A thinker lit by Hapsburg fires

Language and Solitude
January 22, 1999

Ernest Gellner first became intellectually notorious with the publication in 1959 of his memorably disrespectful study of Oxford linguistic philosophy Words and Things . This convinced few practitioners of the comprehensive error of their ways, but it was sufficiently flustering of their collective amour propre not merely to provoke a protracted correspondence in The Times , but also to prompt the-then editor Gilbert Ryle to refuse to review it in the leading British philosophical journal, Mind .

In his posthumous Language and Solitude , Gellner revisits the site of this first major fracas with no noticeable gain in social or intellectual deference. He also makes impressively clear just why he felt so strongly about and thought so contemptuously of his then-antagonists. In his kind and attractively filial preface, David Gellner notes illuminatingly at the outset that the resulting volume, with its emphatic and characteristically unconventional juxtaposition of academic genres, is almost autobiographical in flavour, both in sentiment and content: a portrait of the thinker across his lifetime, dramatising his continuing preoccupations and assurances and ascribing them compellingly to the lost milieu of his youth.

Reading it is very like listening to its author talking, and vividly evokes posture, intonation and even on occasions facial expressions. No one who enjoyed his company could fail to miss him more keenly for reading it, though it is certainly unlikely that any of the hecatombs whose intellectual lives are dismissed in the course of it will find their beliefs changing more briskly or comprehensively than their linguistic philosopher predecessors.

For such an emphatic and explicit writer, Gellner is a difficult thinker to pin down. His publishers describe him in their handout as "Europe's Great Social Philosopher", which perhaps captures something of the force that he wished his thought to carry but does little to clarify quite where he thought that force came from.

In the course of his career Gellner was employed to teach philosophy in a department of philosophy and (more protractedly and prominently) in a department of sociology. He held one of the major British chairs in social anthropology (and did fieldwork in Morocco, which remained important to him throughout the rest of his intellectual life). His final post was as head of a Centre for the Study of Nationalism, which he founded at the Central European University in his native Prague. He certainly knew a lot about all of these subjects and topics. But he could scarcely be accused of fetishising the terms of any of his university contracts. And it is not altogether natural to think of him as either a philosopher or an anthropologist (still less a sociologist).

What he definitely was, was an intellectual of very wide interests, the keenest curiosity about the social, cultural, political and economic world, great vitality, very considerable self-confidence and a quite remarkable degree of irritation with the inanities of others. His writing was abrupt, aphoristic, deliberately (and perhaps somewhat defiantly) approximate. He was almost always in a hurry (except when playing chess), with an impatience that was as much an intellectual attitude as a personal disposition.

Since any human community has an abundance of inanities and most departments in the social sciences or humanities cherish not a few, there was no danger of his running out of targets. But the dissipation of inanity is a sisyphean task and inherently dispersive of effort. What made Gellner a thinker of some importance, with a prospect of continuing to influence the ways in which we think after his death, was less the vigour of his rejections (entertaining though these often were) than the strength of his concern with the sources and practical implications of nationalism.

No one else attempting to place and explain the intellectual orientations of Wittgenstein and Malinowski (let alone to assess the enduring importance and wisdom of their conclusions) would be likely to do so through an account of just why nationalism is such a central political problem for our age, or why the conditions that made it so pressingly important for the denizens of the Hapsburg empire in its closing years also stylised the ultimate options for intellectual identification and strategic choice for them and their immediate successors in such a starkly and implausibly binary fashion.

As Steven Lukes notes in his thoughtful and affectionate foreword, it is far from clear in the end quite what Gellner thought he was doing in this particular book. This is partly a matter of method. (When Lukes describes Gellner's argument as proceeding from "exposition to exposure", it is easy to see what he means; but it must be said that the transition on the page is often amazingly rapid.) No doubt it is true, as David Gellner points out, that the book would have been less repetitive if his father had lived to revise the manuscript throughout and issue it himself. But it is not obvious to me that the book's intellectual architecture would have been much clearer as a result.

As intellectual history, Language and Solitude is very much a work of caricature, designed principally to convey to readers who have little or no direct acquaintance with their works the attitudes that Gellner thought it appropriate to adopt towards Wittgenstein and Malinowski. It is emphatically not an attempt to convey just what their writings are like, let alone why they themselves found their own premises, lines of thought or conclusions so compelling. In the case of Wittgenstein the choice between caricaturing his thinking and succumbing to it may be starker than in the case of many thinkers. But even with Malinowski (of whom he largely approved) Gellner's swashbuckling account conveys rather little of what the work itself was like.

What made Malinowski so much more acceptable to him than Wittgenstein was the depth of the former's interest in, understanding of and appreciation for culture, and the drastic insulation of this appreciation from any hint of political chauvinism. What made Wittgenstein so utterly unacceptable to Gellner was not merely the dismaying amplitude of his posthumous social success across academic disciplines, but his desertion of serious thought for a radical (and in Gellner's view utterly indiscriminate) prostration before culture, for the judgement that there is nothing cognitively beyond culture.

Whether this last is a deep philosophical truth or a shallow inanity is not as easy to see as Gellner pretends. But if the choice is to be expressed in these late-Hapsburg terms, I am certainly with Gellner against Wittgenstein. If there are any clear principles in the practice of education an indiscriminate embrace of culture is certainly a trahison des clercs . But I doubt if any serious historian of philosophy in a century's time (whatever they happen personally to feel about Wittgenstein) will think this a sufficient account of what happened in the course of his philosophical life.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Hapsburg Dilemma

Author - Ernest Gellner
ISBN - 0 521 63002 9 and 63997 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 209

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