Friday, 18 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 8: Tools of the trade

Carpentry hand tools
דולב (Dolev)
Archaeologists who specialize in the La Tène period are a special breed. As the period spans the prehistoric and the historic (protohistoric), it demands more of us and yet it makes it very difficult. The detailed accounts of Caesar and the survival of early Irish laws reflecting the La Tène, gives us a little more but means that we cannot be satisfied with just the things of prehistory: how people lived, what they ate, and how they were buried. The arrival of the Romans, too, equates virtually to cultural genocide and is like a barricade across the timeline. Not only did they destroy much, but they have seduced so many scholars into thinking of everything in Roman terms, that it seems to many that what existed before the Romans was all barbaric and uncivilized. Celtic numismatists see their coins as belonging to the greater Greek world, and they are certainly that, but with some very different functions. Mythologists frequently huddle together in the Roman period where it is nice and safe and where Latin inscriptions and Roman gods with Celtic "surnames" guarantee that any limbs that we climb out on do not too easily break. I am virtually alone in trying to make sense of pre-Roman iconography. The linguist suffers from the fact that it was a predominantly a non-literate society (not illiterate) and they have to apply their rules to backtrack from more modern languages and add to the earlier Indo European broader categories.

I asked an American professor of history and classical numismatist (David MacDonald) why he did what he did. I already knew that he was something like the great Martyn Jope who had little tolerance for academic empire building and politics, and I personally adopted his reply: "To exercise the mind and to delight the senses". That, I think, is why we all "do La Tène". It is not for the public good, or so that we can learn from history -- what utter nonsense that is. That is the excuse of those who just want "funding", status and safe jobs. Cut off the funding and those sort of people just sit there and do nothing, or get other jobs. They have no passion and thus contribute very little.

All of us like the period because it is so tough. Those who specialize in easier periods, but are of the same mind-set seek out the most difficult and rise to its challenges. The rest just cry and complain when things are not handed to them on a platter and then run home to mummy.

So how do we do it with such holes in the information? I'll hand you over to Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis, Philadelphia,  1983, p.67f:
"A scientist is always under the obligation to give a rational account of what is right and wrong in the theory that is being displaced and to explain how his or her theory can account for what is "true" in the preceding theory (when adequately reconstructed) and what is "false" or inadequate. Of course, we do this with reference to what we now take to be the best possible scientific reasons that can be given -- reasons embedded in the social practices that have been "hammered out." To admit (or rather insist) the likelihood that in the future there will be modifications of the standards, reasons, and practices we now employ does not lead to epistemological skepticism but only to a realization of human fallibility and the finitude of human rationality. (The skeptic is always playing on the fear that unless we achieve finality we have not achieved anything and that we might discover someday that we have been totally mistaken in what we take to be warranted. The point is not so much to refute this variety of skepticism as to see through it, to see that the seduction of such skepticism depends on accepting a notion of what counts as knowledge and what counts as rationality that needs to be abandoned.)
"The philosopher who most carefully and penetratingly distinguishes epistemological skepticism from human fallibilism is Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce criticizes the picture of scientific reasoning that represents it as a linear movement from premises to conclusions or from individual "facts" to generalizations. In its place he emphasizes the multiple strands and diverse types of evidence, data, hunches, and arguments used to support a scientific hypothesis or theory. Any one of these strands may be weak in itself and insufficient to support the proposed theory, but collectively they provide a stronger warrant for rational belief than any single line of argument -- like a strong cable that is made up of multiple weak strands. This shift in characterizing scientific argumentation is one of the reasons Peirce so emphasized the community of inquirers -- for it is only in and through such a critical community that one can adequately test the collective strength of such multiple argumentation."
If you do not follow this sage advice, you will never be great. It is the very method of all the great minds in research history that have ever been. So if you do follow it, does that mean that you will be great? Of course, not. In fact the chances are going to be very slim. But it doesn't matter. Will you at least accomplish your research goals? There's no guarantee whatsoever, and that doesn't matter, either. But it will exercise your mind and it will delight your senses and that is what really matters.

I will be taking motifs and will attempt to track their syncretistic development. Ideally, I will bracket them within a longer period than the target. I will, as usual, use whatever interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary means at my disposal. I will not, in the best postmodern tradition, exclude myself from the work. True and total objectivity is an illusion, but it is just dishonesty to attempt to hide the fact. I will also, following the advice of a naturalist (I think it was Konrad Lorenz, but I might be wrong) include all of the problems and apparently (to some) crazy methods, false starts, and blind alleys that are the true meat of real research, and that without, students can only imagine that if they could just come up with the right hypothesis then they, too, will discover great things. That is the illusion that most scientific writing gives them (poor, hopeless, dears). I will give extra emphasis to archetypes of course: the things that traverse cultural barriers and that all humans share. And then I will wrap it all up with the resulting conclusion. At the end of it all will be a newly discovered and unique religion that was hiding under our noses all this time. See you on Monday.

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