Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 2

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Preface

The title of the present collection, Contemporary thought and politics, adverts to the unifying idea in it. Heinrich Heine posed the question, 'what is the moral import of this theory?', when dealing with religion, ideology, politics, or metaphysics. Germany, he argued, prepares for war by philosophizing. Gellner seeks the moral and political implications of contemporary climates of opinion. And from the most universalist left-wing rebel to the most parochial nationalist, he feels, they have all succumbed to the attraction of seemingly sophisticated ideas which are facile and easy to master. He centres on the idea shared by far right and far left political ideologists, by some philosophers and by some scientists: you can consider any theory from both within and without; from within it will offer its own justification (i.e. the question will not arise), and from without you may be able to view its limits. With this neat device you can have your cake and eat it too; you may hold any easy theory that looks sophisticated enough. The student who rebels by day and goes to his snug home at night only echoes his professor who pretends to be incompetent to criticize the ideas he expounds. Mock-modesty, mock-neutrality, mock-tolerance, open the way for the doctrine that truth does not matter but commitment does-an irrational and violent corollary. The conclusion Gellner draws (in chapter 13) is both moral and political, both private and public: do not tolerate empty phraseology! Of course, encounter it not with physical violence but with careful, level-headed yet powerful words. We think Gellner's words rise to his own standards.

But Gellner is known to the reading public mainly as a philosopher and a scourge of other philosophers. Whence his interest in politics? The most general answer has to be that in all his work Gellner likes to observe ways of life and systems of thought. Clearly, the views of others and their structures of justification fascinate him because he is struggling to work out his own views and supporting structures. Yet to understand why he has written relatively little about such matters as the universal religions and quite a lot about politics it is not enough

-vii-

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