The Status of Ethics in Contemporary Epistemology and Ontology, and the Problem of Meanings and Values (the Symbolic) in Archaeology.
The last several decades have seen a virtual explosion of areas of debate and literatures in the human sciences and humanities centering on a series of historically and philosophically interrelated conceptual dichotomies. Until around the 1960's such dichotomies as those of nature-culture, symbol-function, myth-history, culture-evolution, the mental and the material, science-values, western - non-western, functioned as a common axiomatic basis for delineating disciplinary divisions and debating predominant paradigms for research within these. The late 20th century saw these constructs come under convergent, if not sometimes identical sorts of scrutiny, in fields as diverse in their subject matter, as those closest to physical science, such as the philosophy of science, and human sciences which traditionally focused on societies that used to be characterised as lacking science and even history, such as anthropology (and pre-historic archaeology). Little by little researchers became concerned that the categories, which so evidently structured their fields of inquiry that they went unremarked, were products of complex historically contingent circumstances.
A range of factors have been involved, including the host of socio-cultural changes that have challenged predominant gradualist and punctuationist pictures of world history. There have also been sophisticated critiques of the generalisations about human nature, history and knowledge that underwrote not only problematic 19th and early 20th century paradigms for intellectual culture, but also several powerful colonialist, imperialist, and nationalist political 'meta-narratives' (for instance, Benjamin  1992; Adorno  1973; Foucault [1972-1977] 1980). Today there is widespread cross-disciplinary discussion of the challenges facing attempts to 'go beyond' apparently unresolvable debates over the abovementioned conceptual dichotomies. Something of the difficulty of these challenges, as well as archaeology's potential relevance is suggested by Descola and Pálssen's (1996) argument that:
Going beyond dualism opens up an entirely different landscape, one in which states and substances are replaced by processes and relations; the main question is not any more how to objectify closed systems, but how to account for the diversity of the processes of objectification (Descola and Pálssen 1996:12).
The aim of this contribution is twofold. The critical dimension examines the bearing that the 'critique of meta-narratives' may have upon archaeologists' discussions of the 'problem' of 'the symbolic'. Emphasis falls on themes relating to concerns to "probe the implicit criteria used by archaeologists for determining whether artifacts are symbolic or not" (Bouissac 2003). One of the questions posed is that of whether it is likely that satisfactory approaches to the 'problem' can be formulated on the basis of conceptions of 'the symbolic' that hinge on its opposition to 'the pragmatic' or 'functional'.
The constructive dimension argues for the relevance to attempts to "specify properties of symbolic artifacts" (cf. Bouissac 2003) of an ontology of the historicity of human agency and the symbolicity of artefacts, which gives ethics central roles. Together, these dimensions may indicate how some issues posed by discussions of "criteria of symbolicity" articulate with arguments for going beyond dualist paradigms, as well as such questions as: "If human agency is important for understanding particular events, does it need to be included in approaches to long-term trajectories of historical change?"
1. The 'Problem of the Symbolic' and the Critique of Dualist Paradigms for Human Agency, History and Knowledge
Starting in the 1970s paradigms for research structured around the aforementioned dichotomies became the focus of sophisticated anthropological critiques. Especially influential have been the publications of Marc Augé's The Anthropological Circle. Symbol-Function, Culture-Evolution (1977), Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History (1975) and Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other. How Anthropology Creates Its Object (1983). Among other things, these works brought light to an extraordinary range of the consequences (theoretical, methodological, social, ethical) of dualist paradigms for human nature, history and knowledge. An example has been the denial of the coevalness of differing contemporary ways of life through the reduction of cultural differences to imaginary distances in supposed social evolutionary time. One of the issues posed is that of the ways in which such confusion of cultural difference with temporal distance has been used to legitimate the rendering of some people invisible (so called 'minorities') to the ethical faculties of members of powerful 'majorities' (cf. Gaitta 2000; Geertz 2000).
