Timothy Snyder has reviewed John A. Hall’s book Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography for the Times Literary Supplement. Snyder praises Hall’s book for its invaluable insights into the life and thought of the great philosopher and anthropologist.
The theory of nationalism itself was Gellner’s life. John A. Hall’s admirable biography helps us to see how this is so, by providing essential biographical information and locating Gellner’s arguments within those of his interlocutors, friendly and otherwise.
Hall’s book is not only a descriptive account of Gellner’s life and intellectual trajectory, but also a rigorous critique of his concepts and theories. Himself an acclaimed scholar, Hall assesses the many layers in Gellner’s work, paying special attention to the connections he drew between language and political nationalism.
Hall shows that Gellner’s intuitions about language use were central to every stage of his career. He drops the clues that allow is to see how the theory of nationalism emerged, not so much from Czech history as from insights about the social significance of the individual experience of language use.
Although a friend and colleague of Gellner, Hall puts into perspective many of his controversial positions and recognizes the influence some of his critics had on him, most notably Wittgenstein.
Hall shows artfully that Gellner, in his anthropological work, borrowed his default notion of primitive language from the late Wittgenstein: that we all inhabit impenetrable forms of life defined by the language games that cohere within them. But Hall also follows Gellner to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where Gellner proves that the late Wittgenstein was wrong by showing how tribesmen could react creatively to practical everyday problems for which their linguistic habits did not seem to provide a solution.
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