*Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography*

by on July 28, 2010 at 7:51 am in Books, History, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Gellner's general view of the world of advanced liberal capitalism is by now familiar: it is a relatively open world in which science prospers, bringing both affluence and diminished moral certainty — with Danegeld doing a good deal to secure social cohesion.

This splendid intellectual biography, by John A. Hall, should be read by all those interested in Hayek, Popper, Berlin, Oakeshott, and the foundations of a free society.  You can order it here.  I spent $33 on the book and it paid back every penny and then some.  Here is Henry on the book.

1 Taylor July 28, 2010 at 8:23 am

Gellner is a giant, akin to Schumpeter in range and depth. Interesting to speculate who might be closest to him today in terms of sheer, consummate mastery of the social sciences. Maybe Jon Elster?

2 Michael G Heller July 28, 2010 at 9:21 am

No, I don’t think Jon Elster compares. He is a master of the techniques of social science but not of the social purposes of social science. You struggle to find a message in Elster that transcends the concern with technique. Gellner, Hayek, Popper, Oakeshott, in contrast, apply technique to elaborating a message about the past, actual and even desired shape of society. And their critiques of buffoonery are much more exciting and captivating than anything found in Elster. Gellner is probably better at the critique of the pervasive clownery in social science than even Popper or Hayek.

What I find strange right now is that I had put Tyler in Oakeshott camp, and I’ve actually started forming quite a sympathetic view of Oakeshott myself recently despite having come from (I’d say) the Gellner initiation camp. Now Tyler starts on about Gellner… What’s the world coming to. Gellner used Oakeshott as a foil against which to criticize culturalist views of social change (or non-change). In his book *Plough, Sword, and Book* Gellner said “cultures are socially transmitted, but the converse argument – societies are perpetuated by cultures – should not be accepted lightly†. But actually I think there could be a meeting of minds with Oakeshott. I’m working on it. They are not so far apart. The problem probably lies somewhere in the meaning of ‘conservative’. Hayek insisted he was not a conservative, yet on some readings his theory of social evolution, being incrementalist, is conservative.

This is a rather long-winded way of saying that Gellner, Hayek, Popper, Oakeshott were all right, and they were all quite Weberian in worldview.

3 joe tender July 29, 2010 at 3:51 am

A strong paradigm shift in conscious awareness.

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