A Man Outside: John A Hall’s Biography of Ernest Gellner

Bilde Scott McLemee in The National:

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.