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The Free-Floater

Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography
By John A. Hall
(Verso, 400 pp., $49.95)

John A. Hall concludes his account of Ernest Gellner by observing that his outlook on the world was austere. “But therein lies its attraction,” he goes on. “Not much real comfort for our woes is on offer; the consolations peddled in the market are indeed worthless. What Gellner offered was something more mature and demanding: cold intellectual honesty.” Brief personal impressions are rarely conclusive, especially when recalled after many years; but that Gellner was an exceptionally honest thinker is beyond reasonable doubt. On the occasions when I encountered him in the 1980s, coldness of any kind did not seem to me to be among Gellner’s attributes. Making some display of his celebrated Czech wit, he seemed not only pleased at my positive response—“You laugh at my jokes!” he once exclaimed—but also somehow relieved. It was as if he expected to be rebuffed, though there was no reason why he should have expected such a response from me. This was some years before I published a short book on Isaiah Berlin, which Gellner reviewed not once but twice—each of the reviews charged with intense hostility, not so much toward the book as to its subject. The reviews were taken from a longer manuscript, Hall now writes, which Gellner had been working on for some time. By then, he viewed me through the lens of his loathing of Berlin—a perspective that did not prevent him from sending me a friendly postcard from Prague. It was hard to resist the suspicion that his delight at not being rebuffed expressed an anxiety that reached a long way back in his life.

Growing up in a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, where he lived until he and his family left for England in 1939, when he was thirteen, Gellner seems never to have attached much importance to his Jewish inheritance. His strongest cultural allegiances were Czech: at the re-opening of the Café Slavia—“next to the Národní Divadlo, both of them sacred sites of Czech nationalism”—he burst into a Czech patriotic song, to the baffled amusement of its stolid clientele. Unlike Berlin, whom he nastily described as a “Court Jew” who always went to a synagogue when visiting a city, Gellner seems to have regarded his Jewish identity as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an inheritance to be cherished. As Hall puts it, Gellner “made no great show of his Jewish ethnicity” and “wished to be accepted as ‘normal,’ that is, without reference to a background which he did not deny but which he did not especially wish to be seen as relevant to his views or his opportunities in life.” He refused to be “caged within a Jewish identity,” so that “insofar as a Jewish identity was present, it was imposed from outside.”

Hall sees this attitude as a virtue—a mark of what he praises as “Gellner’s uniqueness.” “The distinctiveness of Gellner,” he writes, “is that he was brave enough to do without any complete and guaranteed identity ... because every belonging had become questionable to him.” One may wonder, of course, whether the only alternative to denying one’s identity is to romanticize it. Why not accept it and cherish it? Unhappily, Gellner seems to have viewed the absence of identity as a kind of achievement.

If he viewed his Jewish identity as a form of confinement, Gellner was just as resistant to becoming English. He “wished, at least sometimes and in a part of his character, to ‘get in,’ to be accepted within British society,” but he “did not give uncritical endorsement to the culture which he sought to join.” He mocked the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, a colleague at the London School of Economics, for his reverence toward tradition, which Gellner dismissed as little more than “bullshit, servility, vested interest, arbitrariness, empty ritual.” (In conversation Oakeshott was equally dismissive of Gellner.) For the same reason, Gellner despised Wittgenstein’s later focus on “forms of life”—practices that cannot be the subject of criticism because they already shape the way we think.

Gellner also abhorred the reverence for “ordinary language” that prevailed in the linguistic philosophy that was practiced for some time in Oxford. In his widely read Words and Things, which appeared in 1959, he maintained that philosophy does more than dispel pseudo-problems created by linguistic confusion. Philosophical questions cannot be dissolved in this way, since the language we use in everyday dealings is shot through with metaphysical claims. It was a strong point; but what Gellner most resented in the linguistic school was not that it had given up philosophical inquiry as it had been practiced in the past. What offended him was the importance that linguistic philosophers attached to ordinary language, which gave local conventions a kind of prescriptive authority that in his view they should never possess. The effect could be only to privilege members and insiders, while dismissing any kind of radical criticism as an unfortunate misunderstanding.


