Ernest Gellner made important contributions to intellectual life in anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. He used them all to further the study of nationalism. In his last public appearance in the UK, at Warwick University, he debated the theme "Nationalism, real or imaginary?" with Anthony Smith (who spoke first). Following is an edited extractby Ernest Gellner / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Ernest Gellner taught me three basic lessons about nationalism. I want first to say how much he has inspired me-and all of us. His work first caught my imagination in the 1960s, when I was studying the decolonisation wave in Africa and Asia. Ernest Gellner guided my doctoral thesis on theories of nationalism with great patience.
The first lesson about nationalism that he taught me is that it is elusive, even protean, in its manifestations; so we have to classify the variety of movements and ideologies in order to make progress in understanding the phenomenon.
Second, Ernest taught me to appreciate the underlying sociological reality of nationalism. Against all those who would tell us that the nation exists only in the imagination and that it can be deconstructed away, Ernest has always insisted that nations and nationalism are real and powerful sociological phenomena, even if their reality is quite different from the tale told about them by nationalists themselves.
Third, he convinced me that nations, as well as nationalism, are modern phenomena, in the sense that the basic features of the modern world require nations and nationalisms.
And yet there are differences between Ernest and myself. In so far as he is a wholehearted “modernist,” he would claim that the nation is not only relatively recent; it is also the product of specifically modern conditions-early industrialism with its social mobility, the need for mass literacy, public education and the like. It is the modern transition from spontaneous, non-literate “low” cultures to highly cultivated, literate and specialised “high” cultures which engenders nationalism and nations. It is not that I find this account wrong-only that it tells half the story.
Nationalism provides the sole legitimation of states the world over. For most people, nations-especially their own nations-seem perennial and immemorial. We cannot easily imagine a world without nations, nor are we happy with the idea that our nation is a recent creation, or a construct of elites.
Today, however, most scholars regard the idea of nations existing perennially through antiquity and the middle ages as simply “retrospective nationalism.” According to Benedict Anderson the nation is seen as an “imagined political community.” But there is nothing contradictory about saying that something is both imagined and real: the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral and the ceiling of the Sistine chapel are no less real and tangible for all the imagination of their creators and spectators…