Gellner: Language and SolitudeErnest Gellner: Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski nd the Habsburg Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ernest Gellner (1884-1995) taught social anthropology at the London School of Economics but maintained a strong interest in philosophy, especially the school of thought that promoted the early Wittgenstein, of which Gellner was a significant critic. Together with Gellner's signature book Nationalism, Language and Solitude was published posthumously by his son Daniel Gellner.

The title conveys the two aspects of Wittgenstein's thought -- atomistic solitariness of the individual in his Tractatus Logica-Philosophicus, and the extrapolations of a linguistic theory that is the opposite viewpoint in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations. Gellner uses the social anthropology and cultural studies of Malinowski to refute both positions of Wittgenstein, linking them to Wittgenstein's experience of fin-de-siecle Vienna and the Habsburg Empire. Hence the book is what Gellner calls "socio-metaphysics, or philosophical anthropology."

Gellner describes the historical trajectory of the two main traditions, what he calls the  "atomic-universalist-individualist vision" from Descartes' rationalism to Hume's empiricism, to Kant's abstractions, to Britain's liberalism (that is, capitalist individualism) and logical positivism. The atomistic reduction of the individual to a landscape devoid of anything but economic data, and the universalist flattening of cultural experience -- a process paralleled by colonialism -- creates solitude, isolation, and alienation for the individual. Such a social process is mirrored in intellectual thought.

In contrast to the atomistic view is what Gellner calls the "romantic-organicist" view, which in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, reasserted the primacy of sentiment and emotion in human expression, and of nature and society in preserving organic relationships to ethnic and cultural life and customs, preceding and of higher value to both individual and group. While the atomic-individualist view promoted business and industry, the romantic-organicist championed populism, traditional economics, and rural and communitarian life.

These two views are "poles of a fundamental binary opposition," argues Gellner. They seem generalizations, but Gellner shows how fin-de-siecle Vienna embodied the tensions of both views. The liberal bourgeoisie business and professional class preferred the safety of a rational and tolerant urban culture, even with enlightened despotic monarchy, over rural influence of historical peasants of multiple ethnicities who resented what they considered decadence and exclusionary politics. The bourgeoisie championed the open society for its own economic interests and religious tolerance; the peasant harbored a latent nationalism advocating folk culture. Gesellschaft (community) was pitted against Gemeinschaft (society), On the eve of World War I, the two camps had hardened into "pariah-liberals" versus "redentist nationalists."

Into this dichotomous ferment enters Wittgenstein, clearly among the pariahs, a "cosmic exile," as American philosopher Quine called him. Wittgenstein embraces a radical empiricism. As Gellner puts it:

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) is a poem to solitude. It is also an expression of the individualistic-universalistic-atomic vision of knowledge, thought, language and the world. [It is] the poem to solitude or confessions of a transcendental ego who is also a Viennese Jew. ... The poem is all the more effective for its dogmatic, oracular style: the ideas are presented not as an option [but as] an unquestionable, self-evident set of verities, which do not permit legitimate questioning and whose status is somehow far beyond that of mere earthly affirmation.

The world is a series of things, or less, facts, according to Wittgenstein, each isolated from other things. The things are homogeneous, only distinguishable by their location. An inventory of these facts cannot be known. The universe of Wittgenstein is posited on set theory, what he calls the "calculus of propositions," which, however, leaves the world in "solitude, dreariness," and "a gray prison." It is not physics or philosophy, argues Gellner, but the "despair of a solitary and alienated individual." Gellner maintains that the Tractatus reflects the desperate mood of bourgeois Vienna on the eve of world war, and "alienation through the solitude of self and alienation through the inverted superficiality of language."

Language is constrained by logical forms and notation, the mere echo of "facts," a summation of propositions, a predicament Wittgenstein conflates with knowledge of self, like Descartes not ascribed to a particular consciousness, behavior, or set of values. In short, Gellner argues, the thesis of the Tractatus is that "there is no such thing as culture," only an a priori abstraction. But if so, where does language come from?

Decades after the Tractatus, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein reversed the position maintained in the Tractatus. Instead of the atomism of logic, set theory, and calculus, the mature Wittgenstein maintained that thought and language, knowledge and speech, are embedded in culture, evolve mysteriously, and are accessible only through unique, inherited insight. What culture cannot articulate constitutes the ineffable, the mystical, that of which nothing can be said.

Perhaps the mature Wittgenstein had renounced the inefficacy of his earlier thinking, or recognized the irrelevancy of it to subsequent events in Europe. But Gellner maintains that the late view was actually the mere reverse of the earlier view. The new view embraced an epistemological populism subordinating the individual -- as well as logic, science, and reason -- to culture. No corresponding social or cultural reality matched Wittgenstein's new views -- this contrived culture was as abstract as the logic of his old views. "In the end," Gellner notes,

culture was treated as ultimate, as a kind of new ultimate visual field. So the solitude of the visual field (co-extensive with both self and world) is replaced by the solitude of culture.

The remainder of the book presents Bronislaw Malinowski's work in establishing social anthropology as an academic discipline, his familiarity with the conflict of positivism and culture, and the relevance of Malinowski's views to the subject of philosophy, politics, and linguistics.


Wittgenstein is held in high esteem by many observers as one who embraces metaphysics after a conversion from logical positivism. To Gellner, however, Wittgenstein represents the dangers of thinking that is not grounded in the experience of self and the world. No trace of society, culture, or the natural world informed his earlier work, nor were they rescued by his later ideas. Linking the thinker too literally to his historical and cultural milieu can be hazardous, but Gellner's familiarity with the nuances involved in the case of Wittgenstein make his thesis compelling. Expressions of solitude and ideas about its nature and origins must be worked out with all factors taken into account, and Gellner's research ably illustrates this need.