Gellner cherished the role of outsider, which is not to say he was content in it. One of the reasons he loathed Isaiah Berlin—“the CIA’s J.S. Mill” was one of his more vicious insults—was that Berlin had become one of his adopted country’s consummate insiders. On more than one occasion I heard Berlin say that “England is the best country in the world.” It is hard to imagine Gellner saying anything similar. He viewed himself as having moved beyond any culture or tradition, an independent thinker who was beholden to no one.

This was true not only of countries and societies, but also of subjects and fields. Refusing to restrict himself to a single discipline, he ranged freely in sociology, political theory, and philosophy. His prolific output included Saints of the Atlas (1969), a study of the North African Berbers; and polemical contributions to the theory of knowledge such as Legitimation of Belief (1974) and Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992); and a number of excursions into intellectual history, including a posthumously published volume on trends of thought in fin-de-siècle central Europe, called Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma (1998). Much of this work is a protest against intellectual parochialism, a vice that he believed relativism encouraged.

In later years Gellner was increasingly preoccupied with Islam, which he perceived as posing a major challenge to his belief that modern development is driven by the material needs of human beings. Rightly, he rejected the view of many liberal thinkers, including his friends Hayek and Popper, according to whom nationalism is an attempt to return to the primitive unity of the tribe. Quite the contrary, Gellner insisted: national cultures were constructed so that people could interact productively in modern conditions where tribes had ceased to be functional. Though Gellner failed to acknowledge the fact, he shared his positive evaluation of nationalism with Berlin. But whereas Berlin understood nationalism as a modern expression of the human need for a home, Gellner viewed it in materialist terms as a means to economic growth. National cultures, in Gellner’s view, were not so much repositories of identity as vehicles for satisfying material needs. A modern economy cannot exist without a large and highly mobile labor market; the homogenous culture of the nation-state enables strangers to work together without the need for local knowledge.

But why, then, have most Islamic peoples failed to develop anything resembling a modern state? Have they failed to be modern? Gellner seems hardly to have doubted that a modern society was bound to be in some sense liberal. Islam was important to him—rather too important, in fact, since Gellner much exaggerated Islam’s unique qualities—because it planted a question mark over this assumption. Gellner scorned any philosophy he believed had the effect of tethering the inquiring mind within the boundaries of a particular culture. His writings abound with anathemas against relativism.

Toward the end of his life Gellner was fond of describing himself as an adherent of “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalism.” One reason for his hostility to Berlin was his belief that Berlin was a closet moral relativist, an incorrect view that he shared with Leo Strauss; but the description fits Gellner better than it does Berlin. This should not be too surprising once it is understood that relativism is itself an Enlightenment tradition—an important complication that is overlooked in the cartoonish history of ideas that is invoked in current debates, for which relativism is a CounterEnlightenment doctrine that subverts liberal values. A robust and well-defined tradition of Enlightenment relativism stretches from Montesquieu to the post-Hapsburg liberal thinkers with whom Gellner had so much in common.

For Hayek and Popper, the liberal agenda was set by their most formative experience: the dissolution of a civilized empire and its replacement by varieties of ethnic nationalism. Though he belonged in a later generation, Gellner was like these thinkers in spending much of his life trying to answer a single all-important question: what rational ground is there for liberal values? When Tomáš Masaryk, a distinguished liberal intellectual and the founder-president of Czechoslovakia, died in 1937, the young Gellner was among those who walked past his coffin at the memorial ceremony. For the rest of his days Gellner revered the Czech leader for his integrity and his decency, and viewed the republic Masaryk founded as an embodiment of liberal nationalism—the political ideal that most engaged his sympathies.

But Gellner could not rest content with these sentiments. He needed to find an intellectual foundation for them, some theory that would show that the values Masaryk held were supported by reason. A deep-seated moral skepticism, a rejection of any idea that right and wrong can be known objectively­—which he shared with many central European thinkers­—precluded any ethical foundation for liberalism. So Gellner resorted to scientism—the misplaced attempt to ground values in science. But the result of saddling science with the problems of ethics is invariably pseudo-science, and so it was with Gellner, too.