Since the 1980s, such critiques have had several impacts on archaeology, including increased critical awareness of dynamic relationships between change in archaeological ideas and in the contexts in which researchers carry out their work (e.g., Hodder 1986; Shanks and Tilley 1987; Yoffee and Sherratt eds. 1994). Another example is the literature on the persisting influences of Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies of history. For instance, Bruce Trigger (1995) writes the following about opposing 'processualist' and 'post-processualist' paradigms for archaeological research.
European thought has been dominated for over 200 years by a pervasive dichotomy between rationalism, universalism and positivism on the one hand and romanticism, particularism (or 'alterity'), and idealism on the other. The first of the philosophical packages was initially associated with French liberalism, the second with German reaction [Dumont 1991]. Both ethnic nationalism and post-modernism (which is the essence of post-processualism) are products of the romantic side of the polarity (Trigger 1995: 263).
A detailed examination of the embeddedness of the 'problem' of the symbolic (versus the pragmatic or 'purely' functional) in the history of dualist paradigms for the human sciences and humanities lies beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, this first section concentrates on aspects of the meta-narratives critique, which relate to concerns to "probe the implicit criteria used by archaeologists for determining whether artifacts are symbolic or not" (Bouissac 2003), as well as challenges facing attempts to go beyond dualist paradigms for human nature, knowledge and history.
1.1 Dualist Paradigms for Human Nature and Knowledge
Despite the variety of the works of major contributors to the meta-narratives critique, several common foci have been crucial. One is the critique of the epistemic bases of dualist paradigms for human nature and knowledge. At issue is the series of essentialist categories that underwrites the notion of a transcendental, timeless, and placeless human agent, which has functioned for over two centuries as the supposedly universally valid foundation for understanding all human thought and behavior. This critique has powerful implications. It concerns the interdependence of a wide range of dualist categories (including those of subject-object, mind-body, nature-culture, symbol-function, science-values, western - non-western, etc.), and challenges claims about the existence of an a-historical standpoint from which one can make judgements about reason, knowledge, appropriate action, and what is definitive of being human.
It bears stressing that ethical implications are intrinsic, not optional. The aforementioned epistemic dichotomies hinge on an (explicit though, today, largely implicit), ontic division of the world between two types of entities: (1) perceiving things, or more specifically, the minds of human subjects, distinguished in relation to some notion of the capacities of the human mind for rational freedom and moral responsibility, and (2) all the rest, that is, extended things (like nature and society), which are determined by forces of causal necessity.
Notable too is the importance to this notion of an ontic gap of premisses that we can know a priori that no empirical inquiry can illuminate relations between the aforementioned parts of human beings, that is the res cogitans and res extensa parts of human beings. One of the questions that arises is that of whether we can think of other cases of this situation. For Descartes and his contempories, very important were the cases of the human-divine, and the immanent and transcendent, but also within the long history of dualist traditions there are the cases of the finite-infinite, and particular-universal.
1.2 Historical Meta-narratives
Some features of these narratives are of extraordinary antiquity, dating to the earliest horizons of traditions that have been seen as constitutive of the history of western intellectual culture. Examples pertinent to our present considerations include: (a) dualist structures, (b) notions that human history forms a unilinear trajectory, and (c) essentialist premisses concerning the conditions of historical knowledge. These sorts of features motivated Collingwood's ( 1956) arguments concerning the modes of reasoning, which can be expected to result in universalising, providential, apocalyptic, and periodised modern historical generalisations.
Let me say a bit about these before turning to features, which lack modern precedents.
Essentialist approaches to ontology have been given foundation roles in dualist paradigms (ancient and modern) for (a) methodological premisses concerning the conditions of historical knowledge as well as (b) theories about patterns of historical unities and variability, and continuity and change Ontology is about 'being', about how the sorts of things that exit came into being, and why there are these rather than other sorts of things. Since antiquity, essentialist modes of reasoning have been stretched between opposing foundational poles, with absolute unity and permanence, on one side, and dis-unity (pure flux), on the other (McGuire and Tushanska 2001). Questions about change (in particular, historical change) are rendered problematical by this dichotomy. The most influential approach has been that of Aristotle [384-322 BC] in the Metaphysics ( 1960), which centers on the question: If something can be said to be subject to change, what is the essence of that something? He offered three options: (1) the unchanging aspect, (2) the changing aspect, and (3) both, that is, the interaction of changing and unchanging aspects. In the paradigms that we are considering the significant option is (1) and the others have to be reducible to it.
