What next?

W.G. Runciman

  • Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner
    Collins, 288 pp, £15.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 00 217178 3

If human history does, indeed, have a structure, it is, as Professor Gellner emphasises, discernible only with hindsight. The path which has led, in his words, ‘from the cosy social cocoon of early man to the expanding, cognitively powerful, and socially disconnected world of modern man’ was not merely invisible to those who were treading it: it was inconceivable. The two prodigious transformations which we now label – a little misleadingly – the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions were both so extraordinary as virtually to defy explanation. How could they have come about? And what a totally different ideological as well as economic and political world did they both bring into being!

The Gellner who addresses himself to these large topics is not, so to speak, the Gellner who at present holds the William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, but the Gellner who was for many years a professor of philosophy in the Sociology Department at the LSE. Gellner the anthropologist knows very well that to summarise the evolution of mankind in terms of a two-step transition from hunting and gathering to what he calls ‘Agraria’ and ‘Industria’ is to gloss over the distinctiveness and (in some cases) the historical importance of any number of nomadic pastoralists, city states, mountain cantons, and horticulturalists whose digging-sticks can sometimes generate as significant an economic surplus as the agriculturalists’ ploughs. But Gellner the philosopher is more interested in the relation between large-scale historical and conceptual change. This book is not a rigorous exercise in comparative sociology, but a discursive essay on themes very similar to those which Gellner first treated in a book called Thought and Change which he published back in 1964. What, he asks, is the meaning of ‘modernity’? And what is the link between logical and social coherence, which he now believes to stand in an inverse correlation to one another so close as to amount to ‘a supremely important if rough law of the intellectual history of mankind’?

The crude contrast between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ modes of thought has already generated an enormous literature, and Gellner has some fairly scornful things to say about those of his fellow anthropologists who have sought to make the beliefs of primitive men look sensible by claiming that they really refer to the social rather than the natural order. He himself goes perhaps a little too far in underestimating the scientific rationalism of the Greeks and Chinese and overestimating that of ourselves. It is, after all, only among a very few people in a very few areas of life that the standards and techniques of science hold unchallenged sway: in the worlds of art, sport, fashion, politics, journalism and day-to-day social intercourse, we all think and act a lot more like Malinowski’s Trobrianders than like laboratory experimentalists. But the most interesting part of Gellner’s argument – to this reviewer, at least – is his discussion of the nature of ‘agro-literate’ societies, as he calls them, and the ways in which their structures and ideologies distinguish them as markedly from the hunter-gatherers who preceded them as from the industrial societies by which, unbeknownst to themselves, they were to be succeeded in their turn.

The plough, sword and book of Gellner’s title correspond to the threefold division familiar to Christian Europe in the form of the division between the laboratores who work, the bellatores who fight and the oratores who pray. But for Gellner, this allocation of functions is central to all agro-literate societies, whether European or not and whether Christian, Confucian, Buddhist, Islamic or Hindu. Literacy, as he says, is ‘the truly crucial step in the cognitive development of mankind’; and although it is used for administrative as well as ritual purposes, it brings into being a class of specialists who, like the warriors, live off the labour of others, and who arrogate to themselves a monopoly of social prestige. The unified scriptural systems which result, and which dominate but do not displace the pre-literate folk culture, are, in the sense which Gellner gives to these terms, ‘Platonic’ rather than ‘Cartesian’. By this he means that the clerisy in agrarian society are the repositories of a cognitive authority which derives from a revelation of the nature of the world enshrined in stable and definitive concepts. In modern, industrial societies, on the other hand, intellectual authority derives from criteria of knowledge which have nothing to do with the sacred and which are independent alike of the structure of the world and of the moral standing of its interpreters.

This picture is, and is meant to be, ideal-typical only. But it serves to emphasise the difference not only between ‘agro-literate’ and ‘industrial’ modes of thought but also between the nature and functions of the division of labour then and now. Those of us who were brought up to view the history of Western Europe in terms of continuities stretching back through Medieval Christendom to Rome, Aristotle and the pre-Socratics do well to be reminded just how tenuous those continuities are. The evolution from ‘primitive’ to ‘modern’ required much more than the displacement of religion and magic by science. It required a long intermediate stage in which the clerisy occupied a position as different from what it was in primitive society, where they did not exist as a separate group or caste, as from what it is in modern society, where the pursuit of knowledge has, as Gellner puts it, ‘hived off’ from the rest of the culture. We have thereby arrived, in accordance with the ‘rough law of the intellectual history of mankind’, at a stage where science coheres and society fragments in a way which would have alarmed as well as astonished both the rulers and the clerics of any and all the ‘agro-literate’ societies, whatever the particular religious doctrines to which they subscribed (or claimed to).

On the question of how on earth it came about, Gellner rather despairingly concludes that ‘the practical and conceptual problems involved in disentangling the threads will in all probability remain insoluble.’ All he feels that we can do is to list the most plausible of the possible factors which combined to bring about the momentous transition without anyone’s being aware of it at the time. Somehow or other, society had to become not only more productive and more peaceable but also more innovative, and this improbable process seems to have depended on central governments which were strong but not too strong, technological advance which was fast but not too fast, and entrepreneurs who were greedy but not too greedy (and, perhaps, made more willing to plough back their profits because of the way in which they interpreted their chosen version of Christian doctrine to themselves). Here again, Gellner’s concern is not so much to intervene in the details of a protracted scholarly debate as to bring home to us the unlikelihood as well as the magnitude of the change whose explanation the debate is about. Although he never quite says so, he seems to want to persuade us that the world of priests and peasants and warrior landlords is no less remote from the world of industry, science and political democracy than is the world of the itinerant bands of hunters and gatherers who know nothing of swords, ploughs or books.

But the process of change, however improbable it may have been, cannot be put into reverse. So what will happen next? To what uses will the enormous productive capacity of industrial societies be put? What novel modes of thought and behaviour will the next advances in knowledge and technique bring in their train? Again, Gellner can do no more than list a few probable options, tempered with the prudent reminder that the one sure prediction is that the next historical trend will not be a simple extrapolation from the immediately preceding slope of the curve. Disruptive counter-cultures? Endemic civil wars? Reritualisation? Self-defeating pursuit of material consumption in a perpetual potlatch? There is no way in which we can possibly know what will happen, and still less can we even guess how it will be conceptualised when it does.

This last point, indeed, is perhaps the one most crucial to the whole of Gellner’s discussion. For one of the possibilities of which we can now conceive in a way that our forefathers could not is that the future of cognition, as Gellner calls it, will embrace the ability to explain and therefore manipulate our own conceptualisation of the world in which we shall then be living. But what might be the purposes to which that ability could then be applied? To what conceivable authority will the clerisy of the future appeal in advising their rulers what kind of society to create? In Gellner’s words, ‘if man ceases to be a datum, what principles could govern the moulding of human nature?’

To questions like these, academic intellectuals in late 20th-century Industria are no better able to offer an answer than were the scribes of Agraria or the shamans who preceded them. Now as then, they are questions which in the words not of Gellner but of Philip Larkin

Bring the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.