Ernest Gellner

Czech anthropologist, philosopher and sociologist

Ernest André Gellner (9 December 19255 November 1995) was a philosopher and social anthropologist, cited as one of the world's "most vigorous intellectuals."

Philosophy is explicitness, generality, orientation and assessment. That of which one would insinuate, thereof one must speak.


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.
  • The way forward does not lie in amateur and comically timeless linguistic sociology which takes ‘forms of life’ for granted (and this is what philosophy has been recently), but in the systematic study of forms of life which does not take them for granted at all. It hardly matters whether such an inquiry is called philosophy or sociology.
    • The crisis in the humanities and in the mainstream of philosophy (1964), reprinted in The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974)
  • (J. L. Austin's) admirers claim that his supreme preoccupation was truth. His work, with its sad conjunction of extraordinary cunning in presentation with very thin content, leaves rather the impression of a man who had little sense of real problems but who liked winning arguments and dominating people in the course of them, and who was well equipped to gratify his taste. He was the supreme dialectical poker player, unsurpassed at making people believe that their bluff had been called when in fact they weren’t bluffing, and at stone-walling any attempt to call his own. It would be hypocritical not to say all this. Hypocrisy might not matter, but it would also be unfair to those students who are still conned into supposing that this kind of philosophizing has much in common with serious intellecual endeavour.
    • Poker Player (1969), reprinted in The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974)
  • People are even more reluctant to admit that man explains nothing, than they were to admit that God explains nothing.
    • Legitimation of Belief (1974), p. 99
  • 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 philosophy 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)
  • Wittgenstein's appeal lies in the fact that he provides a strange kind of vindication of romanticism, of conceptual Gemeinschaft, of custom-based concepts rather than statute-seeking Reform, and that he does so through a very general theory of meaning, rather than from the premisses habitually used for this purpose. Because there is no unique formal notation valid for all speech, each and every culture is vindicated. One never knew that could be done — and so quickly too! It is that above all which endows his philosophy with such a capacity to attract and to repel. His mystique of consensual custom denies that anything can sit in judgment of our concepts, that some may be more rational and others less so. So all of them are in order and have nothing to fear from philosophy, as indeed he insists. This is a fairly mild form of irrationalism, invoking no fierce dark Gods, merely a consensual community. It is the Soft Porn of Irrationalism.
    • Concepts and Community, in Relativism and the Social Sciences (1985)
  • 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 : The Structure of Human History (1988), Ch. 5 : Codification, p. 123
  • It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.
    • Nations and Nationalism (1983)
  • [I am a humble adherent of]...Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalism.
    • Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992)
  • Knowledge 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)
  • 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 Philosophy of Ernest Gellner

Words and Things (1959)Edit

  • A cleric who loses his faith abandons his calling; a philosopher who loses his redefines his subject.
  • Ideas, and even the detection of errors, require more than care and caution.
    • p. 94
  • The idea that some of the members of the smooth, bland variety of second generation of linguistic philosophers undergo ”perplexity”, let alone intellectual cramp, has an element of high comedy.
    • p. 138
  • Philosophy is explicitness, generality, orientation and assessment. That which one would insinuate, thereof one must speak.
    • p. 265

Thought and Change (1964)Edit

  • 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.
  • 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.

Contemporary Thought and Politics (1974)Edit

  • 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.
  • 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.

Nations and Nationalism (1983)Edit

  • In brief, nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires the ethnic boundaries should not be cut across political ones, and, in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state — a contingency already formally excluded by the principle in its general formulation — should not separate the power holders from the rest.
    • Chapter 1, Definitions, p. 1
  • Tribalism never prospers, for when it does, everyone will respect it as a true nationalism, and no-one will dare call it tribalism.
    • Chapter 6, Social Entropy And Equality, p. 87
  • Capital, like capitalism, seems an overrated category.
    • Chapter 7, A Typology Of Nationalism, p. 97
  • Obstruction of mobility, where it occurs, is one of the most serious and intractable problems of industrial society.
    • Chapter 8, The Future Of Nationalism, p. 114

Conditions of Liberty (1994)Edit

  • Civil Society is a cluster of institutions and associations strong enough 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 ...
  • 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.

Anthropology and Politics (1995)Edit

  • 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!
  • America was born modern; it did not have to achieve modernity, nor did it have modernity thrust upon it.

Quotes about GellnerEdit

  • Whereas Weber was so bewitched by the spell of nationalism that he was never able to theorize it, Gellner has theorized nationalism without detecting the spell.
    • Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement (1992), Ch. 9 : Max Weber and Ernest Gellner: Science, Politics, Enchantment
  • The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures.
    • Stephen Walt, My “top ten” books every student of International Relations should read (April 9, 2009); on Nations and Nationalism

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