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Ernest Gellner Obituaries


by Professor Brendan O'Leary

The LSE has lost one of the brightest stars from its sky, and the last of its Renaissance men from the post-war generation. A Bohemian who was not at all bohemian, Ernest Gellner had an intellectual Midas touch. He wrote enough to supply five departments with an Alpha+ in the Research Assessment Exercise, and spoke and wrote in more languages than the School has had directors.

He had a formidable mind, but none of the pride or snobbery which sometimes detracts from this gift. Wonderfully accessible to students and strangers, he was a forgiving friend and a person who made the right enemies. His speech was a joy, studded with new and old, but always mesmerising, one-liners - even when he was wracked with the pain that he had to endure from osteoporois, a disease that shrank his spine but seemed to send his mind higher.

In his writings from Thought and Change (1964) onwards, he explained (sharply but entertainingly) our modern world, and our cognitive and social theories about it. He will perhaps be best known for his provocative and rich analyses of nationalism and Islam (Nations and Nationalism (1983), Muslim Society (1981) and Saints of the Atlas (1969)). His peers in these fields, even when they disagreed with him, ceded first place to him in lucidity and precision and there were many Salieris to his Mozart.

He trespassed most boundaries in the social sciences with elan and proved his genius in philosophy and anthropology. In his philosophy of history, exemplified in Plough, Sword and Book, (1988) three stages are emphasised: the tribal, the agrarian and the industrial. He maintained that each has its respective forms of cognition, religion, social structure and politics, and that the transition between the stages cannot be explained teleologically. In short, he transformed and reconstructed historical materialism, sheared it of the fallacies and utopianism of Marxism, and made it common-sense.

A defender of positivism, empiricism and (a certain brand of) rationalism, he criticised with cold clarity both religious and leftist seekers after umma, and scorned the pre-social conception of the person which passes for an axiom in rational choice. He was a stern critic of linguistic philosophy, relativism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism. An intellectual's intellectual, he was never fashionable, remaining in his politics a liberal social democrat, and in his disposition a pillar of reason.

His essays were tremendous: short, punchy, learned, bereft of the platoons of footnotes with which modern academics go to war, an education in themselves. And it was to the re-education of Eastern Europe, after the end of Communist tyranny, that he dedicated the last years of his life in the Central European University after a short spell at Cambridge, although he never lost his affection for Houghton Street.

The day before he died I was with him at a conference he had organised in Budapest. He looked at me with that deadpan expression which foretold a saying, and said - I can explain the history and politics of the Czech lands to you in one sentence - How so? - In the Czech lands the other side won the Battle of the Boyne. This repartee typifies Gellner: the ablity to explain, comparatively, a whole society's evolution to somebody from another culture with a crisp, pointed, humorous thrust, and a twinkle in his eyes. Readers have one version of his voice for ever, but his spontaneous and inspirational presence is lost. We will not see his like again.

In November of 1995 Ernest Gellner passed away at the age of 69, perhaps at the height of his intellectual powers. In the months following his death, several tributes as well as obituaries were produced and published across Europe. Below are some of them. In a sense these obituaries are important because of the insight they provide us into the life and work of Professor Gellner:

ArrowMichael Rustin from Radical Philosphy

ArrowProfessor Tom Nairn University of Edinbourgh, from Communications & Public Affairs

ArrowProfessor Paul Stirling University of Kent at Canterbury, from The Daily Telegraph

ArrowJournalist Simon Targett from The London Times Higher Education Supplement

ArrowProfessor John Davis of All Souls College, from The Guardian