Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 2

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

The concept of a story1

This is a book for which a review can perhaps perform a useful service: to offer some advice concerning how the book should be read. The title and the actual ordering of chapters-in effect, the book as actually produced by the printer-suggest one reading: the present reviewer wishes to recommend another. I hope the impertinence of this presumption is mitigated by the fact that the advice is offered tentatively, and with admiration for the book.

The actual arrangement of the book, and its title, encourage the impression that the book is primarily a contribution to the logic of historiography, and consequently, that it is the earlier chapters of the book which are the most important. This, in fact, would seem to me to be an error. The really crucial chapter is, in my view, chapter 8, on 'Essentially contested concepts'. It is the logical peak, the culminating point of a fine ridge, from which the subsidiary ridges and buttresses, valleys and foothills of the argument fall away and can be seen to their best advantage.

I may be predjudiced on this point. I remember hearing an earlier version of this chapter when it was read to the Aristotelian Society some years ago. I admired it greatly: it was one of those papers which permanently enter one's thought Quite possibly someone who has not had this experience, who had not already earlier internalized this crucial step in Professor Gallie's argument, might not wish to see the book as a whole in the manner I recommended.

What are 'essentially contested concepts'? A formal definition might read something as follows: an essentially contested concept is one such that the criteria for an object falling under it are multiple; they are evaluative (i.e. to satisfy them is to satisfy a norm of excellence, as well as a mere precondition of a classification); the relative importance of the various criteria is itself unsettled and open to dispute, and this itself is recognized by the users of the concept, and is held by them to be compatible with the admission that what is at stake is one concept, variously interpreted, rather than simply a multiplicity of overlapping concepts. Above all, these characteristics,

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