Gellner E (1968) Words and Things, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd


I should say that Gellner's work is a particular favourite of mine, and one of the first books on philosophy I read (I was lucky enough to be taught philosophy by the great man himself -- I was on the verge of dropping out after being 'taught' Philosophy very badly by an elitist prat who seemed to delight in confusing us all, and thus confirming his view of himself as some sort of superior being. I suspect Gellner met some people like this in his own unhappy days at Oxford). I think the style of this book is just superb as well, quite unlike anything you are likely to read these days -- it is waspish, sarcastic, hilarious and extremely unfair, rather reminiscent of the writings of Marx. No-one would dare write anything like it these days, of course, for fear of being accused [perhaps correctly?] of aggression, intimidation, harassment and the like. In Gellner's defence, this is how you were supposed to argue back too, of course: the LSE style of the time was very much one of not beating about the bush but going for the weakest link (so to speak). None of it was meant to be taken personally.

Gellner's main target in the book is what he calls Linguistic Philosophy, as expounded by a group of Oxford philosophers influenced by the later works of Wittgenstein, as was Winch. Most of the book consists of a trenchant and 'philosophical' demolition of this kind of philosophy which is dismissed as not only absurd, but as trivial and circular: a marvellous diagram, on page 176 of this edition, renders the arguments as a completely circular parlour game. The chapter I'm going to review below focuses particularly on the relationship between Linguistic Philosophy and sociology, but this is rather atypical. The book still has a general relevance for anyone looking for an excellent, if oblique, critique of the founding principles of ethnomethodology, or, indeed, of 'postmodernism'.

Chapter IX Sociology

We need to consider the social background and social consequences of philosophies as a clue to understanding them: the direction of philosophy is 'never uniquely determine[d] [by] what people think' (254). In particular, '[matters such as choice of problems, rigour, evidence]... or of the "form of life", if you like -- all these matters which make up a style of thought or the spirit of the times are not dictated by an immovable reason, and they are at the very least influenced by the social and institutional milieu of the thinker' (254). Linguistic Philosophy is naive to insist on the neutrality of concepts and of their accounts of them.

Linguistic Philosophy is often peculiarly hostile to sociology, despite any particular acquaintance with it [Winch is exempted from this last criticism]. Yet linguistic philosophy is a pseudo-sociology -- some of its insights demand sociological inquiry, as do the factors which have affected it. For example, there is some evolutionary theory that suggests that forms of life become functionally adjusted to institutions. Occasionally, comments are made about everyday language which implies some standard of rationality [Winch himself was nearly caught out like this with his remarks about debasement, we saw in the file on him -- Gellner finds an example in Austin, page 256]. These pseudo-sociological points are never properly investigated in the obsession with detailed analysis of language usage: instead it is just assumed that we already know enough about the world and about society.

'Linguistic Philosophy is an ideology' (257) -- that is 'a set of ideas or doctrines, a set of practices, and a more or less closely organised, more or less institutionalised social group' (257). Such ideologies suggest approaches, facilitate communication, and block alternatives. To be effective, they need to demonstrate a great plausibility and also a great absurdity -- the latter is what binds the group --'The swallowing of an absurdity is, in the acceptance of an ideology, what a painful rite de passage is in joining a tribal group -- the act of commitment, the investment of emotional capital which ensures that one does not leave it too easily' (258). This investment often produces anger directed against doubters [or, in the case of ethnomethodologists I have known, a patronising pity for anyone who could be so uncool as to still be 'serious']

Linguistic Philosophy seems plausible, in explaining why past philosophy has failed, and in building on insights that language exists, has rules, and constrains speech. It offers to debunk philosophical pretentiousness and avoid the need for specialism. However, it also denies legitimacy to questions about what we actually know about other people or the social world -- these are just seen as misunderstandings of how language works, and are suppressed.

It does at least let experimental science get on with its explorations uncriticised, and is thus 'positivist'-- this is a sensible acceptance of the overwhelming success of science, without going the whole hog in 'recommending that all thinking should emulate the ways of science, whatever they be, or pack up' (259). The intention is to supplement science, not 'trespass on its domain' (259). This is just like contemporary theology in its dealings with science, or Existentialism.

Other possibilities to this real dilemma of how to relate to science are displayed by marxism and psychoanalysis, which claimed to be parts of science. However, these are also ideologies, in Gellner's sense, offering complete systems of concepts which can also guide ways of life. However, 'Marxism is about more serious matters and has an incomparably wider appeal, Linguistic Philosophy being of its essence an ivory-tower pursuit, which can only make sense in an extremely limited environment' (260). Psychoanalysis claims to be neutral, but fails to see that distinctions and values are smuggled into its practice [ as in the criterion separating 'health' from 'illness'].

