Obituary: Professor Ernest Gellner

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The Independent Online
In the unique and idiosyncratic intellectual melange that constituted Ernest Gellner, philosophy too had its part to play, writes Professor David-Hillel Ruben [further to the obituary by Professor Chris Hann, 8 November].

Gellner's philosophical contribution might be thought of in two ways. First, there was the well-known early intervention against ordinary language philosophy. In Words and Things, he sought to expose the excesses of the methodology then practised in much of the Anglo-American philosophical world. Targeting chiefly Wittgenstein and his Oxford followers, Gellner, in that book and in his influential Cause and Meaning in the Social Sciences, attacked what he saw as the idealist implications and consequences of such a style of philosophising, which he regarded as unacceptable for the practice of the social sciences. In this, he was in the company of other philosophers at the London School of Economics, who stood apart from the philosophical fashions of the time, and defended a quite distinctive point of view from the environs of Houghton Street. He incurred the displeasure of the Oxford dons; it is said that Gilbert Ryle, then editor of Mind, the leading philosophy journal in the UK, refused to allow a review of Words and Things to be published in its pages.

Secondly, there was that completely idiosyncratic style of social philosophising, so characteristic of Gellner's main works: an exciting blend of the empirical and the philosophical, the descriptive and the normative, a middle-level theorising less abstract than that of mainstream philosophy, but far more speculative and bold than that produced by orthodox social scientists. Gellner thought of this as "social philosophy", a term without an otherwise fixed and clear meaning in philosophy.

Gellner was an eclectic, who combined many social sciences into a single systematic approach. His social philosophy was continuous with, and grew naturally from, the tensions and problems to which this way of doing things gave rise. Social philosophy has inspired countless numbers of students, and Gellner was its main practitioner.