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The Introduction to
Language and Solitude

by Steven Lukes

Published by Cambridge University Press, 1998

David Gellner is right to describe this exhilerating book as a synthesis of several themes that concerned Ernest Gellner all his adult life: 'the thought of Wittgenstein, the history and theory of social anthropology, the causes of nationalism, the nature of modernity, and the social roots of rationality and irrationalism.' Exhilerating and unclassifiable: at once a synoptic interpretation of the thought of Wittgenstein and Malinowski; a comparative assessment of their world-views -- of their accounts of knowledge, language and culture; a brilliant sociological sketch of the common socio-poiitical and intellectual background which they shared; a view of their influence upon their respective disciplines; and a passionate and polemical argument with them and some of their successors, in which Gellner once more and for the last time eloquently and succinctly expresses his own world-view. He expresses it here, with all his characteristic verve, by engaging directly with what he takes to be the egregious and wholly pernicious errors of Wittgenstein, early and late, in the light of what he sees as Malinowski's liberating but only partially developed (and partially retracted) insights into the interrelated themes that have together been central to his own life's work.

It is, moreover, a genuine effort at synthesis: a bringing together of purely philosophical theories, about the nature of reality, knowledge and language; contending accounts of what he calls 'socio-metaphysic, or philosophical anthropology'; and alternative political standpoints seen as expressing alternative responses to a common historically-given predicament. The essence of his argument can be briefly stated. These various elements are 'aligned' with one another, forming 'two poles of looking, not merely at knowledge, but at human life' and 'the tension between them is one of the deepest and most pervasive themes in modern thought.' The 'two poles' are given a variety of labels. One is the 'atomic-universalist-individualist vision', beginning with Descartes and Robinson Crusoe, typified by Hume and Kant and reforumlated by Ernst Mach and Bertrand Russell, variously identified with empiricism, rationalism and positivism, and with Gesellschaft, with economic markets and political liberalism, and bloodless cosmopolitanism. The other is the 'communal-cultural vision', the organic counter-picture, first lived and practised unreflectively, then articulated by Herder and by countless 'romantic organicists', 'nationalist populists' and 'romantic rightists', stressing totality, system, conncectedness, particularism, cultural specificity, favouring Gemeinshcaft, roots, 'closed, cosy' communities, Blut und Boden. The 'alignment' of the elements within these poles and the tension between them was especially strong in the Habsburg lands, not least Poland and Austria, as the Empire reached its end, where 'the confrontation of atomists and organicists ... this profound philosophical opposition meshes in with the alliances and hatreds of daily and political life.' Wittgenstein, trapped within this polar opposition, veered from one philosphical system to another, expressing in extreme form first the one and then the other of these polar alternatives. Malinowski, by contrast, recombined elements from both -- romantic and positivist, organic and liberal -- thereby prefiguring and expressing a version of Gellner's own position. This is that a 'third option' is available which combines the recognition that 'shared culture can alone endow life with order and meaning' with understanding that 'the notion of a culture-transcending truth' is inseparable from cognitive (notably scientific) and economic growth, that it is central to our culture and indeed that 'the possibility of transcendence of cultural limits' constitutes 'the most important single fact about human life.'

Clearly, Gellner's argument, as presented here, relies upon his construction of the two poles. The text begins with the dramatic claim that there are 'two fundamental theories of knowledge,' standing in 'stark contrast to each other,' which are 'aligned' with 'related, and similarly contrasted, theories, of society, of man, of everything.' This 'chasm', he writes, 'cuts right across our total social landscape'. The confrontation is 'deep and general.' Yet we are very soon presented with a variety of telling examples of British thinkers whom it does not fit. In Brtiain, Gellner suggests, the confrontation between atomists and organicists 'cannot be tied in with, and reinforce, any political cleavages in the country.' On the other hand, it 'really came into its own within the Danubian Empire', with individualist liberals, often Jews, defending the idea of a pluralistic, tolerant, patchwork empire and nationalist intellectuals offering the alternative of 'a closed, localised culture, idiosyncratic and glorying in its idiosyncrasy, and promising emotional and aesthetic fulfilment and satisfaction to its members.' Generalising the point, he suggests that 'the opposition between individualism and communalism, between the appeal of Gesellschaft ('Society') and Gemeinschaft ('Community')' is a 'tension which pervades and torments most societies disrupted by modernisation.' In any case, it was, he claims, deeply embedded in the Central European world, from which he himself came, where it was 'closely linked to the hurly burly of daily political life and pervaded the sensibility of everyone.'

This claim suggests that there is a distinctly personal, even autobiographical aspect to the present work. Its argument proceeds, one might say, from exposition to exposure. Gellner first expounds by reporting on the apparent naturalness and self-evidence of the linkages between the components of these two great complexes of ideas and attitudes and of the tension or confrontation between them. He then exposes that naturalness and self-evidence as an illusion. The overarching dichotomy in question is a massive but historically contingent construction urgently in need of deconstruction. And he makes this argument through a multiply paradoxical interpretation of the thought of his two principal dramatis personae, which in turn provides a commentary upon his own intellectual choices.

Thus Wittgenstein, explicitly assuming these to be the only alternatives, first expressed 'the solitude of the transcendental ego,' by giving an account of 'what the world looks like to a solitary individual reflecting on the problem of how his mind, or language can possibly "mean", i.e. reflect the world'; and then offered a second philosophy, transplanting 'the populist idea of the authority of each distinctive culture to the problem of knowledge,' concluding that 'mankind lives in cultural communities or, in his words, "forms of life," which are self-sustaining, self-legitimating, logically and normatively final.' He did this, Gellner argues, even though totally ahistorical and lacking 'any sense of the diversity of cultures, and indeed of the very existence of culture' and, moreover, uninterested in social and political questions. In short, Gellner's Wittgenstein is a sort of unwitting transmitter of prevailing cultural assumptions, with a 'ferocious narrowness of interest,' whose expression of 'the deep dilemma facing the Habsburg world' was all the more effective because 'it was never consciously thought out and never at the forefront of his attention,' expressing those assumptions in successive, one-sided philosophies, the later of which retains enormous cultural influence.

Malinowski, on the other hand, was able to escape the tyranny of those assumptions, partly because they were less dominant in Cracow than in Vienna and because his life situation and temperament made him more inclined to 'doubts' and 'rational thought', but principally because he applied a biologicvally-based philosophy of science to cultural objects, combining the radical empiricism he had learnt from Ernst Mach with a penchant for ethnographic fieldwork, which in Eastern Europe had a 'culture-loving and culture-preserving' significance inspired by populism and nationalism. In consequence he was able to develop a powerful new, scientific methodology within modern social anthropology, whose founder he became, combining an 'empiricist abstention from the invocation of unobservables' with 'a both functionalist and romantic sense of the unity and interdependence of culture.' At the same time, according to Gellner, while allowing that language could be 'use-bound and context-linked,' he also allowed (though subsequently mistakenly denied) that in scientific and philosophical contexts, it properly strives to be context-free. He further reflected in a fruitful and original way upon the relation between cultural and political nationalism, exhibiting a 'remarkable freedom' from the latter. He argued, in a way that foreshadows Gellner's own position, that the only hope is to 'limit the political power of nations, but permit, indeed enhance and encourage, the perpetuation of all those local cultures within which men have found their fulfilment and their freedom,' thus 'depriving boundaries of some of their importance and symbolic potency.' Thus in these several but allgedely related ways the social anthropologist Malinowski reflected critically upon assumptions that the philosopher Wittgenstein merely reproduced. Gellner's own intellectual career, which began with a sociological critique of Wittgensteinian philosophy, went on, among other things, to explore the philosophical contribution of Malinowskian social anthropology.

This structure of argument, moving from construction of an overarching dichotomy to its deconstruction, has several significant virtues. It gives a satisfying unity and direction, even drama, to the present work. It provides a challenging basis from which to interpret and compare the thought of Wittgentstein and Malinowski. And it raises the highly interesting issue of just what the relations are between the extremely various theories, doctrines and political positions gathered around the two supposedly opposite polar views of knowledge.

Yet here Gellner's readers will doubtless be provoked to ask a number of pertinent questions. First, just what are they to make of his arresting claim that 'the universalist-populist confrontation pervades Habsburg culture and consequently, for those who are immersed in it, it has the power of a compulsive logical truism'? How is this to be squared with his argument (against Peter Winch's cultural holism) that our world consists of 'unstable and, above all, overlapping cultural zones' with 'conflicts or options within them' and 'multiple competing oracles'? And why would the inhabitants of the Habsburg lands be so 'immersed' in their culture that the indicated polarity should be so inescapable and 'compulsive'? Why should that cultural zone -- and, more generally, those of 'most societies disrupted by modernisation' where, on Gellner's theory, nationalism tends to flourish -- be particularly inhospitable to the doubts and rational thought that would put it in question? David Gellner is right: Ernest Gellner was no social determinist in relation to ideas. Yet his argument seems here to require (at least in 'less blessed parts of the world' than Britain) a pervasive 'compulsion' that only a fortunate few can escape.

Moreover, the polar opposition in question is of course a massive reduction of complexity -- a caricature of the history of ideas which, however, as a caricature, would succeed to the extent that its simplifications capture the essentials of what it simplifies. But here too several related questions arise. Max Weber once remarked that 'Individualism' embraces the utmost heterogeneity of meanings. It has been assigned innumerable origins and meanings and characterised from many different points of view, often hostile, ever since it was first identified by de Maistre in 1819 as a corrosive threat to social order and by Tocqueville in his Democracy in America as a new term to which a new idea has given birth, a turning away from public involvement that threatens what we now call civil society. Since then virtually every writer on the subject offers a different constellation, with a different purpose in view.

