McLemee on Hall on Gellner

by Henry Farrell on July 23, 2010


bq. 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. “I am not a donkey,” he liked to say, borrowing a line from Max Weber, “and I don’t have a field.” He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber (let alone from Immanuel Kant, another of the master-thinkers defining the horizons of his work). By my count, roughly half of Gellner’s almost two dozen books are collections of essays – a wry running commentary on half a century of public intellectual life following the Second World War: existentialism, structuralism, the thaws and re-freezings of the Soviet bloc, and the varieties of dissident enthusiasm in the West… These pieces revisit the themes and preoccupations of his monographic works, and retain their vitality, well after the original polemical targets have been forgotten. All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner’s monumental prominence – except for the fact that he has no such prominence. There are Foucauldians aplenty and Rortyans by the score – and even the occasional stray Marcusean, tending the flame. But of Gellnerians, there is scarcely a trace.

Count me as one of those barely visible Gellnerians, and Cosma Shalizi too1. I’ve often wondered about why Gellner doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I had a genuine moment of intellectual horror last year when I realized that two articles I had co-written got more cites on Google Scholar than “Plough, Sword and Book”:, which has to be one of the great synthetic works of scholarship of the twentieth century. Not that I don’t like my articles fine. But they are not _Plough, Sword and Book._ My working theory is that Gellner has less influence precisely because his work is unclassifiable. Not only because (as the quote above illustrates) his range of interests was extraordinarily catholic, but because his theoretical ambition is hard to confine within the usual academic strictures. In email conversation, Scott describes him as the liberal thinker who is closest to Marx’s historical materialism, which serves as an indicator of his ambitions. He wanted to come up with a Theory of Everything, and while he didn’t succeed, he came up with a body of work which is nothing short of extraordinary.

I’m looking forward to reading the biography that Scott reviews. I recommend you read his review. I recommend even more strongly (if you have an interest in the social sciences) that you read as much of Gellner’s own work as you possibly can. It’s wonderful stuff.

[Post updated to remove banalities]

1We 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.



Shelley 07.23.10 at 5:51 pm

Wow, humility! That’s rare to see.


LFC 07.23.10 at 6:02 pm

It’s not true that Gellner has no prominence (the comparison to Foucauld, Rorty, et al. notwithstanding). Open virtually any book on nationalism and you will see his work cited. I would venture to guess that 80 to 90 percent of social scientists have heard of him even if they’ve never read a word he wrote. The journal International Political Sociology ran a piece on him a few years ago (v. 1, n.4, 2007): R. Dannreuther and J. Kennedy, “The International Relations of the ‘Transition’: Ernest Gellner’s Social Philosophy and Political Sociology.” No doubt Gellner’s work should be more widely read, but McLemee’s line about “no prominence” is an overstatement — in fact, it’s just plain wrong.


lemuel pitkin 07.23.10 at 6:06 pm

He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber

I guess McLemee never read Science as a Vocation, or Politics as a Vocation, or Economy and Society, or The Protestant Ethic, or … actually, what are the Weber works that are distinctly lacking in clarity, trenchancy and wit?


Scott McLemee 07.23.10 at 6:20 pm

I do say, if memory serves, that the work on nationalism is very well known an even unavoidable. But the larger body of his work isn’t, which was my point.


Henry 07.23.10 at 6:26 pm

LFC – I had a bit about that in the “banalities” that I removed, but it is discussed explicitly in Scott’s review.

bq. Not that Gellner has been completely forgotten. His work remains central to debates on the nature of nationalism. But only with John Hall’s intellectual biography do we have a suitable treatment of Gellner’s work as a whole, seen on its own very large scale.

Scott’s point – which is quite right – is that people don’t go beyond that work (which is very nice, but a specific application of a much more general set of ideas).

Lemuel – the best description of Weber I ever had was from a professor of mine who described his work as consisting of “vast amounts of sociological stodge interspersed with occasional diamonds of utter originality and brilliance” or something of that sort. And I think that is true even of the good stuff – Politics as a Vocation e.g. has a lot of material that is (to use a Weberian word) banausic and tedious to trudge through – but worth trudging through for those occasional moments (especially in the last pages). It’s one of my few very favorite essays, but lots of it is eminently skippable. Grey glutinous porridge – but with diamonds buried in there if you are prepared to stir your spoon around.