In this error Gellner was following in a path that had been already marked out by Hayek and Popper. Having spent much of his life arguing that the free market satisfies human wants better than any other economic system, Hayek ended up preaching a version of cultural Darwinism. Owing to their superior productivity, Hayek believed, liberal market economies were bound to win out in an evolutionary competition with other economic systems. It is a silly argument, and not only because it passes over the contingencies that have enabled liberal societies to survive. What would the world be like if Churchill had not become British prime minister in 1940 and Lord Halifax had concluded the shameful peace that he wanted with Hitler’s Germany? Liberal civilization—indeed, civilization itself—survived as the result of human choices, not of the operation of any impersonal law. There is no mechanism in society resembling the natural selection of genetic mutations in biology-certainly none that ensures the future of liberal values.

Without sharing Hayek’s evolutionist view of the free market, Popper believed that liberalism could be justified by reference to an evolutionary view of human knowledge. Humans are fallible, and knowledge grows through the correction of mistakes. In the natural world, the price of error is extinction; but criticism can replace this evolutionary sanction, and the best society is based on liberal institutions that promote the critical process. It is an ingenious piece of reasoning, but it is not especially convincing. Cannot some authoritarian societies grow knowledge as effectively as many liberal societies? And is there not more to liberalism than self-criticism? Might not an endlessly self-critical society eventually cease to be liberal?


A moral relativist who believed human values are groundless, while at the same time constantly attacking relativism for its insular and parochializing effects, Gellner offered a defense of liberalism that was meant to be almost value-free. The strategy that he adopted was a sort of ethical minimalism, aiming to invoke values that nearly everyone accepts, combined with the claim that in modern conditions these values can only be realized in liberal societies. As Hall puts it, liberal societies were for Gellner “a particular outcome of historical development, namely that of the higher standard of living and increased life expectancy brought about by modern science.” Gellner had no truck, he claimed, with theories in which liberalism is the preordained endpoint of social evolution. Liberal societies emerged fortuitously, as the result of many factors accidentally mixed together; but once in being these societies are better than any other in giving people what they most want.

It is an uninspiring argument, which Gellner seems to have liked for that very reason. It is also empirically shaky. The idea that the majority of humankind wants prosperity more than it wants anything else is not supported by history, while the claim that liberal societies will always be most successful in promoting prosperity is a leap of faith. Throughout most of Gellner’s life, the alternatives to liberal capitalism were unsuccessful even in material terms. For all its ruthlessness, the Nazi war economy was not notably efficient. Soviet central planning produced more than seventy years of shortages, while Maoism wreaked starvation and environmental devastation in China on a scale unmatched even in Stalin’s Russia. Against this background it may seem not unreasonable for Gellner to have assumed that liberal capitalism is the most productive system—except that Bismarck’s Prussia and late czarist Russia were hardly liberal regimes, and their economies grew as rapidly as those of many more liberal societies in the decades before the Great War.

Gellner might have replied that this growth occurred during a phase of economic development that could not have continued: as productivity in liberal regimes increased, others would be forced to emulate them. But this only repeats his claim, while smuggling in a version of the evolutionary teleology that he claimed to reject. He was a longtime proponent of the theory of functionalism, which attempts to explain changes in institutions and norms as responses to the requirements of society as a whole. But functional explanations are examples of teleology, since they imply that society has an end-state or a goal, which is to maintain itself as an orderly system. Gellner confirmed this when he insisted that nationalism is not something imposed on society: “It is the objective need for homogeneity which is reflected in nationalism.” A more empirical approach might suggest that national cultures are political projects, which sometimes succeed and sometimes do not. But even if the curious notion that society has objective needs is granted, there is no reason that satisfying them should always be desirable. Nationalism always has an ugly side, which seems to have given Gellner serious concern when the fall of communism triggered outbreaks of ethnic cleansing. But he did not alter his overall view. He continued to maintain that society is a self-organizing system, which in modern conditions will normally evolve in a liberal direction.

