Ernest Gellner died in Prague, the city of his childhood, in 1995, leaving a colossal intellectual legacy: some twenty books, two of them posthumous; a mass of articles, scholarly or journalistic, many of them provocative and polemical; all displaying his distinctive, scintillating intelligence. Gellner’s range across topics and disciplines was remarkable and yet his thought displays considerable unity. Its foundations are most fully laid out in the second of the posthumous works, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma (1998). Reconstructed from manuscripts by his son David, this is a work of synthesis: the closest Gellner came to an intellectual autobiography. It brings together philosophy, anthropology, and an interpretation of the Central European context of his upbringing, by juxtaposing the ideas of his lifelong bête noire, Wittgenstein, with those of Malinowski, a figure whom Gellner greatly admired, and whose work helped inspire his own turn from philosophy to anthropology.
The ‘Habsburg Dilemma’, according to Gellner, evoking their contrasting responses, amounted to a confrontation between atomists and organicists that ‘meshes in with the alliances and hatreds of daily and political life’. The contrast was between what he called the ‘atomic–universalist–individualist vision’ and the ‘communal–cultural vision’. He portrayed Wittgenstein as trapped within this opposition, veering unwittingly from one pole to the other. His early logical atomism expressed ‘the solitude of the transcendental ego’ seeking an account of ‘what the world looks like to a solitary individual reflecting on the problem of how his mind, or language, can possibly “mean”, i.e. reflect, the world’. By contrast, his later philosophy transplanted ‘the populist idea of the authority of each distinctive culture to the problem of knowledge’, concluding that ‘mankind lives in cultural communities or, in [Wittgenstein’s] words, “forms of life”, which are self-sustaining, self-legitimating, logically and normatively final.’ Malinowski, on the other hand, escaped the tyranny of this dichotomy; he was able to combine radical empiricism with a penchant for ethnographic fieldwork, a scientific approach to anthropology with a ‘functionalist and romantic sense of the unity and interdependence of culture’. As for language, Malinowski allowed (though later mistakenly denied) that—though use-bound and context-linked—it properly strives in scientific and philosophical contexts to be context-free. And as for nationalism, he argued that the only hope was to ‘limit the political power of nations, but permit, indeed enhance and encourage, the perpetuation of all those local cultures within which men have found their fulfilment and their freedom’, thus ‘depriving boundaries of some of their importance and symbolic potency’.
These positions came to be Gellner’s own, as John Hall amply illustrates in this highly successful intellectual biography (although paradoxically Language and Solitude is one of the few works that Hall rather scants). Descended from secularized German-speaking Jews—his father had to learn Czech after the creation of the new Czechoslovak state—Gellner migrated to England in March 1939, at the age of thirteen. He went to school in St Albans and thence to Oxford, his degree interrupted by wartime service with the Czech Brigade besieging Dunkirk, and a brief, formative return to Prague under Soviet occupation. There followed a successful academic career, first briefly in Edinburgh, then for thirty-five years at the lse, then to Cambridge and finally back to Prague in 1993. Gellner claimed to have benefited from his early life experiences. In an interview with John Davis he remarked that ‘not having had a faith, I think I do understand . . . what Descartes and Hume and Kant were about, namely, the struggle to establish the foundations of knowledge’, and ‘[n]ever having been a member of a community but having been on the margins of a number gave me an understanding of . . . what the yearning for community is all about.’ And in a ‘Reply to Critics’ he recalled that from the Prague of his youth he had retained a memory of the difference between urban intellectuals and ‘ideal man as conceived by the populist romanticism which was dominant in literature, art, even politics and philosophy’, and that this had had considerable bearing on his decision to do fieldwork, and on his choice of location for the latter:
When I first saw Berber villages of the central Atlas, each building clinging to the next, the style wholly homogeneous, the totality crying out that this was a Gemeinschaft, I knew at once that I wanted desperately to know, as far as an outsider ever could, what it was like inside.
It is clear that his life experience led him, as Perry Anderson observed, to a far less intense and exalted view of national allegiance than that of Max Weber, another figure who loomed large in his intellectual firmament. What Gellner favoured was the limited, liberal nationalism of Masaryk’s Czechoslovak Republic, namely,
the acceptance of ‘forms of life,’ from styles of food, handshakes and wallpapers to political rituals or personal relationships—but an acceptance which no longer endows anything with an aura of the absolute, but is ironic, tentative, optional, and above all discontinuous with serious knowledge and real conviction. In this limited sphere of ‘culture,’ relativism is indeed valid. In the sphere of serious conviction, on the other hand, relativism is not an option open to us at all.
Here we see Gellner’s life-long commitment to an ‘ethics of cognition’ dedicated to ‘the notion of culture-transcending truth’, defended in his Legitimation of Belief (1974), according to which, as he wrote, ‘all ideas, data, inquirers are equal, cognitive claims have to compete and confront data on terms of equality and they are not allowed to construct circular, self-confirming visions’. If we want to acquire ‘powerful knowledge’ we must, in Hall’s words, ‘act on the assumption that the world is regulated by cold, orderly, impersonal laws’. This view of legitimate knowledge, centring on science and its applications, excluding cognitive hierarchies and authorities (influenced by another figure he admired, Karl Popper), was the basis for Gellner’s successive attacks across the years upon relativists, idealists, subjectivists, interpretivists, social constructionists, ethnomethodologists, postmodernists and other exponents of ‘local knowledge’, from Peter Winch to Clifford Geertz—inheritors all, he thought, of the errors of the later Wittgenstein, endorsers of locally prevailing commonsense. It also led him to be what Hall calls ‘the scourge of re-enchantment theorists’. But admirable as it may be, this defence does raise a huge problem, namely that of values, which, Gellner concedes at the end of Language and Solitude, are ‘instilled by contingent and variable cultures’. Are these not ‘part of the sphere of serious conviction’? Is there not a problem here for the ‘Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism’ that Gellner espoused in his Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992)? After all, the Enlightenment thinkers whom he held in high regard were universalists, one and all, about morals. And, as Hall remarks, ‘the world of relative standards’ was ‘a world utterly unacceptable to Gellner.’