Scott McLemee 07.23.10 at 6:31 pm

Never read them, Lemuel? Heck, I’ve never even heard of them!


bianca steele 07.23.10 at 6:41 pm

the liberal thinker who is closest to Marx’s historical materialism

I thought Gellner sounded worth reading until I got to this.


Castorp 07.23.10 at 6:51 pm

“Grey glutinous porridge – but with diamonds buried in there if you are prepared to stir your spoon around.”

This is especially true in German I think. Parsons improved the porridge in his translation, though not the diamonds.


novakant 07.23.10 at 7:27 pm

actually, Kant is for the most part pretty clear (as opposed to vague) – he just thought a lot


Kieran Healy 07.23.10 at 8:29 pm

It’s Plough, Sword, and Book. Words and Things is the most enjoyable bit of character assassination ever, and The Psychoanalytic Movement runs it a close second. Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion is great, too. And “Flux and Reflux in the Faith of Men” has one of the best quotes to be found in social-scientific writing. If Gellner has a liability, it’s that his wit is so sharp that he tends to be read for the laffs, and his ability to deride his opponents is given a freer rein than his desire to refute them. Still, not someone you’d want taking pot-shots at you.

As for Weber’s prose, the best verdict is by GEM de Ste Croix:

At times Weber can be lucid enough, even for quite long stretches; but he often lapses into an obscurity which does not always repay the repeated rereadings it invites.


william u. 07.23.10 at 9:45 pm

Macintyre’s review of Words and Things was recently reprinted (Alasdair Macintyre’s Engagement with Marxism), and I coincidentally just read it last night.
Sounds like the Timberites are more enthusiastic about the book than Macintyre was (he claimed, for instance, Gellner didn’t grasp the significance of the private language argument.) I should give it a go.


Tyler Cowen 07.24.10 at 2:21 am

I didn’t hesitate to buy the new book for $32. I look forward to reading it.


Henry 07.24.10 at 3:16 am

Kieran – thanks – correction made.


novakant 07.24.10 at 8:26 am

Sounds like the Timberites are more enthusiastic about the book than Macintyre was.

Seems the book caused quite a stir:


Hidari 07.24.10 at 11:02 am


thanks for that link. I had read that essay ages ago but was good to reread it: a classic of intellectual analysis.

I haven’t read much by Gellner, but what I have read wasn’t very inspiring. Very prone to ‘inviting’ the reader to ‘share’ jokes that aren’t funny (very much of the ‘can you believe he said that’ variety, used when pointing to fragments of text badly translated and ripped out of context, a comic style frequently used more recently in Anglo-American philosophy when sneering at Jacques Derrida): also prone to throwing around the code-word ‘relativist’ about in a way that doesn’t inspire confidence. In some ways he strikes me as a Decent avant la letttre.


Jacob T. Levy 07.24.10 at 11:20 am

It happens that I’ve just been rereading The Conditions of Liberty over the past few days, for the first time since just after it came out. And that was prompting me to wonder about Gellner’s relatively low profile. I’d forgotten how much good material there is in it– and while that’s my own fault, it’s a mistake that should have been impossible to make, because it ought to get cited constantly in the literatures I’ve been reading.

I’m getting tremendously more out of the book this time, as I bring more knowledge to the table as a reader than I did a decade and a half ago. I wonder whether Gellner’s attractive prose makes it too easy to think that he’s suitable for beginners. I remember running into this thought when I read Words and Things without at that time having read any of the material he was responding to, but Conditions of Liberty has a reputation as a kind of light and meant-to-be-popular book. I now think that that’s all wrong, and that Gellner could write so lightly in part because he presumed his readers to already know a lot. There are plenty of allusions that are funny if you get them, and never explained if you don’t.

John Hall’s office is a few floors up from mine, but this is the first I’d heard that the Gellner biography he’s been working on has been published. Thanks for the heads-up, Henry.

(Aside: I’ve actually grown fond of those long tedious parts of Politics as a Vocation. Considering the scope of the ideas being developed, they’re not *that* long. But Gellner’s just as efficient in developing and laying out a big idea, while also being great fun to read.)


