*  ESSAY *

Ernest Gellner and Modernity


Michael Lessnoff

University of Wales Press, 2002

With the permission of the author and publisher, the first chapter is on line in the Rathouse

Ernest Gellner was a great admirer of  Popper and named him as one of the two great intellectual influences in his career. As a true critical rationalist he was prepared to criticise Popper. He was possibly the first person to suggest  (falsely) that Popper was an unwitting harbinger of the deconstructionists on account of his theory of conjectural knowledge which held out no prospect for the strong justification of beliefs.

One of his last tasks before his unexpected death was to organise a conference on the theme "The Open Society and its Enemies After Fifty Years", with instructions to the speakers to be as critical as they could.

He was a great all-rounder and it is most fortunate that Michael Lessnoff was prepared to write a book that spanned the full range of Gellner's work.

Chapter One - Introduction.

When Ernest Gellner died unexpectedly, aged 69, in November of 1995, many obituary notices - some written by distinguished colleagues - gave expression to the intellectual community's sense of shock and loss. Stephen Lukes, for example, paying tribute to Gellner in the Guardian, called his work "powerful and often brilliant", while to Edward Mortimer, writing in the Financial Times, he was "a scholar in the classic mould", " an outstanding historian of ideas", and the author of at least one "dazzling polemic"  (this was a reference to Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, published in 1992) [1].  The same book had been described earlier in a review by a leading academic (Bryan Wilson, Fellow of All Souls) as a tour de force. Others of Gellner's books attracted equally enthusiastic verdicts from reviewers. Nations and Nationalism (perhaps his best-known book) was hailed as "a very great and exciting achievement" (in the Times Educational Supplement), as "brilliant" and "a great book" (according to the New Statesman), and as "incisive, penetrating and persuasive" (in the opinion of Carl Kaysen, writing in International Security). According to the reviewer of the Irish Times, Gellner's second book on the subject, published posthumously under the title Nationalism, was a "most perfectly written and perfectly thought-out jewel of a book", containing "more wisdom .. than one might discover in an entire library". As for his book on Freudianism, The Psychoanalytic Movement, this evoked a veritable chorus of praise from reviewers of very diverse views: the conservative Roger Scruton and the liberal Michael Ignatieff agreed in finding it "brilliant", while for the leading Marxist, Perry Anderson, writing in New Left Review, it represented "the most powerful attempt so far to situate Freud in the wider history of European ideas". The word "brilliant" again seemed appropriate (coupled with "lucid") to Kenneth Minogue, when describing the last book by Gellner to appear in his lifetime, Conditions of Liberty: while Brian Phillips, for the Literary Review, thought the same book (sub-titled "Civil Society and its Rivals") "head and shoulders above most studies of post-Communist European society". Phillips had praise for Gellner’s style as well as his substance, finding it "infections" and "exhilarating". Ben Rogers of the Independent on Sunday agreed that the book's style was "infectious" as well as "fresh and evocative": for Alan Ryan in the New York Times Book Review it was "witty" and "elegant", with "never a dull moment". As for what is arguably Gellner's most ambitious and most important work, Plough, Sword and Book (which gives his interpretation of history), that was hailed in the Washington Times as "a great achievement" and in the New Statesman as not only "philosophical anthropology on the grandest scale", but at the same time "a thrilling book .. incisive, iconoclastic, witty and expert" [2].                                                                                                                

