Ernest Gellner, 1925--1995

28 May 1998 15:42

British philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist, self-described Enlightenment rationalist fundamentalist, born to Czech parents in Paris and raised in Prague, where he lived the last few years of his life, and died in 1995. He received a very thorough training in the Wittgensteinian "linguistic" or "ordinary language" philosophy fashionable in Britain (and more particularly Oxford) in the '50s, and found himself quite unable to believe it, so he ran away to become an anthropologist, and studied the Berbers because a mountaineering group at the London School of Economics organized a trip to the Atlas. His first book, Words and Things (1959; preface by Russell, to whom he dedicated his second book) combined a crushing philosophical critique of linguistic philosophy with a sociological analysis of "the narodniks of North Oxford", "an intelligentsia without ideas." It was at once a succès de scandale (probably the only kind Gellner wanted, frankly) and the first real demonstration of his style: a devastating, hilarious combination of learning and intellectual seriousness with verbal play and irreverence, in particular an almost uncanny talent for finding apt, mocking names for things and ideas.

Most of Gellner's writing consists of essays and reviews, in which a fairly limited number of themes crop up again and again; if you like what he says, he brings to mind kaleidescopes, and if you don't, he just seems repetitive. (I think he was a superb kaleidescope, but even so, when reading Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, his one genuinely bad book, I reached the point where I said to myself, "If he says `terms of reference' again, I'll scream"; and I did.) Most of these themes themselves revolve around the "great hump" or "great ditch", which divides the modern world from pre-modern civilizations.

On the far side of the ditch from us lies Agraria, a realm of "agro-literate polities" subject to "the tyranny of kings or cousins (or both)", consisting mostly of highly isolated, custom-bound, illiterate rural producers with magical, ritualistic, socially-oriented religions, dominated and exploited by "the red and the black," expert coercers and literate classes practicing various technically ineffective, self-confirming, meaningful or enchanted forms of cognition, which tended more towards universalism, rule-boundedness and scripturalism than did the folk-cults. Those of us on this side of the ditch have "escaped from the idiocy of rural life" (a phrase he cheerfully took from Marx) through a lucky accident, a "miracle". Sometime about three or four hundred years ago, in an otherwise none-too-promising penninsula of Asia, circumstances conspired to bring forth a kind of cognition which was cumulative, technically effective, and of no value as either a social cement or an emotional comfort --- science, and the epistemologies descended from Descartes (in Gellner's view, much better as charters for science, and prescriptive accounts of how to go about it, than as descriptions of how the world works or how messy human beings actually think). This was combined with classes of people who were more interested in producing wealth than in either theological or political disputes, and polities which, in exchange for tax revenue, were willing to let them alone. Wealth accumulated, and accumulated faster as technological progress became regular and accelerating; production became dominant (an unusual condition; in Gellner's view, Marx's main mistake was to think that production was always dominant, to deny the "autonomy of coercion"), eventually buying off the population at large ("the social bribery fund"; Gellner probably under-estimated the degree of struggle needed to establish "the Danegeld state"). Socially, these societies are (at least relative to their predecessors) liberal, permissive, rich, powerful, secularized, engaged in "single-stranded" activities (e.g., in buying food we worry about taste and cost, not marriage alliances or the need not to alienate our grocer lest he not stand with us in the next feud), peaceful, atomized, economically unstable and culturally homogenous.

The last two, economic change and cultural homogeneity, are, Gellner claims, connected, and together give rise to nationalism: his theory of how this happens is brilliant, innovative and convincing, and I've summarized it in my review of Nations and Nationalism, so I shan't repeat it here.

There's more, of course, though related to this: thoughts on how to get beliefs to spread without their passing proper tests of cognitive legitimacy; general considerations on the "legitimation of beliefs"; the effects of crossing the ditch on the former "artisans of cognition", the humanist intellectuals; how, if at all, liberal, industrial, charter-less societies can hold together; the "Rubber Cage" of advanced industrialism, where rationality in science and production co-exists with exuberant nonsense in the rest of life; the idea that "positivism is right, for Hegelian reasons"; Ibn Khaldun and traditional Islamic society; why contemporary Islamic societies are not secularizing; the problems with the philosophies of Popper, Quine; his inspiration from Hume, Kant, Weber, Durkeheim; the impossibility of Cosmic Exile and the necessity of its function.

The two books I'd recommend starting with (it's hard to pick between them) are Plough, Sword, and Book, and Nations and Nationalism.