis, to the conclusion that the given

gle explanation that clearly indicates that only one

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610 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

of a group of people is the culprit. While more
inference to the best explanation, no analysis of
complex than most inferences to the best explana Macbeth could be considered scientific by any con
tion, detective novels serve to illustrate a form of ventional definition.
reasoning that pervades our everyday lives.

As argued by Harman (1965) and Lipton (1991),

Despite what some scientists and even a few

humanists say, well-reasoned arguments exist

inference to the best explanation effectively throughout the humanities. When historians study
addresses some of the limitations of statistical the past, they do not simply make it up; they make
induction. First, and perhaps most important for

arguments and employ reasoning to generate expla

archaeology, it allows for the development of expla

nations about the past or present. Other historians

nations for unique or infrequent archaeological

phenomena. It does this by placing epistemologi

evaluate their arguments, and accept, reject, or mod

cal value on multiple lines of evidence. While

exist in every discipline, but clearly there are also

ify them accordingly. Bad reasoning and research

strengthened by application in multiple cases, infer

standards for acceptance and rejection. As I will

ence to the best explanation also focuses on the abil

argue below, inference to the best explanation is one

ity of an explanation to account for the diversity of of these standards. While inference to the best

evidence in specific cases. That explanation which explanation is used in the sciences, it is not limited
accounts for the greatest diversity of evidence is to the sciences. Thus, the use of inference to the
assumed most likely to be true, even where that case

best explanation is unrelated to questions con

is unique.

cerning the proper role of scientific reasoning in

The second benefit of inference to the best expla

nation is that it allows for the construction and eval


uation of explanations, not just the identification of

inference to the best explanation in archaeological

Below I provide several examples of the use of

empirical generalizations or regularities. An infer

research. These examples serve two functions.

ence to the best explanation details the relationships

First, the examples further illustrate how inference

between divergent evidentiary elements. In a sense,

it makes elements thought to be independent lines

to the best explanation works. Second, they also

suggest its ubiquity in archaeological reasoning.

of evidence dependent upon one another. Using

Wylie's terms concerning analogical arguments,
inference to the best explanation details the "prin

Explanation in Archaeological Reasoning

ciples of connection" between the available evi

dence (Wylie 2002:147-148). In this sense,

inference to the best explanation provides answers

to "why" and "how" questions rather than simply

noting empirical regularities.
A fundamental confusion lies at the heart of
many discussions of the philosophy of science. Sci
ence does not have a monopoly on reasoning. For

The Ubiquity of Inference to the Best

A strong demonstration of the pervasiveness of

inference to the best explanation in archaeological
reasoning would require examining a large sample
of archaeological research and determining the rel
ative frequency of its application?in essence the
use of statistical induction. There is not sufficient
time or space to do this here. Instead, I examine

example, in examining Shakespeare's Macbeth, I

might ask if Macbeth is a good, but weak, charac
ter tempted toward regicide by Lady Macbeth, or
an evil, but cowardly, character given backbone by

four specific archaeological studies and discuss the

manner in which inference to the best explanation

Lady Macbeth? To address this question I could

tions of pueblo aggregation, Lewis Binford's (1967)

employ several lines of evidence: I could examine

study of smudge pits, Ian Hodder's (1991) discus

sions of hermeneutics, and Michelle Hegmon and

specific scenes within Macbeth, I could study

Shakespeare's other plays and sonnets to see his
general approach toward this sort of issue, or I

could even consider general beliefs concerning

good and evil, husbands and wives, and regicide

is embedded within their respective arguments.

These cases are Alfred Kidder's (1924) explana

Wenda Trevathan's (1996) analysis of Mimbres

birth scenes.

Alfred Kidder

during Elizabethan England. While potentially

In Southwestern Archaeology (1924), Alfred Kid

employing well-reasoned argumentation, including

der proposed that the shift from small, independent

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unit pueblos of the Pueblo I period to the large cen

uct of epistemological issues, but rather the limited

tralized pueblos of the Pueblo period in the San Juan archaeological evidence at his disposal.

Basin was the result of "hostile pressure" from a

"nomadic enemy" (Kidder 1924:126-127). Kidder

Lewis Binford

argued that the need for defense against these hos As presented by Lewis Binford (1967), "Smudge
tile nomads forced the abandonment of peripheral Pits and Hide Smoking: The use of Analogy in
settlements and the aggregation of pueblo people Archaeological Reasoning" was intended to illus
trate how analogy could be effectively employed
into larger house blocks. Kidder contrasted his

explanation for pueblo aggregation with another: within a deductive-nomological approach to

that aggregation was the result of the progressive archaeological reasoning. Binford used an analy
desiccation of the southwestern environment, forc sis of a particular type of archaeological feature

ing pueblo people into more restricted areas common in the Eastern United States, smudge pits
for hide smoking, to illustrate his argument.

(Hewett et al. 1913; Huntington 1914). In evaluat

ing the two potential explanations, Kidder stated:
To begin with, many of the districts which were

shortly abandoned are still among the most

favorable as to water supply in the entire South

west; secondly, many peripheral ruins (as in

western Utah and eastern New Mexico) were
seemingly deserted at an early time; lastly, the

more recent villages are larger, stronger, and

occupy more easily defensible sites, than the
older ones [Kidder 1924:126].

Smudge pits are small holes containing burnt mate

rial (corncobs, twigs, and other vegetable mater

ial), with the upper portion of the pit often covered

loosely with soil (Binford 1967:3-4). I argue that

rather than exemplifying the deductive

nomological approach, Binford's analysis of
smudge pits implicitly employs inference to the
best explanation in much the same way as Kidder


Based upon the close correspondence between

the ethnographically described smudge pits and the

In Kidder's view, then, his explanation archaeological features, Binford (1967:8) "postu
accounted for the observed chronological patterns

lated that the archaeologically-known features were

of site abandonment in the peripheries, the aggre

in fact facilities employed in the task of smoking

gation of pueblo people in the core of the San Juan hides by the former occupants of the archaeologi
Basin, and the architectural form of the resulting cal sites on which they were found." The key term

larger pueblos. The desiccation explanation, in con here was "postulated." Following the deductive
trast, failed to account for the observed patterns of nomological approach of Hempel, "the final judg

water availability, the known chronology of pueblo ment of the archaeological reconstruction... must
abandonment, or the form and location of subse rest with testing through subsidiary hypotheses

drawn deductively" (Binford 1967:10). What is

the influence of the nomadic enemy; for this odd, however, is that Binford never tested his pos

quent aggregated pueblos. "I stress here, as before,

appears to me best to explain the observed facts of tulate, nor were his subsidiary hypotheses drawn
Pueblo history" (Kidder 1924:127). Kidder, implic from valid deductions.
itly following the principles of inference to the best

explanation, inferred that the explanation that

Binford proposed, but never tested, three

hypotheses based upon further readings of the

accounted for the greatest diversity of evidence was ethnographic literature. One of these hypotheses
more likely to be true. Kidder (1924:128) also rec was that "smudge pits should occur in 'base camps'
ognized that the "question is still an open one,"
occupied during the period of the year when hunt
showing that whatever form of reasoning he ing activity was at a minimum" (Binford 1967:9).
This is not a valid deduction. As discussed earlier,
employed, it must have been inductive. Despite
later criticisms of cultural-historical archaeology in a valid deduction the conclusion must necessar

