Plough, Sword & Book

Plough, Sword & Book

Ernest Gellner


Ernest Gellner's philosophy of human history as discussed in Plough, Sword, and Book offers readers a view of human history that is unique and comprehensive. The author aims to outline human history with theories and models that employ a method of deductive reasoning. Specifically, Gellner wishes to offer his readers a "clear and forceful" view of his philosophy so that it may be examined critically (page 13).

Gellner's model of human history entails a society passing through three principal stages: hunting and gathering, agrarian society, and industrial society (pages 16-17). The author enlists a number of sources from which he derives his philosophic analysis of humanity's development and evolution. Gellner's discussion of Platonism with respect to cultural intuition and adoption of an explicit theory stating what had previously been a mere practice (pages 76-77) mingles with Hegel and Marxist theories on thought and politics (pages 142-143). His variety of sources allow for a wide range of both philosophic input and debate.
Essentially, the author pushes for a philosophic historical outline that depicts hunting and gathering groups of humans who eventually initiate an agricultural community stemming from a sense of long-term obligation to their individual group (page 33). Agrarian societies-Gellner's plough-then pass into an industrial or urban society which allows for the entry of a class system in which social order must be maintained through defensive groups or order-enforcers (page 145)-Gellner's sword. The transitions between stages could not be possible without the cognitive development of mankind through the introduction of literacy (page 71) through religious scriptures-Gellner's book. In Gellner's model of human history, religion also provides legitimization of the social system (page 99) leading to modern society.

As the author discusses the shift between the three principle stages of human history, he outlines the major activities that pushed society through the industrial and agricultural revolutions, or "great leaps" of human history. These activities fall into three main groups identified by Gellner as production, coercion, and cognition (page 20-23). Agrarian societies focused mainly on the production and storage of food (page 16) while Industrial societies focused on the production of wealth and weapons, or means of coercion, and the production of food becomes a lesser focus (page 17). One of the most important elements in the evolution of human history, cognition, occurred at the point when "the genetic equipment of man became so permissive as to allow the wide range of social comportment" that we can observe in the modern society (page 67).

For the average reader, Gellner's "clear and forceful" statement (page 13) within the pages of Plough, Sword, and Book can be a bit overwhelming in that it provides a great deal of philosophic idea applied to history between the Neolithic age and the present. At times, Gellner's text may also seem overwritten which could muddle his "clear" statement to scholarly readers. Perhaps Gellner's most successful element within his text was his execution and compilation of so many philosophic thinkers' ideas into a single outline. Gellner includes ideas from Aristotle to Weber and from Kant to Kuhn making his philosophic vision of human history a scholarly work indeed. Although the future of human history cannot, according to Gellner (page 15), be predicted, Plough, Sword, and Book can help scholars understand the evolution of our past so that we may better understand the future though the greater possibility of comprehension provided by Gellner's scholarly efforts.

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Plough, Sword & Book