Gellner's version here is one such. The 'individualist,' he writes, 'sees the polity as a contractual, functional convenience, a device of the participants in pursuit of mutual advantage' as opposed to the 'holist' who 'sees life as a participation in a collectivity, which alone gives life its meaning.' Individualism is a tradition:

The Crusoe tradition, which begins with Descartes, finds its supreme expression in Hume and Kant, and is reformulated again in the second positivism and the neo-liberalism of our or recent times, offers the story of how a brave and independent individual builds up his world, cognitively, economically, and so forth.

But is this really a 'tradition' or does it only look that way through a seriously distorting lens (in this case, perhaps, that used by an archetypal Central European nationalist)? Does Defoe's fable really illustrate Cartesian doubt? Are Humean empiricism and Kantian rationalism really bedfellows, and is the anti-contractualist, custom-favouring historian Hume really an arch-individualist? Are there not innumerable elementary errors involved in this agglomeration, confusing, for instance, abstraction, reductionism and the search for universal laws? Epistemology, economics and political theory have complex links, but not of this simple kind. Liberals (whether neo- or not) have differed extraordinarily widely about economics and politics and can be rationalists or empiricists or positivists and much else besides. And from within this so-called tradition, there is unending disagrement and contestation about all these issues, and not least about what individualism is. And the same, of course, goes for the many versions and varieties of collectivism-communalism-communitarianism.

Of course, the first person to acknowledge this is Ernest Gellner, who writes, immediately following the passage just quoted, 'All this simply will not do either as an actual descriptive or as an explanatory account.' We 'have come to undestand our world a little better than when its nature was disputed by two parties.' But was there really such a time and place, rather than the construction or illusion of it? It is not clear why the illusion should only now be unmasked and why we needed to wait for Malinowski to see through it. If it simply will not do, then, of course, it never did. Which raises the interesting and important question of what account Gellner himself offers of how these ideas, doctrines and political positions properly fit together.

His position, well-known and often expressed, is a distinctive contribution to current debates embracing postmodernism and relativism, the so-called culture wars, post-positivist philosophy of science, and method in social and cultural anthropology. His case, as formulated here, is a defence of 'individualism' (or 'the Crusoe model') as an 'ethic of cognition': a 'normative charter of how one particular tradition, namely our own, reconstructs and purges its own cognitive and productive worlds.' It maintains that

all cognitive claims are subjected to scrutiny in the course of which they are broken up into their constituent parts and individuals are free to judge as individuals: there are no cognitive hierarchies or authorities.

It is thus atomistic, egalitarian and universalistic in that it is committed to the practice of criticism by reference to a 'notion of culture-transcending truth.' As he has put it elsewhere, one cognitive style, namely 'science and its application,' is governed by 'certain lossely defined procedural prescriptions about how the world may be investigated':

all ideas, data, inquirers are equal, cognitive claims have to compete and confront data on terms of equality and they are not allowed to construct circular self-confirming visions.

This (broadly Popperian) account of the validation (though not the origination) of cognitive scientific claims marks out the ground that Gellner has, over the years, sought to defend against relativists, idealists, subjectivists, interpretivists, social constructionists and other exponents of 'local knowledge' -- inheritors all, he believed, of the (late) Wittgensteinian error that this work, once more, aims to expose and uproot.

In what way can it be seen as carrying the debate further? In large part, it is, as I have suggested, a defence and restatement of Gellner's anti-relativist stance in respect of what he calls the new style of cognition constituted by science and technology that is central to our culture and has transformed our world. Here he argues that what he variously calls 'universalism-atomism' and 'individualism' 'probably gives us a correct answer to the question of how valid and powerful knowledge really works, and, in that sphere, deserves a kind of normative authority.' But what is the scope of that sphere? Is the understandng of our natural environment inherently unlike that of our social environment? And how and where is the distinction between natural and social to be drawn? In the last paragraphs of the book, he expresses a genuine and honest uncertainty conerning the reasons for science's limited success in the realm of social and human phenomena, and further uncertainty as to whether these limits are in principle surmountable or not. Furthermore, he writes of values as 'instilled by contingent and variable cultures.' And yet his intellectual heroes, notably Hume and Kant, and other thinkers of the Enlightenment, were universalists in respect of morality as well as knowledge. Is not the notion of culture-transcending moral principles also central to our culture, and do they not also deserve a kind of normative authority, and, if not, why not?

These are, of course, old, classical questions but they will not go away. Yet a further virtue of Ernest Gellner's last work is that it raises them once more in a new and unfailingly provocative way.