Existentialism shares a similar starting point, arguing that human beings are inescapably involved in asking questions, and going on to suggest that when we ask questions about 'the world' we are really asking about how we handle things and look at the world. Both have also reacted against the view that some underlying logical structure could be detected in the world, beneath appearances, replacing this with an insistence upon human involvement. However, Linguistic Philosophy insists on an inherent impossibility for questions about the world, and goes on 'to claim that answers are not merely impermissible, but actually redundant' (262): the difficulty of humans asking questions about the world became central to Existentialism, but in Linguistic Philosophy, 'the matter is discounted as pathological and as doomed to wither away when the nature of its oddity is fully understood' (262). Existentialism leads to 'a greater and greater cult of paradox and obscurity... who can outdo Heidegger?' (263), while Linguistic Philosophy leads to 'increasing platitude, dullness and vacuity' (263).

Linguistic Philosophy is a modest ideology, although some people become committed to it and 'messianic' (264). Yet it also claims not to interfere with anything, or tell anyone what to do, and is indeed very proud of this neutrality. In this way, it has 'at long last, provided a philosophic form eminently suitable for gentlemen' (264). The philosophy is esoteric without being technical, and conservative. It guards against excessive introversion, which it sees as a habit of the old philosophy, worrying about abstractions, and rewards 'Those who see things bluntly and straight forwardly -- in effect, conventionally' (265). It is 'a kind of inverted mystical exercise... confirming us in our faith in what we knew anyway... it does not argue, it initiates... it suggests that commonsense or the rules of current use have... the... status... of something beyond doubt... and beyond argument' (265). It is thus a kind of populism, but 'The folk whose simple but sound folk culture is being defended and preserved against corruption by specious, theoretical philosophy are the folk of North Oxford, roughly' (265).

It became acceptable as an option for people who wish to avoid science and technicality, power and responsibility, and dangerous ideas. There is no need to puzzle about the world. There are confusions about it, which can be unravelled, with nothing at stake. Technicality is repulsive to professional intellectuals 'trained in an untechnical, literary manner. To switch-over late in life is painful, and liable to be embarrassingly humiliating' (266). It appeals to those who hate specialism: 'any one accustomed to a certain conversational tradition, one which avoids both ideas and technicality, but indulges in a kind of conspicuous, light-hearted triviality, can take part in a linguo-philosophical discussion without much training: he will easily recognise its rules' (267). The abhorrence of responsibility and power makes it attractive. It releases people from the obligation to offer guidance, by arguing that this is not the task of philosophy. Hostility to new ideas may be understood 'in terms of the particular educational institutions in which Linguistic Philosophy flourishes'. The general celebration of impotence and irrelevance may be a form of 'rationalising the decline in power of an old ruling class' (268).

Linguistic Philosophy charts the way of life of intellectuals without ideas. It is performed by 'a sub-group consisting of people who belong to, or emulate, the upper-class in manner; who differentiate themselves from the heartier rest of the upper-class by a kind of heightened sensibility and preciousness, and, at the same time, from the non-U kind of intelligentsia by a lack of interest in ideas, arguments, fundamentals or reform' (268). [Marvellously predating the work of Bourdieu on the social differentiation strategies of the 'new petit-bourgeois' intellectuals -- and far more cutting and savage!]

We also need to examine the customs and relationships which hold between believers. Two institutions are particularly important -- the 'esoteric discussion group' and the tutorial. Both of these maintain the requisite special atmosphere of willingness and commitment, compared to mere publication. Group dynamics reward each other once convinced, and philosophy becomes a kind of group therapy: indeed, 'the activity consists largely of confession... the confession of one's concepts' (270). The leader is assumed to have access to some special insights which can heal: such leaders attract 'powerful transference... the inability to suppose him mistaken' (270). Participation is habit forming.

This is quite unlike the claims that such small groups serve as the testing ground for ideas and self-examination.  'There are many ways of conveying doctrines apart from explicitly stating them: above all, the doctrine may be built into the criteria which determine what the tutor lets pass and what he questions' (271). The idea of teacher as midwife of the pupil's own ideas is clearly compatible with the general reluctance to advance ideas of their own, at least explicitly. There are exact parallels with psychotherapy again.

The rejection of technicality is combined with esotericism. 'This is characteristic of the dilettante, the unspecialised man of culture, who wishes to distinguish himself both from the uncultured on the one hand and from the despised "professional" specialist on the other' (275). The conspicuous triviality of the analysis only makes sense to those who have the time for it -- Linguistic Philosophy is unlikely to thrive in:

'Redbrick universities... [where students]... do not wish to spend their studies acquiring techniques which only cure conceptual illnesses from which they barely suffer, with which they have to be artificially infected so as to give the techniques something to work on; still less if they are told that the techniques may be therapeutically ineffective, and must therefore be adopted for their own sake as a kind of pleasurable exercise... In one such place, a philosopher always spent the first term deliberately teaching old-fashioned, "pathological" philosophy, in order to give his colleague the opportunity of then curing the recently infected students... One feels that much time could have been saved all round' (274)

It is difficult to institutionalise philosophy: questioning and exploring fundamental issues cannot easily be regulated. In some societies, philosophers have their job clearly defined, of course, and this was the case in the UK in the past, when Christian orthodoxy reigned. The situation is worse given the expansion of universities, and the growing importance of science and technology. 'In this situation Linguistic Philosophy was a godsend' (275) ideally suited to those who wish to avoid both science and theology, and live a quiet life. The minute analysis of language use provides an inexhaustible source of something to comment on, without upsetting anybody.

