Ernest Gellner

(1925—1995) social philosopher and anthropologist

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Although Gellner was born in Czechoslovakia, his family (who had Jewish origins) left immediately after the German occupation in 1939, and he spent most of his working life in England. Between 1949 and 1984 he taught sociology then philosophy at the London School of Economics, before moving to a professorship of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. In 1993 he returned to Prague to become full-time Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism at the Central European University.

His writings are enormously wide-ranging. His first book was a critique of linguistic philosophy (Words and Things, 1959), which he condemned as complacent, unimaginative, and parochial. In Thought and Change (1964) he proposed the controversial thesis that social orders are seen to be legitimate only when they meet the requirements of affluence and nationalism. (Gellner's later writings attempted to insert the idea of liberty into this otherwise harsh conception of modernity.) An ethnography of the North African Berber (Saints of the Atlas, 1969), critical studies of psychoanalysis (The Psychoanalytic Movement, 1985) and of Soviet ideology (State and Society in Soviet Thought, 1988), and many essays and books on nationalism, Muslim society, relativism, pluralism, and the methodology of the social sciences followed. Just before his death he completed volumes on nationalism (Nationalism Observed) and on Wittgenstein and Malinowski (Language and Solitude), although a study of the conditions for successful transitions from socialism to democracy remained unfinished.

This prolific output is difficult to characterize. One unifying thread is a defence of rationalism against relativism in the social sciences. Another is a long-standing interest in nationalism, of whose horrors Gellner was keenly aware, but whose influence on the development of citizenship he saw as decisive. His own influence on Anglo-Saxon sociology is evident in the publications of successive generations of British and American historical sociologists and social theorists whom he taught.

Subjects: Social Sciences — Philosophy.

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