|by Paul Stirling, Professor Emeritus, University of Kent at Canterbury.
On Sunday morning (5th Nov), the world lost one of its most vigorous intellectuals, at Prague airport, on his way back from chairing with his usual brilliance yet another conference. Ernest Gellner (b. 9 December, 1925) was much more than a successful don (philosopher and anthropologist); a professional thinker who enjoyed thinking enormously ('the second greatest pleasure in life'), despised writers who write about thoughts and not about the world as it is, and dared to emulate the greats of the Enlightenment, especially Hume, and 'The Greatest Thinker of Them All', Kant. He was a polemical rationalist. Only on Saturday the Guardian published, characteristically as part of a hostile review of a philosopher, complete with foxes and hedgehogs his anguished anxieties about the future of our liberal, affluent, technological, still optimistic society; eight concrete dangers, in another devastating attack on relativism - the idea of a pluralism of incommensurate values. He once said he was on the fence, under fire from both sides; rather he spent his whole life exposed on top of a rationalist bunker, exchanging rapid and fierce fire in all directions. A radical of the centre; with many friends and many enemies.
His Jewish German family escaped to England from their home in Prague in 1938, and from twelve he went through an English grammar school, and brilliantly to Oxford. After service with the Czech army, he returned to Balliol in 1945, and took a First in PPE. He went, via Edinburgh, to an appointment to Moral and Social Philosophy in the LSE Sociology Department. He found current sociological theory a massive tautology, flirted briefly and unhappily with symbolic logic, and then in the early fifties, decided on Social Anthropology; a (small) tribe studying tribes by earthy immersion field work. He combined - as so often - pleasure with work and chose mountains - the Atlas; where, in 1954, with Susan , his new wife, he discovered the Berbers. His new academic tribe welcomed his participant admiration, but kept him at arm's length. From the early fifties, he published a prolific stream of articles, and later books, on all kinds of subjects. He talked of himself as a compulsive scribbler. What scribbling!
While commuting to intermittent field work in Morocco from LSE, he published an devastating ethnography cum criticism of his Oxford philosophy teachers, Words and Things 1959. They reacted with fury, and put him on the index for their students; Bertrand Russell and Gilbert Ryle slanged each other in letters to the Times (which in those days still mattered). He became famous/notorious, and widely read, overnight.
Thought and Change (1964) ('about everything' ) outlines many of his main ideas developed in later books. Saints of the Atlas 1969 summarised years of writings about 'his' Berbers, and confirmed him as a major card carrying member of the tribe of field-hardened anthropologists.
Articles, meaty reviews (a favourite device of his) and books flowed with increasing frequency. Several collections of papers appeared, some edited by his friends; Lakatos, Jarvie, and Agassi. His writing teems with models, paradoxes, parables, allusions, images, and deadly jokes; always defending rationality, with guns blazing against fashionable dogmas and intellectual fog: Wittgentsein, neo-Marxism cultural (or any other) relativism; later feminism, 'textism', postmodernism. Not all those attacked were amused.
In the Legitimation of Belief 1975 (written 1968) he tackles truth head on; for philosophy, but also for himself, the total agnostic. We end up shipwrecked in a sea of seriously argued doubt, with no new ship possible, clinging to a raft of four planks. Faith, which must be judged by evidence not under the control of the believers; insistence, with Kant, on impersonal, structural explanations; ironic cultural nationalism - the acceptance of forms of life but with no aura of the absolute; truncated evolutionism, the specific development of our industrial civilisation. 'These are the four usable planks of our raft. If there are any others, they have escaped my attention`.
He early became a Professor of Philosophy at LSE, but still in turbulent Sociology, who made him do his turn as Convener. The anthropologists did not welcome him, and he transferred in the seventies to Philosophy, living a peaceful life, admiring and influenced by Popper and his friends. In 1984, he turned the tables. He was appointed to the William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology in Cambridge; and later became President of the Royal Anthropological Instiute. He enjoyed Cambridge, but perhaps not completely. He hated administration. At Czarist LSE you could treat your friends as friends. In leaderless Byzantium, every encounter was potentially political, and Gellner's withering wit - he could never resist his own jokes - was a liability.
He was totally fearless. He visited Czech friends under Stalinism; he made contacts with, published, and helped Soviet anthropologists. Personally he simply ignored a painful disease of his bones. He had two hip operations simultaneously to save time, which he used to go off skiing. He hated pomp, and was completely without self importance. One of his students found him dishevelled, straight from some of his beloved mountains, happy and composed, sleeping on the floor in Ankara airport, having by luck arrived twelve hours early.
He was deeply humane; he cared about injustice (defined by himself) both individual and social. He was no respecter of toes, some times intentionally, sometime by sheer insensitivity. He often went far out of his way to help people, and reciprocally asked help when he needed it. There is much much more to be said.
We grieve for a remarkable European thinker, and a remarkable and lovable person, still full of plans and ideas. But at least he died, as he would have wished, with his boots on.
He leaves a wife, two sons and two daughters.