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Ernest Gellner, 1925-1995

NEWS
Ernest Gellner, 1925-1995

E

rnest Gellner was born in Prague and came to
England in 1939, where he attended school in St
Albans before winning a scholarship to Ballio!’

He fought in the Czech brigade in France in 1944-45,
and, in a rare biographical note, describes himself sloping
off to the bookshops there and happening upon the
writings of Camus and Sartre. He said of this moment:

‘End-of-war and post-war France was like the human
condition, but a damn sight more so. If ever there was a
situation when men could not find reassurance for their
identity, dignity or conviction, this was it.’ This sense of
living in a world without guarantees never left him.

Gellner arrived with a bang on the intellectual scene
with the publication in 1959 of Words and Things, his
witty and devastating attack on Oxford linguistic
philosophy, and an important declaration of his own
position and lifelong project. Where the Wittgensteinians
asserted that philosophy changes nothing, Gellner was to
insist throughout his work that on the contrary it had
changed everything. His method in Words and Things
was to attend to the broader context: he tried to formulate
as definite doctrines, and to see from a sociological
distance, positions which the linguistic philosophers
deployed mainly by implication and example; and, he
said, by cultural intimidation.

Gellner in a rather wicked way took up the idea of
language as activity rather than description (his view that
it was about truth was one of his main disagreements
with them), and used it mockingly to characterize their
evasive language-games. Seen from this distance (the
distance, in fact, between the London School of
Economics and Oxford), the Wittgensteinians were
merely aristocratic conservatives, choosing to reduce
troubling reality to the consensual judgements of the
Senior Common Room. The LSE, three years later, gave
Gellner a Chair in Philosophy, thus celebrating his
Protestant and utilitarian challenge to high Oxford
orthodoxy. It was an inspired appointment, as Gellner
went on to write twenty or so further books, carrying
forward into another generation a recognizably ‘LSE’

tradition of positivist sociology and philosophy.

The awkwardness of Gellner’ s work for the academy

was that it continually
crossed the boundaries
between
philosophy,
sociology and anthropology. There were
essential reasons for this,
since he developed the
argument, with increasing
elaboration and clarity
throughout his work, that
it was philosophical ideas
that had made the
difference in the ‘great transition’ to the modern world.

It was the development of an atomistic, ‘granular’, valuefree, and analytical stance towards nature which had
made the Western scientific revolution possible. Progress
had come, Gellner said, with his characteristic liking for
popular, sometimes even vulgar, turns of phrase, from
the rejection of intellectual ‘package-deals’ combining
cognitive, aesthetic and ethical views of the world into
seamless wholes. From the scientific revolution followed
the technologies which have transformed nature and the
physical conditions of life for the majority of people.

Giving Weber a further secular turn, Gellner said that
this transformation of world-view had been the
achievement of the philosophers – Descartes, Hume and
Kant – as well as of the scientists themselves. The
philosopher whom the professional philosophers barely
counted as one of their number assigned to their
discipline a larger historical importance than they did
themselves.

There is no doubt that Gellner’s was a radical
philosophical project. He shared with Radical
Philosophy an antipathy to merely technical philosophizing, and the view that philosophy was a virtually
pointless pursuit without a consideration of its historical
meanings and effects. His placing, most fully developed
in Plough, Sword and Book (1988), of traditionalist and
essentialist philosophies in hierarchical agrarian
societies, and of the epistemological revolution as the
basis of industrial and egalitarian transformation, is a
major contribution to the sociology of knowledge, giving

Radical Philosophy 76 (March/April 1996)

55

explanatory force to typologies which in the work of one
of his models, Karl Popper, were more prescriptive in
intent. His own arguments for an ‘episodic’ model of the
transition to modernity anticipated and influenced later
versions of this position in macro-historical sociology.