It helps to underscore the importance of this focus on the unchanging essence of things to the long history of reductions of ontology's task to classification. A persistent dimension of this history has been the replacement of questions of how things come into being by such questions as: "What (underlying substances) makes particular items what they are?" "What distinguishes them from one another?" "What timeless substances distinguish different categories of items?" Answers to these kinds of questions are supposed to add up to universally valid generalisations about the range of categories in terms of which all things existing at all times can be classified (McGuire and Tushanska 2001: 45-47).
Modern versions of these modes of reasoning have underwritten the most influential paradigms (a) for the conditions of historical knowledge and (b) options for historical description and explanation since the Enlightenment and Romantic movements. Essentialism permits only a-historical theories of knowledge (such as those structured around the aforementioned subject - object dichotomy). Further, it permits only options for historical description and explanation that fit these theories of knowledge (such as narratives centring on nature-culture, symbol-function, individual-society, western - non-western dichotomies). The terms used in these narratives must simultaneously be valid for all times and places, and account for their variability. The constraints these requirements impose on options for historical (archaeological) description and interpretation are severe. Modern options centre on the ontic dichotomy of perceiving things (human minds and, in some approaches, God) and extended things (all the rest, like nature and society). One option treats history as a perceptual experience, which exists in the minds of individual subjects (as cognitive 'content' of 'mental states'. The other treats history as an 'extended thing' that can occur in a different forms, such as the social types: band, tribe, chiefdom and state; or cultures of different times and places: Neolithic Britain, Bronze Age Denmark, medieval France, Renaissance Italy, Modern Europe, etc..
These constraints have had profound impacts on predominant paradigms for conceptualising both the nature of the archaeological 'record' and the factors most responsible for the diversity of the human past. Some examples are mentioned in Linda Patrik's paper, "Is There an Archaeological Record?" (1985). Patrik's paper indicates that key contrasts between influential 'processual' and 'post-processual' options are motivated by the above outlined modes of reasoning. While the former treat the 'record' as a fossilised imprint of the operations of the material and ideational (symbolic) components of past social systems, the later treat the record variously as a 'text', which can reveal the operations of past symbolic systems or aspects of the 'cognitive content' of the minds of past individuals.
Relating to the wider aims of the present paper, it can be noted here that these options permit only negative answers to the questions mentioned at the onset of (a) whether human agency must be included not only in approaches to particular events, but also in frameworks for long-term trajectories of historical change, and (b) whether is it possible to illuminate fundamental historical thresholds, ruptures, transformations, without resorting to teleological notions of progress or purpose? One of the most basic reasons is that the requirements of dualist paradigms involve the reduction of individual human actions, events, even fundamental ruptures and transformations to the particulars conceived as a category in relation to the particular-general dichotomy. That is, they must be emptied of all content and reduced to a cluster of properties, which facilitate treating them as instanciations of supposedly universal (timeless-placeless) categories of things and processes.
Notable too is the supposed ontic gap that arises from the assumption that we can assume a priori that there are no empirical means whereby particular human actions and general long-term processes can be linked to one another, suggesting that we can likewise assume a-priori that it is impossible to illuminate radical historical ruptures and transformations without involking some sort of metaphysical link between these finite particulars and the scale on which history supposedly operates.
