Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 3

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Poker player

Philosophy of the past three centuries is concerned basically with two questions: which world are we in?-and, who the devil are we? These questions arise in the following way. Traditional societies possess reasonably rounded-off and self-maintaining world-pictures. But the advancement of learning and the broadening of horizons have dealt these pictures some devastating blows. So rival worlds, most of them sound by their own lights, make their mutually incompatible claims on our belief, our cognitive loyalty. Though one may temporize, one must also choose: after all, we must needs be some place, and our various decisions must be taken against some background picture.

The modern theory of knowledge developed in response to this predicament. It was and is an attempt to chart the nature and limits of knowledge, and thereby tell us how to choose between the competing world-pictures. As political philosophy set out to give the criteria of legitimate authority, so the theory of knowledge was concerned, primarily, with the principles of cognitive legitimacy. Various theories of cognitive legitimacy were elaborated, and constitute the mainstream of modern philosophy. One of the most important ones is empiricism, the doctrine which, in its radical form, asserts that the only ultimate legitimation of any belief is sensation.

The other great problem of modern philosophy concerns the moral identity of man. This preoccupation arises in a manner similar to the epistemological one. The advancement of knowledge utterly disrupts the old balance of beliefs: we find we know much more, and much less, than we had supposed. Unsuspected knowledge, and unsuspected ignorance, both loom large. In traditional society, men take their own selves and their own powers as self-evident. They act as owners of a smooth-running car who take the functioning of its controls totally for granted, and do not worry about the mechanisms under the bonnet. But suddenly, unexpected new models, unsuspected breakdowns and performances, quite beyond the range of the familiar controls, force one to think in a more fundamental way

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