Sunday, August 29, 2010

Simms, Brendan. "A Combatant in the Battle of Ideas." WALL STREET JOURNAL July 30, 2010.

Ernest Gellner was by training and profession an anthropologist. He began his career by conducting fieldwork among the Berbers of Morocco, sometimes accompanied by his intrepid wife, Susan. But Gellner was really a classic polymath whose interests ranged across several disciplines at a time when it was still (just) possible to feel a mastery of more than one field of study. Gellner launched forays into philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis and history.

The fields might have been diverse, but the method of inquiry was similar in each case: analytical rigor combined with a strict commitment to reason. Those who knew Gellner recall that this commitment could result in truly nerve-racking conversations, in which they found themselves under relentless interrogation as Gellner tried to get to the heart of a problem. There was not much small talk, and there was nowhere to hide as he chipped away at the position of his interlocutor—or, to put it another way, his opponent. As one might imagine, Gellner did not suffer fools gladly. He told the assembled doyens and divas who constituted the celebrated Cambridge History of Political Thought school, for example, that there were simply too many of them. . . .

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