There are many famous examples of this situation. The one, which had significant impact on the works of Hegel ( 1975), Marx and Engels ( 1975), Morgan ( 1963) Durkheim ( 1960), Weber ( 1958), as well as of many other contributors to the current state of debates over dualist paradigms for the human sciences and humanities, is Immanuel Kant's account of the histories of nature and culture. Kant entitled this account, an "Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" ( 1963). Prior to Kant, the relationship between these histories (as well as between human beings' natural and cultural dimensions) was conceptualised as a problem that impeded the scientific (epistemic) status of the human sciences and historiography (Cassirer 1960). Kant's ( 1963) "universal history" addressed this supposed problem in a new way. It (a) lifted the methodological difficulties of integrating nature and culture to the metaphysical level of an antitheses, and (b) applied the resulting notion of a dialectic to a theory about the unity of nature and culture's history. In Kant's solution to the problem of the scientific status of historical and anthropological knowledge (a) culture is the necessary outcome of the history of nature (indeed the means whereby 'nature's hidden plan' would be realized) and (b) nature-culture and subject-object antitheses constitute the necessary and sufficient conditions (i.e., the essential causal forces) of human history (cf. Collingwood  1956).
Kant's narrative centers on an ontic division of 'things in themselves' (out there) from the capacities of the mind for 'phenomena'. It envisages history as a unilinear series of stages in the evolution of nature, human capacities for 'reason' and 'moral freedom', and the range of 'phenomena' that constitute culture. The series begins with nature's introducing into infinite time-space particles governed by Newtonian principles of Matter and Motion (cf. Kant  1963). It emphasises the emergence of 'primitive' forms of human consciousness and social life, and of the rational modes of consciousness that made possible what Kant referred to as the 'Copernican Revolution'. The ultimate purpose (or cause) of history is the unification of social ideals and realities in an ideal 'civic order' (Kant  1963).
In the 19th century aspects of Kant's work were opened to a variety of interpretations. Several centred on highly problematic generalisations about supposed universal stages in the evolution of symbolic systems and a pan-human maturation of consciousness. These generalisations envisaged 'social progress' as a natural and inevitable process, which has improved the human condition through the elimination of ignorance, passion and superstition, and the exercise of rational thought (Collingwood  1956). Images of supposed universal stages in the evolution of symbolic systems played essential roles. In these meta-narratives, pre-modern symbolic systems were based on superstitions and other modes of understanding the world, which characterised the cognitions of children. Collingwood ( 1956:76) noted that a key implication was that supposed "primitive forms of mental activity [were] destined to perish when the mind arrives at maturity."
Generalised images of the human mind have played decisive roles too. A very important image may be that noted by Richard Rorty (1979) of the mind as a sort of 'mirror' of the object world. In such a view the supposed 'maturation' of the mind might be envisaged a process moving from 'mirrors' that are clouded by 'primitive' beliefs towards the supposed 'true' picture of the object world revealed by modern science. Notable here too is something of the ways in which the symbolic has been envisaged as clouding, even obscuring the capacities of the mind to produce knowledge which transparently mirrors nature.
Although these generalisations are no longer accepted in mainstream
human sciences and humanities, certain features have been very resistant
to change, including (a) dualist categories (b) unilinear images of
human history and (c) essentialist options for the conditions of historical
knowledge and theorising the diversity of human ways of life. There
is a huge number of relevant examples, given the roles these features
played in the replacement of so-called 'classical' by 'modern' paradigms
for research, and recently by 'post-modern' programmes. I will only
mention one recent example, namely a programme that centers on a supposed
dichotomy of reason and nature versus symbolic systems and culture.
Tim Ingold's essay, "The Optimal Forager and Economic Man"
(1996) suggests that the persistence of dualist modes of reasoning is
especially evident in studies in "evolutionary ecology" that
apply "optimal foraging theory" to interpretations of the
activities of hunting and gathering populations. The theory is derived
from principles of neo-Darwinian biology and neo-classical microeconomics
(for instance, Winterhalder 1981:16). A paradoxical combination of concepts
of reason and nature has often been used to characterise the "optimal
forager" as the bearer of evolved (i.e., naturally selected) behavioral
propensities, which are treated by the investigator as an (economic)
optima. In consequence, discrepancies between the forager's behavior
and the researcher's modeled optima are attributed by the latter to
failure of the forager's symbolic systems and culture to meet the standards
of 'economic rationality' of neo-classical microeconomics (Ingold 1996:31).