History suggests otherwise. Societies are no more self-regulating than natural systems: they frequently collapse, and stay in that collapsed condition for long periods—think of Russia’s time of troubles, China’s eras of warring states, and much of the Middle Ages. When societies succeed in re-organizing themselves, moreover, it is not often that they do so by adopting liberal institutions: mafiacontrolled anarchy or brutish dictatorship is more common. Nor is it true that wealth always grows fastest in liberal economies. Gellner died in 1995, some time before rapid growth in China became clearly visible to Western observers, but it is hard to see how he could explain the fact that the largest and fastest industrialization in history has occurred without liberal institutions (or the rule of law). Of course China’s economic expansion may not go on indefinitely—the post-Mao blend of communist despotism and unbridled capitalism may implode—but then again it may grow wealth more rapidly than liberal societies for generations to come. We simply do not know. What can be known, however, is that there is no reason why liberal market economies are bound to win out. In the future as in the past, there will be booming tyrannies and declining imperial republics, fast-growing varieties of managed capitalism and stagnating free markets, along with many as yet unknown hybrids.


Hall writes that Gellner turned to history in order to give modern liberal societies some kind of foundation. “Gellner admitted that he could not fully ground his own liberal leanings. Modern, affluent liberal democratic society seemed to him to rest on fragile foundations. ... What was needed was a coherent philosophy of history.” His son once suggested that Gellner wanted to produce a philosophy of modernity, but Hall rightly notes that “Gellner’s brute definition of modernity, industry and nationalism” was only half of the story. Gellner wanted not only to define modernity but also to defend it—and to do so in liberal terms. In any event, Gellner’s “philosophy of modernity” turned out to be not much more than a materialist version of the Whig interpretation of history.

As presented by Burke, the founder of modern conservatism and a canonical source for the Whig view, history was the progressive unfolding of human liberty. For Burke, history was guided by divine providence, but later thinkers have tried to reformulate the idea in secular terms. Marx and Hayek differed as to the nature of the goal (universal communism or a global free market), and there was no agreement among them about the mechanism that pushes humans toward it—but they were at one in their view that history is moving toward some kind of end-state. And despite his insistence that liberal societies emerged fortuitously, Gellner made much the same assumption. It was his view of Islam, ironically, that confirmed his commitment to teleology.

For Gellner, Islam was the great exception. While the rest of the world was advancing toward modernity, however slowly, Islamic societies were resisting it. Holding back from secularization—one of the preconditions of a modern society, according to Gellner, along with industrialism and nationalism—they reacted to the growth of cities and the spread of literacy by turning to fundamentalism. The source of this failure to adjust, Gellner maintained, was Islam itself: a religion that demands to rule every aspect of life cannot coexist with modern pluralism. So Islam was the exception that proved the rule. The correct philosophy of modernity was the Whig interpretation of history minus Islam.

Criticizing Gellner, Hall notes that nationalism has been a powerful force in a number of Islamic societies. Turkey produced a nation-state that lasted longer than the former Soviet Union, while Egypt has shown signs of achieving something similar. Islam may be a counterforce to nationalism, but it is not an insuperable obstacle to nation-building: a common commitment to the Islamic religion did not prevent the break-up of Pakistan into two separate states. Clearly, Islamic societies are a good deal more variegated than Gellner allowed. The real problem with Gellner’s argument, I think, is simpler: he makes too much of Islam, which is far from being the great exception that he (along with contemporary Islamists) claims. Islamic societies are not exceptions to otherwise universal patterns of modern development. If Islamic societies have failed to produce nation-states, they are not alone—so has much of non-Islamic Africa. Where nationalism has prevailed, it has been a result of successful statecraft. Nation-states develop from the contingencies of politics, rather than out of any iron laws of modernization.

There is no overall trend or pattern of modernization in terms of which Islam can be counted an exception. If Gellner imagined that he could discern one, it was because, like so many other liberal thinkers, he conflated modernization with progress. Urbanization and literacy, science and the spread of new technologies, are not developments that are intrinsically good or bad; they are what human beings make of them. Gellner declined to judge modernization in moral terms, restricting himself to the observation that science and industrialism give people what they want. But science and industrialism have also made possible terrible assaults on humanity, including the worst crime that has ever been committed.

