Collingwood, Geertz and the cognitive value of the Human Sciences

by | Jul 28, 2019 | Inglese | 0 comments

In the first half of the last century, the neo-positivist philosophers permanently introduced into Western culture the idea that the only doctrine endowed with universal value, namely Science, was based on empirical experience and all that was outside of it was only an impression, an unverifiable, unknowable datum, of metaphysical nature. According to this neo positivist and empiricist perspective, a sentence can be verified only when a certain number of observations obtained from the experience attesting to certain truth conditions (induction) is available. With the application of the criteria of the Empirical sciences to Archeology, for some decades there has been an attempt to extend the method of quantitative and statistical investigation also to the study of prehistoric images that were increasingly discovered in every part of the world. The attempt was partly justified by the impression, at the time very felt and in some cases truthful, that a part of the arguments produced to demonstrate the meaning of prehistoric images was supported by subjective data or theoretical reconstructions whose weakness was often to be attributed to a non-correct use of the comparative method.

In the following years, scholars of Prehistoric Iconography have become increasingly aware of the fact that, to recognize its validity, an interpretation requires accurate documentation, in the absence of which the only possible choice is simply to provide a corpus of data As complete as possible, postponing the attribution of a meaning to better times. Years ago, while I was conducting a research that aimed to discover the meaning of an ancient game for children, the Hopscotch game, (Italian: Gioco del Mondo, Settimana, Campana; French: Marelle; Spanish: Rayuela), my rapprochement with the philosophy of science has occurred.

The rules of this game, but even more the geometry of the path on which we still play today, in my opinion, constituted (and still constitute today) a formidable point of access to the understanding of prehistoric Cosmology, which constitutes the inevitable premise for the study of the origins of dance. I presented the report on the cosmological structure of the game of bell at the 12th archeoastronomy seminar (Genoa, April 2010) with great interest and a broad intersubjective agreement. When, a few months later, I sent the English translation of my lesson to some scholars of prehistoric art, the path of my research turned out to be much more difficult, to the point of inducing me to begin the study of philosophy again to find out what kind of conformity existed between my interpretative hypothesis and the logical criteria of epistemology and hermeneutics.

Over the next two years I was able to radically change my theoretical perspective. If before I was convinced that the hypotheses formulated by the scholars of Prehistoric Iconography were only a “game in the field of the non-verifiable”, as W. Burkert  argued (Homo necans, 1981 p. 36), the recovery of a “logical” competence had introduced in my research model important novelties: it provided me with some logical tools with which it was concretely possible to reach the long pursued certainties, putting myself in a position to formulate my hypotheses with an appropriate language (G. Ragazzi, Epistemologia e Iconografia Preistorica, BCSC nr. 37, 2014). In the course of this “second navigation” it has become clear that disciplines such as prehistoric iconography and archeology cannot be subjected to the quantitative criteria of natural sciences, just as the laws of nature cannot explain the complexity of human facts , especially the symbolic ones. In this regard, a decisive contribution came to me from reading “The idea of history”, by R.G. Collingwood (1966), which profoundly illuminated my cognitive path. 

According to Collingwood, the relationship between a cause and its effect in the physical world is something very different from what human logic establishes between a reason (or intention) and the behavior that follows from it. Human behavior does not follow natural laws, it is not guided by causes, but by rules, and every rule has value as it is inscribed in a rigid code that is confirmed and preserved by a specific historical community. It is true that modern historical research – continues Collingwood – has grown in the shadow of its older brother, the method of natural sciences. However, the two cognitive models of human and natural sciences preserve their distance and their autonomy. To confirm this, it is enough to recall the failed attempt by the philosopher CG Hempel to adapt the causal explanation model (nomological-deductive model) to the statements of the humanities that, due to their particular content, are not subject to the criteria of natural sciences. Collingwood then came to the conclusion that, due to its particular content, the object of modern ethno-demo-anthropological research escapes the criteria of natural sciences.

Experience teaches us that human actions occur in a different way: motives, inclinations, desires, intentions that underlie human behavior do not seem to make their causal link depend on a law of nature. Man, as an object of study, is qualitatively different from the objects of physical sciences. Man observes and interprets the rules of behavior, while the objects of physical sciences follow mechanisms of which they have no awareness. While the events studied by the natural sciences must be evaluated exclusively on the basis of their apparent external conformation, and only that, human events possess an external conformation, bodies and movements, and an internal one, which must be described not in terms of causes , but of reasons. For Collingwood the relation between reason (or intention) and action is different from that which in the physical world links an effect to its cause. The laws of nature cannot adequately explain human behavior. More than natural laws, man follows rules, and the rule refers to a cultural norm established by a community. The rules give meaning to the behavior, but do not cause it; the laws that regulate human events are not laws of nature but of culture.
For the scholars who study archaic symbols, such as the geometries that children draw on the ground before playing Hopscotch Game, the anthropologist Clifford J. Geertz offers a very special stimulus: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”.(C. Geertz, Interpretation of culture, 1973). According to Geertz, the mission of the Archaeologist of Knowledge – epithet that well embodies the figure of the scholar of Prehistoric Iconography – must be realized in the awareness that the body of data that observation makes available is only the starting point of the research, certainly not that of arrival. According to the teaching of the great thinkers who preceded us (E. Anati, J. D. lewis Williams, J. Clottes, A. Leroy-Gourhan) Prehistoric Cosmology, which is one of the pillars for understanding the dance of origins, is the object of an “interpretative science in search of meaning”, certainly not an experimental science in search for laws “. Through the analysis of the figurative elements that make up the entire image, the Archaeologist of Knowledge can trace the thought of the artist who produced it and the society to which it belonged. But if someone can recover a prehistoric image engraved or painted on a stone surface, only the one who observes and interprets correctly can return the value of the past.
`If you would learn to know the invisible, observe the visible with open eyes” (Talmud).

La Danza delle Origini

Versione cartacea

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


C’era una volta il Torchio

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


L’ Albero del Tempo

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi



Leave a Reply

Visualizza carrello
%d bloggers like this: