Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 2

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Contemporary thought and politics

Philosophy, Politics and Society, edited by Peter Laslett (Oxford 1956) attempts to give a picture of contemporary academic political thought by collecting ten papers by different authors. This task is made somewhat difficult by the fact that, as the editor puts it, 'political philosophy is dead'. I shall not for the moment consider whether this means that these studies are funeral orations, commemoration ceremonies, inaugurations of a succession regime or just plain hauntings by guilty souls. The editor says that the murderer has been the movement known to the general public as logical positivism. There is evidence for this view, and I shall try to reconstruct the crime, if such it is.

Let it be said at the start that this is a useful book if one wishes to teach social philosophy without changing one's normal philosophical terminology. For good or for ill, it is philosophically contemporary, despite the fact (or rather, and obviously, because) little or nothing could be inferred from it about important contemporary general issues.

The ten essays fall into three groups, one of them residual. First, there are those which, under one title or pretext or another, really discuss the general issue of the possibility of political thought, of the status of valuation and of political assessments, of the place of politics on the map of possible knowledge. These essays are best discussed in the context of the nature and implications of the positivist Weltanschauung. Second, there is a group of essays which applies the principles and axioms of that Weltanschauung to specific issues. And finally there is a group of three essays, Professor Oakeshott's, Professor Gallie's and Mr Laslett's, which are either by authors who do not belong to the tradition shared by the first two groups, or are tackling a problem without making use of that tradition. Professor Oakeshott's, which as an inaugural lecture has made its impact prior to the publication of this book, is more profitably discussed in the context of his other articles, and in any case deserves fuller treatment which I hope to give it soon and separately. For the moment suffice it

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