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Ernest Gellner: Plough, Sword, and Book:
the structure of human history
(Collins Harville: 1988)


“Any attempt at understanding of our collective or individual predicaments must needs be spelt out against the backcloth of a vision of human history.... We inevitably assume a pattern of human history. There is simply no choice concerning whether we use such a pattern. We are, all of us, philosophical historians malgre nous, whether we wish it or not. The only choice we do have is whether we make our vision as explicit, coherent and compatible with available facts as we can, or whether we employ it more or less unconsciously and incoherently.... [But] the great paradox of our age is that although it is undergoing social and intellectual change of totally unprecedented speed and depth, its thought has become, in the main, unhistorical or ahistorical.... The joint result of our inescapable need for possessing some backcloth vision of history, and of the low esteem in which elaboration of global historical patterns is at present held, is a most paradoxical situation: the ideas of nineteenth-century philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Comte, or Spencer are treated with scant respect, and yet are everywhere in use.”
(Gellner, pp.11-12)

And, as Gellner argued, we can do far, far better than that. Ernest Gellner was unique: a polymath, whose writings brilliantly balanced philosophical sophistication and vernacular bluntness, he initially trained as a philosopher, only to rebel against the relentless abstractions...by running away from home in order to become an anthropologist. As a result, however, he was perhaps singularly qualified for this endeavour, which - in some ways - sought to re-invent the (now virtually defunct) discipline of philosophical anthropology...by asking the genuinely big questions: like, exactly how did we end up here, and what kind of peoples did we meet along the way?

While the result is - in general - a tour de force, it should also be pointed out that it does have some shortcomings. Gellner is relatively uninterested in - and overly skeptical about - the evidence we have relating to mobile hunter/gatherers. Thus, his book pays little attention to human pre-history - something which readers will have to investigate via other sources. And, whilst he does note the importance of writing, he pays no attention to the differential impact of varying systems - particularly the alphabet - and fails to mention printing at all. Similarly, he dismisses the financial input of Western commercial imperialism in fuelling the Industrial Revolution, thus missing two of the key inputs into the main historical transition he attempts to explain: the shift from agrarian to industrial civilization...


“Agrarian societies produce food, store it, and acquire other forms of storable wealth.... The need for a labour force and defence personnel inclines them to place a high value on procreation, and consequently they display a tendency to push their population to a danger point.... [As well, they] tend to develop complex social differentiation, an elaborate division of labour. Two specialisms in particular become of paramount importance: the emergence of a specialized ruling class, and of a specialized clerisy (specialists in cognition, legitimation, salvation, ritual).... In societies which make up what we shall call Agraria, innovation does occur, but not as part of some constant, cumulative and exponential process. Agraria values stability, and generally conceives the world and its own social order as basically stable. Some agrarian social forms at least seem to be deliberately organized so as to avoid the dangers of possibly disruptive innovations. Ancestors, or past institutional forms, perhaps in idealized versions, are held up as the moral norm, the prescriptive ideal.”
(Gellner, pp.16-17)

On the positive side, though, Gellner is an incisive social theorist, familiar with an extraordinarily broad range of evidence, and unafraid to go against disciplinary - and political - platitudes when the evidence supports such a stance. But, the greatest strength of this work is the sheer range of factors he integrates into his account - despite missing a few! - and the clear way he accounts for the very different modes of thought evinced by other cultures...ways of thought which were - until very recently - the totally dominant human approach to cognition:


“In a complex, large, atomized and specialized society, single-shot activities can be ‘rational’. This then means that they are governed by a single aim or criterion, whose satisfaction can be assessed with some precision and objectivity. Their instrumental effectiveness, ‘rationality’, can be ascertained. A man making a purchase is simply interested in buying the best commodity for the least price. Not so in a many-stranded social context: a man buying something from a village neighbor in a tribal community is dealing not only with a seller, but also with a kinsman, collaborator, ally or rival, potential supplier of a bride for his son, fellow juryman, ritual participant, fellow defender of the village, fellow council member.... In such circumstances, a man can live up to a norm, but he cannot really serve a clear aim.... When there is a multiplicity of incommensurate values, some imponderable, a man can only feel, and allow his feelings to be guided by the overall expectations or preconceptions of his culture. He cannot calculate.... The fewer the members of a community, the more conflated, many-purpose, its agenda.... [And] the same kind of many-strandedness is clearly also likely to pervade the use of language ...[for] the conflation and confusion of functions, of aims and criteria, is the normal, original condition of mankind. And it is important to grasp this point fully. A multi-functional expression is not one in which a man combines a number of meanings because he is in a hurry, and his  language has offered him a package deal: on the contrary, the conflated meanings constitute, for him, a single and indivisible semantic content.... Hence it is wrong to see the traditional use of language as primarily referential (with non-referential elements as a kind of irrelevant impurity); but it would be equally wrong to see it as wholly unrelated to nature. The crucial point is that its links to nature are meshed in with other elements, and that the various diverse links to nature do not and cannot fuse into a single pure, referential account of an independent, extra-social system.”
(Gellner, pp.44-52)