Hidari 07.24.10 at 11:28 am

Should have put this in my original post but the two paragraphs following the sentence ‘Now this is a particularly interesting, and seemingly true, view of the sociologist’s role’ are particularly interesting, it seems to me, in terms of Gellner’s politics.


kid bitzer 07.24.10 at 11:37 am

i too thank novakant for the link to the uschano review. a very interesting overview of the reception and influence of gellner’s “words and things”.

i’ve not read it, but should like to try. uschano agrees, for instance, with flew’s assessment that it was “not only a “juvenile work” displaying “fundamental frivolousness and irresponsibility” (1984: 77), but also “the immediate or ultimate source of innumerable slick and ignorant put-downs in the subsequent literature”…One of the first things that strike the reader of Words and Things is Gellner’s extreme rudeness. Hardly a paragraph goes by without some invective being used. ”

can’t wait! sounds to me like gellner was a blogger avant la wordpress.


X 07.24.10 at 11:42 am

Gellner is great – good ideas, a real pleasure to read, and a firm commitment to the ideal of clearly understanding human behaviour irrespective of disciplinary lines. He seems to be especially deeply unfashionable among modern anthropologists, about whom he has some rather trenchant comments about Geertz in Postmodernism, Religion, and Reason:

Geertz has encouraged a whole generation of anthropologists to parade their real or invented inner qualms and paralysis… They agonize so much about their inability to know themselves and the Other, at any level of regress, that they no longer need to trouble themselves too much about the Other… Why waste too much time in the physical discomfort of the fieldwork situation? [C]ognitive impotence and angoisse can be felt just as well in Paris as in the Middle Atlas. Better, really.


afu 07.24.10 at 2:13 pm

He seems to be especially deeply unfashionable among modern anthropologists

It seems to be a common occurrence that Gellner is not taken seriously be people that are actually in the fields that he is criticizing. This is generally a good reason to be suspicious about a thinker. Mistaking good writing for good thinking is one the most common mistakes that educated people make. But I am a Wittgenstein fan boy, so I am probably just biased.

I look forward to Henry’s and Cosma’s paper.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 2:42 pm

Rudeness is a bad thing? Fuck. I wish someone had told me that before.

Gellner is importantfor steppe history also (see Khazanov’s “Nomads and the Modern World”) and what he does on steppe history connects directly to what he wrote on the origins of the state (“Plough, Sword, and Book”.) His “Language and Solitude” , left unfinished and edited by his son, is a quasi-autobiographical summing-up and has the scope of “continental” philosophy but takes position closer to the Anglo-American. That’s fairly common for Austrians — Austria tends to be treated as lesser Germany rather than as distinguishable nation with its own culture. Gellner’s utopian proposal in this book of the Austria-Hungarian empire as a model for the world of the future makes more sense than it would seem.

Gellner affiliated with Russell and Popper against Wittgenstein and to all intents and purposes was purged from philosophy for that reason. Anthropology wasn’t too happy with him either. This kind of thing is has become routine since the enforcement of paradigms became the rule and research programs were declared unfalsifiable and put off-limits to criticism, which led unsurprisingly to the disciplinary triumph of the will within the academic bureaucracies. Mirowski, for example, was purged from economics at the very moment when economics fell apart and threw the world into a depression.


ptl 07.24.10 at 2:43 pm

Gellner was, afu, very much ‘in’ (social) anthropology, and a leading writer in that field.

so I am probably just biased

or just plain ignorant


kid bitzer 07.24.10 at 2:51 pm

ptl, i took it from henry’s post that, by various metrics, gellner is not a leading writer in any field. the point of henry’s post–and of mclemee’s long counterfactual paragraph–is exactly to express puzzlment over gellner’s relative obscurity.

so maybe henry and scott are just plain ignorant as well?

or maybe you want to say he is a leading writer, despite his relative lack of “prominence” (mclemee) or “influence” (henry), because you judge leadingness by…?


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 2:56 pm

Google finds me Lessnoff’s “Ernest Gellner and Modernity”, first chapter here:

Gellner and Bourdieu both wrote about the Berbers and also had other things in common.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 3:06 pm

Lessnoff is also ignorant. He writes: “Yet in spite of this Gellner’s stature, paradoxically, has arguably not been adequately recognised in the wider intellectual and cultural world. His name is probably little known among the general public, even the general reading public: even in academic circles, his work seems to receive relatively little attention, and to feature on surprisingly few student reading-lists. “.


engels 07.24.10 at 3:50 pm

Gellner affiliated with Russell and Popper against Wittgenstein and to all intents and purposes was purged from philosophy for that reason.

This is one of the strangest sentences I have read in a while.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 4:00 pm

They couldn’t purge Russell and Popper from their emeritus status, but Gellner was young. (Popper and Popperians did claim that his later work got no attention from philosophers.) Gellner thought of himself as a philosopher but switched to anthropology when he realized that he had no future in philosophy. He had his battles with anthropology too.

You should read more strange sentences, engels. Your mind has become parched and withered.


bianca steele 07.24.10 at 4:22 pm

Gellner sounds interesting, but like the kind of book that could get a reader into trouble if they weren’t an anthropology graduate student who was going to spend seven years discussing the ideas in it with other scholars. I’m not sure the characterization of his writing as similar to blogging is far off (nor how well Flew comes off by that criterion fwiw). Google Scholar says he has published articles in journals like Mind as well as in New Left Review, but Wikipedia only mentions the wide-ranging books. My bookshelves are already overflowing with cranky polymaths who have mean things to say about trends in late twentieth century thought, and reading cynically gets wearisome. It sounds like I could easily go wrong swallowing Gellner’s pronouncements whole.


bianca steele 07.24.10 at 4:34 pm

Then again, I bet I could also go wrong reading Umberto Eco.


engels 07.24.10 at 4:54 pm

So it is John Emerson. And poor Wittgenstein is now on your shit list? I could have sworn that less than a year ago he was one of the heroic few, battling it out against The System.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 5:02 pm

No, I actually like Wittgenstein. It’s Gellner’s later stuff that I’m interested in. Gellner’s rudeness strikes me as a plus, on a par with Wittgenstein’s, and he might have been a better match than Popper in the poker scene.


Kieran Healy 07.24.10 at 5:06 pm

This is one of the strangest sentences I have read in a while.

It’s more or less true, I think. Gellner hated Wittgenstein’s views, as one Austrian Ego contra another. Much of the bile in Words and Things wells up from his rejection of Wittgenstein, even if several of its targets (Austin, Ryle) wouldn’t have seen themselves as Wittgenstein’s followers.


X 07.24.10 at 5:12 pm

Bianca: I would think you can go wrong swallowing pretty much anyone’s pronouncements whole!

Gellner has a lot more to offer than criticism of 20th century thought (though his criticisms are in the main both justifiable and entertaining.) In fact, interpreting his discussions of 20th century thought primarily as criticism misses an essentially anthropological common thread in much of his work: whether he’s discussing 20th century psychoanalysis or analytic philosophy, or 19th century nationalism, or “holy” lineages in pre-independence Morocco, he’s consistently taking a closed belief system and explaining its existence in terms of the function it fulfills and the arsenal at its disposal for dealing with sceptics, whereas its practitioners would explain it instead as a result of its truth. But whereas he can assume that most of his expected readers will take for granted that real world truth is irrelevant to the continuation of belief in the hereditary baraka of saints, he cannot assume the same for more contemporary closed belief systems, and therefore has to devote considerably more energy to arguing that these are in fact closed.


Hidari 07.24.10 at 5:16 pm

# No it is a deeply strange sentence, because of course Gellner ‘won’ his battle with the OLPers, and post war Anglo-American philosophy is not, in fact, particularly Wittgensteinian (well not in terms of the ‘later’ Wittgenstein anyway). So the idea that Gellner got ‘frozen out’ by the ovewhelming ocult power of the Wittgensteinian establishment is a deeply strange idea.


LFC 07.24.10 at 5:20 pm

I think the argument about whether Gellner was or was not a ‘leading thinker’ in this or that particular academic field is somewhat beside the point, certainly as far as evaluating his work is concerned. If he wrote some good stuff, that should be all that matters. It is not necessary to endorse an author’s every polemical remark or book in order to recognize that he made worthwhile contributions. Only someone whose self-image is somehow vitally — and probably unhealthily — dependent on his or her disciplinary identification as an anthropologist, sociologist, political scientist, historian, economist, philosopher or whatever will be able to get very exercised about defending a field or fiefdom from perceived invasion by outsiders. Such defenses often appear petty and rather infantile, and do not in the long run (except perhaps in highly unusual cases) contribute to the growth of knowledge.


engels 07.24.10 at 5:24 pm

Sorry, I know Gellner didn’t like (Gellner’s caricature of) Wittgenstein. It was the idea that he (or anyone) had been ‘to all intents and purposes… purged from philosophy’ for having ‘affiliated with Russell and Popper against Wittgenstein’ that seemed strange to me. But knowing who the author of the sentence was makes it a lot more comprehensible.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 5:52 pm

