Ernest Gellner

From New World Encyclopedia

Ernest André Gellner (December 9, 1925 – November 5, 1995) was a philosopher and social anthropologist, one of the most famous intellectuals of the twentieth century, known for his criticism of communism, linguistic philosophy, religion, and psychoanalysis. His views on nationalism, especially in its relationship to industrialized society, stirred much debate. Gellner was passionate in his attacks on idealism, and convinced that the emergence of dogmatic ideologies, such as communism, was an imminent threat to the future of human society. He advocated a return to the universalism of Enlightenment thinking, which he saw as empowering the rational faculties, allowing human beings to achieve their fullest potential and move toward a better future. His own account, however, was limited to the intellectual aspect, and did not sufficiently take into account the significant roles of faculties of emotion and will in the expression of true human nature and society.


"[Prague] is a stunningly beautiful town, and during the first period of my exile, which was during the war, I constantly used to dream about it, in the literal sense: it was a strong longing."

Ernest André Gellner was born in Paris, France, into the family of Anna Fantl and Rudolf Gellner, an urban, intellectual Jewish couple from the German-speaking region of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Ernest was raised in Prague and attended the English-language grammar school there. This was Kafka's tri-cultural Prague, "anti-Semitic but stunningly beautiful," a city he later spent years longing for (Davis 1991).

In 1939, when he was 13 years old, the rise of Hitler in Germany caused the Gellner family to leave central Europe and move to St. Albans, just north of London, England, where Ernest attended St. Albans county grammar school. At the age of 17, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE), specializing in philosophy.

He interrupted his studies after one year to serve with the Czech Armored Brigade, which took part in the siege of Dunkirk, France, and then returned to Prague to attend university there for half a term. It was during this period that Prague lost its stronghold over Gellner. Foreseeing the communist takeover, he decided to return to England. One of his recollections of the city in 1945 was a communist poster saying: "Everyone with a clean shield into the Party," meaning that those whose records were good during the occupation were welcome. But in reality, Gellner said, it meant the exact opposite:

If your shield is absolutely filthy we'll scrub it for you; you are safe with us; we like you the better because the filthier your record the more we have a hold on you. So all the bastards, all the distinctive authoritarian personalities, rapidly went into the Party, and it rapidly acquired this kind of character. So what was coming was totally clear to me, and it cured me of the emotional hold, which Prague had previously had over me. I could foresee that a Stalinoid dictatorship was due: it came in '48. The precise date I couldn't foresee, but that it was due to come was absolutely obvious for various reasons ... I wanted no part of it and got out as quickly as I could and forgot about it. (Davis 1991)

He returned to Balliol College in 1945 to finish his degree, winning the John Locke Prize and taking first class honors in 1947. That same year, he began his academic career at the University of Edinburgh as an assistant to John MacMurray in the Department of Moral Philosophy.

He moved to the London School of Economics in 1949, joining the sociology department under Morris Ginsberg. Ginsberg admired philosophy, and believed that philosophy and sociology were very close to each other.

He employed me because I was a philosopher. Even though he was technically a professor of sociology, he wouldn't employ his own students, so I benefited from this, and he assumed that anybody in philosophy would be an evolutionary Hobhousean like himself. It took him some time to discover that I wasn't. (Davis 1991)

Leonard T. Hobhouse was a journalist with The Guardian, and had been professor of sociology at the LSE just before Ginsberg. He had advanced the idea in Mind in Evolution (1901) that society should be regarded as an organism, a product of evolution, with the individual as its basic unit; the subtext being that society would improve over time as it evolved, a teleological view Gellner firmly opposed.

Gellner’s career took off in 1959 with the publishing of his book, Words and Things. He criticized the linguistic philosophy of J. L. Austin and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, objecting to them for failing to question their own methods. The book brought Gellner critical recognition.

He obtained his Ph.D. in 1961 with a thesis on Organization and the Role of a Berber Zawiya, and became professor of philosophy, logic, and scientific method just one year later. Thought and Change was published in 1965, and State and Society in Soviet Thought in 1978, in which Gellner examined whether Marxist regimes could be liberalized.

