Ethnophilosophy: Speculative Logic/Logical Speculation

Let me skip the Hegelian Speculation and the Aristotelian Reasoning.  I am more interested in Speculative Logic or Logical Speculation as a tool for studying culture, considering culture as a reality where there are parts of it that are immaterial, abstract, and unobservable.  I think we can still study a whole house even if we only see its front porch.

The latest news back home has been the ongoing public impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court.  Every night  since last week, I have kept my international  radio on to listen to the probing questions of the senators composing the impeachment court,  the accusations of the prosecution in their articles, and the brilliance of the defense in defending the Chief Justice.  The defense lawyers' arguments are mostly technical and legally verbatim expressed to suppress the truth and save their client.  "Objection, your honor, Sir" is their mantra.

Without technical arguments and convoluted legalities, it is clear to me that the Chief Justice is guilty of perjury, tax evasion, graft and corruption, and ill-gotten wealth.  His only source of income is from the Supreme Court.  He earns around ten thousand dollars a year but his cash, savings, and properties acquired while in the Court can reach as much as a million dollars.  A Supreme Court ruling the Chief Justice himself penned years ago says that if income is not enough to explain assets and properties, there is a  case of ill-gotten wealth and  graft and corruption.  His logic is speculative, and I find it cultural and interesting.

I grew up in a culture where proof  is not always material but abstract and logical.  If there are two people in the house without domestic animals, and an apple on the table suddenly vanishes, either of the two eats it.  If I don't eat it, my brother does.  This kind of  reasoning is irrefutable in my culture.  Denying it will only escalate into arguments and, worse, violence.  We even have words for the denial.  "Linlangin" is to fool, and "mata-matahon" is to make one blind.  The second word is interesting as it suggests that knowing  through reasoning is akin to seeing.  To make one blind is more than an insult.  It is a subtle way of expressing that one is an idiot.

My ageing parents still possess this speculative logic.  They make reasons why I cannot visit them without asking me.   Their reasons are always valid and true.  Instead of thinking about my broken car, they thought of my busy job as the reason why I could not be with them.  I could take a bus anytime.  When I was a kid, they could tell I did not do my homework by just looking at the sweat on my brow and the mud on my slippers and without checking my notebooks.  They knew I took a coin from my piggy bank because of the lollipop I licked.  When my younger brother cried because someone ate his chocolate bar, I got the reprimand; my other brother had a toothache.   

The question I want to explore here is whether we can use such reasoning in studying culture.  In the absence of material evidence or objective observation, can we logically speculate?  I am more in the affirmative on this one.  When I saw shards of Ming vases and plates under the coconut tree in the rice field where I used to watch and count hopping minnows, I thought of China and early Chinese traders.  The pieces of material evidence, to some who are quick to conclude, were enough to prove the link between China and my village.  I thought otherwise.  My grandmother was fond of Chinese ceramics and antiques.  This shows that even an artifact that is material can lead someone to a faulty conclusion.

Again, in the absence of artifacts, historical records, and ethnography, can we speculate?  How do we consider hoarding, for example, as a primitive economic activity of early gatherers?  Unfortunately, we do not have any material evidence, visual or textual, regarding primitive hoarding.  The early cave painters did not leave us a clue.  Using Logical Speculation or Speculative Logic, I can reason out that the gatherers would hoard berries, for example, in a faraway field because they would not go there again until next season or gathering expedition. Hoarding, therefore, was part of their nomadic  way of life.  I can also add that they hoarded to have enough supply to distribute for exchange (a barter/trade with hunters, for example) or to keep for the group's food security.  Ergo, hoarding helped them avoid intra-conflict since limited supply would mean fierce competition.  My reasoning is speculative.  Is my logic sound?  I like to think so.  Although the porch is not the house, what we can logically think of it will lead us to what can be inside.  


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Comment by M Izabel on February 17, 2012 at 4:37am

Thanks, John.  I have no problem with stuff that can be easily proven and crosschecked through material evidence, fieldwork, experiment, and comparative studies.  There are aspects of culture that can only be explained or understood through logical speculation. Even the evolution of a culture itself cannot be easily proven but logically speculated.  If one explores the origin of the belief system of an animist group, his first problem is obviously the starting point.  Through rituals and folklore, he can speculate that maybe the group's ancestors started to believe in spirits and gods because of changing seasons that brought forth abundance and scarcity, flood and famine, illness and cure, and life and death.  Their planting and harvest rituals, healing and funeral chants to the spirits, and birth and wedding ceremonies can lay the basis.  Nobody really can give an exact answer due to the non-existence of material proofs.  The question then  if such speculation is logical?  Then, is the most logical of all speculations the most valid?  The second question is the most problematic as it suggests a set of competing reasons or processes of reasoning.  I always hate the thought that the dominant idea should prevail.  


The application of neuroscience in the study of society and culture is full of logical speculation.  It is understandable because nobody or nothing can give light to what happened to early humans eons ago if the subject is something evolutionary?  For example, the idea of the scavenging hominids of the lower paleolithic cannot just be a result of a fertile imagination but of a logical speculation.  Olfactory receptors are the most primitive-- meaning, the human sense of smell was the first one to become highly-developed among senses.  To logically speculate, maybe early humans could smell the stench of blood or rotting carcasses from afar.  When they smelled it, they scavenged.  We could not really tell if such early mode of subsistence really happened because we had no material evidence.  Unearthed stone tools cannot even support it.  What we have is logic we can fall back on to speculate.    

Comment by John McCreery on February 15, 2012 at 11:39pm

The problem here is the one faced by all attempts to reconstruct what happened from circumstantial evidence. I have mentioned before Nassim Taleb's puddle puzzle. We observe a puddle in a street. Are we looking at a melted ice cube, the result of a recent rain storm or children playing in the water from a fire hydrant, or evidence that a dog recently pissed here? We cannot decide from the evidence of the puddle alone; so we look for additional evidence. 

Your shards of Ming vases pose a similar problem. Are they where you find them because Ming dynasty traders brought them to the Philippines? Are they there because your grandmother was a collector and some items in her collection got broken? Could both propositions be true, i.e., the vases in question were brought to the Philippines by Ming Dynasty Chinese traders but were later acquired by your grandmother? We can't tell from the shards alone. We must look for additional evidence.

Nothing terribly remarkable here. The archeologists among us confront this sort of problem all the time. What do potsherds tell you? By themselves, not much. But map their stratigraphy and spatial distribution, note other artifacts found with them, extract relevant information from climate or pollen or soil data, compare their materials, decorations, etc., from potsherds found at other sites. A plausible story begins to emerge. 

Ethnographers cannot avoid this problem by claiming "I was there." Eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable unless carefully cross-checked with multiple witnesses. And omniscient ethnographers who see and note everything relevant are, one suspects, about as rare as God Almighty.

Native informants may be no more reliable than ethnographers themselves. I vividly recall the complaint of a BMW brand manager whose task was to evaluate headlines written in Japanese, a language in which he was far from fluent. He complained that when he asked ten members of his Japanese staff what the headlines met, he always got at least twenty answers. Cross-checking with multiple witnesses and comparing what is said with circumstantial evidence remains an unavoidable part of sound field work. 

Speculative logic? Fun to play with. Sound scholarship? Always looks for more evidence—especially evidence that challenges the assumptions with which speculation begins.


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