1.3 Dualist Paradigms and the Status of Ethics in Contemporary Epistemology
These features did not develop in a vacuum. They are rooted in responses to the need of new social structures and modes of solidarity, which developed in the wake of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Social changes had counterparts in intellectual culture. An example was the notion that one could develop new social ideals and institutions on the basis of principles that the emerging physical sciences were using to investigate (and manipulate) nature. The key question was that of whether one could model both universally valid explanations of the physical world and new foundations of social order on mathematics and logic (e.g., Hobbes  1962; see, for example, Shapin and Schaffer 1985).
In the views of a number of Enlightenment scholars, Descartes' epistemology and Newton's [1642-1727] mathematical laws of Matter and Motion suggested that the answer to this question could be yes (Descartes 1984-91; Newton  1934). Descartes' (1984-1991) epistemology hinged on an ontic distinction between the rational freedom of moral intellectual decision in the human world and the causal necessity of mechanical processes in nature. One consequence was the radical transformation of traditional notions of the 'subject', with profound implications for the status of ethics in modern epistemology. While the subject had hitherto been an ontic principle, which referred to the underlying essence of things (specifically, God or an ideal Nature), modern dualist paradigms eventually forced the individual human subject became forced to function as the primary source of all meaning and value (cf. Blumenberg 1983; Dupré (1993).
It was, however, not until Kant's philosophy of the histories of nature and of culture that modern moral philosophy divided a supposed inner realm of 'mental substance' ontologically from the causal network of the social and physical universe. The withdrawal of moral freedom from the material physical and social order ('out there') to the inward domain of individual mental states may have promoted some of the most problematic aspects of modernity, namely:
(a) the treatment of an individual subject as the source of all meaning
Here, we may glimpse some of the most problematical aspects of the a-historical conceptions of the individual (self), around which much of the current cross-disciplinary discussion of agency, material culture, and historical memory are structured.
One of the questions, which is posed by aspects of the 'critique of meta-narratives' relating to efforts to "probe the implicit criteria used by archaeologists for determining whether artifacts are symbolic or not" (Bouissac 2003), is whether it is likely that satisfactory approaches to the 'problem' can be designed on the basis of conceptions of 'the symbolic' that hinges on its opposition to 'the pragmatic' or 'functional'. This issue arises in some of the most sophisticated approaches to the symbolic since Kant, including Ernst Cassirer's influential three volume work, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1957). Among other things, Cassirer's work aims to provide an alternative theory of knowledge (epistemology) to that of Kant. Several core theses are presented in the third volume, entitled, Phenomenology of Knowledge (Erkenntnis). Here, Cassirer argues that scientific (or theoretical) thought, which hinges on the conceptual functioning of consciousness (Bedeutungsfunktion), arises from and is grounded in the expressive-representation function of consciousness (Ausdrucksfunktion). For Cassirer, these functions are the major means whereby experience is given form in the development of the mind. They constitute the relationships between subject and object, which motivate all of the particular forms that human culture has taken. Each function is a fundamental means whereby symbols give form to experience.
Despite the significant advantages of Cassirer's theses, it bears stressing that the questions they are intended to address are epistemic not ontic. His theses seek to go beyond both rationalist and empiricist answers to the question of how the mind functions in relation to the object world to produce knowledge. They do not address the question of how whatever it is that we refer to as the mind comes to have something before it in the first place. It takes as 'given' an ontic gap between the mind and the world, on premisses that we can know a priori that no empirical inquiry can illuminate relations between these.
One of the most interesting attempts to address this question in early modern times is presented in Giambattista Vico's New Science of the Common Nature of the Nations ([1725, 1733, 1744] 1948). For Vico, the two main methodological postulates necessary to the realization of a science of humanity were that:
(a) "philosophy undertakes to examine philology" on the basis
of the verum et factum convertuntur principle (NS/7, 331); and
In the former postulate, the condition of being able to know anything, to understand it, as opposed to merely perceiving it, is that the knower should have made it. Humans can achieve "certain knowledge" (i.e., maker's knowledge) of the human world, because human nature and history are products of human beings's own making.
The later postulate is part of Vico's argument that while knowledge concerning the physical world must be limited to epistemology (human did not create it), a satisfactory science of humanity can and should offer an ontology of human ways of life and culture. Essential to this argument is Vico's ontology of what he termed "poetic wisdom," that is the earliest means whereby human beings metaphorically objectified relationships between (a) their perceptions of the world and (b) the causes they for the first time attributed to that world. Importantly, Vico does not treat the individual subject as the source of meaning and value. His approach concerns the creation (through poetic objectification) of what I refer to below as an ethical field in which others (humans as well as non-humans are experienced as sources of meaning and value.
Vico's paradigm-exemplar of "poetic wisdom" is the god Jove (the sky god) whose thunder and lightning crystallized in minds not yet human the idea that the sky is a giant body animated with forms of intentionality, which the primi uomini did not know that yet they themselves possessed. Vico refers to this wisdom as a "concrete image" generated by the primi uomini's interpretations of perceptions of their embodied and material realities. Poetic wisdom thus constitutes a field, which not only links the coming into being of human consciousness with that of the phenomenal world, but challenges the premiss that we can know a priori that no empirical inquiry can illuminate relations between these. It forms the conditions of possibility for the historicity of human agency and culture.
Notable too is the central role given to ethics by Vico's ontology.The "poetic mind" imposed order on the flux of particular experiential phenomena by imagining ethical relations of mutual susceptibility and accountability between them (for instance, NS/34, 209).
What follows is inspired by research into Vico's work, but centers for the heuristic purposes on ideas of contemporary archaeologists and philosophers. I will attempt to use these to argue for the relevance to challenges facing attempts to 'go beyond' dualist paradigms' of an ontology of the historicity of human agency and symbolic discursive fields.
A useful way to illustrate the range of issues involved is to take ones departure from two influential responses in archaeology to the meta-narratives critique, namely: (a) arguments against the notion of a human self, which is prior to its embodied and material preconditions, and (b) concerns to focus attention on discrepant experiences. I admire much of the epistemic work that has been motivated by objections to traditional notions of a timeless, placeless disembodied agent. But I worry that, if we come to close to reducing agency to embodied material preconditions, we are unlikely to be able to address issues posed by studies seeking to focus on discrepant experiences.
Fortunately the last decades have seen several pertinent developments in archaeology and philosophy. In archaeology, the works of John Barrett (1994, 2000) and Christopher Gosden (1994) provide good examples. Both authors reject essentialist perspectives on the conditions of archaeological knowledge (an archaeological 'record') and related a-historical notions of agency. Barrett's (200) approach centers on the terms "structuring conditions" and "structuring principles". The former are envisaged as the historically contingent embodied and materialised conditions of possibility for human agency. Structuring principles are defined as the means whereby human beings inhabit structural conditions: "they are expressed in the agents' abilities to work on those conditions in the reproduction and transformation of their own identities and conditions of existence" (Barrett 2000: 65).
Gosden's (1994) approach stresses the 'materiality' and 'mutuality' of human ways of life. In Social Being and Time (1994), Gosden writes that: the term 'materiality' refers to human relations with the world, 'mutuality' looks at human-interrelationships. Materiality and mutuality are linked here for the simple reason that they are inseparable. Full social relations can only be set up though making and using things; full relations with the world only come about through people working together (Gosden 1994: 82).
These approaches have important advantages for avoiding:
(a) the generalisations about human nature, history and the conditions
of historical (archaeological) knowledge outlined in Part 1;
Avoiding these problems may put in a position develop more satisfactory approaches to processes of perception and modes of objectification that occur in a wide range of historically contingent implicit and explicit scales and modes. A critical issue is that while there is no such thing as a timeless placeless 'self' that can be understood apart from its embodied and material preconditions, it would be a mistake to reducing thought to practice (cf. Foucault 1980) or abandon notions of human selves and intentionality altogether.
