Ernest Gellner

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"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 . . . " — Professor Ernest Gellner

Ernest Gellner (December 9 1925 - November 5 1995) was a philosopher and social anthropologist, one of the world's most eminent academics, whose work famously prompted a leader and month-long correspondence on the letters page of The Times of London. The Independent called him a "one-man crusade for critical rationalism, defending enlightenment universalism against the rising tides of idealism and relativism," (November 8, 1995).

As the Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics (LSE) for 35 years, the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge for ten, and finally as head of the new Centre for the Study of Nationalism in Prague, Gellner fought all his life — in his writing, his teaching, and through his political activism — against the tyranny of ideology and closed systems of thought, particularly communism, psychoanalysis, linguistic philosophy, relativism, and what he saw as the dictatorship of the free market.

The sociologist David Glass once said that he wasn't sure whether the next revolution would come from the right or from the left; but he was quite sure that, wherever it came from, the first person to be shot would be Ernest Gellner. [1] (



Born in Paris to an urban intellectual Jewish family from the German-speaking region of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, Gellner was brought up in Prague and attended the English-language grammar school there. This was Kafka's tricultural Prague, he told John Davis of Oxford University: anti-Semitic but stunningly beautiful, a city he later spent years longing for. [2] ( In 1939, when he was 13 years old, the rise of Hitler in Germany persuaded his family to leave central Europe and move to St. Albans, just north of London, England. At the age of 17, Gellner won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford as a result of what he called "Portuguese colonial policy", which involved "[keeping] the natives peaceful by getting able ones from below into Balliol." [3] (

At Oxford, he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), specializing in philosophy. He interrupted his studies for one year to serve with the Czech Armored Brigade, which took part in the siege of Dunkirk, then returned to England in 1945 to finish his degree, winning the John Locke prize and taking first class honours in 1947. That same year, he began his academic career at the University of Edinburgh as an assistant to Professor John MacMurray in the Department of Moral Philosophy.

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"[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."

It was during this period that Prague lost its strong hold over him. 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 exactly the 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. Above all, in '45 the Czechs expelled 3,000,000 Germans with considerable brutality. I think the estimate of the number of killed in the process was 200,000 though I don't know how reliable that is. And at the same time everyone was scared stiff of the Germans and remembered Munich, so they handed themselves bound and helpless to Stalin as the only protection against the German revanchism which they confidently expected at the time. They don't expect it now, interestingly enough; but they did then. All this occurred in conjunction with the quite skilful communist exploitation of the situation. And I wanted no part of it and got out as quickly as I could and forgot about it." [4] (

London School of Economics

He moved to the LSE in 1949, joining the sociology deparment under Morris Ginsberg. [5] ( Ginsberg "greatly admired philosophy," Gellner told John Davis, 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." [6] ( T.L. (Leonard) Hobhouse (1864-1929) was a Polish philosopher and Guardian journalist who was Martin White Professor of Sociology at the LSE just before Ginsberg, and who 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.

Ginsberg . . . was totally unoriginal and lacked any sharpness. He simply reproduced the kind of evolutionary rationalistic vision which had already been formulated by Hobhouse and which incidentally was a kind of extrapolation of his own personal life: starting in Poland and ending up as a fairly influential professor at LSE. He evolved, he had an idea of a great chain of being where the lowest form of life was the drunk, Polish, anti-Semitic peasant and the next stage was the Polish gentry, a bit better, or the Staedtl, better still. And then he came to England, first to University College under Dawes Hicks, who was quite rational (not all that rational - he still had some anti-Semitic prejudices, it seems) and finally ended up at LSE with Hobhouse, who was so rational that rationality came out of his ears. And so Ginsberg extrapolated this, and on his view the whole of humanity moved to ever greater rationality, from drunk Polish peasant to T.L. Hobhouse and a Hampstead garden.

Gellner obtained his Ph.D. in 1961 with a thesis on "Organization and the Role of a Berber Zawiya", and become Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method just one year later. He moved to Cambridge in 1984, becoming a fellow of King's College, which provided him with an atmosphere that was collegiate but relaxed, and where he enjoyed drinking beer and playing chess with the students. In 1993, he returned to his native Prague, free of communism, and 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. [7] ( He was elected to the British Academy in 1974.

Words and Things

Gellner first encountered the strong hold of linguistic philosophy while at Balliol.
Gellner first encountered the strong hold of linguistic philosophy while at Balliol.

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 linguistic philosophy as practised at Oxbridge at the time. 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. [8] (

The move to anthropology

It was in the 60s that Gellner discovered his great love of social anthropology. Chris Hann, Professor of Anthropology and Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Kent, writes 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, 1969); 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), {The Independent, 8 November 1995)


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 argues, 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 becomes 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 standardisation.

Furthermore, 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 specialised job training. On a territorial level, there is competition for the overlapping catchment areas (e.g. Alsace-Lorraine). To maintain its grip on resources, and its survival and progress, the state and culture must for these reasons be congruent. Nationalism therefore is a necessity.

Criticisms of Gellner's theory:

  • It is too functionalist. Critics charge that Gellner explains the phenomenon with reference to the eventual historical outcome - industrial society could not 'function' without nationalism.
  • It misreads the relationship between nationalism and industrialisation.
  • It fails to account for nationalism in non-industrial society 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?