Gellner was elected to the British Academy in 1974. He moved to Cambridge in 1984 to head the Department of Anthropology, becoming a fellow of King's College, which provided him with a relaxed atmosphere where he enjoyed drinking beer and playing chess with the students. Described as "brilliant, forceful, irreverent, mischievous, sometimes perverse, with a biting wit and love of irony" (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), he was famously popular with his students, willing to spend many extra hours a day tutoring them, and was regarded as a superb public speaker and gifted teacher.

His Plough, Sword and Book (1988) investigated the philosophy of history, and Conditions of Liberty (1994) sought to explain the collapse of socialism.

In 1993 Gellner returned to Prague, now free of communism, to the new Central European University, where he became head of the Center for the Study of Nationalism, a program funded by George Soros, the American billionaire philanthropist, to study the rise of nationalism in the post-communist countries of eastern and central Europe.

On November 5, 1995, at Ruzyně International Airport in Prague, Gellner suffered a heart attack and died on his return from a conference, one month short of his 70th birthday. He was survived by his wife Susan, two daughters, and two sons.


As the professor of philosophy, logic, and scientific method at the London School of Economics (LSE) for 22 years, professor of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge for ten, and finally as head of the new Center for the Study of Nationalism in Prague, Gellner fought all his life—in his writing, his teaching, and through his political activism—against intellectual tyranny and closed systems of thought, particularly communism, psychoanalysis, linguistic philosophy, relativism, religion, and what he saw as the dictatorship of the free market.

Words and Things

Balliol College, Oxford

With the publication in 1959 of Words and Things, his first book, Gellner achieved fame and even notoriety among his fellow philosophers, as well as outside the discipline, for his fierce attack on "ordinary language" philosophy (or "linguistic philosophy," Gellner's preferred phrase). "Ordinary language" philosophy, in one form or another, was the dominant approach at "Oxbridge" at the time (although the philosophers themselves denied they were part of any unified school). He first encountered the strong ideological hold of linguistic philosophy while at Balliol:

[A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is. (Davis 1991)

Words and Things is fiercely critical of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, Antony Flew, Peter Strawson and many others, reflecting Gellner's passionate voice that ideas do not lead the world. Ryle refused to have the book reviewed in the philosophical journal Mind (of which he was editor), and Bertrand Russell (who had written an approving foreword) protested in a letter to The Times. The controversy was described by the writer Ved Mehta in Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters With British Intellectuals (1983).

Work in anthropology

It was in the 1960s that Gellner discovered his great love for social anthropology. Chris Hann, professor of anthropology and Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Kent, wrote that, following the hard-nosed empiricism of Bronislaw Malinowski, Gellner made major contributions to the subject over the next 40 years, ranging from

…conceptual critiques in the analysis of kinship to frameworks for understanding political order outside the state in tribal Morocco (Saints of the Atlas, 2001); from sympathetic exposition of the works of Soviet Marxist anthropologists to elegant syntheses of the Durkheimian and Weberian traditions in western social theory; and from grand elaboration of the structure of human history to path-breaking analyses of ethnicity and nationalism (Thought and Change, 1964; Nations and Nationalism, 1983). (Hann 1995)

Views on nationalism and modern society

For Gellner, "nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent." Nationalism only appeared and—Gellner argued—became a sociological necessity in the modern world. In previous times ("the agro-literate" stage of history), rulers had little incentive to impose cultural homogeneity on the ruled. But in modern society, work has become technical. One must operate a machine, and as such one must learn. There is a need for impersonal, context-free communication, and a high degree of cultural standardization. Gellner wrote:

This is indeed one of the most important general traits of a modern society: cultural homogeneity, the capacity for context-free communication, the standardization of expression and comprehension. (Gellner 1996)

Furthermore, Gellner argued, industrial society is underlined by the fact that there is perpetual growth—employment types vary and new skills must be learnt. Thus, generic employment training precedes specialized job training. On a territorial level, there is competition for the overlapping catchment areas. To maintain its grip on resources, and its survival and progress, the state and culture must be congruent. "It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round" (Gellner 1983). Nationalism, therefore, is a necessity.

