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Gellner's Philosophy of History - Interpretations and Problems

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Musil, Jiri

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Abstract The major part of Ernest Gellner's work ranks among the few contemporary attempts at a global theory of the development of mankind, or, in his words, 'the structure of human history.' Gellner's theory is based on two main assumptions: first, the succession of three radically & generically different types of societies: (1) hunter-gatherer society, (2) agrarian society, 3) industrial society; & second, the assumption that in all these societies it is necessary to distinguish three categories of human activity: (A) the economy; (B) power, & (C) knowledge. In his last books he added a fourth component: culture & organization. The possible variations of mutual relationships between the economy, power, & knowledge in each of the developmental phases is what forms the first part of Gellner's thoughts on the philosophy of history. The second, & perhaps more important, part consists of his thoughts on the forms & causes behind the transition from agrarian to industrial society. The emergence of industrial society cannot be easily explained. Therefore Gellner prefers to speak only of the circumstances surrounding this development. They can be summarized in the following way: a restrained state, not interfering too much in the life of the people; Protestantism & its ethic & lifestyle; a developing, if modest & not too robust, technology. The mixture of these three circumstances created a situation out of which an industrial, contractual, pluralist, & open society emerged in Europe. In this article, the author challenges the interpretation of Gellner's theory as being a kind of non-Marxist historical materialism, & describes it rather as structural functionalism applied to history. At the same time, the author points to several problems that can be found in Gellner's sociological theory of history, & devotes the latter part of the paper to outlining four specific problem areas.
Classification Philosophy, Ethics, Religion; History
Free Keywords Gellner, Ernest; Society; Structural Functional Analysis; Historical Development; Social Systems; Sociological Theory; Theoretical Problems; Historical Materialism
Document language English
Publication Year 2001
Page/Pages p. 153-172
Journal Sociologický časopis / Czech Sociological Review, 9 (2001) 2
Status Published Version; reviewed
Licence Deposit Licence - No Redistribution, No Modifications