Gellner won no battle, nor did Popper (as I said). Those who defeated them were later defeated by a third group. Gellner and Popper were not invited back, though Popper was allowed emeritus status. Thigs like that happen all the time.
Besides hating his caricature of Wittgenstein, Gellner also hated the actual Wittgenstein.


afu 07.24.10 at 6:21 pm

Gellner was, afu, very much ‘in’ (social) anthropology, and a leading writer in that field.

so I am probably just biased

or just plain ignorant

Yes, definitly ignorant. I was just expressing my vague feelings about Getller since I was surprised to see Henry and espiecally Shalizi support. My first impressions could be wrong, but that review doesn’t impress me.

“Gellner returned repeatedly to the basic point that the development of scientific knowledge (the quintessential manifestation of “openness”) had radically enhanced the capacity for rapid economic growth and improved quality of life. No gainsaying of this was possible. Among his final writings are withering dismissals of postmodernist bad faith around the notion that some cultures have magic and others have technology.”

This sounds like cherry picking the worst of “post modern” thinkers and using them as a straw man to tarnish the rest.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.24.10 at 6:59 pm

One of the reasons why people praise Gellner is the breadth of his interests. Political anthropology, the origins of the state, nationalism and populism, rationality and relativism, social science method and theory, the human condition, the politics of the future. Treating him primarily in relationship to ordinary-language philosophy or post-modernism amounts to reimposing the disciplinary straitjacket that he made a point of discarding.

Here’s more or les his last word on philosophy (p. 172, Language and Solitude):

After about 1960 the entire [OL] movement gradually dissolved. ….[but] nothing was learned from its failure. The movement was not replaced by another one reacting to its own weaknesses but, rather, by a sort of characterless eclecticism…. Some reverted to the earlier logical technicism, without evidently heeding the arguments against it which had been very nearly the only valid element in the late-Wittgensteinian revelation.


Kaveh 07.24.10 at 8:56 pm

Gellner’s work is standard reading in courses on the modern Islamic world, but I’m glad I read about Plough, Sword, and Book and his writings on steppe history here, I’m going to go look at those now. But, I wouldn’t say he’s exactly underappreciated. among people who study the modern Islamic world. It was a long, LONG time ago that I read Reason, Religion, and Postmodernism, but what I took away from it at the time was that he didn’t really engage with the ideas he was criticizing, and it was mainly a pat on the back intended for other people who weren’t interested in really trying to understand postmodernism.

Geertz has encouraged a whole generation of anthropologists to parade their real or invented inner qualms and paralysis… They agonize so much about their inability to know themselves and the Other, at any level of regress, that they no longer need to trouble themselves too much about the Other…

Richard Eaton made, somewhat later, an (IMO) much more convincing critique along those lines: the subaltern studies movement in South Asian history led to too much focus on sources in European languages, and a neglect of sources in South Asian languages. Even if he’s right, it’s not really a critique of the ideas themselves. There’s no reason not to learn Hindi, Tamil, Persian, Urdu, &c., and then apply Geertz’s ideas or those of the subaltern studies movement to texts in those languages. (A more useful critique would be that the subaltern studies approach is less useful for understanding power relations in situations other than European colonial empires.)


kid bitzer 07.24.10 at 11:20 pm

i read a bit of “p, s & b” in google-plows, and was not overwhelmed by his treatment of the parts i know a bit about.

still, the scope of the treatment is impressive. or rather: given the scope of the treatment, the amount of relevant knowledge on display is impressive. what i read sounded a lot like the freshman paper-opener: “throughout all time, mankind has always….” luckily, the writing was better, the references were in place, and he seemed to have done the other reading.

here’s what i think: i think if cosma is impressed, then i’m going to be impressed. i’m putting my money on the big shaliz. i don’t yet see why i should make gellner a part of my life, but if cs says there is good stuff in there, then i’m willing to suspend judgment, and when cosma lays it all out for me, it’s gonna make me a believer.


david g 07.25.10 at 2:47 am

Who can seriously believe that hits on Google Scholar are a measure of intellectual value? They are a measure of how fashionable one is, which tends to be the opposite of having lasting value.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.25.10 at 2:52 am

David, that’s how the merit of scholars is decided these days — number of citations. What century do you live in?


