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An Interview with Gellner

The following is a segment taken from a 1978 interview with Gellner conducted by philosopher Bryan Magee and published in his book Men of ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford University Press)

Magee: It seems to me self-evident that contemporary philosophy can be properly understood only against the background of some such historical and social perspectives as I have just very lightly sketched, yet too many of your colleagues among professional philosophers seem half-blind to this historical and social dimension. Would you agree?

Gellner: I very strongly agree with both the main points you have made. I may have some reservations about some of your side remarks, but your two central points seem to me entirely correct. First, what you defined as modern philosophy is basically, though not always consciously, a kind of commentary on the social and intellectual change which has taken place since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and can be understood correctly in this light. Second, people are not clearly enough aware of this.

Magee: One has only to look at modern philosophy in this way to see with complete clarity why it is that the central problem ever since Descartes has been the problem of knowledge. What do we know? Indeed, do we really know - in the sense of being absolutely certain of - anything? If we do, how can we know we know?

Gellner: If one had to define modern philosophy in terms of one feature only, this is the one: the centrality of knowledge to life. Prior to this period, knowledge is one thing among others; important, but there are other problems; so knowledge is something in the world. What characterizes thought of the modern period is that the world becomes something in knowledge. There's an inversion there.

Magee: Do you also agree with me that this arises, if indirectly, from the breakdown of established authority in intellectual matters? Before, men had been sure of what they knew because God had said it was so, or because His Church had said it was so. But once these authorities were undermined, how were men to know what was true?

Gellner: Yes, I do agree; but what was really important about the preceding order was not its religious character but its stability. Society could feed its own ideas back to itself in confidence, against a stable background. Well, the stability has gone. We now have what is probably the only society ever to live with sustained cognitive growth. People are preoccupied with economic growth, but economic growth is intimately connected with the fact that knowledge is growing. This in turn can be very disturbing, from a number of points of view.

Magee: What are the most important of them?

Gellner: By comparison with the success story in what is, roughly speaking, nature science, there's a failure story in other fields. Where people previously were confident, they're now less so. Relatively, it's almost like a contraction of knowledge.

Magee: When you talk of contraction of knowledge I take it you're referring to people's loss of certainty in their ethical and religious beliefs?

Gellner: They're no longer sure in the way they were about their ethical, social, and many other sorts of beliefs, and the sheer contrast of this with the glorious success of nature science highlights the failure. Natural science is not only unstable, it's successfully unstable. There's a fair amount of consensus about change within it, and by and large the next thing is better than the last one. Nobody quite knows how this works, but by and large it does work, and works for the better. Within other fields this is by no means so.

Magee: Before Descartes, then, people didn't know much, but by comparison with present-day attitudes, they were sure of what they thought they knew, whereas after Descartes they knew a great deal more but were a lot less certain about it.

Gellner: The map of knowledge gets violently distorted. Some areas are obviously growing, other are either not growing at all or are contracting. Connected with that there's a third feature: you can't use the expanding areas to sustain the others. This is not only because, being on the move, they are know to be unstable. Successful knowledge gets specialised. It's articulated in a specialised idiom, no longer the idiom in which we normally speak about human affairs. This makes it unavailable as a premise for one's vision of the world, or for one's social life.

Magee: For a long time after confidence in the stable theistic premises of knowledge had been undermined, what people were looking for was a substitute for them. That is to say, there had for so long been a single category in terms of what everything was ultimately to be explained, namely God, that for a long time people went on looking for some other such single category in terms of which everything was ultimately to be explained. At first they thought they had found it in Science. Then, with the neo-Kantians, History becomes the all-explaining category. Then you get Marxism, which tries to integrate History and Science into a single framework of ultimate explanation. It isn't till we get to distinctively modern thought- to, shall we say, Nietzsche - that people start to say: "Perhaps there is no single category in terms of which everything is ultimately to be explained. Perhaps reality is, right to the very end of the road, pluralistic. Perhaps it just consists of a lot of different, separate things, and the only way to understand it is to investigate them severally. In this case any single, all-encompassing explanatory theory will be a delusion, a dream, and will prevent us from seeing reality as it is" Bertrand Russell, just to take a single example, was very insistent on this approach. It deeply permeates the whole of modern Empiricism.

Gellner: I'd accept the picture. But I think I would characterize it somewhat differently from you. It isn't so much Science as such that becomes a substitute for previous certainty but rather the method by which scientific knowledge is obtained at all. If one's vision of the world is no longer stable, at least the way in which one finds out about the world can be stable. This becomes one of the two main themes of modern philosophy: the preoccupation with the theory of knowledge as providing a touchstone of what is good knowledge and what is not, and thereby of what the world is like. If the world isn't stable, at least the tools by which we find out about it can be constant. Thus indirectly a kind of stability is conferred on the world. This leads to an obsessional concern with those tools. The second main theme of modern philosophy - exemplified, for instance, by Marxism - is a search for some new kind of metaphysic which is not an account of transcendent reality but rather what might be called a human-social metaphysic, namely a specification of the general features of the human or the social-historic situation. These two strands traverse most of what has happened in the past 300 years, and their intertwining is really the story of modern thought.

to be continued…