Ernest André Gellner (9 December 1925 – 5 November 1995) was a
British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist described by The
Daily Telegraph, when he died, as one of the world's most vigorous
intellectuals, and by
The Independent as a "one-man crusader for
His first book, Words and Things (1959), prompted a leader in The
Times and a month-long correspondence on its letters page over his
attack on linguistic philosophy. As the Professor of Philosophy, Logic
and Scientific Method at the
London School of Economics
London School of Economics for 22 years,
the William Wyse Professor of Social
Anthropology at the University of
Cambridge for eight years, and head of the new Centre for the Study of
Nationalism in Prague, Gellner fought all his life—in his writing,
teaching and political activism—against what he saw as closed
systems of thought, particularly communism, psychoanalysis, relativism
and the dictatorship of the free market. Among other issues in social
thought, modernization theory and nationalism were two of his central
themes, his multicultural perspective allowing him to work within the
subject-matter of three separate civilizations: Western, Islamic, and
Russian. He is considered one of the leading theoreticians on the
issue of nationalism.
2 Words and Things
3 Social anthropology
5 Selected works
8 External links
Gellner was born in Paris to Anna, née Fantl, and Rudolf, a
lawyer, an urban intellectual German-speaking Jewish couple from
Bohemia (which, since 1918, was part of the newly established
Julius Gellner was his uncle. He was brought up in
Prague, attending a
Czech language primary school before entering the
English-language grammar school. This was Franz Kafka's tricultural
Prague: antisemitic but "stunningly beautiful", a city he later spent
years longing for.
In 1939, when Gellner was 13, the rise of
Adolf Hitler in Germany
persuaded his family to leave
Czechoslovakia and move to St Albans,
just north of London, where Gellner attended
St Albans School. At the
age of 17, he won a scholarship to
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford as a result
of what he called "Portuguese colonial policy", which involved keeping
"the natives peaceful by getting able ones from below into
Prague is a stunningly beautiful town, and during the first period of
my exile, which was during the war, I constantly used to dream about
it, in the literal sense: it was a strong longing."
At Balliol, he studied
Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and
specialised in philosophy. He interrupted his studies after one year
to serve with the 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade, which took part
in the Siege of Dunkirk (1944–45), and then returned to
attend university there for half a term.
During this period,
Prague lost its strong hold over him: foreseeing
the communist takeover, he decided to return to England. One of his
recollections of the city in 1945 was a communist poster saying:
"Everyone with a clean shield into the Party", ostensibly meaning that
those whose records were good during the occupation were welcome. In
reality, Gellner said, it meant exactly the opposite:
If your shield is absolutely filthy we'll scrub it for you; you are
safe with us; we like you the better because the filthier your record
the more we have a hold on you. So all the bastards, all the
distinctive authoritarian personalities, rapidly went into the Party,
and it rapidly acquired this kind of character. So what was coming was
totally clear to me, and it cured me of the emotional hold which
Prague had previously had over me. I could foresee that a Stalinoid
dictatorship was due: it came in '48. The precise date I couldn't
foresee, but that it was due to come was absolutely obvious for
various reasons.... I wanted no part of it and got out as quickly as I
could and forgot about it.
He returned to Balliol College in 1945 to finish his degree, winning
John Locke prize and taking first class honours in 1947. The same
year, he began his academic career at the
University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh as
an assistant to Professor
John Macmurray in the Department of Moral
Philosophy. He moved to the
London School of Economics
London School of Economics in 1949,
joining the sociology department under Morris Ginsberg. Ginsberg
admired philosophy and believed that philosophy and sociology were
very close to each other.
He employed me because I was a philosopher. Even though he was
technically a professor of sociology, he wouldn't employ his own
students, so I benefited from this, and he assumed that anybody in
philosophy would be an evolutionary Hobhousean like himself. It took
him some time to discover that I wasn't.
Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse
Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse had preceded Ginsberg as Martin White
Professor of Sociology at the LSE. Hobhouse's Mind in Evolution (1901)
had proposed that society should be regarded as an organism, a product
of evolution, with the individual as its basic unit, the subtext being
that society would improve over time as it evolved, a teleological
view that Gellner firmly opposed.