“[In] pre-scientific societies...the social elements in each sub-system form a reasonably coherent whole with the social elements in the other sub-systems of the language; it is the empirical constituents of the diverse diverse sub-systems (when they are present at all) which fail to cross-relate to each other. Unpurified, meshed-in with the social, they cannot cross-relate to other pure ‘factual’ elements, and there is no common idiom in terms of which they could do so.... It is the complex and cognitively ‘progressive’ societies...which possess a high level of logical coherence.... At the same time, however, they generally lack social coherence: their moral and cognitive orders simply do not constitute any unity.... From all this one may in fact formulate a supremely important if rough law of the intellectual history of mankind: logical and social coherence are inversely related.
(Gellner, pp.60-1)

As the above quotations suggest, Gellner is particularly interested in how the scientific worldview developed, given the stark differences between it and traditional approaches to cognition. His answer, interestingly enough, is that it had to come about via a complex set of interlocking factors, in which key developments in production, coercion, and cognition must have combined in a very unusual way. Otherwise, as he explains at length, the logic of the agararian system would have easily circumvented such an outcome, as it was highly robust as a social/psychological system, even if economically fragile dure to low productivity:


“With a small surplus, production retains much of that absolute, yes-no, non-negotiable quality which we now associate with coercion and total conflict. There is not much leeway for seeking small advantage, and seeking a refined, sophisticated equilibrium of satisfactions or interests. Either one has enough, or one perishes. In such a context, there is no autonomous economy - only a binding set of simultaneously economic and political-coercive institutions. The crucial division of labour, the insulation of of spheres of activity, which eventually engenders affluence, cannot emerge unless there is already some measure of plenty available. Here as elsewhere, there is a chicken-and-egg impasse. [Moreover,] what is stored needs to be protected...[and] the preservation of this political-social infrastructure, from either external aggression or internal disruption, is at least as important as any augmentation of output. Generally speaking, it is much more important. In other words, there is no question of  productive strategy being dominated by a single and primarily economic criterion.... So multi-strandedness, the impossibility of insulating and pursuing a pure and economic end, is built into the system. It is its essential precondition, not an accidental imperfection or retardation.”
(Gellner, pp.129-30)

Aside from being strongly supported by a wide variety of evidence, Gellner’s arguments re the robustness and mutually-supportive interdependence of the major aspects of agrarian societies are highly persuasive, due both to his mastery of highly diverse material and his cogent and incisive writing style. The resulting account - even with its lacunae - is a unique account of human history, in which escape from the limits of the agrarian world is treated as the genuine puzzle that it is.

However, as I noted earlier, Gellner pays no attention to the differential impact of the various writing systems, although - oddly enough - he is familiar with the work of anthropologist Jack Goody, who has discussed this issue at length. This is particularly strange, given that Gellner’s own discussion of the effects of literacy makes some very abstract points, highlighting aspects of this transition that Eric Havelock did not stress:


