A seeker of truth in a tortured world

Anthropology and Politics

October 25, 1996

In one of the key essays in this collection Ernest Gellner identifies three contemporary views of truth. Roughly, the fundamentalists are sure that truth is revealed by God; the relativists believe that truth (which, of course, they refer to as "truth") is a matter of opinion; while the Enlightenment puritans reason that armed with reliable observations, and aided by imagination and scepticism, one may chip away at error.

An uncompromising Enlightenment puritan himself, Gellner's central premise is that all cultures are equal, except for the cosmopolitan and polyglot subculture of science. Based on reason and observation, it delivers reliable knowledge and technological gains to which virtually all the people of the modern world aspire. This subculture is available to all. Consequently, science and technology are breaking down the old communities, and also the modern states that fail to deliver the goods, most dramatically the former Soviet Union and its colonies.

Fundamentalists are unlikely to become anthropologists, since they have no sympathy with unbelievers. Anthropologists - and philosophers - are, accordingly, either relativists or realists. ("It is well known that every philosophical baby that is born alive is either a little positivist or else a little Hegelian.")Gellner's commitment was to realism and positivism: to science. He was at once a philosopher and an anthropologist, and these essays are wonderfully stimulating excursions on behalf of positivists. Relativists are shown no quarter: "Cognitive relativism is nonsense, moral relativism is tragic.

The good anthropologist, like any good scientist, is a Popperian. A theory should "be more or less compatible with available facts, or, at any rate… not blatantly in conflict with them. It explains them better than any available alternative, and it suggests further ethnographic, historical and other enquiries. As a good Popperian, I ask no more of theories." The facts about social life are most reliably gathered by ethnographers, practicing participant observation in the manner of Bronislaw Malinowski. Gellner quotes Kim, Philby's observation that a spy who collects only documents is no use at all. After all, a document may be a ploy in some bureaucratic game, or may languish in a file if some general finds it inconvenient. "What is valuable is to be able to speak informally and at length with the members of the embassy in question, and to get a real feel for the way they habitually and naturally think. Once that is understood, it becomes easy to interpret even minor signs that are not confidential." And finally, hypothesis and observations are worthless unless they are dearly and unambiguously phrased, and open to refutation. The relativists prefer the false profundities of obfuscation. "It is not obvious to me that, because the world is a diverse, complex and tortured place, which it is, that only cumbersome and ambiguous sentences can do it justice, and that clarity is some kind of intellectual treason… I can accept neither a murky relativism nor a semiotic mysticism."

At one level, the essays endorse the direction taken by social anthropology in what Gellner calls the intellectual sterling area, which. for anthropologists, now covers the European Union and the former Soviet Empire. (He gave the opening address, reprinted here, at the foundation meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, which unites the practitioners of social anthropology in the tradition of Malinowski - and of Gellner.) Conversely, Gellner is merciless on the cultural determinism, the romanticism and relativism and the hermeneutic methods, associated with the modern, and postmodern, American school.

Yet his essential points of reference lie elsewhere, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the early 20th century, in which he grew up, and which nurtured the schools of thought that dominated his lifetime. On the one side were the positivists and universalists, notably Mach and Popper, the liberals, such as Hayek, and the satirical writers he admired, like Robert Musil and Karel Capek; on the other side were the relativists, epitomised by Wittgenstein, the prophets of false science, notably Freud, and the romantic nationalists and revolutionaries. There was an elective affinity between the protagonists of these great parties, so that the later Wittgenstein can be shown to have peddled a philosophical version of romantic communalism, while Freud gave comfort to the moral relativists.

His hero. Malinowski, crossed the divide. He was brought up a romantic. His father studied peasant folklore in Carpathian villages for nationalistic reasons. But Malinowski wrote his thesis on Mach, preferred the tolerant, multi-ethnic Empire to the dreams of Polish chauvinists, and adapted the tradition of nationalist folklore studies to the investigation of exotic others, the Trobriand islanders, whom he represented as driven by the same motives as the most hard-nosed and cynical Viennese man of affairs. One of the most successful essays here is on another crossover, the Catholic priest Alois Musil, a cousin of the author of A Man Without Qualities . The Moravian answer to Lawrence of Arabia, he became a sympathiser with Islam, a great ethnographer of the Bedouin, and, like Masaryk, an Enlightenment puritan at last.

In the preface to this book, dated November 1994, Gellner insists that "anthropology is inevitably political". This is because theoretical anthropology must affirm "what we are, what our society is and can be." A realist anthropology is therefore the precondition for realistic politics. And he ended the final chapter with a plea to his colleagues: "Our predicament is to work out the social options of our affluent and disenchanted condition. We have no choice in this matter. To pretend otherwise, to claim that the problem does not even arise, but has been replaced by the Permanent Carnival, is absurd. The fin de millénaire should have its fireworks, but let it not deprive us of our sense of reality."

Gellner died in December, 1995. This book will serve as a splendid introduction to his characteristic themes, but reading these essays will also reinforce our sense of loss. He will not be there any longer, leading the good fight, indomitable in combat, mocking error, learned, witty, truly worldly wise.

Adam Kuper is professor of social anthropology, Brunel University.


Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove

Author - Ernest Gellner
ISBN - 0 631 19917 9 and 19918 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 260

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