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Sarah Gellner on Ernest Gellner

In response to Stefan Collini’s article on Ernest Gellner in the London Review of Books, Sarah Gellner wrote a letter detailing personal memories of her father and his opinions. I don’t think this needs any commentary other than to say that her account coheres with my general picture of Gellner Sr., and that it perhaps holds some clues to understanding better the intellectual milieus he both inhabited and fought against, particularly their limitations.

Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011

From Sarah Gellner

It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.

I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.

So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.

Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.

Sarah Gellner
London SE11

In general I enjoy Ernest Gellner’s writing even when I find him to be too dismissive of speculative theorizing, but I do think that details like the ones Sarah Gellner provides are integral to his intellectual stance, and not irrelevant personal peccadilloes.

(See also Cosma Shalizi’s overview of Gellner.)


  1. What is the final verdict on “Words and Things”? The only thing I ever read about it before was an aggressive critique by T.P. Uschanov (can be found here: http://www.helsinki.fi/~tuschano/writings/strange/ ), while Shalizi seems to refer to it as “a crushing philosophical critique of linguistic philosophy”.

  2. Well, I don’t think my critique was that “aggressive” – although I was an angry young man when I wrote it. But then again, neither do I think that Gellner’s book was not “crushing”. It’s just terribly overrated – considering the demonstrable untenability of many of its particular claims – by those who rate it at all. I would have preferred to read a purely sociological critique of the social narrowness of ordinary language philosophy, such as I admit towards the end of my paper would have been rather justified in more ways than one.

    If Gellner writes that Wittgenstein was nostalgic towards folk dancing on village greens, while Wittgenstein in his diaries (admittedly only published later) explicitly curses and laments the prevalence of nostalgia towards folk dancing on village greens, then what can one say?

    As I say, Gellner’s book has been more important as the indirect source of a certain clichéd picture of what it attacks than as the direct source of the attack itself. It has its merits, but they tend to get drowned out by the cacophony of grinding axes.

  3. Thanks for the reply! I read your paper a couple of years ago, so I might just be remembering it as aggressive. I found it very helpful though, since at the time I had been wondering about the demise of OLP. I am still wondering, mind you, even though your paper added a piece to the puzzle. It really is a bother that there is no good “History of Oxford OLP” or something similar out there (at least, none that I know of. In fact, it was by googling for such a book that I found your paper).

  4. I think the best history remains Jonathan Rée’s 1993 magazine article English Philosophy in the Fifties, to which I refer. It’s really, really good, thoroughly researched, and warmly affectionate in a very appealing way. Written sine ira but not studio. Reading it was what first got me personally interested in OLP as an undergraduate, and although my paper was written several years later, I think it still shows some of the zeal of a convert.

    Shortly after I wrote, there also came Lynd Forguson’s “Oxford and the ‘Epidemic’ of Ordinary Language Philosophy,” The Monist 84(3) (2001): 325–346, which is a kind of sociology-of-knowledge analysis, a bit Bourdieusian, of the rise and fall of OLP. But there have really been no book-length histories. While OLP was a live proposition, everyone knew each other already, because the social circles were so small and homogeneous – one of Gellner’s own key criticisms, of course – while nowadays, practically everyone has already died.

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