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New Ways Of Thinking About The Nation

The Enlightenment view that human beings choose and construct their institutions, that society and state are contractual associations, and that all human beings are equal, endowed with reason and rights, entailed profound consequences for the concept of nation. It took on qualities of populus, extended to the populations of territorial states.

In February 1789 in France, the abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) published a pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? His answer was that it was not one estate among others in a society of privileges, but was everything. The actual representatives of the Third Estate, meeting in the Estates-General summoned in 1789, acted out this answer by transforming themselves into the National Assembly and inviting members of the other Estates to join them. The Assembly issued a Declaration of Rights: "The Nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it" (Article III). The French Revolution abolished privileges and devised political arrangements to realize national sovereignty. Despite the failure of these experiments the notion became entrenched as a basic tenet of modern democracy.

Apart from practical problems of implementing national sovereignty, there was a conceptual difficulty: Who belonged to the nation? If the nation was defined in relation to the state over which it claimed sovereignty, then it should consist of the subjects of that state, with all their accidental differences of customs, beliefs, and conditions. Even this required one to define state boundaries precisely, itself a novel practice. Then one had to devise rules for turning subjects into citizens. Citizens and inhabitants were two different notions. Children and women as well as foreigners were excluded from citizenship. Above all, there was the problem of reconciling nation as the sum of individual citizens with nation as a group bound by ties of culture and values. The Jacobins tried expanding the idea of politics so that these ties flowed from, rather than toward the state, but they failed. It seemed necessary to look beyond politics to find the nation.

This was already happening during the Revolution. Radicals in Paris suggested that Bretons, Basques, and other reactionaries were infected by cultures and languages that made them incapable of appreciating new truths. Conservatives in and beyond France, notably Edmund Burke (1729–1797), argued that revolution was destructive because it ignored the importance of the traditions and customs that made each society (nation) distinct; revolutionaries mistakenly imagined that human reason could design an ideal society and state.

The German thinker Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) moved from the idea of variety to that of uniqueness. Different languages were not variants on a universal language; human beings had not rationally constructed languages. Each language expressed and transmitted across individuals and generations unique values that embodied the national spirit. The argument could be extended to music, architecture, customs, laws, indeed, to every aspect of society. The Romantic movement promoted the view that societies were organisms; art, the expression of uniqueness; and human beings, bound together by feelings and emotions not by reason and interest.

Two kinds of nation?

These two ways of thinking about the nation appear diametrically opposed. One stresses politics, reason, and choice; the other, culture, emotions, and belonging. This distinction has been linked to two kinds of nationalism variously called "western" and "eastern," "civic" and "ethnic," "political" and "cultural." The distinctions differ in important ways but all relate to these opposed ways of thinking. We need to see how such ideas were combined or opposed as the nation became the justification for statehood.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNation - Prepolitical Usages, The Nation And Political Authority, 1000–1500, Making Politics National, 1500–1800, New Ways Of Thinking About The Nation