It is easy to imagine why Ernest Gellner would be one of the universally known figures in Anglophone intellectual life. A polymath whose work ranged across anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology, his mind wrestled with an encyclopedia’s worth of nagging questions about nationalism, modernity, civil society, imperialism, Islam, psychoanalysis, ethics and epistemology. “I am not a donkey,” he liked to say, borrowing a line from Max Weber, “and I don’t have a field.” He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber (let alone from Immanuel Kant, another of the master-thinkers defining the horizons of his work). By my count, roughly half of Gellner’s almost two dozen books are collections of essays – a wry running commentary on half a century of public intellectual life following the Second World War: existentialism, structuralism, the thaws and re-freezings of the Soviet bloc, and the varieties of dissident enthusiasm in the West… These pieces revisit the themes and preoccupations of his monographic works, and retain their vitality, well after the original polemical targets have been forgotten. All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner’s monumental prominence – except for the fact that he has no such prominence. There are Foucauldians aplenty and Rortyans by the score – and even the occasional stray Marcusean, tending the flame. But of Gellnerians, there is scarcely a trace.
Count me as one of those barely visible Gellnerians, and Cosma Shalizi too1. I’ve often wondered about why Gellner doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I had a genuine moment of intellectual horror last year when I realized that two articles I had co-written got more cites on Google Scholar than Plough, Sword and Book, which has to be one of the great synthetic works of scholarship of the twentieth century. Not that I don’t like my articles fine. But they are not Plough, Sword and Book. My working theory is that Gellner has less influence precisely because his work is unclassifiable. Not only because (as the quote above illustrates) his range of interests was extraordinarily catholic, but because his theoretical ambition is hard to confine within the usual academic strictures. In email conversation, Scott describes him as the liberal thinker who is closest to Marx’s historical materialism, which serves as an indicator of his ambitions. He wanted to come up with a Theory of Everything, and while he didn’t succeed, he came up with a body of work which is nothing short of extraordinary.
I’m looking forward to reading the biography that Scott reviews. I recommend you read his review. I recommend even more strongly (if you have an interest in the social sciences) that you read as much of Gellner’s own work as you possibly can. It’s wonderful stuff.
[Post updated to remove banalities]
1We are currently writing a paper that could fairly be summarized as Gellner wedded to an explicitly evolutionary theory of institutional change. With network theory! And machine learning! And cognitive science! And handwaving! Lots of handwaving.