Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History I
Posted by ndm lees
Ernest Gellner may have been a scholar of some renown, but for some reason until recently I’d never had the cause or opportunity to engage with his work. I knew that he was a major scholar of nationalism but I was only familiar with Gellner’s substantive theories tangentially via Andrew Linklater*.
So I came to ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB) fresh, lacking any preconceptions about Gellner’s theoretical perspective. I expected that the book would be something along the lines of Mann’s Sources of Social Power or Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions, focusing on large-scale social structures and their transformation. This is indeed one aspect of PSB, but Gellner’s goal is much more ambitious than merely (!) providing causal explanations for the major social changes of the last two thousand years. Not limiting himself to discussion of relations between classes, economic transactions and the formation of coercive states, Gellner also puts forward a highly ambitious account of the two major cognitive shifts experienced historically within human civilisation. So we are provided with both an ‘external’ account of reconfigurations of patterns of human social organisation, and an ‘internal’ account of both the changing structure of human thought and experience of the world. When he describes the book as an attempt in ‘philosophical history’ in the introduction he’s certainly not underselling his project.
PSB has a tripartite structure, three times over. In line with many others, Gellner sees production, coercion and legitimation as the primary domains of human activity, and thus the primary sources of social power to borrow Mann’s term. Groups and individuals specialise in/monopolise control over one of these three areas, resulting in a division of labour between those castes who live by the plough, those who live by the sword, and those who live by the book. The European high medieval era, in which such a division of labour was both operative and explicitly legitimated, thus seems to provide Gellner with a basic model of the organisation of all reasonably complex human societies – I’m sure Kenneth Clark would have approved.
Gellner’s account is not limited to the agrarian societies that so clearly inform his analytical framework, however. A large part of the focus of the book is on the transition between three epochs: hunter-gatherer society, agrarian society, and industrial society. Gellner’s account of the nature of coercion and production in each of these societies, and the role each of these factors played in the transition between the three epochs, is very scholarly and contains quite a bit of original insight, as well as quite a few arguments which those interested in historical sociology will already be familiar with from other scholars. But what sets PSB apart from other works of historical sociology is the detail and sophistication of Gellner’s discussion of the transition between different modes of cognition within different epochs. This is something which Tilly, Skocpol, Arrighi and so on don’t focus upon. Yes, many other historical sociologists examine the role of ideas and ideologies in shaping social processes, but they don’t delve into the cognitive structures which govern human thought within different eras. It is not only particular beliefs that change between the three epochs, but the nature of belief itself.
To simplify Gellner’s analysis as far as possible, in the hunter-gather epoch referential (empirical) beliefs were merged with non-referential (normative, aesthetic, religious) beliefs and underpinned by a meaning-infused idea of the cosmos. Individual beliefs in such a belief system are not necessarily coherent with one another, indeed beliefs are compartmentalised and beliefs about different aspects of the world may be sharply at variance from one another and with the obvious empirical facts (as we would see it from our perspective). In the agrarian era, empirical beliefs and non-empirical beliefs are separated from each other. Non-empirical beliefs are modified so as to be coherent with one another. These beliefs are highly abstract because they hold little referential content. They form a doctrine about the meaning-infused, supra-empirical cosmos which is held to underlie the merely empirical world. Empirical facts are regarded as less important than the abstract truths which allow apprehension of underlying reality, thus mere empirical facts cannot disconfirm truths about the cosmos. In the industrial era, the notion of an underlying meaning-infused cosmos is shattered. Apart from logical and mathematical claims which are true by definition/stipulation, non-empirical claims are rejected as meaningless. Knowledge becomes referential and dependent on empirical fact. Knowledge of empirical facts becomes organised into a singular system of knowledge of the natural world. These facts have no intrinsic meaning, they provide us with no lessons in and of themselves because they are not part of any cosmic purpose, plan or meaningful natural order. They just are. Via the theological doctrines of the agrarian era, which Gellner insists were an essential waypoint on the journey, contemporary individuals have come to occupy a radically different cognitive universe from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
PSB is a fascinating work because it tries to combine an analysis of classes, industrialism, ideology and the nation-state with a rich thesis about the historical development of human consciousness that draws heavily on cultural anthropology. I’ve sketched some of the essentials in this post, I provide some off-the-cuff analysis and some thought’s about the relevance of Gellner’s thesis for the study of international relations in a follow-up post.
* A quick search suggests that Roland Dannreuther (who I met once in a past life) wrote a piece on Gellner in International Political Sociology back in 2007, which I should really try to dig out at some point. Dannreuther notes in the abstract that ‘Ernest Gellner’s political sociology has been relatively neglected not only in international relations (IR) but also in sociology and social anthropology.’ – indeed it’s surprising that Gellner is almost completely absent from IR debates over historical sociology.
Posted on November 18, 2012, in development, Gellner, historical sociology, theorists and tagged development, gellner, global social change, historical sociology, political order, theorists. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.