BRIEF MEMORIES OF ERNEST GELLNER
[From Cambridge Anthropology, vol.19, no.2, 1996/7 , Ernest Gellner Memorial Issue, edited by André Czegledy]
life was first touched by Ernest Gellner when, uniquely among the distinguished
figures at the L.S.E., he stopped to talk to the humble graduate student that
I was. From then on numerous 'small, unremembered acts of kindness and of
love' attach themselves to him. The way he played postal chess with our young
daughter, his offer to loan us his sailing boat with no knowledge of whether
we could sail, his hospitality at his retreat in northern
I also remember his sense of mischief. His delight at having to register himself as a 'peasant' in order to be able to buy his Italian house. His humorous accounts of his battles against the forces of darkness, whether they were Wittgensteinian philosophy, communism, the psychoanalytic profession, post-modernism or any other totalising system. His accounts of how he had missed several eminent appointments because he had made a joke at the wrong moment and upset the stuffy appointees. He was `agin the Government' and his brilliance combined with a sense of fun made him a deadly enemy.
I remember his lectures. Each summer he would come to Cambridge to lecture for the `Theory' paper and I would attend to watch that great mind circling through space and time and drawing his famous submarine and other sketches on the board. The first two times he asked if I could obtain some student notes as he wanted to turn the lectures into a book and having no notes himself was not sure what he had said. The third year we arranged for a tape-recorder.
I remember his dislike of administration. Psychologically he took the advice of a colleague whom, he claimed, chaired committees with his hat and coat on in order to proclaim that he did not intend staying long in the meeting. The difficulty was that Ernest believed that petty administration could be approached in a logical and rational manner. In the ancient, gothic, world of Cambridge, such an approach was doomed to frustration. He never experienced the liberation of a world based on precedent and flexibility.
I remember above all his ideas. His `Concepts and Society' was a turning point in my graduate days. Later, his specification of what the problem is - that is the emergence of a specific, open, modern world, seemed absolutely right. Getting the questions right is the most difficult thing, and Ernest knew what they were and approached them with a mind so large that it caused awe in many. One felt in the presence of greatness, which only happens three or four times in one's life. It was a privilege to know him, Susan and his family whom he loved with a warmth which, as an Anglo-Saxon individualist, I found another endearing characteristic.