When it came to the individual level, Gellner wrote:

In the twentieth century, the essence of man is not that he is a rational, or a political, or a sinful, or a thinking animal, but that he is an industrial animal. It is not his moral or intellectual or social or aesthetic ... attributes which make man what he is. His essence resides in his capacity to contribute to, and to profit from, industrial society. The emergence of industrial society is the prime concern of sociology. (Gellner 1978)

Criticisms of Gellner's theory

Gellner's theory has been criticized on several levels:

  • Critics charge that Gellner explained phenomena with reference to the eventual historical outcomes—industrial society could not "function" without nationalism.
  • It misreads the relationship between nationalism and industrialization.
  • It fails to account for nationalism in non-industrial societies, and resurgences of nationalism in post-industrial societies.
  • It cannot explain the passions generated by nationalism. Why should anyone fight and die for their country?

Yet, Gellner defended himself against his critics, claiming that his explanation of nationalism was based on his own heartfelt sentiments, and thus was a true understanding:

I am deeply sensitive to the spell of nationalism. I can play about thirty Bohemian folk songs…on my mouth-organ. My oldest friend, who is Czech and a patriot, cannot bear to hear me play them because he says I do it in such a schmaltzy way, "crying into the mouth organ." I do not think I could have written the book on nationalism which I did write, were I not capable of crying, with the help of a little alcohol, over folk songs, which happen to be my favorite form of music. (Hall & Jarvie 1996)


Ernest Gellner was a brilliant thinker and an outstanding social anthropologist. His sharp criticism of intellectual rigidity and dogmatic ideologies brought him enemies on many sides, but this did not deter him. He advocated for critical rationalism and the return to the universalism of the Enlightenment, at the same time warning of the rising danger of ideology.

He was a lonely crusader whose views on modern society and nationalism contributed to numerous debates on the role of ideology in modern society. Although he did not establish any particular school of thought of his own, he attracted several followers who continued his ideas.


  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1959. Words and Things, A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology. London: Gollancz; Boston: Beacon.
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1978 (original 1964). Thought and Change. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226286983
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 2001 (original 1969). Saints of the Atlas. ACLS History E-Book Project. ISBN 1597400459
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1974. Contemporary Thought and Politics. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710077432
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1974. The Devil in Modern Philosophy. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710078862
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1979. Legitimation of Belief. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521295874
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1980. Spectacles and Predicaments. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521224861
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1983. Muslim Society. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521274079
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801492637
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1987. Culture, Identity and Politics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521336678
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1987. Relativism and the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521337984
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1987. The Concept of Kinship and Other Essays on Anthropological Method and Explanation. Blackwell Pub. ISBN 0631152873
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1988. State and Society in Soviet Thought. Blackwell Pub. ISBN 0631157875
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1992. Plough, Sword and Book. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226287025
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1992. Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Routledge. ISBN 041508024X
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1996. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. Penguin. ISBN 0140236058
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 1996. "Reply to Critics" in The Social Philosophy of Ernest Gellner. Editions Rodopi. ISBN 9042000821
  • Gellner, Ernest A. 2003. The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. Blackwell Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0631234136

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, John. 1991. An interview with Ernest Gellner conducted at Oxford University for Current Anthropology 32, 63-65.
  • Davis, John. 1995. "In Memoriam" in The Guardian. November 7.
  • Hall, John A. 1998. The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521633664
  • Hann, Chris. 1995. "Ernest Gellner" in Independent, November 8th.
  • Mehta, Ved. 1983 (original 1963). Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters With British Intellectuals. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231056184
  • O'Leary, Brendan. 1995. Obituary. The Independent. November 8.
  • Stirling, Paul. 1995. "Obituary" in The Daily Telegraph. November 9.


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