Even allowing for the fact that obituary writers naturally tend to accentuate the positive while reviewers of books may sometimes be prone to exaggeration and over-simplification the accumulation of accolades cited above is sufficient to suggest that Ernest Gellner was a major intellectual figure. As a matter of fact this impression is correct, and the accolades are fully justified. Yet in spite of this Gellner's stature, paradoxically, has arguably not been adequately recognised in the wider intellectual and cultural world. His name is probably little known among the general public, even the general reading public: even in academic circles, his work seems to receive relatively little attention, and to feature on surprisingly few student reading-lists. There is one, slightly odd, exception to this generalisation, namely his work on nationalism, which is treated as essential reading for all students of the subject - odd, because it is by no means his best or most important work, and can in any case be fully understood only in the context of his work as a whole. By and large it is political scientists who seem to take Gellner most seriously (they also show some interest in his work on civil society) and this too is slightly odd, since Gellner, professionally speaking, was not a political scientist, but a philosopher and a sociologist, or social anthropologist. Those who profess these disciplines, however, seem to take little account of his work, or if they have done so it has taken the form of hostility - notoriously so, in the case of philosophy. As for sociology, Perry Anderson has written, in an article comparing Gellner and Max Weber, the great founding father of the discipline, that of all post-Weber sociological thinkers, not only was it Gellner who "remained closest to Weber's central intellectual problems”, he also addressed them with unsurpassed, indeed unequalled cogency [3].  This judgment is I believe perfectly correct: and it suggests that Gellner's work deserves far more attention from sociologists than it has received.

What explains this strange contrast between the accumulation of praise of Gellner by many of his peers and the relative neglect of his work by scholars in disciplines to which he has contributed? Why is he more admired than heeded? At least a couple of reasons can be suggested, one of which has to do with style. Gellner's writing style is elegant and lucid (which, surprising as it may seem, is not always a recommendation in academic quarters, where portentous obscurity tends to be highly prized): it is also witty, highly polemical, and given to mockery of his opponents (including those who indulge in portentous obscurity, but not only these). Stephen Lukes, in the obituary quoted above, accurately described Gellner as "a maverick and a gadfly ", and called his manner satirical and subversive. Such traits make enemies as well as friends, and Gellner made influential enemies, for as Lukes remarks, he loved to irritate "the guardians of prevailing orthodoxies". According to Lukes, professional philosophers by and large have tended to write Gellner off as "provocative and unserious". This was a profound mistake, for Gellner is a deeply serious writer, as well as a witty and irreverent one. It does the philosophers no credit if, as Lukes implies, they assumed that profundity and wit are mutually exclusive. Gellner proves that they are not.

Gellner studied philosophy at Oxford as part of his undergraduate degree courses, and philosophy was the subject of his first book, Words and Things, published in 1959 - a book which made him, after a fashion, famous. The story is a curious one, which has often been told. Gellner's book has a sub-title which (like many sub-titles) is more explicit than the title about the book's subject-matter: namely, "A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology" - it is, in other words, a critique of the dominant philosophical orthodoxy in the Oxford of that period, whose leaders were such men as J.L. Austin, Peter Strawson, and Gilbert Ryle. Ryle was also the editor of the leading journal of academic philosophy, Mind. In the normal course of events, Mind would have been expected to carry a review of Words and Things, very likely an unfavourable one. How much notice would have been taken of the book in that case is impossible to say, for that is not what happened. Mind carried no review of Words and Things, because Ryle as editor refused to countenance one, on the ostensible grounds that the book was an exercise in personal abuse rather than an argument. There the matter might have rested, had not Bertrand Russell, perhaps the greatest English-speaking philosopher of the 20th century, taken an interest in the matter. Russell had read Gellner’s book before publication, generally agreed with its position and argument, and contributed an approving Introduction. He now wrote a letter to the Times newspaper, denouncing Ryle’s editorial behaviour in the strongest terms - and thus touching off an extraordinarily heated and prolonged argument in the newspaper's correspondence columns, which went on for almost three weeks. Among the many distinguished letter-writers were some leading philosophers, including Ryle himself. (Ryle's letter complained, inter alia, that Gellner, in his offending book, applied to his opponents' arguments such words as "camouflage", "evasion", "pretence", "insinuation" and even "trick"). After the correspondence had ceased, the Times saw fit to give its own opinion in an editorial, and other organs of the British press chose to follow suit [4].  Gellner's name was made - as was his reputation as an enfant terrible, a reputation he never lost nor ever wished to lose (though much later one commentator was to suggest that he had matured into a doyen terrible). As for the merits of the argument that raged over Words and Things, there is no denying that the book's tone is disrespectful and perhaps impolite, but that is hardly the point - the point is whether it contains a serious substantive case, which deserves consideration and possibly rebuttal. Russell certainly thought so - and Chapter Six of the present book can help readers to form their own judgment. As will be explained in greater detail in that chapter, Gellner’ s critique of linguistic philosophy in Words and Things was not only philosophical but also political and, in a sense, sociological, in that he saw its apotheosis of  “ordinary language” as a licence for a complacent conservatism and belletristic triviality all too congenial to the Oxford mind-set of that period. Perhaps it is not too surprising if this offended Ryle and his colleagues: whether Ryle’s reaction was justified is another matter. One may very well doubt whether Ryle's reaction as editor of Mind would have been the same, had some other philosophical school been the object of Gellner's disrespect. Gellner himself certainly showed no remorse for his performance, rather the reverse - when Words and Things was reissued in 1979 it was now sub-titled, even more explicitly and pointedly than before,"An Examination of, and an Attack on, Linguistic Philosophy". Gellner was not a man to shun polemic.

