Nationalism Cartoon

May 2012

Should my nation come first?

As Americans do we have duties to our nation beyond those of being a law-abiding citizen? We’ll try and address these questions by considering:

1) Whether we Americans make up a genuine nation (what defines a genuine nation?) and

2) What legitimate moral claims nations can make on their individual members.

We will need to examine what philosophy says about nationalism in general.

Arguably, the most sophisticated justifications of nationalism can be found in the German Romantic and Idealist traditions: the work of Herder and Fichte come especially to mind. These philosophers argue that self-actualization and freedom must have a social expression and that the relevant social unit can only be one’s nation. We will examine Fichte and Herder’s claims and other arguments for and against this point of view. How does this justification stand up to the cosmopolitan claim that nationalism is inherently parochial and therefore undermines true Human values? What if, as in the American case, the values of the nation are claimed to be universal in nature?

What defines a “nation” anyway? Communalities of historical and geographical experience, language, culture, and civic affiliation have all been invoked in definitions of nationhood. (During the Republican Primary Race in Puerto Rico, Rick Santorum assured himself defeat in that Primary by saying that, in order to become part of the American Nation, Puerto Ricans needed to learn English.)

Claims to and attributions of, nationhood are often contested or resisted. (Consider for example the Quebecois, the Protestant minority in Ireland, and Basques in Spain for example.) The Nineteen Century thinker Ernst Renan argued that there was not objective basis for national identity; for Renan, the affirmation of any national identity involves a seemingly arbitrary stressing of some aspects of history and the convenient forgetting of others. National identity seems to be something subjective or constructed. Herder and Fichte might respond; “Of course it’s subjective! What’s wrong with that?” They would argue that subjectivity makes us more than mere objects. Free beings define their own being according to their own subjective desire. National identity, they would say, is an integral part of the self we construct

Questions to Consider

1) Need nationalism logically require that the nation is embodied in a national state? (Herder seems highly congenial to contemporary liberal and multi-cultural sensibilities. His lack of interest in forming national states seems central to this congeniality. Fichte’s nationalistic intolerance seems associated with his focus on a national state.)

2) Can one legitimately disagree with someone else’s self-attribution of national identity?

3) Is the cosmopolitan, who tries to transcend his/her particular national identity, more moral than a nationalist?

4) If political philosophy has no time for nationalism, and nationalism permeates real world politics (including the politics of our own nation), should that make us dismiss political philosophy or real world politics?


Howard Williams, “Nationalism

Wikipedia, “Romantic Nationalism

Ernst Renan, from “What is a Nation?

Vicki Spencer, From “Herder and Nationalism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Johann Gottfried von Herder

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, “14th Address to the German Nation

The-Philosophy, “Fichte Philosophy: Idealism and Nationalism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Cosmopolitanism

Erik D. Aker, “The American Character

2 Responses to Nationalism

  1. JenniferL says:

    I’ve been reading about Chinese history and language recently, and this topic reminds me of some of what I’ve read. The Qin Dynasty, 221 B.C.E. to 206 B.C.E., unified China after the “Warring States Period” of Chinese history, and might be one of the earliest models of national identity across a diverse population. Emperor Qin (Qin Shi Huang) laid the foundation for China as a unified empire:
    Standardized Chinese writing, so that, even with 15 different languages and dialects, any literate Chinese person could communicate via writing with anyone else.
    Established standard weights and measures to facilitate trade.
    Built roads and established a standard size for wagon axles so that wagons would fit on the roads.
    Established official coins.
    Started building the Great Wall (which was extended later in the Ming Dynasty)Established legalism – a system of laws and philosophy (and tyrannically opposed anyone else)
    The Qin Dynasty is an interesting point in history because it points out the relationship among military power, political unity, economic connections and cultural unity. This emperor was a tyrant — this wasn’t a “feel-good” national identity — but still interesting in the history of national identity.

  2. Tom Canel says:

    Some theorists contrast largely benign civic nationalisms, where nationhood is based on citizenship, with potentially malignant ethnic nationalisms, where nationhood is based on some notion of ethnicity. (In her book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Liah Greenfeld makes a really thought provoking version of this perspective. For a summary of her argument see Liah Greenfeld,”Five Roads to Modernity“.