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Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography
July 25, 2010 9:45 AM   Subscribe

The Rehabilitation of Ernest Gellner - It is easy to imagine why Ernest Gellner would be one of the universally known figures in Anglophone intellectual life. A polymath whose work ranged across anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology, his mind wrestled with an encyclopedia's worth of nagging questions about nationalism, modernity, civil society, imperialism, Islam, psychoanalysis, ethics and epistemology ... All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner's monumental prominence – except for the fact that he has no such prominence. (via mr)

A Combatant in the Battle of Ideas - A defender of the West when it was most embattled, a defender of reason at a time of dangerous irrationality.

Farrell on McLemee on Hall on Gellner - We are currently writing a paper that could fairly be summarized as Gellner wedded to an explicitly evolutionary theory of institutional change. With network theory! And machine learning! And cognitive science! And handwaving! Lots of handwaving.

Does Language Influence Culture? - New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish. cf. Sapir-Whorf [1,2]

The Advantages of Being Helpless - Human brains are slow to develop--a secret, perhaps, of our success, cf. Frans de Waal on the human primate: Strength is weakness & Jonah Lehrer on the Secret of Successful Entrepreneurs
posted by kliuless (7 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

Just the right thing for lazy Sunday browsing, thanks
posted by infini at 10:09 AM on July 25, 2010

This is a fantastic post.

A genuine commitment to rationality,” he wrote, “means that one must admit that it is poorly grounded, making it necessary to live without complacency.”
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:30 AM on July 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I rely on Gellner a great deal in my own work on linguistic nationalism, especially Gellner's flawed but still important Nations and Nationalism.

Piggybacking on Potomac Avenue's comment, I highly recommend Gellner's short volume Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, which was supposed to be part of a larger project involving contributions from other scholars (that fell through) but which still stands on its own. He basically argues that rather than the certainty of religion or the epistemological despair of postmodernism, we must choose to be rational. To paraphrase: "We can never know the whole truth and so we must always strive toward it."
posted by dhens at 10:54 AM on July 25, 2010

A good post, although you should have stopped after your first two bonus links (what does Boroditsky have to do with it?). Gellner should indeed be better known (I admit that like almost everyone who's heard of him, I think of him pretty much exclusively in the context of his ideas on nationalism); I love this quote from his essay "Flux and Reflux in the Faith of Men" (which I found via one of the links):
I like to imagine what would have happened had the Arabs won at Potiers and gone on to conquer and Islamise Europe. No doubt we should all be admiring Ibn Weber’s The Kharejite Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which would conclusively demonstrate how the modern rational spirit and its expression in business and bureaucratic organization could only have arisen in consequence of the sixteenth-century neo-Kharejite puritanism in northern Europe. In particular, the work would demonstrate how modern economic and organizational rationality could never have arisen had Europe stayed Christian, given the inveterate proclivity of that faith to a baroque, manipulative, patronage-ridden, quasi-animistic and disorderly vision of the world. A faith so given to seeing the cosmic order as bribable by pious works and donations could never have taught its adherents to rely on faith alone and to produce and accumulate in an orderly, systematic and unwavering manner. Would they not always have blown their profits on purchasing tickets to eternal bliss, rather than going on to accumulate profits and more? … Altogether, from the viewpoint of an elegant philosophy of history, which sees the story of mankind as a sustained build-up to our condition, it would have been far more satisfactory if the Arabs had won. By various obvious criteria—universalism, scripturalism, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community not to one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematisation of social life—Islam is, of the three great Western Monotheisms, the one closest to modernity.
posted by languagehat at 10:54 AM on July 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

> I highly recommend Gellner's short volume Postmodernism, Reason and Religion

Heh. Cosma Shalizi calls it "his one genuinely bad book."
posted by languagehat at 10:56 AM on July 25, 2010


It seems like Shalizi's critique is more of the style than of the content.
posted by dhens at 11:02 AM on July 25, 2010

another appreciation :P What if Max Weber had written like Isaiah Berlin?
The book is deceptive: published by Penguin and written in a light, breezy, sometimes chatty, and lucid style, it looks like it should be a popular book on the end of the Cold War and the resurgence of the idea of civil society. In fact, there are books packed into most paragraphs-- many books read and, usually, books to be written. Like Weber, Gellner tosses out three-sentence ideas that make you (or at least me) stop and say-- "wow, if that's right it's hugely important, and I can see how it might be right, but figuring out whether it actually is right would take years."


But I think Gellner was in a mood to write something big and sweeping, and this certainly is that. It's more sweeping a theory of politics, economics, language, society, and religion than a 200-page book has any business being. And I wish that we were now 15 years into an era when people wrote books trying to understand whether the ideas in this book were right or not. Maybe we would be, if this book and Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History had been combined into one book. In any case I find them fascinating and provocative big ideas. Now that I've properly read it, I expect to return to this book many times.
cf. great divides, common as air: a republic of letters & is 'more efficient' always better?; cheers!
posted by kliuless at 1:09 PM on August 24, 2010

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