One of the more dismaying aspects of growing old is to find old ideas reappearing in new clothes–like the tricycle you had long ago got rid of showing up at a garage sale, badly repainted. Consider for example the currently popular cliche: “subtext.” It is what we used to call “subliminal message.” The difference is that one took its meaning from then popular Freudian psychiatry while the other is borrowed from literary criticism. Since there is more intellectual meat in psychiatry than in litcrit, I prefer the older term, though it carries its own subliminal message; namely, that it is subliminal because psychological processes make us want to keep it from being overt. But this is a minor matter; one of words, not theories.
I want to discuss the habit of recycling ideas because I think it displays a serious flaw in anthropological teaching, in anthropological research and in anthropological thinking. It is not the way to achieve scientific progress. The ideal of scientific investigation is to establish a dialogue between theory and empirical research: theoretical formulations leading to research programs; the research testing a hypothesis and, if found inadequate (as is usually the case), altering it to fit the new data; which in turn is to be tested. This is the way the “hard” sciences work and in this we should try to emulate them.
This paper in its original form was presented at a session of the Senior Anthropologists’ Association at the Annual Meeting of the AAA in 1990.