Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History III

This is the third and final of my posts on Ernest Gellner’s ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB). Part I, in which I provide a summary of PSB and its major arguments, is here. Part II, in which I focus on Gellner’s account of the changing structure of human cognition through history, is here. This prompted some reflections on PSB over at Breviosity.

Apologies, I’ve only got back into blogging recently, so it’s another wordy one. But there’s a lot going on in PSB and I want to do the book justice by pulling out some of the key arguments and insights it offers.

PSB is clearly a work of major significance, unjustly overlooked (at least in IR). It brings together a huge number of disconnected areas of intellectual inquiry. In this respect, I thought that PSB had similarities with the work of Charles Taylor. Gellner and Taylor both have a knack for demonstrating how key philosophical thinkers are relevant for history and the social sciences. I normally start to get peeved when scholars start invoking Kant or Descartes to prop up some tendentious line of argument. Frankly, I think it’s often a sign of pretentiousness and self-indulgence. There’s a lot of this about in radical/critical IR, unfortunately.

By contrast, Gellner deploys his keen understanding of the history of ideas in a manner that is very illuminating. Reading PSB actually made me reassess my views. I normally have a preference for the ‘organisational materialism’ of Mann and Tilly, which focuses on social structures rather than intersubjective beliefs. But Gellner makes a case for taking the historical sociology of cognition seriously, given the vastly different mental worlds in which have existed in human history. This isn’t to say that Gellner is a complete ideationalist who presents history as a Hegelian sequence of modes of consciousness. Production and coercion have their own logics, which Gellner plays close attention to. His discussion of coercion even draws on some Schelling-esque game-theoretical considerations.

What relevance does any of this have for IR and international history though? One point of contact is his discussion of the radical ideologies of the 20th Century. Since 9/11 there’s been a lot of intellectual discussion if fascism, Soviet Marxist-Leninism and even liberalism can be considered secular religions. From within Gellner’s framework it does make sense to do so. He argues that the theological mode of cognition has gradually been replaced by the scientific mode. In this mode nature is a coherent whole about which we may come to have ‘referential, socially neutral, objective’ knowledge (p. 198). Because nature is no longer seen as part of a divinely sanctioned order, such knowledge lacks ‘social suggestiveness’. If the universe is no longer a meaningful cosmos then facts are bare – we cannot read moral lessons off of nature.

During the transition period, however, scientific facts were seen as having social suggestiveness. Nature and/or history were seen as a meaningful whole, their constituent elements imbued with a purpose. Thus, fascism drew on vitalist metaphors from distorted interpretations of biology to justify policies of ‘racial hygiene’ and national rebirth. The social-darwinist liberalism of Spencer, which formed the basis of eugenics campaigns in the US, did likewise.

Orthodox Marxism was based on a teleological account of history as a meaningful, cumulative process. In an uncharitable light, the concept of exploitation appears to be based on an attempt to base a set of normative claims on bare economic facts. When Marxist-Leninism became the official ideology of the Soviet state it became the official doctrine of a secular theocracy:

The doctrine around which the church is organized is one of those nineteenth-century counter-faiths, heavily messianic and oriented towards a collective version of total salvation. It contains not mere the promise of deliverance for all of mankind and a theodicy, but also an overall theory of, in effect, everything (p. 215).

Gellner’s analysis is, I would argue, is much richer than that on offer by a perspective which lumps every intellectual system together as ‘metanarratives’. For one thing, while Gellner is clear that any secular religion remains vulnerable to falsification by neutral facts, the scientific mode of cognition is not necessarily socially stable. Because scientific facts are bare and lack social suggestiveness, they are not necessarily very satisfying. They do not disclose any normative lessons, they don’t legitimate either small-scale social interactions or political order very effectively. To riff on Hegel, science doesn’t help people feel at home in the world.

Gellner describes this as the conflict between cognition and culture. From this tension arises what he calls the ‘flourishing re-enchantment industry’ – i.e. bullshit of all varieties. There exists an unmet demand for meaning and socially suggestive accounts of our place in the cosmos. But ‘the products of this industry have a high rate of obsolescence. Fashions rotate at considerable speed, almost decade by decade’ (p. 220). Gellner’s analysis on this point is, I would argue, richer than that of post-modernist obscurantists (bullshit merchants of the first order, now largely obsolete themselves) by about a metric mile.

One implication is that liberal triumphalism is not necessarily assured. The tension between cognition and culture provides opportunities to alternative ideologies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, no secular religion poses a challenge currently (although rightist nationalism has an outside chance at returning). Yet Gellner was very perceptive in anticipating the potential power of political Islam. He argues that certain features of (Sunni?) Islam such as strict unitarianism, austere scripturalism and lack of spiritual inter-mediators make it compatible with modernity, understood by Gellner as technical rationality. Thus one solution to the culture/cognition tension is to cleanly separate the noumenal and the referential.

I’m left wondering, however, if Gellner isn’t a bit unfair on the self-designated heirs to the Enlightenment. He adopts the position that positivism is basically correct: there aren’t any non-analytic, non-referential facts. This results in the scandal of the Enlightenment: reason cannot provide a compelling set of justifications for the systems of morality and the social doctrines which rationalists took to be rational. Human rights, egalitarianism, justice might seem to be rational in some sense – but normative claims ultimately lack any rational basis. Values are arbitrary. The problem is the same as that identified by MacIntyre: reason cannot tell us what values we should hold (Whose justice? Which rationality?). Thus liberalism, which in its most general sense includes nearly the whole political spectrum in the advanced industrialised world, is not really so far from being just another secular religion.

Well, maybe. But it seems a bit quick to dismiss attempts by first-rate philosophers such as Christine Korsgaard and Jürgen Habermas to provide a rational basis for an account of individual rights and obligations. Perhaps some values really are more substantively rational than others. In addition it seems to me that Gellner’s assumption that advanced industrial societies are intrinsically anomic is at least questionable. He expresses the view that reason does not set any particular values and preferences are not ‘given’ but socially constructed and thus the product of history (p. 193-4). Modern societies are blank slates. But research by Inglehart and Welzel suggests that there is a broadly predictable shift to a system of ’emancipatory values’ which occurs as nations industrialise.  Liberalism (again, broadly defined) might not be rationally justifiable, but as a matter of sociological fact it might  be the set of values which arises in advanced industrialised societies.

As a coda to this series of three posts, it’s interesting to note that Gellner seems to believe that the problems in the sphere of production are likely to be those of abundance: the manufacture of wants and jockeying for positional advantage. The latter is, of course, omnipresent. But I think the C21st will pose much greater problems of scarcity than of post-scarcity. To riff on Marx, we’re still in the realm of necessity.


Posted on December 15, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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