Fossil bones are part of the landscape. Digging exposes them but does not elucidate them. Radiometric and other dating techniques uncover their place in time and allow a particular imagined structure to take shape — perhaps an early form of australopithecine is imaginatively reconstructed — but the classification of an imagined structure is not the end of an explanation or understanding of the fossil bones. Paleontology is a science; it is also, however, a history. Transposing the past into the present, the paleontologist wants to say of his fossil reconstructions what Hamlet said of Yorick: "I know him well." Thus theories concerning early hominids are a result of what might or perhaps even should be called paleontological hermeneutics: where the would-be texts are fossils and where, consequently, a sense of life, continuity, and wholeness needs to be fleshed out in order that the text be there to interpret, what is requisite is a grasping of existential as well as structural and functional significations. It is a matter then not only of explaining a certain sequence of events - why a certain change in joint structure was successful or how certain practices were preadaptive to later capacities, for example it is also a matter of understanding a whole — an individual, a living presence and the day to day actuality of that living form.


Presented at the 11th Annual Philosophy Colloquium of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Dayton, held in March 1982.



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