Robert Brandom's work, Making it Explicit. Reasoning, Representing and Discursive Commitment (1994), is relevant to these issues. Brandom argues for replacing traditional dualist notions of representation by the open-ended concept, expression. The latter enables us to replace the opposition between (a) internal and external representations (on which treatments of history as either a product of perceiving things or as an extended thing hinge) with (b) a range of implicit and explicit socially situated processes of objectification, which carry the materiality and mutuality of human relationships forward over time. This enable us to pursue some of the promising implications of notions of 'social agency' without abandoning concerns with intentionality and processes of individuation, which are crucial for understanding how humans can have discrepant experiences and even interact (Arendt  1989). These issues have bearing upon questions of how 'structuring principles' articulate with 'structuring conditions' (Barrett 2000) and how 'materiality and mutuality' (Gosden 1994) are linked. They bring into relief the importance of ethics to an ontology of these linkages, which does not resort to teleological meta-narratives structured around dichotomies of mind - body, symbol - function, western - non wester, as well as between how concrete embodied human beings are and how rational 'mental states' ought to be.
Your and my experience informs us that human beings are mutually accountable and mutually susceptible social creatures (Barnes 2000). As Barry Barnes (2000) points out, our interaction is informed by our experience that human beings are creatures that act voluntarily. Focusing on ethics enables us to understand the ways in which human beings freely chose and freely act as mutually accountable and mutually susceptible creatures, and that they do so while affecting and being affected by each other as creatures of this kind. Our interaction as human agents is always situated in contingent ethical relationships (commitments), which make self-understanding possible. Our relationships to the world (ontic. epistemic, social, material, historical commitments) are created through our ethical relationships to one another as mutually susceptible, mutually accountable, (intentional) beings (Brandom 1994; Barnes 2000; McGuire and Tuchanska 2001). Such a view takes us beyond a-historical dichotomies of agency and structure, and suggests alternatives to images of agents that reduce human beings to "timeless, featureless, interchangeable and atomistic individuals, untethered to time or space" (Gero 2000: 38). It rejects the very dichotomies of being and of acting, of the self and the acting for others in history on which metaphysics hinges.
These observations would seem to have bearing upon the concerns that are motivating current discussions of the 'problem' of the symbolic, as well as wider questions mentioned as the onset concerning human agency and history. Expressed in summary form, within an ontology on the historicity of human agency and of the symbolic, which gives ethics central roles:
- human beings are not atomistic, interchangeable nodes through which
social systems or cultural histories operate
The implications for the historical significance of human agency are considerable. Such a view suggests that:
- single discrepant experiences and single ethical acts can 'irradiate'
other fields of human experience since they can take on a paradigmatic
quality (as in the arts)
It suggests that:
- it may be ethics (principles the structure human experiences of meanings
and values) that contribute decisively to major historical thresholds,
ruptures, and the emergence of new symbolic discourses or conditions
of possibility for human agency.
One of the questions that runs through this paper is that of whether satisfactory approaches to the 'problem' can be designed on the basis of conceptions of 'the symbolic' that hinge on its opposition to 'the pragmatic' or 'functional'. The various examples mentioned would seem to suggest that it is unlikely that such dualist conceptions will offer much help in this regard. To use Descola and Pálssen's (1996: 12) terms, going beyond dualism means replacing categories of timeless placeless states and substances with approaches that concern historically contingent processes, relations, and conditions of possibility for human lifeways.
What I have tried to show is something of the relevance to the issues posed of an ontology of the historicity of human agency and the symbolic, in which ethics has central roles to play. Such a view implies an argument for change in the status of ethics in contemporary epistemology and ontology. Future discussion might centre on the potential bearing this argument has upon questions like: "What enables us to isolate the unities (epistemic entities) with which our research deals?" "How do we decide on levels of formalisation, scales of analysis and interpretation, and/or attribute causality to successive events?" "Is it possible to illuminate fundamental historical thresholds, ruptures, transformations, without resorting to teleological notions of progress or purpose?"
References in this paper to some of the ways in which these questions
relate to one another may suggest some new directions in the discussion
of "criteria of symbolicity" (Bouissac 2003).
Information: Paul Bouissac
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