An Excerpt from ‘Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography’

OB-JI496_Gellne_DV_20100722170456From John Hall's new book, in the WSJ:

When Ernest Gellner died in December 1995, the flags of the University of Cambridge, where he had taught from 1984 to 1992, were set at half mast. This reflected the status he had achieved in the last years of his life, as a public intellectual able to comment on a very wide range of issues. It did not mean, however, that his views had lost their bite. If Gellner's name had been made during the scandal surrounding his early attack on Oxford linguistic philosophy, his late essays – not least his attack on Isaiah Berlin as a 'Savile Row postmodernist' – were capable of causing just as much outrage. Still, many felt affection for Gellner, with whose voice they had become familiar, and to whom they often turned for guidance and insight. All the same, very few people knew what to make of him. He was hard to pin down. For two decades he had the curious title of Professor of Sociology with special reference to philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) – held, it should be noted, in two different departments: first Sociology, then Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method – before taking up the William Wyse Professorship of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He had separate reputations as scholar of Islam, theorist of nationalism, philosopher of history, and historian of ideas. He ended his career in Prague, the city in which he had grown up as a boy, though in his final years he was most interested in developments in Russia. His status as public intellectual rested on this background, that of a multilingual polymath, a modern philosophe. He was sometimes cited as one of the last great thinkers from Central Europe whose Jewish background meant a direct experience of the twentieth century's horrors.

It is possible to hint at what follows by noting the very particular way in which Gellner fits into this last category. The contours of his formative experiences are clear, and were pungently expressed by Gellner himself when discussing the work of Hannah Arendt. The rise of nationalist sentiment at the end of the nineteenth century created a dilemma for Jews, especially those who had experienced the Enlightenment and an end to anti-Jewish discrimination by the state. Gellner insisted that the return to cultural roots was always an illusion, a piece of pure romanticism he neatly illustrated by noting sardonically that 'it was the great ladies at the Budapest Opera who really went to town in peasant dresses, or dresses claimed to be such'. Illusion or no, the Jews felt the pull of belonging just as much as others did – perhaps even more. But the romantic call to belong affected the minority Jewish community and the demographic majority in two very different ways.