(e.g., Binford 1962, 1968a; Taylor 1948), Kidder

ily follow from its premises. In a valid deduction, a

was not simply engaged in description, and the sys

single piece of contradictory evidence falsifies the

tem of reasoning he employed was, and still is,

among the best available to practicing archaeolo

hypothesis. The failure to find smudge pits at a sin

gists. The errors of his explanation are not the prod

hypothesis. Yet, as Binford himself noted (1967:9),

gle base camp would be sufficient to negate the

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612 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

the ethnographic literature indicates that hide smok

claims to the contrary, the value of his explanation

ing was performed by specialists. The absence of came from the empirical breadth that his explana
smudge pits, therefore, might only show that no tion subsumed. His hypothesis explained the fea
hide smoking was performed at a particular base tures better than any others he could think of. This,
camp because the group living there did not include by itself, was sufficient reason to accept the expla
a hide smoking specialist at the time that the base nation as likely to be true. Despite Binford's
camp was occupied. Thus, if we accept Binford's rhetoric, his style of reasoning was essentially the
identification of these features as smudge pits for same as Alfred Kidder's and, as we shall see, Ian

hide smoking, it cannot be due to his use of the

hypothetico-deductive approach advocated by

Hempel. His hypotheses were not validly deduced
and he never tested them in any case. Rather, Bin


Ian Hodder
In "Interpretive Archaeology and its Role," Ian

ford seemed satisfied with his results, without test

Hodder (1991) proposed an alternative system of

ing of any sort, and concluded the article.
reasoning for archaeological research; one based
Why, then, is Binford's identification of the fea in the humanist and relativist perspective of post

tures as smudge pits so compelling? Embedded processual archaeology. This system was
within the article are clues to Binford's actual sys

hermeneutics (an expanded discussion of

tem of reasoning. At the start of the article Binford hermeneutics can be found in Hodder 1999; see also

discussed several different explanations for the

smudge pits. He noted that some archaeologists

Collingwood 1946; Ormiston and Schrift, eds.

1990; Shanks and Hodder 1995; Shanks and Tilley

(e.g., Newell and Krieger 1949:248-249) consid 1987a, 1987b; Thompson 1981). At the heart of the
ered them post molds "presumably because of their hermeneutic process is the identification of differ
small size" (Binford 1967:5-6). Other archaeolo ent contexts and an attempt to bring understand
gists (e.g., Cole et al. 1951:156) argued that these

ings of these different contexts into a broader

features were caches, "in spite of the fact that none coherent explanation. One context is that of the

of the corncobs had kernels attached" (Binford archaeologist?the preconceptions, theories, and
1967:5). Finally, Binford noted his own earlier social values that archaeologists bring to their
interpretation that the smoke from the smudge pits

at one site "might have been employed in the con

trol of mosquitoes" (Binford 1967:4). However,
Binford considered his own explanation "specula
tion" based upon the "experience of the excavators"

research. Another is the context of the people who

created the archaeological materials being investi
gated. Hodder argued that this latter context is dif
ferent from our own as it follows its own rules and

logic (see Hodder 1999:51-52). The hermeneutic

(Binford 1967:4). Though Binford's analysis of the process consists of circling between these two con
competing explanations was limited, in each case texts, making each part fit into a coherent whole?

he found the explanation weak (mosquito control

altering our views of our own context and the

archaeological context until the whole makes

and post molds) or contradicted by the existing evi

dence (caches). In contrast, Binford identified four coherent sense.
This movement back-and-forth between "our
specific elements in the morphology of the features
(size, contents, treatment of contents, and final con

context" and "their context" is not the only back

dition of the feature) that corresponded with the

and-forth reasoning addressed by hermeneutics

(Hodder 1991:8). There are many other potential

ethnographic accounts of hide smoking (Binford

1967:8). Thus, that explanation that accounted for oppositions that include: the past and the present,
the most, and the most diverse, evidence was con specific instances and larger cultural patterns, our
sidered best. This, in turn, was considered prima culture and their culture, and others (see Hodder
facia evidence for its truth.

1999:30-65; Shanks and Tilley 1987a). Metaphor

ically, hermeneutic research can be viewed as a cir

Through the use of analogy, Binford con
structed an explanation for the function of a par cle or, perhaps, a spiral (Hodder 1999), with each
ticular archaeological feature. In Wylie's terms, he movement back-and-forth altering the original
provided a principle of connection that linked the propositions that began each loop.

disparate elements of his analogy. Despite his

Among the strengths of the hermeneutic

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approach is its emphasis of the continuing, dynamic

creation of explanations. In this sense, hermeneu

tics is a somewhat better model for the creative

While phrased in terms of the "part-whole rela

tionships" and "meaning," this example appears

fundamentally similar to the systems of reasoning

process of explanation building than earlier, more discussed above. Hodder (1) encountered some

"scientific," epistemologies. These earlier models

thing that did not make sense from his pre-existing

also allowed for the continuing refinement of expla

nations, but did not emphasize it with the same

perspective (following Peirce's understanding of

inference to the best explanation), (2) proposed an

zeal. Another strength of hermeneutics is its recog

explanation, (3) compared it with the data, (4) found

nition of the contingent nature of knowledge. While

the explanation unable to account for the full diver

Hodder does not resolve Cartesian skepticism?nor sity of evidence, (5) developed a new explanation,
does he try?in a practical sense hermeneutics does and (6) accepted it as best due to its ability to
seem to more clearly identify and accommodate account for a broader range of empirical phenom
issues of bias. What hermeneutic circles do not do,

ena. Further, this is not simply my interpretation of

however, is provide clear standards for what con

this example. In the paragraph immediately fol

lowing this example Hodder states, "[w]e measure

stitutes good explanations or standards for the rejec

tion of weaker ones. Rather, hermeneutics

implicitly relies upon inference to the best expla

our success in this enmeshing of theory and data

(our context and their context) in terms of how

nation to evaluate explanations, in much the same much of the data is accounted for by our hypothe
way that Kidder and Binford did.
ses" (Hodder 1991:8). As with all the previous
The reliance of hermeneutics on inference to the examples, the ability of an explanation to account
best explanation is clearly illustrated within an
for greater empirical breadth is taken as prima facia
example of the hermeneutic process provided by evidence for its truth.

Hodder (1991:7).

I recently came across a good example of the

everyday working of hermeneutic principles
while listening to the radio in the United States.

I heard a phrase, or thought I did, "it was nec

essary to indoor suffering." ... I did not see

why it should be necessary to suffer indoors,
but then I know that North Americans ... are

willing to try anything. So initially I under

stood the term as it sounded to me and assumed

that the same word had the same meaning. I

then corroborated and adjusted this meaning
by placing it in the peculiar and particular rules

of North American culture.

Gradually, however, this process of internal

evaluation made less and less sense as I con

Hodder's primary goal in writing the article

quoted above was to argue that postprocessual
hermeneutics required some degree of "guarded

objectivity" (Hodder 1991:8). The value of

"guarded objectivity" is that "material culture as

excavated by the archaeologist is different from

our assumptions because it is organized partly at
least according to other cultural rules" (Hodder
1991:12). Thus, at a basic level, Hodder rejects the
relativism of earlier postprocessual archaeologists
(including his own work). It is important not to
overplay this. Hodder continues to argue for the
importance of self-reflexive research and for the
recognition that, to some degree, archaeologists'
pre-existing beliefs will inform their interpretations
of the past. The material remains, however, are not

amenable to just any interpretation. Some inter

tinued to listen to the radio program.... Sen

pretations will be shown wrong through a failure

tences such as "to indoor suffering I took a pain

to account for the diversity of evidence that is struc

killer" made little sense. I could only make

sense of these examples when I hit upon the
idea of another component of my understand

ing of the North American context: North

Americans often pronounce words "wrongly."
... I searched and found "endure." Now every
thing made coherent sense and the whole had
been reestablished. The hermeneutic circle had

been closed [Hodder 1991:7].

tured by people in the past. For Hodder, this would

allow for feminist and ethnic minority voices to

challenge traditional archaeology while allowing
for the rejection of bogus claims from the archae
ological fringe (Hodder 1991:9).
I see no reason to quarrel with Hodder's claim

to an independent objective world beyond the

archaeologist. Like Hodder, I would not argue that
this world can be objectively shown to exist, but it

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614 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4, 2007

seems to be a useful starting point for further Michelle Hegmon and Wenda R. Trevathan
research. What's more, I doubt any processual To conclude this review of archaeological uses of

archaeologist would have a quarrel either. A belief

in an objective world, no matter how guarded, is

fairly common. I also accept that archaeologists'

pre-existing beliefs will influence their interpreta
tions. The important point for this discussion is the
reason why Hodder feels compelled to reassert the

inference to the best explanation, I will examine a

recent article that falls into the processual-plus
approach of American archaeological research. As
the term "processual-plus" was coined by Michelle

Hegmon (2003)?and she self-identifies as a

practitioner?I will focus on an article she cowrote

with Wenda R. Trevathan (Hegmon and Trevathan
the inherent relativism of earlier postprocessual 1996). In this short article, Hegmon and Trevathan
approaches to the past.
attempted to identify the gender of the people who

need for guarded objectivity. He is trying to reduce

The organized material remains have an inde

pendence that can confront our taken for grant

eds. The notion that the data are partly

objective is an old one in archaeology, and it

was the basis for processual and positivist

archaeology. But the trouble with positivist
and processual archaeologists was that they
did not incorporate hermeneutic and critical
insights [Hodder 1991:12].

painted Mimbres black-on-white pottery in the

American Southwest during the Classic Mimbres

period (A.D. 1000-1150). Through ethnographic

analogy with later pueblo societies, some archae
ologists argued that women were more likely to

have been potters and pot-decorators (Moulard

1984; Shafer 1985), while other archaeologists sug

gested that men may have been the primary pot

ters, or at least pot-decorators (Brody 1977; Jett and

Moyle 1986). Others argued that different stages

By Hodder's own words, then, the differences of pottery production were performed by men and
between postprocessual and processual archaeolo women (Mills 1995; Wright 1991).
gies are the use of hermeneutics and critical the
ory. But if hermeneutics relies heavily upon the

same epistemological system of evaluating expla

nations, the only significant differences between

Within this context of competing explanations

for ceramic production, Hegmon and Trevathan
examined the depictions of birth on three Mimbres
pots. In each they found that the depiction of birth

processual and postprocessual archaeologies are was radically different from actual birthing prac
the greater dynamism of hermeneutics and the use
of critical theory. These differences are far less pro

nounced with processual-plus archaeology.

tices. First, the babies were facing the same direc

tion as the mothers, rather than backwards as is

typical. Second, the babies were depicted being

In the end, it is not Hodder's acceptance of born hands-first rather than headfirst.

"guarded objectivity" or use of hermeneutic spi

rals that is doing the work of rejecting inferior inter

pretations, though they are important. Rather, it is

the stated belief that the explanation that accounts
for the greatest breadth of material evidence is also

the one that is most likely to be true. It is not the

external existence of an objective world or

hermeneutics that allows for evaluation of expla
nations, only a straightforward standard of rea
soning common throughout archaeology for at least
a century. It is inference to the best explanation.

Our analysis of a Mimbres birth scene suggests

to us that it was unusual, perhaps impossible,

and therefore probably painted by someone
not familiar with the details of birthing. Thus,

we conclude that the scene probably was

painted by a man and that men may have been

the primary painters of Mimbres figurative

designs [Hegmon and Trevathan 1996:752].

Since no woman would depict birth as inaccu

rately as is found on Mimbres vessels, Hegmon and

In later works, Hodder greatly expanded his dis Trevathan argued, it was more likely that men were
cussion of the criteria used to judge explanations pot-decorators. This explanation was further sup
(see Hodder 1999:30-65). In some ways Hodder's ported through ethnographic accounts from the

criteria mirror those that I propose at the end of this

southwest stating that men rarely witnessed births.

article. Given this, I will address this point when I As in the previous example, Hegmon and Trevathan
introduce my own criteria for evaluating explana accept their explanation as true based solely upon
tions toward the end of this article.
its ability to explain the depictions of childbirth on

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Mimbres pottery better than any other explanations

they could think of. Hegmon and Trevathan may

be wrong, but again that only underscores the

inductive nature of their arguments.

In all of the examples discussed above, hypothe
ses or explanations were accepted or rejected based
on the breadth and diversity of evidence that they
accounted for. None of them could be called deduc

tions or statistical inductions. As for the use of

analogy by Binford, his acceptance of the expla
nation that smudge pits were used in smoking hides

still rested on inference to the best explanation.

These examples illustrate the ubiquity of infer

ence to best explanation in archaeological reason
ing for at least a century. What remains, however,

is a discussion of how the recognition that infer

ence to the best explanation is typical of archaeo

logical reasoning can improve archaeological

research. If archaeologists are already effectively
using inference to the best explanation, why worry

about it? To answer this question I must first

address another?what does an explanation

explain and how does it explain it? This turns out
to be a very difficult question, with several differ

ent approaches presented in the philosophical lit

erature. Yet, if we are to determine what the best
explanation is of any archaeological phenomenon,

we must have a clear understanding of what an

explanation is in the first place.

There are many different ways that philosophers
have come to understand explanation. Far more,
in fact, than can possibly be discussed here.12 All

seem to have value in certain cases. Even the

deductive-nomological system of Hempel (1965,

1966) seems to work in the natural sciences and,
to some extent, in those areas of archaeology most
closely linked with the natural sciences. In archae

ology, explanation has been typically viewed in

terms of causation. An alternative way to under

stand explanation is in terms of contrasting

statements?an explanation explains why some
thing occurred in terms of why another did not. As

will be discussed below, I see contrastive expla

nation as a more productive avenue for archaeo
logical reasoning.

Causal explanations
One way of understanding explanation is to con
ceive of it in terms of cause. An explanation of a
phenomenon identifies the cause of that phenom
enon. Thus, if an archaeologist wants to explain
why there is a concentration of lithic debitage in
one portion of a site, he or she might argue that it
was created by a lithic workshop. This, of course,
does not explain why there was a lithic workshop
in the first place. This is the problem of infinite
regress. Every causal explanation seems to demand
a further explanation ad infinitum. Each of these

earlier causes is a part of the causal history of a

particular phenomenon. Further, at some point the
why questions cannot be answered and the causal

history ends with "I don't know." More problem

atically, it also becomes reasonable to argue that
a cause of a high concentration of lithic debitage
in one portion of an archaeological site is that some
fish crawled onto land 350 million years ago. This

is not what we are looking for in an archaeologi

cal explanation. Several different approaches have

been used to address the problem of infinite

The most straightforward approach to the prob
lem of infinite regress is to focus solely on proxi
mate causes?the first, or first few, causes in the
causal history of a phenomenon. The problem with
this approach is that the next few steps of the causal

history might be very interesting, perhaps more

interesting than the proximate causes. Returning to
the lithic concentration example, stating that there

is a lithic workshop has several implications on the

forms of craft production practiced by the people

who lived in the site. It could suggest that one fam
ily produced all of the stone tools for people living
at that particular site. Alternatively, it could sug
gest that cooperative labor was employed by the

village within a communal workshop. Moving

beyond proximate cause in this case could lead to
potentially interesting explanations. In practice it
seems that archaeologists are not looking for prox
imate causes but rather interesting and explanatory

causes that are "proximatish."

Hempel (1965, 1966) had a different view of

what makes a good scientific explanation. Rather
than identifying proximate causes, Hempel sought
to relate the particulars of a phenomena to an exist

ing set of universal or probabilistic laws (see

Hempel 1966:chapter5).

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616 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4, 2007

[L]aws play an essential role in deductive
nomological explanations. They provide the
link by reason of which particular circum

for a method to determine which explanations are

good, here Flannery relies on Mayr, who in turn

stances can serve to explain the occurrence of

According to Mayr (1982:26 as cited by Flannery

1986:513), biologists accept as true "that which is

a given event. . . . The laws required for

deductive-nomological explanations share a
basic characteristic: they are, as we shall say,

statements of universal form [Hempel

For example, an explanation for why a particu
lar object falls, and why it falls at a specific rate,

would make reference to the laws of gravity

(Hempel 1966:54). The laws of gravity, then, serve
to explain the particulars of falling bodies.

The deductive-nomological approach to expla

nation has been productive and useful in many nat

ural sciences and those areas of archaeology most

closely linked to them. However, as discussed ear
lier, universal laws of human behavior have not

been forthcoming in archaeology. In the absence

of widely accepted universal laws to reference, the
deductive-nomological approach fails to provide a
suitable foundation for many, if not most, archae

ological explanations.
Channeling Ernst Mayr (1982) and Aristotle,
Kent Flannery (1986) proposed an alternative way

of understanding explanation in archaeology.

Rather than searching out a single proximate cause

or a set of universal laws to explain a phenomena,

Flannery argued that explanations in the historical
sciences need to address four different types of
causes, all first defined by Aristotle. These are: the
material cause, the efficient cause, the formal cause,

and the final cause. Each of these four types of

causes have different emphases. For example, "The
material cause is that out of which something is
made," while "the final cause is that for the sake of

which something is made" (Flannery 1986:517,

emphasis in original).

Flannery's discussion of causation deserves

more time than is available here. In my view, while

Aristotle's types of causation are conceptually use

ful for understanding the variety of causal expla
nations, they do not provide a way to determine if
any one causal explanation is good, bad, or indif
ferent. The types do not lead to a method for con
structing or evaluating explanations about the past.
Rather, these types only provide a system that more
specifically identifies the ways that different "prox

imatish" causes can be considered interesting. As

seems to rely on inference to the best explanation.

consistent with more, or more compelling, facts

than competing hypotheses."
There is another problem with causal explana
tions. Many explanations do not identify causes,
they focus on meaning. For example, I might be
reading a book and come across a word with which
I am not familiar. I might come up with several dif
ferent ideas of what the word might mean based on
similarities to words I know or the context of the

word within the text. I would evaluate these poten

tial meanings and, with luck, come up with an

explanation of what the word, as used in the par
ticular text, means. Following the common under
standing of cause, it would not appear that this

could be described as a causal explanation. The

processual obsession with causal explanations was,
in my view, correctly critiqued by postprocessual
archaeologists. They stress the value of interpre

tive archaeology as corrective (Hodder 1991;

Shanks and Hodder 1995). As I will discuss below,
I see interpretation and explanation as fundamen
tally similar enterprises. Within the understanding

of explanation presented below, explanations of

both cause and meaning are possible.

Contrastive Explanations
There is another way to understand explanation,

one that is favored here. Explanations can be

understood in terms of contrastive pairings (Lip
ton 1991:chapter 5). Asking why there is a con
centration of lithic debitage in one portion of a
site requires additional statements before it can be
explained. It requires a. foil. A foil is a counter
point to the explanation being searched for. The
lithic workshop explanation will need to address
why there is a concentration of lithic debitage in
one particular area of the site rather than an even
scatter of debitage across the entire site. With the
addition of the foil the problem of infinite regress

is limited. It no longer makes any sense to explain

this through calls to 350-million-year-old fish.

The fish explanation does not account for why

lithic debitage would be concentrated rather than
diffuse. In contrast, a lithic workshop would likely
cause a concentrated scatter of lithic debitage and

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not cause an even scatter of debitage across the

entire site. When viewed in terms of the con

trastive pairing, a lithic workshop explains the

observed pattern of lithic distribution and simul

Most archaeological explanations employ foils

implicitly, but sometimes explicitly as well.

Returning to the archaeological examples dis
cussed above, Kidder contrasted his "hostile

taneously refutes the foil. Admittedly, there are nomad" explanation with a desiccation explana
also numerous other explanations that could tion of pueblo aggregation. Binford contrasted his
account for a concentration of lithic debitage interpretation of smudge pits for hide smoking

within a single portion of a site (e.g., erosion pat with explanations that labeled these features post
terns). This illustrates an important limitation of molds, caches, or smudge pits used for the control
contrastive explanation: it only evaluates the of mosquitoes. Hodder contrasted his interpreta
stated explanations. It does not remove the poten tion of the word "endure" with his earlier under
tial for other, unknown explanations of the same

standing of "indoor." Finally, Hegmon and

phenomenon. Once more, however, this is typical

of all inductive arguments.

pose I rephrase the initial question to, "why is there

Trevathan contrasted their explanation that men

painted the figurative designs on Mimbres pottery
with explanations that claimed women did. In each
case, the archaeologists used a foil to strengthen
and direct their explanations.
At first glance, it might seem that I advocate
contrasting any two explanations for a specific
phenomenon to determine which is best. In some

a concentration of lithics in one particular area of

cases, in fact, this is exactly what I advocate.

Foils serve to focus explanations. While there

are many potential explanations, not all of them will

serve to explain why one specific thing occurred

and another specific thing did not.13 Foils have
another valuable feature, they can be changed. Sup

the site rather than a concentration in a different However, there is an important caveat. The fact

area of the siteT Here the previous workshop and the foil must be mutually exclusive. For
explanation does not explain why that workshop
was placed in one part of the site and not another.

example, it is not possible to have a lithic scatter

that is both concentrated and diffuse. However,

the question, "why is there a concentration of

lithic debitage in one particular area of the site
a family compound because it was a family
rather than a high frequency of scrapers within
controlled workshop. The explanation has changed the lithic assemblage?" will not produce a con

We might argue, employing some other evidence

in the process, that the workshop was placed within

as a result of the change in foils. There is one impor

tant point here. The explanation from the previous

foil is still there; this concentration is still a con

sidered a lithic workshop. Explanations using dif
ferent foils can supplement, even strengthen, one
another. As will be discussed below, explanations
that are consistent with multiple foils are, in gen
eral, better than those that only address one.
As presented by Lipton (1991:chapter 5), con
trastive explanations are a form of causal explana
tion. I agree that contrastive explanations are often
also causal explanations. I do not agree, however,

that contrastive explanations are always causal

trastive explanation. Typically, explanations must

address the same foil in order to determine which
is better. For example, inference to the best expla
nation could determine whether erosion or the

presence of a lithic workshop is a better expla

nation for why a lithic scatter is concentrated
rather than diffuse.

I am not proposing that archaeologists adopt

foils in their archaeological explanations. Rather,
I am suggesting that it is already the implicit prac

tice of most archaeologists. By making our foils

explicit, we can greatly improve our explanations
and clarify the muddied debates that seem to per

explanations. Contrastive explanations and the use vade our discipline. Many of the explanations that

of foils are equally valuable in examinations of are alleged to contradict each other are simply
meaning. In the previous example of the meaning addressing different foils. The use of different
of an unknown word, it would make sense to seek foils also allows for specific archaeological phe
to explain that the word means x rather than y. Thus,

nomena to be explained in several different ways,

the use of contrastive foils is not limited to causal providing a justification for postprocessual claims
explanations, but applicable to interpretations of concerning the multivocality of archaeological

meaning as well.


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618 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4, 2007

Seven Traits of Highly

Successful Explanations
So far, this article has focused on presenting what

inference to the best explanation is and discussing

alism, there is no epistemologically consistent sys

tem to overcome these biases and achieve objec

tive truth. This does not mean, however, that these

biases cannot be addressed in several practical


its strengths and weaknesses in terms of good

Just as I have argued that archaeologists should
archaeological research. The question remains, not judge the success of an explanation by its abil

however, if archaeologists are already employing

inference to the best explanation, why should they
spend time reflecting on it? The remainder of this

article seeks to answer this question. I conclude the

article with a discussion of the role of hypothesis

testing in archaeology in the light of inference to
the best explanation. But first I present a set of cri
teria that makes explicit the implicit criteria archae

ologists typically employ when evaluating

What, then, makes an explanation a good expla
nation, and what makes one more compelling than
another? Philosophers have examined these ques

tions for a long time, developing sophisticated

understandings of good explanations. Quine and
Ullian (1978:43) refer to "five virtues which count

toward the plausibility [of a hypothesis]." These

virtues are: generality, modesty, refutability, con
servatism, and simplicity. To Quine and Ullian's
virtues, I add two more, that good explanations
should be empirically broad and should address

multiple foils.
In some ways, these criteria are similar to those

presented by Hodder within a discussion of evalu

ating the fit of an interpretation (1999:59-62). His
criteria include: internal and external coherence,
correspondence, fruitfulness, and simplicity. There

is overlap between my criteria and Hodder's, but

there are also significant differences in emphasis.
Most importantly, I assert that these criteria should

be used?and often are used?by both processual

and postprocessual archaeologists. Hodder limits
some, but not all, of his criteria to postprocessual

archaeologists alone.
Before proceeding, I must note a critical limi
tation of these standards. These characteristics of

ity to establish irrefutable truths, the standards for

judging bias should not be absolute either. In this

light, archaeologists have long been using a vari

ety of practical methods to address bias. Some of
these methods deal with specific issues (e.g., the
tendency to round numbers to 5 or 0), while other
methods have far broader significance (e.g., the
method of multiple working hypotheses [Cham
berlain 1965]). Hermeneutics, among its other uses,
can also serve as a practical method to address bias.
These methods for the reduction of bias can and do

fit within the perspective of inference to the best

explanation. Ideally, the following list of traits that

characterize compelling explanations would

include methods for the reduction of bias, but there

is simply no way to do justice to the topic without

doubling the length of this already long article.

While valuable, a discussion of bias must be post
poned to another day.

The following standards that characterize com

pelling explanations are not absolute or distinct.
They blend at the edges and, at times, conflict with
each other. These are guides to good reasoning, not

absolute prescriptions. The evaluation of any expla

nation has an impressionistic element that can never

be fully removed. Any specific explanation may be

strong in some elements and weak in others. Since
even the best hypothesis might not be good enough
to warrant serious consideration, the following stan

dards can also be used to determine if the best

explanation is also a good explanation. Finally, I

am not arguing that these standards are complete.
Just as I have added a new standard to Quine and
Ullian's list, I hope that other archaeologists will
add to those I present here.

good explanations are taken from Western philoso

Empirical Breadth

phers and are clearly derived from a Western intel

lectual tradition. As with any system of explanation,

I begin with a virtue not explicitly mentioned by

Quine and Ullian?though clearly implied through

the political, social, historical, and other factors

affect what explanations individual archaeologists
determine are best. Further, based upon the con
structivist arguments that underlay postprocessu

out their discussion?a good explanation should

address a wide variety of observations or evidence.

A good explanation should explain many empiri

cal observations and not be contradicted by others.

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Empirical breadth can be understood in two ways.


In the first, breadth is measured by the ability of an

With all this talk of generality and breadth, the

explanation to account for large numbers of highly

similar phenomena. This understanding of breadth

is used in evaluating statistical inductions and infer

value of modesty might seem an odd addition to

this list. It is important, however, not to overreach.

I am sure we can all think of examples of someone

who has a pretty good explanation for some phe
can be measured by the diversity of phenomena
nomena, but applies it to everything. This standard
explained. In the terms more familiar to archaeol
is a check on the previous standards. Don't try to
ogists, the best explanation should address multi explain too much.
ple lines of evidence. Only inference to the best
ences to the best explanation. Alternatively, breadth

explanation places value on this type of breadth.


The value of multiple lines of evidence in terms

For good reason, people distrust explanations that

cannot be shown to be wrong. Irrefutable explana
forward. In theory, there are infinite numbers of tions come in two general types. In the first, the
explanations for any quantity of diverse observa explanation itself may defy falsification. Some cre

of inference to the best explanation is fairly straight

tions. In practice, however, explanations that employ

multiple lines of evidence are hard to come by, and

stronger for it. As the quantity of evidence subsumed

within the explanation increases, the number of

potential explanations for that evidence decreases.
The relative strength of any one explanation, there
fore, is believed to increase as the quantity and vari

ety of the evidence it encompasses increases.

The value placed on diverse evidence in the eval

ationists, for example, have argued that God has

placed fossils in the ground as a test of scientists'
faith. Mere humans will always lose a battle of wits

with an omnipotent being. In the second case, an

explanation might be refutable but the evidence to
refute is, in a practical sense, impossible to acquire.

For example, falsification might require an exper

iment that would take 10,000 years to complete.
Here the explanation is technically falsifiable but

uation of inferences to the best explanation stands

practically unfalsifiable. In the first case, the inabil
in contrast to statistical induction. As discussed
ity of the explanation to be refuted would be suffi
earlier, statistical inductions are weakened by the
cient grounds for outright rejection, in the latter it
addition of premises. This is due to the problem of
would only weigh heavily against the explanation.
multiplying error. Inference to the best explanation,

when evaluated in terms of the diversity of its
empirical breadth, provides justification for the
importance archaeologists already place on multi
ple lines of evidence in archaeological reasoning.

A good explanation should also be applicable to a
wide variety of phenomena. This is similar to the
idea of empirical breadth, but there is a difference

in emphasis. Here the measure is not that one spe

cific set of empirical observations employs a wide

variety of evidence, but rather that the same kind

of explanation can be employed in a wide variety

of cases. The strength of the concept of biological

evolution is not simply judged on its ability to

explain the diversity of finches on the Galapagos
Islands, but its broad application to biological phe
nomena in general. By these standards biological
evolution is a very general explanation. Marxism,
in its various guises, is a general explanation in the

social sciences.

Good explanations should also be conservative.

They should not throw out well-established expla
nations or principles on a whim. At times, of course,

new explanations will replace well-established

ones. However, the standards for acceptance of
these explanations will be higher than for those
that are conservative.

This standard is similar to conservatism. Simplic
ity has long been recognized as a virtue in expla
nation (e.g., Occam's Razor). In general, a simple

explanation for a particular phenomenon is

accepted over a complex one, all other things being

equal. Explanations should not create laws, uni

versal principles, or similar concepts that are not
needed, even where they do not conflict with well
established principles. At times, some explanations
turn out to be very complex. This is okay. The stan

dard of simplicity does not argue that every expla

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620 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

nation must be simple, only that archaeologists

ularly good or bad, the standards provide strong

should not complicate their explanations any more guidance. However, there will always be those
than is necessary.
explanations that lie in the middle. While agreeing

Multiplicity of foils

on all the evidentiary and argumentative particu

lars of a middling explanation, two archaeologists

To Quine and Ullian's set of virtues I add another, might differ on whether it is good or bad. We should
derived from Lipton's (1991:chapter 5) discussion not trouble ourselves too much with this. In either
of foils. The more foils accounted for by an expla case, it would make sense either to improve the
explanation or to find another that is better. We
standard for assessing an explanation is almost as should also recognize that the standards listed
important as an evaluation of its empirical breadth. above often conflict with one another (e.g., mod

nation, the better the explanation. To my mind, this

When discussing foils above, I presented what

esty and generality). The judgments we make on

might be termed specific foils. For example, why explanations are impressionistic, based upon our
is lithic debitage concentrated on one part of a spe past experiences with other explanations.
cific archaeological site rather than another part of
that site? Here it might be best to think of foils in

a more general sense. Why do some phenomena

occur at one place rather than another? Why do
some phenomena occur at one time rather than
another? Why do some phenomena take a certain
form rather than another? Through simple word
substitution, a whole variety of different foils can
be created, and then applied to specific cases. As

Multiple Explanations and Testing

As noted by Harman (1965, 1968) and Lipton
(1991), many inferences to the best explanation are
sufficiently strong as to be effectively unchal
lengeable. They are accepted as true without any
further testing or examination. It seems likely that

