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Ernest Gellner

Ernest Gellner (December 9 1925 - November 5 1995) constructed academic theories on nationalism and on linguistic philosophy.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Nationalism
3 Linguistic philosophy
4 Philosophy of History
5 Bibliography


Born in Paris in 1925 as the son of lower middle class bohemians, Gellner grew up in Prague, only to flee to Britain in 1938 with the ascendancy of Fascism in Europe. Fighting in the British Army against the nationalist bloc, it is unsurprising that Gellner should have come to theorise on nationalism. He later became Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics, and subsequently Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.


For Gellner, "nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent". Nationalism only appeared, and, Gellner argues, became a sociological necessity in the modern world. In previous times ("the agro-literate" stage of history) rulers had little incentive to impose cultural homogeneity on the ruled. But in modern society, work becomes technical. One must operate a machine, and as such one must learn. There is a need for impersonal, context-free communication and a high degree of cultural standardisation.

Furthermore, industrial society is underlined by the fact that there is perpetual growth - employment types vary and new skills must be learnt. Thus, generic employment training precedes specialised job training.

On a territorial level, there is competition for the overlapping catchment areas (e.g. Alsace-Lorraine). To maintain its grip on resources, and its survival and progress, the state and culture must for these reasons be congruent. Nationalism therefore is a necessity.

Criticisms of Gellner's theory include:

Linguistic philosophy

In his
controversial book Words and Things (1959), Gellner argued against the philosophy of linguistic idealism then almost an orthodoxy at Oxford. In it he looks at that philosophy from a sociological point of view, and is violently opposed to it, seeming to accuse its proponents of intellectual dishonesty.

Philosophy of History

Gellner's Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (1988) takes its title from the three groups our author analyses through history: producers, coercerss and clerisy. Their interactions emerge differently in various times and cultures, but Gellner particularly shows their typical behaviours in generic pre-agrarian, agrarian and industrial societies.


Works by Gellner include: