A man outside: John A Hall's biography of Ernest Gellner

A timely monument to an unjustly overlooked figure of 20th-century intellectual life, writes Scott McLemee.

The communist takeover of Prague would form a pivotal point in Gellner's ideological development. He described himself as one of "a small minority who never passed through a Marxist phase".
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John A Hall's biography of Ernest Gellner offers a timely monument to an unjustly overlooked figure of 20th-century intellectual life, writes Scott McLemee Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography John A Hall Verso Dh167 It is easy to imagine why Ernest Gellner would be one of the universally known figures in Anglophone intellectual life. A polymath whose work ranged across anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology, his mind wrestled with an encyclopedia's worth of nagging questions about nationalism, modernity, civil society, imperialism, Islam, psychoanalysis, ethics and epistemology. "I am not a donkey," he liked to say, borrowing a line from Max Weber, "and I don't have a field."

He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber (let alone from Immanuel Kant, another of the master-thinkers defining the horizons of his work). By my count, roughly half of Gellner's almost two dozen books are collections of essays - a wry running commentary on half a century of public intellectual life following the Second World War: existentialism, structuralism, the thaws and re-freezings of the Soviet bloc, and the varieties of dissident enthusiasm in the West? These pieces revisit the themes and preoccupations of his monographic works, and retain their vitality, well after the original polemical targets have been forgotten.

All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner's monumental prominence - except for the fact that he has no such prominence. There are Foucauldians aplenty and Rortyans by the score - and even the occasional stray Marcusean, tending the flame. But of Gellnerians, there is scarcely a trace. Not that Gellner has been completely forgotten. His work remains central to debates on the nature of nationalism. But only with John Hall's intellectual biography do we have a suitable treatment of Gellner's work as a whole, seen on its own very large scale.

Even while Gellner, who died in 1995, was still alive, as the biographer puts it, "very few people knew what to make of him". That uncertainty was perhaps best expressed in the academic titles he held at the London School of Economics, where he was "professor of sociology with special reference to philosophy," and at Cambridge, where he held a professorship in social anthropology. Hall notes that Gellner "was sometimes cited as one of the last great thinkers from Central Europe whose Jewish background meant a direct experience of the 20th century's horrors". But there any resemblance to Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin ends. Even if one subsumes them all under some such heading as "liberal antitotalitarianism", Gellner stands apart for the harder sceptical edge of his thinking; and it seems he lacked Sir Isaiah's penchant for being endlessly clubbable.

His background made him an outlander's outlander: Gellner was born in Prague in 1925 to a precariously middle-class (but completely secularised) Jewish family; his parents supported President Masyryk, the architect of Czechoslovakian independence, even while preferring to identify with German culture. Ernest attended an English grammar school he later described as (in the biographer's paraphrase) "being taught by casually dressed and relaxed young men who had attended public schools and Oxbridge."

The family settled in England just after the Nazi occupation. His first return to Prague was in 1945, as a young soldier in the first Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade - carrying with him copies of Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon and Cyril Connolly's prose-poem An Unquiet Grave, among other titles. Gellner belonged, he later wrote, to "what sometimes felt like a small minority" of intellectuals "who never passed through a Marxist phase," and joked about supporting the movement founded by Jaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Svejk, which bore the tongue-in-cheek name The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law.

This meliorist strain in Gellner's outlook was accompanied by a combative vigour that only became evident later. But his anti-Communism never succumbed to the temptation (common enough at the height of the Cold War and revived, post-September 11, by enterprising pundits) of erecting metaphysical fantasias around some incipient Age of Totalitarianism. Gellner took his bearings from Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, which Hall calls "the book that influenced him more than any other." He was broadly in accord with Popper's contrast between closed systems (in which authority is not subject to substantial challenge) and open ones (where contestation is possible, even continuous); this may be seen as the vital distinction running through Gellner's own work on myriad topics, from the structure of Berber society to the folkways of psychoanalysts.

But his thinking was marked by a sense that these opposed modes did, after all, sometimes interpenetrate. The thought is already there in a remarkable letter to Popper that the biographer reproduces, written in 1946, when Gellner was 21: "I think that the desire for ordering facts in scientific systems has psychologically a similarity to the yearning for a 'closed' order. On the other hand, German Fascism, though amongst the masses it no doubt appealed to the 'closed society yearning', surely has as part of its philosophical inspiration, at any rate amongst some of its leaders, an intentional and systematic disregard for 'moral laws' which is, again, prima facia 'open.'"

This was not a matter of sneaking in relativism by the back door. Gellner returned repeatedly to the basic point that the development of scientific knowledge (the quintessential manifestation of "openness") had radically enhanced the capacity for rapid economic growth and improved quality of life. No gainsaying of this was possible. Among his final writings are withering dismissals of postmodernist bad faith around the notion that some cultures have magic and others have technology.

This is trivially true, but only at the cost of using the word "culture" to conjure up a factitious sort of equality - one that serves only to deny real differences in survival rates and per capita caloric intake. Nobody on the short end of that distinction can afford to indulge in such a pretence. The challenge is to get the benefits of industrial society with the least possible loss of the comforts of closure. By Gellner's account, nationalism, far from being an irrational manifestation of "the Dark Gods" of communal identity, emerges as an effort to enable modernisation while containing its strains. (Likewise, political Islam is in his reading potentially a variation of the same project, reflecting the desires of an urbanised intelligentsia rather than a spontaneous traditionalism.)

One begins to see why Gellner, despite his range of reference and his intellectual energy, did not become a guru throwing a long shadow after he was gone. For these are not ideas that project either a clash of civilisations or the vision of some peaceful global civil society. He was anti-ideological but not post-ideological; there is a strong presumption in his work that conflict, healthy and otherwise, is built into the circuits of modernity. "A genuine commitment to rationality," he wrote, "means that one must admit that it is poorly grounded, making it necessary to live without complacency."

Beyond the world-historical drama shaping the circumstances of his first 20 years, Gellner led a life largely free of incident, apart from the occasional public controversy in the Times Literary Supplement. His biographer has had access to his papers and interviewed many colleagues and members of Gellner's family, creating a portrait of someone far more genial in person than his writings might suggest. Critics who regard his work on nationalism as too detached from the phenomenon's emotional core will need to square that judgment with the revelation that Gellner was prone to singing old Czech folk songs with gusto and considerable schmaltz.

Hall devotes a few chapters to the painstaking reconstruction of Gellner's thinking on particular topics in philosophy and social theory. This is a necessary task given how little secondary literature there is trying to synthesise his work, though it often feels as if a set of monographs had been stitched onto the biographical frame, rather than integrated into it. But the cumulative effect is monumental - and a monument does seem overdue. Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.

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