Ernest Gellner and the Cognitive History of Humanity

Chaos and Governance has a post drawing attention to a neglected modern masterwork: Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book (from 1988).

Herewith a few reflections of my own on that work:

1-Plough, Sword and Book can be read as claiming that the history of modes of cognition (though Gellner IIRC does not use that term) is just as important as the history of modes of production or modes of coercion.

2-I think he is right, and I am tempted to go further and say bluntly that cognition is the basis and all the rest are superstructures. That is because the evolution of intelligence was the necessary (and maybe sufficient) condition for much else in social evolution. You have to pass a certain threshold of intelligence to invent agriculture, or to create writing, or to establish a meritocratic bureaucracy (as in ancient China), and so on.

3- Gellner thinks that the modern scientific, rationalistic mode of cognition is superior, though he recognizes some of its limits and flaws. He is willing to defend progress against relativists, religionists, and multiculturalists. I think he is largely right in this.

4-Unfortunately, Plough, Sword and Book does not (and cannot) explain the main episodes of cognitive history. Why was there a Greek miracle? Why did the Chinese excel at technology (but not science)? Why did the West pioneer the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, mass literacy and education? Why did the leading edge of cognitive history drift northwards over the millennia from Sumeria to Greece and China then to Northern Europe and its overseas offshoots? Why was there a great divergence: some regions so accomplished and successful in cognition-intensive activities, others not at all? I cannot find in Gellner any resources to answer these fundamental questions.

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One response to “Ernest Gellner and the Cognitive History of Humanity

  1. Pingback: Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History III « Chaos and Governance

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