“The most significant thing about writing is that it makes possible the detachment of affirmation from the speaker. Without writing, all speech is context-bound: in such conditions, the only way in which an affirmation can be endowed with special solemnity is by ritual.... But once writing is available...in a sense, the transcendent is born...for meaning now lives without speaker or listener. It also makes possible solemnity without emphasis, and respect for content rather than for context.... Cognitive and moral egalitarianism is made feasible.... [But, as well,] writing makes possible the codification and systematization of assertion, and hence the birth of doctrine. A clerisy, a set of specialists who provide ritual, legitimation, consolation, therapy, will in due course, like any other sub-section of society, have a tendency to define its boundaries so as to restrict entry, and to attain monopoly.... The solemnity of ritual was the only way, really, in which they could do this in pre-literate days. But who can enforce similarity and the limits of ritual over a dispersed area? With writing, the situation changes.... Doctrine can be defined and delineated, and heresy also becomes possible.... [But] what is attained at this point is not the single-strand, single-aim referential system.... Quite the reverse. The emerging single purpose is not the pursuit of pure empirical reference, sloughing off all social concerns and value saturation. The first occurence of something resenmbling a single-strand system is based not on eliminating Concept Affirmation, and replacing it by Reference; on the contrary, it is Concept Affirmation which is made dominant and unified, though perhaps not fully exclusive.... The centre of gravity shifts from norm-loaded, ritually inculcated concepts to explicit affirmations and injunctions, welded into a mutually supporting structure. They may possess some empirical content, but that is negligible compared to the non-verbalized, unrecorded practical skill in the possession of members of the society directly in contact with physical reality, such as craftsmen.... ‘Theory’  is at best a pale and inferior echo and distortion of practice, and lives a life of its own.”
(Gellner, pp. 71-5)

“The pen is not mightier than the sword; but the pen, sustained by ritual, does impose great constraints on the sword. It alone can help the swordsmen decide how to gang up to the greatest advantage.”
(Gellner, p.99)

“The transition from communal to salvation religions is one of the big divides in human history, and it occurs within the agrarian age.... [But] in the East, the switch was not fully accomplished: in China, an ethical vision at the top co-existed with communal rites lower down, and in India, a generalized communal system, though containing generic salvation themes, prevailed over abstract salvation faiths. [And, even when] established, these salvation-orientated, as it were socially disembodied faiths are liable to live in tension with the more blatantly incarnated, more patently social religious practices. The high religions emerged because an important part of the population to which they appealed had become socially disinherited and uprooted; but by the same token, they are hampered by the fact that not the whole of the population is uprooted, or is not uprooted permanently.”
(Gellner, pp.91-2)

Here, again, we can see how Gellner’s work dovetails with that of another important scholar - in this case, W.H. McNeill’s arguments upon the nature of what he termed the “portable” religions, which emerged only in the last two and a half millennia. In some ways, this book could easily be viewed as complementary to the McNeills’ The Human Web, in that its focus draws primarily upon the social sciences - rather than history - thus providing a very different perspective upon the same basic problem, the overall pattern of human history. And, to the social scientist, broader generalizations are the key...so Gellner’s text offers much less in the way of detail - and considerably more attention to model-building and a wide variety of theories of causation. It also devotes little space to the routine - one damn thing after another - and pays great attention to the major divides between cultures/societies. As well, it offers many intriguing analyses of counterfactuals - as in the following discussion of those older social forms which echo aspects of the mobile hunter/gatherers’ dispersion of political power:


“Pastoral communities may exemplify widespread political and cultural participation, but they are certainly incapable of transforming themselves into something else, let alone transforming themselves and retaining these virtues. The same is true of independent peasant communities, though they may, in alliance with trading towns, make their contribution to social transformation. Feudal diffusion of power and formal ratification of privilege may also have made its contribution to accountable, law-bound government, by inculcating the notion of rights and of contractual government. But most of these social forms share a certain negative trait. They may oblige their participants to be simultaneously producers  and warriors (tribal and independent peasant communities), in which case the heavy load of social duties inhibits the division of labour: this kind of society is indeed characteristically given to despising the trading or artisan specialist. Alternatively, such societies may polarize there members into severely distinct producers and warriors. Neither...are likely to become economic innovators.... But diversified trade which handles multiple goods, is related to production, and copes with changes in a complex market...requires autonomous activities of numerous and independent traders. The relationship of such traders to each other is in some ways at least similar to that of fellow pastoralists or mountain peasants. They will incline towards a political balance of power, rather than to escalation and pre-emption.... [Moreover, their] game is not zero-sum. If the trading town prospers, each citizen does not prosper merely in proportion to the destitution of some other citizen. They can prosper jointly. The prosperity of some can be the basis for the prosperity of others.”
(Gellner, pp.151-3)