Bill Benzon 07.25.10 at 10:40 am

Ah, but I doubt that there’s anything new in that. No evidence of a peculiarly contemporary degeneration. Thinkers have always been evaluated on popularity. And there’s always those who insist that popularity is a superficial and ephemeral measure of value.

Q. Didn’t Soros tap Gellner for his Central European educational operations?


kid bitzer 07.25.10 at 11:37 am

“Who can seriously believe that hits on Google Scholar are a measure of intellectual value?”

fair question, but not one that can be answered by naming any of the participants on this thread.

the whole premise of henry’s post was that google scholar grossly mismeasures the relative values of himself and gellner, since it gives more hits to henry, when gellner clearly has more intellectual value. (or rewrite that for “henry’s 2 articles” and “p,s & b”)

has anyone downthread suggested that g.s. is a good measure of value, or that fashion is? hasn’t it been more of the same–general agreement that gellner is not fashionable, open dispute over how valuable he is? (which dispute presupposes that the first measure does not settle the second).

and for what it’s worth, the only time i can remember google hits being mentioned in an academic hiring decision, the question was introduced by a distinguished emeritus scholar who was even at that time (this was 7-8 years ago) in his 70s. the eyebrows were cocked by the young in the room.


Bill Benzon 07.25.10 at 2:12 pm

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.

Do you really mean “handwaving” or do you mean speculation?

What’s the difference?

I can think of two. There’s a difference in connotation, but perhaps, depending on what you’re actually saying, in content as well.

When A says of some work by B, “Oh, that’s full of handwaving,” A’s making a pretty negative statement, implying that B is trying to slip some unsubstantiated BS past the reader as through it’s the real goods. When B says of his own work, “lots of handwaving,” the connotations aren’t so negative. It’s more like, “I know, it looks like BS, but it’s really not; there’s something there, trust me, really.” And that something is generally speculation.

The thing is, if current ideas just aren’t up to the task, whatever it might be, then you need some speculation to get to a new and more productive place. There’s just no other way to get from here to there, where it is not at all clear where there is or how to get to it. So you create a hypothetical there and indicate plausible steps for getting from here to it. If you’ve done your work well — which is not at all easy — then you or someone else can proceed down that path and see what turns up. If you’ve done your work very well indeed, then it will have been worthwhile regardless of what comes up. Because you will learn something.

Fact is, any well-trained data monkey can do good sound work that comes up with results but doesn’t ever stray into new intellectual territory. To implicitly validate such work as the highest intellectual good by using “handwaving” as a terminological cloak for “necessary and responsible speculation” is to surrender the whole intellectual enterprise to the unimaginative routiners. (Of course, some of us think that happened a long time ago; but still . . . )

So that’s one difference, the important one.

The other, of course, is that you don’t, in fact, mean speculation. You really do mean handwaving in the sense of trying to pull and intellectual fast one through one devious device or another.


Henry 07.25.10 at 2:48 pm

bq. Who can seriously believe that hits on Google Scholar are a measure of intellectual value?

Who can seriously believe that someone on this thread (let alone the poster) is actually arguing this? The claim is that hits on Google Scholar is a plausible indicated (faute de mieux) for academic _attention_, which is a quite different thing. But fwiw the suggestion that academic attention (or “fashion” if you prefer) and actual worth are _negatively_ correlated (which is what would be true ceteris paribus if they were, in fact, the opposite of each other) seems to me to be a pretty silly one.

Bill – it’s speculation rather than anything else. I think (channeling Cosma) that the underlying claim here is that most social theory has a lot of handwaving in it, and our argument will be no different, except that it will try to be (a) a bit more rigorous in coming up with plausible assertions that are difficult to test, and (b) a bit more honest about what we can and cannot show than the norm.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.25.10 at 3:22 pm

Economists are rigorous and look where that got us. Handwaving shall make you free.


hartal 07.25.10 at 6:33 pm

This isn’t the first biography of Gellner. I read one maybe six or seven ago, can’t remember. His ideas about the rise of the West won’t stand scrutiny in light of Pomeranz’s, Hobson’s and Goody’s. Maybe he had a good joke about replacing Weber’s iron cage with the image of a rubber cage. But his economic understanding of capitalism seems pretty thin. His critique of the materialist theory of history was unoriginal and his dismissal of Said hasty and mean-spirited. He polemicizes against unreason but makes no contribution to its enrichment in a pluralistic and multicultural world as does Amartya Sen. Gellner is an outdated thinker.


hartal 07.25.10 at 6:41 pm

I don’t see why Kieran Healy is so excited about that quote from Gellner on Islam. Maxime Rodinson had Islam and Capitalism probably more than a decade before Gellner had that idea.


