Inference to the best explanation: A common and effective form of archaeological reasoning

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45 Scopus citations


Processual and postprocessual archaeologists implicitly employ the same epistemological system to evaluate the worth of different explanations: inference to the best explanation. This is good since inference to the best explanation is the most effective epistemological approach to archaeological reasoning available. Underlying the logic of inference to the best explanation is the assumption that the explanation that accounts for the most evidence is also most likely to be true. This view of explanation often reflects the practice of archaeological reasoning better than either the hypothetico- deductive method or hermeneutics. This article explores the logic of inference to the best explanation and provides clear criteria to determine what makes one explanation better than another. Explanations that are empirically broad, general, modest, conservative, simple, testable, and address many perspectives are better than explanations that are not. This article also introduces a system of understanding explanation that emphasizes the role of contrastive pairings in the construction of specific explanations. This view of explanation allows for a better understanding of when, and when not, to engage in the testing of specific explanations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)603-625
Number of pages23
JournalAmerican Antiquity
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2007
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Archaeology
  • Museology

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