“Modern society is not mobile because it is egalitarian. It is egalitarian because it is mobile.... Human beings can and do accept profound inequalities, and strangely enough seem to enjoy them, even when they find themselves at the unfavourable end. But they can only do so if they are stable and unambiguous.... [But] this is not the only reason why modern economic organization has an inbuilt bias towards...a shared, universal baseline of rank. What passes for work in a modern society is not the application of brawn to matter, but the communication of messages.... The flow of such messages would be hopelessly inhibited if the rank of the carrier were, as habitually it is in more context-sensitive cultures, incorporated into the message.”
(Gellner, p.212)

“The basic features of our world were codified by the theory of knowledge of the eighteenth century, and recodified in the twentieth. In outline, it is very simple: simplicity is of its essence. It teaches that all facts are separate and equal, and all form part of a single interconnected logical space.... [And] theories are meant to cover as wide a range as possible: the wider their range. provided they retain plausibility, the greater their merit. Though forming part of a single logical space, all facts are independent of each other: any one of them may hold or fail to hold, without any other being affected. They are not allowed to present themselves to us as parts of indivisible package deals. This was the old practice, but is so no longer.... Nothing is necessarily connected with anything else. We must separate all separables in thought, and then consult the fact to see whether the separated elements are, contingently, joined together.... A very important corollary of all this is that this world has, so to speak, a turnover ontology. The ‘objects’ i.e. the terms in which we classify the continuum of experience into ‘things’, are not there for keeps. In trying to handle, explain, manipulate the continuum of experience, it is held to be legitimate and proper to experiment with diverse conceptualizations, diverse ways of clustering the flux into ‘objects’. This is an essential trait of our world; without it, cognitive expansion is not possible and cannot be understood. It was all very different under the cognitive ancien regime: the world was [then] endowed with stable if untidy furniture.... [Furthermore,] the contingency of all clusterings applies to evaluation as much as it does to everything else. Values are distinct from facts just as all facts are distinct from each other.”
(Gellner, pp.63-6)

The fraught - and unlikely - transition between the agrarian worldview and this analytic perspective is, arguably, Gellner’s central concern in Plough, Sword and Book, and quotations such as this epitomize the clarity of thought & expression he brings to this task. However, readers relatively familiar with this site might also be surprised to see the above argument cited with approval, as I have (elsewhere) supported strong critiques of the fact/value distinction, such as that of Stephen Toulmin. But the difference is more apparent than real.

In the discussion above, Gellner insists on the potential decomposability of all facts and values - for the purposes of analysis - rather than some notional firewall between the two as radically incompatible forms, which is what Toulmin critiques. However, despite his genuinely hard-nosed support of empiricism - or, rather, because this is a critical rather than ideological commitment - Gellner is equally tough on those mythologies which infuse our modern worldviews, whether proposed by scientists or humanists. Moreover, he is also deeply sensitive to the human difficulty of living without guarantees, as we are now so often asked to...and (thankfully) refuses to dismiss even that evidence least in accord with his preferred perspective.


“What is most appealing about the empiricist vision is not the questionably persuasive story about ‘experience’ teaching us, but the deep insistence that a cognitive system must in the end be judged by something outside itself, and outside social control.... Though experience is never pure and free from theory-saturation, nevertheless persistent probing, the refusal to countenance self-perpetuating package deals, does in the end lead to a kind of referential objectivity. For the attainment of the impressive cognitive performance of the new vision, what mattered was not the particular nature of the External, but the fact that it was not under anyone’s control.”
(Gellner, p.202)

“Certainly, the notion of a just price, inscribed into the nature of things, is a superstition. There is indeed no nature of things, and it is not given to assigning value-labels. But, alas, there is no market price either. The apotheosis of the market price, its endowment with an aura of independence, authority and legitimacy, is simply a more subtle repeat performance of the very same old superstition.... The market can only determine the price within a given institutional/coercive context. That context is not given, either.... [And] once it is fully clear that the market operates only in a political context, and that these possible contexts are extremely diverse in kind, and not given, it also becomes obvious that the verdict of the market...can only be the ventriloquist’s mouthpiece for the particular political situation which happens to underlie it. In the eighteenth century...one could specify the ‘correct’ political background by saying that political interference should be minimal; this was the famous theory of the minimal, ‘nightwatchman’ state. The theory has actually been revived in our time, when in fact the tremendous size of the required infrastructure renders it absurd.... Once the enormous weight of the political input into the alleged verdict is seen, we are no longer free to use the market as our economic and neutral arbiter. We make the political order. Hence we are responsible for its verdicts.”
(Gellner, pp.186-9)

