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by Tom Nairn, Department of Sociology


The great philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner died in Prague on 5 November 1995. Few of his obituarists mentioned his links with Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, however. So it may be in order to recall here how significant a part these played in his earlier development.

Gellner's Czech-Jewish family came from the Sudeten or German- speaking region of Bohemia. They chose Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Hapsburg Empire and (as he recalled ironically in a 1989 interview) I was somehow instructed to consider myself Czech.

Bilingual from his earliest years, he went to an English-language school in Prague. In 1939 the family emigrated to England and during 1944-5 Ernest fought in the Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade in France.

After the war he took a BA degree in philosophy at Oxford. In 1947 he came to Edinburgh to begin his academic career as an Assistant & Demonstrator' in Professor John Macmurray's Department of Moral Philosophy. Lord Murray (until recently a member of the University Court) remembers him at that time as a tense and earnest' young scholar still suffering mild culture- shock from his first encounter with Scotland. He stayed here two years, before moving to the London School of Economics (where he achieved great distinction as a social anthropologist).

During these years Idealist speculative philosophy still reigned at Edinburgh. John Macmurray was a hugely popular figure who attracted overflow audiences to his First Ordinary lectures. In the other philosophical Department, Logic and Metaphyics, the Kantian A.D. Ritchie also maintained what had been the mainstream tradition of grand philosophical theory. Though finding it insufficiently rigorous (especially Macmurray) Gellner was undoubtedly influenced by that tradition. Ten years later he was to publish Words and Things, a scathing denunciation of the Wittgensteinian and common-language orthodoxy which replaced grand theory in the 1950s. Though it made him extremely unpopular with the new Oxbridge establishment he never repented, and towards the end of his life would still speak of Macmurray, Ritchie and their associates with great affection and respect.

In 1987 Gellner wrote that the experience of living on the edge of so many nationalisms without properly belonging to any...impelled me to think about nationalism. From the 1960s onwards Gellner became the prime theorist of this subject. The culture-shock of 1947-9 may have played some part in his evolution. He had come to the edge, Scotland, and discovered both a distinct nation and a centre of civilization. It is certainly the case that the repercussions of this experience stayed with him, and his love of Edinburgh never dimmed.

Upon retiring from Cambridge University in 1992 Gellner went home to Prague and founded a Centre for the Study of Nationalism at the Central European University. In 1994 David McCrone of Edinburgh's Sociology Department invited him back for a two-day conference on the political break-up of Czechoslovakia (an event of which he had come to think favourably). Other participants included former Premiers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and the proceedings have been published in Scottish Affairs, No.8 (Summer 1994). He enjoyed the event hugely, gave a Public Lecture at Old College and then led many of the participants on a climb up Arthur's Seat. This turned out to be more gruelling than most had expected. Although by now walking with the aid of a stick, Professor Gellner never missed an opportunity to remind one of how vigorous his earlier membership of the University's Mountaineering Club had been.

His last Prague work was Conditions of Liberty, a rehabilitation of the concept of Civil Society which originated in the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment. In retrospect Gellner's thought will undoubtedly appear as one of the greatest byproducts of the Central European borderlands in this century: a unique fusion of anthropology, sociology and philosophy. And his short yet formative time in Scotland may have played an important part in bringing that exalting fusion about.


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