What’s not to like?
- Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography by John Hall
Verso, 400 pp, £29.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 602 6
When Ernest Gellner was teaching at the Central European University in Prague in 1995, the last year of his life, he cultivated informal social relations with the graduate students there. One student ‘confessed to unease when Gellner sat down to watch television with him – saying it was as if Max Weber had dropped by.’ It requires only a little familiarity with Weber’s vastly ambitious oeuvre and notoriously austere personality to imagine why that might be an unsettling experience, as well as an unlikely one. Curiously, Perry Anderson had, three or four years earlier, been trying to imagine Weber in front of a television set, as a way of making a comparison between Gellner’s complacent-seeming endorsement of post-1945 mass affluence and Weber’s more agonised reflections on Europe after 1918: ‘It is difficult to imagine Weber, relaxed before a television set, greeting the festivities of the time as a new Belle Epoque.’
It is hardly surprising that these contrasting allusions both choose to make their point by invoking the name of Max Weber. Perhaps no other proper name crops up so frequently in discussions of Gellner’s work. There was, for all their evident – indeed, almost laughably obvious and incongruous – differences, an important intellectual affinity between the two as analysts of ‘modernity’, of the distinctiveness of the West, of the role of the world religions, and as philosophers of social-scientific method. The comparison becomes almost a reflex in John Hall’s outstanding biography: ‘Gellner’s understanding and account of modern cognition were profoundly Weberian’; ‘No modern thinker has stood so close to Weber in insisting that our times must be disenchanted’; Gellner’s account is ‘Weberian both in according ideology some causal role and in offering a narrative in which different sources of social power mutually condition each other’; and so on. In fact, the connection now looks almost foreordained, since Hall tells us that Gellner’s upwardly mobile father had gone to Berlin in the early 1920s ‘to find out more about Max Weber, who had recently died, and whom he came to admire greatly’. Seventy years later, that Prague student’s quip was spot-on: the vignette would not have seemed so telling had he chosen to compare his teacher to Marx or Durkheim or Pareto or Parsons.
A second-order characteristic that Gellner shared with Weber was the way his work and career fell across several conventionally defined disciplines. An obituary tribute to Gellner pointed to this affinity by quoting Weber’s fine remark: ‘I am not a donkey and I don’t have a field.’ Gellner’s first academic appointment was as a moral philosopher; much of his professional life was spent in a department of sociology; his final appointment (in Britain, before the brief Prague epilogue) was as a professor of social anthropology. This mildly transgressive trajectory gave him some satisfaction; it was with mock ruefulness that he noted a possible parallel between his own career and that of R.G. Collingwood, who was ‘praised as a philosopher by historians and as a historian by philosophers’. Several of his students and admirers responded to Gellner’s disregard for academic pigeonholing: ‘It was from Ernest that I learned not to give a damn about disciplinary tribes. He was a franc-tireur of the disciplines, a zestful poacher who cocked a snook at all fences and all gamekeepers.’ Even the briefest description of Gellner’s later professional identity requires the juxtaposition of several ungainly abstractions: he was, for what such labels are worth, a social philosopher and a comparative historical sociologist.
Hall retraces the steps that led up to this ambitious job description with exemplary care and sympathy. His is genuinely an ‘intellectual biography’, since he is not only exceptionally familiar with Gellner’s work (he attended his lectures as a student and went on to become a colleague) but also formidably well read in most of the areas to which his subject contributed, enabling him to provide judicious arbitrations of various intellectual controversies (Gellner was a great igniter of controversies) as well as occasional corrective criticism. But even at the brute biographical level the story he has to tell is unusually interesting, beginning with that intellectually self-improving father.
His parents were assimilated German-speaking Jews, Habsburg subjects before 1919, and thereafter citizens of the new state of Czechoslovakia (where it seemed wise to speak Czech, at least in public). Prague in the interwar years was cosmopolitan even by the standards of Central Europe: alongside Czech schools, it could boast German gymnasia, Russian and French lycées, and an English grammar school. It was to the last that his parents sent the nine-year-old Ernest in 1935, perhaps prudently preparing for a time when they would have to flee mainland Europe. They almost left it too late; they were fortunate to make it to England in April 1939, eventually settling in Highgate. Gellner’s parents were representative of that stratum of educated, middle-class Jews who, profoundly grateful to Britain for providing them with a home, nonetheless continued throughout the war to speak to each other in the language of the now hated enemy.
