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.

A photograph of the 26-year-old Gellner, three years into his LSE lectureship, shows a strong, athletic, sexy-looking man, hardened by his passion for mountaineering and skiing as well as by military service. But at some point in his early thirties he began to suffer from osteoporosis, losing more than four inches over a decade, suffering frequent pain and broken bones, leading him to walk with a stick. That photo also suggests, obscurely, a certain mismatch between the intense, challenging young man who confronts the camera with a stare falling somewhere between steely and sultry, and the professional role he was coming to occupy. For, to all intents and purposes, he was an orthodox product of Oxford ‘linguistic philosophy’ in its heyday, publishing articles in philosophical journals on topics such as ‘Knowing How and Validity’. And the imprimatur of the Oxford philosophy establishment clearly mattered to him: three years after he had left the university, having already been proxime accessit for the John Locke Prize, he went to the trouble of sitting for it again, this time successfully.

But his professional identity was not wholly orthodox even at this stage, since at the LSE he had been appointed in the department of sociology, where Morris Ginsberg kept alive the flame of Hobhousian social evolutionism, and where Gellner’s principal duty was to provide lectures on the history of ethics, a subject which, Ginsberg still believed, would illustrate moral progress. However, Gellner then did something which even Hall’s meticulous and thoroughly researched biography cannot quite explain: he stopped publishing philosophy articles and began doing fieldwork among the Berbers of the High Atlas in Morocco, eventually submitting the fruits of his researches for a PhD in anthropology (the basis of his 1969 book, Saints of the Atlas). Love of the mountains had something to do with it, but so did an intellectual restlessness that left him discontented with the merry-go-round of concepts and eager to try to understand the way actual societies functioned.

Whatever the ingredients in his intellectual development in the mid-1950s, they were to result in something no less striking, in its way, than his trips to remote Moroccan villages, as the young Oxford-trained philosopher publicly and spectacularly bit the hand that had fed him. In 1959, he published Words and Things, originally subtitled ‘A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology’. The book sought to demonstrate that the fascination with the nuances of ‘ordinary language’ which characterised this style of philosophy amounted to nothing more than ‘Higher Lexicography’. The Wittgensteinian practice of linguistic analysis as a solvent for the misleading puzzles of all previous philosophy resulted, Gellner contended, in triviality. In claiming to reveal the richness of everyday language use, the ‘Narodniks of North Oxford’ had invented a mode of anti-philosophy that left the world undisturbed, reducing a once radical form of inquiry to a pastime fit for comfortably situated gentlemen. The book bristles with a kind of displaced class resentment: Gellner hated the social assurance of Oxford philosophy, and he particularly hated its cultivation of indirectness and implicitness. The closing words of the book, parodying Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, were: ‘That which one would insinuate, thereof one must speak.’

The reception of the book shaped Gellner’s career in two ways. First, Gilbert Ryle, senior Oxford professor and editor of Mind, the leading trade journal, decided the book was unworthy of review. Bertrand Russell – whom Gollancz, ever the enterprising publisher, had persuaded to write a sympathetic preface – sent a letter to the Times denouncing this as a form of professional censorship. The usual squall in a correspondence-column teacup followed (the episode was given wider currency by Ved Mehta, in a New Yorker article, later republished in Fly and the Fly-Bottle), and Gellner’s name was made. At the same time, the book gave offence where offence was due; after its publication, Hall records, Gellner was ‘effectively expelled from Britain’s philosophical community’.

He was, however, by now launched on the distinctive path of his life’s work, becoming (in Hall’s words) ‘the philosopher of industrialism and the sociologist of philosophy’. His abiding concern hereafter was to try to understand the distinctive character of what he – but not, of course, he alone – termed ‘modernity’ (of which more later). The first major fruit of this enterprise was his hugely ambitious 1964 book, Thought and Change, which laid down a theoretical and historical scheme within which much of his later work is contained.

For Gellner, human history fell into two eras, divided by the coming of industrialism. Once the Industrial Revolution had transformed the leading societies of Western Europe – or at least once the benefits of this transformation had become widespread and fully apparent, which did not happen till after 1945 – there could be no going back to the stable societies of scarcity alleged to have existed before (and still existing in other parts of the world). The ‘crucial premiss is simply that men in general will not tolerate a brief life of poverty, disease, precariousness, hard work, tedium and oppression, when they recognise that at least most of these features can be either obviated or greatly mitigated.’ He regarded science as ‘the form of cognition of industrial society’: it differed from all previous forms of natural philosophy in its ability to transform material reality, and it is the conjunction of industrialism and science that marks what he confidently speaks of as ‘the transition’ in human history – ‘the transition from ignorance and superstition to knowledge and control, from poverty and tyranny to wealth and at least the possibility of freedom’. Philosophies which do not take the measure of this change are, as he put it with the overstatement that lay somewhere between deliberate provocation and unnoticed habit, ‘worthless’.

