Chris Hann holds lectutre in Wrocław
On 8th May 2013 and at invitation of the Willy Brandt center of the University of Wrocław Chris Hann will hold a lecture on “Ernest Gellner and Karl Polanyi: complementary philosophies of history and common limitations“ as part of the “Elias Lectures” series.
Behind only that of Bronislaw Malinowski, the influence of the Central European polymaths Ernest Gellner and Karl Polanyi on socio-cultural anthropology in the twentieth century was profound. Gellner and Polanyi also influenced much wider swathes of scholarship. They belong to different generations and were raised in quite different settings in Prague and Budapest respectively. Gellner was an ethnographer of Morocco and a theoretician of socialism and civil society, but his major impact was in the fields of social philosophy and explanations of modern nationalism. Polanyi was an economic historian of Britain and a historical ethnographer of Dahomey and Ancient Greece; but his major impact came through his “substantivist” economic theory, which launched the foundational debate of economic anthropology in the 1950s.
What these thinkers have in common is a philosophy of history which posits the industrial revolution in North-West Europe as a radical rupture in Weltgeschichte. Polanyi’s “great transformation”, with its focus on the economy, corresponds to Gellner’s metaphor of the “big ditch” and focus on a new polity. The cultural homogenization of the nation-state and the disembedding of the economy from society in the era of free trade are two sides of the same coin. It will be argued that these complementary models derive to a considerable degree from the scholars’ background on the margins of industrializing Europe, in the Habsburg Empire (reflected vicariously in the oeuvre of Gellner, who was not yet born when it collapsed).
Both models are powerful and highly relevant to current debates about neoliberalism and the future of the European Union. However, their stark periodization has been widely criticized (Anthony Smith, Gareth Dale etc). We need more differentiated theories, which allow for recognition of long-term continuities, without thereby denying all possibilities for recognizing transformation and even revolution. Norbert Elias, another Jewish polymath of the region who experienced the tragedies of the twentieth century in the enforced relocations of his academic career, offers an inspiring corrective to the sharp “trinitarianism” of Gellner and Polanyi. Arguably, this corrective to the Habsburg scholars’ emphasis on rupture is shaped by Elias’s upbringing in a German metropolis experiencing its industrial heyday. Be that as it may, it is curious that his impact on the anthropologists has so far been limited.
It will be suggested in concluding that the basic problem with all three cosmopolitan luminaries of Central Europe is the Eurocentric bias in their interpretations of the march of world history.