Ernest finished his schooling at St Alban’s County School for Boys, where he received a report from his history master that seems mischievously prophetic of the response the pupil’s mature work would provoke from its numerous critics: ‘Ideas brilliant. But he needs to work harder on the facts.’ From here, the already intellectually confident boy won a scholarship to Balliol, going up to read PPE in the autumn of 1943. But military service claimed him after one year, and he joined the 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade, serving in northern Europe after D-Day and eventually reaching Prague in May 1945, a couple of weeks after the occupying Russians. He quickly sensed that the prospects for his former homeland were not good, and returned to England, resuming his studies in Oxford in January 1946. He graduated with a First in 1947 (allowed to take a shorter course because of his war service), and then, through the patronage of Balliol’s Scottish master, A.D. Lindsay, was immediately appointed as an assistant lecturer in moral philosophy at Edinburgh. After two years, he moved to the London School of Economics, where he was to stay for the next 35 years.
Vol. 33 No. 12 · 16 June 2011
From Lawrence Rosen
In his review of John Hall’s Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography Stefan Collini says that Hall is unable to explain why Gellner stopped publishing philosophy and began doing fieldwork in Morocco (LRB, 2 June). But Gellner was pursuing that classic issue of Central European political philosophy: how is anarchy possible? Following E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Robert Montagne, he professed to have found the answer in the segmentary tribal structure of the Berbers of the High Atlas. Though the claimed solution never convinced those of us working with Clifford Geertz, it should also be noted that Gellner never held our views against us and was as generous to those who disagreed with him as to students of his own.
From Maurice Plaskow
Ernest Gellner was two years above me at St Albans County School, an institution distinguished during those war years mainly by an eccentric and largely incompetent staff, two of whom, however, went on to professorships after they escaped. The history teacher referred to, who was also the deputy head, was a lazy sod who would set classes some reading and then disappear to smoke in his small stockroom. I remember often seeing Gellner reading, alone in the library. He didn’t mix much, which was understandable since I doubt there were any boys in his year he would have been interested to talk to. The head was a humourless, prim man, fond of the cane, who refused to allow us to have the New Statesman in the library. It makes Gellner’s achievement in getting a scholarship to Balliol even more impressive.
Vol. 33 No. 13 · 30 June 2011
From David Seddon
As John Hall remarks in his intellectual biography of Ernest Gellner, I was a student of Gellner’s at the LSE in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and came to know him quite well (LRB, 2 June). My PhD thesis in social anthropology was based on fieldwork in north-east Morocco. Lawrence Rosen’s suggestion that Gellner sought out his fieldwork site in the Moroccan High Atlas in order to pursue the issue of ‘how is anarchy possible’ puts the cart before the horse (Letters, 16 June). Long before he developed his ideas about segmentation and tribal politics, Gellner was captivated not only by the mountains but also by ‘the Berber villages of the central Atlas, each building clinging to the next, the style wholly homogeneous, the totality crying out that this was a Gemeinschaft’. He knew at once that he ‘wanted desperately to know, as far as an outsider ever could, what it was like inside’ (his italics). He sought, as a self-avowed ‘urban, cerebral, mobile, rootless and uneasy intellectual’, to enter into a ‘community’. This came first; the notion that the social and political life of these Berber communities was based on a measure of order and trust, which Gellner identified in terms of a combination of segmentation and rule by saints, came later, during the fieldwork itself and as a result, in part, of his reading of Evans-Pritchard’s studies of the Nuer of Sudan and the Sanussi of Cyrenaica.
From Kate Pahl
My father, Ray Pahl, an emeritus professor of sociology at Essex, and a friend of Ernest Gellner’s in the 1960s, told me – this was my last conversation with him: he died at the beginning of this month – that the reason Gellner went to the Atlas Mountains to do his research was not his romantic affinity with mountains, as Collini suggests; instead, it was on the suggestion of his doctoral supervisor, Paul Stirling, whose seminal book, Turkish Village, advocated fieldwork conducted at close quarters with a particular social group.
My father was planning a longer letter to the LRB before he died. In it, he would no doubt have mentioned that he introduced Gellner to George Soros, who funded many intellectuals working in Eastern Europe at the time. Soros subsequently fell out with my father, but not with Gellner. ‘You shafted me not in the back, but in the stomach,’ my father joked to Gellner some time later.
University of Sheffield
Vol. 33 No. 14 · 14 July 2011
From Gabriele vom Bruck
Stefan Collini writes that after taking up a professorship at the LSE, Ernest Gellner did something that even John Hall’s biography ‘cannot quite explain: he stopped publishing philosophy articles and began doing fieldwork among the Berbers of the High Atlas in Morocco’ (LRB, 2 June). In an interview conducted with John Davis in 1991, Gellner explains that he foresaw that the establishment of the state of Israel would lead to a tragic confrontation with the Muslim world: ‘The least one could do was try and understand that world.’
Gabriele vom Bruck
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011
From Sarah Gellner
It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.
I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.
So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.
Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.