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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter ten. Nation and culture

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  • 1 Still, one encounters the picture of the nation as a big Individual in the writings of most refine (...)

1In the nineteenth century, nationalist thinkers frequently used concepts such as ‘the spirit of a people’ and ‘collective mentality’, portraying nations as entities in their own right, independent of the individuals who happened to belong to them. Individuals were presented as dependent products of their respective national communities, where ‘national’ was often construed very broadly, so that all Germanic or all Slavic communities counted as Germanic or Slav nations respectively. Contemporary nationalists know better. They do not use the rhetoric of the ‘spirit of the people’ in serious discussion.1 They nevertheless wish to maintain that national communities are valuable as such, just because they are what they are and therefore should be preserved in a recognizable form. In this way, they tie the issues we discussed in chapters seven, eight, and nine to the notion of the value of community. The question is then how they can consistently do so without appealing to antiquated notions. The answer has been found in appeals to culture, and the moral value culture might have. The issue of ‘spirit’ is replaced by that of ‘culture’ and ‘value’. The best authors most often start from the value of a national culture, and then proceed to the duties that follow from it. They typically present the whole of cultural life in terms of its recognizable ethno-cultural traits, and later in this chapter we shall debate whether such a picture is correct. The appeal to national culture and its value forms the general framework for particular lines of thought that we shall try to disentangle and then critically discuss in this section of the book. Remember that our nationalist is quite demanding towards members of each national community, but at the same time non-invidious in the sense of making the same demands of every nation. I shall ultimately claim that the nationalist’s misplaced concern for culture can be and often is deleterious for the very culture it professes to protect.

2Before passing to the argument proper let me point to the dialectics of the actual debate. If I may judge by the reaction of various academic audiences, many intellectuals of the leftist-liberal persuasion endorse a kind of tolerant anti-imperialist cultural relativism, especially in relation to more distant cultures: to each tribe its own culture and morals! Nationalist cultural arguments go along with this stance and seem to speak to it: what is more acceptable to such a leftist-liberal than to grant each ‘tribe’ its own rights! It is only when one reflects upon the nationalist conclusions that the more ugly and intolerant aspect of the story comes to the fore. I shall be recommending more caution at the beginning, when the nationalist arguments are being constructed out of apparently acceptable components.

3We now approach our main topic. First, what is meant by ‘culture’? We can distinguish at least two meanings. The narrow meaning is sometimes captured by the expression ‘high culture’: painting, music, architecture, mainly done by professionals and spread by the education system. Next, there is a wide or general meaning referring to a ‘way of life’, encompassing “customs, ways of doing things, traditions of a society” (De George, 1993, 116). Rorty defines it simply as “a set of shared habits of action, those which enable members of a single human community to get along with each other and with the surrounding environment as well as they do” (Rorty, 1993, 93). The definition leaves out both material items (from tools to clothing, arms, written texts, photos, religious paraphernalia, records, and so on), and mental and other abstract items (thoughts, ideologies, views) that are usually considered to be part of culture in the wide sense, so it should be supplemented, but the intended meaning is clear.

4Let us recall the terms of the debate concerning, more specifically, national culture. Both parties—the tough but even-handed nationalist and his more liberal and cosmopolitan opponent—agree about the obvious fact that some people enjoy the particular ethno-national aspects of their culture, and concur that in principle everybody should be allowed to do so if they wish. The divergence, however, starts when further questions come to the fore.

5First, do people have a duty to promote the ethno-national aspects of their culture (or, as the nationalist would put it, their ‘ethno-national culture’)? Preservation and transmission programs can be put to work in various ways. Assuming that there are a number of cultural producers and consumers interested in keeping alive an ethno-national item, an authority (state, university, local community) can decide to let them have a go, and a sponsor (a state, a rich businessman) can decide to actively further their interest. Alternatively, an authority can decide to make this keeping alive mandatory. Distinguish then between free preservation and transmission, and compulsory preservation and transmission. A mark of nationalism is a preference for the latter.

