Ernest Gellner  

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Ernest André Gellner (9 December 1925 – 5 November 1995) was a British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist, described by The Daily Telegraph when he died as one of the world's most vigorous intellectuals and by The Independent as a "one-man crusade for critical rationalism."

His first book, Words and Things (1959) prompted a leader in The Times and a month-long correspondence on its letters page over his attack on linguistic philosophy. As the Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics for 22 years, the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge for eight, and finally as head of the new Centre for the Study of Nationalism in Prague, Gellner fought all his life—in his writing, his teaching, and through his political activism—against what he saw as closed systems of thought, particularly communism, psychoanalysis, relativism, and the dictatorship of the free market. Among other issues in social thought, the modernization of society and nationalism were two of his central themes, his multicultural perspective allowing him to work within the subject-matter of three separate civilizations—the Western, Islamic, and Russian.

Words and Things

With the publication in 1959 of Words and Things, his first book, Gellner achieved fame and even notoriety among his fellow philosophers, as well as outside the discipline, for his fierce attack on ordinary language philosophy (or "linguistic philosophy", Gellner's preferred phrase). Ordinary language philosophy, in one form or another, was the dominant approach at Oxbridge at the time (although the philosophers themselves denied they were part of any unified school). He first encountered the strong ideological hold of linguistic philosophy while at Balliol:

"A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is."

Words and Things is fiercely critical of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, Antony Flew, Peter Strawson and many others. Ryle refused to have the book reviewed in the philosophical journal Mind (which he edited), and Bertrand Russell (who had written an approving foreword) protested in a letter to The Times. A response from Ryle and a lengthy correspondence ensued.

Selected works

Books

  • Words and Things, A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology, London: Gollancz; Boston: Beacon (1959). Also see correspondence in The Times, 10 November to 23 November 1959.
  • Thought and Change (1964)
  • Saints of the Atlas (1969)
  • Contemporary Thought and Politics (1974)
  • The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974)
  • Legitimation of Belief (1974)
  • Spectacles and Predicaments (1979)
  • Soviet and Western Anthropology (1980) (editor)
  • Muslim Society (1981)
  • Nations and Nationalism (1983)
  • Relativism and the Social Sciences (1985)
  • The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985)
  • The Concept of Kinship and Other Essays (1986)
  • Culture, Identity and Politics (1987)
  • State and Society in Soviet Thought (1988)
  • Plough, Sword and Book (1988)
  • Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992)
  • Conditions of Liberty (1994)
  • Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove (1995)
  • Nationalism (1997)
  • Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma (1998)




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