|by George W. Stocking Jr. University of Chicago Illinois
"Anthropology is inevitably political.... The limits of possible forms of social organization constitute crucial evidence concerning sensible and absurd political aspirations." Following this call in the preface for a politically relevant universal anthropological realism are 16 brilliantly provocative essays collected by the late Ernest Gellner-anglicized Popperian philosopher and anthropologist of Jewish-Czech extraction-and previously published during the decade of international political ferment between glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
All focus on a single conceptual and political problem: the distinctive nature and conditions of the emergence of the modern technoscientific world. Positioning himself as Enlightenment Puritan between postmodern relativists and postcolonial fundamentalists-while acknowledging, critically, certain values of each-Gellner opens by offering a defense of "the uniqueness of truth." The next 10 essays consider issues in the analysis of the great transformation, either in general historical or conceptual terms ("The Origins of Society") or in relation to specific figures (Malinowski, Freud, Frazer, and various late Soviet neo-Marxists). This sequence culminates with the essay "War and Violence," in which Gellner proposes a "new law of three stages": violence
as "contingent and optional" (in foraging society), as "pervasive,
mandatory, and normative" (in agrarian society), and as "optional,
counterproductive and probably fatal" in the (post-agrarian, postindustrial,
and most important, post-Communist) stage `we are now entering."
At that point in the book, Gellner's focus shifts to the Middle East, where
(having turned from philosophy to sociology at the London School of
Economics) he carried on fieldwork (in Morocco) in the years after 1954. In
these four essays, the major intellectual reference point is Ibn Khaldun,
read less in relativistic terms than as foreshadowing issues relating to the
Returning to Europe, the last two essays focus on the dangers of
contemporary relativistic anthropology (the "hermeneutic" turn,
"deconstruction," "the social construction of reality")tendencies that
Gellner explains in terms of the "expiation" of colonial guilt, "the
American weakness" (in which relativism is a reaction to the absolutizing
values of liberal individualism), and the "failure of the [Parsonian] social
sciences" since 1945. Arguing that the "grotesquely exaggerated" power of
idealistic cultural explanations must be "complemented by the natural
construction of society," Gellner concludes that while "the great change
which brought us understanding and control of nature has also deprived us of
the possibility of underwriting our [own] values," it is "not true that any
old world is possible, and within the range of possible worlds, not all of
them are cognitively equal.'
While many readers within and without anthropology (including, ambivalently, this reviewer) may share his commitment to a scientific realism, it is only fair to note that, within the currently dominant tendencies of the discipline in the United States, Gellner might rather be regarded as a kind of intellectual dinosaur, whose arguments, however brilliantly articulated, are rooted in a now transcended intellectual and cultural past. Whether, after "the coming fin de millenaire," that view will prevail remains to be seen.