6Secondly, is love for the ethno-national aspects of one’s culture morally superior to an interest in ‘foreign’ culture, or to cosmopolitan curiosity? Let me detail the issue of patriotic ‘love’. It sounds very fine in its more poetic moments. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt describes his country as:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war...
(Richard II 2.1.43-45)

7He sounds like someone in love, and a gentle one at that. He goes on in the same vein to talk about:

This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea...
(Richard II, 2.1.46-47)

8But nationalism is much more than a kind sentimentality. In the same scene, just before Gaunt’s speech, the Duke of York warns against the “venom sound” of fashions in “proud Italy” corrupting English youth, and against habits of “our tardy-apish nation” imitating Italians, all this in the verse form of iambic pentameter borrowed from Italian poets (if Shakespeare was being ironic or naïve here, we shall probably never know). The contrast between Gaunt’s kind sentiments and the duke’s xenophobia vividly illustrates the contrast between various aspects of nationalism. As mentioned, it is not just a matter of wishing particular national traits as such to continue—say that the Lavinian language be spoken one hundred years hence; the patriotic lover of his own culture usually wants the descendants of Lavinians to speak Lavinian. If other nations start speaking Lavinian, so much the better, but best of all for the glory of the Lavinian nation itself. Many conservative native English speakers even regret the fact that English has become an international language. A famous British philosopher has in conversation described this internationalization to me as a catastrophe. He probably feels deep in his heart that only the descendants of the British should be allowed to speak English. In brief, the nationalist wants the descendants of his or her people to have the traits he or she cherishes. It is an interesting wish. In contrast, most Beethoven fans would like everyone to listen to Beethoven, not particular descendants of particular people. This well-known but still curious feature of patriotic love finds little echo in the extant theoretical literature. Theoreticians, including pro-nationalist philosophers, usually oversimplify and present it as a neutral wish for preservation, which it is not; it is the wish that particular future people, related to particular present people in a particular way, should have the trait in question.

9Thirdly, should each state ‘rightfully belong’—at least ideally—to a single ethno-cultural community, and serve the particular culture of this community? Is there anything wrong with culturally neutral states that serve as an umbrella for a pluralistic intermingling of different cultures? Should the ethno-national aspects of a culture (or, as the nationalist would put it, ‘ethno-national cultures’) be kept alive in a pure state by administrative means in order to prevent the ‘interbreeding’ of various cultures, that is, to counteract the pull of macro-regional or even cosmopolitan influences?

10To illustrate this last question, take linguistic preservationism and purism. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, rigid programs of linguistic purism have started on the wave of popular war-time disgust with ‘foreign admixtures’; in Croatia this basically involves words considered to be of Serbian or Turkish origin; the only problem for the nationalists now is to keep the enthusiasm going. This brings us to administrative measures. The philosopher G. Fletcher recently made a case in favor of the right to ‘linguistic self-defense’: languages threatened with extinction should be preserved. Fletcher (1997) points out that only one-tenth of the six thousand actual languages have a chance of surviving into the next century, and calls for measures of self-defense (Fletcher, 1997, 327). But whose fault is it that languages go extinct? Against whose attack should one defend more than five thousand languages, and what is the self in this ‘self-defense’? Most of the languages in question are not being systematically or politically oppressed; rather, older generations of speakers are dying out and the young do not care to keep them going, or languages become so mixed with others as to become unrecognizable (‘creolized’, as the linguists put it). But the nationalist’s defense of the language seems to be legitimizing its rigid preservation, even if its speakers themselves are for the most part unwilling to keep it alive, or—in the case of linguistic purism—if they do not themselves care to keep it ‘pure’ . (Young French or Slovenians use American words and expressions taken from pop culture and commercials; the purists want to make them change their habits, although they do not harm anyone in particular.) Now, is the preservationist/purist right?

11The nationalist answers all four questions with a resounding ‘yes’; his liberal cosmopolitan opponent with an equally resounding ‘no’. As we suggested at the beginning of this book, the claims of the former center upon the idea that the preservation of a given ethno-national culture—in a relatively pure state—is a good, independent of the will of the members of the culture, which ought to be assured by adequate means. Of course, the ethno-national community has the right in respect of any third party and its own members to have an ethno-national state. Once a national state has been formed, and the dominant ethnic community has established itself as its ‘rightful owner’, it has to guard its full sovereignty. It has a duty to promote the ethno-national culture of its owners, in a recognizable form, defending it from spontaneous mixing with foreign influence. The citizens of the state have the right and obligation to favor their own ethnic culture in relation to any other. (Keep in mind that our nationalist interlocutor is an ‘ideal type’, patched together from bits and pieces culled from the literature.)

