The emergence of modern Europe: work and the modern (ideal) subject


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From the #ShapeTheWorld Festival at the London School of Economics

4 March 2020

In the short time that I have I want to try to say a few words about the relation between “the cluster of economic and scientific changes since in the 17th century” culminating in the industrial revolution, and the emergence of a particular kind of human subject or person, that we’ve come to understand as “the modern subject”. My guide here is the philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist, Ernst Gellner, best known for his theory of nationalism which he developed from the 1960s through to his death in 1995. He was also professor at the LSE for over 20 years, so it’s rather daunting to speak about a thinker in a room that they probably sat and perhaps lectured in themselves.

I just used the term “modern subject” we might also say something like ‘the modern idea of an individual and indeed rational person’. As a philosopher I’m interested in very fundamental questions about how it is that human beings experience the world around them, but also how it is that we experience ourselves, what kind of experiencing thing am I, what are the parameters of my experiences in the world? How plastic or flexible are the ways that I experience both the world around me, and my own self as experiencing that world? When we talk about parameters, that might invoke questions like: to what extent does culture constrain or frame the ways that humans experience the world. To be clear, I’m taking culture there in a pretty straightforward manner as a changing system or field of meanings and expression that is developed, maintained and shared by a specific social group, and subsequently frames and constrains the ways in which members of the group interpret or experience the world around them, as well as providing behavioral scripts for said members. Culture in this sense is (in a nice turn of phrase) an enabling constraint, it provides a point of cognitive, perceptual, affective and behavioral access on the world, while at the same time limiting that access or experience in a manner that is structurally necessary for there to be access at all. In philosophical jargon, we’d say that I’m interested in problems concerning “subjectivity” or “the subject” and its relations to the culture that it is formed in.

At the same time, like many philosophers working in the Netherlands, I am interested in questions about how technology mediates or impacts that first set of questions. The formation of the human person/individual in a culture cannot be separated from the socio-technological environment. My own particular interest is again somewhat narrower, it has to do with how that technologies that we work (in the sense of the things we do in our place of employment) with interact with that first set of questions. I said this is a narrower interest, but that should be taken with a grain of salt, because the scope of the “world of work” (as we might call it) is very broad and extends beyond just what we do when we are at our places of work.

So, what I want to propose to you today (what I’d like to table for discussion) is that we can understand something about the emergence of “modern” Europe, and the ideal of the “modern European subject” by looking historically at the interaction between these two sets of questions that I just introduced: how it is that we experience the world and how that experience is impacted by the technologies that we work with. We’re here to talk about the emergence of modern Europe, so a historical question, but I think that this approach might also help us to understand where we are going, so a question about the future of modern Europe.

Back to Gellner, briefly. Gellner was interested in understanding the phenomenon of nationalism and the marriage between the institutions of the state and the idea of a nation (in terms of a political and cultural identity and a cultural context). He argued that the emergence of this marriage and also the subsequent tensions between dominant nation-states and smaller nationalist movements (as we still see today all over Europe) was closely related to the process of commercialization and industrialization, or the transition from largely agrarian traditional communities to commercial and eventually industrial society. In a nutshell, Gellner argued for an affinity between the exigencies of emerging commercial and industrial economies and the imposition of national cultures on the populations of what were previously culturally heterogeneous states. Why? Commercial and industrial economies required workers who were literate, able to communicate in context-independent situations with strangers who spoke the same language, able to exchange social and professional roles and so forth. This was largely accomplished through national systems of education. But the diffusion of these new national (and commercial/industrial) cultures was uneven and created tensions between those who held onto local custom and those assimilated into national cultural life. Interestingly Gellner treated assimilation and “being treated fairly” as more or less the same thing. His thesis can also be understood as an early articulation of the explanation of contemporary nationalism as being driven by the resentment of those who have lost out in the processes of globalization, not been assimilated or treated fairly. Gellner thesis refers not to globalization, but to a kind of precursor in the idea of “nationalization” driven by commercialization.

What’s interesting about Gellner’s thesis is that it makes nationalism “an essential component” of modernization,” because industrialization requires a certain kind of person and that kind of person is formed in certain kinds of institutions which reproduce “one common literate and accessible culture” (O’Leary 1997). This is also a rather contested point in his theory. I am rather less concerned with this aspect of his theory, than with the idea that the socio-technical conditions of emerging European commercial and industrial society, called for the formation of a specific type of individual. That is an individual who experiences and also functions within the world in a specific fashion. What’s significant here is the idea that the ideal of the modern European individual was not something that was essential or inherent in the sense of always there, but constrained or covered up by traditional culture, but rather something, an artifact, formed – mass produced really – in a specific social-technological context.

In other words, what I want to point out here is the great similarity between this idea of a national-subject capable of what Gellner calls “context free communication, community membership and acceptability” i.e. a subject that can “incorporate and master high (national culture)” (Gellner 1995) and what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his seminal 1989 Sources of the Self describes as the ideal of the modern self: “a human agent who is able to remake itself by methodical and disciplined action. What this calls for is the ability to take an instrumental stance to one’s given properties, desires, inclinations, tendencies and habits of thought and feeling, so that they can be worked on” (Taylor 1989: 159-160). If we follow Gellner, both are the consequence of “mobility and anonymity of modern society” (1995) which free the person from stratified social roles and structures. Why this is interesting for me is that at first glance the two notions of the human person seem somewhat at odds with one another: on the one hand a homogenized national subject, on the other an increasingly individualized and self-reflective one that focuses (in Michel de Montaigne’s formulation) on discovering it’s own unique form.

I am not trying to argue that this ideal of the modern subject does not have a history that precedes the 17th Century (Larry Siedentop has rather convincingly argued in Inventing the Individual that the ideal of the modern individual which illuminates nearly all the political theory born of the modern period has a much longer history relating closely to the development of the Christian tradition in the near-East and later Europe.), only that in this period this type of individual was in effect mass-produced to serve the requirements of new economic and social forms.

Gellner attempts to illustrate the material and social conditions in which this paradigmatic idea of the modern European subject is formed. It was the structures of labour, work and employment that shall we say pushed to the fore a certain type of person, that we now recognize as a kind of rational and indeed European ideal. A notion that I think we can even recognize in the Marxist proletariat, even if the proletariat was meant to free themselves from the constraints of the nation and realise its universal role. And so his analysis also points to the contingency or fragility of this ideal of modern personhood. In Gellner’s analysis, the proliferation of this type of person, capable of self-reflection and “working on the self” proliferated within a specific socio-technical milieu, and more specifically within certain working conditions.

Such conditions are of course subject to change. As we reflect on the emergence of modern Europe, from our current position, we might indeed ask if our current social-technical and economic context – currently undergoing a digital transformation the profundity of which we won’t know for some time – in still in the business of mass-producing these ideal modern subjects, and if we might have cause to doubt this, and if indeed we do doubt it, what forms of subjectivity or personhood are most appropriate to the digital era.


Gellner, E. 1995. “Gellner on Nationalism” [reprint of excerpt from the “Warwick debates”] Prospect Magazine 20 December 1995

O’leary, B. 1997. On the Nature of Nationalism: An Appraisal of Ernest Gellner’s Writings on Nationalism. British Journals of Political Science 27, 191–222

Taylor, C. 1989. Sources of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press