Ginsberg... was totally unoriginal and lacked any sharpness. He simply
reproduced the kind of evolutionary rationalistic vision which had
already been formulated by Hobhouse and which incidentally was a kind
of extrapolation of his own personal life: starting in Poland and
ending up as a fairly influential professor at LSE. He evolved, he had
an idea of a great chain of being where the lowest form of life was
the drunk, Polish, anti-Semitic peasant and the next stage was the
Polish gentry, a bit better, or the Staedtl, better still. And then he
came to England, first to University College under Dawes Hicks, who
was quite rational (not all that rational—he still had some
anti-Semitic prejudices, it seems) and finally ended up at LSE with
Hobhouse, who was so rational that rationality came out of his ears.
And so Ginsberg extrapolated this, and on his view the whole of
humanity moved to ever greater rationality, from drunk Polish peasant
to T.L. Hobhouse and a Hampstead garden.
Gellner's critique of linguistic philosophy in Words and Things (1959)
J. L. Austin and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein,
criticizing them for failing to question their own methods. The book
brought Gellner critical acclaim. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1961 with a
thesis on Organization and the Role of a Berber Zawiya and became
Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method just one year
Thought and Change was published in 1965, and in State and
Society in Soviet Thought (1988), he examined whether Marxist regimes
could be liberalized.
He was elected to the
British Academy in 1974. He moved to Cambridge
in 1984 to head the Department of Anthropology, holding the William
Wyse chair and becoming a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, which
provided him with a relaxed atmosphere where he enjoyed drinking beer
and playing chess with the students. Described by the Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography as "brilliant, forceful, irreverent,
mischievous, sometimes perverse, with a biting wit and love of irony",
he was famously popular with his students, was willing to spend many
extra hours a day tutoring them, and was regarded as a superb public
speaker and gifted teacher.
His Plough, Sword and Book (1988) investigated the philosophy of
history, and Conditions of Liberty (1994) sought to explain the
collapse of socialism. In 1993, he returned to Prague, now rid of
communism, and to the new Central European University, where he became
head of the Center for the Study of Nationalism, a program funded by
George Soros, the American billionaire philanthropist, to study the
rise of nationalism in the post-communist countries of eastern and
central Europe. On 5 November 1995, after returning from a
conference in Budapest, he suffered a heart attack and died at his
flat in Prague, one month short of his 70th birthday.
Gellner was noted for his questionable sense of humour. His daughter,
Sarah Gellner, revealed that one of her father's favourite jokes was
"Rape, rape, rape, all summer long", and that "If there was one thing
Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men."
Words and Things
Gellner discovered his interest in linguistic philosophy while at
With the publication in 1959 of Words and Things, his first book,
Gellner achieved fame and even notoriety among his fellow
philosophers, as well as outside the discipline, for his fierce attack
on ordinary language philosophy (or "linguistic philosophy", Gellner's
preferred phrase). Ordinary language philosophy, in one form or
another, was the dominant approach at
Oxbridge at the time (although
the philosophers themselves denied that they were part of any unified
school). He first encountered the strong ideological hold of
linguistic philosophy while at Balliol:
[A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy,
inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally
and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no
general solution to issues other than the custom of the community.
Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what
it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which
communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each
other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it
was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is
very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was
like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was
quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I
came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and
all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you
must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right.
And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I
did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is.
Words and Things is fiercely critical of the work of Ludwig
Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, Antony Flew, P. F. Strawson
and many others. Ryle refused to have the book reviewed in the
philosophical journal Mind (which he edited), and Bertrand Russell
(who had written an approving foreword) protested in a letter to The
Times. A response from Ryle and a lengthy correspondence ensued.
In the 1950s, Gellner discovered his great love of social
anthropology. Chris Hann, director of the Max Planck Institute for
Social Anthropology, writes that following the hard-nosed empiricism
of Bronisław Malinowski, Gellner made major contributions to the
subject over the next 40 years, ranging 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
Main article: Gellner's theory of nationalism
In 1983, Gellner published Nations and Nationalism. For Gellner,
"nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the
political and the national unit should be congruent". Gellner
argues that nationalism appeared and became a sociological necessity
only in the modern world. In previous times ("the agro-literate" stage
of history), rulers had little incentive to impose cultural
homogeneity on the ruled. But in modern society, work becomes
technical; one must operate a machine, and to do so, one must learn.