Binford never tested his assertion that smudge pits

foils are explained, there will a corresponding were used for hide smoking because he believed
increase in the strength of the argument. Phrased his initial explanation was already sufficiently
more simply, an explanation that can account for strong. Even the most seemingly certain explana
tions could potentially be wrong, but testing and
both where and when a particular event occurred is
usually better than an explanation that only further examination can quickly reach a point of
accounts for when a particular event occurred.

diminishing returns. Often, however, an explana

tion is not sufficiently strong and requires further


compelling than ones that lack these traits. Based

on past experience with other explanations, it is

investigations before it can be accepted. In these

cases rigorous testing is a reasonable and effective
system to evaluate an explanation. When explana
tions are of the appropriate form to construct
hypotheses and valid deductions, the hypothetico
deductive method is a powerful approach for test

inferred that more compelling explanations are also

ing explanations. In other cases, testing can employ

On balance, those explanations that are empirically

broad, general, modest, conservative, simple,

refutable, and that address many foils are more

more likely to be true. These standards for evalu

inference to the best explanation.

ating the strength of an explanation are exception

In contrast to deductive tests where hypotheses

ally good at comparing the relative merits of

can only be rejected or confirmed, when using infer

different explanations of the same phenomena. It

allows an archaeologist to say that one explanation
is better than another. However, when engaging in

ence to the best explanation to perform tests expla

nations are made more or less compelling. With a
favorable test result the explanation is made more

inference to the best explanation, it must be remem

compelling by increasing its empirical breadth.

With an unfavorable test, the empirical breadth of

bered that the best of several explanations could still

be awful.
The same standards used to determine if an
explanation is best can also be used to determine
if an explanation is sufficiently good as to merit seri

ous consideration. When an explanation is partic

the explanation is reduced through the identifica

tion of negative result. A larger proportion of the
observed data now contradicts the explanation than

before the test was performed.14 Another possibil

ity, one that is surprisingly common, is that the

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archaeological remains uncovered are unrelated to

tice, postprocessualists seem right when they sug

the original research questions. In this case, no

gest that multiple perspectives can be brought to

change in the strength of the explanation occurs

archaeological explanations. In terms of inference

directly. However, the new information might sug

to the best explanation, there are two ways in which

gest a new explanation, one that accounts for both this can occur. In the first, two or more good expla
the previous evidence and the new material in a par

nations of the same archaeological phenomena that

ticularly robust way. In this case, the new expla address the same foil are of similar quality. Dif
nation would be accepted since it would be more ferent archaeologists might lean toward one or
compelling than the previous one. It is in this light

another, but neither of the potential explanations is

that Binford's (1967) "deductively drawn" clearly the best. In the second case, good explana

tions of the same archaeological phenomena

stood. Binford's hypotheses, if tested and con address different foils. In this case there is no direct

hypotheses concerning smudge pits can be under

firmed, could have served to further expand the link between the explanations. They are more like
empirical breadth of his explanation even though ships passing in the night. For example, one expla
his hypotheses were not deductively drawn. This nation might explain why a certain archaeological
in turn would have made his hide smoking expla phenomenon occurred at one time rather than
another. Another explanation might explain why the
nation even more compelling.
Inference to the best explanation accounts for same phenomenon occurred in one place rather
several elements of testing that are not supported than another.
These two sources for multiple explanations
within the hypothetico-deductive method. First, it
allows for testing of explanations that do not lend require different strategies to accommodate them.
themselves to deductively drawn hypotheses. Sec Where two explanations have different foils, no
amount of testing will show which one is best. It
ond, while testing of this sort does not clearly con
firm or negate a hypothesis, it does expand or reduce would be possible to rank the explanations in terms
the empirical breadth of an explanation. This in turn of how well they satisfy explanatory standards, but

makes an explanation more or less compelling.

since they do not share the same foil, there is no

Third, testing through inference to the best expla

reason to reject the weaker of the two arguments

nation allows for the investigation of unique archae

as long as it is at least a good explanation and does

ological phenomena. Tests can be designed to not substantially contradict the stronger.15 There are
expand the diversity of empirical evidence con

two strategies to employ in this situation. First, be

cerning rare or unique archaeological phenomenon.

happy that you have two good explanations and use

For example, an archaeologist could test an expla them for your research appropriately given the foil
nation against previously unexamined aspects of you are investigating. It's often hard to find even
the Pyramids of Giza. Fourth, this view of testing one good explanation?so count your blessings.
allows for the relative success of a test to be gauged.

Second, think up a better inference to the best expla

In the hypothetico-deductive framework, hypothe nation that accommodates the differing foils. This
ses are either confirmed or denied. In reality, archae may entail synthesizing the two explanations, or
ologists have all seen test results that are more
replacing them with a wholly different, all

equivocal. Finally, testing in this light resembles

what archaeologists actually do, whether proces
sual, postprocessual, or something in between.

encompassing explanation.
When multiple explanations share the same foil,
testing is a very practical way to evaluate them. One

When reading the philosophical literature on strategy would be to start testing each explanation
inference to the best explanation, it sometimes feels

independently and seeing which one winds up with

as if philosophers assume that in most cases a sin

the most empirical breadth. A better strategy, how

gle clear explanation will become evident?that ever, would be a test that served to contrast the
the cream will inevitably rise to the top. In my own

explanations. The test should not only make one of

experience I am not so sure. It seems that the hard

the explanations more compelling, but also simul

cases are remarkably common. Many archaeolog
taneously make the others less so.
ical phenomena have multiple explanations that are
Even with our best efforts, multiple explanations
either of equal quality or oddly unrelated. In prac for the same archaeological questions will likely
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622 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 72, No. 4,2007

persist in archaeology. In this sense, postprocessual More commonly, archaeological testing will only

archaeologists are right. There are multiple expla

make explanations more or less compelling.

nations of specific archaeological phenomena. Fur

Finally, by employing inference to the best expla

ther, all of these different explanations have value nation, archaeologists can explore unique or rare

to the extent that they are good explanations. One phenomena that defy investigation through deduc
tion or statistical induction.

of the primary criticisms of postprocessual archae

ology is that it does not have a mechanism to refute

terrible explanations of past events (Earle and Preu

cel 1987). Inference to the best explanation, par

Throughout this article I have relied on a fairly

simple approach. I have focused on what archaeol
ogists do rather than on what they say they do.16

ticularly when paired with contrastive explanations, When viewed in this light, archaeologists have, for
provides a mechanism for dealing with this prob a long time, relied upon a style of reasoning well
lem. Bad explanations can be rejected by reference suited to their goals: inference to the best explana
to the standards of empirical breadth, generality, tion. Despite several attempts to divert archaeolo
modesty, etc. Good explanations of equal worth gists' epistemological interest elsewhere, inference
when addressing the same foils, or even good expla to the best explanation has persisted as a dominant
nations of different worth when addressing sepa form of reasoning in archaeology for a very simple
rate foils, can be accounted for.
reason?it works. Despite the rapidly changing