Gellner shared Radical Philosophy’s keen interest, at
least, in the work of ‘other’ philosophical traditions idealist, phenomenological and critical- but it is here, of
course, that this journal’s major differences with him
began. Gellner was a consistent critic of what he saw as
backsliding from the strenuous path of scientific
rationalism. Existentialism, phenomenology, variants of
Marxism, linguistic philosophy, the counter-culture,
ethnomethodology, were alike castigated in Gellner’s
essays as attempts to ‘re-enchant’ a world robbed of
meaning by the procedures of systematic doubt, by the
divorce of fact and value, and by the adoption of a
‘modular’ view of man. His critiques of these various
positions were sharp, though mostly good-humoured leftists might have made more of his liking for vigorous
argument. Gellner seems to have been much more
infuriated by condescension handed down from above
than by dissenting voices from below. But his critiques,
and his insistence on a plain clarity of writing, left little
common ground with those struggling to make sense of
new continental idioms with an idealist hue.

But there are saving graces to Gellner’s vigorous
critiques of ‘left’ or ‘culturalist’ positions. The first of
these is Gellner’s often candid acknowledgement of the
problems which his adversaries addressed. For example,
whilst he thought the value-free analytical method had
been an effective means of understanding nature (he had
little to say about environmentalism), he acknowledged
the continuing difficulties of its application to the human
sciences, whose purpose was unavoidably to provide
coherence and meaning as well as truth. Whilst he
criticized the arbitrariness of psychoanalytical
procedures, Gellner nevertheless accepted much of
Freud’s account of innate human self-deception. Thus,
whilst psychoanalysis was, in his view, invalid as a
scientific procedure, its appeal was fully understandable.

Even his hostility to Communism and Marxism did not
inhibit him from observing that, since the Communist
Party had been the only effective institution in the Soviet
Union, the transition to democracy and capitalism in
Russia might go better under its aegis than without it.

There is, however, a more substantive affinity
between Gellner’s position and that of leftist, and
especially Marxist, critics of relativism. Gellner too was
a materialist, though he stripped this perspective of
monism, perfectionism or ideas of inevitability.

Although he thought that the causes of modernization

56

lay in a change in the forms of thought, its most important
effects, for him, were on the conditions of material life.

Between a scientific view of nature which enabled the
realities of scarcity to be overcome, and tradition-bound
or irrationalist views of the world, there was in his view
no serious contest. His liking for plain language and bold
labels were consonant with his sense that on many
important issues he spoke for the interests of the majority.

He shared a version of the New Left idea that ‘culture is
ordinary’. (He contributed to Universities and Left
Review.) And his view that what mattered most was
people having enough to eat, and a government of their
own kind, represented a commitment to human progress
which was common in a generation shaped by the
experience of war and reconstruction. One imagines him
reading Orwell at the same time as Camus and Sartre.

It has often happened that intellectual emigres to
England become more English than the English in their
idealization of empiricism, tradition, or supposed
common sense. Gellner’s critique of the Wittgensteinians
implicitly took strong issue with this kind of complacent
identification. But he also recognized and most of the
time rejected these temptations when they came closer to
home. His criticism of some of Popper’s later ideas (in
contrast to the earlier work that had greatly influenced
him), which he saw as empty prescriptions and
anathemas, exemplifies his insistence that one has to go
on asking difficult questions, even if there seem to. be no
definite or satisfying answers to them. He seemed to have
no desire to become the leader of an intellectual
movement, or to acquire a following. He was unusually
able to tolerate a commitment that was, finally,
‘ungrounded’. On the one hand, we are the products of
an epistemological revolution, he said, whose
perspectives we can therefore scarcely doubt. Yet it is
the nature of that revolution that all perspecti ves must be
open to question, including one’s own. He lived with this
contradiction more steadfastly than most.

Gellner returned, of course, to Prague, to the Central
European University, in the final years of his working
life, while retaining his base in Cambridge. His last book,
Conditions of Liberty (1994), is in part concerned with
the prospects of ‘civil society’ in post-Communist
Eastern Europe. Perhaps this return to the Czech
Republic revealed one root of Gellner’ s independence of
mind. This admirer of Descartes, Kant and Weber, and
scholar and defender of Islamic religion and society, who
believed that one must live both within and outside one’s
own particular culture, was a truly European intellectual.

This has not been a common identity in England.

Michael Rustin

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