Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History

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ISBN-13: 978-0226287027
ISBN-10: 0226287025
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dividing world history into three phases (hunting/gathering, agriculture and industry), this study asserts that most agrarian civilizations are too self-limiting for the leap into capitalism and a market economy. "Gellner's ambitious theory smacks of Eurocentric hubris, and . . . his prose is turgid and portentous," chided PW.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226287025
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226287027
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,110,049 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on April 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
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.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By T. Carlsson on August 31, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Plough, sword and book - sounds like the title of another easily digested history of humanity, but don't be mistaken. Ernest Gellner never wrote a book just to restate the familiar and obvious. His style is intellectually challenging and not intended for leisurely reading.

This book presents a theory of history utilizing mostly sociological tools, but also with many elements from the history of philosophy. Gellner finds unique perspectives by combining material from different fields in his analysis, but quite a bit of background knowledge is assumed. It seems to me that the reader should have some familiarity at least with the classic works of sociology (Durkheim, Weber) and/or the history of philosophy (Plato, Descartes, Kant). This book is of course not a detailed study of any of those classics, but much of the text proceeds by discussing platonic, cartesian and weberian ways of thought on an abstract level, so you do need to have some understanding of the associated terminology before you start reading this book.

However, while abstractions can be useful for seeing the big picture, in this book they are sometimes simply confusing. Some historical exemplification in between the theorizing would have been very helpful. Too many times Gellner flies so high in his abstractions that the reader has no chance of connecting his ideas to any real event or movement in world history. This is the case especially for his analysis of Cognition, where the argument is framed with strange phrases like "Platonism is the supreme expression of agro-literate man" (p.118). It is actually difficult to understand what Gellner means by "Platonism" in this context since his usage is unconventional and historical examples are not offered.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT on August 15, 2007
Format: Paperback
E. Gellner analyzes the `Structure of Human History' alongside three axes: the division of labor (fighters, priests, workers), the economic evolution (hunting/gathering, agrarian and industrial society) and the concepts of coercion (power), cognition (knowledge) and production (manufacturing).
While in hunting/gathering clans everything is intermingled, a division of labor becomes necessary in an agrarian society. The produced surplus must be stored and protected: `You own what you can defend' and `Property is Power'. Those who could defend (the rulers) used the prestige of religion for the legitimation and the cohesion of their power base.
An agrarian society is authoritarian (wealth for the rulers, poverty of the ruled) and characterized by oppression, superstition and economic stagnation. Its philosophical proponent is Plato.

Within one of the agrarian societies (Western Europe) a unique industrial and scientific revolution took place. E. Gellner cannot explain the cause(s) of this revolution. (For MHO, see the end of this review).
The upheaval is characterized by the separation of cognition from authority and religion (Descartes). Authority is replaced by liberalism; religion by empiricism and rationalism (D. Hume: `superstition is the enemy of civil liberties'). Knowledge (innovation) is Power. The proponents of this revolution are the Enlightenment (Les Encyclopédistes) and the Progress (Darwin, Marx) philosophers.

E. Gellner's vision on complex modern societies is far too optimistic: the maintenance of public order is not relatively easy. There is no push towards a more homogeneous humanity.
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