Both hermeneutics and the hypothetico-deductive

social theories employed in the development of

archaeological explanations, inference to the best
explanation has continued to be the primary means
for determining the value of individual explana

method are good approximations of inference to the

tions. For this reason, I am not proposing that archae

best explanation and have value in archaeological

ologists adopt inference to the best explanation. I


research?but both also employ philosophical

only suggest that archaeologists should accept as

gymnastics that conceal the similarities between worthwhile a style of reasoning they are already
them. These similarities in reasoning serve to using and do a better job of using it.
explain, in part, one of the issues that began this

paper: how do processual and postprocessual

Acknowledgments. For over a decade now, my father (Robert

Fogelin, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Dartmouth

archaeologists productively borrow data and ideas College) and I have been talking about philosophy in one
from each other despite the differences between way or another. This article is my response to our discus

sions. Throughout the writing process he has continued to

pointing out philosophical blunders small and large.
common methods for the evaluation of competing

them? By sharing a common form of reasoning, and

explanations, processual and postprocessual

Though I have relied on his assistance, there are several ways

in which my father would disagree with what is presented

approaches are not as different from each other as here. For his advice and help?in things far more important
either group typically assumes.
than philosophy?I dedicate this article to him. I thank Laura
This article is not a rallying cry for the status Villamil for translating the abstract into Spanish. I also thank

quo. Accepting that inference to the best explana

tion underlies a great deal of archaeological rea
soning demands modifications to the practice of,
and discourse about, archaeological research. Dis
cussions of the relative worth of different explana
tions should more explicitly employ the standards

the people who read and commented on the previous drafts

of this article, including: Andy Balkansky, Florence Fogelin,

Severin Fowles, Jane Kelley, Scott Hutson, Alice Ritscherle,

Norm Yoffee, and two anonymous reviewers. The article is
far better for their insights. This article was written while

serving as the Visiting Scholar at the Center for

Archaeological Investigations at SIU Carbondale.

that make an argument compelling (empirical

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1. Throughout this article I treat processual and post
processual archaeology as more theoretically unified than

7. In contrast to inductions, deductions are non

ampliative. The conclusion of a valid deduction contains no
more information than what is contained within its premises.

8. Harman (1965, 1968b) argues that even statistical

inductions rest upon a foundation of inference to the best
explanation. This is an exceedingly technical discussion that
need not be addressed here.
9. This argument concerning the limitations of statistical
inference follows closely that of Harman (1965).

10. Harman (1965:89) notes, "There is, of course, a prob

lem about how one is to judge that one hypothesis is suffi

ciently better than another hypothesis. Presumably such a

judgment will be based on consideration such as which

hypothesis is simpler, which is more plausible, which
explains more, which is less ad hoc, and so forth. I do not
wish to deny that there is a problem about explaining the
exact nature of these considerations; I will not, however, say
anything more about this problem."

11. Lipton (1991:chapter 7) contrasts the term "likeli

ness" with the term "loveliness." I find "lovely" to be prob
lematic as a general term for describing the strength of an

explanation. For this reason, I use the term "compelling"

they actually are or were. I recognize that there is a great deal

instead. Other than this shift in terms, my argument follows

of diversity in the approaches of specific archaeologists asso

closely that of Lipton.

ciated with these different schools. The caricatures I employ

are only intended to reduce hesitations and subclauses that

for the identification of causes or Philip Kitcher's (1981)

12. See, for example, John Stuart Mill's (1904) methods

would only serve to distract from the main thrust of this arti

analysis of explanation as a demonstration of unity, among

many others.

2. Throughout this article I cite Alison Wylie's Thinking

from Things (2002). This work contains her collected articles,

13. In a recent discussion of analogy in the study of

ancient states, Yoffee (2005:194) notes, "The search for


spanning the years since 1982.

3. Throughout this article I primarily cite and quote Carl

Hempel (1965, 1966) in my discussions of the hypothetico

deductive method. However, Hempel's primary contribution
was the characterization of scientific explanations as requir

ing universal or probabilistic laws (the deductive

nomological approach to explanation). For the most part,

Hempel's views on the hypothetico-deductive method follow
those of his contemporaries.

4. A similar definition can be found in The Oxford

Companion to Philosophy (Honderich, ed. 1995:181) which
states that "[a deduction is] a species of argument or inference

where from a given set of premises the conclusion must fol


5. Hempel (1966:11) notes the same difference between

inductive and deductive arguments: "The premises of an

appropriate comparisons among the earliest states is a rela

tively new enterprise in social evolutionary theory, and its
important that the project's goals include not only explana
tions of why things happened as they did, but also why they
didn't happen some other way." While phrased in terms of
analogical arguments, Yoffee's suggestion fits neatly with the
concepts of foils and contrastive explanations presented here.

14. The same logic explains why particularly strong

explanations do not seem to require further testing and why,

at a certain point, progressive loops in hermeneutic circles

become less productive. Where an explanation encompasses
a particularly large amount of empirical evidence, contradic
tory evidence gained from testing will not affect the propor

tion of supporting evidence for an explanation to any

significant degree.

15. It is likely that if two explanations contradict each

inductive inference are often said to imply a conclusion only

with more or less high probability, whereas the premises of a

other they share at least one foil.

deductive inference imply the conclusion with certainty."

archaeologists do rather than what they say they do. I would

6. Astronomical predictions, for example, are usually

inferential. Based upon previous observations of an asteroid's

location and some general laws of gravity, astronomers can

infer its future path. At first glance, this may seem a deduc
tion. However, the conclusion is not the necessary product of

16. Hodder (1999:30-65) also claims to examine what

argue, however, that Hodder compares what postprocessual
archaeologists do with what processual archaeologists say
they do. As exemplified by Binford's (1967) "Smudge Pits,"
the actual reasoning practices of processual and postproces
sual archaeologists are remarkably similar.

its premises. For example, the asteroid may be hit by a comet

or influenced by the gravity of an unknown object. In either

case, all of the premises of the induction would still be strong,

but the comet would not follow the predicted path.

Astronomical observations of this sort, then, are a form of

inductive reasoning.

Received May 18, 2006; Revised October 5, 2006;

Accepted February 14, 2007.

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