Professor Ernest Gellner

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The Independent Online
Ernest Gellner came into social anthropology from philosophy via the Berber tribesmen of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, writes Professor Ioan Lewis [further to the obituary by Professor Chris Hann, 8 November].

He was probably the first philosopher - after the Berber medieval philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun, whom he greatly admired - to understand what a "segmentary lineage system" is. He applied this model of uncentralised politics, drawn from E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classic analysis of the Sudanese Nuer, to North African Muslim tribes. Gellner's study of Berber society Saints of the Atlas (1969) combined Evans-Pritchard's insights with Ibn Khaldun's oscillating theory of the rise and decline of centralised governance in such uncentralised, egalitarian tribal societies. According to this theory, dynasties are founded by successive waves of desert warriors conquering docile sedentary farmers and townsmen. As soon as the wolves settle down to rule, they lose their dynamic virility, becoming tame citizens, unable to resist the next onslaught from the desert.

Although he founded a train of intellectual dynasties in various centres of learning during his life, Gellner never himself succumbed to this fate - perhaps because his astonishing energy, despite his physical disabilities, kept him always physically as well as mentally on the move. In Words and Things (1959), he subjected the leading concepts of the Oxford linguistic philosophers to exactly the same style of analysis deployed in Evans-Pritchard's other masterpiece, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). Much later, he deployed similar tactics in a merciless assessment of the constructs of psychoanalysis.

Saints of the Atlas is the foundation for a host of theories in comparative sociology which Gellner developed later. Thus, throughout history and in all Muslim societies, Islam could be seen to enshrine two conflicting tendencies: a "scripturalist" style of worship and theology associated with cities and literacy, and a more popular, tolerant, erratically pluralist form of belief and practice associated with illiterate tribal life remote from urban civilisation.

Gellner was concerned with anthropology as a storehouse of vital inter- cultural insights into the human condition, providing privileged access to understanding social realities. He had no time for "post-modernist anthropology", which he scornfully called "meta-twaddle".

Not long before Gellner died, I asked him if he had read Malcolm Bradbury's brilliant novel Dr Criminale, about an elusive, enigmatic central European philosopher and trickster figure. He said he had and didn't like it: he thought it was about him. Perhaps it was.

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