There is a need for impersonal, context-free communication and a high
degree of cultural standardisation.
Furthermore, industrial society is underlined by the fact that there
is perpetual growth: employment types vary and new skills must be
learned. Thus, generic employment training precedes specialised job
training. On a territorial level, there is competition for the
overlapping catchment areas (such as Alsace-Lorraine). To maintain its
grip on resources and its survival and progress, the state and culture
must for these reasons be congruent. Nationalism, therefore, is a
Words and Things, A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a
Study in Ideology, London: Gollancz; Boston: Beacon (1959). Also see
correspondence in The Times, 10 November to 23 November 1959.
Thought and Change (1964)
Saints of the Atlas (1969)
Contemporary Thought and Politics (1974)
The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974)
Legitimation of Belief (1974)
Spectacles and Predicaments (1979)
Soviet and Western
Anthropology (1980) (editor)
Muslim Society (1981)
Relativism and the Social Sciences (1985)
The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985)
The Concept of Kinship and Other Essays (1986)
Culture, Identity and Politics (1987)
State and Society in Soviet Thought (1988)
Plough, Sword and Book (1988)
Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992)
Reason and Culture (1992)
Conditions of Liberty (1994)
Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove (1995)
Liberalism in Modern Times: Essays in Honour of José G. Merquior
Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg
^ Stirling, Paul (9 November 1995). "
Ernest Gellner Obituary". The
^ ERIKSEN, THOMAS HYLLAND (January 2007). "
Nationalism and the
Internet". Nations and Nationalism. 13 (1): 1–17.
^ a b c Chris Hann, Obituary Archived 13 February 2006 at the Wayback
Machine., The Independent, 8 November 1995
^ a b c d "Gellner Interview". Retrieved 5 November 2015.
^ a b c "Interview section 2". Retrieved 5 November 2015.
Nationalism Studies Program at the CEU
^ "Letters: Memories of Ernest Gellner".
London Review of Books. 33
(16). 25 August 2011.
^ T. P. Uschanov, The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy.
The controversy has been described by the writer
Ved Mehta in Fly and
the Fly Bottle (1963).
^ Gellner, Nationalism, 1983, p. 1
Ernest Gellner Died at 69
written by Eric Pace
The New York Times
The New York Times 10 November 1995
Davies, John. Obituary in The Guardian, 7 November 1995
Dimonye, Simeon. A Comparative Study of Historicism in Karl Marx and
Ernest Gellner (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012)
Hall, John A. Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography (London:
Hall, John A. and Ian Jarvie (eds). The Social Philosophy of Ernest
Gellner (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 1996)
Ernest Gellner and Modernity (Cardiff: University
of Wales Press, 2002)
Lukes, Steven. "Gellner, Ernest André (1925–1995)", Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004,
retrieved 23 September 2005 (requires subscription)
Malesevic, Sinisa and Mark Haugaard (eds).
Ernest Gellner and
Contemporary Social Thought (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press,
O'Leary, Brendan. Obituary in The Independent, 8 November 1995
Stirling, Paul. Obituary in the Daily Telegraph, 9 November 1995
"The Social and Political Relevance of Gellner's Thought Today" papers
and webcast of conference organised by the Department of Political
Science and Sociology in the National University of Ireland, Galway,
held on 21–22 May 2005 (10th anniversary of Gellner’s death).
Kyrchanoff, Maksym. Natsionalizm: politika, mezhdunarodnye
otnosheniia, regionalizatsiia (Voronezh, 2007)  Detailed review of
Gellner's works for students. In Russian language.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ernest Gellner.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ernest Gellner
Gellner resource page (at the
London School of Economics)
Ethics and Logic, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society LV
Catalogue of the Gellner papers at the Archives Division of the London
School of Economics.
Gellner video materials, at Dspace at Cambridge repository (MP4
Special Issue of the journal Social Evolution & History "The
Intellectual Legacy of Ernest Gellner" (guest editor Peter Skalnik).
Special Issue of the journal Thesis Eleven
Ernest Gellner and
Historical Sociology (guest editor Sinisa Malesevic).
The Words and Things of
Ernest Gellner by Czeglédy, André P.
William Wyse Professor of Social
Anthropology Cambridge University
ISNI: 0000 0001 2146 8401
BNF: cb119045335 (data)