Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 2

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Myth, ideology and revolution

The ideology of the protest movement has two marked traits: totality and facility. It stands for 'total commitment'. This it contrasts with the partial, humdrum, moral, and intellectual compromises of ordinary society. Compromise is treason. Any structure, intellectual or social, is likewise treason. When, during the first big sit-in at the LSE, some of the rebellious students organized a 'free' or counteruniversity, one of its leading spirits announced that it would distinguish itself from the other place in as far as that in it, teachers would be totally committed to what they taught, and students totally committed to what they learnt.

What could this mean? Presumably, it implies that any tentative exploration of ideas, the entertaining of suppositions for the purpose of exploring their soundness, is out. Sexual experimentation is perfectly permissible-but intellectual experimentation, exploration, tentativeness, anything short of 'commitment', are viewed with a neo-Victorian prudery. Propositions at least may only be embraced with total love.


Totality and facility

The implications of this view are interesting. In effect it rejects the division of labour, not merely in production, but also, and above all, in cognition: only that which is known by the 'whole being' is sound and healthy. The hypothetical method, whether in its Socratic form or as practised by experimental science, in which the implications of this view or that are explored for the light they throw on the initial assumption, whilst that initial assumption is only entertained tentatively-all that is rejected. The pure intellect does not play with assumptions and inferences any more than it haggles or bargains. It gives itself wholeheartedly, in careless rapture in which cognition becomes similar to amorous ecstasy. It is ardent rather than lucid.

The origins of this totalist view of knowledge (and social life, of course) are no doubt various. In part, it is the revival of a very old

-8-

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