Thought and Change is an extraordinarily confident and assertive book, insisting on a single major change in history without giving much evidence of knowing a lot about the history of anywhere in particular. Some years later, Gellner co-organised at the LSE what was at the time a celebrated seminar on ‘Patterns of History’, inviting anthropologists, archaeologists and ‘specialists on every period of all major world civilisations’. The level of abstraction of that phrase seems to signal the character, and the drawbacks, of Gellner’s intellectual ambitions. Few historians, surely, would think of themselves as ‘specialists on a period of one of the major world civilisations’. When polemicising against Wittgensteinians or, later, Geertzians, Gellner often said that human beings were not merely ‘concept-fodder’ – that is, that there were determinants of action other than language and culture – but perhaps his own intellectual practices tended to treat the more thickly textured work of colleagues in history, literature and so on as just so much ‘theory-fodder’.

It also seems a sign of something awry with Gellner’s cultural antennae, as well as an indicator of an obvious affinity, that he could describe C.P. Snow’s (thin and tendentious) ‘Two Cultures’ lecture as ‘one of the most important philosophical essays to appear since the war’. He not only shared Snow’s enthusiasm for industrialism as the route to improving the human condition, but he endorsed the lecture’s intense antipathy to ‘literary intellectuals’ (or ‘humanists’ in Gellner’s classification) and its cheerleading for science. Not, in Gellner’s case, any actual science (about which he did not seem especially well informed), but a certain philosophical and sociological idea of science – a mode of inquiry, a methodological icon. He had first read Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies in 1946 and Hall describes it as ‘the book which was to influence him more than any other’. It is noticeable that Gellner did not seem to relativise science in the way that Weber had relativised the pervasive process of ‘rationality’: he treated it, instead, as the ‘decisive’ intellectual advance in human history. As Anderson puts it, ‘the material affluence afforded by scientific reason’ is his theory’s ‘epistemological trump-card’. As this brief summary suggests, much turned on the nebulous and essentially ahistorical category of ‘modernity’ and its necessary twin, ‘traditional society’, categories that risk barring the way to the nuanced understanding of actual historical change in a specific time and place. (My limited sympathy for this enterprise may partly reflect the fact that so much of what is of interest to a literary critic or intellectual historian of recent centuries simply disappears in the undiscriminating capaciousness of the category of ‘modernity’, figuring only as a series of illustrations of the contrast with the ‘pre-modern’.)

Over the next 30 years, Gellner made important contributions to an impressively wide range of topics, notably his studies of Islam, his theories of nationalism and his critiques of those ideas or intellectual fashions which he saw as attempting, illegitimately, to ‘re-enchant’ the world – thinkers who offered ‘more moral warmth and harmony than they can deliver’. He was a powerful critic of those ideas and movements which he, cultivating a form of anthropological detachment and structural-functional explanation, exposed as intellectual fashions, indirectly expressive of certain social needs but fundamentally misleading about the nature of reality. For him, linguistic philosophy, psychoanalysis, ethnomethodology and poststructuralism all fell into this category. But he was also a notably robust commentator on the appeal and weaknesses of large ideologies, such as Marxism and conservatism. He never succumbed, for example, to the seductions of the form of conservatism promoted by his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott, observing tartly that ‘tradition may be elegance, competence, courage, modesty and realism … it is also bullshit, servility, vested interest, arbitrariness, empty ritual.’ Gellner didn’t do ideological enthusiasm, but he was at the same time scathing about all forms of relativism. ‘The argument of his social philosophy as a whole,’ Hall summarises, ‘is that we do indeed know certain things. Social science is not an abject failure.’