12Since the writers we shall discuss use the term ‘preservation of national culture’ to describe the activity they recommend, let me discuss it briefly. The term is ambiguous, potentially encompassing both historical preservation in museums of some kind or other, in which given items are indeed preserved and available but most commonly not presented as integrated in the ongoing concerns of a cultural life (the way dead languages, say Latin, are preserved by scholars), and preservation-as-keeping-alive combined with further transmission. The debate concerns mainly the latter, so I shall leave the first out of the discussion.

13Let me then, within the preservation-as-keeping-alive option, distinguish between a rigid and a flexible preservation and transmission, together with programs associated with each. The model of rigid preservation and transmission is linguistic purism: the aim of such an endeavor is to transmit and keep alive given cultural items (language, rituals, ceremonies, practices) in original and pure, that is literally the same, form. Flexible preservation and transmission keeps alive and transmits some sufficiently large and recognizable subset of elements of ethno-national culture. It admits of degrees, and is open to pragmatic and principled compromises. The former are obvious (allowing names of foreign origin for imported goods), while the latter concern allowances for creative reshaping, including strong forms of irony, travesty, and the like. (For example, Joyce’s mockery of Irish traditions and of the Book of Kells in Ulysses is, seen from this perspective of a flexible preservation and transmission program, a legitimate ‘re-reading’ of the tradition, and a potential contribution to the program, whereas it is seen as an insult from the standpoint of the rigid preservation and transmission program.) Note that the rigid preservation and transmission programs will more often than not need a compulsory push from the state.

14Let me illustrate the relevance of the debate, and the role of state control in the rigid preservation of a culture, with the help of another real-life example. My home town, Rijeka, is predominantly Croatian, with a small but influential Italian minority, enjoying some cultural autonomy. This includes, prominently, Italian-language primary and secondary schools, well subsidized by the Italian government, and ready to enroll, free of charge, children from ethnically Croatian families as well as ethnic Italians. Given that schooling in Italian offers significant advantages for some career paths, should an interested Croatian family—including the child who wants to study in Italian—be allowed to enroll or not? Similar issues arise in Quebec with children from French-speaking families who want to study in English. The Croatian Tudjman government—like the Quebec authorities in their country—has discouraged decisions out of step with its general nationalist line. Who is right, the family or the government?

15How can the nationalists defend their advice? Almost any culture—including many ethno-nationally specific aspects of a culture—is obviously valuable, and the nationalist can use this fact as his or her starting point. As already mentioned, culture is often seen as having both a value in itself (intrinsic value) and an instrumental value for securing some unproblematically valuable goals. The nationalist will most often mention the value of community culture for individual members, nay, its indispensability for their social identity. Since the main points are all linked to the primacy of community life in relation to the individual, they all belong in the communitarian tradition. Some defenders of the value of community present it in a rather benign way. Here is a statement by Avishai Margalit. He stresses the value of ‘belonging’ and goes on to make precise the sense of belonging in which he is interested:

To belong in this sense means to be accepted by others as you are, not as the result of some deed or misdeed of yours. The family is the paradigm example of a unit based on belonging in this sense, while a professional football team is an example of belonging based on achievement (as opposed to merely being a fan of the team, which is a matter of belonging in the family sense). National belonging, like family belonging, is not based on achievement. It seems to me that Berlin’s concept of belonging is close to the sense in which it is opposed to achievement. Belonging to a nation, in Berlin’s view, needs to be manifested in a feeling of being at home, where this means being able to act freely and naturally. Berlin assigns great importance to acting naturally and spontaneously rather than artificially... The third sense of national belonging bridges the gap between belonging and achievement. This sort of national belonging provides you with reflected glory based on the achievements of gifted members of your nation. (Margalit, 1997, 80)

16Pleasant and desirable as it may be, the unconditional acceptance of an individual by his or her community, not on the grounds of merit but simply of membership, is not the main issue in the debate. The family in the example from Rijeka wants to be left alone by the local community and allowed to follow its own path, and the issue is whether it would be morally in the clear in doing so. The nationalist, of course, thinks that it is not: a community has a moral claim on its members that is not a matter of individual choice. Cultures come in different sizes; we talk freely of English-speaking culture, but also of Scots culture (much smaller), of Christian or Western culture (much bigger), of youth culture, and of many others. As already mentioned, a basic assumption that our nationalist suggests to his audience is that the natural size of a culture is a nation. In his eyes, a culture comes in a national format, neatly separated from others. For him it really is “this little world/This precious stone set in the silver sea/which serves it in the office of a wall” (Richard II 2.1.45-47). Take a nation-state like the UK: a nationalist has to claim that British culture is precisely the right unit (as opposed to English-speaking culture, which is too big for its purposes, and to Scottish or to youth culture, which are too narrow). Note that the nationalist has to make the assumption, if he wants to use the appeal to culture, to buttress the duties to the nation-state he wants to defend. Let me give a name to the assumption: the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption. The right and natural unit of culture is the nation, that is, a culture is first of all (or essentially) a national culture.

