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A Gellner Biography


by Chris Hann, Professor of Anthropology and Dean of Social Sciences, University of Kent. This appeared in the Independent on November 8 th , 1995

Ernest Gellner was an outstanding theorist of modernity and a rare breed among late twentieth century scholars. He made major contributions in very diverse fields, notably philosophy and social anthropology. His excoriating attacks on the orthodoxies of his times made it difficult for him to be fully accepted into either of these academic communities. That suited him well enough: he seemed to enjoy leading a one-man crusade for critical rationalism, defending enlightenment universalism against the rising tides of idealism and relativism.

Born in Paris on 9 December 1925, Gellner was brought up in Prague and attended the English grammar school there. His Jewish family decided on a move to England in 1939. At the end of the war he enlisted with the Czech army, before continuing his education at Oxford. After a first in PPE in 1949 he soon moved on to the London School of Economics, becoming Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method in 1962. During this phase of his career he achieved fame and notoriety among philosophers, notably through his attack on Oxford linguistic idealism, Words and Things (1959).

Gellner always combined his passion for ideas with an equally intense interest in the practical and material constraints of social life. During the 1950s he discovered anthropology, and more specifically, the hard-nosed, empirical, observational style promoted in the inter-war decades by Bronislaw Malinowski, an earlier LSE recruit from Central Europe. This anthropology was an immensely exciting discipline which enabled Gellner to pursue social realities across cultural and temporal boundaries. Through more than four decades his contributions to the subject were enormous. They ranged from conceptual critiques in the analysis of kinship to frameworks for understanding political order outside the state in tribal Morocco ( Saints of the Atlas , 1969); from sympathetic exposition of the works of Soviet marxist anthropologists to elegant syntheses of the Durkheimian and Weberian traditions in western social theory; and from grand elaboration of 'the structure of human history' to path-breaking analyses of ethnicity and nationalism ( Thought and Change , 1964; Nations and Nationalism, 1983).

Yet there were several paradoxes running throughout this work. Apart form the Moroccan study, widely acknowledged as a classic of the British school, he did not carry out local, ethnographic projects. He valued fresh empirical data from fieldwork above all else, and advised his many graduate students accordingly. Yet he himself often preferred to be comparative, to theorise and to systematize. He was closer in some ways to the anthropology of Sir James Frazer than to that of Malinowski. There were tensions too in his political loyalties. The hatred of communism ran deep (it was perhaps exceeded only by his contempt for another closed system, the church of psychoanalysis - see The Psychoanalytic Movement , 1985). But Gellner could understand the security that ordinary people valued under communist rule, and their wish to believe in their system, in the same way that be could appreciate the attractions of Islamic movements. Although some judged his thinking to be euro-centric, he both admired and respected the other cultures he studied. On the other hand he did not hesitate to expose the forgery of cultural identities by intellectuals, including ethnographers, in the context of modern national movements. He had little sympathy for the lurch to right-wing orthodoxies in the Britain of Mrs. Thatcher. In his recent book on civil society ( Conditions of Liberty , 1994) her argued for an effective state that would provide the social guarantees citizens needed to protect them from the tyranny of the market. At various times in his career he engaged in debate with figures on the left, among them Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, though his general scorn for western marxism was unswerving.

He was a superb public speaker and debater, and also a gifted teacher, injecting occasional notes of melodrama into lectures that were delivered slowly, without notes. I remember first hearing him in the Cambridge anthropology department of the 1970s, when Jack Goody invited him to do a regular series on 'rationality'. Key points about contrasting styles of cognition were deftly summarised in a blackboard diagram of a 'multi-periscoped submarine', an image that must be indelibly stamped on generations of students (the argument is set out fully in Plough, Sword and Book , 1988).

His influence spread far beyond social anthropology, and may indeed have been stronger in other fields. The fierce tone of the polemics of the 1950s against Oxford philosophers was repeated in the 1990s in tangles in the TLS with the New York based Palestinian literary critic Edward Said. For Gellner the issues were essentially the same: the vital need to refute the claim that ideas lead the world. He was planning a major conference on the subject of Orientalism at the time of his death.

After a highly successful decade as William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, Gellner retired in 1993 in order to head a new Centre for the Study of Nationalism, part of the Central European University funded by George Soros. He was thrilled to be living in Prague once again, and for all his intense dislike of socialism he had to concede that the former powerholders had taken good care of the city's historic centre. One regret, he told me recently, was that he couldn't quite manage to down the prodigious amounts of beer necessary for effective 'participant observation' among contemporary Bohemian villagers.

Gellner did not establish a school though, like Popper, whose influence he always acknowledged, he did attract some able and dedicated followers. He did not always find it easy to accept the mundane pressures of an academic department, particularly in Cambridge where an archaic administrative system imposed very heavy demands. Indeed Cambridge was in some respects a disappointment: after suffering the indignity of having to kneel before a linguistic philosopher - Bernard Williams - in his admission ceremony, he found that the Fellowship at Kings was too large to provide him with that elusive sense of gemeinschaft ..

Yet he settled well in the end, enjoyed his collaboration with archaeologists, and the essays and books continued to flow. As at the LSE, he inspired the loyalty and affection of staff as well as students. He was not one to suffer fools gladly, and occasionally visitors to the department were deceived by the reserved, even taciturn welcome they received. But Gellner hated pomposity, and the dry humour was never far away: mischievous Bohemian spirits would emerge in the conversation over dinner and he was quite incapable of conforming to current fads for 'political correctness'. Having distilled the key message of a visitor's talk, he would enjoy changing the subject altogether - perhaps to chess, or to the parlous state of the English soccer team. He was passionate about nature, especially mountains. Long after illness ended his climbing career, he continued to enjoy canoeing on the Cam, and to live life to the full - too full, perhaps, in later years, as he subjected himself to punishing international conference schedules. But he was usually able to retreat with his family to a precious hideaway in North Italy during summers, and it was here that much of his extraordinarily varied writing was done. Rumour has it that two new volumes were completed this summer.