Issue 128, June 2015

Ernest Gellner and Historical Sociology


The principal aim of this special issue is to shed light on the broader scope of Gellner’s work with a view to demonstrating the contemporary relevance of his ideas. More specifically, the ambition is to engage with his key theories and concepts in philosophy of history and historical sociology and to assess whether they have withstood the test of time. In this context all nine articles focus on different aspects of Gellner’s work. Although the contributors find Gellner a highly original and inspiring social theorist, all of the papers in the volume offer critical perspectives on Gellner’s ideas. In the spirit of judicious inquiry that Gellner himself advocated, the contributions aim to critically probe Gellner’s intellectual legacy.

from the Introduction by Guest Editor Siniša Malešević




Gellner, science and globalization

Ralph Schroeder

Abstract: Cognition, or scientific knowledge, is the fulcrum of Gellner’s philosophy of history. Science, for Gellner, is central to understanding the rise of the West and also to his defence of Enlightenment rationality against postmodernism and other forms of relativism. This way of thinking has recently been challenged, first, by global historians who locate the ‘great divergence’ in the 19th century rather than earlier, and second, by those who assign to the Enlightenment a pernicious role and argue that rationality and scientific knowledge are inextricably bound to particular social contexts, for good or ill. Gellner’s ideas can be defended against these challenges, but this requires, first, distinguishing between rationality and science and, second, tracing the course of science and technology outside of the West. Once this defence is in place, Gellner’s ideas about the relation between cognition on one side and production and coercion can also be re-examined: here, too, his account requires revision since the idea that rationality ‘trumps’ the other two orders needs to be specified on the ground: in everyday life, for example, scientific knowledge is rather remote, and so often does not supersede other social dynamics. This also relates to other tensions in the relation between science, technology and everyday life: as Gellner noted, technology yields rubber as well as iron cages, but consumer technologies are now in some respects on a path towards unsustainable growth. Separating this problem from cognition is a further task. These refinements to Gellner’s ideas provide a basis for rethinking the connection he makes between liberalism and modern cognition.

Gellner’s case against cognitive relativism

Rod Aya

Abstract: Moral relativism is a tragedy and cognitive relativism is a farce – so Gellner argues. First the tragedy: moral relativism is consistent and compelling given moral diversity and contention worldwide. Then the farce: cognitive relativism is self-contradictory and logically false; it is also absurd in view of hard science, which gets testable, cumulative, applicable results that yield high tech; and it is insidious – where logical consistency and empirical accuracy are a dead letter, mummery rules.

After ideocracy and civil society: Gellner, Polanyi and the new peripheralization of Central Europe

Chris Hann

Abstract: Behind only that of Bronislaw Malinowski, the influence of the Central European polymaths Ernest Gellner and Karl Polanyi on socio-cultural anthropology in the 20th century was profound. Gellner and Polanyi also influenced much wider swathes of scholarship. They belong to different generations and were raised in quite different settings in Prague and Budapest respectively. What these thinkers have in common is a philosophy of history which posits the industrial revolution in northwest Europe as a radical rupture in Weltgeschichte. Polanyi’s ‘great transformation’, with its focus on the economy, corresponds to Gellner’s metaphor of the ‘big ditch’ and focus on a new polity. The cultural homogenization of the nation-state and the disembedding of the economy from society in the era of free trade are two sides of the same coin. This paper argues that these complementary models derive to a considerable degree from the scholars’ background on the margins of industrializing Europe, in the ruins of the Habsburg Empire.

Platonism: Ernest Gellner, Greco-Roman society and the comparative study of the pre-modern world

Peter Fibiger Bang

Abstract: This paper explores the reception of Gellner’s historical sociology among students of pre-modern societies and the Greco-Roman world in particular and asks how his thought is still relevant to the field. This involves discussion of recent trends in world history as well as new comparative work on ancient state and elite formation. A main contention of the paper is that Gellner’s sociological reading of Plato and his politics may be one of the most interesting modern interpretations of the ancient Greek thinker on offer and one which can serve as a fruitful framework for the comparative study of complex, pre-industrial societies.

Once more and for the last time: Ernest Gellner’s later thoughts on nations and empires

Krishan Kumar

Abstract: Gellner is mostly known for his theory of nationalism, which he saw as antithetical to the principle of the multinational, hierarchical, empire. But like his LSE colleague Elie Kedourie, Gellner was fascinated by empire. In his last, posthumously published work, Language and Solitude, Gellner returned to the region of his childhood, the former Habsburg Empire, to explore its impact on the work of Malinowski and Wittgenstein. This essay will reflect on Gellner’s thoughts about empire, and the way in which he assessed their necessary disappearance – as he thought – in the modern world.

Where does group solidarity come from? Gellner and Ibn Khaldun revisited

Siniša Malešević

Abstract: Gellner relied extensively on the work of Ibn Khaldun to understand both the dynamics of social order in North Africa and Islam’s alleged resistance to secularization. However, what the two scholars also shared is their focus on the social origins and functions of group solidarity. For Ibn Khaldun the concept of asabiyyah was central in understanding the strength of long-term group loyalties. In his view, asabiyyah was a fundamental and elementary cohesive bond of human societies which originated in nomadic tribal structures and retained significance in the early formation of complex states and empires. For Gellner, the shape and character of group solidarity is heavily dependent on the economic foundations of a particular social order: foragers require small group bonds for mere survival, the agrarian universe stratifies solidarity and utilizes cultural bonds to differentiate between the ruling aristocrats and the plough-tied serfs, whereas the industrial world generates solidarity from incessant economic growth and state-induced, cross-class, national identifications. Thus, for Gellner, solidarity remains the central force that keeps social orders together. This paper provides a critical analysis of the Khaldunian and Gellnerian models of group solidarity and offers an alternative interpretation that places the social impact of micro-solidarity in the long-term development of ideological and coercive forms of social organization.

Ernest Gellner and the land of the Soviets

Liliana Riga

Abstract: Ernest Gellner’s many writings on the Soviet socialist project sought to come to terms with one of the key sociological and ideological arcs of the 20th century: the rise and fall of a utopian experiment, one that for some served as a kind of proof of principle, whose modern intellectual origins were more than 170 years old at the time of its demise. Gellner loved Russia and spent much time there. And he engaged with its 20th century very deeply, although I think from a very distinctive position outside of the Soviet experience. His analyses of the socialist bloc included attention to Soviet Marxism as a developmental ideology, as a secular religion that sacralized the everyday, leaving no room for a certain kind of civil society; and he offered the outlines of an account of its failure – from its revolutionary heroism through the cynicism of its stagnation to the possibilities and constraints of so-called post-socialist space. Along the way, Gellner’s insistent critiques of Soviet Marxism – of both its theoretical and actually-existing varieties – were powerful, sometimes polemical, and latterly self-critical. So what can we now make of Gellner’s rich analyses of the utopia that failed? This paper offers relative departures from pieces of Gellner’s intellectual trail, in the hope that at least part of the significance of the 20th century lies within the lessons that we draw from the utopia that failed.

Gellner’s genealogy of the open society: Biopolitics as fragment and remainder

Kevin Ryan

Abstract: A decade before Foucault began to work with the related concepts of biopolitics and biopower, Gellner posed a series of questions which are suggestive of a similar line of inquiry. Gellner did not pursue this strand of his thought as an historical sociologist however. Instead he packaged it into a functionalist account of how industrial society reproduces itself. In Gellner’s writings, biopolitics is both present and absent, like a redacted text. This is the focus of this article, which locates Gellner’s method of inquiry within a corpus of genealogical studies that includes the work of Polanyi, Weber and Foucault. What distinguishes Gellner is that the history he reconstructs is a story of achievement in the face of terrible historical odds, but this culminates in a normative genealogy that limits the scope for critical analysis. The article concludes by adopting an alternative – yet still Gellnerian – approach to the question of social reproduction, thereby using Gellner to critique Gellner.

Is secularism history?

Gregor McLennan

Abstract: In recent years, the intellectual tide has moved strongly against the kind of secular thinking that characterized Gellner’s work. Whether couched in terms of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, genealogy, global understanding, political theology, or the revival of normative, metaphysical and openly religious perspectives, today’s postsecular and even anti-secular mood in social theory seems to consign Gellner’s project to the dustbin of history: a stern but doomed attempt to shore up western liberal rationalism. Under some revisionary lights, it has even become pointless to distinguish flexible secular thinking which still retains some firm ‘bottom lines’ from what is routinely portrayed as rampant ideological secularism. Unconvinced by key assumptions and motivations on this terrain, I reactivate Gellner’s essential concerns and propositions around secularity and secularism, feeding these into the current debates. Whilst Gellner’s stringent, unrivalled exposure of intellectual cant continues to be hugely valuable, and his sense of the utter historicity of social life and thought indispensable, Gellner’s critical positivism could not, by his own admission, produce a coherent cultural politics.

Review essay

Steve Matthewman

Risk society revisited, again

Book review