Although the furore over Words and Things brought Gellner a sort of fame, making many more people aware of him than would otherwise have been the case, it doubtless fixed in some minds the image of Gellner as a rather superficial polemicist who need not be taken too seriously. That is one probable reason for the failure of his contemporaries to engage with his work to a degree commensurate with its importance, as already mentioned. But there is also another probable reason for this: in an age of specialists, Gellner was a polymath who refused to confine himself within the boundaries of any specialism. So wide is the range of his thought that few of his peers were or are competent to judge it, or even discuss it, as a whole. It does not fit neatly into any one academic discipline, and thus risks being neglected by all. The unusual breadth of his intellectual interests should, in fact, already be apparent, for reference has been made above to major works from Gellner's pen in the areas of philosophy (Words and Things), historical sociology (Plough, Sword and Book), political science (Nations and Nationalism, Conditions of Liberty) and psychology (The Psychoanalytic Movement). But this list is by no means complete, for it omits one of the most important of Gellner's interests, namely Islam, which he studied not only from a theoretical perspective (as for example in his book Muslim Society) but also by means of empirical anthropological research (Saints of the Atlas reports the findings of ethnographic fieldwork carried out among the Berber tribesmen of Morocco). Nor should it be thought that Gellner’s philosophical contribution was confined to the negative critique contained in Words and Things: a later book, The Legitimation of Belief (published in 1974) outlines Gellner's epistemology, and includes a sophisticated and original defence of empiricism. In keeping with the diversity of his intellectual interests, Gellner's curriculum vitae was an unusual one. When he wrote the book that so irritated the Oxford philosophical establishment, Words and Things, he was, professionally speaking, a sociologist, for he was then a member of the Department of Sociology of the London School of Economics. In 1962 he became Professor of Sociology at the LSE - or rather to give him his full title, Professor of Sociology "with Special Reference to Philosophy". In 1979 a move to the LSE's Philosophy Department made him straightforwardly Professor of Philosophy; but in 1984 he moved again, this time to Cambridge, as Professor of Social Anthropology. The unusual alternation and intertwining of sociology, social anthropology and philosophy in Gellner's CV is entirely appropriate, for a similar combination is a marked characteristic of his work, and gives it an altogether unusual breadth and strength (but may also be the source of a problem, as will be explained below). Gellner has been interested above all in the relation, and interaction, between ideas and social structure, and how the two are implicated in historical change. As a sociologist he shows an unusually sophisticated grasp of abstract ideas and is able to do justice to their social significance; as a philosopher he benefits, similarly, from an unusual awareness and understanding of the social context and implications of ideas. As a matter of fact, not only do his various books contribute to a variety of different fields (as indicated above), even the individual books often cannot be unambiguously assigned to one field or another. Words and Things, for example, although mainly a philosophical work, contains also a sociological analysis of Oxford philosophy and Oxford philosophers (treating the philosophers as a kind of tribe - a tactic both serious and satirical, and no doubt one reason for the anger the book provoked): and the main reason for Gellner's critique is that, besides being philosophically erroneous, linguistic philosophy had, in his view, social and political implications that he deplored. One of his last books, which is which is also one of his best - Postmodernism, Reason and Religion - is really unclassifiable, for brief as it is it ranges over philosophy, sociology, politics, and the history of ideas. Perhaps the best way to classify it, however, is none of these, but rather as a tract for the times. Before the end of his life, Gellner the enfant terrible (or doyen terrible) had become also something of a sage and a prophet - a prophet of, and for, modernity.