17The older versions of this assumption sound rather naïve today. Here is the French historian Jules Michelet:

One can classify nations the way one can classify animals. Social superiority resides in the common enjoyment of a large number of parts, in the mutual solidarity between them, in the reciprocity of functions they exercise for each other. It thus belongs to France, the country in which the national personality comes closer to the individual personality than in any other country in the world. (Michelet, 1996,115 [my translation])

18Most curiously, in spite of the enormous amount of work it does, the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption is almost never explicitly discussed and defended in the nationalist literature; it is sometimes put forward without defense, perhaps illustrated by a handy example, sometimes present merely as a tacit assumption. Let me now illustrate the final step, from culture to state, with a quotation:

There are good reasons for cultural groups to have a political dimension... The fact that a nation has a political dimension seems to be connected to and to partially explain the fact that it is natural to think of nations as having a right to self-determination. (McKim, 1997, 259)

19Note that the national character (or essence) of culture dictates the need for, and the character of, the nation-state: it is because cultures are national that states should also be so, not vice versa.

20When presenting the even-handed nationalist, I briefly sketched the main culture-based lines of defense that appear in nationalist literature. In the chapters that follow I shall try to disentangle the various strands that are interwoven in the appeal to the ‘value of culture’: for instance, national culture is often regarded as something valuable in itself, in addition to being valuable as a means to other ends. This intrinsic value will have a short chapter for itself (chapter eleven), together with which we shall consider the related values of cultural proximity. Next, we consider the alleged value of national culture for the flourishing of its members, in particular its role in informing them about various sorts of values that find their respective niches within particular traditions. Now, is there any sense in which moral values are particularly national? Given the importance of morality in our context, chapter thirteen will be dedicated to this issue. The next nationalist argument to be discussed is the one from the value of diversity. Before concluding part two, we shall discuss the nationalist’s case against cosmopolitanism. All these lines of thought insist on the value of culture, moral and general. The nationalist then focuses upon the ethno-national aspects of culture and derives the claim that ethnic aspects are central for culture as such; finally, he passes from the alleged centrality of ethno-national culture to the need for a statist institutional structure to protect it.

21Before presenting the particular lines of thought, let me start with the criticism of the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption common to all of them. As already mentioned it is never seriously defended in the nationalist literature, only assumed. Even very thoughtful pro-nationalist authors (who are themselves hardly to be classified as seriously nationalistic) accept it without defense. For example, Michael Walzer (in his ‘Nation and Universe’, Tanner Lectures, 1990, second lecture, section 2), assumes without further ado that the nation is the proper unit of culture, the most important collective within which moral views and ways of life develop; he stresses the contingent nature of this alleged fact and introduces all sorts of qualifications, but fails to address the main point: why would one take it to be a fact at all?

22Curiously, the competition between units of various size and character becomes apparent already within the nationalist debate. Some pro-nationalist authors clearly prefer wider, and some narrower groupings (identities, or ‘social taxa’, to use a technical term). Most authors—for instance Kymlicka, Tamir, MacCormick, and Lagerspetz—take as their preferred kind relatively narrow groups; to use British and Balkanic examples, their ‘nations’ would be English, Scottish, Welsh for Britain and Croats, and Serbs and Muslims for the former Yugoslavia. A prominent pro-nationalist, D. Miller (1993), however, opts for a wider unit: in his view the British would form one nation (I assume that such a unit would correspond to a Yugoslav nation in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Union a large Russian [‘Rossiiskaya’] nation encompassing other ethnic sub-units beyond the ‘Russians’ proper). Moreover, most of them are not explicit enough. The degree of cultural unity, common history, religious homogeneity, and even linguistic-dialectal homogeneity varies drastically as between British-type and English-type ‘nations’. Depending on which one a given author chooses, the reasonable grounds for his claims will vary in a principled and far-reaching fashion. For instance, whereas one can (with, say, MacCormick) probably speak of a deep and spontaneous attachment of ordinary Scottish people to their native Scotland, it is not clear that there is such an attachment to Britain or to the United Kingdom, to which a wide-notion theoretician like Miller could appeal. In the case of many Scots loyal to the UK, the attitude might be closer to a loyalty to institutions (a ‘constitutional patriotism’ if the UK had a written constitution), than to a deep passion for one’s ‘roots’. (In my own case this would have been a fair description of my loyalty to Titoist Yugoslavia twenty-five years ago: an attachment to institutional arrangements that seemed to me fair, at least on paper, and as the best option available at the time.) An immigrant can easily acquire such a loyalty to a hospitable state, retaining a deep love for his original fatherland. It is not clear that the UK or the former Yugoslavia count as ‘communities’ in the thick communitarian sense at all. To summarize, the competition between groups/communities of radically different types is not external to nationalistic issues, but taints the very attempt to define a nation. This internal competition has not been sufficiently noted and analyzed in the literature, nor are pro-nationalist authors always aware of the problems it creates for their views.

