George Walford: Precision

Gellner E. 1988 Plough, Sword and Book; the structure of human history. London: Collins Harvill, 288 pages £15.

In this book Professor Gellner distinguishes three stages of society: first came hunting-gathering (the “hunger-gatherers” on p.33 is presumably a misprint), next based on the single discovery of food-production, and finally (so far) industrial, based on the continuing introduction of novelty. Food production, political centralization, the division of labour, literacy, science and intellectual liberalization appear in a certain historic sequence; regression occasionally occurs, but “by and large, there does seem to be a kind of overall cumulativeness.” With agrarian society came the establishment of authority and order, and with industrial the transition to limited and accountable government. The movement through the three stages was not pre-determined, but each stage is a necessary prerequisite for its successor.

In discussing this development the book displays the erudition we have come to expect from its author, speaking of trinitarianism, the Axial Age, eight approaches to cognition, the distinction between “high” and “folk” cultures, not merely the familiar Darwinism but Darwinianism, empiricist philosophy, the circularity of enlightened reasoning, Hegel (of course), Joachim of Fiore, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Pythagoreanism, salvation and a very great deal more.

But its main theme is the development of society from hunting-gathering through agrarian to industrial. Some such stadial conception has been familiar to all interested in the subject at least since Marx, and attention now focuses on the particular features of the version being put forward. One of these has to be demolition of the Marxian structure to clear the ground for the new attempt, and Gellner tackles this boldly, presenting Marx himself as “the bourgeois to end all bourgeois,” and Marxism as a bourgeois wish-fulfilment fantasy glorifying the work-ethic. He has a point. One of the few passages in which Marx and Engels tried to envisage life under communism shows them finding one job not enough; they wanted to work as hunters in the morning, fishermen in the afternoon, cattle-breeders in the evening and critics after dinner. [1]

In the course of social development, are the earlier principal stages eliminated as the later ones emerge, or do they persist? This book is written in a carefully guarded way but it seems to favour elimination, calling the transition from an earlier world to the present one a “switch.” If so, existing society will exhibit virtually no mode of thinking other than the generalized instrumental rationality which Gellner notes as one of the features of his third stage, but universal experience contradicts this expectation; rationality remains more an aspiration than a reality, expediency and compliance account for a greater part of behaviour than independent critical thinking. The earlier modes of thought and behaviour persist as the later ones develop, the modal structure of society becoming increasingly complex.

When presented with a theory of development one has to ask what motivates the process, and Professor Gellner recognises the need for an answer, saying “We understand a social order when we see it as one possible corollary of the basic factors which engender it… ” He speaks of basic factors in the plural, not of one fundamental to all others, and his treatment of the principal issues maintains this approach.

His three stages are named after the ways in which they obtain their means of life, and this suggests something close to the Marxist view. But then he goes on to ascribe the distinguishing features of the second stage to the discovery of food-production and those of the third to the realisation that continuing innovation is practicable. These stages are “based” on these discoveries. Four pages later these discovery-bases have disappeared, to be replaced by “the three crucial productive bases.” These also vanish, for “the argument makes no preliminary assumptions as to which sphere of human activity – production, coercion, cognition – is crucial,” and this in turn is contradicted by the statement that the argument does rest on such assumptions: “one chooses the crucial and elementary factors operative in human history, selected to the best of one’s judgement… ” Nor is this all, for reason, too, deserves some consideration. Do concepts perpetuate a society or are they rather perpetuated by it? That is a very difficult question, and one which may have different answers at different times and in different places.

This multiplicity of cruxes and bases and answers finds no resolution in the course of the book, the concluding summary telling us that social change can result from a number of factors, among them culture and coercion and ritual, while food-production is responsible for the stratification of agricultural societies, the distinction between thugs and priests crucial for human history and politics the crucial factor now.

Gellner evidently feels no need to press his analysis to a point where all these factors resolve into one, and this suggests a mode of thought different from that found in Marxism, which strives to relate all signi cant social changes to the single fundamental influence of the mode of production. It suggests the ideology which concentrates upon achieving accuracy in its treatment of each particular issue, rather than upon relations between them or any way in which they may together constitute a whole. It suggests, in short, that this book may be an expression of the ideology of precision, and it comes as no surprise to find the author asserting the principles of this ideology:

Though forming part of a single logical space, all facts are independent of each other: any one of them may hold or fail to hold, without any other being affected. They are not allowed to present themselves to us as parts of indivisible package deals. This was the old practice, but is so no longer. The republic of facts is Jacobin and centralist and tolerates no permanent or institutionalized factions within itself. This atomization in principle is not merely so to speak lateral – disconnecting each fact from its spatial neighbours – but also, and to an equal degree, qualitative: each trait conjoined in a fact can in thought be disconnected from its fellows, and their conjunction depends on factual confirmation alone. Nothing is necessarily connected with anything else. We must separate all separables in thought, and then consult the fact to see whether the separated elements are,
contingently, joined together. That is one of the fundamental principles of the rational investigation of nature.

Following his own prescription the author tends to treat each feature or tendency separately, with repeated recourse to the idea of miracles (on pages 132 and 261) to account for their sequence or co-existence. He offers a framework of candidate-explanations, each of them a possible element in an explanation. It is an atomistic approach, displaying the particulate thinking which appears in the activities of single-issue campaigners and in the democracy which goes by counting heads, in the nonconformist insistence upon the primacy of individual judgement, in the mutually exclusive categories of formal logic and in the billiard-ball conception of the material universe, in the thinking that emphasises quantification and snappy definitions. The limitations appearing when these conceptions are seen through the lens of any holistic ideology appear to the precisionists as conditions of dear thinking, and in maintaining the validity of their position they stand upon firm ground; this ideology has played a more active part in furthering human welfare than its more sophisticated competitors. The impression of an incomplete analysis given by the present book comes from its scope; precisionists normally restrict themselves, speaking at most of economics, of the structure of government, of a particular science or some other distinct discipline rather than attempting a historical survey of the society within which all these activities take place.

Gellner says: “No data can underwrite the sovereignty of data. Those who benefit from it and understand it are for ever precluded from explaining and guaranteeing it.” Is it going too far to read this as a near-recognition that the approach forms part of a set of assumptions, its adoption a function of the writer’s ideology?

In conclusion I have to take issue with Professor Gellner on one specific point. He says that agriculture destined much of mankind to hunger and oppression but omits to note that it did so in the course of endowing them with life otherwise unavailable. He himself notes in the preceding paragraph that agricultural societies, unlike foraging ones, can grow to a very large size.

[1] Marx K. & F. Engels, 1970 The German Ideology London: Lawrence & Wishart 53

from Ideological Commentary 46, July 1990.