“The notion of democracy, of government validated by consent, does have a meaning, and is possible, within an overall cultural situation which is more or less stable and taken for granted, and which confers identities upon its members. But when applied to the making or validating of fundamental or radical choices, the idea of consent literally has no meaning.... You cannot consent to a change of identity. There is no ‘you’. The very notion of a change of identity precludes it.... The paradoxical situation we face is that we use and invoke an extraneous, extra-social arbitrator (‘nature’, ‘experience’, ‘pleasure’), without at the same time ever encountering it in a pure form.... [Consequently,] in the sphere of value, of the specification of the good life, instrumental rationality does end in a contradiction. There is and can be no single aim that we can pursue. A single-strand philosophy works in science, but not in ethics, or in politics.”
(Gellner, pp.194-7)

All of Ernest Gellner’s books are well worth reading...and I had some difficulty choosing which to review here. Plough, Sword and Book, however, is closest to the central concerns of this site and - as I have noted earlier - it well complements other works, whilst its lacunae may easily be filled-in via the other books detailed here. Gellner, who (sadly) died in the late 1990s, may have preferred traditional terms to modern, non-sexist terminology...and may have been overly blunt in discussing the conservatism of traditional societies. But, these were the natural signs of an aging scholar impatient with pieties of all sorts - and his (repeated) characterization of coercion specialists - read: nobility - as “thugs” make it clear that Gellner was militantly uninterested in any form of “correctness”...except that which might just lead to the truth.

The following - final - quotation below, as is usual w/Gellner, opens up important new ways of thinking about both “culture” and “civil society”, as well as much else in modern life. Reading Gellner is an education in itself. And, when combined with similarly broad-ranging and original thinkers - albeit from very different backgrounds - his work is even more impressive. Readers yet to have the pleasure ought to make his acquaintance immediately...


“There is...a curious consequence of the specialization, the insulation, the hiving off of cognition proper from other activities. Once upon a time, concepts were affirmed only in some very small measure as a means of communicating empirical information. Their affirmation was primarily the reminder, the reinforcement, the implicit ever-renewed loyalty-oath to a way of life, to a community, to shared expectations and values, to a recognized system of roles.... Yet those functions must still be performed. If no longer carried out in a way which conflates them with cognition, they must be fulfilled in isolation from it.... There is a generic term for this set of performances: culture. Just as civil society is in effect society minus the state, culture has now become conceptualization minus cognition proper.  Just as the notion of civil society is hardly usable unless the state is neatly defined and circumscribed, so the notion of culture does not make much sense until the strictly referential, growth-oriented knowledge has hived off under the name of ‘science’... The old theological high doctrine may formally continue to claim to be referentially true, though inevitably also conceding, whether with emphasis or evasively, that its own truth is ‘different in kind’ from that of science. A distinction is invented which had been absent before, and would previously have seemed absurd. Alternatively, high theology is dropped or ignored or played down, allowed to fall into the empty space between referential science and non-referential social markers. In that case, the more folksy elements of the previous blend are stressed, or even accorded exclusive loyalty...[as] no social gathering, no meal, no establishment or perpetuation of a human relationship is conceivable without some idiom to set the scene, limit expectations, and establish rights and duties.... [Moreover,] what we call satisfactions are seldom if ever isolable things or experiences. We live our life in package deals, known as roles within a culture. Isolable sensory or material pleasures enter into these, but in no way exhaust them.... This is one important, cogent and entirely valid point in the romantic counter-charge against the rationalistic single-criterion philosophy, which had tried to universalize and generalize the type of thought linked to the effective division of labour, and which tried to see all life and its purpose in an instrumental spirit.... [As a result,] the erosion and diminution of importance of intermediate, middle-sized communities in large, mobile, anonymous societies leads, at one end, to the cult of the large, education-sustained cultural community - in brief, to nationalism; it also leads, at the other end, to the importance of those residual but important personal relations which are not ad hoc, single-shot, instrumental.”
(Gellner, pp.205-12)



John Henry Calvinist