The encyclopaedic range of Gellner's interests owes much, no doubt, to the unusually cosmopolitan nature of his biography and background, which inter alia made him at home in several European languages. Gellner was born in 1925, in Paris, to Czech Jewish parents (his father happened to be researching on the French political theorist Joseph de Maistre at the time). He grew up in Prague, capital of the newly founded Republic of Czechoslovakia, but was educated at Prague's English grammar school - already he was heir to at least three traditions, English, Czech, and German-Jewish [5].  By the time Gellner was 13 years old, in 1939, it was high time for the Gellner family - like many another family of Central European Jews - to flee the from the menacing power of Adolf Hitler. The Gellner family emigrated to Britain, where Ernest attended the St. Alban’s County Grammar School for a period. He later saw some years of service in the war against Hitler's armies, before becoming, after the cessation of hostilities, a student at Oxford University. Gellner undoubtedly was strongly influenced by the British intellectual tradition, but he harnessed its resources to the concerns of a mind shaped, in the first instance, by the historical experiences of Continental and more especially Central Europe. After his retirement from British academic life in 1992, he in a measure returned to these roots, becoming director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism in the new Central European University in Prague and addressing himself with his characteristic incisiveness to the dramatic events unfolding in the former Soviet Union and East and Central Europe (in which he had already travelled widely, and taken a keen interest).

Despite the wide range of his interests and of his writing, Gellner's scholarly work has an unmistakable unity, though perhaps the nature of his unifying project did not become fully apparent until he published Plough, Sword and Book in 1988. That project is the analysis, and defence, of modernity (the defence, be it noted, is a defence overall and on balance - Gellner is fully aware of the items to be entered on the debit side of modernity's ledger). Plough, Sword and Book (sub-titled "The Structure of Human History") is the key text: putting its theme into a nutshell, it is an attempt to trace how modern society came into existence ("modern society" being characterised by Gellner as a form society based on economic and cognitive growth - or in other words, on industrialism and science). Gellner's work on nationalism and on Islam seeks to relate each to modernity - the former is, in his view, an integral if not inescapable part of it, while the latter is, among all the traditional religions, in Gellner's view, the one most congruent with the prerequisites of modern society and therefore most likely to survive within it. Gellner's most polemical works - on linguistic philosophy in Words and Things, and on Freudian psychology in The Psychoanalytic Movement - can be seen, with hindsight, as attacks on what he saw as betrayals of modernity, especially of what might be called (in Popper's words) its ethos of critical rationalism. Legitimation of Belief offers a philosophical defence of scientific empiricism and materialism – the cognitive basis of modernity. The historical development of this cognitive style is illuminatingly traced by Gellner in a later book, Reason and Culture, which characteristically attends both to the great Enlightenment philosophers (Descartes, Hume and Kant) and to the great sociologists of rationality (Durkheim and Weber). In part, Gellner's interest in modernity was an analytic one, but it was by no means purely analytic: he was one of the most passionate and cogent champions of its key elements - of scientific rationality, the liberal polity, the industrial economy, and even of that modern bogey, consumerism. Modernity needs such a champion, and Gellner's voice makes a refreshing contrast to the anti-rationalist, anti-modern tone that pervades so much contemporary literature, not only in the general culture of our time but also more narrowly within the academic community, recently much influenced by the fashionable intellectual movement called "post- modernism" (really a form of anti-modernism).

