Blog post

"The Free-Floater"—John Gray on Ernest Gellner for The New Republic

Clara Heyworth27 January 2011

In a critical review of John A. Hall's Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography for The New Republic, John Gray opens by agreeing with Hall on one particular point—that Gellner was an exceptionally honest thinker:

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.

From here, Gray quickly moves away from Hall, firstly on the question of identity and Gellner's Jewish heritage:

Unlike [Isaiah] 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.

Of Gellner and the "role of outsider," Gray notes that

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.

Discussing Gellner's "preoccupation" with Islam in later life, Gray writes,

he perceived [it] 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.

Gray goes on to mention Hall's own criticism of Gellner on this front:

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.

Visit the The New Republic to read the review in full. (Please note that the full review is only available to subscribers.) For more on the origins and development of nationalism, see Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.

Filed under: reviews