In British elite universities, theology did have the status of an official creed, but modernisation made this inadequate. One reaction would be to adopt philosophies as secular surrogates -- but perhaps people no longer require these, especially if they turn into totalising and demanding set of beliefs. Linguistic Philosophy becomes 'an excellent secular substitute' (277) instead, fitting beautifully the values of its adherents, and offering the kind of safe conservatism of the old established religion. Indeed, there are many parallels. Linguistic Philosophy is a domesticated and gentlemanly philosophy, avoiding argument and demands for justification, quite like the '[aristocratic view that] nobility lies in being' (278). No proofs or justifications are required: linguistic habit is validated.

As yet, (1959 originally) there has be no internal segmentation. The flaws in Wittgenstein, which took decades to emerge, have now started to appear [the apparently strange and dogmatic practices of Wittgenstein were also expressed mostly in small groups and not in print]. However, there are divisions, akin to those between low and high churches: the former emphasise Wittgenstein's doctrines,  while the latter is 'devoted to the ritual, the idolatry of usage' (280), while regarding the fundamental ideas with distrust. Low churchmen tend to be found more in provincial universities, high churchman in Oxford -- "Some of them display a measure of blandness, preciousness and smoothness which would be a credit to the therapeutic power of Wittgenstein in practices, but for the fact that one feels that the dissolution of intellectual cramps could not in their cases have been unduly difficult' (280)

The two camps have begun to disagree. High churchman believe themselves to have progressed beyond Wittgenstein's dangerous ideas, and focus instead on analysis of language use. Rash claims tend to be avoided, although the bold claims of Wittgenstein's philosophy are still used to lend its significance. Other features include 'the tradition of inspired pedantry, of usage collecting so careful, so resistant to general ideas (and not unenlivened with wit), so consistently commonsensical that it almost has a kind of perverse poetry of its own, and of which one can say that, like logic, it is never wrong, for it says nothing' (282).

This school tends to value ideas that will perpetuate 'verbal ritualism'. The work of Austin and Warnock exemplify this tendency best [and some hilariously waspish criticism of these two ensues]. Both put forward ideas which are commonsensical, and some 'qualifications which are introduced primarily in order to protect a flank' (283)

Wittgenstein's ideas are watered down. For example, Wittgenstein believed that once one had described language usage, philosophical problems must 'dissolve'-- this has now been abandoned, and other possibilities have been conceded, but this is 'much sillier' (284). Once we abandoned hope of a cure for philosophical problems, there is no reason at all to pursue minute analysis of daily usages. Analysis is also curiously contradictory, since it promises precisely to give accounts of the use of language, which is precisely what one need not do!

Such minute analysis takes us far beyond mere clarification. It is also never-ending. Perhaps it is that professional philosophers are no longer so keen to kill off philosophy? Perhaps they are merely responding to an accurately perceived public disinterest? The solution is a version of Parkinson's Law --'[academic] subjects are found, and expand to occupy the personnel available for teaching them' (288). It is a matter of finding something for a pre-existing profession to do --'A cleric who loses his faith abandons his calling, a philosopher who loses his redefines his subject' (288). 'Oxford philosophy' manages the neat trick of using Wittgenstein to redefine their subject, and then abandoning him in order to perpetuate it [that was me! Gellner's style is catching!].

There is now no consistent programme, but a mixture of justifications and projects. It is quite unwarranted to continue to  indoctrinate newcomers to this curious orthodoxy, as if there were still a Christian orthodoxy which everyone knew was centred in Oxford, in the way that Linguistic Philosophy does, however. It is non-specialists who are particularly likely to be damaged by such indoctrination.

As thought develops, it begins with 'preoccupation with objective issues... its centre of gravity... still lies outside the universities'. When philosophy gets professionalised, more formal themes emerge at the expense of 'mere "content"'. Such a philosophy can still be critical, undermining orthodoxies. The final stage in the 'emasculation of thought' requires a rejection of this whole tradition, in the name of an accommodation with the 'reality of the objective world' (all quotes from page 291). This accords nicely with 'what the more comfortable Dons had always been inclined to believe... that the world was much as it seemed to them' (291). This is an uncritical return to objectivity, though: 'we are left with an effectively censored and trivialised objective world, and a necessarily innocuous philosophy... The two successive shifts, skilfully superimposed and blended, now guarantee triviality' (292).