Yet Gellner's chosen dual role, as analyst and defender of modernity, gives rise to a tension – a tension which could equally well be attributed to another Gellnerian duality, that of philosopher and sociologist. The problem is the problem of truth, and of relativism. As sociologist, or analyst of modernity., Gellner is acutely aware of how unusual historically is its cognitive style (scientific rationalism), and how dependent, for its very existence, on sociological contingency. There is a certain bias towards cognitive relativism inherent in this sociological awareness of Gellner's, perhaps in sociology as such. On the other hand, Gellner the philosopher (and Gellner the human being) is concerned with truth, and cannot rest content with a relativist view. As defender of modernity, Gellner seems logically committed to absolute standards of truth and morality. There is a problem here which Gellner did not find easy to resolve, and which will be examined further in a later chapter. 

Another chapter later in this book (Chapter Four) will examine in some detail the aspect of Gellner’s thought most obviously relevant to the series of which the book forms part - Gellner’s political philosophy (and his views on political philosophy). It may however be useful to indicate briefly in advance where he stood politically, including his reactions to the contemporary political history that provided a backdrop to his thinking (for Gellner was always sensitive to that context - he was far from being an ivory tower academic). As is doubtless evident by now, Gellner was no conservative - the strong irreverent streak manifest in his assault on Oxford philosophy made that impossible. Conservatism was indeed the target of Words and Things. Later, however, he found other political targets, for he had just as little sympathy with the revolutionary, ideologically driven and sometimes violent radicalism that became such a powerful force in both Europe and the USA, especially in the universities, in the 1960s, and whose most dramatic manifestation was the insurrectionary “events” of 1968 that for a moment seemed to threaten the overthrow of the Fifth French Republic. In Britain the main hotbed of 1960s student radicalism was the London School of Economics, at that time Gellner’s own University. He was not impressed by the romantic brand of Marxism invoked by the movement’s leaders - Gellner’s sceptical irreverence extended to all orthodoxies, of the left as well as the right. Politically he was in fact a liberal, a man of the centre, or rather the centre-left, and much concerned with threats to the liberal-democratic political order. In the1960s and 1970s these threats were perceived to come not only from revolutionary students but also from a revolutionary “left” wing within the Trade Union movement, which was probably stronger in the UK than anywhere else - the most striking demonstration of its power was probably the miners’ strike in Britain that drove the government of Edward Heath from office in 1974. In the 1960s and 1970s, therefore, the threat to the liberal order that Gellner cherished appeared to come largely from the revolutionary left, and indeed seemed to many to have succeeded in plunging that order into crisis. Nobody at that time foresaw the sudden collapse of the USSR and of the Marxist-Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe, which has by now so totally transformed that earlier situation. Nevertheless both the earlier and the later situations (both the apparent crises and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy) should be borne in mind as relevant contexts of Gellner’s thought.

1. Obituaries by Steven Lukes in the Guardian, 7th November 1995, and by Edward Mortimer in the Financial Times, same date.
2.   The quotations are cited from the following editions of Gellner’s books:
Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge, 1992);
Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997 reprint);
Nationalism (London: Phoenix pb edition, 1998);
The Psychoanalytic Movement (London: Fontana Press, 2nd ed., 1993);
Conditions of Liberty (Penguin Books: London, 1996);
Plough, Sword and Book (University of Chicago Press, pb edition, 1990).
3.  Perry Anderson, “Science, politics, enchantment” in John A. Hall and Ian Jarvie (eds.), The Social Philosophy of Ernest Gellner (Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), pp. 418-19.
4.  An account of the controversy can be found in Ved Mehta’s book, Fly and the Fly-Bottle (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963). Ryle’s letter is reported on pp.15-16. The reliability of Mehta’s version of events has been questioned.
5.  Gellner’s parents were assimilated German-speaking Jews. Gellner conversed with them in German, but spoke Czech with his friends and contemporaries. I owe this information to a personal communication from David Gellner.

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