Running through Gellner’s work, and a source of its remarkable fertility, was the constant urge to seek a wider understanding of forms of life than was held by the social agents themselves. This, it might be said, has been the urge informing the very project of the social sciences. For him, the sociological ‘explanation’ of ideas was bedrock. I hold ‘explanation’ in the tweezers of quotation marks here simply to signal how curious this familiar enterprise is, or ought to be. Ideas are argued to be ‘functional’ (more tweezers) for a particular social group, and the identification of that level of correspondence is held to be deeper, more explanatory, than any merely intellectual characterisation of those ideas. Actually, there was some tension or unsteadiness in Gellner’s practice, since he was too interested in ideas to treat them merely as epiphenomenal flotsam in this way, so we get subtle analyses of what are and are not good reasons for thinking one thing rather than another. But he then always reverted to the sociological perspective of trying to explain why some reasons seemed good reasons to a particular group of agents because of certain features of their social organisation and economic practice. In this respect, Gellner was a peculiar kind of fundamentalist: a sociological fundamentalist.

This has been seen by some of his critics as a damaging limitation of his account of nationalism in particular. Nations and Nationalism, published in 1983, was his bestselling book, one which was widely translated and which has generated a small industry of critical comment. The general thrust of his argument can be seen as an application of his wider theory. Nationalism is not a timeless feature of human societies, but something that arose as a consequence of the dislocations of ‘modernity’. In these circumstances, rule by one’s co-culturals comes to seem the only legitimate form of government. Intellectuals and proletarians come together to self-identify as members of a particular historical ethnos, but it is the need of the society for some principle of homogeneity, not the pre-existing cultural traditions, that creates the distinctively modern phenomenon of nationalism. The book is full of arresting insights, drawn, as ever, from wonderfully disparate sources, but Gellner’s taste for emphatic assertion has laid him open to charges of rigid functionalism, as when he writes that nationalism ‘springs, inevitably, from the requirements of a modern economy’. Critics such as Anthony Smith (once Gellner’s student) have argued that this determinedly modernist account underplays the role both of actual historic continuities and of the emotions that make nationalism more than a set of bureaucratic edicts. Or as Anderson puts it: ‘Whereas Weber was so bewitched by the spell of nationalism that he was never able to theorise it, Gellner has theorised nationalism without detecting the spell.’

This connects to a recurring criticism that Hall permits himself, when he says (he puts it in different ways at different points): ‘Gellner’s account of the forces operative in the age of nationalism is essentially apolitical.’ One of the ways in which he can seem rather unWeberian is in his comparative neglect of, even lack of interest in, political agency. He talks up the role of contingency in abstract terms, but the unpredictable swerves of fortune and play of personality that make politics the embodiment of contingency seem to have left him cold. It may be of a piece with this that I came away from this long biography not knowing anything much about Gellner’s own politics in a party sense or the way he voted, if he did; Anderson, ruminating on Gellner’s uncharacteristically alarmist reaction to labour unrest and oil price rises in the 1970s speculated, ‘one imagines a Conservative vote in 1979,’ though he would have seemed a likely Labour supporter before that, especially during the Wilson ‘white heat of technology’ years. As with some others of his generation, an early anti-Communism seems to have mutated into an enthusiasm for ‘liberalisation’ that could appear to neglect or downplay the systemic injustices inherent in market capitalism.

Of the lesser controversies in which Gellner participated, the one that remains greenest in academic folk-memory is his spat with Edward Said in 1993. Gellner published a highly critical review of Culture and Imperialism in the TLS, disputing the role Said ascribed to imperialism in blocking the development of Muslim societies and challenging his enveloping condemnation of ‘Orientalist’ prejudices in two centuries of European scholarship on the Arab world. In his reply, Said largely ignored the main challenge, concentrating on what he regarded as the defects of Gellner’s own scholarship on Islam, pointedly emphasising that it was undertaken without knowledge of Arabic or Berber (this wasn’t true: Gellner had become proficient in Berber in the course of his fieldwork). The exchange went through another couple of rounds, marked by the usual increase in animosity and decline in relevant argument. Robert Irwin, in For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006), concludes that it was ‘one of the finest intellectual dogfights of recent decades’. I’m not so sure. Neither comes out of it all that well, with Gellner becoming increasingly mocking or flippant and Said seeming incapable of acknowledging his own mistakes.