23A severe critic of the nationalist would simply conclude that his case for nationalism has not been properly stated at the outset, so that he loses even before the debate has started. Moreover, when speaking about ‘the’ culture of a given ethno-natiorial group, nationally minded theoreticians usually mean the recognizably ethno-national aspects of the culture. They most emphatically do not mean the actual diversity of non-ethnic elements within the wider culture. The examples of what is to be excluded range from the rock-loving adolescent sub-culture to the sub-culture of philosophy teachers who pursue, say, the German idealist tradition within French or Anglo-American universities. Not accidentally, such non-ethno-national elements also fall prey to nationalist enthusiasms. In Serbia, a cleansing of ‘Oriental’ elements from culture—that is, everything that is reminiscent of Muslim influence—has been strongly promoted in the last ten years: the damage will probably be great, since most of these influences form an integral part of everyday cultural life in the country. For example, some of the best contemporary music has exploited them to very good effect. In contemporary Croatia, well-known writers have suggested particular things to be avoided by a good Croatian. (A prominent Croatian essayist, the late D. Cvitan, included in his list items such as Syrian bread [lepinja in Croatian], very popular in some parts of the country, shish-kebab [ćevap], which is a standard meal in many restaurants both in Zagreb and along the coast, as well as the music written for the zurla, a descendant of the Greek aulos, an instrument also detested by Plato, by the way, but for different reasons.) Given such treatment of the non-ethnic components of a given culture, one would be almost justified in denying the nationalist a hearing on the topic at all.

24Nevertheless, I want to extensively discuss his assumption that culture is essentially national, that is, that the natural unit of culture is the nation. (I shall not pursue one possible and fashionable line, namely, that the very idea of a unit of culture or of the right size of a culture is completely ungrounded since there is no natural classification in these matters.) Let me start with a brief remark on Walzer’s formulation quoted above, according to which the nation is the most important collective within the framework of which moral views and ways of life develop. Taken strictly and literally it does not imply that morality and ways of life are themselves national, since the framework can in principle remain neutral, failing to reflect upon the contents. (Take a classroom, the most important framework within which pupils learn about science; this does not imply that particular sciences, say biology, are classroom-bound.) One needs a more committed reading, according to which the collective in question molds the culture and moral view. It takes an anthropological naïveté to accept this claim for most ethno-nations, apart from the culturally most prominent ones.

25First, given the subjectivist definition of (ethno-)nation, shared by thoughtful nationalist theoreticians and many sociologists of various persuasions, it is extremely unclear how such a ‘nation’ can guarantee a deep unity of culture. Remember Miller’s warnings, quoted at the beginning of the book:

What needs underlining is how little this definition includes. It contains no assumption that nations are, as it were, natural kinds marked off from one another by physical characteristics. It can easily accommodate the historical fluidity of national identities, and recognize the extent to which nations are brought into being by extraneous circumstances such as conflicts between states. Nor is there any assumption that people who share a nationality will share objective characteristics such as race or language. (Miller, 1992, 87)

26Miller himself keeps pointing to the importance of ‘national culture’. But why would culture be particularly national, “given the historical fluidity of national identities” and “the extent to which nations are brought into being by extraneous circumstances such as conflicts between states”? Suppose a nation sprouts at the beginning of the twentieth century as a result of a conflict between two states. Why assume that it will have a distinct, recognizable culture?

