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by Paul Mattick

Ernest Gellner (1925-95) first achieved fame in 1959 with an attack on Oxford-style linguistic philosophy, ''Words and Things.'' The philosophers in question put up a fight, but their day is long done. After 30 years of writing and teaching in a number of English universities about a range of topics including psychoanalysis, Muslim society and nationalism, Gellner returned to the fray in ''Language and Solitude.'' As before, his primary target is Ludwig Wittgenstein, presented now not only as the presiding genius of a defunct philosophical school but as the patron saint of a general intellectual trend that represents the infection of the humanities by the romantic nationalism that wreaked so much havoc in politics.

Gellner wrote on the assumption that his readers were also familiar with texts and ideas he thought about for a lifetime. Despite the difficulties that assumption can produce, this posthumous book, studded with ideas like a little roast with truffles, will pleasurably provoke those who persevere.

According to Gellner, the transformation of the ''closed, intimate communities'' in which most people once lived into open, large-scale market systems produced ''the central problem facing contemporary societies,'' the seemingly irresolvable conflict between an individualistic mode of thought and the desire for the spiritual comfort of community. Gellner argues that ever since Descartes responded to the clash between religion and 17th-century science by trying to create a body of knowledge on the basis of nothing but his own experience and reason, philosophy has called into question the claims of culture over the mind and even the sense of self of an individual in the social world. It also, however, called into being its opposite, he says, a romantic insistence on community and culture as the necessary matrix of selfhood, knowledge and ethical life.

Neither view, according to Gellner, provides an adequate picture of human society and knowledge. But both tell partial truths. Individuals derive their aims and needs from the cultures they live in. On the other hand, the idea of independent truth put together by rational individuals made possible the development of modern science and the world-changing power of industrial society.

How did it happen, then, that a thinker like Wittgenstein could found a school of philosophy on the rejection of that idea? Because, Gellner thinks, of the particular society from which he came and his position in it. In its last decades the Hapsburg empire held together a seething collection of would-be states with a strange combination of Catholic absolutism and cosmopolitan liberalism. Under these circumstances, members of an educated Jewish bourgeoisie, excluded and threatened by the back-to-the-roots ideology of the nationalists, had every cause to combine their liberalism with loyalty to the ''old and rigid dynasty, long linked with hierarchy, authoritarianism and obscurantist dogmatism.''

In Wittgenstein's first book, the ''Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'' (1921), abstract individualism reached a dizzying height Gellner describes as autistic. The ''Tractatus'' sketches a world peopled only by the philosophical self, whose experience is structured only by the flattened-out schemata of logic. Culture, in other words, does not exist.

By the 1930's Wittgenstein was abandoning these views -- not so much, Gellner thinks, because they are untenable as because the cosmic loneliness they depict was finally unbearable. Given the polarization of Hapsburg politics, the only alternative seemed to be a philosophical version of nationalism. This is the ruling idea of Wittgenstein's ''Philosophical Investigations,'' the late work that ''positively outlaws the very idea of social criticism by making every culture sovereign, self-validating, ultimate.'' Gellner thinks that while the popularity of ideas like these among philosophers was fostered by the particular circumstances of Oxford, the complacency of the 1950's was also to blame, just as the obsession of intellectuals in the 90's with closed worlds of meaning reflects both the repudiation of Western chauvinism and the abandonment of a critical attitude toward cultural givens.

But the Hapsburg empire also produced an alternative to Wittgenstein's unsatisfactory dualism: the cultural anthropology of another exile from Mitteleuropa, Bronislaw Malinowski. While Vienna's Wittgenstein was busy seducing philosophical minds at Cambridge, Cracow's Malinowski was founding modern anthropology at the London School of Economics, focusing on understanding the interrelationships between the parts of cultures. Where Wittgenstein insisted that one can understand culture only from within, Malinowski studied it from without, regarding it, Gellner suggests, from the viewpoint of the colonial administrator, whose own culture claimed the transcendent status of science. The political consequence Malinowski drew from his anthropology was the need for a supranational authority that would limit national sovereignty while respecting freedom of cultural expression. Gellner concedes that this idea may not be realistic, but it is, he insists, ''our only hope.''

Gellner, surprisingly, does not consider the possible source of Malinowski's politics in the empire of his origin as well as the British one in which he spent most of his life. Perhaps this is because Gellner's thinking is so close to Malinowski's that he echoes Malinowski's contrast of ''savage thought'' with modern science. But it is not just today's relativism that rules out Gellner's portrayal of ''civilized'' thinking as ideally ''context-free.'' Gellner himself quotes Malinowski's observation that scientific books are addressed to those who have ''the necessary scientific training'' -- that is, to those educated by the authorities of a science-oriented culture.

If we are going to look for understanding of our predicament in anthropology rather than in philosophy -- in my view, not a bad idea -- we will have to do fieldwork on our own culture as well as on ''savages.'' Gellner leaves modern society almost entirely unanalyzed; we are told only that ''one day'' in history ''a new style of cognition emerged'' that eventually produced ''industrial society.'' What social transformations gave rise to both scientific universalism and nationalism? This question doesn't arise in Gellner's way of thinking, but ''Language and Solitude'' has the virtue of leading us right to it.

Paul Mattick is the author of ''Social Knowledge'' and editor of the International Journal of Political Economy.