Quotes from Gellner

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  • "Just as every girl should have a husband, preferably her own, so every culture must have its state, preferably its own," (The Coming of Nationalism and Its Interpretation: The Myths of Nation and Class in Mapping the Nation)
  • "Dr J. O. Wisdom once observed to me that he knew people who thought there was no philsophy after Hegel, and others who thought there was none before Wittgenstein; and he saw no reason for excluding the possibility that both were right," (Spectacles & Predicaments, 1979)
  • "[K]nowledge which . . . transcends the bounds, the prejudices and prejudgements of any one society and culture is not an illusion but, on the contrary, a glorious and luminous reality. Just how it was achieved remains subject to debate," {Reason and Culture, 1992)
  • "Civil Society is a cluster of institutions and associations strong enought to prevent tyranny, but which are, none the less, entered and left freely, rather than imposed by birth or sustained by awesome ritual. You can join the Labour Party without slaughtering a sheep . . ." (Conditions of Liberty, 1994)
  • "When knowledge is the slave of social considerations, it defines a special class; when it serves its own ends only, it no longer does so. There is of course a profound logic in this paradox: genuine knowledge is egalitarian in that it allows no privileged source, testers, messengers of Truth. It tolerates no privileged and circumscribed data. The autonomy of knowledge is a leveller," ('Plough, Sword and Book, 1988)
  • "It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round," ('Nations and Nationalism, 1983)
  • "I do not recommend any legislative action against hermeneutics. I am a liberal person opposed to all unnecessary state limitation of individual liberties. Hermeneutics between consenting adults should not, in my view, be the object of any statutory restrictions. I know, only too well, what it would entail. Hermeneutic speakeasies would spring up all over the place, smuggled Thick Descriptions would be brought in by the lorry-load from Canada by the Mafia, blood and thick meaning would clot in the gutter as rival gangs of semiotic bootleggers slugged it out in a series of bloody shoot-outs and ambushes. Addicts would be subject to blackmail. Consumption of deep meanings and its attendant psychic consequences would in no way diminsh, but the criminal world would benefit, and the whole fabric of civil society would be put under severe strain. Never!" (Anthropology and Politics, 1995)
  • "It is this which explains nationalism: the principle — so strange and eccentric in the age of agrarian cultural diversity and the 'ethnic' division of labour — that homogeneity of culture is the political bond, that mastery of (and, one should add, acceptability in) a given high culture . . . is the precondition of political, economic and social citizenship," (Nationalism, 1997)
  • "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 schmalzy 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 favourite form of music," ("Reply to Critics" in The Social Philsophy of Ernest Gellner)
  • "The new perspective also manifested itself in other ways: the shift of attention to sociologists such as Max Weber who were primarily concerned, not with overall 'development', but with the one specific development, that of modern society; the tendency to be concerned with those aspects of Marxism relevant to this one transition, and to ignore its Evolutionist aspects; and, recently and most characteristically, the concern with the notion of industrial society, and its antithesis, to the detriment of other classifications, oppositions and alternatives," (Thought and Change, 1964)
  • "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 industiral society is the prime concern of sociology," (Thought and Change, 1964)
  • "America was born modern; it did not have to achieve modernity, nor did it have modernity thrust upon it," (Anthroppology and Politics, 1995)
  • "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," (Conditions of Liberty 1996)
  • "The model that can be drawn up, of a plural society in which the multiplicity of forces and institutions prevent any one of their number dominating the rest, and which function on the basis of a broad and non-doctrinaire consensus - this picture does not warm the blood like wine. To appreciate and savour its appeal, one needs a rather sophisticated taste, perhaps," (Contemporary Thought and Politics, 1974)
  • "Looking at the contemporary world, two things are obvious: democracy is doing rather badly, and democracy is doing very well. New states are born free, yet everywhere they are in chains. Democracy is doing very badly in that democratic institutions have fallen by the wayside in very many of the newly independent 'transitional' societies, and they are precarious elsewhere. Democracy, on the other hand, is doing extremely well in so far as it is almost (though not quite) universally accepted as a valid norm," (Contemporary Thought and Politics, 1974)


  • An interview with Ernest Gellner ( conducted by John Davis of Oxford University for Current Anthropology (Vol 32, No. I, Feb. 1991 pp.63-65).

Books by Gellner

  • (1959), Words and Things, A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology, London: Gollancz; Boston: Beacon. Also see correspondence in The Times, 10 November to 23 November 1959.
  • Thought and Change
  • Saints of the Atlas
  • Contemporary Thought and Politics
  • The Devil in Modern Philosophy
  • Legitimation of Belief
  • Spectacles and Predicaments
  • Muslim Society
  • Nations and Nationalism
  • The Concept of Kinship and Other Essays
  • Relativism and the Social Sciences
  • The Psychoanalytic Movement
  • Culture, Identity and Politics
  • State and Society in Soviet Thought
  • Plough, Sword and Book 1988de:Ernest Gellner

es:Ernest Gellner fr:Ernest_Gellner pt:Ernest Gellner


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