27Let us not insist upon this disproportion between the pale, emaciated concept of the nation and the tough, demanding work it is supposed to do in characterizing cultures. Grant our nationalist that nations actually do have some elements in common, and assume that language will sometimes be peculiar to a nation (unlike English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, each spoken by at least three different nations, and unlike German, spoken by exactly three). In such cases the literature in the given strictly national language will have a distinct character in virtue of its linguistic substrate. However, culture does not encompass only language and literature, but much more: music, painting, sculpture, philosophy. (To stick with ‘high’ culture. Folk culture encompasses much more, and is often quite varied within one nation.) Consider one competitor to the classification by nationality, namely, classification by style, which is standard in art and literary history. Styles are, in the vast majority of cases, supra-national. Czech Baroque is closer to Austrian, Slovenian, and even to Spanish Baroque than to Czech Gothic. If there are natural units of culture, style may be a much more serious candidate than nation. But what about expressions like ‘Czech Gothic’, or ‘Lavinian Classicism’, that seem to suggest a national variant of a style? Note that ‘Lavinian Classicism’ can mean very different things: either a full-blown style originated and developed in Lavinia, or—and more often—a specifically Lavinian sub-style of Classicism in general, or simply Classicism on Lavinian soil, realized by artists of Lavinian origin, or anything in between the last two (for example, a slightly eccentric, or slightly folkloristic, trivial variant of Classicism realized by some Lavinians). The nationalist has to prove that the variant is genuinely ‘national’ in his sense, that is, having peculiar national traits, and is not just called ‘national’ because of the ethnic belonging of its creator.

28Some cultural phenomena are admittedly ‘national’, for example, the Italian Renaissance, German and British traditions in philosophy, Italian and German traditions in music, or Jewish cultural achievements in various domains. (Even these are national only in the wide sense: ‘British’ philosophy encompasses achievements by English, Scots, and Irish thinkers; ‘Jewish’ cultural achievements are deeply indebted to local cultures, from Spanish/Arabic in the West, to Slavic and Germanic in the East.) But these achievements of rich, and in various ways powerful, nations are exceptions rather than the rule: the vast majority of (ethno-) nations participate in wider circles of high culture, macro-regional, continent-wide, or global. The very spread of these achievements to dozens of other areas creates a problem for the ethno-national-unit view: if the Italian Renaissance style is a natural unit and is deeply ethnic, then none of the recipient groups (British, French, South German) can count its Renaissance past as ethnically its own. Forgetting this difficulty creates the ethno-nationalistic misinterpretation according to which cultures can be considered to be essentially ethno-national without further ado.

  • 2 The problem of the right format of a community is a general headache for the communitarian. Here i (...)

29If one happens to be interested in philosophy rather than in the arts, one can simply replace the names of styles in the preceding paragraph with the names of philosophical schools: if French existentialism (or British empiricism, forgetting for a moment that ‘British’ is not an ethno-national term) is to be tax-onomized primarily as ‘French philosophy’ (or ‘British philosophy’), then all the members of the school in the wide sense outside the relevant country simply become imitators of the French (or of the British). Then our nationalist ends up with at best four to six ‘national philosophies’ of great nations (in the West). This meager result is, however, deeply offensive to the cultural nationalists of most other ethno-nations and cannot be recommended as a general nationalist stance. To develop the example, M. Heidegger has claimed that philosophy “always belongs to a people [Volk], but not many contemporary historians of philosophy would go for specifically Finnish, Estonian, Slovenian, Modern Greek, or Flemish philosophy. He himself seems to have set very demanding standards for the national character of a philosophy: it should be historically embedded in a particular language, have a continuous tradition, and be centered around a specific, recognizable set of topics. By his standards the nations just listed have no philosophy that belongs to them, most of the candidate national authors having written in some foreign language or other, there being no tradition concentrated around a small set of topics, and no significant continuity. The same holds for ‘national music’ (apart from folk music), even in the case of ‘big’ nations like the British and the French: to stay with the great composers of our century, they have simply been too much influenced by traditions outside their own national group to produce any recognizably ‘national’ corpus. (Benjamin Britten sought inspiration in Russian and even Javanese music; Ravel and Ohana in Spanish music; while many living composers, from Steve Reich to György Ligeti and Hans Zender have learned from North African and Oriental traditions: what is the cultural nationalist going to do about their work?)2

30In short, the illusion that the nation is anything like a natural or mandatory unit of either high or popular culture comes from the salience and excellence of the few Western European and some traditional Asian examples, plus a vague sense that something similar must also go on elsewhere. It is fostered by a concentration upon language, and by misinterpretation of the availability of a few very conspicuous instances in which the origin and the flourishing of a famous tradition have both clearly been linked to a recognizable ethnic-like unit. Let me treat you to a longer quote that captures, in my opinion, the gist of the issue.