Dan Karreman 07.25.10 at 8:42 pm

The man has a book with with roughly 6800 citations, according to GS. That’s 1000 more than Hayek’s most cited work and more than twice as much as The Road to Serfdom. In what way is he not prominent? For a really under-appreciated scholar, try Johan Asplund. But then you have to learn Swedish.


hartal 07.26.10 at 1:58 am

I would like to add that Gellner’s essay “Culture, Constraint and Community” in his Anthropology and Politics is one of the most brilliant essays in pure social theory that I have read (he would not like to know that he reached similar conclusions as the Austro Marxist Max Adler as to the historicity of a priori assumptions without which society would not be possible). It’s a powerful philosophical exploration of the nature of the social. But still I think his view of the dynamics of industrial society is naive, his understanding of the reason he champions naive and undeveloped, and his Orientalism and colonial apologetics untenable. I looked it up and Michael Lessnoff had written the first intellectual biography. So one question is how his and Hall’s compare.


MQ 07.26.10 at 3:51 am

Wow, humility! That’s rare to see.

Well, he did manage to work in that he had more cites than Gellner.


MQ 07.26.10 at 3:57 am

More seriously, I would love to see a discussion of the state of the art in the theory of the state, also how the theory the state and its institutional development/history seemed to fall by the wayside intellectually. Maybe it’s just too much econ exposure on my part, but it seems like over the last few decades general educated opinion actually started to believe that the market was prior to the state, an impressive testimony to the power of ideology since it is so obviously false.


john c. halasz 07.26.10 at 4:26 am

“he would not like to know that he reached similar conclusions as the Austro Marxist Max Adler as to the historicity of a priori assumptions without which society would not be possible).”

Umm…. what else in the history of central European Marxist and Weberian commentary did you or he miss?


john c. halasz 07.26.10 at 4:28 am

Sorry, @ 52.


Scott McLemee 07.26.10 at 10:48 am

Karreman @51: Lessonoff’s book is a compact survey and assessment of Gellner work, organized by topic (“Theory of History,” “Islam,” etc.), but it is not a biography. Hall has written the only book-length biography of Gellner now available, at least in English.


Walt 07.26.10 at 1:06 pm

John Halasz, sometimes I get the feeling the only thing in the world you care about is if someone has Done All of the Assigned Reading.


maestrojon 07.26.10 at 4:51 pm

My supervisors edited a useful collection of essays on Gellner’s work that came out a few years ago. It has chapters by Mann, Hall, Lessnoff etc, and might be of interest so some of you. Minimum amount of handwaving in evidence but, dare I say, perhaps a little too Gellnerian at times.


LFC 07.26.10 at 4:58 pm

MQ @54:
“Maybe it’s just too much econ exposure on my part, but it seems like over the last few decades general educated opinion actually started to believe that the market was prior to the state, an impressive testimony to the power of ideology since it is so obviously false.”

Yes, it’s too much ‘econ exposure’ — or rather, exposure to econ of a particular sort.


Fr. 07.27.10 at 4:34 pm

If memory serves, Gellner also has one of the most useful chapters in Hollis and Lukes’ Rationality and Relativism (1982, in my own top-5 phil/soc of science list).


hartal 07.27.10 at 5:47 pm

I don’t think Gellner ever took up the question of the rationality of the emotions (see Andrew Sayer The Moral Significance of Class)., but please correct me if I am wrong. I don’t remember his differentiating reason as defended from the position of an impartial spectator and reason as approached through reflective equilibrium (see Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice). The kind of science he defended is what Richard Lewontin would have called the high school version. I also remember a pretty harsh criticism of Gellner by Aziz al-Azmeh, also an author published by Verso. But that dealt not with his understanding of reason but his understanding of Muslim society.


Robert Speirs 07.28.10 at 3:54 pm

Haven’t read Gellner. He sounds like Spengler, but rude. Spengler was never rude. I think I’d rather read more Spengler. I seriously doubt Gellner could be more insightful or stimulating than Spengler.

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