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Raymond Corbey’s Leiden experience: Meet the ‘embedded philosopher’

Raymond Corbey holds a chair in both Philosophy of Science and Anthropology at the Faculty of Archaeology, to which he has been attached since 1993. The faculty’s 'embedded philosopher', as Dean Kolen likes to call him, is hard to pin down in terms of the usual specialties at the faculty because of the highly interdisciplinary nature of his activities.

Corbey’s research interests and teaching range from philosophical views influencing archaeological interpretation to ritual art in New Guinea and to the lithic analysis of handaxes. That’s rather broad, and the same goes for his supervision of doctoral research.

'I was trained in philosophy as well as in anthropology ,' he comments, 'and both of these disciplines stick their nose into almost everything. So, that’s what I do, too! My broad interests may be confusing for some people, but the common denominator is my interest in theoretical and methodological issues which are at stake in all periods and regions under study at the faculty, and in all its disciplines and sub-disciplines.'

So your specialty is not being specialized? 'Yes. The challenge, time and again, is to analyse how abstract viewpoints feed into the interpretation of concrete data. That’s the exercise in my epistemology classes.'


How do you define “epistemology”? 'Analyzing knowledge: methods, validity, scope, and what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion. You can also call it philosophy of science. It comprises the study not so much of archaeological, stratigraphical, or palaeoanthropological data as such, but of the ways these data are handled conceptually, in terms of basic assumptions. The idea of “ways of worldmaking” (Nelson Goodman), or “conceptual schemes” (Hilary Putnam, also a favourite of Dean Kolen), is an excellent tool for archaeology students to take a step back and reflect on what they are doing.'

Loess and chalk quarries

How did you end up in archaeology? 'Like several of my Leiden colleagues, including Jan Kolen, Wil Roebroeks and Luc Amkreutz, I started out as an amateur archaeologist. As a ten year old boy growing up in Limburg, I was fortunate to be supervised by a number of very knowledgeable people. I picked up a good deal of hands-on experience in geology and paleontology in the region where I grew up, exploring its many loess and chalk quarries, and gravel pits. Halfway through my academic work in  philosophy, Wil Roebroeks asked me to take part in his Leiden-based research program Changing Views of Ice Age Foragers.'

You’ve never left. 'Indeed. Living and working in Leiden has been very gratifying for me. My three favourite Leiden museums (Ethnology, Natural History, and Antiquities) never fail to make me feel proud and happy as I pass them on my bike. Or the delight when André Ramcharan at the faculty’s Zoology Laboratory allows me to peep through his microscope at some Pleistocene mice teeth with their beautiful colours and patinas.'

Examining a group of ancestor figures from NW New Guinea in the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam), in preparation of a book (2019). More info: https://www.artoftheancestors.com/blog/korwar-raymond-corbey

Sitting on the fence

One of your pet slogans is “sitting on the fence”. What’s that? 'Archaeologists handle their data: stones and bones, spatial configurations. They talk about stratigraphy and taphonomy. I sit on the fence, as it were, focusing on my own data: the discourse of these archaeologists. Analysing it I talk about theory-laden observation, paradigms, incommensurablity, or abduction as a type of argument. In my epistemology classes the students are invited to sit on the fence with me and put on a philosophy hat. Reflection presupposes distance, taking a step back!'

In the field you sit on the fence as well? 'Ha ha ha, in fact, yes, indeed, quite literally! I love to visit ongoing excavations. In the field I learned a lot from our Caribbean colleagues, from Peter Akkermans and his team in Syria, and in particular from palaeolithic archaeologists in France. Already during Roebroeks’ 1980s fieldwork in a quarry near Maastricht I used to sit on heap a of loess, smoking cigars, observing, joking, instead of digging. Some found this amusing, others thought I was a lazy nuisance.'


This resembles fieldwork as conducted by ethnologists. 'Exactly: participant observation, involved, yet at a distance. As an ethnologist I cannot help but see the structural similarity between my position and that of the Renaissance court jester, or the trickster character in myths and rituals: stand-offish, ambiguous characters who do and don’t belong at the same time, who joke and provoke. Go-betweens between social categories, betwixt-and-between, marginal and yet in some sense central and crucial to what is going on.'

Marcel Mauss

Next to epistemology you also teach anthropology. 'I cater ethnology to archaeologists as one of their germane auxiliary disciplines. I stress Marcel Mauss’ theorizing from the 1920s on the reciprocal exchange of gifts, services and courtesies as constitutive of social formations and identities. Mauss has proven immensely valuable in archaeology, witness the work of David Fontijn and that of Frans Theuws, who are using his insights in interestingly different ways.'

Evolutionary anthropology

What are you into presently research-wise? 'One of my longstanding research interests is cognitive and behavioural evolution in early hominins. As a philosopher I’ve always closely collaborated with cognitive neuroscientists. I even took a BA degree in cognitive science, because I feel that philosophy without serious empirical input makes no sense. In recent years I’ve been looking into the problems and promise of early stone tools as “fossilized” behaviour and proxies for cognition, and specifically the possibility of some degree of genetic control of tool making resulting from selection on tool behaviours.'

Pass on the trowel

In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Raymond Corbey passed on the proverbial trowel to André Ramcharan, who will be interviewed for the newsletter of May 2020.

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