Not only do cultures overlap geographically and come in a variety of types. Cultures are also densely interdependent in their formation and identity. They exist in complex historical processes of interaction with other cultures. The modern age is intercultural rather than multicultural. The interaction and entanglement of cultures has been further heightened by the massive migrations of this century. Cultural diversity is not a phenomenon of exotic and incommensurable others in distant lands and at different stages of historical development, as the old concept of culture made it appear. No. It is here and now in every society. Citizens are members of more than one dynamic culture and the experience of crossing cultures is normal activity. In Europe and the People without History (1982), Eric Wolf showed that the interaction and interdependency of cultures is not a recent phenomenon; the cultures of the world have been shaped and formed by interaction for a millennium. (Tully, 1995, 119)

31I believe that the reasons put forward cast doubt on the general idea that cultures are primarily national. Note also that, very often, the ethno-national classification becomes relevant and even important in retrospect, once the ethno-national state imposes a national taxonomy as the official one and molds cultural life according to it. This can take the unpleasant form of cultural cleansing in an attempt to remove elements that are seen as foreign; we shall return to this when discussing particular functions of culture. In spite of the weaknesses of the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption, I propose that we be charitable to our nationalist interlocutor; after all, he needs the assumption to argue for specific functions of nation, for example, that a nation is essential for one’s identity. Perhaps the national elements of a culture are particularly good for that job, and less so for others. We should therefore consider particular uses of the assumption within each line of thought presented by our nationalist; if it turns out to be plausible for one particular use (in spite of its falsity for most other lines), we should admit this without grudge.

32I shall be criticizing various aspects of the nationalist line(s) of thought, from purely theoretical to more practical ones. On the theoretical side I shall try to show that it does not keep its promise; the issues left dangling at the end of the ‘political’ chapters of this book are not to be resolved in favor of the nationalist through considerations of culture. On the practical side, I believe that the direct practical consequences of the claims the nationalist makes (has to make, and is, for the most part, happy to make) are quite unpleasant, incompatible with what one normally expects from a culture, and I will try to show this. Also, the relatively general formulations that appear in the literature can be given, and often invite, an extremist interpretation; their indirect consequences can then be dire indeed, and lead to the corruption and slow death of the cultural life of the community the nationalist originally wanted to protect. The nationalist theoretician is not equally responsible for the direct and for the indirect consequences, but then, the indirect ones are so dire that a lot of caution should be exercised. I shall suggest that the danger is so great that we should perhaps jettison the whole nationalist line, the way the racist line has been jettisoned.


1 Still, one encounters the picture of the nation as a big Individual in the writings of most refined pro-nationalist writers, even leftists like M. Walzer. In chapter four of his Thick and Thin. Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, he claims that nationalism is “collective individualism” (as opposed to collective egoism), and then develops the analogy nation/individual at considerable length. Rorty opens his book Achieving Our Nation by claiming that national pride is to the nation what individual pride is to the individual, without ever stopping to ask whether and in what sense a nation can have character traits or emotions. I shall not enlarge upon the misleading character of such a view of collectives.

2 The problem of the right format of a community is a general headache for the communitarian. Here is a good statement of it. Jeremy Waldron (1995, 95) asks what such philosophers have in mind when they talk about community.

Many of us have been puzzled and frustrated by the absence of a clear understanding of this concept in some of the assertions made by communitarians like Alasdair Maclntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer. I do not mean the absence of a precise definition. I mean the absence of any settled sense of the scope and scale of the social entity that they have in mind. When they say that the modern individual is a creation of community, or that each of us owes his or her identity to the community in which he or she is brought up, or that our choices necessarily are framed in the context of a community, or that we must not think of ourselves as holding rights against the community, or that communities must have boundaries, or that justice is fidelity to shared understandings within a community, what scale of entity are we talking about? Is ‘community’ supposed to denote things as small as villages and neighborhoods, social relations that can sustain gemeinschaft-type solidarity and face-to-face friendships? (Waldron, 1995, 95)

© Central European University Press, 2001

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