Hall remarks of the exceptionally favourable reception of Conditions of Liberty, published the year before Gellner’s death, that ‘it was recognition … that he had become a public intellectual.’ I wonder. It was certainly recognition that he had become a major figure, one whose work, now much translated and reprinted, stood near the centre of several large issues in the understanding of modern societies. Yet Gellner’s direct participation in public debate, beyond academic circles, was patchy and comparatively slight. He stood aloof from contemporary politics, and did not court media exposure. Reversing Noël Coward’s dictum, he seems to have regarded television as a medium for watching rather than appearing on. And although he wrote prolifically for more than 30 years, a close examination of his complete bibliography reveals rather little writing clearly directed at a non-academic readership. The nearest he came to doing this with any regularity was as a contributor to the TLS. He did occasional pieces for the weeklies, plus a scattering of broadsheet reviews, but his preferred genre was the essay or conference paper which, by the standards of conventional professional practice, may have been informal and cross-disciplinary – full of ideas, wit and provocation, not necessarily overladen with references – but which was clearly directed at other scholars who were willing to engage with the large questions (often theoretical or comparative) that exercised him. He was the reverse of the narrow specialist, and he was a living reproach to parochialism, yet he was not, or not quite, what has come to be understood by the imported American label of ‘public intellectual’. His peers were figures such as, say, the anthropologist Jack Goody or the social theorist W.G. Runciman – theorists of great conceptual and empirical range, but not primarily contemporary political and cultural commentators – rather than media-friendly academics such as Hugh Trevor-Roper or A.J. Ayer.

The very enterprise of comparative historical sociology, magnificent though it is in its tireless attempt to find pattern and explanation across societies and millennia, is bound to take an aerial view, and perhaps that, too, helped distance Gellner from the preoccupations of his local culture. It is also noticeable that although he had fruitful intellectual relations with an exceptionally wide range of scholars in different disciplines, historians figure surprisingly little in this biography, and scholars of art and literature appear scarcely at all. In principle, a compensating level of detail might have been provided by anthropology, by the meticulous ethnography of a particular, often very small, social group, but for Gellner the chief function of such detail was to test hypotheses about social structure, kinship patterns, religious belief and ritual and other very large, meta-sociological categories. Perhaps for this reason, some of his most attractive writing is to be found in the form of occasional essays and reviews, where the potentially Procrustean demands of theory were often less in play.

This intellectual biography makes Gellner seem attractive and admirable in so many ways that I am slightly puzzled not to find myself more wholly in sympathy with the tenor of his work. In person, he appears to have been wry, witty, irreverent, loyal to friends; professionally, he was unmoved by disciplinary tribalism, bored by administration, endlessly supportive to graduate students; in public matters he was unyieldingly secular, sexually tolerant, instinctively liberal; intellectually he was restless, sceptical, constantly driven to enlarge the circle of understanding; he was the enemy of cant, uplift and pretentiousness, the critic of the simplifications of ‘identity’, the champion of the duties of intelligence; and in addition he was a stylish, amusing and productive writer. What’s not to like? Not a lot, actually: there is genuinely much to admire. Yet somewhere in the mix there were elements that make one pause – a streak of, if not exactly philistinism, then aesthetic mulishness; a marked intellectual impatience; a too quickly dismissive attitude towards radical social criticism; and, underlying everything else, that slightly relentless sociological reductivism. Methodologically, Gellner could seem like a curious mixture of Popper and Evans-Pritchard; in substantive historical content, he at times appeared to be an unholy combination of Karl Polanyi and C.P. Snow. The datedness of those names says something about his trajectory as well as about his affinities with a style of brisk Austro-English positivism in social science.

And yet that description is itself too brisk, and in particular underplays his stylishness and fleetness of foot. Anderson speaks of Gellner’s ‘insouciantly reconnoitred forays … travelling light over the most variegated terrain to unexpected theoretical effect’. That manner could, sometimes, be very winning (just as it could, at others, be merely irritating), and the variousness of the terrain is, without question, hugely impressive. But there was something about that imperious ‘theoretical’ intent, something about the way in which empirical detail was subjugated to conceptual forcefulness, that has clearly left other readers besides myself uneasy. I admire, as Hall clearly does, the intellectual honesty with which Gellner confronted his life and his world, but I wonder whether he did not at times succumb to the pathos of austerity, to the note of self-congratulation that can haunt the insistence on being unillusioned. Perhaps an element of existential drama, like the risk of explanatory high-handedness, comes with the territory if one aspires to be a comparative historical sociologist, the analyst of a disenchanted world. The vignette about watching television with his student may suggest an attractive lack of self-importance, but the student’s playful allusion to Weber may also suggest that Gellner did not lack a sense of the elevated company he was trying to keep during working hours.