Gellner’s comments on Nazism reveal a kind of incoherent emptiness at the core of his thinking. Writing of Oakeshott in an aphoristic manuscript cited by Hall, Gellner noted that “all evil [is] somehow credited to ‘rationalism’; [it is] odd to find that Nazism is rationalism, not Irrationalism.” To be sure, it has never been entirely clear what Oakeshott meant by rationalism. But that there was a strand of rationalistic thinking in Nazism cannot reasonably be denied. Nazi racism differed from the pre-modern variety in the fact that it claimed the sanction of science: the claim that “race” is a scientific category entered politics only with the nineteenth-century German evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, who promoted the theory of immutable racial groups. (That the science was spurious is a different matter.)

Hall reports Gellner asserting in lectures at the London School of Economics that “the Holocaust was best seen as an unnecessary mistake of industrial society.” It is an absurd and repugnant assertion, which makes any sort of sense only if it is assumed that industrial society (together with modernity itself) is inherently benign. One need not be a follower of the Frankfurt School—which had its own theoretical excesses—to find this assumption questionable.


Gellner’s incoherence as a thinker comes from his wanting to claim universal authority for liberal values while continuing to be a moral skeptic. For Gellner, liberalism was the price that humanity had to pay for a higher standard of living. But does anyone apart from a few economists really believe that freedom is primarily a means to economic growth? Very likely Gellner did not believe this himself. Yet the logic of his argument left him no other recourse. He was compelled to hold to a version of scientism if he was to have reason for his attachment to liberal values. To be sure, he knew no reason would be found that was truly compelling. In a characteristic paradox, he attacked Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs as an example of “la trahison de la trahison des clercs.” Whereas Benda condemned European intellectuals for their anti-liberal relativism, Hall tells us, Gellner condemned Benda for “his unjustified complacency about the solidity of liberal and rationalist values.” Unlike Benda, who attacked Nietzsche on the ground as one of the authors of contemporary unreason, Gellner shrewdly identified the German philosopher as an Enlightenment thinker. (How easily the fact that Nietzsche was a passionate admirer of Voltaire has been forgotten.) Nietzsche had not betrayed the vocation of the intellectual: he was painfully honest, deploying his critical intelligence even when it undermined values to which he was himself deeply attached. Clearly Gellner liked to think that he emulated Nietzsche’s fearless honesty. Hall endorses this flattering self-image, writing of Gellner’s attack on Benda that “a genuine commitment to rationalism means that one must admit it is poorly grounded, making it necessary to live without complacency.”

Gellner may have fancied himself a successor of Nietzsche, but his career as a polemicist suggests he had more in common with Benda while lacking Benda’s clarity in thinking. Gellner elevated the objectivity of science above any other value; but as a skeptic he could not ground the value of science in anything objective or transcendental. He could only observe that science worked. But what does science work to achieve, exactly? A relativist about values, Gellner had no answer. He tried to convince himself that functionalism could give liberal societies the foundation they lacked. As his convoluted reaction to Islam shows, he knew the formula did not work. Even so, he could not bring himself to abandon his version of scientism. What was at stake, after all, was not just a theory. It was the meaning of Gellner’s own life.

If Nietzsche is to be believed, every philosophy is a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography. It is a rash generalization that has some force when applied to Gellner. Repudiating his ancestry, he thought of himself as a free-floating thinker. Where does such a thinker derive his values? Not from religion, which Gellner spurned along with his ancestry. Instead, like many another liberal rationalist, he looked to an idea of evolution for support. Unlike many, he was honest enough to accept that science could not give the sense of moral security that he sought. When he hurled himself into battle against relativism, he was struggling against a condition he could not overcome in himself. In a paradox that this connoisseur of irony seems not to have noticed, Ernest Gellner’s liberalism was a triumph of the will.

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His new book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), will be published in March. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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