What’s not to like?

Stefan Collini

  • 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.

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